Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The End of May

Currently Reading: The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan and The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

A quick pop-in! Three things:

I encourage you to check out my new essay published on the Literary Ladies Guide website, discussing nature in Anne of Green Gables. Here's the link:
I'm just starting to get into this "writing-outside-my-blog" thing and I would really love to hear some feedback, so feel free to comment!
Last week, I finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which is probably the best novel I have read so far this year. It was mindblowing. And very difficult to describe, so I won't even attempt it. I can give you a glimpse, however, of the thoughts it raised in my mind as I read: how fragile and powerful are the trajectories of our lives; the pull and tug between free will and choice as the book dipped and flung itself into both; the ponderous, unanswerable questions of life and death and outcomes and consequences and the implications of our lives on the world, on each other, on history. How little things might lead to broader implications. How new decisions might still yield the same result. How little control we have over our destinies. How much control we have over our destinies. Life After Life was exquisite.
Also finished The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott. (Can you tell I'm on break from school?) The letters, like the journals, were such a pleasure because I felt fully immersed in LMA's world, her voice, her perspective. I actually enjoyed the Letters more because they were more conversational and detailed- often, I felt like Louisa was just talking to me, describing her thoughts and her doings. Like Louisa, the words were fresh and vibrant, as if they were written yesterday. I feel a deeper connection to Louisa the more I read of her, and these Letters strengthened that connection intensely. In fact, having read collections of both her Letters and Journals, I feel like I know her intimately, as a friend, as a kindred spirit. She is more real to me now than ever before.
So, a good May overall. June stretches before us, ripe with the promise of farmer's markets, museum visits, long walks, and a weekend vacation with friends up North. Books in the queue: In the Shadow of Blackbirds, some Ralph Waldo Emerson, Shadowfell, and Mrs. Dalloway. School starts again in two weeks, but I'm not focusing on that yet. My focus is on the good ahead.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Journaling Ireland

Currently Reading: The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan, and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I kept an "Ireland journal" on our trip, spending an extra hour or so before bed writing down my thoughts and impressions of the day, preserving the memories before they got stale. Although some nights I was almost too exhausted to stay awake, I knew how essential it was to put our journeys into words. Besides my photographs, the journal is my most beloved souvenir. Some excerpts, for your enjoyment....

May 18th
".....Our next stop was Corcomroe Abbey, a Cistercian monastery from the 12th century. It was so remote and peaceful, gray stone against a green hillside. It was haunting in its loneliness but with a quiet, strong dignity, as if it knew it was no longer what it was, but it held on to the pride of what it had been."

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May 20th
"What an amazing day. We walked through a sixth century monastic site, looked in tide pools, tasted the salt spray of the ocean on our lips, found seagull eggs, and sat on the cliff rocks, listening to the wind and waves, surrounded by nothing but nature and stone remnants of the island's holy past. I can't even begin to describe the magic of Inishmurray..."

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May 21st
"On the way home [from our trip to the Aran Islands], Nathan treated me by stopping at a public beach along [Galway] Bay. It was entirely empty, but for us, and with  my pant legs rolled up, I got to splash in Galway Bay. The sun came out, piercing the water with light and creating a scene of such beauty- sun and water, cloud and sky, mingling together to create something perfect."

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May 24th
"I am not a city person. I have never been comfortable in bustling crowds, surrounded by a crush of people and traffic. Yet with that said, I have to admit that I love Dublin....I love the streets, winding and narrow, flanked by buildings that have stood here for hundreds of years. There are no ugly skyscrapers blocking the sky, no subway thundering overhead. There is room to breathe, beautiful statues and buildings, not to mention Merrion Park & St. Stephen's Green. The city breathes the history of Joyce, Wilde, Yeats; it stands still at the GPO...Walking through Temple Bar or Grafton Street, on cobblestones leading me past street musicians and shoppers, or people sitting outside enjoying the surroundings, I felt surprisingly comfortable."

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May 27th
[In the Dingle Peninsula]...."Sand in my toes and fresh air in my lungs, laughing with Nathan as the Shannon River guides us home and the essence of Ireland, everything we've come to know and love- signs written in Irish, bright green farmfields, stone walls covered in ivy, baby lambs and cows in every pasture, brightly colored cottages, B&B signs- flashes past our windows. That is the epitome of a wonderful day."

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May 28th
[After visiting Coole Park]..."The biggest gift Coole Park gave me today was an acceptance of having to leave and return to reality. It is as if, having seen so much loveliness these past few weeks, I am now full, with enough inside of my soul to sustain me for years to come. It gave me inspiration, to go back and accomplish something of my own. But most of all, it acted as a farewell, acknowledging my new place here and returning all the love I have for this country with some love of its own."

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Friday, May 10, 2013

My Literary Irish Fix

Currently Reading: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, and The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan

Now that it's May, I'm getting even more homesick than normal for Ireland and nostalgic about our trip last year. So bear with me, because there will probably be a couple of Ireland-themed posts here for a while.


When thinking the other day about our trip, I started thinking about the books I had read to prepare for it. In an attempt to patch the cracks in the foundation of Irish history and imagery in my head, I voraciously delved into new reads and quick rereading in the weeks and months before we left. For so many years, reading was the only way I could travel there. A series of fantasy novels and one beautiful poem were the catalysts that began my fascination with Irish mythology, which led me first to Irish history books, from there to more novels and poetry, continuing on to a senior thesis where I waded knee-deep in the great Irish poets, which culminated on a May day as we boarded a plane to find the land for ourselves. It's been almost a year since we went, and with the warm weather and greenness blossoming around us, I find myself caught between the luxury of having such powerful memories to mentally relive, and the deep desire that Ireland was in my immediate future rather than my immediate past. I can only gaze on my pictures, remembering exactly what the air smells like near the sea or the exquisitely unexplainable feeling of waking up in a new place, ready to greet another Irish morning. For now, these books are my favorite ways to return.

The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier
        I don't read as much fantasy as I used to in high school, but I remember exactly how formative and world-shifting it can be. I've studied enough by now to know that much in Juliet Marillier's Sevenwaters Trilogy- comprised of The Daughter of the Forest, The Son of the Shadows, and The Child of the Prophecy- is historically inaccurate. But in these books, none of that matters. The series is magic floating from the page, a world that I love to escape to, as I sink back into familiar territory with faces that are real in all of their flaws and all of their goodness. I first came to Ireland in this series, encountering "Tir na nOg", the "Tuatha de Danaan", the Celtic festivals of Bealtine and Lughnasa. It was a new world I had stumbled into and I don't think I have ever really left.

Frank Delaney
          I am a big fan of all of Frank Delaney's books set in Ireland, especially when I listen to him read the stories on an audiobook, a seanchai (storyteller) reborn for the 21st century. I wrote about one of Delaney's books last spring in this post, so I won't repeat myself here. My favorites of his are Shannon and Ireland; the latter I brought with me last year, rereading snatches of it in front of our peat fire (I have yet to find a cozier experience). Delaney opens a side of Ireland that is both refreshingly new yet so familiar. I remember driving past the Shannon River, my feet on the dashboard, grinning with glee as we drove through towns I'd only ever heard of in his books, the real and the literary worlds colliding.

How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill and The Flowering of Ireland by Katharine Scherman
        I've read many Irish history books since my passion for Ireland began. I am mostly interested in pre-Christian and early medieval Ireland, so most of my books reflect that taste. While there are many that I love to come back to, these two are my favorites. Cahill's work is the perfect introduction to this time period, a history book for the masses that reads like a novel and sucks the reader in. I reread The Flowering of Ireland right before our trip last year. In doing so, I was reintroduced to Inishmurray Island; little did we know that would be the best part of our entire trip. In dry terms, the book is an in-depth study of the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and the early medieval Irish culture. But none of it feels stale. It's fresh and true, captivating and downright interesting, as it brings to life not only the ancient historic record, but also the physical remnants that still remain.

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly
        Sometimes you stumble upon great books. Sometimes they're recommended by others. And sometimes great books seem to follow you around until finally, finally you pick them up. This book kept popping up in my life- on the bookstore shelves, on the shelving cart at work- until I realized this book really wanted me to read it. So I did. And I don't know why I waited. The novel is based on the author's great-grandmother's life- her family's struggles through the Great Famine in the 1840s, their subsequent immigration to America, and the new challenges they faced in Chicago as strangers in a new world. It is several things at once- the portrait of a family, a powerful image of the horrors of the Famine, and an in-depth look at the growth and development of the city of Chicago, particularly its link to the thousands of immigrants who ended up there. It's raw and it's gut-wrenching, but it's beautiful on many levels.

The Dublin Saga by Edward Rutherford
        Actually a series of two, entitled The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland, the Dublin Saga is a fantastic way to learn about Irish history, from pre-Christian times to Irish independence in the 1920s, while still reading a novel. A completely engrossing novel at that. Rutherford's writing and the individual characters make the history in the book accessible and real, a history of the people, rather than the rulers. Isn't that the way it was and has always been- history lived through the lives of average people? The book tracks several families through the generations, set against the backdrop of historical events like the Battle of the Boyne or Easter Sunday 1916. It also charts the founding and development of one of Ireland's most wonderful cities, Dublin, which helped shade in the details and color my view of Dublin as I walked its streets.

William Butler Yeats' poetry.  
        The Song of Wandering Aengus will always be my first love. I first discovered Yeats' poetry in high school, and continued studying him in college, writing a final thesis on him and the other Literary Revival writers, thinking and breathing his poetry and plays for an entire year. I have more favorites now, poems that stop me in my tracks with their power and majesty. Yeats too became part of our trip last year. In Sligo, we visited Yeats' grave, looking out onto Ben Bulben, which really is as magnificent as they say. We were lucky enough to look at many of his original manuscripts and books at an exhibit in the National Library in Dublin; bending over the protected pages, tears streamed down my face at the privilege I had been granted.

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My experience in Ireland was heightened because of his words, the way he introduced me to his country. I was more ready to understand and to embrace it, because of him. As we stood on the coast of Inishmurray, looking out on the sea, I recited The Lake Isle of Innisfree to myself. And for the first and only time, there was no more longing.
I'm back in Ireland again, not in a physical sense, but between the covers of a book. I just started The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan, a memoir. I am less than a chapter into it, but it is already apparent that if I had written a book about our trip, and my relationship and passion for Ireland, Red-Haired Girl would be its twin sister. One of my favorite quotes so far is this: "I know Ireland not as a single place but as a mosaic of places, each one steeped in history and myth, song and poetry."

I have only been to Ireland once, but already I know it is one of those places that never quite leaves you, a lovely song that haunts you for the rest of your days.

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Friday, May 3, 2013


Currently Reading: The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, The Guynd by Belinda Rathbone, and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

May is here! Blessedly, my semester is winding down and I am feeling the first breaths of freedom mingling with the scent of spring. My shoulders already feel lighter and I am ready for several weeks of catching up on projects (including some new recipes I'm aching to try) and taking time for reading, walks in the evenings, and ice cream stops with Nate.

Some happenings from the past two weeks:

My seedlings have sprouted! (No picture this time, but I'll get one soon.) The sight of those first little green shoots, poking out of the soil after only several days, gave me such a feeling of awe. Biology aside, there is something entirely magical about the Earth, her resilience and fecundity, the amazing results that come from the harmony of sun, soil, and water. I have always needed to be close to the Earth, shedding my shoes so my bare toes can sink into the grass, pressing my back against trees as I read underneath them, watching the ever-changing sky. Growing up in the country, and part-time on a dairy farm for some years, I was in constant contact with the world around me. I have memorized scents and sounds that I carry with me, that are part of me like the marrow in my bones. So much of my experiences were prompted and encouraged by my parents and my grandparents. My sister and I were raised to be part of the outdoor world, to appreciate it and to care for it. I yearn for the day when we have our own acres to roam on, so that my children can experience many of the same things I did: the taste of carrots pulled from the ground, dirt still clinging to them; the sight of clothes flapping on the line; watching deer at the pond; rescuing crows and baby ducks; making forts and fairy places amidst the trees; letting the magic of nature influence their creativity and ideas. If I hope to pass anything on to my children, it will be our strong connection to the land, and our responsibility to take care of it, emphasizing the magnitude and privilege of that responsibility.
Nathan has a new part-time job at a living history museum for the summer, which is good news for him and for our pocketbook! He's learning all sorts of amazing historical skills, including fence building and blacksmithing; last week, during training, he got to hold a baby lamb. I couldn't be more envious. He really is an amazing teacher and that translates well into museum work. He knows how to talk to tour groups, how to pass on historical information in ways that are accessible to all age groups. I'm proud of how he has accepted the difficulties and disappointments of not finding a teaching job, and how he strives to find ways to use his talents and follow his passion. His career plans have not followed the path he once imagined, but he does not let that discourage him. He throws himself into the work he does, passionate about all of it, regardless of what it is. He is dedicated, with a strong work ethic, willing to do whatever needs to be done, and I ardently admire that. Sometimes he feels that he doesn't do enough for us, that he could do more. But I think he's Superman.
I met Dr. Jane Goodall last week.

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I'm leaning over awkwardly, barely breathing. She looks stunning, as always.

In a conversation with the woman sitting next to me at the conference, I mentioned that Dr. Goodall was one of my role models growing up. The lady then asked if I had gone into science; when I said no, she laughed and said Dr. Goodall couldn't have been that much of a role model for me. That comment left me speechless for a second. As a young girl, I didn't see her as just a scientist; I saw her as a woman who stuck to her guns, pursued her passion, and made something of herself. Deep down, I think I recognized that I could be like her. Maybe not literally, with chimps in Africa (though at the time, I thought that was the coolest job in the world) but that I too could accomplish anything if I believed in myself. (Cliche? Maybe so, but also a deeply important concept for my young self.) Instead of boy band posters, my walls were papered with posters of animals and Dr. Goodall. She was an inspiration to me, someone I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember thinking we even looked the same, pleased at the semi-similarities- blond, ponytail, plain shorts and T-shirts. No makeup, no fancy hairdo. In my awkward tween years, I appreciated that. Even at 11, I recognized that she had accomplished amazing things by her intelligence and determination alone. I was in awe of her. And in fact, you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate Dr. Goodall, to be inspired by her. I think it makes absolute sense that she can be a role model for any young girl, because of what she accomplished, because of her drive, because she didn't let her gender define her in the field. I still find her awe-inspiring. I cried when she took the stage, as I stood up with the crowd to hoot and cheer. Right before this picture was taken, I looked her in the eye and told her it was nice to meet her. "It's nice to meet you too," she replied. And that was that. I may not be a scientist, but I know she made a difference in my life.
Tomorrow is my Mom's birthday. As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate my mom more and more, appreciative of not only everything she has done for my sister and I, but also appreciative of who she is as a person. We share so many similiarities and we've gotten closer as friends. I love calling her up after a day at work to chat and laugh. Like all of my parents, she has been one of the guiding forces of my life, encouraging us, supporting us, teaching us. Happy Birthday to a wonderful mother! I'm so blessed to have you in my life.

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Reading at Oma's house. I love old pictures.
Book talks. Books are best when we share and discuss them with others. Thankfully, I work in a library, so I get to talk books constantly. Just this morning, I talked Antigone, Oedipus, Silas Marner, Toni Morrison, and Ethan Frome with my coworkers. The other day, I received a book loan in the mail from my aunt, a memoir set in Scotland, which just goes to show how well my aunt knows my reading tastes. And last night I had a great discussion with one of my best friends on a book we both recently read, Among Others. Just a ten-minute conversation about God and free will and destiny, but it was so refreshing, a reinforcement of our connection and our friendship in one quick book discussion. Sharing books is so much more than just recommending. It strengthens and reinforces our relationships with each other in a way that is hard to emulate in other aspects. Life doesn't offer us many opportunities to bare our souls and reveal what is there beneath the surface. But by sharing books, we are given the chance to open a window that may otherwise remain closed, offering others the opportunity to see deeper within us.
And finally, my latest used book sale finds.

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Why yes, that is my eighteenth Jane Eyre.

There isn't much in this world that beats bringing home a stack of books that cost less than 10 bucks. We did well- Nathan got a stack too. The only downside is that we have started making piles of books on the floor, as our bookshelves can no longer support our terrible book-buying habits. Oh well. Sacrifices must be made. Who needs floor space anyway?

Have a great weekend, friends!

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