The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Posts from — January 2008

The Outsider

We have a foreign friend who married an Irishman (since banished from the family hearth), who, though she has lived in the village for many years, rails at her outsider status. Her complaints form a kind of protest on how closed-minded the locals are. She tells touching stories of those who have foundered against this stone wall of prejudice. It was the same in my small village, which was ruled like a fiefdom by one powerful and wealthy family. (By the way, I made this the subject of my first novel, Winthrup.) Here our foreign friend likes to say that the locals gladly take the money of the Americans (and other visitors) and then trash them behind their backs. I have no doubt this is true, but I don’t care. Indifference is a much stronger force, I’ve discovered, than either love or hatred.

January 31, 2008   Comments Off on The Outsider


ennis_street.jpgThe owner of our cottage, who personifies Irish hospitality, took me to Ennis today so that I could stock up on groceries and supplies. While she went to her appointments, I stuffed two gigantic bags full of groceries at Dunnes and then wandered the streets looking for papermaking supplies. I found some blotters at an office supply shop, and a woolen blanket at a secondhand store (an even better “couch”) which I purchased from an African (originally from Togo) whom I had trouble bargaining down in price. We exchanged male insults of the friendly sort and then I spied curtain sheers, suitable for straining pulp, which I also bought. Then I got wine from a shop managed by a guy from Detroit, and not satisfied that I had enough groceries, went back to Dunnes and bought more.

From Ballyvaughan, Ennis can only be reached by bus from Galway (a long, out-of-the-way trip), so my host’s willingness to let me come with her was a godsend, since everything at the local Spar (which is like a convenience store) is twice as expensive. I liked Ennis. It’s quaint, compact city, with narrow streets, arched passageways, a tiny square (which also serves as a round-about), and a statue on pillar fifty meters tall which rises about the town like a black obelisk.

January 31, 2008   1 Comment

Boeing Boeing

I saw yet another program on Irish television last night about airplane disasters. They’re usually produced by the BBC in England. This one was about rudders failing on 737’s. It took the NTSB about seven years to figure out why these planes would flip hard to the right or left and then go straight into the earth. There are also a number of programs about natural disasters, like the one I saw about Yellowstone’s potential (which is really one giant volcano) to blow up. Of course, we’d never see these programs on American television, because they indicate that airplanes really do crash and that global warming has the potential to cause havoc to the planet. Self-censorship is not confined to the United States, however. It is a matter of degree. Here the press are not as rabid as in England, and the Bush administration are seldom openly criticized. I came here expecting Europeans to be outraged by what we’ve done, but they take it in stride, as if it has nothing whatever to do with them.

January 30, 2008   Comments Off on Boeing Boeing

Ghost Dog

Brian (our redoubtable bus driver and passionate lover of films) and I debated the relative merits of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on our trip to Dublin. Tongue in cheek, Brian said that he and his brother recommend it to all of their friends, trying to get them to waste their money by renting it. He seemed to think that nothing happened in it. I, of course, loved the film, and couldn’t believe he was saying such unforgivable things about a great movie. Anything directed by Jarmusch and starring Forest Whitaker would have to be good. When I mentioned that I had eagerly awaited its availability and then had seen it four times, Brian looked at me as if I might be pulling his leg. But, of course, Americans see the world in black and white and don’t have senses of humor, so he wasn’t sure. Then, I told him there was another great film by Jarmusch, starring Johnny Depp which he ought to see, Dead Man, an action-packed western that was not to be missed. He said he liked Depp and looked as if he might be tempted. I can only hope he’s rented it so we can discuss it when next we meet.

January 29, 2008   Comments Off on Ghost Dog

Celtic Sheep

sheep.jpgA little known fact outside of Ireland (confidentially whispered to me by a dear old man at my favorite pub in a brogue I could barely understand) is that Irish sheep contain the spirits of dead Celts who rob graves and feed on corpses. I didn’t believe this, of course, until today when I snapped shots of some sheep grazing not far from the football field. When I checked the images afterwards, I was shocked to see their unholy spirits glowing in their eyes. As E. A. Poe said, “…they are neither man nor woman, they are neither brute nor human; they are ghouls.”

January 29, 2008   1 Comment

Surfing, Anyone?

winter.jpgAfter a nice weekend, winter weather has returned to the Burren, which means cold and rain. For a Minnesotan, it’s hardly winter, since the temperature seldom breaks freezing, but it can still chill you to the bone. Here the weather comes off the ocean in waves or bands of rain. On my walk today, I met a horsewoman who told me about an old road which traverses the limestone mountain (called Cappanawalla) between Ballyvaughan and Fenore, so I’m anxious to walk it as soon as I can. Fenore is the site of waves suitable for surfing, and the young men around Ballyvaughan wear T-shirts, like Californians, proclaiming their favorite sport.

Irish television is interesting. There are programs which explain how to buy and fix up homes, and also a number on gourmet cooking, topics of fascination for the Irish. There are the usual soaps, including ones from England and Australia, and then there’s the woman who spends seventeen hours a week watching them so that she can tell her viewers the juiciest bits and what’s ahead. Of course, “Desperate Housewives” has a huge following, and if you miss an episode, you can always get the postmistress in Ballyvaughan to summarize it for you.

Of particular interest to me are the documentaries which examine the period when the republicans were in ascendance. The Irish are trying to put the violence of those times into perspective, now that prosperity has changed the face of the country. It gives me hope that when the Bush years are over, Americans will do the same, and examine how our country could have been hijacked by men (and women) no less ruthless than the IRA. Though Ireland is a conservative Catholic country, most of the Irish have a hard time understanding the religious fanaticism in the United States. How can so many people in a wealthy flowering_gorse.jpgdemocracy be so crazy? Of course, expressing an opinion in such a bold, direct way is generally not done. This goes hand-in-hand with the Irish sense of time. Anything might change at any moment. Therefore, it’s always best to wait and wonder.

This weekend there’s a two-day seminar at the college, next weekend is the music festival in town, and the weekend after that are the horse races in a nearby village, which I’m determined to attend. Oh, I took a picture of the flowering gorse so that you could see what it looks like.

January 29, 2008   1 Comment

Unfinished places of the mind…

I have a fondness for unfinished cathedrals. My first love is St. Mark’s in Seattle, which is basically a bare brick-and-cement bunker, inside and out. My second, in London, is Westminster Cathedral (not Westminster Abbey), the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. Westminster Cathedral was built around the turn of the last century as a replica of an Italian duomo, with Byzantine elements thrown in for good measure. With a layered red-and-white stone exterior, a tall campanile, the widest nave I have ever seen, a wooden floor, eye-popping mosaics, and lovely slabs of marble on the walls and columns, it is hard to believe it was built a little over a hundred years ago. But, like St. Mark’s, the parish ran out of money, and the interior of the cathedral was left unfinished from the tops of the columns to the ceiling, about three-fifths of the space.

We came and sat for an hour out of the wind and cold. Sitting inside, everything above your head is one dark hole. At first, I wondered if there had been a fire, until I realized it was bare brick painted black. To me, it’s symbolic of how the god-thing works–an empty space where the deity is supposed to be. No one will ever convince me, except under torture, that our gods are not of our own making. This doesn’t mean I’m not a believer–only that I know we make it all up.

January 29, 2008   1 Comment

Looking for Maureen O’Hara

It’s Sunday afternoon. The Irish are out en masse, eating, drinking, or driving. The sky is clear for the first time in weeks and it’s warmer.

I traversed a “green” road that runs past Aillwee Cave, along the hills, and then along a cattle path to Ballyvaughan. Bulls watched me pass. So did two young Irish couples walking their dogs. The gorse are flowering in the bracken, and, as I walked, I remembered wandering through fields of red poppies in the late 60’s between the villages in southern Germany. Of course, no such paths exist in County Clare, where the walled fences abut directly against the narrow roads. Luckily, most of the Irish are attentive drivers, though now and then you’ll encounter someone who will come straight at you.

It was a long walk and my feet were sore, so I stopped at the whiskey pub, which was open because it was Sunday afternoon (it’s usually only open at 9:00 P.M. each night). I had a Guinness and listened to the conversations. Most of the Irish men in rural areas speak in whispers without looking at you directly, as if confiding secrets to the earth. In sharp contrast, the women speak in loud, booming voices that command attention. It’s not hard to imagine Maureen O’Hara leading John Wayne by his nose down the street. (When they’re drinking, however, some of the men are unbelievably crude, as they are everywhere.)

clear_sky.jpgIt’s 5 P.M. and the light has not yet disappeared from sky. As people, we are all alike. Irish, German, English, American, no one is better or worse than anyone else. We are all capable of cruelty and of creating beauty. But this place, the Burren of County Clare, is unique and largely unspoiled, and it is a gift to be here.

January 28, 2008   Comments Off on Looking for Maureen O’Hara


inside_dublin_castle.jpgThere was a wonderful exhibit at the Chester Beatty Library, just inside the walls of Dublin Castle (see the photo), of Yoshitoshi’s “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon.” It came by way of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The Chapman family collected the prints, and the late Joseph Chapman, who frequented the Beatty Library, wished it to be displayed there. Odd how things work, isn’t it?

It was a lovely exhibit. Yoshitoshi was Japan’s last great woodblock artist, and these prints were his attempt to preserve a world which modernism was destroying.The exhibit was powerfully affecting.

Back here in Ballyvaughan, with its soot-gray sky and rain that comes in slanting, gusty sheets, I seldom see the moon, but Yoshitoshi’s colors and textures are now superimposed on the blue turloughs, limestone hills, black roads, and the blood-lined faces of the locals whizzing past me in their cars. It is what art does. It changes our perception of the world.

This morning we watched a beautifully restored, black-and-white copy of George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story on RTE1, with Gary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn at their very best. I kept seeing Caravaggio’s influence in the perfectly composed scenes of the film, for the cinema of the late 30’s and early 40’s–right through Citizen Kane and The Third Man–owned much to the Renaissance masters of Italy.

How banal the world is now. How totally in-your-face and loud. How desperate for meaning.

January 27, 2008   Comments Off on Yoshitoshi

A soulless place with a storied past

If you’re pressed for time in Ireland and can’t quite see everything on your itinerary, might I suggest dropping Dublin from your list. It’s as expensive as London, if that’s really possible. Cheap rooms start at 150 euro and a good meal with wine will set you back $200. Of course, if Dublin were Paris (or even London), you would happily pay these prices, but it’s not. The city basically consists of two one-way streets (three lanes wide) along the River Liffey with lots of history and little else (it’s where the independence movement started with the killing of the Irish martyrs).


Our school arranged rooms in a hostel in Temple Bar, the cobbled, pedestrian-only street between the and Dame Street known for its live Irish music. Of course, it’s also a mecca for every young drunk in Europe, America, and Australia, with a goodly number of native Irish thrown in for good measure. One can see live puking at any time of the day or night. Really and truly. You’ll be walking along the sidewalk in the afternoon and some guy (usually, it’s a guy) will bend over at the waist and begin heaving in front of you.

Luckily, there was a wonderful Caravaggio (portraying Christ’s betrayal) at the National Gallery. It’s in a room full of Caravaggio imitators (a number of follows who tried to copy his style), and people pass by the famous painting as if it were no different from the others. I sat mesmerized for an hour, studying every facet of it, until everything seemed as black as the deepest blacks in the painting.

By the way, don’t bother asking for directions from the natives. The famous Irish hospitality ends somewhere beyond the airport. If you do ask, they’ll either tell you they don’t know or are too busy to help. It becomes amusing after a while. Ask a Dubliner and listen to an elaborate excuse about how they don’t know anything about their city. (In fairness to the natives, Dublin now has a large percentage of foreign workers who really don’t know the name of the next street.)

We chatted with a group of people in the restaurant where we had a very good meal (they said they were provisioners for the Irish airports). They wanted to know where we were from. “Ballyvaughan,” I said. “Where’s that?” they wanted to know.

Oddly, in a way, I felt right at home. I could have been wandering around a sixth borough of narrow_view.jpgNew York City, called New Dublin, a soulless place with a storied past. Emblematic of my visit there, in one of the galleries, I took a photo of the Temple Bar district through a small window: a portrait of the artist seeing the world through his own narrow frame.

One thing I’m thankful for. I had always wondered why James Joyce left his beloved Dublin for Paris, and never returned. Now I know.

January 26, 2008   2 Comments