Sam the Cat: Detective

When I moved to Sweden I brought a handful of my favorite children’s, middle grade, and young adult books with me. My motivation was largely nostalgic, but they ended up being useful resources when tutoring.

Sam the Cat: Detective is one that never made an appearance at a lesson. I didn’t have any really cat-obsessed students and I’m not entirely sure all of the detective and noir style elements would have been a productive challenge. In fact, I didn’t re-read it until just a couple weeks ago, when I read it out loud to my sambo over a weekend. (His new-found appreciation for audiobooks means that he also enjoys me reading out loud to him; this is hardly the first book we’ve enjoyed together like this.)

Scholastic edition of Sam the Cat: Detective

I distinctly remember loving the hell out of this book as a kid, to the point where I read it multiple times. I generally don’t get much out of re-reading books until I’ve all but forgotten them, and the same was true for me as a kid, so reading any book more than once was a rarity. What stuck in my memory was the noir-style tone, a couple essential vocabulary words (“fence,” as in a buyer of stolen goods; “cat burglar” (because of course) and very likely “dumbwaiter”) and a very chaotic showdown at the end where a cat burglar is foiled and apprehended by a dozen neighborhood cats.

It turns out adult me also loved the hell out of this book, though maybe not for all of the same reasons.

The writing is definitely a very self-aware hard-boiled detective…homage? parody?…that’s suitable for kids but in no way condescending or dumbed down. At 8 years old I wouldn’t have been conversant with Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, of course, but kids can tell when there’s very Smart Grown-Up Stuff at work (except when they can’t; at the same age I didn’t realize Get Smart was supposed to be funny) and the sense that there was Smart Grown-Up Stuff was without a doubt what a large part of the appeal was for me. There are also jokes for the grown-ups in there, for the parents who would have inevitably been reading this to their kids at bedtime, including an acrobat troupe of cats called Wang, Chang, Sturm, and Drang. And while yes, it’s definitely a play on the old Chinese circus acrobats trope, the cats don’t speak in broken English or cringe-y dialect.

The mystery isn’t bad either. An adult reading it, especially an adult who’s read at least one detective novel in their life, will probably figure out the bulk of the mystery by the time it’s done being set up, but what you lose in the obvious nature of the mystery qua mystery, you gain in appreciation for Stewart’s technical accomplishment in the whole package. The cats are able to solve the mystery faster than the cops because of their different perspective; the story logic doesn’t rely on the target demographic being children. They also have an imaginative and genuinely adorable parallel cat world, with cat celebrities (in this case, cat food commercial animal actors) and cats running businesses like detective agencies and salons, paying each other in cat food and information about humans that feed strays but also very casually making use of telephones, computers, and microwaves. Stewart and her editor also do an excellent job of succinctly explaining the more advanced or specialized vocabulary in a way that fits in smoothly with the rest of the narration, usually with a joke when possible (“Personally, I always thought a dumbwaiter was a server at the restaurant who spilled the wrong kind of soup in your lap…”) Plus, semi-colons. Hallelujah! Just because your book is for children doesn’t mean your prose needs to be dull and repetitive.

Adults who never read it in childhood might not love it the way that I did if they read it now, but that’s okay. I still love it, and that’s all that matters.

The Crying Book

In one of life’s small serendpities, on the same day my mom let me know about a death in the family, a newsletter I subscribe to about mental health (Sanity by Tanmoy) featured a write up on  The Crying Book, which sounded all the more appealing as I scrolled, sniffling and snot-nosed, through my email. On a whim I spent the 10 kronor to put a hold on it at the library (no digital version available) and by the following Monday it had come in. It’s a short book, without any chapters but with very frequent section breaks, so I offered to read it out loud to my sambo.

I finished it in two nights, in two marathon reading sessions.

I walked away from it with mixed feelings. On the minus side, I didn’t always care for her style. Christle is a poet, which you can tell not only by her explicitly mentioning it fairly regularly, but by her writing. This kind of “assembled snapshots” brevity also gives the whole book a sort of Instapoetry vibe, even if Christle is a bit too old and a bit too establishment to go with that crowd. Needless to say, I don’t like Instapoetry. For every Nayyirah Waheed (good) you get a million Rupi Kaurs (less good). About a third of the way through, I also picked up that Christle had a very annoying tic of sandwiching long asides—entire independent clauses, sometimes—in between two em-dashes, and once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it and all I wanted to know was why didn’t anyone notice this and edit a few of them down, or cut them entirely? To be fair, this might have only made itself apparent because I was trying to read the book out loud—you can imagine how that kind of writing would make deciding on the right cadence and intonation difficult, while reading silently you might more readily gloss over it.

On the plus side, I was very taken with the actual content. The book is something like a folk history of tears and crying, and the 200-odd footnotes at the end make it clear that Christle did a lot of research, which I appreciate. I also appreciate how seamlessly the personal reflections are intertwined with the historical subject matter—I enjoy that tack in popular nonfiction and I don’t think I’ve read anything that does it quite how how Christle does it. The first thing that comes to mind is Ålevangeliet, or in English The Book of Eels, which is on the surface about eels but is also about a bunch of stuff tangential to eels: the author’s childhood fishing (eeling?) expeditions with his father, the long and embittered scientific battle to find their reproductive organs, weird “facts” surrounding them from people like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, our impending climate catastrophe, etc. The GoodReads reviews, at least in Swedish, seem frustrated with this approach (“I wanted to read about eels, not fishing with his father!” is the short version of a lot of them) but I really liked that kind of thematic meandering within and alongside a particular topic. The Crying Book does that but on a much smaller scale.

Finally, on the mixed side, I had mixed thoughts about the actual structure of the book. While there are several narrative or conceptual strands within The Crying Book, no idea is carried for very long: Christle discusses something for a paragraph or two, occasionally a page, and then moves on to something else.  There are no chapters organized thematically, but there is usually an interior logic leading from one brief section to the next and the resulting flow is very much akin to following someone’s train of thought in real time. This works really well to build a sort of tension with her personal trials and tribulations (her pregnancy, the suicide of a poet friend), and when it takes you to unexpected but nonetheless relevant places, the subversion is genuinely rewarding. On the other hand, this approach feels scattershot and confusing when it comes to historic personages and biographies, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Alvin Borgquist; meatier, protracted narratives would have served that subject matter much better.

A quick read, all told, though at times unflinching and grotesque. Beneath the Instapoetry conceit there is a wealth of information and depth of thought.

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 3

My only plans for the day were the hotel breakfast (had overslept or otherwise missed it previously), a tour of the Lund cathedral, an international bookstore I’d discovered too late the previous day, open mic at Cafe och Le, and then bad movie Zoom.

Interior of the Lund Cathedral, facing the altar behind rows of wooden chairs.

There was some minor miscommunication between staff members about where the tour was supposed to start, but it all worked out fine in the end. Our guide was a cheerful and slightly theatrical young woman (she also does tours for school kids and it showed) who informed us that there was a baptism scheduled after the tour was over, so we were free to stay unless they needed to make room for the baptism guests. We stayed to watch a large, complicated clock go off, complete with good and evil knights fighting and the three Wise Men turning up to pay their respects to Mary and the baby Jesus to the tune of “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” after which I decided to wander off elsewhere and give the baptism party their….not privacy, I guess, but their something.

I made a beeline for the international bookstore I had found yesterday and immediately fell in love. No weird minimalist artsy displays with just a book or two per shelf: just shelves and shelves of books, everywhere, every which way. By this point I’d finished two of the six books I brought with me, so I was entitled to get two replacement books, right? And a souvenir book as well of course. And he happened to have the memoirs I’d been meaning to get for ages so of course I picked that up.

Interior of the French Book Store in Lund

The sign said French Bookstore, and then listed a bunch of other languages below, which I found amusing, but then once I was in there it made sense: the owner was clearly French, and also excruciatingly though charmingly slow and old fashioned. He wrote out my receipt by hand and spent most of my visit there waiting for his payment system to process a bulk order from a librarian who had come in from Malmö. And even though everything I bought was in French, I still kept to Swedish with him because my spoken French is pretty crap. But my brain did the thing and so suddenly my Swedish accent started to turn French. Wild.

I wandered a bit more and stumbled on the last half hour of a pop-up…art gallery? Flea market? Unsure. But I checked it out on a whim and ended up with three gorgeous prints painstakingly excised from an old encyclopedia: a star map with the North Star and nearby constellations, a map of “China and Japan” (and the surrounding countries of course, but at that point given as either Chinese or Japanese territory), and a watercolor illustration of a Chinese mandarin and a young Japanese woman, posed together a bit like a museum display, clearly part of the section on different cultures around the world and their traditional costumes.

The weather was starting to turn by this point, so I hoofed it back to the hotel room to drop off my booty rather than schlep it along with me to the open mic at a place called Cafe och le (Cafe and smile), which is a pretty cute little pun since you pronounce it the same as Cafe au lait. I showed up about half an hour ahead of the scheduled start so I could be sure of a seat and also have some dinner, but it ended up being more like forty-five minutes ahead of the start since it took a while to get the sound set up going.

Exterior of the Cafe och Le in Lund

It was a delight despite that, and no one who performed was tragically or embarrassingly bad. The highlight for me was an older guy who turned up and out of nowhere, THE BLUES. One of America’s few cultural exports worthy of mention; probably the closest thing I’ll ever experience to patriotism is the weird little warmth I get in my guts when I listen to non-Americans play the blues. Appropriately enough for my musical patriotism, the last song I caught before I returned to the hotel room for bad movie Zoom was “Summertime,” and boy howdy do I have strong feelings about George Gershwin!

The bad movie zoom was top notch, as always, and I polished off a great deal of (too much?) mediocre boxed wine before last-minute packing all the assorted small things and then collapsing into bed at 3 am or so.

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 2

I burned through my agenda in basically one day, so I started my second day in Lund with a long sleep in and then took a walk through Stadsparken and Lund at large to enjoy the sunshine.

Entrance of Stadsparken in Lund on a sunny day.

A duck pond surrounded by trees under a bright blue sky with fluffy clouds.

A street in Lund on an overcast day. Single-story buildings in eggshell and yellow are framed by flowering bushes on either side of their entrances.
Lund feels much smaller and cozier than Stockholm.

Exterior of a hotel in Lund on a sunny afternoon.

I got a tip from a friend on a good crepe place, so I ambled over in that direction and got a crepe to go. It was a good tip and a very good crepe, so A+.

A banana Nutella crepe.

I ambled a bit more, since the weather was still good, and picked up snacks and some boxed wine for my later weekend plans. (Zoom drinking: pandemic hobbies.) I discovered a few stores and places to visit tomorrow, after the tour of Lund cathedral I had planned: an international bookstore, an open mic at a place with the very clever name “Cafe och Le.”

Exterior of the Cafe och Le in Lund

I wrapped up the night with a take out pizza, since it was Friday and old habits die hard, and then nosed around the hotel a bit to see if I wanted to use their sauna.

Pineapple, banana, and peanut pizza
Banana and pineapple are perfectly acceptable pizza toppings. Fight me.

Verdict: I don’t like Swedish saunas as much as Korean ones and I would be better served by a really hot shower in my own room. I did just that, and with my hair toweled off a bit I went downstairs to read The Stone Sky in the hotel lobby. I was hoping that the fire that had been going before would still be lit, for those good good cozy vibes, but alas it was not to be. Still, pleasant to have the white noise of people conversing (the lobby opened directly into the hotel bar/restaurant) and I read until I was ready to nod off right there on the couch.

Pandemic Vacation: Lund, Day 1

I didn’t want to fly anywhere during a pandemic, and it was a bit embarrassing to be a jävle stockholmare who had never been beyond the greater metropolitan  area even after seven years of living here, so I decided this was the year to take the train out of Stockholm and visit other parts of Sweden. This time around: Lund and Göteborg.

I sprung for a hotel room in Lund, a full on grown up suite hotel room with a kitchenette and plenty of space ALL FOR ME. Deep in my heart I’m still a slummy hostel rat, but during corona I don’t want to bunk up in close quarters with other people traveling so I dropped the cash for the fancy option in a hotel built in a converted locomotive shed.

A clean hotel room with large skylights and a freshly made bed.

Once I had settled in for the night, I set about putting together an agenda for the rest of my visit. The thing I wanted to see most was the Nasal Committee, a collection of plaster casts of assorted famous noses. This sounds a bit weird when I put it like that; it’s not at all a serious exhibit but a long-running joke that started in an award acceptance? commencement? speech by a Swedish comedian back in the 80s and now here we are today. Amongst the actual noses from living people, you also have entries like the Sphinx (“mysteriously noseless” according to its little catalogue write-up), Tycho Brahe (complete with the brass bit like he had in real life) and the eel, Anguilla anguilla.

The Nasal Committee Exhibit in Lund, Sweden.

The botanical gardens were along the way from my hotel room to the museum, so I took a wander through there to appreciate the flowers and fresh air, even though the weather was a bit overcast.

The botanical gardens also adjoin a cemetery (which actually had a pair of goth kids smoking by the entrance, bless) so I had a fun time investigating the headstones. Like Stockholm, no graves were particularly old, but unlike Stockholm a lot of them had the deceased’s career listed. The most noteworthy one was a PhD. She worked too hard for that doctorate NOT to have it proudly listed on her grave!

Gravestone that reads, "Poet Critic PhD, Susanna Roxman. 29.8.1946 - 30.9.2015"

The Cultural Museum was a quite a bit larger than I would have expected, with several buildings and open-air exhibits. I ended up exploring several other areas as well.

Entrance to the Bok Kulturen exhibit at the Lund Cultural Museum.
This exhibit on the history of printing presses and book publishing was another high point of the museum for me.
Old brick work tools as part of a display in the Lund Cultural Museum.
The difference in architecture between Lund and Stockholm was a surprise to me. So much more brick work!
A display of old pinball machine art.
The pinball exhibit was a nice piece of contemporary pop art to round off my visit.

After the museum and a bit of a walk, so I decided to see if the Mexican place I passed earlier was open and taking drop-in customers. It was and they were, and for Mexican food in Sweden it was pretty good, definitely a cut above the usual crappy tacos.

A bowl of black soup with diced tomatoes and avocado in a brown clay bowl, with a small bowl of nachos on the side.

It was also blessedly empty so I didn’t feel too much like I was tempting fate: it only started filling up when I had finished, so I paid and got the heck out of Dodge.

Interior shot of an empty Mexican restaurant with bright yellow walls, black sombreros hanging from the wall, and chairs upholstered in bright stripes.
Dos Hermanos in Lund, Sweden

After a couple hours of futzing around in my hotel room (drinking loads of tea, getting some reading done) I decided to futz around at a bar instead. Most of them looked too nice to go there alone (and a bit too crowded), so I eventually ended up at good ol’ Bishops Arms, drinking beer and reading Ice  until closing. On my way home I nearly got taken out by a cyclist coming too fast around a corner, but in the end I was fine and he ended up eating shit and wiping out so I ended the night with a good laugh.

The Glorious Return: Uijeongbu

After many lean years and tight travel budgets, in 2019 I bummed a favor from my friend Yousef and got the “friends and family” price on an Air Emirates ticket to South Korea. (He doesn’t work at Air Emirates anymore so that flight was a one-off memorable experience in itself.) My itinerary was a few days in Uijeongbu, a few days in Seoul, a few days in Daegu, Chuseok in Seoul, and the last few days in Uijeongbu. I centered my visit around Uijeongbu because I had lived there for two years, so I knew people there and was eager to take in the nostalgic sites (which ended up being more “seeing how things had changed”) in addition to new and exciting cities and experiences.

The short version of fun things I did, which I might or might not expand into later entries as the mood to reminisce strikes me:

  • Hiked (“hiked”) a bit in Bukhansan park, along parts of the trails accessible in Uijeongbu/Hoeryong/Mangwolsa.

  • Visited a couple temples along said trails.

  • Finally, FINALLY attended a Royal Asiatic Society lecture about Chollipo Arboretum.
  • Finally, FINALLY attended a comfort women protest.

Weekly comfort women protest outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Exterior of a shop on Medicine Street in Daegu with jars in a glass display and a terrifying pair of taxidermied deer.

  • Ate everything.

Interior of a Gimbap Cheonguk in Uiejongbu, South Korea

  • Drank a lot.

A bowl of makgeolli on a wooden table.

  • Stayed in a hanok.

Courtyard of a hanok guesthouse in Seoul

  • Saw friends and former coworkers for the first time in a million years.

A chain of soju bottle caps dangling from a ceiling decorated in fairy lights.

  • Met the next generation of teachers at my very first hagwon. They had already renewed their contract for a second year at this point in Q3 2019; I wonder how the plague year of 2020 treated them.
  • Deliberately avoided visiting my second hagwon and all of its bougie environs.
  • Mourned the apparent end of my third and best hagwon, its space now a kiddie play park above the gamjatang restaurant on the first floor (which is somehow still the same gamjatang restaurant, down to the signage—cold comfort, that)

A brightly-lit gamjatang restaurant at night.

  • Took in the late-night teenage buskers in downtown Uijeongbu.

Crowds enjoying late-night busking at the pedestrian mall in downtown Uijeongbu, South Korea.

  • Got scrubbed.
  • Actually, spent a lot of time in jjimjilbangs, up to and including the date of my departure, when I:
    • Dropped myself into a jjimjilbang locker room conversation between other foreign women and encouraged them to embrace the nudity of the sauna because it was extremely fucking worth it.

The weather was gorgeous. Typhoon Lingling hit on my last day in Daegu, prompting me to bump my departure up (too soggy to go out and do anything in the morning, which had been my original plan), and for a few days after there were intermittent showers heavy enough to warrant umbrellas, but then sometime around Chuseok it broke and it was beautiful weather the rest of the time—and I came back to a cold and gray Stockholm, awesome.

Things I loved in Korea that are no longer there:

  • Tom Bar in Uijeongbu
  • the Uzbek restaurant Jong-min and I always went to in Anam
  • My third hagwon (see above)
  • The officetel my third hagwon rented for me: the building is still standing but dark, quiet, a mere ghost; no doubt slated for demolition or at least renovation (Uijeongbu really växer så det knakar these days)

  • the Thai restaurant Yousef and I would frequent after binge shopping at What The Book?

Things I loved that were still there:

  • Cox

A dark bar, with "Cox" in light wood mounted on the black wall above the bottles.

  • What the Book? (in a new, smaller location, sadly)*

Interior of the now-closed What The Book? in Seoul, South Korea.

  • My first officetel building, once a modern piece of shiny new domination on that brief stretch of road, now dingy and old and dwarfed by taller buildings on either side
  • Cheonjiyeon jjimjilbang in Millak dong
  • The mosaic along the bike path next to the stream

Mosaic of a sunrise.

  • Maltese

The restaurant Maltese in Uijeongbu, South Korea.

The one activity I’ll detail is this:

During my last days in Uijeongbu, I bought a couple cheap-o bottles of makgeolli and a box of Korean Digestive biscuit knock-offs (my favorite snack). Then I made small little pilgrimages and offerings to places that were important to me. At each location I emptied out a measure of makgeolli or left a few cookies and sat and talked to the place, out loud like a crazy person. I have a thing about being able to say goodbye to people and to places, to have as much closure as possible. What terrifies me about having so many friends spread across the globe is the knowledge that each time I see them may very well be the last (true for literally every person you see, sure, but it feels more urgent when you only see someone every few years) and that I’ll never, ever be able to give them the farewell I’d want to give. But here was an opportunity to do exactly that, and I did.

I thanked the officetel for a good year, for sheltering me and protecting me and being a cozy little room I could call home. I also told it that I hoped whatever was going to be built in its place was nice and charming and worthy of being built there. The other sites, being more a general sense of place that’s hard to really destroy, were less emotional since they’re literally impossible to disappear the way a specific building is. But they still brought up memories of friends and a life I no longer have, and my heart ached a bit.

It turned out to be a well-timed trip on my end. The last chance to visit people in Korea before they left, the last chance to visit What The Book?, the last chance to see a familiar place before the coronavirus appeared on the world stage and (irrevocably?) changed so many things. I have such stupendously good luck so often, it astounds me.

The author at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul, South Korea.

*As of the date on this backdated entry, What The Book? still existed, but a few months later it closed very abruptly and unceremoniously. The books I purchased there on this last trip will never leave my collection.

Bloomsday Weekend

One of my literary friends, Yousef, suggested we do Bloomsday in 2018, a suggestion we finally made good on in 2019. Yousef is also an immaculate planner so I left all of the scheduling and eetail work to him, and he didn’t disappoint. Following his lead I stayed at Barry’s Hotel, which turned out to be a prime location for us and which was both comfortable and cozy.

The first day off the plane was a bit of a whirlwind of long-overdue hellos after six years of separation, finding the right bus, meeting up with our third travel companion, Ian, and getting dinner and drinks and settled into our hotel rooms.

On the second day, my dirtbag body woke up at 5:30 am and wouldn’t go back to sleep and that was my life. I browsed the Internet, enabled data roaming on my phone so we weren’t reliant on spotty wifi, and then went downstairs for tea and breakfast: a proper Irish breakfast full of meat.

An Irish breakfast: sausages, bacon, ham, and half a tomato.

Yousef and I trash talked MFAs until Ian turned up at our hotel—then it was time for a tour of Trinity University, including the library and the book of Kells.

Then we made a beeline for Oscar Wilde and Offbeat Donuts, though not before dropping in Swenys for a live reading from Ulysses, the very last chapter. People were in seats that were in a line snaked along the tiny little chemist’s-cum-bookstore. Everyone had their copy of Ulysses out and helpful event/store clerks proffered us extra copies open to the right page if we wanted to read along. (We declined.) Things began with an elderly woman who read quite well—you got the impression she’d read this portion quite a few times. The last chapter is one I like better as well, though I’d like it a lot more with more than eight periods…! She finished, and the next reader stumbled through his bit, which is when Yousef and I ducked out.

After Oscar Wilde and donuts, Yousef had a Dubliners walking tour. I could have crashed it but instead opted for taking the tram back to Sweny’s, where I picked up another postcard plus the infamous lemon soap.

A bar of F. W. Swenys Soap.

Once reunited we made the pilgrimage to Hodges Figgis. We only had two hours until it closed, which was not nearly enough time.

“I’m glad I’m in a bookstore with people who won’t judge me for my habits,” Yousef said over the giant stack of books he was carrying. He had enough books to fill up a stamp card in one giant shop. My haul was much humbler, partially because one of the three books I found was 78 goddamn Euros! But it was a fairly academic text on translation that neither Stockholm library nor the university library carry, so I figured why not.

Afterwards we tried The Pig’s Ear, but it was fancier than we were prepared for so we left and opted for a more casual steak place (so much steak!). We started with Thai spicy chicken wings and I couldn’t help laughing.

“Thai food after book shopping, just like in Korea.”

We rounded out the night with a lot of beers at Mess Maguires and then it was the end of day two. Tomorrow would be Proper Bloomsday.

Like every other day of the trip, I was the first up and spent an hour or so on my own, reading and writing up travel notes.

“Sorry I wouldn’t commit to a time for the museum last night,” Yousef said when he got downstairs. “But it’s my vacation and I just want to sleep in.”

“No, I get it. Breakfast?”

“Just the continental today, I think.”

“Me too.”

Yousef had toasted peanut butter and Nutella, while I had corn flakes with raisins and some Nutella and jam on toast. When he went to pay with his Emirati debit card, the clerk asked a tentative question in Arabic and a brief exchange and introduction followed.

“I knew he was Egyptian,” Yousef said as we strolled out of the hotel. “I could tell by the accent but I didn’t want to say anything.”

Interior of the Dublin Writers' Museum

Our first stop was the Dublin Writer’s Museum. The thinking was that we could visit there first, learn a little bit, pick up some names or titles that might be interesting, and then go book shopping. Originally we wanted to go back to Hodges Figgis, but we ended up spending more time at the library than anticipated and since we had a tour to make at 1.30, we opted for Chapters, which was closer to the Joyce center.

A lot of the writers I noted were slightly too old but still insufficiently “classic” to be found at Chapters (which, unlike the other two bookstores we had visited already, didn’t have a separate “Irish literature” section), but I did find a couple of 20th century women writers who had been featured.

Back at the Joyce center, Yousef gave me a little bit of friendly ribbing about not buying a ticket (“They were all sold out when I went to finally buy them!”) but it’s not like there were any ticket takers or handstamps so I just told the guide I was here for the 1.30 tour and that was it. The tour was a short walk and covered Joyce’s biography as well as particular spots from Ulysses. A film crew from a Farsi station on the BBC was on our tour to report about the event, except I would have never guessed or known that if I had been by myself but Yousef made a point of asking what they were filming for, and at the end of the tour he gave the producer? director? his email address and she promised to send him a link to the clip when it aired.

We had about an hour to kill before the readings, and debated carrying our book shopping with us or dropping it off at the hotel. We opted for the latter, and good thing we did, because later that evening it started pissing down rain (Ireland!) and we would have been drenched.

“Did you have a good day?” an elderly gentleman asked me as we left the hotel. I must have looked absolutely panicked, because he continued:

“We saw you leaving the hotel this morning. Have you had a good time so far?”

“Oh! Yes, great.”

“It’s not over yet,” Yousef added.

“No, the night is young and so are we!”

Street art with high-contrast black and white portraits of Irish writers on a purple background, with text that says "Feed your head: read."

We still had enough time to do a quick souvenir and gift shop. I picked up whisky cordials at Hotel Chocolat and Yousef asked if they carried anything with Baileys. No dice, but the girl at the counter suggested one of the tacky tourist tchotchke shops down the block, which was conveniently on our way. I also picked up some Baileys cordials, because why not, and then we grabbed a seat for the readings.

The whole reading was very femme and very queer, which is fitting for an event during the high holy month of Pride. The readings were interspersed with a singer performing songs from the book, which was a good call to break the monotony. Not that it would have been monotonous otherwise, but the singer was quite good so if there had been a couple duds in a row you could count on something a little livelier soon enough. The highlight of the entire event, which was a good two and a half? three? hours was a Senator who also happened to be a Joyce scholar reading from the bit with Bloom masturbating on the beach, complete with all the appropriate intonations, and then concluding his selection with: “Nothing like a spot of masturbation on a beautiful summer day!”

Ian was supposed to join us for the reading, but he took a different tour and ended up getting absolutely plumb lost, so we didn’t see him again until the cabaret show at 8. We made a beeline for the restaurant Yousef most wanted to try on his list (assembled for him by an Irish coworker who really put her project manager all into it and gave us a good selection), and by now it was getting a little chilly and I was in a light dress with no stockings or leggings and wanted to get inside.

This restaurant was BBQ and of course, since I was wearing white, I made a bit of a mess of myself. The food was worth it, at any rate, and I was glad for something warm.

Selfie of the author and her friend.
And naturally I made point of obtaining a straw boater ahead of time!

The only cock-up was a mistake in the program. Our last event for the night was a cabaret performance that looked like it started at 8 and ran till midnight. We got to the venue at 7.30 and waited for the doors to open…and waited…and waited…in the downpour that I mentioned earlier…while all the while the crowd grew larger. When the doors finally opened at 8 (which was what the program should have noted but didn’t), there was such a huge crowd and such a bottleneck at the desk that it still took ten or fifteen minutes to get everyone in. We grabbed a round of drinks and waited for the show to begin.

It was worth the rain and the waiting, though. I grinned and laughed so much my face hurt, and the acts were all really good, and really creative takes on the material in Ulysses (with varying levels of poetic license taken with the source). Ian even got called on to the stage for one of the audience participation bits, which was to use a piece of sandpaper to remove as much pink paint from a toilet plunger as you could in five minutes—again, masturbation.

“I’ll hold your drink if you get a picture of this,” I whispered to Yousef a few seconds into it, and he handed over his Beamish and then did one better by capturing it all on video.

“Blackmail material,” he said with a grin when it was over.

During the intermission we talked about US politics with a woman in costume, complete with a “Votes For Women” sash (you saw a couple of those throughout the day). I stood Yousef another round of drinks and told him:

“This is a fucking delight. You made an excellent choice with this, thank you.”

Because much as the tour was a good tour and the readings were excellent, the cabaret was next level. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t going in with really high expectations. I was expecting a kind of cringey but endearing amateur burlesque thing, but it was so far beyond that.

The second to last act was a dance routine inspired by the “Ithaca” chapter, specifically the part where Stephen and Leo go outside to take a piss and look at the stars. The lights dimmed even further and a dancer in an outfit and long scarves rigged with lights performed a routine to an orchestral version of “With Or Without You.” The effect certainly didn’t cost all too much to make—take a string of LED Christmas lights of decent quality and attach them to your fabric properly and that’s about all you need—but it was genuinely captivating, and that plus all the emotional intensity of the last few days and the disappointment at having to leave the next morning got me to crying, so congratulations I’m someone who cries at dance performances now.

Ian didn’t have to be up quite as early as us, so he bid us good night and we went on our own back to the hotel. We checked into our flights and figured out our gameplan for getting to the airport. Cab fare wasn’t outrageous, so we decided to hell with it, we’re on vacation. Plus Yousef had just a small backpack and a couple of flimsy paper bags, but a million books to fit in there: all easier to manage in a cab than on public transit.

I had a larger bag and fewer books, so I got everything packed away easily before I went to bed, set a bunch of alarms (paranoia!), and curled up for the last night in my posh bed at Barry’s.

A neatly made bed in a small, old-fashioned hotel room.

I didn’t oversleep, of course, and begrudgingly I went downstairs to check out and order a cab. I sat with one of my books—Cocktail Bar—and messaged Yousef to let him know I was up and that our cab was coming in an hour.

“Cool. Just trying to strategically back four bags of books into two.”

At ten after nine I knocked on Yousef’s door to make sure everything was cool. He didn’t answer, but I could at least hear him packing, so I retired to the hall and waited for him to finish.

“Need any help?” I asked when he came out.

“Nah, it’s okay.”

We had enough time for some morning tea and discussed the events of yesterday (best and worst readings, how good the cabaret was) and the merits of city-based literary festivals.

“I wonder if New Orleans does anything for A Confederacy of Dunces,” I said. “Or maybe that would be grim, considering what happened to the author.”

After tea, we decided to head outside and wait for our cab. The desk clerk, a friendly middle aged woman with a husky cigarette-y voice, came out with us to…make sure we didn’t get into the wrong one?

“So where did you guys fly in from?” she asked.

“Well, I’m in from Stockholm,” I offered when Yousef hesitated.

“Dubai.”

We talked a bit more about the weather and how Yousef would rather the weather in Dublin than the 50 plus degrees C in Dubai, until she spotted our car and ushered us across the street.

“Thanks for visiting, safe travels back!”

“Thank you!”

We breezed through security—not sure if DUB has its shit together or if we just picked an unpopular time to fly— and finished all of the check-in stuff by 11 or so. Our flights weren’t until almost 2,so we had plenty of time to kill. Yousef did some last-minute souvenir shopping and we had some breakfast. What we really wanted, and hadn’t been able to find in all of our restaurants, was a proper stew, so we just bided our time until the restaurant downstairs started serving lunch. What the restaurant billed as a “casserole” ended up being extremely stew-y, so mission accomplished.

I had a long schlep back to my gate once Yousef’s flight was off the ground, so I didn’t have to sit for too long until we started boarding. An animal rescue group, Dogs Without Homes, had been on my flight on the way over and sure enough, here they were on my way back, easily identifiable in their bright sky blue t-shirts. The flight back was uneventful; I read a good chunk of Cocktail Bar and, even though the flight was just a couple of hours, snuck in a quick nap.

Would that I could just create an imaginary city with everything and everyone I love from all over and then just never leave. Alas, stuck here in this material realm, limited by the laws of space and time.

Steering the Craft

Steering the Craft came recommended to me by a member of my writing groups. Or not recommended to me specifically, but recommended as a purchase with the group’s money. I borrowed it last week to see what Ursula K. LeGuin had to say about writing.

Cover of the 2015 edition of Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Mariner Books

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.15 stars

Language scaling: B2+ (though some of the books she quotes are older or use some form of regional dialect and more like C2)

Summary: LeGuin provides thoughts on different technical aspects of writing narrative, along with examples to consider and writing exercises to try yourself.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in narrative writing (fiction, memoirs, etc.)

In-depth thoughts: People often recommend Stephen King’s On Writing as a guidebook for writers. I did too, once upon a time, and I still would. I would just pair it with Steering the Craft. I think King still has fantastic insights on the process of writing, but LeGuin has the better grasp of what makes for good style. Not surprising, since I find King’s writing fairly pedestrian whereas LeGuin’s prose is actually good. To that end, I think Steering the Craft is a good book for editors, while they can give On Writing a pass (unless they’re also writers, of course!).

LeGuin doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about anything; she merely points out what most people do these days and what most people used to do in previous eras, recognizing that there is a time and a place for following guidelines and for departing from them. She also provides a good 101 level introduction to the technical terms of English grammar, rightly pointing out that a writer should be able to name their tools specifically rather than just having a vague idea about things.

Some of the literary extracts, being over a hundred years old or using a particular regional dialect (or both!), might be hard for non-native speakers to process, but the instructional aspects of the book, including her exercises, are crystal clear. The exercises are originally intended for a workshop or feedback group, but would work just as well in a traditional classroom setting. Editors would probably want to keep a copy of this on hand, or at least browse through it once or twice, so as to be able to better diagnose or name what would otherwise be a vague “I don’t know what it is” problem in a manuscript.

Burnt Shadows

One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.

Cover of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Image courtesy Bond Street Books

Author: Kamila Shamsie

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.

Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know

In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.

The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.

The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story  is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.

The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.

But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of  A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.

There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.

 

*I mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.