Saturday, July 18, 2015

Irish Details - the Fourth Day

This day, we finally hiked along a waymarked trail, the Ulster Way.  This was a 10-mile day, and I was doing it on pretty beat-up feet.  But we made it, and in good time!

This walk started out at Ballintoy village and ended at the Giant's Causeway.  There were a few neat stops along the way, including St. Gobbans, which is thought to be the smallest church in Ireland.  Although it sounds like no one's ever checked to be sure!

Yep, it's small!  Right after this, the trail passed around a headland through a hole in the rock face.  This was a really neat stretch of trail, although a little crazy, too.  Back before the church, it looks like a high tide would have made the way impassable.

After this, we walked for quite a way through sheep fields.  It amazed me then and it still amazes me now to think of sheep grazing a few yards away from the ocean.  In fact, I'm guessing they're responsible for these complex spiral paths ...

Soon, we came upon what little is left of Dunseverick Castle.  I believe this isn't even part of the castle proper, but more of an outbuilding or a kitchen.  The castle itself has fallen into the sea, an unfortunate side effect of building that close to the shore.

Soon after Dunseverick, we seemed to walk up and up, around headland after headland, each one a little higher than the last.  Eventually we passed an area called Half Moon Bay, if I recall correctly.

We started somewhere out there in the middle distance, along the flat part of the coast, so you can see how far we've come.  (We were barely half way at this point!)

After a few more miles of lonely rugged coastline, we began to meet more and more people.  This is how we knew we were getting close to the Giant's Causeway.

This is one of the most well-known attractions in Ireland, an area of the coast with hexagonal granite columns stretching out into the sea, in legend the home of the giant Finn MacCool.

I have to say, it's lovely.  But, it was a little underwhelming after three days of exploring just as rugged and just as lovely coastlines.


I did enjoy the rock formation known as the Camel - it's fairly realistic, as far as these kinds of things go!

We ended the day with a really nice tea in our room at the B&B, quite a good restorative.

The pictures were never particularly successful, but this B&B had plenty of bird feeders in their backyard and our room was positioned to see them.  I had a great time watching, and even caught a few life birds that I saw nowhere else on this trip, including the European Goldfinch, and a Common Redpoll.  I'll try to do a separate post for those!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Two Booker Prize Winners: Hotel du Lac and The Bone People

I'm so far behind in reviewing books that you're getting a two-fer.  These books both won the Booker Prize, and they both left me a little cold.  So why not pair them here.

First up, Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.  This was a very late addition to my 2015 Challenge List, one I never told you about.

This is a slim little volume, certainly eligible for my "Perfect Little Books" shelf.  But I don't think it's going to get there, not quite.  This is a Booker Prize winner, so my opinion of it takes me a little by surprise, although from what I read, many thought it was not the strongest book in the year it won.

Don't get me wrong, I more or less enjoyed reading it.  But I do feel a failure to connect with much of the book's intellectual heft.  I think, maybe even hope, that it's because I've grown up in a different era from Edith, the main character.

This book is very much about the feminine world, i.e., the world as inhabited by females.  I don't think you can accuse Anita Brookner of feminism, though.  She spends a lot of time looking at women with personality problems who happily or unhappily fill the roles society has provided for them.  Except, maybe Edith, who by the end of the book, has bucked society's expectations of her not once, but twice.  (Although I don't know that returning to England to continue in her mistress role is really that avant garde.  Women have been mistresses for millenia.  You could argue it's a traditional role.)

Edith spends an increasing amount of time in the book conversing with Mr. Neville.  It's a good chunk of these talks, and Edith's observations on other characters, that sometimes remain opaque for me.  Edith's saying words, and Neville responds with more words, and I understand them all individually, but taken together I'm not always sure what they are getting at.  This is just intermittent, though.

Final call:

Really, this is a three and a half.  The writing is artful, but didn't really speak to me.  I wouldn't put it high on your list.

And now, for The Bone People by Keri Hulme.

This is a really cool book in a lot of ways, with so much potential. Sure the narrator is an author stand-in, and she has all these super-duper-but-unrealistic-to-find-in-one-person talents. But I really like the concept of the three main characters all needing something from each other to heal, and seeing how Kerewin builds bridges despite being hurt and volatile herself. I like the weird artsy stuff that blends its way into the narrative. I like the strange little inventions that Kerewin and Simon create. There's a lot of humor in the book, although a lot of it's grim or sarcastic.

I do not appreciate at all how the abuse was handled. I read the book as each of the three - Kerewin, Joe, and Simon - having to face crisis and come through transformation in order to heal emotionally. But Simon really got the short end of that stick. Kerewin, and Joe especially, take their failings out on Simon. Then they both go through their own near-death experiences and are "saved" by some mystical processes that aren't really clear. They come out the other side, somehow, wiser and more in tune with their Maori heritage. (Joe's story requires some extremely wild leaps of imagination, too.) So these two are supposed to be redeemed, I guess, by all this.

Now take Simon. He's 6-7 years old, he's a mental mess for good reason, and he's often drunk or drugged out of his mind in the story. Joe abuses him. At first you think it's "just" a whack here and there. Later, you realize it's serious and frequent beatings. Then, Joe very nearly kills him and does cause permanent damage to Simon's hearing and facial structure. Jeeeeesus. I don't think there's a character under any sun in any universe that can come back from that, for me. Certainly not by flinging himself off of a cliff, experiencing some strange interactions with an old guy, and then inheriting the old guy's secret Maori god-thing while being miraculously healed himself.

Of course, at the end, Simon still loves Joe, and Kerewin, who is indirectly responsible for the final savage beating. Warped love is all Simon knows and he isn't the best judge of what's good or right in the world.  What 6 year old is??? I think that's what angers me - that Simon bears it all in this story. No mystical healing potions for him, he's left with his horrible scars and lost hearing and a devoted love for those who did the damage. While the very culpable adults are absolutely healthy and just feel guilty every once in a while when they notice Simon's face. The author doesn't seem to see him as a real boy at the end, just this construct to help Joe and Kerewin finally get in touch with each other and their inner Maori. Which I guess is fine, but don't think the average reader will appreciate it, given the sensitivity of the topic.

Final call:

Another Booker Prize winner that comes close, but just sorta misses the boat at the end.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Irish Details - the Third Day, Part 2

Ok, we left off with the donkey braying us into Carrick-a-rede.  This is an attraction centered around a rope bridge that allowed salmon fishermen to reach a small island from the mainland.  Now it's tourists who cross the bridge.

Here's Justin, taking his chances:

I thought I might get a little weirded out by the crossing 80 feet above the sea, but it really wasn't unnerving.  On the island, I was pleased to see that several nesting seabirds were close enough for wonderful photographs.

This is a Northern Fulmar.  Fulmars and some other birds, like albatrosses, are known as "tubenoses" - look ,you can see the unique structure just above the bill on this bird.

And this the closest I got to a Razorbill. Razorbills are alcids, similar to Puffins.  Such interesting, elegant lines they have.  From this vantage point you could also see Larrybane, a cliffy bay that was apparently used as a set piece in HBO's very popular Game of Thrones series.


With this, we were off to Ballintoy to find dinner and some time off of our feet.

Ahhh, this'll do the trick!  Justin ordered the biggest burger in Ballintoy, if not the world, and I had a really good chicken curry.  We also learned that tobacco onions are really frizzled onions.

After this we caught a ride to Bushmills, where we crashed out, then woke to start what became our second-most grueling day of hiking!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Irish Details - the Third Day, Part 1

We were really looking forward to the third day, when we made the transition from Ballycastle to Bushmills.  Only (!) eight miles of hiking to get there.

What I did not realize was that the hike started out with 2-3 miles of uphill walking.  It was a relatively gentle slope, but still.  I needed a break!

This day was primarily walking on back country roads, and it wasn't long before we ran into a large group of Rooks.  These are large-ish black birds that have a very medieval look to them, to my eye.  Like they're totally prepared to go after your eyeballs if you sit still too long :)

Right about this time it also hit me that perhaps these birds are the source of the word "rookery," as we saw the birds were grouping around their nests.

Ireland is also the land of extensive and well-kept hedges.  We followed this road, until we reached a farmstead, turned in, and walked out along a fence line into a patch of woods known as Clare Wood.  Something we noticed throughout our time in Ireland is that land is held differently, at least in that many open fields could be accessed by walkers with no problem, despite it being technically private land.

Clare Wood had an entirely different feel than any other habitat we were in this trip.  Deeply quiet, green above and below, just very Druidy feeling, lol.  This was obviously a pine plantation, though, as the trees were in rows.  We heard an interesting bird song as we entered.  At first I thought it was some kind of owl, but eventually realized it was a Eurasian Collared-Dove singing.  We also heard a Cuckoo.  American cuckoos have really wild songs, but this one sounded like the namesake clock.  Finally, it all makes sense :)

This shot shows the view over the countryside, across the Moyle Sea, and to the western end of Rathlin Island - where we were Puffin gazing just yesterday!

Some sights along the way down to Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge:

An interesting butterfly that remains unidentified.  (Sorry, I only had the energy to figure out birds!)

A bin of what I assume are seed potatoes, waiting to be planted in the nearby field.

And a guard donkey, busily letting everyone know we're close by.  What was our destination today, you wonder?  We were heading to Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, and then to the village of Ballintoy for dinner and to wait for our ride to Bushmills.  I think I'll save that for the next post, though!

Orange is the New Black

A nonfiction book!  What a change of pace!  For those who have seen the television series about life in a women’s prison, this is the book its loosely based on.  To sum it up very quickly:  well-to-do white girl goes to federal prison on an old drug charge, makes friends, and influences people.

There are some eye-opening pieces of information here.  That the federal system can move so slowly, to the point that people who have reformed themselves are doing time for charges in their relative youths.  Piper Kerman, the author, waited for six years to find out the disposition for her case!  The crimes she committed were ten years old when she entered prison.  It all seems a bit ridiculous.

For the actual time in prison – there were a lot of astute observations, and they were blended in to the general story well enough.  Nothing came across as preachy or as having an agenda, except for Kerman’s opinion on the US’s war on drugs, which I think is one gaining more and more traction of late.

As an piece of writing – I wasn’t terribly impressed.  Pretty average stuff, really.  It was a bit hard to follow a timeline.  Something would sound endless, and then you’d realize it was a day or two. People were introduced in a way that made you think you should know who they were, when it was really the first time they’d been talked about.  Little trip-ups like that.

I will admit, one aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way.  I’m sure Kerman was only trying to demonstrate how her perspective cannot be said to be an average one.  That she had more resources than most people, both in dealing with the legal aspects of her case and in making prison life more bearable.  But she comes across as weirdly boastful many times:  I had so many visitors.  My family still loved me despite everything.  I had hundreds of books mailed to me.  These hard-boiled women procured numerous difficult-to-find things for me because I was so awesome.  My friend created an executive job in his business so I could work post-release.  It got a little old after a while, although I am sure it was not done with deliberate intent.  It also read to me as Kerman knowing she was privileged, but still possibly not aware of just how privileged.

Final call:

I actually brush up to similar issues (what is the purpose of prison, do nonviolent people really belong there, how much rehabilitation should occur, how can people reintegrate in society) in my day job, and while Kerman’s story is interesting, the questions it raises are really pretty basic now.  I’m happy to say that, looking back over the 10 years since the book was published, there has been plenty of public policy debate about these questions.  Unfortunately, it seems to be because we can’t afford to put more people in prison, not because people see a better way to deal with crime and punishment.

Monday, July 13, 2015


This book is not a part of my pre-arranged reading list this year.  But when I stumbled across a fictionalized take on Margaret Mead’s life, with a cover like that?  I was a goner.  Take a minute and look at that cover again.  I was over a third of the way through the book when I realized the cover has a photographic credit.  That’s a picture, not a painting, folks.  A rainbow gum tree’s bark, which plays a small part in the book.  Thank goodness that’s not something she made up (see below).

It's appropriate that it shows up in the middle of my posts on Ireland, because I read this during the trip (somewhat unusual for me, also see below).

For the text itself – I love this book but I’m still not sure why.  No one should ever say what I just did, that this is a fictionalized take on Margaret Mead.  It’s an author who thought, oh, three anthropologists in New Guinea, what a wonderful start.  Let’s change their names slightly but make everything else up!  I think my love comes from King just doing such a good job of making everything else up.  There is a real emotional richness to the story.  And King winds it all up much more neatly, if also far more dramatically, than the threads appear to have been tied in real life.

There are some slip ups, particularly in research.  I read a review complaining that the book mentions the howling of monkeys, when monkeys are not found in New Guinea.  And I found another one – describing thousands of white osprey lifting off of a lake.  Birders know that white ospreys are not a thing and that your standard osprey wouldn’t be caught dead acting like that, much less with thousands of its peers.  They’re essentially hawks, for crying out loud.

But in the end it just seems like more of King’s imagination at work.  She needed thousands of white osprey for a particular moment in the story, and they didn’t exist, so she made them up.  That’s impressive in an odd way, and it IS a beautiful moment in the book.  I can forgive that.

Final call:

I always take books on vacation, but I rarely find the time to read them.  That I started and finished this during a fantastic visit to Ireland should tell you how strongly it was pulling on me.  I should give it a five based on pure entertainment value, but I know this book is like ice cream.  Tasty but not  a lot of nutritional value :)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Irish Details - the Second Day

Day 2 in Ireland involved taking a ferry out to Rathlin Island, six miles off the coast.  There are three lighthouses and large seabird colonies to explore.  This is from the ferry, looking across the South Lighthouse on Rathlin out to Fair Head on the mainland, where we walked the day before.

The first day's hike was long and over difficult terrain.  So our idea was to take it easy and rent bikes for the second day.  Little did we know how out of shape our bike-riding muscles were!

Rathlin has some interesting local building traditions.  These stone fences with cone-topped gate posts were all over.

At the western edge of the island, large seabird colonies can be found.  Here's an example.  These birds are mostly Guillemots, with some Razorbills mixed in.

The big draw here are the Atlantic Puffins.  They nest near the base of the sea cliffs.  You can see two here, near the small burrows they call home.  They are mixed in with a few Razorbills.

Black-legged Kittiwakes also nest here, using ledges on the cliffs to raise their broods.

Volunteers from the Royal Society for Protection of Birds were at the lighthouse, pointing out interesting things to the tourist observers.  They gave us a great hint - on the way back out, look for an "evil-looking" bird at the top of the cliffs, by a rock.


We did find the bird, as promised.  Actually, two birds:  Ireland's only nesting pair of Great Skuas.  These are heavy, gull-like birds that raid nests and eat young, earning their evil reputation :)

Here we are on the way back to the harbor, with a lovely church and a bright hillside of gorse, or whin, behind.

Lastly, we have one of the golden hares of Rathlin, partially hiding and very wary of what on earth we were doing.


Then, my first glimpse of the bird known as a Robin in Europe, which is nothing at all like our Robins.  Still a very sweet bird, with a wonderful little song.

Nothing left after that except a choppy ferry ride back to our home away from home in Ballycastle:

Monday, July 6, 2015

Irish Details - The First Day

While we were in Ireland, I took advantage of the camera on my phone and posted pictures every day to Facebook.  I hit a lot of the high points there, so I thought it would be fun to get into some of the details I didn't post through other forms of social media.

These are all from the first full day of hiking, east of Ballycastle.

This is a Northern Wheatear in breeding plumage.  Interestingly enough, I've seen one of these before - waaaaaaay out of range in a hotel parking lot off of Interstate 81 in PA in winter.  An Irish meadow is much more their natural habitat.

We were walking through plenty of farm fields this day.  The multiple ways and means designed to cross the fences had us smiling.  This is a simpler one, just a cross piece placed on two small posts.  I was never able to get good photographs, but these fields were full of Skylarks, small sparrow-ish birds that flutter 30-40 feet above the ground, singing for mates.  A unique and charming behavior.  

We met these two dogs on the trail.  Yes, there's two, note the ear tip sticking out from behind the rock.  The hiding dog was definitely passive, while the one you can see was actually a wee bit aggressive.  I think he felt he was protecting his buddy, but yeeesh!

Ireland has a lot of birds that have analogues in the New World.  Here's the Grey Heron, which is obviously quite similar to our Great Blue Heron.

And this is a Blackbird, which is not related to American blackbirds at all, but is actually a type of what we would call a robin!  Striking bird, for one that is working only with black and yellow for colors.

One thing we learned very quickly was that, whatever the weather was at the moment, it was unlikely to stay that way for long.  By the end of the day, our nice sunny adventure had turned into low clouds and spitting rain.  But it did make for a moody shot of Ballycastle harbour!

The Sound of Waves

Here’s the book that made me create a new shelf on my Goodreads profile.  What shelf is that, you ask?  It’s one called “Perfect Little Books.”  It has a few other slim volumes for company – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaimain, and A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons.  I drew an arbitrary line at 200 pages – if you’re perfect and you’re under that, you’re in!

For a short book, The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima is full of atmosphere.  The ocean, the sea, the waves are always in the background and often at the forefront.  This is a timeless story – I was well into it before a few mentions of movies or wartime activities made me realize this is indeed set in the 1950s.  It seems much earlier, and I think intentionally reads as myth or fable.  A simple story of teenage love with plenty of beautiful observations couched in wonderful prose.  A story where those who do the honorable thing are rewarded. 

In the end, the effect is almost hypnotic.  All that being said, I found the story of the author’s life to be more interesting than this particular book. Mishima committed ritual suicide while in his 40s, after he completed a set of four books he considered to be his masterpiece.

As a total tangent - I would love to know more about the cover art, because, yes, that's a fish with some jewels wrapped around it!

Final call:

Really four and a half.  Highly recommended for a time when you need a peaceful read.  Take some time to read about the life of the author, too.