The Seventh Trumpet (Book Acquired, 7.01.2013)

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The Seventh Trumpet, another mystery from Peter Tremayne. Publisher Minotaur’s blurb:

When a murdered corpse of an unknown young noble is discovered, Fidelma of Cashel is brought in to investigate

Ireland, AD 670. When the body of a murdered young noble is discovered not far from Cashel, the King calls upon his sister, Fidelma, and her companion Eadulf to investigate. Fidelma, in addition to being the sister of the king, is a dailaigh—an advocate of the Brehon Law Courts—and has a particular talent for resolving the thorniest of mysteries.

But this time, Fidelma and Eadulf have very little to work with—the only clue to the noble’s identity is an emblem originating from the nearby kingdom of Laign. Could the murder be somehow related to the wave of violence erupting in the western lands of the kingdom? The turmoil there is being stirred up by an unknown fanatical figure who claims to have been summoned by “the seventh angel” to remove the “impure of faith.” Fidelma and Eadulf, once again grappling with a tangled skein of murder and intrigue, must somehow learn what connects the dead noble, a murdered alcoholic priest, and an abbot who has turned his monastery into a military fortress. When it appears that things cannot get more complex, Fidelma herself is abducted, and Eadulf must rescue her before the mystery can be solved.

 

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Read “The Piper and the Puca,” an Irish Fairy Tale

“The Piper and the Puca” — Translated literally from the Irish of the Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta by Douglas Hyde.

In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the “Black Rogue.” He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him. One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother’s house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the “Black Rogue” (an rógaire dubh). The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back. There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said——

“Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff.”

“Never mind your mother,” said the Púca, “but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes.” Then the Púca said to him, “Play up for me the ‘Shan Van Vocht’ (an t-seann-bhean bhocht).”

“I don’t know it,” said the piper.

“Never mind whether you do or you don’t,” said the Púca. “Play up, and I’ll make you know.”

The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder.

“Upon my word, you’re a fine music-master,” says the piper then; “but tell me where you’re for bringing me.”

“There’s a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric to-night,” says the Púca, “and I’m for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you’ll get the price of your trouble.”

“By my word, you’ll save me a journey, then,” says the piper, “for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas.”

The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.

The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it. The old women rose up, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November (na Samhna). Who is this you have with you?”

“The best piper in Ireland,” says the Púca.

One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.

“By my conscience, then,” says the piper, “myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it’s she told the priest I stole his gander.”

The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, “Play up music for these ladies.”

The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.

“By the tooth of Patric,” said he, “I’m as rich as the son of a lord.”

“Come with me,” says the Púca, “and I’ll bring you home.”

They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, “You have two things now that you never had before—you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”

The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother’s door, saying, “Let me in, I’m as rich as a lord, and I’m the best piper in Ireland.”

“You’re drunk,” said the mother.

“No, indeed,” says the piper, “I haven’t drunk a drop.”

The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, “Wait now,” says he, “till you hear the music I’ll play.”

He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He wakened the neighbours, and they were all mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.

The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.

The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began.

“Leave my sight, you thief,” says the priest.

But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.

He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the day of his death, there was never a piper in the county Galway was as good as he was.


 

“The Birth of Bran” — An Irish Fairy Tale, Retold James Stephens

“The Birth of Bran”

An Irish Fairy Tale, Retold James Stephens

CHAPTER I

There are people who do not like dogs a bit—they are usually women—but in this story there is a man who did not like dogs. In fact, he hated them. When he saw one he used to go black in the face, and he threw rocks at it until it got out of sight. But the Power that protects all creatures had put a squint into this man’s eye, so that he always threw crooked.

This gentleman’s name was Fergus Fionnliath, and his stronghold was near the harbour of Galway. Whenever a dog barked he would leap out of his seat, and he would throw everything that he owned out of the window in the direction of the bark. He gave prizes to servants who disliked dogs, and when he heard that a man had drowned a litter of pups he used to visit that person and try to marry his daughter.

Now Fionn, the son of Uail, was the reverse of Fergus Fionnliath in this matter, for he delighted in dogs, and he knew everything about them from the setting of the first little white tooth to the rocking of the last long yellow one. He knew the affections and antipathies which are proper in a dog; the degree of obedience to which dogs may be trained without losing their honourable qualities or becoming servile and suspicious; he knew the hopes that animate them, the apprehensions which tingle in their blood, and all that is to be demanded from, or forgiven in, a paw, an ear, a nose, an eye, or a tooth; and he understood these things because he loved dogs, for it is by love alone that we understand anything.

Among the three hundred dogs which Fionn owned there were two to whom he gave an especial tenderness, and who were his daily and nightly companions. These two were Bran and Sceo’lan, but if a person were to guess for twenty years he would not find out why Fionn loved these two dogs and why he would never be separated from them.

Fionn’s mother, Muirne, went to wide Allen of Leinster to visit her son, and she brought her young sister Tuiren with her. The mother and aunt of the great captain were well treated among the Fianna, first, because they were parents to Fionn, and second, because they were beautiful and noble women.

No words can describe how delightful Muirne was—she took the branch; and as to Tuiren, a man could not look at her without becoming angry or dejected. Her face was fresh as a spring morning; her voice more cheerful than the cuckoo calling from the branch that is highest in the hedge; and her form swayed like a reed and flowed like a river, so that each person thought she would surely flow to him.

Men who had wives of their own grew moody and downcast because they could not hope to marry her, while the bachelors of the Fianna stared at each other with truculent, bloodshot eyes, and then they gazed on Tuiren so gently that she may have imagined she was being beamed on by the mild eyes of the dawn.

It was to an Ulster gentleman, Iollan Eachtach, that she gave her love, and this chief stated his rights and qualities and asked for her in marriage.

Now Fionn did not dislike the man of Ulster, but either he did not know them well or else he knew them too well, for he made a curious stipulation before consenting to the marriage. He bound Iollan to return the lady if there should be occasion to think her unhappy, and Iollan agreed to do so. The sureties to this bargain were Caelte mac Ronan, Goll mac Morna, and Lugaidh. Lugaidh himself gave the bride away, but it was not a pleasant ceremony for him, because he also was in love with the lady, and he would have preferred keeping her to giving her away. When she had gone he made a poem about her, beginning:

       "There is no more light in the sky—"

And hundreds of sad people learned the poem by heart. Continue reading ““The Birth of Bran” — An Irish Fairy Tale, Retold James Stephens”

Flann O’Brien’s Novel At Swim-Two-Birds Is a Postmodernist Masterpiece of Comic Storytelling

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The vibrant force of storytelling in Flann O’Brien’s excellent first novel At Swim-Two-Birds threatens to overwhelm reader and narrator alike—and what a strange joy it is to be overwhelmed. This novel overflows with stories; its plot threads twist into each other, break out of each other, erupt into new ideas, characters, riffs, sketches. First published in 1939—the same year as James Joyce’s Finnegans WakeAt Swim-Two-Birds seems light years ahead of its time—indeed, this is a book that is still ahead of its time.

Summarizing At Swim-Two-Birds is difficult but worth attempting. We have an unnamed narrator, a student living with his uncle who doesn’t think much of how his nephew spends his time. Our narrator likes to imbibe large quantities of porter and wax philosophical with his friends about his literary projects. These projects, our narrator’s riffs and scribblings, begin to take on lives of their own: they intersect, overlap, intermarry, degenerate and regenerate.

The book’s opening paragraph announces the novel’s intention to disregard the classical unities of action, place, and time:

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

First, we meet “Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class,” a hobgoblin of Irish folklore (he turns out to be a thoughtful and polite fellow). Then, there’s John Furriskey, who “was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.” Furriskey is the literary creation of another of the narrator’s literary creations, one Dermot Trellis, a grumpy old man who writes Westerns; Trellis (an author, it’s worth reiterating) is the eventual antagonist of the novel, the target for all of the other characters’ vengeance. The third opening offers up Finn Mac Cool, “a legendary hero of old Ireland.”

Much of the early part of At Swim-Two-Birds features Finn Mac Cool holding forth on all matters Irish in wonderfully baroque and hyperbolic passages. Here’s a snippet (a long one!), featuring Finn on the ideal man:

When pursued by a host, he must stick a spear in the world and hide behind it and vanish in its narrow shelter or he is not taken for want of sorcery. Likewise he must hide beneath a twig, or behind a dried leaf, or under a red stone, or vanish at full speed into the seat of his hempen drawers without changing his course or abating his pace or angering the men of Erin. Two young fosterlings he must carry under the armpits to his jacket through the whole of Erin, and six arm-bearing warriors in his seat together. If he be delivered of a warrior or a blue spear, he is not taken. One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers. When pursued in a chariot by the men of Erin he must dismount, place horse and chariot in the slack of his seat and hide behind his spear, the same being stuck upright in Erin. Unless he accomplishes these feats, he is not wanted of Finn. But if he do them all and be skillful, he is of Finn’s people.

It’s hard not to feel something of Joyce in the passage (I’m particularly reminded of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses), and O’Brien’s narrator name-checks Joyce (along with Aldous Huxley) in the first few pages of the book. The narrator’s comically mechanical and precise descriptions also recall Joyce. Joyce and O’Brien drew from the same well of mythology, but O’Brien more keenly attunes his focus on Irish legend and folklore in At Swim-Two-Birds, while Joyce’s project skews to archetypes. Similarities and divergences aside, there’s something strangely fitting about O’Brien’s Finn Mac Cool dreaming his way into other characters’ lives in At Swim-Two-Birds, as if this Finn is the psychic twin of Joyce’s Finn.

Indeed, such a reading would fit neatly into our young narrator’s ideas about the function of character in literature:

Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

This decree strikes me as wonderfully post-postmodernist. That the “modern novel should be largely a work of reference” finds its suitable echo over half a century later in the note-card novels of David Markson (and other reality smugglers). The citation above serves as a metatextual description of At Swim-Two-Birds itself: O’Brien’s narrator framing the various tales that erupt in the novel, but also undoing the frames, allowing his characters to converge, to tell their own stories (and within those stories characters tell other stories…).

In its finest moments (of which there are many), At Swim-Two-Birds operates on an ad hoc logic that it creates and describes in motion, a kind of improvised dream response pattern. Most books, particularly postmodern books, teach the reader how to read them—that is, most novels provide keys, hints, and reading rules early enough in the text to allow perceptive readers to interpret (subjectively, of course) what the novel is doing. O’Brien’s novel in toto, with its discontinuities, gaps, eruptions, and juxtapositions, paradoxically is its own discrete, unified key.

But I seem to be getting bogged down in a bit of literary theory, which is not my intent at all.

Instead, let me draw attention to a wonderful extended jaunt in the middle of At Swim-Two-Birds where the Pooka MacPhellimey enters into an ersatz quest with the Good Fairy, two cowboyish thugs (or thuggish cowboys) named Slug and Shorty, the poet Jem Casey, and the mad King Sweeny. This ragtag band sets out to bequeath gifts to the forthcoming child of Miss Lamont (the creation of a creation of a creation). These episodes unfold in comic bravado, their slapstick rhythms recalling the manic but precise energy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the linguistic brio of the Marx brothers. This miniature picaresque is tempered in sweet pathos for poor crazy Sweeny who must be plied forward with the promise of a feast. The poor man, broken, starving, and living solely on watercress, falls into despair. What eventually moves him? The force of language:

And getting around the invalid in a jabbering ring, they rubbed him and cajoled and coaxed, and plied him with honey-talk and long sweet-lilted sentences full of fine words, and promised him metheglin and mugs of viscous tarblack mead thickened with white yeast and the spoils from hives of mountain-bees, and corn-coarse nourishing farls of wheaten bread dipped in musk-scented liquors and sodden with Belgian sherry, an orchard and a swarm of furry honey-glutted bees and a bin of sun-bronzed grain from the granaries of the Orient in every drop as it dripped at the lifting of the hand to the mouth, and inky quids of strong-smoked tabacca with cherrywood pipes, hubble-bubbles, duidins, meerschaums, clays, hickory hookahs and steel-stemmed pipes with enamel bowls, the lot of them laid side by side in a cradle of lustrous blue plush, a huge pipe-case and pipe-rack ingeniously combined and circumscribed with a durable quality of black imitation leather over a framework of stout cedarwood dovetailed and intricately worked and made to last, the whole being handsomely finished and untouched by hand and packed in good-quality transparent cellophane, a present calculated to warm the cockles of the heart of any smoker. They also did not hesitate to promise him sides of hairy bacon, the mainstay and the staff of life of the country classes, and lamb-chops still succulent with young blood, autumn-heavy yarns from venerable stooping trees, bracelets and garlands of browned sausages and two baskets of peerless eggs fresh-collected, a waiting hand under the hen’s bottom. They beguiled him with the mention of salads and crome custards and the grainy disorder of pulpy boiled rhubarb, matchless as a physic for the bowels, olives and acorns and rabbit-pie, and venison roasted on a smoky spit, and mulatto thick-tipped delphy cups of black-strong tea. They foreshadowed the felicity of billowy beds of swansdown carefully laid crosswise on springy rushes and sequestered with a canopy of bearskins and generous goatspelts, a couch for a king with fleshly delectations and fifteen hundred olive-mellow concubines in constant attendance against the hour of desire. Chariots they talked about and duncrusted pies exuberant with a sweat of crimson juice, and tall crocks full of eddying foam-washed stout, and wailing prisoners in chains on their knees for mercy, humbled enemies crouching in sackcloth with their upturned eye-whites suppliant. They mentioned the leap of a fire on a cold night, long sleeps in the shadows and leaden-eyed forgetfulness hour on hour – princely oblivion. And as they talked, they threaded through the twilight and the sudden sun-pools of the wild country.

I’ve perhaps overshared here, let our characters babble on too long—but the verbal dexterity of the passage above illustrates O’Brien’s rhetorical force, the force he lends his characters in order that they should move their insane and desperate friend forward. There’s a sublime alchemy at work here, where imagination turns into words and words turn into food and drink.

I also fear these big chunks of text I’ve pulled from At Swim-Two-Birds don’t highlight O’Brien’s extraordinary talent at rendering speech. The dialogue in this novel is hilarious but nuanced, its ironies rarely if ever remarked upon by intrusive attributions. That O’Brien’s narrator’s characters (and their characters…) speak through the layers of texts adds to the book’s juxtapositions.

These juxtapositions will perhaps confuse or even alienate many readers. At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an attack on the classical unities of action, place, and time. O’Brien’s novel is a send-up of stability, order, and tradition. Some of the novel’s best moments are its strangest indulgences, as when O’Brien (or his narrator) gives the novel over to citations from imaginary antique texts, or allows his characters to indulge in a seemingly endless recitation of obscure facts, or satirizes the moral dangers of tea-tasting. These moments seem to erupt from nowhere, bizarre, wonderful, joyous.

At Swim-Two-Birds lacks the cohesion of theme and voice that characterizes O’Brien’s other masterpiece, The Third Policeman, but this is hardly a deficiency. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of those rare books that actually deserves to be called dazzling, a critic’s crutch-word that mars too many blurbs. Its dazzle derives from its rhetorical force, its humor, and its openness to experiment with not just the novelistic form, but the form of storytelling itself. And it’s here that O’Brien’s novel is most real—he captures the strangeness of storytelling, its mutability, its crazy rhythms. Ultimately, this is a novel unconcerned with providing pat answers and clear solutions. I loved this book, loved reading it—and then immediately rereading it. I’ll let O’Brien get the last word:

Answers do not matter so much as questions, said the Good Fairy. A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Joyce’s Ulysses

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses. To be very clear, I think Ulysses is a marvelous, rewarding read (more on that here). Today, February 2nd, is Joyce’s birthday—let’s celebrate by enjoying the observations of some readers who were unimpressed by his masterpiece. While one or two of the reviews are tongue-in-cheek, most one-star reviews of the book are from very, very angry readers who feel duped]

I can sum this book up in two words: “Ass Beating”.

What an awful book this is?

I bought this having been a huge fan of the cartoon series, but Mr Joyce has taken a winning formula and produced a prize turkey. After 20 pages not only had Ulysses failed to even board his spaceship, but I had no idea at all what on earth was going on. Verdict: Rubbish.

When an English/American writer try to explain his/her ideas about life(I mention ideas about meaning,purpose and philosophy of life)and when he/she try to do this with complicated ideas and long sentences(or like very short ones especially in this particular book);what his/her work become to is:A tremendous nonsense!!!

Thi’ got to be the worst, I- I – I mean the worst ever written book ever. Know why? ‘Cause he’ such a showoff, know what I MEAN? He’s ingenious I’ll giv’ ’em that, but ingenuity my friends tire and enervate. Get to the point and stick to it ‘s my motto.

This is one of those books that “smart” people like to “read.”

The grammar is so disjointed as to make it nearly impossible to read.

Ulysses is basically an unbridled attack on the very ideas of heroism, romantic love and sexual fulfillment, and objective literary expression.

What’s with all the foreign languages?

It has no real meaning.

It is a blasphemy that it ever was published.

Anyone who tells you they’ve read this so-called book all the way through is probably lying through their teeth.It is impossible to endure this torture.

A babbling, senseless tome upheld by “literary luminaries” who fear being cast into the tasteless bourgeois darkness for dissent? Yes, that’s the gist.

I discovered that the novel was not what I though it would be.

Joyce is an aesthetic bother of Marcel Duchamp (known for The Fountain, a urinal, now a museum piece) and John Cage (the composer of pieces for prepared piano, where the piano’s strings are mangled with trash.

Two positive things I can say about James Joyce is that he has a great sounding name and he gives wonderful titles to his works.

Ask yourself – are you going to enjoy a book that neccesitates your literature teacher lie next to you and explain its ‘sophistication’ to you ?

It’s the worst book which has ever been written.

Unless you really hate yourself, do not attempt to read this book.

The truth is this book stinks. For one thing it is vulgar, which, I hate to disappoint anyone, requires no talent at all. This is a talent any six year-old boy possesses.

The book is not so good, it is boring, it is a colection of words and a continuous experimentation of styles that, unhappily, do not mean anything to the meaning of the story; that is, the book’s language is snobbish and useless. Those who say that “love” such a writing are to be thought about as non-readers or as victims of a literary abnormality.

…the single most destructive piece of Literature ever written…

I’m all for challenging reads, but not for gibberish which academics persist in labeling erudition.

This book is extremely dull!!! My book club decided to read this book after one of the members visited the James Joyce tower in Ireland, which the author supposedly wrote part of the book in.

Ulysses is a failed novel because Joyce was a bad writer (shown by his other works).

In conclusion, Don’t read the book. Burn it hard. Do not let your children read the book—it will mutilate their brain cells.

The Matchmaker of Kenmare — Frank Delaney

Frank Delaney’s new novel The Matchmaker of Kenmare is set against the dramatic backdrop of Europe in 1943. Its narrator is Ben McCarthy (returning from Delaney’s previous novel Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show), who lets the story unfold in the style of a memoir. Ben’s wife Venetia Kelly has mysteriously disappeared. To assuage his anxiety, Ben begins collecting folklore Irish folklore as part of a government project. In the process, he comes into contact with the titular matchmaker, Kate Begley. The two soon form a close bond, and Kate does everything in her power to aid the grieving narrator. The plot turns when a U.S. intelligence officer named Charles Miller enters the picture. He strikes up a romance with Kate, but their relationship is tested when he asks her — and Ben — to use their country’s neutral status to travel through enemy territory in order to find a man the American’s need before D-Day. Their mission soon turns to finding the man Kate believes she loves, a plot doubled in Ben’s search for his wife Venetia. The Matchmaker of Kenmare, new in hardback from Random House, will appeal to those who enjoy sweeping, richly detailed historical romances with a literary bent.