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Currently enthralled by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (why has it taken me so long to read this masterpiece?) and this passage made me laugh out loud in painful recognition of the struggles of any form of creative writing – be it blogs or books:

“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

THE MOTEL LIFE (2006) + NORTHLINE (2008) by Willy Vlautin.

Motel NorthlineWilly Vlautin
I got interested in the novels of Willy Vlautin after seeing a tower of his latest novel,The Free, piled up in an ace bookshop called No Alibis in Belfast this summer. That a cool store would order so many copies made me think this was worth checking out.

I soon realised that I know Vlautin already, not as a novelist but as the lead singer and driving force behind a fine Alt.Country band called Richmond Fontaine whose songs are like miniature stories. A track and album of their has one of my all time favourite titles; it’s called We Used To Thing The Freeway Sounded Like A River.

After writing great tunes like this, there are probably lots of listeners who told him “Gee, I bet you could write a great novel”. I’m sure many said this to Bob Dylan too and then he came up with Tarantula which is kind of cool if you don’t mind stories that are cut and pasted in a random sequence. This demonstrated Dylan’s debt to the Beat poets and also gave an insight into how much acid he was on. In comparison, Vlautin’s writing is more conventional. His novels have a beginning, middle and end; more or less in that order.

Critics have generously compared Vlautin to John Steinbeck which tends to happen a lot when the characters are those that have slipped through the safety net of life. Typically they come from dysfunctional families, have dead-end jobs, drink a lot of beer, smoke like chimneys and eat shit food. They live from pillar to post, eking out a living and trying their best to stay on the straight and narrow. They spend a lot of time in bars, diners and cheap motels. They are exasperating but real.

William Bell wrote a Blues song for Albert King in 1967 called Born Under A Bad Sign and the lyrics sum up the plight of these lost souls. The chorus goes: “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”.

Willy Vlautin was born in Reno, Nevada and that’s the main setting for both his first two novels which I decided to read before tackling his latest.

I only know Reno from Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues (“I shot a man from Reno just to watch him die”) and my mental image of it as a tough, uncompromising city is largely borne out by Vlautin’s fiction. View full article »

REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS by Susan Sontag

"Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else; they haunt us"

This book was first published in 2003 but couldn’t be more topical. Images of James Foley’s beheading at the hands of ISIS terrorists that briefly circulated via You Tube and Twitter this week are just the latest in a never-ending sequence of atrocities that raise ethical, and politically charged, questions about what the media should show in print, online or on TV.

It is human nature to be torn between fascination and repulsion when confronted by such images. The late Susan Sontag understood that deciding whether or not to view such graphic representations of man’s inhumanity to man makes us either spectators or cowards. Being neutral is not an option.

Regarding The Pain Of Others is both a companion piece and an updating to Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays On Photography. In it, she explores how still photographs come to influence and, in some cases, define the way we regard war and conflict.

Her starting point is the Three Guineas essay published in 1938 in which Virginia Woolf wrote of the horror and disgust she felt at seeing photographs of victims of the Spanish civil war. These  forced Woolf to conclude “War is an abomination, a barbarity, war must be stopped”. This outrage is perfectly understandable, even praiseworthy, but also naive.  Sontag asks pointedly: “Who believes today that war can be abolished?” View full article »

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead books, 2013)

khaled-hosseiniSeparation, both in physical or psychological, is one of the recurring themes of this absorbing novel . Khaled Hosseini shows how individuals are isolated from their past when they don’t remember important details or because they simply choose to forget. View full article »

tasteofulster“Our food. So good” is the subtitle of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board‘s free booklet listing a selection of “handpicked” cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels.

“It’s an exciting time for food in Northern Ireland” the authors gush in the introduction but the options are far from exciting if you are vegetarian and positively desperate if you are vegan.

Having just spend a week in Belfast and County Down, I can confirm that there are plenty of reasons why it’s a great country to visit but would also give warning that healthy and ethically correct food is not one of them.

The page of symbols used in the guide’s entries is the first thing that alerts you to this problem. There’s an icon to indicate which places have parking, conference facilities, disabled access or are child friendly and there’s also one for those looking for gluten-free meals. However, there is no symbol for patrons seeking meat free alternatives.

In the Belfast section there are 42 listings, a page for each, and only one of these seems to genuinely acknowledge that not everyone wants to stuff their face with sausages, steak and meat burgers. Take a bow The Salt Bistro  which offers up a “superfood salad” as well as a “lentil and bean burger with tabasco mayonnaise”.

Elsewhere “veggies”, as we are chummily called, find very slim pickings indeed. The Beatrice Kennedy restaurant  has “meat, fish and game on every menu” so the final sentence – “veggies will be pleased too”- seems to be something of a puzzling afterthought. How? and Why? I ask myself. View full article »

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