The Psychobiotic Revolution and Transformative Experience.

‘We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.’
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale.

Books can change you. They can change how you think, about relationships, about love, about toasting and grinding your own spices – all the important stuff. The most rewarding books, I think, are those which most give us pause for thought. Books with nothing to teach us are boring. We crave knowledge.

Lots of people read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale last year. It’s a book that has been a catalyst in a chain reaction leading to a dramatic shift of attitudes. Usually though, the changes made by books are relatively small and incremental. We gather ideas and opinions and slowly alter our way of being.

Atwood, Paul, Kimchi.
Paul, Atwood and a jar of fermented cabbage.

In her book, Transformative Experience, Philosopher L.A. Paul writes about the occasions in our lives when we face a life-changing  choice. You know, those times you review with hindsight and remark that you were a different person then. Becoming a mother is something many women feel is a transformative experience. Paul’s thesis is that you can’t know, before the transformation, who the new you will be after it. So, you can’t rationally choose to have a baby. You, the new mother, might feel completely differently about the whole idea to you who hasn’t had a baby.

Paul gives another great example. Imagine for a moment that I am outrageously attractive and charismatic, and a vampire. Imagine also that I like you and I offer you a one-time-only opportunity to become a vampire.  It will only hurt for a second and then you will be gorgeous and powerful, just like me. Vampires have that kind of sexy thing going on and there’s the promise of immortality of course so you might say yes. But, imagine then that you discover you can’t stand the taste of blood, can’t stomach even a slice of black pudding, and the biting thing is less erotic than advertised. You’ve made a terrible mistake. Or, then again, you might love it. You might ROCK as a vampire for all eternity. The thing is you can’t know ahead of the choice- it’s simply not possible. Becoming a vampire will teach you things that you can’t learn without becoming a vampire, and you will experience a new way of being you which is difficult to even imagine beforehand.

You don’t make a decision on whether or not being a vampire is going to work out for you. What you really decide is whether you want to find out what it’s like to be a vampire. Or, what it’s like to be a mother, or perhaps an emigrant, or a priest, or an astronaut, or even a Martian, or a human Earthling with a fully functional microbiome. A what? I’ll come back to that.

Think about books again. Do you think a book could change you so much that you could call it transformative? To begin with, as the adage goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, we do, but it doesn’t get you far. You can’t know until you read the book if it will change you. You can’t even know if you will like it, no matter how much I tell you that you will. I know that I have ended reviews with a line about how whichever book will make you think differently about whatever subject but I don’t think I’ve ever thought for a moment that a single book could fundamentally change who you are.

I’ve spent January reading, re-reading and mulling over The Psychobiotic Revolution, published this month by National Geographic, written by Scott C. Anderson and  based on the research of John F. Cryan and Ted Dinan at the APC Microbiome Institute here in Cork. John Cryan is a neuroscientist while Ted Dinan is a psychiatrist. Together with other APC researchers, they are the cutting edge.

The Psychobiotic Revolution by Scott C. Anderson, John F. Cryan and Ted Dinan

Probiotics, as you are probably aware, are live micro-organisms introduced to the body for their beneficial effects. Psychobiotics, as defined by Cryan and Dinan, are a subclass of probiotics which, when ingested in large amounts, produce beneficial effects psychologically.

Their work is built upon several decades of research into the human microbiome, that is the vast and various community of microscopic organisms living on, and in, you.

The latest ballpark estimate figures that you have something in the region of 30 trillion human cells in your body. You also carry about 39 trillion microbial cells, give or take a billion. There are more bacteria in your gut, Anderson writes, than stars in our galaxy. The microbes in your gut, taken all together, weigh more than your brain. There could easily be a thousand different species of bacteria inside you alone which is a lot when you consider that fewer than 100 species of bacteria have ever been identified as disease-causing in humans. Fewer than one hundred- that’s nothing in the vast scheme of bacterial existence. What’s even more fascinating is that some of those species inside you live nowhere but inside the human gut. You probably even have a species or two which are uniquely yours. The continuation of their kind is completely dependent on your survival. They need you, and you need them too. That’s what they call symbiosis.

And now for the truly mind-blowing statistic: Your human cells carry between 20 and 25 thousand genes but your microbial buddies can beat that number 500 times over. The organisms of your microbiome are busily expressing their genes inside your body and affecting, in the most fundamental way imaginable, what it means to be you. Those genes code for proteins that affect your nutrition, your energy levels and the strength of your immune system. They affect how you smell, how you taste (back to the vampire thing) and who you fancy. They affect the progression of disorders coded by your human genes. They affect your sleep patterns and your appetite. They give you cravings. They affect your mood. They can make you feel anxious or aroused, deflated, depressed, stimulated or scared stiff. They affect the growth and repair of your brain cells. They affect how you think. A significant alteration to your microbiome, then, would make you a different person. No? Yes?

fermenting fartichoke
Fermenting fartichokes.

When I was in college, all the buzz was about HUGO, the project to sequence the human genome. Every week, it seemed, molecular biologists identified a new gene associated with one disease or another. We were confronted with the idea of genetic testing – that a simple blood test might tell us how we would die. Genetic sequencing was a revolution in science. It changed everything. But it also gave the impression of being pretty cut and dried. If you have this gene, you’ll die of that disorder. Environmental factors were bound to have an effect but the genetic contribution of the human microbiome was not, as far as I can recall, ever mentioned.

Now, the human microbiome is the hottest of topics. It’s scorching. Microbiologists all over the world are savouring their newly found cachet as they publish paper after paper and find themselves listed as some of the world’s most influential minds.

Cryan and Dinan’s work focuses on the communication between your gut flora and your brain, something they call the gut-brain axis.

Let me give you just one example. Bifidobacteria are what is known as a keystone species in your gut. They make up a relatively small percentage, about 2%, of your gut flora but they exert a lot of influence. Anderson suggests you think of them as being like lions on the savannah. If they are wiped out, the whole ecosystem is out of whack. Bifidobacteria have a dietary preference for a soluble fibre called inulin which you source by eating lots of plant material. Bifidobacteria digest that inulin, assuming you’ve been eating your veggies, and they produce a fatty acid called buyrate. Butryate does a whole stack of stuff. Butyrate feeds the cells which make up the lining of your gut wall. It dampens inflammation and heals damage. Butyrate also melts through the gut wall, enters your bloodstream and travels to your brain where it stimulates the production of dopamine making you feel chilled out and happy. Butyrate also encourages the growth of brain cells. It makes you think more clearly. Butyrate makes you feel and think better and it makes you crave more of that fine inulin substance and so begins a self-perpetuating cycle of good form and good health.

Crave fibre, you scoff, who am I kidding? Anderson points out that craving sugar is a reliable clue that your gut flora is not what it ought to be. The term for a faulty microbiota, a failure in the symbiotic relationship, is dysbiosis. Other signals of dysbiosis include, but are not confined to, asthma, allergies, autism, IBS, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, persistent diarrhoea, constipation or flatulence, diabetes, lack of drive, lack of focus, anxiety, panic attacks, withdrawal from society or depression. Anderson lists some possible causes of dysbiosis: infection, inflammation, chronic stress, overuse of painkillers, overuse of antibiotics, excessive alcohol, autoimmune disorders, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, over-eating, poor diet and lack of exercise.

Anderson enthusiastically explores the butyrate cycle as well as providing an overview of some of the other ways your gut flora communicates with your brain. It’s scientifically detailed but never less than fascinating. He describes the development of your microbiome from conception all the way through to the moments following your demise. He describes the variations in your microbiome in the different parts of your body and along the length of your digestive sytem, from your gum line to your rear end. He explains why your microbiome is largely inherited from your mother making this a matrilineal society. He details the incredible advantages bestowed upon breast-fed babies and why the diet of a toddler up to the age of two is of crucial importance. He explains why so many people eating a ‘western’ diet of junk food, loaded with sugar, feel sluggish, sick, anxious or depressed. He explores the effectiveness of probiotic supplements on the market today, offers some advice on which brands have potential for alleviating which digestive disorders and which may have psychobiotic effects. He provides guidelines on which foods are most effective in nurturing a healthy, balanced, physically beneficial and mood-enhancing gut flora, foods termed prebiotics. He does all this in an accessible and entertaining style.

Your microbiome has a remarkable and, until now, sorely underestimated degree of control over your mind. But ultimately, you are the boss of them. You control what you eat and what you eat changes everything. As Anderson puts it, you can change your microbiome overnight, just by changing what you eat.

If you imagine your self to be a bundle of expressed genes, and accept that you can alter a significant portion of that bundle, you might just be holding the key to a fundamentally transformative experience. Once you read Anderson’s book, you will have information which you can’t really get anywhere else (unless you feel like ploughing through 400 scientific publications), information which could radically alter your life, information which could change you to such a degree that you will, with hindsight, look back and say that you were a different person before you read this book.

Because, you see, once you have that information, it’s difficult to ignore it, which brings me full circle.

‘Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.’
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale.

If Atwood’s book could change how you think about the experience of being a woman, and Laurie Paul’s book could change how you think about change, The Psychobiotic Revolution could change how you think.

The only problem is that you can’t know until you read it how it is going to change you, regardless of how much I try to convince you. You have to decide whether you want to find out what it might be like to be that human with a microscopic, symbiotic army marching to your tune. There can be no going back.

Let me know what you decide.

 

Full disclosure:
I am a graduate of the Microbiology Department of UCC.
Prof. Ted Dinan sent me an e-copy of The Psychobiotic Revolution in anticipation of an honest review.
Prof. Laurie Paul is my friend.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, with a Recipe for Sugar Buns.

Sugar bun. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Hunger is the most basic, the most primal, of human motivators. Hunger is what drew us out of our caves, drove us to hunt, to make tools, and build fires. Hunger has ploughed fields and raised revolutions. Hunger will get me out of a warm bed on a damp Sunday morning. Even the word, hunger, has become synonymous with ambition and determination, a steely grit.

I am deeply suspicious of a book which has no mention at all of food, or even the lack of food. A day in the life of a human being which didn’t include any food at all would be notable just for that. We all eat, and what’s more, the food  we eat, even if it’s just a plastic-wrapped ham sandwich from a garage, tells a story about who we are. When we don’t eat, because we have lost our appetite, or refuse food in protest, or choose to abstain from food, or simply can’t get sufficient food, tells a whole other story.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a book all about hunger. It’s about wanting more. It is a book which reads like the truth, perhaps because it was, in fact, first written as an honest memoir but reconfigured as fiction at the request of an editor. From its first publication in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an instant bestseller. Almost 75 years later, this book remains relevant and inspiring and an absolute must-read. It is the story of Francie Nolan, daughter of Irish and German immigrants, growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn a century ago. It is a book about the trials of emigration, even to a land of dreams. It is about the reality, the daily struggle to get by, to push forward in the crush for cheap, day-old bread, and it is about the greater battle to carve out a more satisfying existence.

Just as Oliver Twist, “desperate with hunger and reckless with misery,” held up his bowl, Francie Nolan is a girl hungry enough to gather her courage and ask the world for more.

That there is more to be had, she knows because of her mother, Katie, and her mother’s mother, Mary Rommely. It is Mary who insists that Katie read to her children, a page every day from the bible and another of Shakespeare.

“You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great – knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”

And it is Mary who, even though she can neither read nor write, appreciates the value of teaching children about fairies, elves and dwarfs, and ghosts and signs of evil and Kris Kringle.

“The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe.”

These were women who saw the possibilities, women with enough imagination to see beyond the daily grind. But they were also practical, and brave, and relentless. They have devised dozens of ways to make a dinner from a stale loaf, Weg Geschnissen one day and fricadellen the next. They have saved pennies in tin cans and have imagined possibilities.

Where lesser women might have been content to merely put dinner on the table, Katie is committed to feeding Francie’s hunger.

“Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”

Katie wants more for her children than money. She is appalled that they might turn out like the spoilt pub-owner’s child who throws candy down the gutter rather than share it with her neighbours. She knows there must be something more than money to escaping their world.

“Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and the dirt.”

If Francie’s hunger, nursed by her mother and her grandmother, is for a bigger life, beyond the confines of working class Brooklyn, she knows instinctively that she will find it by the power of books.

There are people for whom words are almost as vital as food, people whose eyes scan constantly for things to read, people who will scavenge words wherever they can. Francie Nolan is one of those people.

“Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, timetables and the grocer’s price list.”

The library is a shabby place, and the librarian unhelpful, but Francie thinks it is beautiful. She likes the librarian’s polished desk, likes the brown bowl filled with seasonal flowers, nasturtiums that day, clean blotter and the precise stack of library cards. Everything is neat, tidy, as it should be. This is the portal to the clean, bright future.

Francie has a plan: “She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.”

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Betty Smith’s references to food are subtle and yet fundamental to undertanding Francie’s drive and willpower. The very basis of the Nolan family’s being in America is rooted in starvation. Johnny Nolan, Francie’s Papa, is of Irish stock. His people “came over from Ireland the year the potatoes gave out.” Having been spared famine, Johnny has no ambition. He is a man of little substance, “a sweet singer of sweet songs” who hands over his meagre wages but keeps his tips for booze.

Johnny’s wife, Katie, knows that he’s sweet and useless; she is not bitter but often hungry.

Johnny’s fecklessness leaves the family literally on the brink of starvation. When Katie can’t buy food she invents a game in which she and the children pretend to be arctic explorers trapped by a blizzard, eek-ing out their rations and waiting for help.

All is forgiven when Johnny returns from singing at a wedding with a feast of someone else’s leftovers.  Francie and her brother, who went to bed hungry, wake up in the middle of the night to a feast of lobster, oysters, caviar and Roquefort cheese.

‘They were so hungry that they ate everything on the table and digested it too, during the night. They could have digested nails had they been able to chew them.’

Eating all that food, it turned out, by the rules of the day and the Catholic Church, was a sin. Francie had broken the fast which should have lasted from mid-night until mass time. Keeping people hungry, of course, has always been an effective way to quell any bid for freedom. Francie learns that playing by the rules won’t get you what you want. She would gain her freedom even if she had to cheat a little, or lie once or twice and she would pay for the lies with her pride.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn details the gradual unravelling of innocence, the end of a childhood and awakening of an intelligent, determined young woman. Betty Smith peels back the veil on ordinary lives, like opening the front of an old dollhouse. She lays bare the truth of her own youth in a series of intensely detailed vignettes. The reader is left with the feeling of being trusted with a confidence; it is a sensation almost of privilege. If you one of those people who craves books and feeds on the written word, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will leave you with a warm glow of satisfaction.


Sugar Buns.

When things are good, when Papa stays sober enough to hold down a job and the Nolan family gets a stab at happiness, when they have more to eat than a variety of meals concocted from stale bread, they eat sugar buns. From their first happy married days, when they worked together on a night shift, Katie and Johnny loved arriving home to have ‘a breakfast of hot coffee and warm sweet buns.’ The piano teacher is paid in house-cleaning services, and an agreement to have coffee and a sugar bun at the end of every lesson.

When Katie feels secure, she gives Francie the five cents that might have gone to the tin can of savings and says instead,

“All right. Get the buns.”

Francie takes her time choosing four buns, the ones with the most sugar on top.

Each member of the Nolan family was allowed a cup of hot coffee from the pot. Katie considered the coffee a worthwhile indulgence. What’s more, Francie was permitted to simply cradle the warmth of her coffee, if that was what made her happy, and then throw it down the sink.

I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.’

Waste not, want not is the doctrine of those who must make do with what they have. Katie understood the value of wanting more. The sugar bun is a treat but also serves to make Francie aware of the possibilities.

“The girl felt that even if she had less than anybody in Williamsburg, somehow she had more. She was richer because she had something to waste. She ate her sugar bun slowly, reluctant to have done with its sweet taste, while the coffee got ice-cold.”

Life won’t, and can’t, be all sweet buns, but when you get one, I suggest you make a pot of good, strong coffee and take the time to relish it.

Ingredients.

1 lb (450g) strong bread flour
½ tsp salt
1 oz (30g) sugar
1 packet (7g) of easy-action dried yeast
2 oz (60g) butter
½ pint (275 ml) milk

8 oz (225g) icing or confectioner’s sugar
1 lemon

Method.

Mix the flour, sugar and salt and yeast together in a large bowl.

Melt the butter. I place it in a glass measuring jug and melt it in the microwave. Add the milk to the melted butter. The milk and butter combined should be close to blood temperature – such that you can dip your pinkie finger in and it will feel neither hot nor cold. You may need to heat it a little more to reach this point.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix to combine into a rough ball.

Turn the dough on to flour-dusted surface and knead it, stretching it away from you with the heel of your palm and drawing it back into a ball. Turn it, stretch it, pull it, push it, give it a bash…you won’t find any better therapy. Continue to knead for at least eight minutes by which time the dough should feel more elastic. It should spring back if you press your thumb into it and have a silky appearance.

Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover it with a tea-towel or, more effectively, a shower cap. Leave it in a warm place to rise for about two hours.

Now, the best part: take your risen dough and use your hands to knock the puff out of it. You don’t need to knead it again. Divide the dough into eight pieces. Take each of these pieces in turn and form them into round buns by rolling them around between your palm and the work surface. Use a tucking under action to smooth the surface of each bun.

Place the buns on an oven tray, cover them again with a cloth or cling film, and leave them in a warm place for an hour or so until you can see that they have risen up.

Brush each bun with a little milk and bake in an oven pre-heated to 200˚C for 20-25 minutes. They should have a golden colour.

While the buns cool, mix the icing sugar with enough lemon juice to make a fairly stiff paste. This should take the juice of half a lemon, maybe a little more. Spread this icing over the buns and allow it to harden.

While you wait, make the coffee.

Sweet Buns. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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Three Books My Small Girl Loves.

My Small Girl is six years old. She loves reading, probably more now than she ever will again for the rest of her life. She still appreciates the newness of it. She takes great pride in reading a menu and delights in telling me I’m parked under a NO PARKING sign. I watched through glass yesterday as she got left behind at the shallow end of the swimming pool because she was engrossed in reading the safety notices.

It takes patience to read with her. She wants to read for herself and wants to know what every single word means.

It is also a huge joy.

And, my Small Girl has great taste.

I want to show you three gorgeous books we have adored.

Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara.

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I followed the creation of this beautiful book on Instagram (@oharasisters). For months I watched in awe as characters and detailed backgrounds emerged from simple sketches to exquisite illustrations.

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The writer and illustrator are sisters, living in London, of English and Polish heritage.

The book has quite a dark atmosphere and, to be honest, I feared Small Girl might not like it.

Hortense is a young girl who lives in a cold, snowy place with ‘dark and wolfish woods.’

Though she was kind and brave, she was sad as an owl because of one thing.

Hortense does not like her shadow. It bothers her, following her everywhere, until she finds a way to escape it.

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My Small Girl, at this point, was completely transfixed. There are tiny clues in the illustrations to what’s about to happen and I could almost hear the cogs of her brain whirring as she tried to figure it out.

This is a sophisticated story, I think, but one which younger children are more likely to appreciate than those who have reached the dreaded Age of Not Believing. My daughter happily accepted that a shadow might be chased away, and might return to save the day.

Overall, a quirky and quietly empowering read for little ones.

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson.

Somehow, despite raising three other readers, the Moomintrolls had until now escaped our notice. Written in 1948, this one was re-released last year in this sweet collector’s edition with, presumably, enough fanfare to finally come to my, ahem, Santa’s attention.

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Quirky doesn’t go far enough to describe the Moomins. The menagerie of beings in this book is little short of absurd, but completely adorable. Moominmamma and Moominpappa, together with Moomintroll, the Hemulen, Snufkin, the Snork Maiden, Moomintroll and anyone else who wanders by, live in a little roundy house hidden in a Finnish forest.

They pack up picnics and go on adventures in much the same way as The Famous Five but with far less predictable results. In this story they discover a hobgoblin’s hat with magical powers which, despite their best efforts to put the hat out of action, leads to all manner of bother and, ultimately, a dramatic happy ending.

The best laughs, and there were many, came from the mixed-up words of Thingumy and Bob, or Bingumy and Thob as we re-named them.

I found the old-fashioned language a bit of a strain for reading aloud but happily the Small Girl took over for every third page or so.

I bookmarked one paragraph which struck me as something remarkable. The Moomins are gathered and taking turns to make one wish each, for anything at all. Moominmamma wishes to remove Moomintroll’s sadness. Sniff wishes for a boat of his own… it goes on quite a bit…

Then the Snork makes his wish:

“A machine for finding things out,” said the Snork, “a machine that tells you whether things are right or wrong, good or bad.”
“That’s too difficult,” said the Hobgoblin, shaking his head. “I can’t manage that.”

In 1948, a smartphone, you see, was beyond even Tove Jansson’s imagination.

Naturama by Michael Fewer with Melissa Doran.

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This large format, hardback book is a real treasure. There was always an hour in the school week that was called simply Nature, or Nature Studies when they started to get fancy about it. We made rubbings of tree barks and stuck leaves into our Nature copy and sprouted cress seeds and all that sort of thing. Naturama is a celebration of plants and wildlife indigenous to Ireland. It’s organised seasonally and covers everything from which tree is used to make hurleys (Ash) to what year grey squirrels arrived in Ireland (1911).

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We have only read the pages relevant to Winter so far but I’m looking forward to turning back to the start of the book and beginning again with Spring.

If you live in Ireland, this is a beautiful and informative reference book to keep on a coffee table. It will draw your attention to, and put a name on, all the little wonders you pass by everyday. I love it.

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That’s pretty close to the view from my window at this very moment.

I’m up the walls at the moment, plotting and planning a big project. All will be revealed. Unless it all goes horribly wrong in which case you will all have to deal with my mental breakdown. Please bear with me if I’m slow replying to comments. Trust me, I LOVE reading them.

Feeding My Habit.

My approach to book-buying has, of late, come into line with my attitude to purchasing stuff in general. That is, I have learned to resist the hype and take the marketing with a generous pinch of salt.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve needed to have a book on the go and, ideally, a next book on standby. Books are my drug of choice for escapism, for stimulation and for comfort. While I’ve always craved the latest front-table bestsellers, I haven’t always had the budget to indulge in them. I’ve learned to source my books wherever I can – I can’t pass a charity shop without checking their shelves.

Our local library, by the way, is not great and anyway, the ownership of the book, the shelving of it amongst its peers, is all part of my habit.

For many years I’ve simply read the best I could find at a small price. Slim books were largely ignored as the page to price ratio was unsatisfactory. If I splurged on a shiny new book it needed to be BIG. I’ve spent happy hours scouring the shelves of Waterstone’s looking for something to match Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

In the last couple of years, call it a mid-life crisis if you will, I’ve realised that I need to be more discerning. I know now, as I somehow didn’t quite accept before, that I will eventually die without having read all the books that I should have read and, much worse, all the books that I wanted to have read.

Now I keep lists. When I approach the dusty shelves of a charity shop or those huge stacks at the Ballinora Christmas Bazaar (aka the bizarre bazaar due to outlandish nature of items on offer) I do my best, I try (not claiming perfection here) to limit my purchases to books on my list. I just don’t have TIME to waste on fifty shades of shite, however cheap its going.

To get to the point, three such listed books leapt from the 2-for-a-euro ranks and I pounced on them with unadulterated glee. I have reveled in reading these in ‘off’ mode. No note-taking, no recipe-making, no sales-pitch reviews.

In brief:

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

This one has been on The List for years but fell down the slim book chasm. It’s extremely short, barely a novella, but gloriously good fun.

Her Majesty the Queen happens by chance upon the visiting library bus at Buckingham Palace. Curiosity leads her to chat to the driver and politeness forces her to take out a book.

“Is there anything you would recommend?”
“What does Your Majesty like?”
The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people.

Before she really understands what is happening, Her Majesty becomes a Reader. In other words, an Addict.

And later:

There was sadness to her reading, too, and for the first time in her life she felt there was a good deal she had missed.

Wonderful. The perfect book for anyone who knows they love books, or anyone who thinks they don’t.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

A comment I read on Instagram, someone saying they hated the ending, was enough to put me off buying The Goldfinch. Tartt’s books seem to divide people. When I posted a photo on Instagram lots of people said they loved this book but dislike another, or the opposite, loved her other books but couldn’t get into this one.

I thought The Goldfinch was a cracking read. I was hooked from the off and had to be physically prised out of it when the Christmas visitors rang the doorbell.

It is the story of a boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing of a New York art gallery, and somehow walks away with a priceless painting.

In complete contrast to The Uncommon Reader, it’s massive. Part art-heist, part family saga, part sordid tale of drugs and violence, part philosophical treatise on the meaning of Art, perhaps it tries to be too much. Some sections are written in what seems unnecessarily minute detail. Then years are skimmed or skipped. I might have got cross about that, had I not been breathless to find out what happened.

The protagonist, Theo Decker, got on my nerves. I mean he literally made me nervous. His choices made no sense which was fine when he was a kid but got close to incredible as he got older. A nagging fear that the whole plot was on the verge of collapse only added to the almost unbearable suspense.

It’s a book that doesn’t get to the point until the very end. I liked that. And I like the point.

Here’s a line:

-a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart by all kinds of angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.

Have you had that happen? Mine is this one. I’m not alone; it was voted Ireland’s favourite painting. We’re a romantic lot.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Can you forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a book, another book, about slavery in America? The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize. Obama called it terrific and The Guardian called it devastating and my heart just sank every one of the half dozen or so times I picked it up in a bookshop, and put it down again.

I put it on the list and on the long finger. Then I found it at the bazaar propped up against Obama’s Dreams From My Father and I bought both (for a euro!).

I bought it because I thought I should. I finished it with a blush of shame for my ingratitude. I can read whatever the hell I want and for that alone I ought to be grateful. It’s easy to say that but rarely we mean it.

Have you read it? Layer upon layer of ingenuity. I finished it late the other night. It was still in my head when I turned over the following morning. I must have been processing it all night. My waking thought was “The star…Black Beauty…f***ing brilliant.”

For readability, pathos and creativity, The Underground Railroad is awesome.

I read this book only because I thought I should. You should read it.

Three very different books but they had a thread in common. Art, art as pictures or music or books, is certainly more than a luxury. Art is a privilege but also somehow a necessity.

Donna Tartt quotes this line from Nietzche:

We have art in order not to  die of the truth.

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I’m moving on now to the books Santy brought for my family. Fortunately, Santy has a peculiar habit of delivering books I’m aching to read.

I finished Nigel by Monty Don earlier today. Gardeners of these islands are familiar with the presenter of BBC’s Gardeners’ World and his handsome, scene-stealing Golden Retriever.

The book is a mixed bag – stories of Nigel’s antics, memories of other beloved dogs and a history of the garden at Longmeadow. It reads as though Monty just sat down every now and then and spilled a few thoughts on to a page, much like a blog post, and they all got stitched together into a book. He writes as he speaks, gently, but also firmly enough to keep the reader to heel.

If you like dogs and gardens, it’s a lovely read. I wept. Husband wept.

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One last thing, I learned a new word from Alan Bennett.

Opsimath: one who learns only late in life.

That’s me.

For My Child And Your Child Too.

A Boy Called Christmas

I came this close, this close (holds forefinger and thumb together and squints left eye in demonstration of just how close) to writing a post about sadness. Not because I’m sad, but because I’m not, and because, when I am, I can’t write, or say, or even think, anything  productive at all. Anyway, it’s all there, written on a page with a pen, and maybe we can come back to it one day. For now, ’tis the season to be jolly.

Did you know that Santa wrote a book? It was an elf-help book called How To Be Jolly. It had a very limited release but topped the charts for its target demographic. This, and much more, I learned from Matt Haig’s thrilling  exposé,  A Boy Called Christmas.

Haig revealed, at last, the true and previously unrecorded secrets of Father Christmas’s early years. You may wonder how the author learned these facts. Haig, rather honourably I think, refuses to reveal his sources. He argues that you shouldn’t really question such things. He just knows, otherwise why ever would he have written the book?

A Boy Called Christmas

Whether you call the great man Father Christmas or Santa Claus or Saint Nick or Sinterklaas or Kris Kringle or Pelznickel or Papa Noël, the important thing is that you know he exists.

“Can you believe there was a time when no one knew about him? A time when he was just an ordinary boy called Nikolas, living in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of Finland, doing nothing with magic except believing in it? A boy who knew very little about the world except the taste of mushroom soup, the feel of a cold north wind, and the stories he was told. And who only had a doll made out of a turnip to play with.”

Nikolas’ childhood was none too promising. His parents, Haig tells us, were kind and loving but very poor. His mother was a jolly soul, with red cheeks and a warm laugh. His father, Joel, was an industrious woodcutter with only 9 ½ fingers and very tired eyes. Nikolas had no brothers or sisters or friends. His only childhood companion was a small, very hungry, brown mouse called Miika who, even though he had never even seen it, or even smelled it, believed in cheese.

A Boy Called Christmas

Our first clue to Nikolas’ destiny is the fact that he was born on Christmas Day and, for that reason, nick-named Christmas by his parents. Joel even made Nikolas his own wooden sleigh and painted his name, Christmas, on the back of it.

Haig’s account introduces us to Nikolas at eleven years old, soon after his mother had died in a tragic accident. Despite determined efforts to be happy, Nikolas was a bit sad, and maybe a bit lonely, and really, extremely hungry. Little did he know, things were about to get much worse.

Lured by the promise of a rich reward from the King of Finland, Joel the woodcutter undertook a dangerous expedition to the Far North to find proof of the existence of elves. He took with him the Christmas sleigh (but at least not the turnip doll) and left Nikolas in the care of his miserable and ancient (she’s forty-two) Aunt Carlotta.

“Everything about her, even her voice, seemed covered in frost.”

Aunt Carlotta’s shocking deeds do not make easy reading. Suffice to say, Carlotta was greed incarnate, so unbearably mean that poor Nikolas gathered his courage, put his mouse in his pocket, and simply walked away.

“Then, with Miika peeking out at the road ahead, Nikolas turned and headed north through the trees, towards the place he thought he might find his father and the elves, and tried his hardest to believe in both.”

It would, I fear, be irresponsible of me to reveal what Nikolas found at the Far North. You’ll have to read the book. I won’t even whisper a word about the flying reindeer, the truth pixie or the exploding troll. I will not give credence to the miserable lies extolled by The Daily Snow newspaper, or give my opinion of the media mogul elf who believes that goodwill is just another name for weakness.

What I will tell you is this: Nikolas found food. He discovered gingerbread and sweet plum soup, jam pastries and bilberry pie. And, Miika found cheese. While those things may not constitute a happy ending, or a happy Christmas, they are a very good place to start.

This book is so good, it gave me chills. I loved it so much I crocheted a set of the characters for the Small Girl.

A Boy Called Christmas, crochet

The reindeer at the back is Blitzen. Yes, I made him last year and he has changed his name by deed poll at my request. Anyone can have a red nose at this time of year. Standing on Blitzen’s left foot is Little Kip, a very small elf with very big ears. Next to Kip and staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (what my children call the smell the fart pose) is our hero, Nikolas. My best attempt at a tiny turnip doll lies below his hand and Miika, the mouse, is on the chair. Father Topo, Mother Ri-Ri (with the plaits) and Little Noosh make up the cast. I stopped short of Father Vodol, the media Mogul. I made the decision that, for Christmas, it’s as well to believe that he and his ilk don’t exist. Also, I ran out of yarn.

A Boy Called Christmas is a fine story with a very important message, actually several vital messages:

“We must never let fear be our guide.”

“An impossibility is just a possibility that you don’t understand.”

“Humans are complicated.”
“Elves too.”

“Life is pain.”
“But it’s also magic.”

“Perhaps a wish was just a hope with a better aim.”

“…and hope is the most wonderful thing there is.”

With each new book I read from this author, I find myself believing more and more in Matt Haig. To a world darkened by fear-mongering, where fake news is the order of the day, Haig delivers a message of hope, of generosity, of inclusion, and of kindness. You might choose to believe that this book is a fairytale, written just for gullible children. You could believe that this is book is allegorical, that Nikolas’s journey reflects a pilgrim’s progress from friendless boy to benevolent father figure. If you are very brave, you can choose to simply believe, as I do, in a boy called Christmas.

Now, on to that food…(but first, Blitzen and Nikolas doing the King Of The World pose)…

A Boy Called Christmas

An Elfin Feast.

Gingerbread.

Ingredients.

3 oz (80g) butter
3 oz (80g) soft dark sugar
2 oz (55g) golden syrup
1 egg yolk
8 oz (250g) cake flour, sieved
2 oz (55g) crystallised ginger, chopped into small dice
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger.

300g icing sugar and the juice of 1 lime to make icing
Icing pens, baubles, sprinkles, jelly tots, etc.

Method.

Cream the butter and sugar together until the sugar crystals dissolve and the mixture gets pale and fluffy.
Add the golden syrup and the egg yolk and mix well.
Mix the flour, ginger, bread soda, cinnamon and ginger together and then tip the lot into the butter mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the mixture lightly into a ball.
Leave the dough to rest in the fridge in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and cut out shapes using cookie cutters.
Bake at 180˚C (350˚F) for 10-12 minutes, depending on the cookie size.
Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
Add the juice of a lime to the icing sugar and mix vigorously. Add more icing sugar if the icing is too runny. Allow your creative juices run riot. Failing that, enlist children.

A Boy Called Christmas

Plum Soup.

Bramley cooking apples are sour and cooking down to a mush. If you can’t find bramleys, use soft cooking apples and perhaps less sugar. At worst, cook the plums in good quality apple juice and omit the water.

Ingredients.

1 ½ lb (650g) plums
1 lb (2 medium sized) bramley cooking apples
6 oz (150g) sugar
5 oz (150ml) water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 orange
3 cloves
whipped cream to serve.
 

Method.

Cut the plums in half, remove the stones and place them in a saucepan.
Peel, core and chop the apples and add them to the plums.
Cut a slice from the centre of the orange, stud it with the cloves and add this to the pot.
Cut some strips of peel from the orange, as long as you can make them, and add them to the pot too.
Squeeze the juice of the orange into the pot.
Add the water, the cinnamon stick and the star anise.
Cook over a low to medium heat for 20-30 minutes until everything is soft.
Fish out the spices and pieces of orange and peel.
Whizz up the soup in a liquidiser or with a stick blender until smooth.

You could serve this soup warm but we like it chilled, with a blob of whipped cream on top and a garnish made of the cooked orange peel. We, the grown-ups, also appreciate a slug of sherry stirred in to the chilled soup.

Bilberry Pies and Mince Pies.

Bilberries are the Northern European cousins of blueberries. They look and taste almost the same. If you can lay your hands on bilberry jam, by all means use it. Blueberry jam was the closest I could find. This pastry recipe has been handed down through the generations of my family under the title “pastry for mince pies.” It makes a delicious, sweet and buttery pastry which is easy to handle and reheats perfectly.

Ingredients.

1 jar of blueberry jam
1 jar of mincemeat
8 oz (250g) flour
2 oz (55g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
5 oz (135g) cold butter
1 egg yolk (save the white for glazing)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ice-cold water

Method.

Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Sieve the sugar on top and mix through.
Cut the butter into cubes and add to the bowl.
Wash your hands in cold water and then use the tips of your fingers to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Mix together the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the cold water. Add this mixture to the flour and butter and fork it through until the dough begins to clump together.
Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it together gently. Use your palms to flatten the ball into a disk shape ready for rolling out. Wrap it in cling-film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and use a suitably sized cookie cutter to make circles to line a bun tray or mini-muffin tin. There is no need to grease the tray as the pies will come out quite easily. Cut out stars, or any shape you like, to make a lid.
Fill the cases with jam or mincemeat and pop the lids on top.
Brush the lids with the leftover egg white.
Bake at 180˚C for 15-20 minutes depending on the size.

A Boy Called Christmas

My title, by the way, is taken from the song Peace on Earth best enjoyed in the gloriously daft and magical Bing/Bowie duet.

I pray my wish will come true, for my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory, see the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again.

P.S. The eagle-eyed will have spotted that I took the food photos while I was only halfway through the crochet project. Poor Nikolas is, literally, legless. I blame the optional slug of sherry in the plum soup.

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Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

Right so, who’s up for a frank and honest conversation about perimenopausal symptoms, the perils of freelance writing, and the politics of who is going where on Christmas Day?

No? No. Me neither.

Can we escape, instead, into a book? Come with me, please, this one is worth it.

The books. There are books in the kitchen, books in the study and books in the drawing room. There are books in my satchel, books on my desk and books by my bedside. There are novels and short stories, biographies and diaries, haikus and travelogues. There are gardening books and poetry and of course there are cook books…”He was never without a book.” I can see it now, carved on my gravestone.

He had me at “drawing room” and doubly so at “satchel.” That’s Nigel Slater using some of those words in the English language that we Irish have never felt fully entitled to use. It is an excerpt from a chapter, or entry really, as The Christmas Chronicles is more diary than cookbook, entitled A Sweet Moment. Slater describes the simple pleasure of sitting in a comfortable chair to read a book.

Howling wind or falling snow aside, the best reading companion is the smell of something baking in the oven.

No arguments here.

This is an extraordinary cookbook. I’ve never read any other cookbook that felt so intimate, so genuine, so much like an invitation to step inside a real kitchen and make myself at home.

“Come in.” Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. “Come in.” They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear.

Can anyone else hear the ghost of Christmas present laughing in the background?

And yes, I know the world is a shit-storm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour.

Nigel Slater’s writing would verge on maudlin, if it wasn’t tempered with such enthralling honesty. He doesn’t pretend that his memories of Christmas past aren’t tainted by grief. He doesn’t pretend that he always makes his own mincemeat. He doesn’t blithely ignore the existence of his competitors on the cookery bookery shelves. He gives credit where credit is due.  He mentions, and thanks, his followers on social media as though they were flesh and blood people.

All of this adds up to something that feels fresh and immediate and very modern. At the same time, by some sorcerer’s trick, Slater endorses time-worn traditions and exudes acute nostalgia. He made my chest ache. Ah, listen, let me cut to the chase. He made me cry. A flaming cookbook made me cry, IN THE SHOP, before I even paid for it.

If you are expecting a book of practical instructions on how to cater Christmas, you may be disappointed. The chronicles take the form of a day-by-day diary, beginning November 1st and ending on the 2nd of February. There is a lot to learn from this book: anything from the history of tinsel, Christmas stamps and pantomimes to the burn rate of candles to the best Brussels sprouts.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

You don’t know what you are going to get from one day to the next and at times it reads as though it was a surprise to him too. Some of the entries bear all the hallmarks of a sleepy head – half formed thoughts jotted down by candle-light before dawn. A less well established author might have been compelled to edit, to tighten up, but these sleepy paragraphs, to me, were beguiling.

The only fault I found was that the book ends rather abruptly, as though he simply tore this clump of pages from his diary and sent them off to his publisher. One can only presume that we will pick up with him again, on February 3rd. It works, it leaves you wanting more, but it’s a bit too low key for me. I’m needy.

The food? I have two words for it. Comfort and joy.

Have you ever roasted a head of cabbage and then smothered it in cheese sauce? It is, without exaggeration, a cruciferous revelation.

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You’ve heard enough, I think, ( here) about the Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perhaps less of the comfort on that one but certainly joy, or maybe glee. It was worth it for the laughs.

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Cauliflower soup with a cheesy sourdough crouton was an equally delicious and less incendiary option.

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Toad-in-the-hole is not something we habitually eat in Ireland. Like drawing rooms and satchels, and Paddington Bear, this is a particularly British thing that we are not certain we are entitled to enjoy. It’s funny, when you think about it, how distinct are our cultures. I like it that way which, I suppose, is why I resist the blending of them. Regardless, this was undeniably comforting on a wet Saturday night.

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Slater’s recipes are mostly very easy and undemanding. What he offers are suggestions for a way of eating, and a way of enjoying the winter, rather than prescriptions for what is correct, or seasonal, or must-have or must-do or must-make.

My six-year-old made the Lebkuchen Chocolate Cream, all by herself…a triumph!

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The Stollen was my own particular triumph – a first but my no means last attempt. I even made the marzipan. It doesn’t look remotely like Nigel Slater’s stollen but it was very good to eat. Yes, I am quite proud.

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The Ricotta Filo Tart, a sort of Sicicilian baked cheesecake in a crispy shell was almost too pretty to crack open. Almost, but not quite.

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My forays into combining fruit with brandy have already been well-documented (here) but, I assure you, the joy continues.

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I made four jars of Slater’s quince mincemeat. It may not look beautiful but this stuff has been the mainstay of my mental health in recent days. Jar, spoon, Poldark book 10…I may just survive.

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This afternoon, by popular demand, after my girls have had their piano lesson (the piano is in the kitchen which is a very good thing with only occasional drawbacks), I shall make another batch of these quincemeat and mascarpone pies. They are exquisite little self-contained puffballs of Christmas cheer. You do have to eat them while they are still warm. Does that sound like a problem?

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I have only one other Nigel Slater cookbook on my shelves. It is called Real Food. I hardly ever cook from it, I’m not sure why not, but it contains my most favourite ever recipe –for a perfect chip butty. It’s not really a recipe, it’s a poem.

The fact that I didn’t cook much from that book has thus far inhibited me from buying any other of Nigel Slater’s books. That and the inescapable fact that they are quite expensive. Nonetheless, Item 1 on my list of New Year Resolutions is to source (hopefully second-hand) more of his books and to devour them just for the pure pleasure of it.

Slater’s is the sort of writing that makes me feel better. His words provide a sort of nourishment for the weather-beaten soul. I found this book both enlightening and inspiring. I want to eat like this, have a garden like this, make a wreath like this and yes, more than anything else, I want to write like this.

While Nigel Slater may not have the power to halt the shit-storm, he might empower you to shut the door on it. If nothing else, here is a book full to bursting with tidings of comfort and joy.

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A Fairly Unbiased Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks.

Can there ever be such a thing as an unbiased review?

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A good portion of the people who pick up Uncommon Type will do so out of curiosity to discover whether Tom Hanks, the Hollywood A-lister, can write. You would expect him make a decent fist of it, wouldn’t you? After all, we already know Tom Hanks is a smart and articulate man. He’s a professional communicator, has an understanding of timing and character development and he’s funny. Does all of that add up to being a good writer? I, for one, was rooting for Forrest Gump to come up trumps.

Occasionally, when Tom Hanks is out and about in the real world, he meets a small child who can’t understand how the man he is facing could possibly claim to be Woody from Toy Story. Hanks knows exactly what to do. He asks the child to close his eyes and then, to the amazement of all, he performs the voice and the child knows without any doubt that he has met the real Woody.

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Having read Hanks’ first collection of short stories, I’m left with the impression that he intends to play the same trick on his readers. Even the most commercially successful of authors, Stephen King or Dan Brown or Paula Hawkins, don’t have the advantage Hanks has of having a voice so very familiar to us. If I were to say to you, ‘My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates…’ I’m willing to bet you can hear Tom Hanks’ voice in your head finishing the sentence.

There is no doubt that the actor’s spoken voice shines through, clear as a bell, in his writing and that, absolutely, is a real pleasure. He brings the same affable, jocular manner we’ve all seen on some chat show or other. He sounds like himself – at his ease and, more significantly, in control. Hanks is a natural raconteur, an exemplary story-teller and to read his book is the closest you will come to having the Tom Hanks you know so well from the movies actually take a seat by your fire-side and spin you a yarn.

My problem is this: I think he’s still acting. He’s still performing voices, acting the author, while we, so to speak, read with our eyes shut.

The collection opens with a story called Three Exhausting Weeks in which a man who was previously content to spend his days doing a load or two of laundry and watching a game on TV begins dating an old school friend, a woman who is fit and smart and driven to succeed.

“Being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy Seal while working full-time in an Amazon fulfilment center in the Oklahoma Panhandle in tornado season.”

The story charts the increasingly hectic, but mercifully brief, course of their mismatched relationship.

It’s a snappy and entertaining piece of writing and introduces a quirky foursome of friends who appear twice more in later stories. With each reprisal, I liked these characters a little more but even three stories, a trip to the moon and a bowling championship, later, they seemed more like the cast of a sit-com than real people.

Another character who wins himself several appearances in the collection is Hank Fiset. Now, this guy I really like. Hank Fiset is a bit of a crank, a Grumpy Old Man but also an old school, small town, newspaper man who crafts his column so that it can be read in exactly the time it takes to boil an egg. He accompanies his wife on a trip to New York where he finds the Caesar salad too tart, the parking inconvenient and the art for Art’s sake only.

“I saw a movie that was nothing more than time passing – really, a lot of clocks ticking and people looking at their watches. I gave it ten minutes.”

He mourns the demise of print newspapers and recalls a colleague, a re-write man at the old associated press, whose type-writer was a Continental.

“The man made quite a racket doing his job a few hundred times a shift– the chonk-chonkka of his typing with the ba-ding of the bell, the krank of the carriage return, the shripp of the copy ripped from the machine.”

This brings me to the author’s most charming device, the hook on which the collection hangs. In each story there is an individual type-writer. Some are older than others but all can lay claim to the term vintage. In some stories the type-writer plays a starring role, in others it’s an extra hanging about in the background but it’s always there somewhere. The type-writer made me smile, every time.

Close enough to the centre page of this book, and at its very heart, you will find a real gem, a story called These Are the Meditations of My Heart. It’s about a girl who can’t resist buying an old type-writer that’s going cheap at a yard sale.

She brings the type-writer to a repair shop where an old fellow with a, probably, Polish accent teaches her a thing or two about type and type-writers and why we are so attracted to them.

“Because they were built to last forever.”

Can’t you just hear Hanks doing that probably-Polish accent?

“You are seeking permanence,” he says.

It was in this story that I thought we might, just might mind you, be hearing the voice of the real Tom Hanks rather than another of his myriad characters.

“I’m not one who types between sips from a tumbler of booze and drags from a pack of smokes. I just want to set down what few truths I’ve come to know.”

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Hanks failed to convince me that he is a writer. He doesn’t display the compulsion to bare his own soul . Sure, Hanks writes and he writes well. He writes convincing scenes of American lives, poignant characters who recall a better past or believe in a better future. But, he doesn’t say anything in these stories that he wouldn’t have said better in a movie. He doesn’t give himself away. He’s still playing Woody, doing a voice, acting.

It may be that Hanks is too good an actor, too smart, too practised at guarding his privacy, to be a writer. It may be that I was looking for something he was never going to give.

When you see Hanks’ name on a movie poster you know you are in safe hands. Tom Hanks is never less than entertaining. Equally, his stories are thoughtful and congenial. Some are moving, others hilarious but they are not provocative and they are not personal. His stories are safe, which is a pity really, because Tom Hanks can write.

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