Books To Pass The Time By

As the options for leisure have been extremely reduced since Dublin and then the country went into Level 3 covid restrictions, I thought it might be useful to share some of my book recommendations from the past 8 months.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell – First up is this tale of fictional band Utopia Avenue as they make their way through the swinging sixties. The book is structured so that each chapter is named after one of the group’s songs from their two albums. In fact the albums are both split into “side 1” and “side 2” in a manner which provides comfort to those of us who can remember such things! So we learn about lead singer Dean Moss’s humble origins and troubled upbringing which he uses as inspirations for his lyric-writing. Dean and Elf Holloway, the folk vocalist with a weakness for toxic males provide the heart of the band with the enigmatic lead guitarist Jasper de Zout providing the soul while battling his own inner-demons (sometimes quite literally). Griff is the drummer from Yorkshire and let’s leave that at that. The rise and fall of the band is told with refreshing zeal including chance encounters with Bowie, Lennon, Joplin and Jerry Garcia along the way. When I first came across David Mitchell I assumed it was the same David Mitchell from one of my favourite off-beat TV programmes Peep Show but no, this David Mitchell is a totally different chap who many will know from his most famous novel and subsequent film adaptation Cloud Atlas. In Utopia Avenue he successfully brings us through high and lows, love and loss, recriminations and forgiveness while keeping the music at the core.

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (John Banville) – Now I’m not sure why John Banville decided to start writing crime fiction or why he felt the need to choose a nom de plume (probably something to do with damaging the very earnest Banville brand) but I am very glad he did. Christine Falls is the first in the Quirke series of crime novels. I was about to write detective novels but then Quirke isn’t a detective but a pathologist with a curiousity and nose for the truth. A widower with a harrowing childhood and a propensity to drink heavily, Quirke inhabits the dour Dublin of the 1950s, filled with rain and the oppressive power of the church. Indeed it is the descriptions of my hometown Dublin, particularly the areas around the Grand Canal near Baggot Street and Mount Street that drew me into this book. There are sinister undertones everywhere, particularly in the characters who cross Quirke’s lumbering path. Even helpful Inspector Hackett is overshadowed by the powers above who hinder his search for the real truth. Christine Falls is not for the faint hearted as it deals with the death in childbirth of the title character and follows the worrying path of her motherless child. Not usually a fan of crime novels, I would heartily recommend this novel although do not make the mistake that I made of reading the fifth in the series first as it will give away a major plot twist (damn you Eason’s bargain basket). PS no I haven’t seen the tv series with Gabriel Byrne.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – I read this one back-to-back with another huge international bestseller, American Dirt and my emotions towards each of them couldn’t be more different. I loved the detailed and almost hypnotic descriptions of the natural world in Crawdad’s coming of age tale set in the North Carolina marshlands during the 50s and 60s (American Dirt, not so much). The author seamlessly interweaves two timelines detailing the difficult and often fraught upbringing of the heroine (Kya) and then her subsequent trial for murder. Racial and social tensions are present throughout the story with the one constant source of comfort in Kya’s difficult life being Jumpin’, a put-upon black man who sells gasoline for boats. Together they battle the prejudices and whims of the local white townspeople. The pacing is excellent and you are constantly kept on edge as to how Kya’s story will end.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – Last but definitely not least is the finale of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who became the key advisor to Henry VIII during the reformation (and associated beheadings). By the time this book starts we have already said goodbye to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn with Jane Seymour about to become queen. Now we see Thomas at the peak of his powers with a seemingly endless stream of titles and properties. Mantel’s detailed and intricate writing makes it feel like we are almost under the skin of the main character while he schemes and plots to keep the favour of Henry while his enemies become more numerous and vindictive. It is said that Mantel spent an extra two years writing this significant work because she couldn’t bring herself to end Thomas Cromwell (spoiler alert – Cromwell was himself beheaded in 1540) and as an avid reader of the trilogy I almost wished there was more to come. Although at over 800 pages there was plenty in this one to keep me going!

I hope you find my book recommendations useful and any feedback is much appreciated. As an aside I’d like to thank the staff at Drumcondra library for keeping a steady flow of books coming my way even in these difficult times.

The End Of An Era

There have been many momentous moments in the Doyle household over the last 12 months. We have said goodbye to toilet training and are now nappy free for the first time in a decade, hallelujah! The Stokke changing table and cot which had seemed to be a permanent part of our house and served us so well have been packed up and shipped off to a new home (I have my eye on you bugaboo buggy as the next target for expulsion). We are almost at the stage where apart from a bit of extra food chopping-up, the kids can all feed themselves, I hasten to add that the extra bit of food butchery is for our seven year old (Oscar) and not our three year old (Ella) who is quite determined to feed herself (most of the time). Now we stand but a week away from Ella’s debut in Montessori, which will mean that for the first time all our four kids will be education-bound and I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the emotions of the day!

I mean we have had similar days in the past with the boys, but Ella is the baby of the house and she has also been my constant companion for the past two years since I became a stay-at-home parent. The joyous refrain of “today is a daddy and Ella day” has been a true highlight of not just my parenting years but my life, full-stop. Now things have become a bit more muddled in the last six months as I have had to share my Ella with her brothers, her working-from-home mommy (reluctantly as mommy seems to get more hugs than I do, not that I’m keeping score) and Auntie Orla while she stayed with us (which was okay because I knew she wouldn’t be around forever), but I know that the bond we have built between father and daughter in the past 24 months will stay with us forever.

Unfortunately Ella’s attendance at Montessori will also mean the end of one of my favourite rituals, daddy and Ella do brunch! In Glasnevin / Drumcondra / Phibsboro, we are blessed with a number of wonderful cafes and boy did we make use of this abundance of riches. First and foremost (and nearest to home) there is McMahons of Botanic Avenue which thoughtfully expanded its premises around the time I began my new gig. Always friendly, a purveyor of good coffee and I can’t recommend the fresh scones with cream and jam highly enough. Ella just loves the toast. A bit further afield is Two Boys Brew down on the North Circular Rd. Once again the coffee here is excellent but for me, the stand out item on the brunch menu is the overnight rolled oats. I was so impressed by this combination of oat-milk soaked oats, almond butter, fruit compote and mint that I started to make my own version (not nearly as nice but still a good and healthy start to the day).

Just around the corner from Two Boys Brew is the delightfully eccentric White Moose Cafe where the pancakes are top notch and Ella is always fascinated by the fact that there is a giant coffee cup outside. Back over in Drumcondra is the appropriately name Lovely Food Company. This place holds a special place in our hearts as it was the first cafe that we brought Ella to when she was only a week old. The food is fresh and excellent with a wide ranging choice on the menu. Just off Griffith Avenue is the more established name of Anderson’s Food Hall and Cafe which provides a truly excellent Irish breakfast for those in need of something more substantial. Ella enjoys looking at the stacked shelves around the place and it’s not bad for a bit of blue cheese or red pesto on your way out. Last but not least is Le Petit Breton creperie on the corner of Whitworth and Drucondra Road. This has become a particular favourite haunt and they know our order off by heart at this point, La Complete (crepe with ham, cheese and an egg) for yours truly and a hot croissant with homemade jam for Ella. The big windows are excellent for watching the busy world go by. We are always greeted with a smile despite the fact that Ella always seems to leave more of the croissant on the surrounding area than in her mouth.

In fact one thing that all these delightful places have in common is that the level of service is always top quality and the smiles that greet us are always genuine (or at least they are very good at faking it). I’d like to think that my natural charm has something to do with it but I know that my always cheerful daughter is probably the main reason!

So when I drop Ella off to Montessori for the first time it will be these happy memories that will sustain me, well they’ll keep me going for the hour until she is mine again (new arrivals are being eased into the Montessori experience so for the first week pick up time is 10.15am hip hip hooray. I’m already planning brunches!

We’re going to the Zoo, how about you?

Dublin zoo has been a longstanding fixture in my home town, having opened its doors to the public way back in 1840 (although it was established in 1831, making it the fourth oldest zoo in the world). For generations, families have made the trip to the Phoenix Park (the largest urban park in Europe, see I do some research for my blog!) to get their fill of exotic and wild animals. Certainly I remember many trips during my own childhood when I was fascinated by the large tiger continuously prowling behind a huge glass screen and amazed by the sea lions as they splashed about their enclosure. I also seem to remember polar bears who liked to spray passersby with the fountain in their enclosure but unfortunately they had to be shipped off to Hungary in 2003 citing issues with their shared living space (I know that feeling). I can also remember the great excitement around the visit of the giant pandas to Dublin, ah Ping Ping and Ming Ming how I miss you (subnote; my favourite teddy as a child was a panda or Big Panda as I liked to call him). Although I do remember being unimpressed by the moniker “giant” pandas as they looked normal sized to me. It was only later that I realised they were only “giant” relative to their red panda cousins!

After my childhood years, visits to the zoo became less common with just the occasional trip alongside foreign visitors over the years who were looking for a few hours to kill. This all changed 11 years ago with the arrival of our first child and by the time numbers 2, 3 and 4 came along, we were fully signed up family members (excellent value €190 for annual family pass). Fortunately my return to the Zoological Gardens Dublin coincided with a significant upgrade project which created a number of much larger open spaces where the animals have much greater area to roam and mingle. Predators are obviously kept separately, so zebras can mix with giraffes and ostriches but not with lions, hey this isn’t the movie Madagascar! So now the zoo includes areas such as the the African Savanna, the Kaziringa Forest Trail (home to the much loved elephant herd), the Gorilla Rainforest and the Orangutan Forest. The viewing areas are excellent and provide good access to the animals without being obtrusive. My favourite renovated area is the Sea Lion Cove which allows you to see these wonderful creatures (still a favourite) underwater so that you can marvel at how gracefully they move, a bit like yours truly in my prime on Dollymount beach!!

We made our return to the zoo this week after the Covid 19 enforced break. Things are a bit different but the overall experience remains the same. You have to book your time-slot in advance and you are immediately greeted by a bank of sanitiser stations. Dublin zoo has implemented a very well signposted one-way system which I thought might cause problems but actually turned out to be a god send. Previously the biggest headache at the zoo had been trying to decide which animals we’d visit first. Each of my three boys have very definite ideas on how to traverse the 69 acres that make up the zoo and invariably one of them ends up annoyed and in a huff for the rest of the trip. But this time around I just had to shrug my shoulders and say “we have to go this way so let’s keep moving folks”. The indoor spaces are off-limits so no reptile house including crocodiles and snakes but all the other main animals were taken in by the one way system. We got to see a baby gorilla and a baby sea lion which is always lovely. I tried to engage the boys with my tales of seeing Californian Sea Lions on the wharves of San Francisco but they looked at me like I had two heads!

For me, the best thing about Dublin Zoo is seeing the wonder and amazement of my younger kids whenever they spot an animal, whether it be a nimble spider monkey, the hulking rhinos, the very cute humboldt penguins or the numerous ducks that have made the lake in the zoo their home. In fact we spotted seven ducklings beside the Gorilla Rainforest and that was nearly the highlight of Ella’s (3) day. It’s also nice that the older kids get to share in the enjoyment of their younger sibling. This time round my second boy Lochlan (9) was less enthusiastic about the zoo trip (he has developed a phobia of walking more than the length of a football pitch) but once we got there he was swept along by Ella’s buoyant mood and he even decided to become her personal guide complete with commentary and lifting service.

We spent an enjoyable two and a half hours in the zoo, the place was even cleaner than usual and the moist Irish summer meant that the foliage was lush without hindering views. The animals always look healthy and well cared for, evidence of this can be seen on The Zoo tv programme. Staff are friendly and happy to provide information about the facilities and the animals such as the fact that Dublin Zoo is home to the oldest Tapir in the world, Marmaduke is 35 years old but doesn’t look a day over 29, a bit like myself!

Tales from Lockdown Part 3

 

In previous weeks I have discussed how online quizzes and jigsaws have helped me and my family (Aaron 10, Lochlan 8, Oscar 7 and Ella 3, not forgetting my ageless wife Niki) get through this incredibly strange period of our lifetime. This week I want to explore an area of modern culture which had completely escaped me before March 13th, that is tik tok dance routines. As bit of background for the uninitiated, tik tok is a social media app which originated in China and is ideal for short-form mobile videos. It seems to have filled the void that was created by the fall of Vine (I miss those 6 second tidbits of fun) and run with it in a big way! Of course the fact that it comes from China has led to some concerns about data privacy but hey, ain’t that just a fact of life these days! I first came across tik tok when people started to post various tik tok challenges on twitter, which is where I pick up most of my pop culture these days. These challenges were typically short choreographed dance routines to a popular piece of music (although quite often the piece of music would become popular because of the tik tok routine), and so began my brief obsession with young folk dancing to “My hips don’t lie” while going down escalators in shopping malls (check it out). All too quickly, I found myself down the rabbit-hole of YouTube compilations of the best tik tok dance routines of 2020 parts 1 through 10. Then I began to wonder how to turn this craze that appeared to be sweeping the youngsters of the planet to my own benefit?

I have always loved to dance, I remember fondly my days on the dance-floors of my youth, Peg Woffingtons, Hollywood Nights and Club USI seems to stand out, but there were so many other places where I would get caught up by the late night flow of a thumping base-beat. Happy as Larry, I’d flail my arms around, bite my lower lip and try to keep my legs going in time to the rhythm of Children by Robert Miles or some other Euro-dance classic. Happily I seem to have passed this affinity for dance to my kids because when I floated the idea of synchronised tik tok dancing, they didn’t give me their usual response to my suggestions i.e. a gasp of exasperation, eyes to heaven and bodies thrown to the floor as if they have been shot (can be used on their own or more commonly, as combinations of two or all three elements). Choosing a tik tok routine is fraught with danger, they come in all shapes and sizes and can vary from the very basic to the extremely complicated (not quite sure if the boys can handle a back flip to splits just yet). There is also the added danger that a number of them have content which could not be considered “child appropriate”. Bearing this in mind I put together a medley of “Blinding Lights”, “Say So (clean version)” and “Toosie Slide (also clean version)”. To be honest, it was Say So that got the kids hooked on it, in particular the line which allowed them to throw fake punches at or near their brothers!

The training was a slow process, I began to see myself as that dance teacher from “Fame”, the one who says that you have to pay for fame with sweat! The boys quickly told me to put my dance stick away! After repeated viewings of the routines and the multiple variants on YouTube, we learned that perfection was never going to be achievable and that putting an individual spin on things was vital. Importantly for yours truly the constant working and re-working of the routines kept the boys busy yet physically active at the same time! I hope you enjoy the fruits of our labours and hopefully it will display correctly!

So apart from endlessly practicing dance routines we have also had some other significant changes to our daily routine. Gone from our lives are the usual maddening rush of the school run and the multiple drops to after-school activities. Instead our days are measured by Joe Wicks’ PE routines and the arrival of the post man usually around 11am and the DHL guy usually around noon. Every day we hope that there is something new and exciting for us but we are nearly always disappointed when it is another package for mommy! More recently our exasperation has grown as we are awaiting series 5 of Survivor in dvd format. These dvds are only available for shipment from the US and seem to have fallen foul of restrictions around Covid-19 so can take months to reach our shores. We started to watch Survivor pre-lockdown as I bought myself season 1 as a Christmas present for myself. I had never seen the original “you’ve been voted off the island” series and given that it was something involving a screen, my boys were drawn to it. They quickly became engrossed, they were impressed by the regular back-stabbing and in particular the highly competitive elimination challenges. This definitely appeals to their sense of sibling rivalry and I think that each one secretly hopes that one day they will have the opportunity to vote one of their brothers out of the family! The only problem with watching dvds of Survivor is that the ultimate winner is always placed front and centre on the dvd box cover, based on the assumption that everybody had watched it already back in 2005! This does tend to take away some of the suspense as good old Jeff reads out the results of the elimination votes, particularly from the later episodes. This time round I’ve promised to intercept the box and hide it away before the boys can see it so they can have a genuine first-time watcher experience!

In Praise of Libraries

One of the things I have been able to do over the past year is reacquaint myself with the Dublin library system. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly I have regained my passion for reading. My job used to involve a lot of heavy reading, whether it was a due diligence report on the intricacies of the German sausage market or a multi-currency cross border loan agreement, after a day of that, the last thing I wanted to do (or was physical capable of doing) was read a book in the evening. Secondly, there is a library right across the road from the boys’ school in Drumcondra which means I have superb ease of access.

Now my previous encounters with libraries date back to my own childhood, when the most pressing thing on my mind was whether there would be any new Asterix books in the fairly small kids’ section of Raheny library. Come to think of it, why did I have to trek all the way to Raheny from my home in Clontarf to visit my nearest library? Surely Clontarf should have had a library, god knows we have enough “litterati” to justify one. And the home of Brahm Stoker deserves a library (yes I know there is one in Marino), has anybody been in contact with Joe Duffy about this?! Anyway I digress, back to my main topic of libraries. Raheny library was fine at the time but I always recall that the books seemed old and beaten down by time and circumstances, well it was Dublin in the 80s after-all.

Fast forward to the present day and I have been blown away by how good the service is. First of all I think that the Drumcondra library building itself is quite beautiful in the art deco style of the 1930s (see above). So much so that I have tried to get it featured on the Accidentally Wes Anderson web-site http://www.accidentallywesanderson.com which features buildings that look like they are from a Wes Anderson movie set (Grand Budapest Hotel, Royal Tenenbaums, etc) but so far to no avail. Secondly not only does the selection of books on show include all the usual classics e.g. Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities but it also has a very sizeable selection of modern fiction, young adult fiction and the kids’ section is really excellent and all sections are constantly renewed. There is also a truly excellent app where you can renew your books with the touch of a button and most importantly, reserve books which take your fancy. The system is pretty foolproof, although I did manage to reserve the audio-book of Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay instead of the actual book, so I managed to bring home a whopping 10 audio CDs.  This caused a number of problems, not least where to find a working CD player in our house and also how to find the c. 10 hours required to listen to the bloody thing. Suffice to say that I couldn’t tell you a lot about the plot, a bit like the time I tried to read Ulysses, in both cases all I can say is that I definitely finished them! On the app you can also track where you are in the queue on a real time basis which adds a small level of excitement to the process.

The library also has the advantage of being almost exactly half way between the boys’ school and the nearby playground, which means it frequently acts as both a convenient shelter from the unpredictable Irish weather and a toilet stop for unpredictable young bladders. The library has embraced this wholeheartedly and has recently replenished their stash of crayons for the young at heart. My gang instinctively turns right on entering to grab a blank picture of flowers, or stars, or unicorns, or whatever came out of the photocopier that morning and start to colour like little Rembrandts or Picassos (actually probably a lot more like Picassos). Ella (2) particularly enjoys this aspect of the library, that and playing hide and seek which she has become particularly adept at. She pretty much always knows to find me at the Food section leafing though Joe Wickes’ selection of quick and lean recipe books in a forlorn manner. I did actually borrow one when I was going through my experimenting with food phase but the boys were having none of his healthy, green, chunky ideas!

So if you haven’t been down to your local library in the last 30 years or so, I recommend you give it a try. To finish things off I thought I’d give you my top three books from the past 12 months.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Theo who as a boy loses his mother in an explosion at an art museum, but gains a priceless painting. The painting acts as an anchor for Theo as his life spirals through New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam. A beautifully written exploration of loss and hope. Not sure I can bring myself to watch the film version though, it cannot improve things.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Another novel which won the Pulitzer Prize. This one charts the lives of a blind french girl and a mathematically gifted German boy as they journey towards one shared crucial moment in St Malo, Brittany after the Allies have landed at the end of World War II. One of the few books that has moved me to tears in both its forensic detail of the barbarism of war and the simple beauty of perseverance. Netflix have the rights and are going to turn it into a mini-series which at least has greater scope for exploration than a 2 hour movie.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. This is probably my favourite book of all time, a title which was held for a long time by The Lord of the Rings (I still love you Frodo). A stream of consciousness tale (it is a single sentence) told from the point of view of middle-aged Mayo man and civil engineer Marcus on 2 November 2008. This book made me feel like I had been dropped in a vat of real “Irishness” and connected with me on many levels as a father, son and brother. It took a while to get into it but well worth the effort.

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