Navel Gazing.

I fell off my horse. I cantered up to a hurdle that was way beyond my reach and I took a tumble.

What you have before you now is a woman half way back on the horse, hanging on to the pommel, belly down, trying with all her might to get that left leg up and over but her pelvic floor muscles aren’t what they used to be, and all in all it’s not a pretty picture, and I may have just taken this metaphor too far. Shall we start over?

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I’m grand. Totally fine. Not sick, or hurt, or depressed, not even busy. To be honest with you, I don’t know what’s happened to me. I may be eating too much sauerkraut, maybe all that butyrate has gone to my head – who knows- but I can’t write anymore. Not a thing. I couldn’t even come up with clues for the Easter egg hunt. Total block.

I just read back over my East of Eden review, one of the few posts I’m proud of, to convince myself that there was something worth hanging on to here, and of course it’s not as good as I’d like it to be but still, if I could come up with something like that now, I’d be ecstatic.

Nope. Niente. Not a chance.

Hardly anyone even read that post but the stats have never, hardly ever, bothered me. I began this blog with only  a little ambition and no mission beyond pleasing myself. I wanted to say, Hello World, I exist, but not much beyond that. I hoped, for a time, that some greater plan might be spawned if I kept on putting virtual pen to paper but no, niente, etc.

I’ve always said, to myself that is, that all those filler-inner posts about rhubarb cocktails or rude ladies in shops, or whatever, were simply a ploy to keep me going while I waited for a stroke of genius. I knew that if I stopped to think about what I was doing I would get The Fear and stop.

I have taken fright, that much is clear, but getting to the root of what exactly it is that has me petrified has taken weeks of navel gazing. I’m not proud of that, by the way. I’m acutely aware that people have real problems while I live remarkably close to spoilt bitch territory.

Nevertheless, the last few months have been one of those frustrating times in my life when I feel that I don’t know my own mind. It’s a feeling that I hate, a sort of doubt about my own sanity that makes me want to bang my head against something hard and sure, like a brick wall.

On one hand, I’m a total gobshite when it comes to handling criticism and have a paralysing fear of failure. Continuing to write something that’s not quite good enough seems to me like failing, and failing publicly. Calling a halt to writing because it’s difficult also feels like failure. Is that a Catch 22? I’m never certain. Either way, I’m running scared.

On the other hand, I feel as though I’ve just woken up to the insanity of baring my soul to the Whole Wide World. Writing is an addiction for me. It always has been. I’ve kept some form of diary for most of my life. Writing into a void comes easily to me and it has always been an outlet, a release, and oftentimes an unedited (and poorly punctuated, I know) stream of consciousness. I’m not much of a talker so it feels bloody brilliant to let the words out, to get to the end of a thought before fear takes over, to be myself. The joy, practically a miracle, of this blog has been people, you, you know who you are, writing back and saying, Hey, I feel like that too. I cannot overstate how much that has meant to me. That’s a connection that I rarely get in the real, speaking-words-out-loud, world.

The problem is that it feels so good that I have at times lost the run of myself. In chasing that buzz I have revealed too much and come close to worse. It would feel so good to lay every inch of me bare, just for the kick of it, the raucous, out-of-control glee of it, but I can’t, or I shouldn’t, and even if I did, what would I do then?

I think, only think, I’m not sure, that when I started writing this blog my habitual caution was outweighed by grief. Grief gave me enough anger to be brave. I let loose. And, for a while, a glorious while, I did not care one whit what anybody thought of me, or what, or how well, I wrote.

I’ve lost that shield. It has, quite suddenly, dawned on me that I’m not writing into a void anymore. There are too many real world people reading. I introduced myself to a teacher at a PT meeting a few weeks ago and then realised in horror that she knew me from the blog. That, I think, was the clincher. I can’t do this any more.

I want to keep writing something, ideally about books, but I have to stop writing about me. I haven’t figured out, yet, how to do that. I might try Goodreads, although it’s not a platform I’m mad about. I may start all over again in complete anonymity. I should probably spend some time on pelvic floor exercises, figurative and otherwise.

I might just read.

This, by the way, is how much a girl can read in 6 weeks away from social media:

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For the record, in one word each, from the top down: boring, horrible, riveting, charming, astounding, grim and magnificent. That last took as long to read as all the others put together but, by God, was it worth it.

As far as writing goes, for the moment, I’m going cold turkey.

And so, with much regret and doubt, and gratitude and even a little guilt, hopefully for a short while only…

…this is Sultanabun, signing off.

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Stage Fright.

Stage Fright- I’ve got it. I can’t write a thing. I have three blog posts sitting in the drafts file. Help. Help! Does that happen to other bloggers?

This Big Project of mine has taken on a life of its own. It’s not what I thought it was going to be. It’s like a loose thing that I can’t get hold of. I sit at the kitchen table every morning studying, STUDYING- at my age it could be dangerous, and getting more and more excited by everything that I read and more and more intimidated by the amount I don’t know.IMG_1625

A couple of weeks ago I had the hubris to believe that I knew this stuff. Hah! Ye Gods, how ye laugh at me. By the way, it’s snowing. The Gods clearly read my last post, thought to themselves, what sort of know-it-all eejiot is this woman, and promptly turned the thermostat to Vladivostok.

I realise that I haven’t told you yet exactly what I’m doing. Soon, I promise. As soon as I know, you’ll know.

In the mean time it’s a thing, slowly coming to life, like this sourdough starter of mine, formless but fermenting. Hidden depths, deeply meaningful and all that malarkey. IMG_1665

What it means, I think, this awful wobbly nervous feeling I have, is that what I’m trying to write matters, matters to me. I have to stop fooling myself that it matters to anybody else and then I’ll be grand. Of course, it might also mean that what I’m trying to do is a really stupid idea. My gut and I are in need of a translator. HELP!

Wishing you all a lovely weekend,
Lynda.

St. Brigid’s Day- The First of Spring.

Thank you for the enthusiastic comments on my post about the life-changing power of probiotics. I’m delighted that so many of you share my fascination with the microbiome. Prepare to hear MUCH more on this subject as I am obsessed and determined to learn everything I can. I hope that you might join me .

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. Today is my day for new beginnings.

The Spring equinox falls this year on March 20th, at 16.15 if you want to be precise, but in Sultanabunland, of which I am Queen, today is the first of Spring.

I grew up a stone’s throw from St. Brigid’s Well in Co. Kildare. Her feast day, February 1st, was not only a holy day of obligation, and a day off school, but also the accepted first day of Spring. I wrote a brief history of St. Brigid, along with a tutorial on making a St. Brigid’s cross in this post.

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The girls, I hope, will make a cross in school today. I, in the mean time, have unintentionally made an edible version. This, weirdly, made me smile inside.

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It smells of Spring today, even though it’s much colder than last week. There’s a sense of awakening. I’m convinced that if I put a stethoscope to the earth I might hear a surge of movement, a trembling, like an oncoming wave.

Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees. ‘Ah, it’s riveting.’There is a wonderful article here about Judi Dench and her love of trees. It’s well worth a read.

There can be no doubt about it, the garden, with or without permission from the astronomers, thinks it’s Spring.

 

We have the sweetest, rosiest buds on our young lime tree (Tillia cordata, not actually the trees that make limes at all). We planted this especially for our visiting bumblebees as it is said to be one of their favourites.IMG_1438

Our little Magnolia stellata is just getting her gladrags on. It’s as though she is wrapped in her fluffy dressing gown waiting for the moment when she will cast it aside to reveal the glamour beneath.IMG_1439 (2)

The Japanese quince (Chaenomeles) is producing the daintiest blossoms you ever saw. They almost look fake. IMG_1436

Pulmonaria is off the starting blocks. You’ll hear me squeal when the first bee turns up.IMG_1426

Oh, and I have, at last, what could almost be classed a crowd, a host of golden daffodils. While I watch them toss their heads in sprightly dance, I send my love and thanks again to my distant friend who once left a sack of bulbs on my porch. IMG_1431 (2)

Last but not least, a single Anenome coronaria, St. Brigid’s flower, who never fails to show up on the day. Ah yes, the greenfly are definitely awake. Do they ever sleep?IMG_1422

One last thing: I read and enjoyed an unusual book last year by first time author Rachel Hargreaves called Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Rachel got in touch to ask if I might re-post my review to coincide with the paperback release. It’s always a thrill for me to hear from authors whose books I have recommended so this is absolutely my pleasure. You may read my review here.

Lá fhéile Bride shona daoibh,

Lynda.

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.