At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (July 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620409941
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620409947




Building to an extraordinary climax over the course of one spring month, At Hawthorn Time is both a clear-eyed picture of a rural community and a heartbreaking exploration of love, land and loss.


At Hawthorn Time was one of several Baileys Prize longlisted titles I gifted myself earlier in the year. I picked a few of the more interesting books and made liberal use of my Buy It Now finger, a habit I practice less often now that I’m single and down to one income. It’s a necessary economy, still, I allow myself the luxury every now and then. Because there’s nothing better than getting a big box of books in the mail to lift the spirits.

In the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been in book culling mode. As I’m culling, I’m becoming more aware of exactly what’s on my shelves. Last week I came across my Baileys stash and grabbed Harrison’s novel at random, finishing it in the course of three or four days. It’s a quiet book, one that simmers slowly. It’s about the drama of the everyday. Nothing big happens, nothing splashy or headline-making, but to the characters the events are life-changing.

I enjoy novels with converging storylines, featuring characters unrelated but inhabiting the same geographical space. It allows deep exploration of a sense of place through the eyes of a cross-section of characters coming from very different perspectives.

At Hawthorn Time tells the stories of four main characters living in the area surrounding Lodeshill, a smallish English village:

Howard and Kitty, married 30 years and new to the village since their retirement, have grown steadily apart, unhappy but lacking the energy to do anything about it. When Kitty learns she may be ill, she’s forced into deciding what she’ll tell her husband, if anything. And when their children come to visit, this couple that’s slept apart must make room for guests sleeping in their home.

Jack, a rebellious modern-day hippie who skipped imprisonment after his conviction for trespassing, is walking across country on his way back to the village, hoping he’s not recognized and taken into custody while working migrant jobs for the money to keep body and soul together. Spending every day looking over his shoulder, when he is eventually discovered he’s forced to decide where he’ll go from there.

And Jamie, a 19-year old man with no prospects or direction in life, limps along in a low-paying, unfulfilling job while also helping his parents deal with the growing dementia of his grandfather. As the one person closest to his grandfather, when the old man goes missing it falls on Jamie to unravel the mystery of what happened to him and where, and if, he can be found.

Before it all ends, the lives in the story do cross, with disastrous consequences.

This book should be read for its beautiful language, gentle and meandering contemplation of relationships and ever-deepening examination of the inner lives of the characters. It can’t be read in a spirit of impatience, or it will not hold interest.

There is crisis and catharsis, movement and change. These are the sorts of crises you see from a distance, in friends and acquaintances with whom you don’t share all life’s problems. You think to yourself there must be more behind a surface that seems so tranquil, but aren’t always privy to their secrets.

At Hawthorn Time goes inside the lives we keep hidden. A lovely, lovely novel.

The Dinner by Herman Koch


  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (October 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385346856


“I was remarkably calm. Calm and fatigued. There would be no violence. It was like a storm coming up. The café chairs are carried inside, the awnings are rolled up, but nothing happens. The storm passes over. And, at the same time, that’s too bad. After all, we would all rather see the roofs ripped from the houses, the trees uprooted and tossed through the air.”

  • Herman Koch, The Dinner


Herman Koch’s The Dinner received much pre-pub attention via usual industry buzz upon its 2013 publication. It was a sleeper hit in the U.S., an international best seller, a book group darling proclaimed dark, chilling and beautifully written. The Dinner put Belgian-born Herman Koch on the American literary fiction map.

The premise is this: two couples – a man and his wife, his brother and sister-in-law – meet for dinner to discuss a looming disaster threatening to ruin the lives of each of their 15-year old sons. The man who narrates the story, Paul Lohman, is a sociopath with a track record of exhibiting uncontrolled rage, resulting in physical violence against multiple victims, his wife a willing, yielding enabler. The other man, the sociopath’s brother Serge Lohman, is heir-apparent to the office of prime minister of the Netherlands. As for his wife, she’s a necessary seat warmer for her politically ambitious husband. A public figure should reflect family values.

The sociopath is an unreliable narrator, disconnected from reality,. Unable to distinguish horrific, narcissistic and violent behavior from appropriately assertive action, he attacks anyone who opposes or irritates him. The man slaps, punches, beats and clobbers multiple other characters, nearly killing them, yet remains a free man. He loses his teaching job, but suffers no other consequences.

Koch’s plot doesn’t allow for the distraction of the legal ramifications of Paul Lohman’s crimes. He is hyper-focused on his themes:  how far would you go to save your child, no matter how heinous the crime, and is there a hierarchy of worth placed on the lives of human beings from different social classes.

The violent behavior of our narrator directly correlates to his son’s feeling of entitlement, his lack of compunction the reason the boy grows up to exhibit the same violent behavior. Paul Lohman’s child, as well as his nephew, the 15-year old child of the prime minister to be, have together perpetrated an act so horrific it has the potential to ruin both their futures, not to mention sealing the doom of the politician. And it’s at this dinner Serge and Paul have met to determine how they will proceed.

Paul Lohman, Koch reveals, was born with a gene causing his unbridled rage and tendency toward violence. The disorder isn’t expressly stated, but its heritability is made clear. A generation after Paul Lohman’s birth, a test exists to determine the presence of this gene. Should his wife have had the amniotic fluid tested, and did she without Paul’s knowledge? The question is left open. And, if she’d had the test, had she rejected the opportunity to abort her son? Whatever the truth, it has become moot.

The moment of truth comes to a head at the conclusion of the dinner, the two brothers facing off. There is much to lose no matter which course they choose. If the boys are turned in, the career of the prime minister, as well as their futures, are ruined. If the truth is covered up, it will loom large over all their heads, not to mention denying justice for the victim of the crime. There is no redemption here.

Koch is a brilliant writer. His prose is clear and beautifully written, the sense of menace if not quite chilling is a strong presence. These are morally bankrupt, repulsive characters. The darkness is unrelenting, which would explain why I was so drawn to the book. Indeed, why so many readers were.

I enjoyed how deeply Koch explored Paul Lohman’s twisted mind, following the man’s obsessive thinking, analyzing every action going on around him. From his complex personal history to the food as it arrived at the table, Paul Lohman’s internal monologue was a constant, occasionally comical and often unpredictable rant. Paul Lohman is a character I loved to hate.

I read his later novel, The Swimming Pool, in 2014 which I reviewed here. Though not quite as enthusiastically received by critics, I preferred it. It’s the same sort of book, exploring amoral characters who do bad things to each other.

Having read two works by Koch I’m a fan, though not without reservations. Unquestionably a writer of great skill, I’m not convinced the press he’s received is accurate. It’s overblown, typical marketing hype. But I wouldn’t let it stop me from reading his books, or recommending him to readers who enjoy exploring evil, amoral characters. His works are absorbing and, if not completely unpredictable, they offer enough twists to keep the reader guessing.



Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge


Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge * Virago Press * Intro by Linda Grant c. 2012 * Originally published 1972 – Duckworth


A chilling tale, Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge explores the dark side of adolescence, the very particular point at which childhood morphs into sexual awakening. Two 13-year old girls: thin and lovely Harriet, and an unnamed pudgy and unattractive narrator who’s never named, live in Merseyside. Returned from boarding school, the narrator resumes her traditional role as sidekick and adorer of the beautiful Harriet, groomed to serve and carry out the whims of her friend.

Desperate to keep her friendship and approval, the unattractive girl would do absolutely anything. Slave to her idolatry, the narrator cannot oppose the prettier girl. Even when she determines to defy her, one look a the girl’s pretty face stops her in her tracks. She becomes powerless.

Following what Bainbridge subtly depicts as the sexual assault of Harriet, the girl turns into a menacing, creeping creature bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible by leading men astray. Her particular prey is a 56-year old man the two girls refer to as “the Tsar,” a man named Mr. Biggs who lives in their village.

By no means faultless, the Tsar is goaded into beginning an affair of sorts with the narrator. Alternately teasing and ridiculing him, the two girls arrange to meet him in out of the way places, presenting him with the opportunity to engage in lascivious behavior with the child. And when he takes the bait, that’s when Harriet’s true evil rises to the surface.

The two perpetrate increasingly horrendous acts on both Mr. Biggs and his wife, a hulking figure of a woman who sees right through them. The cruelty and level of cunning accelerates as the narrator is persuaded to take the baiting even further.


“Harriet spoke in the same reasonable way she talked to her mother.

‘At thirteen there is very little you can expect to salvage from loving someone than experience. You’ll go back to school for years, you’ll wear a gym tunic long after this is over… And all he’ll feel for you is a sort of gentle nostalgia. No – bring it to its logical conclusion. If you don’t you’ll feel emotional for ages over something that was pretty trivial.’

‘But what if we find it’s not trivial?’ I was appalled by the wisdom of us both. It seemed unnatural. Why had I not noticed it before?


I knew the book would be dark, but had no idea to what extent. The horror is paced well, building to the inevitable and brutal end by degrees. The thing is, I cannot say much more about the plot without risking the spoiling of it. The book’s quite short, at 175 pages, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for discussion without giving too much away.

I thought it was brilliantly done, though I enjoy dark writing. I’ve read other Bainbridge, though it’s been several years, and I remember her other stuff is similar to Harriet Said… I expect it’s something you either like or don’t. I fall quite firmly into the like camp.

Stories about the potential for brutality in adolescents aren’t rare. If you’ve been 13 you’ll understand why. It can be a nasty age, with all those hormones raging. Of course, not everyone is Harriet – and thank God for that.

It’s at this age children become narcissistic, rebellious and downright nasty – to different degrees, of course, and not universally but to a large extent. Thankfully, for most it’s a phase. Just sometimes, it’s taken to a fatal extreme. It’s in this dark place Bainbridge set this novel.

A dark delight, once started it demands you don’t put it down. Morbid fascination carries the reader along to the end we both know and hope isn’t inevitable. And Bainbridge does not flinch. She takes it to the bitter end, all innocence lost.

Now I know why I’d meant to get back to her writing. I enjoy the shiver of it, the dark recesses of wickedness. A wonderful short novel. Highly recommended.

The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst


  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins; 1St Edition edition (1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002570068


How long have I had this on my TBR list? Can’t say for certain, but through at least a decade, and ownership of two physical copies of the book;  I own so many books I couldn’t find the blasted thing when I eventually decided it was time to read it.

However long, it was worth the wait.

If not for the Stevenson family, the coastline of Scotland – as well as much of its infrastructure – may have looked drastically different today. For it was RL Stevenson’s grandfather, Robert Stevenson, whose hard-headed dedication to protecting the lives of countless sailors lead him into becoming the pioneer of lighthouse engineers, the self-trained expert who made engineering into a field respected enough to be taught in universities.

Before Robert Stevenson, the course of study did not exist. Of course engineering existed: craftsmen and stonemasons, architects and designers built things of great wonder and beauty. What they did just wasn’t considered something to be formally taught.  Not until a force came along that shifted people’s thinking.


Robert Stevenson 1772 - 1850

Robert Stevenson 1772 – 1850


Previous to Stevenson’s arrival on the scene, there was little interest in or even incentive to build lighthouses on the coast of Scotland, despite the hundreds of sailors who lost their lives being drowned or crushed in the process of circumnavigating the shoreline. What’s shocking is the reason: there was money to be had in plundering the wreckage of those hundreds of ships, fishing out the cargo and robbing the sailors. Not just that, many sailors who survived the wrecks were drowned, intentionally, by nefarious thieves who didn’t want witnesses to their heinous acts surviving to tell the tale.


“By 1800, Lloyds of London estimated the one ship was lost or wrecked every day around Britain; between 1854 and 1879, almost 50,000 wrecks were registered. The figure is probably ludicrously low.”

– The Lighthouse Stevensons


Scotland wasn’t blessed with many trees. Thus, wood from these ships smashed apart on rocks unseen, or ships blown into the shoreline during furious gales, made perfect building materials. It was such an irresistible source of revenue, ministers excused parishioners from services when a ship had run aground. Many preached this was God’s own will, manna sent to the needy.

What it took to turn all that around was one very stubborn man with lots more ambition than experience or even knowledge. One man who stood up against the committees holding the purse strings, who didn’t back down in the face of resistance.

And, ultimately, the ship owners themselves stepped forward. They had had enough.


British Lighthouses

British Lighthouses

Once he was given funding, the fight against the elements alone was enough to make a lesser man turn and run. The force of storms in the waters off Scotland more than once tore apart his early efforts to build. The work of a full year was blown completely off its moorings, workmen left clinging onto steep stones, or huddled together in ships gathered around the building site, in a desperate bid to save themselves.

Fresnel Lens - developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Fresnel Lens – developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Most sailors ” … did not expect to live beyond the age of forty.”

The elements seemed insurmountable. Stevenson started over – over and over again.

The stone used to build the lighthouses had to be cut with extraordinary precision, lest the mighty waves crashing against them blow them to smithereens. Tolerance for gaps between each piece was infinitesimal.  And then the lights themselves, going through trial after trial trying to find the one technology that could withstand the rigours demanded of them.

Robert Stevenson, and his sons after him, traveled the world studying lighthouse technology, taking notes and figuring how they could adapt the work of others to their own projects.


Skerryvore Lighthouse - 1838 - 1844, Alan Stevenson

Skerryvore Lighthouse – 1838 – 1844, Alan Stevenson


Yet, not all Robert Stevenson’s children were equally blessed with his skill and determination. Alan Stevenson was born a dreamer, a sickly child whose first love was poetry. A classical scholar, he was gifted musically, and later became an early champion of poet William Wordsworth. Eventually buckling down to the family business, Alan would remain the bane of Robert Stevenson’s existence, just as later Alan’s nephew Robert Louis Stevenson would present the same challenge to his own father, Thomas. Himself sickly and a dreamer, we all know how RL Stevenson’s career turned out.

In my opinion, he did okay for himself.

RL Stevenson did try to mold himself to the family business. For several years he studied engineering, attempting to put aside his passion for writing. He even produced a paper, “On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses.” However, it clearly showed he had no promise as an engineer, no passion for the work. Nothing about it was original or particularly creative.


“On being tightly cross-questioned, I owned that I cared for nothing but literature. My father said that was no profession.”

– RL Stevenson


To give him his due, however much Thomas Stevenson disapproved of his son’s choice, felt heartbroken his child would never join the long line of engineers, he never broke with him. Though he would later become frustrated with RL’s agnosticism, he kept up a correspondence. He never allowed their differences to divide them.

And though he’d go on to travel the world, leaving his family behind, Scotland would never be far from RL Stevenson’s heart. Neither would he feel anything but respect for the remarkable accomplishments of his family.

He would move away, sail the seas, living in Samoa and Hawaii, travelling the length and breadth of Europe, visiting the United States more than once.  In the South Seas he’d raise his own family, a sort of modern-day Robinson Crusoe living amongst the natives.

No matter how far he traveled, he didn’t forget where he came from.


“I shall once more lie in bed, and see the little sandy isle in Allan Water, as it is in nature, and the child (that once was me) wading there in butterburs; and wonder at the instancy and virgin freshness of that memory; and be pricked again, in season and out of season, by the desire to weave it into art”

– RLS – Memories and Portraits


RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860

RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860


Dhu Heartach - Thomas Stevenson - Later used by RL Stevenson in novel 'Kidnapped.'

Dhu Heartach – Thomas Stevenson – Later used by RL Stevenson in novel ‘Kidnapped.’


Most of The Lighthouse Stevensons goes into great detail about the building of the major lighthouses produced by the family. And when I say great detail, I do mean GREAT. It’s fascinating if, like me, you love the romance of the lonely, windswept lighthouse, imagining what it would be like to have risked life and limb building them. As much as you may believe you can imagine how it was, the reality is, I guarantee it, much more violent and stark.

Not only was there the weather to contend with, the day-to-day raw fear. There were also occasional mutinies, times when workers who had had enough threatened to walk out as soon as they were back on shore, if their salaries were not raised. The Stevensons did not suffer any threats. If a man threatened to leave, he was fired. This was nothing to take lightly. Marooned on a potentially lethal piece of rock in the middle of the sea for months at a time, there is no margin of error for a man who may decide to turn on his crew mates.

Then, there’s the life of the keeper. A dangerous and grueling profession, it requires sometimes months away from all society. At the mercy of the weather, these early keepers of the lights were oftentimes left longer than originally planned, because no ship could approach to bring them back to shore.




Against the elements, the strongest of men are powerless.

But what a romantic notion, being a lighthouse keeper. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have its appeal. I wouldn’t mind trying the lifestyle, at least the solitude and living on a rock away from civilization.

Just maybe not off the coast of Scotland.


Bell Rock Lighthouse - Off Angus, Scotland - 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson - Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.

Bell Rock Lighthouse – Off Angus, Scotland – 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson – Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.


If the reader finds no romance in waves crashing over the shorelines of Scotland, and stories about the fortitude of men who will stop at nothing, even risking their lives for the sake of creating these magnificent structures, this may not be the book for you.

Likewise, a desire to know the back story of RL Stevenson is great incentive to read The Lighthouse Stevensons. It will leave you understanding much more about the writer, where he came from, how he bowed out of the tradition of his family for a life in books and letters. Truly, this is a fascinating work reminding just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the making of the lights and how one family left its indelible mark on the face of Scotland and the world.


Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson


“Say not of me that weakly I declined

The Labours of my sires, and fled the sea,

The towers we built and the lamps we lit,

To play at home with paper like a child.

But rather say: In the afternoon of time

A strenuous family dusted from its hands

The sand of granite, and beholding far

Along the sounding coast its pyramids

And tall memorials catch the dying sun,

Smiled well content, and to this childish task

Around the fire addressed its evening hours.”

– RL Stevenson


#Woolfalong: Complete Shorter Fiction, briefly begun


I’m joining in HeavenAli’s #Woolfalong read for May/June, the shorter fiction leg:

Phase 3 – May/June – shorter fiction – any collection of short stories. This list of possibles from Wikipedia:
Kew Gardens (1919)
Monday or Tuesday (1921)
A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944)
Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973)
• The Complete Shorter Fiction (1985)
Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches (2003)
Oxford World Classics now produce a collection called The Mark on the Wall and other short Fiction – though I don’t know which stories it contains.


I’ve read the first two pieces in the Complete Shorter Fiction, and have begun the third, which promises to be delightful. It’s about a woman who’s chosen scholarship over home and family, having left her own behind in pursuit of learning – a distinctly Woolfian theme.

The first piece, “Phyllis and Rosamund,” was Woolf’s first short story. It reads like an old-fashioned Victorian piece, has little plot to speak of, makes only the slightest movement, yet manages to be quite telling. The title characters, two single women in their 20s, contemplate a future which depends solely on whether they manage to marry a decent man.

It’s a common refrain in Woolf’s fiction, an all-too-true circumstance for women who had not yet earned the “right” to move in society of their own accord.

“It is a common case, because after all there are many young women, born of well-to-do, respectable, official parents; and they must all meet much the same problems, and there can be, unfortunately, but little variety in the answers they make.” – “Phyllis and Rosamund”


Virginia and her sister Vanessa, born in the same era, choose the radical path of leaving home to live Bohemian lives, entertaining poets and artists and other dreamers in their home in Bloomsbury. It’s true they came from money, enough to allow them the luxury of choice, something women of other social classes did not enjoy.

By the time the group formed, it was the 20s, a period more tolerant of such behavior. Still, opinion then and now varies on this free-thinking group, whether they were as much intellectual as self-indulgent, snobbish and insular.

Especially Virginia Woolf.

I don’t find everything equally attractive about her. I’m no prude, but from my admittedly not fully informed knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group, they behaved outside my comfort zone. I am equal parts literary elitist and not completely proud of it, at the same time.

I’m nothing if not conflicted.

Dora Carrington, Ralph Partridge and Lytton Strachey doing what they did best - lounging

Dora Carrington, Ralph Partridge and Lytton Strachey doing what they did best – lounging

The second story, “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.,” is a work of short-short fiction about a woman who, resolving to pay an impromptu visit to a another woman she’d known but cares little about, arrives to find the ultimate irony.

It speaks bald truths about the forgotten, through a cocky and unsympathetic main character the reader knows only through her caustic, cruel observations:

“Oh how mad and odd and amusing it seemed, now that I thought of it! – to track down the shadow, to see where she lived and if she lived, and talk to her as though she were a person like the rest of us!”

And then on to story number three, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” which I’m enjoying very much, indeed.

Intially, I was drawn to Woolf by her reputation, knowing of her only vaguely and peripherally. In my  study toward my B.A. in English literature, I read not a word of her writing; the small, Catholic-affiliated college I attended offered precious little outside the mainstream writing of white males. There were survey courses covering the history of literature in very broad strokes, courses on Medieval literature and Chaucer, and of course Shakespeare, but nothing much beyond that. I read Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but almost nothing else outside the Norton Anthology.

I was a young mother when I first picked up To the Lighthouse and it blew apart my world. I borrowed it from the library because I missed literature and knew there were huge gaps in my reading. Having been home caring for my daughter for a year or more, I felt as if my brain would atrophy. Then entered Woolf.




It would be a while before I realized in how many ways our lives ran parallel, that she’d killed herself on my birthday and we’d shared the scourge of bipolar disorder unleashed by childhood trauma. By then I’d fallen under the spell of the graceful, fragile-but-fierce Virginia, and a group of intellectuals I can’t say for sure I completely understand.

After a pause of years, I entered another Woolf phase, accumulating incomplete sets of her diaries and letters and other works by and about her, reading much more of not just her work but that of Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West and others in their set. But then that faded, as well, as urges inevitably do.

Coming across HeavenAli’s blog, I realized I was overdue for another visit to Virginia Woolf. So, alongside my newly re-awoken Bronte and also Lewis Carroll fixations, I am reading her shorter fictions for the first time.

From my present seat on the sofa, next to one of the fourteen bookcases filling my apartment to bursting with books, I can reach out and lay hands on at least one volume each of her letters and diaries. It’s inevitable I’ll open one or both.

And then become obsessed, all over again.

Because it’s what I do.

Patrick Bronte’s Ireland: The roots of a family

The very thought my soul inspires,

And kindles bright her latent fires;

My Muse feels heart-warm fond desires,

And spreads her wing, And aims to join th’ angelic choirs,

And sweetly sing.

May rosy Health with speed return,

And all your wonted ardour burn,

And sickness buried in his urn,

Sleep many years!

So, countless friends who loudly mourn,

Shall dry their tears!

  • Rev. Patrick Brontë, who thankfully did not quit his day job


Reading further in Lynne Reid Banks’s book on the Brontës, I’m finding a certain fascination with their father, Patrick. Such a solitary man, a shadowy figure. What’s known about him is just enough to intrigue. I suppose everyone’s curious about what’s unknown in history. It’s human nature.

The Brontë family literary tradition begins before the girls and brother Branwell. Patrick was himself a poet, though not celebrated as such. Their mother likewise produced at least one known work outside her remaining letters:  “The Advantages of Poverty In Religious Concerns.”

Now there’s a title that fails to intrigue.


Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë

Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë


Patrick Brunty was born in Emdale (on the outskirts of Annaclone), Drumballyroney, County Down, Ireland on St. Patrick’s day in 1777, to a family of farmers. The remains of the family cottage still stand:


Bronte Family Cottage, County Down, Ireland

Bronte Family Cottage, County Down, Ireland


And it’s here that Patrick’s own mother, Alice McClory was born:



Alice McClory's Cottage

Alice McClory’s Cottage


One of ten children, Juliet Barker theorizes in her biography The Brontës that his family must have been well-enough off if Patrick hadn’t been required to take on his father’s occupation, instead being allowed to become a teacher at Drumballyroney, where he lived, preached and taught.




That does seem a reasonable theory, though it’s also true he was something of a scholar and a religious man. Perhaps he simply wasn’t well-suited to the farming life, and his parents were benevolent enough to realize it. Or, maybe he was more like his son Branwell, headstrong and too stubborn to make it worth it to expend the energy to force him into what he wasn’t willing to do.

Doesn’t seem all that great a leap, considering the fiery nature of the Irish – not to mention this particular family.

However it came about, Patrick established his own school when he was only 16, going on to become tutor to the children of a man who would one day become his mentor and patron, Mr. Thomas Tighe.  Himself a Cambridge man, Tighe would later pay Patrick’s way through university.


Drumballyroney Church

Drumballyroney Church

Patrick’s parents were buried in the cemetery here, in the family plot:


Drumballyroney cemetery

Drumballyroney cemetery


I’m left wondering why Patrick never returned to Ireland, as no records to the contrary have been found. Was his native country too rustic, too rural and uninteresting? Realizing it wasn’t uncommon for immigrants to leave their home country never to return, I still feel a bit of sadness he left friends and family behind without a backward glance.

And I’ve been to Ireland and seen it. How could a native never go back?

Juliet Barker goes on to write about Brontë’s struggles at Cambridge, how his Irish accent was a stumbling block and made him a curiosity. Letters from some of his contemporaries have been found to contain references to the Irishman who’d come to study, about his challenges, which I can’t help but find strange. Was there so little going on in Cambridge this was all they found to write home about, or was Patrick Brontë that much a local celebrity?

In any event, the father of Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell lived within County Down, Ireland from his birth in 1777 until 1802, when he headed off to Cambridge. In modern-day Ireland, the region from which the family sprung has been given the name The Brontë Homeland, between Rathfriland and Banbridge, a town on the main road between Belfast and Dublin.

He’d have known countryside like this:



Lovely, windy roads like this:



He’d have known Holy Trinity Church in Banbridge:

Holy Trinity, Banbridge, Ireland

Holy Trinity, Banbridge, Ireland

Rustic 18th Century country cottages:


Magherally Cottage, Banbridge, Ireland

Magherally Cottage, Banbridge, Ireland

Not that the moors of Yorkshire are a slouch. But still. It was Ireland that formed him. Its beauty and tradition of storytelling and song made their mark.

What did he remember of Ireland? Perhaps that’s spelled out in reading I have yet to do. Though, from what I’ve read about his break from his past, I’ll probably be disappointed in that wish.


One tantalizing tidbit, another native of County Down, at Annaclone, was a certain Catherine O’Hare, as cited by Wikipedia:

“the first European woman to cross the Canadian Rockies was born around 1835 in the townland of Ballybrick, Annaclone.”


Her Wikipedia link leads to a page stating there is no page at all, though, if you follow the trail starting from Rathfriland, you at least get this:


  • Catherine O’Hare, mother of the first European child born west of the Rockies, was herself born in Ballybrick, Annaclone about 2/3 miles from Rathfriland in 1835. She and her husband, Augustus Schubert, joined 200 overlanders who went west across Canada in search of gold, and blazed the trail for the Canadian Pacific Railway.


And, once again, I’m like a terrier bolting off the trail in search of another rabbit, forgetting the original theme of this post.  Still, one more thing I must share. If you add her married surname, Schubert, to Google searches, you will find her portrait.




And, if you’re inclined to find out more, there’s this at Amazon, the details of which I know absolutely nothing but there it is.

There’s no end to what’s to be known in this world. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.



Reading Dark Quartet: The Story of the Brontes by Lynne Reid Banks


It seems this novelization has lots more hard information than I’d given it credit for. At the very least, it’s giving me lots of bits about the Brontës I’d forgotten about.

For instance:

Branwell’s temper tantrums – I give Patrick much credit for dealing with his son’s often explosive behavior. When things didn’t go his way, the boy could be quite a little monster. The girls learned to tip-toe around him when he was in one of his moods, and their Aunt Branwell, after whom the kid was named, made no secret of her advice: send the boy to boarding school!

“Backward I look upon my life,
And see one waste of storm and strife,
One wrack of sorrows, hopes, and pain,
Vanishing to arise again!
That life has moved through evening, where
Continual shadows veiled my sphere;
From youth’s horizon upward rolled
To life’s meridian, dark and cold.”
Patrick Branwell Brontë


Incidentally, later in life Branwell would go on to become a painter, producing such works as this:



And this:

Caitlin Jenner's less attractive ancestor

Caitlin Jenner’s less attractive ancestor

The horrors of Cowan Bridge School, that hellish and brutal establishment of learning whose draconian ideas of discipline and abnegation indisputably hastened the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth Bronte. The institution’s neglect and inhumanly harsh forms of discipline were criminal. The deaths of these girls, as well as many others, are on their hands.




These were wonderful, kind and intelligent young girls! That their lives were cut short at the hands of the beasts at Cowan Bridge is abominable. Even if the school did undergo drastic change following dozens of deaths from typhus, due in large part to malnutrition and absolutely freezing conditions, still these children gave their lives for nothing. The girls were mocked, starved and forced to undergo privations totally innappropriate for their age – perhaps any age.

No wonder the guilt lay so heavily on Patrick Brontë’s shoulders.

From Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte:

[Charlotte] used to speak of her two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died at Cowan Bridge. I used to believe them to have been wonders of talent and kindness. She told me, early one morning, that she had just been dreaming; she had been told that she was wanted in the drawing-room, and it was Maria and Elizabeth. I was eager for her to go on, and when she said there was no more, I said, ‘but go on! Make it out! I know you can!’. She said she would not; she wished she had not dreamed, for it did not go on nicely, they were changed; they had forgotten what they used to care for. They were very fashionably dressed, and began criticising the room…


The Brontë children’s delightful, endlessly creative writings and miniature books –  no surprise these children were clever. From a young age they began writing plays and stories, invented imaginary lands and wrote and assembled these little books:




The insular life of the children – they were each other’s favorite playmates and companions, not mixing so well in society. Aunt Branwell noted, upon leaving a party  to which the whole family had been invited, how the children were mute during the event but immediately laughing and gamboling about the instant the door closed behind them.

Yip, been there.


Patrick Brontë could be very weird ass – he had a great deal of trouble relating to children, spending much of his time completely isolated from his own brood. He was also in the habit of keeping a loaded pistol in his room at night, for safety, discharging it out his bedroom window every morning.

Shooting a pistol out his window. Every morning. With small children in the house.


Patrick Bronte's pistol and nightcap

Patrick Bronte’s pistol and nightcap

The children read widely, their books completely uncensored – Lord Byron was a particular favorite of Charlotte’s, who reportedly blushed to read some of his more salacious passages. I’m beginning to see hints as to how these children went on to produce such sexually charged works.

And Charlotte may have been a very saucy thing, indeed. From a letter by the author:

“If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up … you would pity and I daresay despise me.”

I honestly don’t doubt it. But no, not pity or despise. Rather, find compelling and more than a bit interesting.


There’s so much to be known about the Brontë family, and reading this novel is re-opening my interest. It’s a little surprising how much I’m growing to enjoy Banks’ book, and the ripple effects it’s having on my desire to learn more.

Here’s a YouTube video I’m also watching, another source of information about this fascinating family:

Getting more and more anxious to move on to Claire Harmon’s biography of Charlotte all the time. Revisiting the Brontës has been beyond a delight. The thing is, a person could spend a lifetime reading everything written by and about the family.

Such is the joy and curse of the reading life.

But mostly the joy.


Yorkshire Dales - Brontë Country

Yorkshire Dales – Brontë Country




Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs



  • Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (March 29, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312342039
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312342036


I first met Augusten Burroughs in graduate school, while studying for my Masters in Library & Information Studies. He rode back and forth to class with me, on my 45-minute each way commute to Rockford, IL from my home in the far-flung Fox River Valley suburbs of Chicago. He kept me company; I never drove alone. It was me and Augusten, Augusten and me, in my soccer mom continuing education rapid-transit minivan, for a wonderful few weeks.

We laughed, we cried. Sometimes there were snacks.

Okay, fine, he rode along in the form of a book on audio CD, but he was there. I HEARD HIM. He spoke words; we bonded, and the things he said became a part of me.

The book was Running With Scissors, his outrageously wonderful ode to the terrors and nightmares he endured growing up in one of the most sick and twisted families ever to reproduce. It was horrifying, sometimes sickening, but also, somehow, wildly funny. And here’s what it taught me: mine wasn’t the only criminally brutal childhood, and I wasn’t the only soul to have suffered as I did.

And if Burroughs found a way to turn horror into humor, maybe there’s a way the rest of us can survive, too.




Thanks for takin’ one for the team, Augusten. We, the abused and the warped, salute you.

All these years later, during one of my regular marathon book-lusty browsing sessions in Barnes & Noble, I came upon his latest book. I hadn’t meant to buy it, only to sit with it a while and read a few pages, catch up with his latest revelations and cheap out by leaving without it. Fifty pages later, it was inside a shopping bag on its way home with me.

The following Sunday, chained in my apartment by a particularly debilitating bout of depression, muffin crumbs stuck in my unwashed hair and wearing the same p.j.s I’d had on since Friday, I finished the whole book in one marathon session.

Note to psychiatrists everywhere: Augusten Burroughs is all the Rx you need.  Screw you, big pharma! Here’s a writer with a powerful ability to hold back knives from slicing the delicate undersides of wrists, persuading the most reluctant to scrape through our pathetic existences long enough to bray like a donkey through every last word he writes.

Because it cannot be put down.

It is unputdownable.

Which is why I love this man.

Lust & Wonder is the snarky/sad/dysfunctional Augusten Burroughs we’ve grown to love times about a thousand. Picking up where Dry left off, it’s a memoir published out of sequence. But damn if that makes a bit of difference. You don’t have to follow crazy in order. Hell, you should never follow crazy in order. It’s like looking straight into the sun, man.


This latest installment follows Augusten’s adult life, from his early barefoot, long-haired years spent scribbling advertising slogans on the backs of napkins through the break-out publication of his first book, the novel Sellevision. From there he careens through an agonizingly long period of misspent time during his early years of fame, when the money and accolades started pouring in, bringing him enough money to buy an awful lot of man jewelry.

I cannot overstate the man jewelry part.

In a relationship with a man who never truly loved him, it would be years before his eventual admission to himself that he’d been denying the love of his life all along –  until he could deny it no longer, blowing his whole life up in one crazy-ass explosion of insanity, otherwise know as the life of Augusten Burroughs.

My best friend from grad school.

Owner of lots of man jewelry.

And one guy I can always count on to make me realize there’s a way out of the dark, through laughter at the absurdity of it all. A powerful friend, indeed.


I love you, man.

Baileys Prize shortlist 2016: why ‘A Little Life’ should win, and why it probably won’t



quotes“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

  • A Little Life


This is not a good year to be anyone other than Hanya Yanagihara, not if you’re queued up with her for the final round of the Baileys Prize for Fiction. There’s always one work of absolute perfection published every year, that one novel that dominates. In 2015, that one book was A Little Life, a gut-wrenching, teeth-gritting masterpiece that positively eviscerates the reader with its power, the magnitude of its genius, honestly portraying the gritty realism of how terrible and beautiful life is.

Whether the judges honor this remains to be seen. As so often happens, literary prizes often sidestep the “it” book of the year, the obvious winner, in favor of a lesser-known and very good book that by all rights should be the runner-up – that should have won had the one great book not been written. It’s a show of “yes, we know this one book is a masterpiece, but we’ve given it due publicity, now let’s give this almost as good book a chance.”

This will not diminish the greatness of the obvious first choice, though I question whether it’s a fair move. The thing is, it happens so often as to almost be predictable – irritatingly so. A Little Life should win, by all rights. No other book published in 2015 can touch it, which is why I posit the opinion it will not win, though I dearly hope I am wrong.


quotesA Little Life asks serious questions about humanism and euthanasia and psychiatry and any number of the partis pris of modern western life. It’s Entourage directed by Bergman; it’s the great 90s novel a quarter of a century too late; it’s a devastating read that will leave your heart, like the Grinch’s, a few sizes larger.


It’s a difficult book, grueling sometimes.  The themes are not easy, not pretty and succeeded in turning away scores of readers. Some of those whose opinions I respect, discerning readers who don’t suffer inferior writing gladly, have thrown up their hands in despair over A Little Life. And I get that. It’s not easy wading through the muck of despair, the brutality life’s capable of inflicting.

But here’s the thing: great writing should upset the reader, it should evoke strong emotion, make us face difficult truths. Its responsibility is to hold a mirror up to society, forcing us to search our souls. If it doesn’t do that, what’s the point?

Writing that skims along the surface forces no change. The pen is mightier than the sword, you know the expression? It has no meaning if the sword is dull. If the words don’t wound, no guilt is punished, no fakery stripped away.


quotesYanagihara’s novel can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life. Like the axiom of equality, “A Little Life” feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.


It’s up to the Baileys judges now. I only hope they support art at its purest over a misguided sense of fair play. That’s what the Longlist was for, showcasing really good books representative of the best literature of the year, allowing a couple of spots for writing that’s good but not necessarily great. Whittled down to the Shortlist, only the best should remain standing. The time for being nice is done.

I hope they honor what literary prizes should reflect: rewarding the best of the best, judged by a jury of its peers. And, this year, the best of the best is A Little Life.

Best of luck to Hanya Yanagihara.






bill bryson – the road to little dribbling


  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (January 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385539282
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385539289


quotesWhat a joy walking is. All the cares of life, all the hopeless, inept fuckwits that God has strewn along the Bill Bryson Highway of Life, suddenly seem far away and harmless, and the world becomes tranquil and welcoming and good.


I cannot overstate how much I love the UK, and I’m not speaking simply as the typical Anglophile American who likes to watch BBC America and lusts for Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy – though we won’t go discounting that completely. I mean a deep in the marrow passionate love for the British Isles, begun in earliest childhood, nurtured carefully through the course of my life. I cut my teeth on Lewis Carroll, the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, nerded my way through high school with Dickens and Walter Scott, then fell in with Eliot, Austen, Woolf and the Brontes as time wore on.


Come, let me towel you off. There's a good lad!

Come, let me towel you off. There’s a good lad!

And it’s not just (I say just like that’s a small thing…) the literature, but the music and the culture and the land, as well. So on and so on, deeper than deep. Seventy-nine percent of my DNA deep, if you’d like to get science-y, which I apparently would as it gives me bragging rights and suits my needs.

Small wonder I find Bill Bryson’s books such a joy, considering like him I’m an American with a great appreciation for the Mother Country. After having discovered the joy that is Notes From a Small Island, a riotously funny look at the UK through American eyes, I’ve been following him around for decades. And I do mean that somewhat literally, as I contacted him previous to his last trip to America and was kindly told no, he had no time for an interview, but would love to meet me when he came to Chicago. And meet him I did, finding him as kind and sweet and gracious a man as ever I’d imagined and hoped.

The Road to Little Dribbling is a sort of sequel to Notes From a Small Island, written many years on and from the perspective of a more mature man looking at the UK through eyes far more wizened. If you’ve read his earlier book, you’ll see the dramatic shift between the two. In Notes, Bryson was young and in love with his newfound home, smitten but not without more than a dash of sardonic wit. Little Dribbling features that sly Bryson snark but is much darker in tone, more inclined toward serious passages railing at what’s slipping away from British culture, as well as a disturbing new trend toward disregarding the history and natural beauty of a land he’s grown intimately acquainted with, by the people with the most vested interest in keeping it – the British people themselves.

Does it take the eyes of a non-native to see what’s slipping away, the perspective of someone with the sharp observation of a journalist to notice, stand up and cry foul? Maybe, and in The Road to Little Dribbling this is one thing he does, and quite pointedly.

Ah, but there’s plenty here for those who love Bryson’s dry, wicked humor. The writer we’ve grown to love is alive and well here, but he’s also using his fame to say lots of pointed things about the dangers facing the land he, too, loves so dearly. And well he should. Those with the ability to speak out against injustice, to reach a wide audience, have a moral obligation to do so. And in this book Bill Bryson has done just that, all while happily traveling his way through Britain, tramping past places familiar and new to him, bitching and moaning and loving and remembering.

The Road to Little Dribbling is a must-read if you’ve read the author’s other books, and frankly a must-read even if you haven’t. Read the damn thing and love him, then go on to read all his other stuff, because you ought to and because he has one hell of a lot to teach – and do we ever have one hell of a lot to learn.

He’s not the only person of increasingly mature years inclined toward bossing people around. Two can play at that game, thanks very much, and you are entirely welcome.