A Tramp’s Abroad: What books to bring? The Literature of Ireland and Wales



“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

– Mark Twain




I’m not bringing my Kindle to Ireland/Wales. Instead, I have the convenient Kindle app on my iPhone. Not that I don’t love paper books – please – but there’s nothing more comforting than knowing I’ll never be without reading material. As long as my battery lasts, that is. There’s your indisputable reason for the codex, aside from the aesthetic pleasure found in the feel of paper, the sound of pages turning. Nothing can replicate that.

I associate the sound of pages turning with restfulness. When I hear it I feel as close to a hint of joy as ever I do. If I could buy a sound machine with the setting “pages turning” I would. Instant relaxation, plus a stimulation of pleasure receptors in my brain. Not sexual but lulling. Is it from childhood, being read to? Partially but also the hours and hours I’ve spent reading real books. Generations forward who don’t know this have my pity. Will they feel the same for keys clacking?

The idea breaks my heart.

What actual paper books should I bring? God, I could go crazy but I know I must not or I’ll end up either tossing them out or, more likely, pitching worn clothing to lighten the load. Would be a shame to run out of clothes and no, I’m not being sarcastic meaning I want to buy replacements abroad. A hand-knitted woolen sweater, yes. Jeans and everyday shirts? Not so much. Waste of time I could spend hunting out pubs or taking candid photos of Celtic crosses and brightly-colored buildings. Everyday clothing is boring boring boring but a necessity. Books are essential but I don’t mind hunting out bookshops to build inventory. A key difference.

I have a book of Irish short stories I bought at Half Price Books, for the sole purpose of reading either before I leave or while traveling. I may bring it and – cover your eyes – rip out stories as I finish to lighten the load, making room for souvenirs and/or mementos I happen upon. May even remove the hard cover before I go; every little bit helps. Sorry if it horrifies you but this is a cheaply published book and it’s the content that matters over the book itself. Unless it’s an exceptional book, mind. Wouldn’t catch me ripping pages out of the Gutenberg Bible, say, or halving the Declaration of Independence so it folds better (not a book, of course, yadda yadda).

For novels, I have Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry. Haven’t read any of his and he of course won the Booker for Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha. Then there’s Nuala O’Faolain‘s Are You Somebody? , an autobiography of growing up in Dublin. Christ, I didn’t realize she’d died. I was just thinking, what if I pulled strings and contacted her, then saw on Wikipedia she died in 2008. She was a journalist, an autobiographer, a novelist… And she died at 68 of cancer. Far too young.


“I don’t want more time. As soon as I heard I was going to die, the goodness went from life”.

– Nuala O’Faolain


I’m interested in de Valera but don’t want to buy anything new here, I have so much. I have a bio of Michael Collins (my brother’s name, by the way, though he’s more likely named for the astronaut) but it’s huge and heavy. I’ve heard there are bookshops in Ireland, though. What a shame it would be to have to resort to buying a book there. A last resort, naturally. Because it would be so painful and all. And I’ve gone to the trouble to map out the bookshops. Shockingly unlike me.

I’ll write a lot, of course, and that passes time as well as reading. Embarrassingly for my daughter, I like taking notes during tours. When I hear about or see something I’d like to research further there is no way I’ll trust to remembering it. A Moleskine’s my favorite notebook, a nice sharp point pen – scratch! scratch! – my favorite writing implement. I’ve always had a thing for those disposable fountain pens (purple, in honor of Virginia Woolf) but have had unfortunate incidents in which they’ve exploded all over me, or in my purse. Or on my fingers. Air travel, with its variances in air pressure, may not be the best environment for them. Fine-tipped pens it is.

Do I want to bring something by Joyce, though, considering? Maybe Dubliners, the short story collection. Not Ulysses, good god, though if I find a beautiful copy of that or any Joyce while in Ireland I may have to pounce. I have at least two different editions of Ulysses but it’s Ireland, for god’s sake. Maybe I’ll download one to my Kindle? If it will fit.


“One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

–  James Joyce,Dubliners


Perhaps a new Irish writer will catch my eye, a shiny new book in a bookstore window. Or an incredibly old, yellowed volume in a used bookshop. We hear about only a small percentage of world authors here in the States, only the big names make it over. I sometimes stumble upon authors serendipitously, writers I feel should be better known. I love introducing them here in the Colonies, reviewing them here, on Goodreads and Amazon can be powerful word of mouth advertising in the bibliosphere. Readers are forever on the hunt for novelty. Pun not intended.


“She even learnt the language of a strange country which Senior Cosetti had been told some people believed still existed, although no-one in the world could say where it was. The name of this country was Wales.” 

-Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell


There’s no lack of Irish writing, a blessing and a curse for a reader. Books about Ireland, the same. Nonfiction about Irish immigration to America would be great, since that’s part of my own ancestry. I own some of that, as well, but it could be dry reading, unless I pick a good one. Though not about immigration, How the Irish Saved Civilization is one I’ve meant to get to for ages. It may get me a free drink in a pub, too, with that laudatory title. And I know it to be true – the saving, not the free drinks.

I feel as if I’m giving Wales short shrift. Hard not to in comparison to towering literary Ireland. There’s Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl, Richard Llewellyn (I’ve read How Green Was My Valley at least twice and loved it – if you haven’t read it, it’s set amongst poverty-stricken Welsh coal miners and is a brilliant portrait) and it’s here I start running out of gas and have to consult a source besides my own brain:

Rhys Davies (Heard of him, vaguely.)

Jack Jones

Gwyn Thomas

Idris Davies (Of working class origin, he wrote in Welsh.)

Geraint Goodwin

R.S. Thomas

Emyr Humphreys

Raymond Williams

Bernice Rubens (Aha! I’ve heard of her! And thought she was Canadian…)

Ruth Bidgood

Gillian Clarke

Several more poets but I’m not heavily into poetry.

But what of current Welsh writers, from Bernice Rubens on? As with most of the names above, I know none of these writers:

Niall Griffiths

Malcolm Pryce

Both of these were born in England, with Welsh roots.

Nikita Lalwani (From India, raised in Wales.)

Trezza Azzopardi (Thought she was Italian?)

Jan Morris

Ack, frustrating. Was it the poverty of the Welsh, the day to day necessity of survival that has kept them from producing writers or are they so obscure even Wikipedia isn’t picking them up? I can’t believe there aren’t more Welsh writers. Something’s amiss.

Ah, here we go: the Wales Book of the Year award.

They’re alive and breathing, just not well promoted. Or, drowned out by their neighbors to the East and West, two literary powerhouses. This gives me something to work with, perhaps I’m only a Kindle download away from great Welsh writing.



“I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream.” 

– Dylan Thomas


I can see now my backpack will be bulging. I’ll be stumbling over it in the cramped coach section. My poor seat mate! The airline should warn people, maybe with color-coded name tags: “Caution: READER!” Now seating THE READERS, stand clear.

Magazines… Literary journals… I have those cluttering up the place. I could bring a few, finish and hand them off. It would feel good getting through a dozen or so.

Now look what I’ve done, creating an impossible list of reads for what’s to be a very visual travel experience. I won’t be reading on buses and trains! I’ll have my nose pressed to the glass, camera ready. Still, I feel I need to familiarize myself with the culture and of course the writing is my go to favorite. I love museums and am wild for archaeology in the wide open but I need to know the literature to know the people. To understand their soul.

Perhaps I’ll bring Roddy Doyle and the short stories to represent Ireland and whatever I can lay hands on from modern Welsh literary fiction or non. Plus the Kindle, natch. And along the way, who knows? I’m sure something will pop up. Books, literary journals, newspapers… I should be okay.

Recommendations? Shoot.







My god I hate planning trips




I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent planning my upcoming trip to Ireland and Wales, certainly more than I’ll spend in the air – both going to and coming back from Dublin.

The Euro and British Pound both crush the dollar; hotels are ungodly expensive. I don’t even want to know what food will cost. Adding up our hotel and bus tour totals I had the passing thought maybe it would be safe to sleep on park benches. Dublin’s a nice city. It has loads and loads of parks. We could switch every night, maybe even take turns sitting up watching our luggage. I’d feel a lot better about eating and drinking if that load were off my back. Another alternative would be fighting the pigeons for bread, perhaps camouflaging ourselves somehow so we look like overgrown birds. Dodos, maybe.

Are you sure no one out there lives in Dublin and has a floor to spare?


I shaved a day off Dublin to save a few Euros or Pounds or however you convert hotel money spent in Wales instead of Ireland’s capital city. Still far from cheap, even in relatively far-flung Welsh towns. I chose Bangor, partly because it’s pretty and partly because it’s a nice, leisurely trip over the sea then by train. It’s sort of ocean-front, though not really since we’re staying inland, somewhere I can’t believe actually is considered Bangor but then again Wales is a tiny country. What we will have are glorious mountain views. I suppose I’m okay with that, since we’ll see loads of the sea when we get back around to Swansea. We’ll have the all-around package before it’s said and done. Much money will be spent but many things will be seen.

It’s only a one-time thing, right?

You know who I envy right now? Travel journalists. I want to knock their heads together, I’m so jealous. Perhaps if I’d studied journalism in college, even had a clue what was out there for journalists, I may have worked my way up to travel writing. As it is, I think this is it. Oh, maybe I’ll write a novel, some stories, a stray article and certainly many more book reviews but I feel sick to my stomach when I consider what instruction in writing may have done for me. Honestly, I had no idea what the world held. I grew up in a cornfield, in Central Illinois. Not too horribly far from where David Foster Wallace lived but let’s not think about that.

Please, let’s not think about that.

I didn’t know about MFAs. It didn’t cross my mind to go to a real college with journalism majors. Hard to imagine anyone less informed than I. Yes, I read an awful lot and wrote stupid bits and pieces but now here I am and I can’t see how I’d possibly progress much from here. As far as travel writing, what a joke! My best risk-taking days are behind me, at least my first flush of youth. In my favor, I have stopped giving much of a damn about appearing stupid or childish in public. My kids can confirm that. But with my knees, obstinate refusal to “rough it” and great dislike of crowded places I’m not the best candidate to complete with Paul Theroux. He can rest easily on that account.

Still, surely there’s something I can do, without breaking the bank?

Och, why did I waste my youth! I’m of course the only person to have this regret, the only person to suffer so. And while I’m getting what may be this last chance to travel, with three kids I certainly can’t make a habit of it. Would anyone be interested in travel writing about what’s a day’s trip from where I live?

Hell, no!

Stuck I am, planning one last itinerary, spending an indecent amount of money, doomed to suburbia for the rest of my years. My pathetic years…

Well, that was cathartic. Maybe drowning in the Liffey would be an impressive way to go out, eh? At least I’d make a headline that way.






When critical impartiality fails


There comes a time reviewers risk becoming dangerously involved in an author’s work, too involved to maintain impartiality without exerting great and conscious self-control. Without noticing it, you become slanted. Every now and then it’s not a bad idea to remind yourself the integrity of professionalism demands lack of prior judgment – good or bad. Favorite writer or not.

We’ve all read exaggerated, glowing author blurbs bearing no resemblance to the books they praise. These are obviously exchanged for an understood return of the favor, at some later point, or a bit of cronyism that exists in all professions, particularly visible in the case of writers. Then there are established writers who use their name recognition to increase sales for a new writer – a kind gesture to the writer that just happens to screw the reader. How do you feel when you’ve spent money, invested time only to find the publicity was misleading? I feel ripped off, less inclined to trust author blurbs at all, which is actually a pretty good rule of thumb.

I believe I’m fairly equitable. Or I did, until last weekend, when I allowed myself to become overwrought after reading a scathing neither true review nor critical piece on the latest book by a personal favorite writer. A book I haven’t yet read, I hasten to add, written by an author whose stature I admire without qualification. Already in a depressed spirit, the unfair criticism was enough to catapult me over the edge. Hey, I’m human.

I’m not particularly proud of my reaction, rushing to rip the critic a new one via social media, but his piece was a sad excuse for a review. I was out for blood, reacting without benefit of forethought. Never, ever a good idea. The result was an embarrassment. Thinking about it the next day, what I did was no better than what he had, using an opportunity to belt a person in the stomach just because I could.

In my defense, what he wrote addressing the actual book encompassed barely a few lines, the rest devoted to tearing into the author’s entire oeuvre, even that writing vague and weak. This was not proper literary criticism, much less a review. I question why the publication ran the piece, the writer’s literary stature obviously the sole criterion assuring automatic acceptance, without benefit of editing. This is a dangerous precedent, one that threatens the integrity of criticism as a whole, but apparently one still very much alive and well.

The only solution assuring impartiality involves keeping in mind few to no professionally edited works are either perfect or completely without merit, at least to its intended audience. Individuals feel positively or negatively about a particular title – or author – but genuinely impartial reviews first take into account the intent of the writer and how well he or she did or did not live up to the expectations of his/her audience. Other points, such as style, voice and the highly subjective definition of literary merit are what will vary greatest from review to review, where individual reviewers have the most latitude for personal opinion.

In either case, the reader must take it all with a grain of salt. My advice? Don’t trust any single critical piece written about an author or his work. Trust the source first, before the piece. All venues are not created equally. Know the source and gain familiarity with the reviewer. Even then, keep in mind all reviewers occasionally slip and forget all this, throwing impartiality out the window. We praise, we rip apart, we get into moods.

Then we are bad. Very, very bad.

I feel like I’ve purged my sins. How about you? Well, we’ll work on you next time.

It’ll be okay. Trust me. I’m a professional.