Meet the bloggers

November 7, 2014

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Bloggers are a strange breed. We spend hours in front of our computer screens when other people are out partying, seeing friends or asleep (I, for example, am writing this at 6.50am – why on earth?). We obsess over details (when normal people are thinking about dinner or plans for the weekend, we will most likely be agonising over which photo to choose for our next post or wondering if the ‘and’ in the third sentence should really be a ‘but’). And we know an alarming amount about sometimes extremely niche areas of life.

So when I was invited to take part in Blog10′s inaugural social event, bringing together a group of bloggers from a variety of fields over dinner and wine to discuss ‘The Changing Face of Blogging’, I was both excited and apprehensive. Could a handful of us webby weirdos really sustain intelligent conversation over the course of several hours, I wondered. Would there come a point where we all became jibbering wrecks muttering in corners, our fingers twitching from keyboard withdrawal?

As it turned out, my fears were groundless. From the moment I arrived at Book and Kitchen (a beautiful bookshop with a café and events space in London’s Notting Hill, loved into being by director Muna Khogali), I knew this was going to be a good evening.

One of the most fascinating things about it was the range topics we covered on our blogs. From flower writer Rona Wheeldon’s award-winning Flowerona to Mark Sheerin’s art blog Criticismism, and eclectic sites such as Katie Antoniou’s London Plinth and AnOther magazine blog represented by Mhairi Graham, we hailed from a huge variety of virtual worlds. In addition, our ventures ranged in size from those with a few hundred hits here and there to Abimarvel by superstar fashion blogger Abisola Omole, who – six years after she started her blog during her GCSEs at school – employs a full-time staff member and an intern to help her run the site.

I was particularly interested to meet fellow book blogger Kim Forrester and hear about her ten years of experience writing Reading Matters – which makes A Year of Reading the World seem like a flash in the pan.

As the evening went on, topics of conversation included how blogging changed our lives, how we used social media, and potential threats to freedom on the web such as the issue of net neutrality. The debate was ably led by Kate Baxter of Fabric of My Life and the whole thing was helped along by some fabulous food prepared by Muna and her team (you can see the scrumptious chicken biryani on Mark’s plate in the photo above). And although everyone looks quite serious in that picture, there were plenty of laughs.

I’m told there will be a podcast of some of the discussion, which I’ll share here when I can. But in the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences. How has creating and running a blog been for you?

With thanks to Marmalade PR for the invitation.

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As those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while will know, translation (or the lack of it) is probably the single biggest obstacle literary explorers have to face. With only a handful of texts from many countries making it into English – the globe’s most published language – each year, the literary offering from many parts of the planet available to Anglophone readers is negligible, if not non-existent.

This can affect classics and national treasures every bit as much as lesser known works. During my Year of Reading the World, for example, I was shocked to discover that the great Mozambican novel Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (named one of the top 100 African books of the 20th century) had not been published in English. I was lucky to read a manuscript translation and discover Khosa’s towering warrior-leader hero, Ngungunhane, that way. But for the moment, unless they also read Portuguese, Anglophone bibliophiles have no official way of meeting him.

So when fellow book blogger Marina Sofia tipped me off about a long overdue translation of a novel by another internationally celebrated writer, I was determined to take a look.

Coming some 86 years after the original, Michelle Bailat-Jones‘s rendering of Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz‘s Beauty on Earth makes the work widely available to English-language readers for the first time (there is an anonymous 1929 translation, but it is only stocked in a very few libraries and diverges from the French-language version in several key respects).

The story turns on the arrival of Cuban emigrant Juliette in a small European mountain village following the death of her father. The plan is for her to stay with her uncle, a café owner called Milliquet, until she turns 21, but before long Juliette’s unsettling beauty has stirred simmering resentments and tensions in the community, setting a train of events in motion that can only end in disaster.

As Bailat-Jones observes in her ‘Translators note’, the narrative voice is one of the most curious and distinctive aspects of the book. Part Greek chorus, part omniscient witness, it veers between every perspective and none, swooping in and out of people’s minds and concerns – not to mention pronouns and tenses. At times it has an almost hypnotic feel, with the repetition of key phrases giving the text a compelling timelessness, as though its events are taking place in an eerie eternal present.

This sense of timelessness is heightened by the creative portrayals of action, colours and scenery in the book, which give it the air of an intricate landscape painting set before our eyes. Small details are rendered with fine brushwork. We read, for example, of how ‘a ladder of sunshine had descended from a hole in the sky, like a boat throwing a rope to someone cast overboard’; of a leaf ‘wrinkled up [...] like a duck’s foot’; and of how, when one of the characters smashes a mirror, ‘a star is made in the glass and his view of us vanishes’.

Meanwhile, flashes of light come in the form of shockingly precise observations on the human experience, revealing in language as clear as glass how ‘one has to kill impossible things inside oneself’ and how vehemently we deny the approach of our own ruin.

Inevitably, the experimental use of images and words means that occasionally the events described take some time to come into focus, leaving us momentarily bewildered and unsure as to exactly what is going on. In addition, the ponderous pace of some of the scenes – in which the narrative eye can linger on the cutting and consuming of bread and cheese, for example, for several sentences – sparks the occasional flicker of impatience.

Taken as a whole though, the accretion of these details builds up a mesmeric picture so that, in the final pages, we are able to step back from the canvas and appreciate the full effect. Beautiful.

Beauty on Earth (La beauté sur la terre) by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, translated from the French by Michelle Bailat-Jones (Onesuch Press, 2013)

Proofs!

October 15, 2014

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Yesterday, I got an email from my UK editor, Michal Shavit at Harvill Secker/Random House. She said the uncorrected proofs of Reading the World had arrived.

Unable to be in the same city as my book without holding a copy in my hands, I made a detour on my way to visit a friend and stopped off at Random House in Pimlico. This little pile of beauties was waiting for me – six of only 80 produced to be sent out to journalists and reviewers in advance of publication next year. They’re not finished – there are still some proofreading things to catch and one or two loose ends to tie up – but they are pretty close, a sort of dress rehearsal for how the book will be.

I stuffed them into my trusty Daunt Books bag and scurried off, eager to have a good look. Over the next few days I’ll be combing through the pages and going over the queries from the proofreader to try to catch any last slips and typos before it all goes to press for the final time.

There’s a lot to do before it’s finally put to bed, but this is definitely a proud moment. Hard to believe it all started with a 300-word blog post asking for help from the world’s readers almost exactly three years ago today

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As promised, here’s the cover for the US edition of my book, which will come out next summer, published by Liveright/Norton. As you’ll see, it’s very different from the UK jacket – not least because it has a different title. The reason for this is that Norton publishes an anthology called Reading the World, so we needed to come up with something new. We batted various ideas around for a few days before my editor Elisabeth Kerr and her colleagues came up with this ingenious solution.

However, though it’s very different, the jacket designers have once again captured something of the spirit of the original quest. This time, it’s the shelf, which formed the backdrop for all the books I read in 2012 (and which you can see filling up over the course of that year in the little film below).

I love how clean and smart this cover feels, while still managing to have a touch or warmth and quirkiness about it. Roll on 2015…

Revealed: UK cover

October 7, 2014

Reading The World

I am delighted to share the cover of Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which will be published in the UK by Harvill Secker/Random House on 5 February, 2015.

The clever designers behind it (who have also created jackets for books by the likes of Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan and Graham Greene – eek!) have worked hard to weave in lots of elements from the original project. Look closely and you’ll see some of the titles from the list featured on the map, along with a number of objects from different regions.

I love the warm and personal feel of it. And I’m also fascinated by how different it is from the US cover, which I’ll share with you around this time tomorrow.

Watch this space…

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Those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world in 2012 may remember the difficulty I had choosing a book to read from India. With such a wealth of stories available from this nation of 1.2 billion people, it seemed impossible to find a way to select just one for my project.

Luckily for me, the dilemma was solved when Indian writer Suneetha Balakrishnan stopped by the blog and observed that all the recommendations I’d had were for books written in English, and that there was a huge amount of even better literature written her nation’s 22 other official languages – not to mention the many unofficial tongues also spoken there. On the strength of Suneetha’s comments, I chose a book by one of her favourite authors, MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. As you can see from the post I wrote at the time, it proved to be a great decision.

All the same, I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t explore more Indian literature in translation during that year. It seemed that there was a rich variety of amazing stories that we English-language speakers rarely if ever hear about.

So I was delighted to hear from Suneetha this summer that she has been blogging for women’s writing magazine Mslexia about Indian literature written in languages other than English. In celebration of this (and because I enjoyed her previous recommendation so much), I decided to feature one of the novels she has reviewed as my September Book of the month.

I plumped for Crowfall by Shanta Gokhale. This was partly because of Suneetha’s enthusiasm for the book, which you can read about on her post, and partly because I was intrigued by the process the novel went through to get into my hands. Not only did Ghokale write the original version in Marathi, she also translated it into English herself. I was intrigued to see how it had turned out.

Crowfall is a big and ambitious book. It weaves together the experiences of three painters, a musician, a journalist, a teacher and the widowed mother of two of them in Mumbai. Recording their struggles as they attempt to define their careers, themselves and one another – and overcome their grief at a series of untimely deaths and a loved one’s disappearance – it uses individual lives as a prism through which to look at large questions of identity, prejudice, the caste system and what we mean when we talk about art.

Though the premise might be tricky to unpick, the language certainly isn’t. Gokhale has worked as a translator during her career and her facility with words shines through in the beautiful clarity of her sentences. Time and again, succinct phrases capture complex ideas and emotions. From writing about the experience of being crushed between passengers on a bus ‘like chutney in a sandwich’ and describing an extreme method for dealing with Eve-teasing, to a skilful elucidation of the way performances based on raags (melodic modes) work in Hindustani music, Gokhale brings us along with her, by dint of her clear, compelling voice.

This linguistic precision makes the discussion of many of the larger issues that pepper the narrative a joy to read. I particularly liked the exploration of what constitutes art in the book, which is accompanied by many insightful descriptions of what it is like to be caught up in the creative process, such as this one:

Creative ideas are like that. You don’t plead with them to come. You pretend you can live happily without them. Then they steal upon you like thieves. Just be alert to grab them by the hair.

Gokhale’s portrayals of the experience of consuming art (as well as the platefuls of delicious-sounding food served throughout the book) are similarly eloquent – no mean feat, as many writers fail miserably when faced with conjuring up what it is like to look at a colourful, urgent painting in flat, grey words.

With such a large cast of central characters and numerous peripheral figures, the book can be confusing at times. This isn’t helped by Gokhale’s decision to leave considerable amounts of dialogue unattributed, so that you can find yourself confronted with long stretches of sentences in speech marks, wondering who said what. In addition, the numerous philosophical discussions – though skilfully rendered – slow the narrative down. There are times when you get the sense that Gokhale is much more interested in evoking experiences and exploring ideas than telling a story.

For all that, though, this is a marvellous read. As intricate as a performance of a raag, it intertwines experiences, lives and cultural specificities to create a powerful and thought-provoking – if sometimes dissonant – whole. Once again, like MT’s work, it provides a tantalising taste of the banquet Indian writers working in languages other than English have prepared.

Crowfall (Tya Varshi [That Year]) by Shanta Gokhale, translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale (Penguin Books India, 2013)

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I wrote in my last post about the nervous wait to hear whether or not my forthcoming book will be published in the US. What I didn’t say was that of course I was incredibly fortunate to be in a position to have my work considered by publishers in the first place: for writers in many parts of the world just getting your work onto an editor’s desk can be a struggle because there simply aren’t the publishing networks in place to foster, promote and sell much new material.

The Caribbean is one such place. With hundreds of small islands dotted over more than a million square miles of ocean, the region faces big challenges when it comes to moving goods around – and books are no exception. When you tot up the cost of editing, printing and shipping titles, it’s hard to see how a publisher in the region could make any money. People in the industry seem to agree because, apart from a few hardy enterprises in bigger nations like Jamaica, there are very few publishing houses in the region – in fact one of the most famous companies that deals in Caribbean literature, Peepal Tree Press, operates out of Leeds in Yorkshire, England, thousands of miles away.

Add to this the relatively young literary culture of the islands (until a generation or two ago most books taught in schools were by British and American authors) and the lack of literary agents and, until recently, support programmes for Caribbean writers, and you begin to wonder how an aspiring wordsmith in a place like Barbados could hope to get his or her stories out. So when Antiguan writer and blogger Joanne C. Hillhouse tipped me off about an anthology made up of the best Caribbean entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (for which I was privileged to act as a longlister late last year), I was keen to take a look.

Bringing together work by writers in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Belize and more, Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean aims to broadcast the region’s literature to a wider audience. It is the first title published under the name Peekash Press, a collaboration between Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books set up to publish works by writers living in the Caribbean – as opposed to those in the diaspora, who make up the majority of these publishers’ lists.

Just as the collection seeks to bring new work to the wider world, so it also opens up fresh perspectives. If you thought that an anthology of short stories written in the Caribbean might reflect back at you all those tempting clichés of white-sand beaches, piña coladas and long, sleepy afternoons, you can think again. Packed with drama, many of the tales throb with a violent energy and deal with the very darkest human impulses. We read of gang violence, dead children, beatings, abuse and robbery.

Indeed, if you want a masterclass in how to start your stories with a bang, this is the book for you. Memorable first lines abound, perhaps the most striking being the opening of Sharon Leach’s ‘All the Secret Things No One Ever Knows’: ‘Ten years ago, I found out that I wasn’t my father’s only girlfriend.’

There’s also humour. I particularly liked Barbara Jenkins’ ‘A Good Friday’ for this, with its loveable-rogue narrator who gets more than he bargains for when a devout young woman in distress happens by his bar.

The drama and humour are heightened by robust and often very inventive language. At their best, the writers use their imagery not only to illuminate the experiences of their characters but also to share specific details about their worlds. So, for example, we read in Ivory Kelly’s ‘This Thing We Call Love’ of conversations that ‘were like boil-up, with plantains and cassava and other kinds of ground food and salted meat thrown into a pot of water, in no particular order, and boiled until the pot is a steaming, bubbling, savoury cuisine’, or in Joanne C. Hillhouse’s own ‘Amelia at Devil’s Bridge’ about rocks that ‘are sharper than a coconut vendor’s cutlass’.

Many of the stories are brought to life with equally colourful dialogue, although this poses some interesting questions. A number of the writers have chosen to represent the dialects of their characters for a Standard English-speaking reader (so that someone who uses British or American English could pronounce the words phonetically and get them to sound as the characters would say them). While there are practical reasons for this choice, it has the effect of implying a reader who comes from elsewhere, as though the literary legacy of previous generations is still present on some level. It will be interesting to see whether the region’s authors continue to write in this way in years to come.

As is inevitable with anthologies of this kind, the quality of the pieces varies. Structure is shaky in some, while others have a frustrating, unfinished feel, as though they are fragments of larger works. A few fall into the trap of telling rather than showing, or cram so much incident in that they read more like synopses for novels or (in some cases) action films than stories in their own right. There are also instances of overwriting, where tenuous metaphors and similes are heaped onto sentences too flimsy to take their weight.

Taken as a whole, however, this is an exciting and heartening book. It proves – if anyone was in any doubt – that the Caribbean has plenty of homegrown literary talent to draw upon. Congratulations to Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books for creating a platform for these authors in the shape of Peekash Press. Judging by this collection, there are thrilling things ahead.

PepperPot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Peekash Press, 2014)

US book deal with Norton

August 23, 2014

Celebration near Ground Zero

The last month or so has been a strange time for me. On the one hand, there was the euphoria of getting to the end of the stack of edits I showed you on the penultimate draft of Reading the World and knowing that the book I’d been writing on and off for 18 months was done. But on the other, there was the knowledge that this meant I was entering a whole new phase of the publishing process with challenges of its own.

For me, finding out whether the book would get a publisher in the US was top of the pile. With the manuscript finished, Sarah Levitt at the Zoë Pagnamenta Agency in New York (who often works with my agent Caroline Hardman in the UK) was able to swing into action, pitching the project to editors Stateside.

A nervous wait ensued. I tried not to think about it too much. I reminded myself that it’s rare for a British debut author to get taken on in the US, where publishers have their pick of tens of thousands of homegrown wordsmiths. And I consoled myself with the thought that, whatever happened, my book was going to be published in the UK in early 2015 by Harvill Secker/Random House – and that was far more than I had ever dreamed would happen when I first embarked on the madcap adventure of reading a book from every country in the world in a year. A deal in the US would be the icing on the cake, I told myself.

But the truth was, no matter how sanguine I tried to be about it, I cared very much about whether or not the book would come out in America. Having spent the first few weeks of my Year of Reading the World in the States (the picture at the top, in case you haven’t spotted it, was taken on the pier at Coney Island), I feel that the project has a particular connection with the place – several of the stories I read in those early stages were picked off the shelves at McNally Jackson. What’s more, given that over a third of total views of this blog have come from the US, I was keen to share the book with the nation that has been this venture’s most enthusiastic supporter.

So you can imagine my excitement when Sarah Levitt got in touch this week to confirm that we had a deal with editor Elisabeth Kerr at W.W. Norton & Co. The fact that the publisher is Norton and that the book will be coming out under its Liveright imprint (or trade name) makes the news all the sweeter – relaunched in 2012, Liveright sets out to publish ‘outstanding works that define and redefine our culture’. Its historic list is a literary hall of fame, with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and T.S. Eliot accounting for just some of its impressive names.

I was particularly delighted to discover that one of Liveright’s first publications after its relaunch was George Orwell’s Diaries. Orwell has always been a bit of a hero of mine and, like me, he started out as a sub-editor on British newspapers (although, much as I might like to think otherwise, the similarities between us probably end there).

The book is set to come out in the US in summer 2015 (probably in May, but I’ll let you know once the date is confirmed). However, if I thought my writing work on it was done, it turns out I can think again: Norton is publishing an anthology called Reading the World soon, so Elisabeth and I will need to think of another title for the US edition. Any suggestions gratefully received…

Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen

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The nation that July’s Book of the Month hails from is not represented on the A Year of Reading the World list of 195 UN-recognised states plus Taiwan. One of the 22 republics representing ethnic minority groups in Russia, the region now known as North Ossetia-Alania was absorbed into the bigger country in the mid-19th century and has been part of it ever since. Had I read this book back in 2012, I would have had to file it under ‘Russia’ or perhaps put it among my ‘Rest of the World’ contenders.

Much like his homeland, novelist Alan Cherchesov, who is also founder and director of the Institute of Civilization in the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz, is little-known in the English-speaking world. Indeed, it was only by chance that I heard of him. Having read Andrei Volos’s mini masterpiece Hurramabad – one of the most exquisite books I encountered during my project – for Tajikistan, I received an email from Natasha Perova at the publisher Glas New Russian Writing. She thanked me for my review and suggested a couple of other titles on their list that might interest me.

Two years later, as I began to look around for stories to consider for my Book of the Month slot, I remembered that email and tracked down the works on it. And I’m very glad that I did, because in Cherchesov’s novel, Requiem for the Living, I discovered one of the most extraordinary narratives I have ever read.

Relating the exploits of a mysterious orphan, Alone, who comes to live in a remote mountain aul  (village) as a child and gradually assumes control of the entire community, the novel weaves a haunting and troubling picture. As the population contends with the arrival of the sinister Belgians who are intent on exploiting the region’s resources, the contempt of the ethnic Russians and the locals’ own blind adherence to feuds and traditions, we see the inscrutable protagonist manipulate the course of events ‘twining the multicoloured threads of all these individuals lives together’ in a brave and painful attempt to escape his own dubious past. Part fable, part morality tale and part epic, the novel – narrated by the son of one of the other main characters – reveals how loyalties can at once bind us together and tear us apart.

Cherchesov has a gift for evoking the remote world of his story through succinct descriptions. From the prison cell with ‘two dozen bunks, soiled plasterwork, and a permanent atmosphere of stubborn, lonely fury’ to the powerful narration of a horse and cart careening over a precipice, he brings the strange, dreamlike events of his narrative close to us.

The same is true of his encapsulation of the feelings and anxieties of his characters in small details. The observation, for example, that for an Ossetian villager ‘speaking Russian in front of a crowd of people was almost like stripping naked in public’ tells us all we need to know about the relations between the two ethnic groups.

In particular, Cherchesov is a master of portraying conflicting emotions and reveals again and again how emotional weather can change in the space of a sentence, as rapidly as the mist rolls in to shroud the aul. Using a technique known as free indirect discourse, he plaits the narrative into the thoughts and words of his characters, laying bare the way we buck and struggle under the pull of irreconcilable concerns and desires. Episodes such as the unravelling of a love triangle involving a jealous shopkeeper and the narrator’s father, the morning-after curdling of tenderness between Alone and the prostitute to whom he loses his virginity, and his drunken rant to the narrator after a girl kills herself for love of him come alive because of the inconsistencies that the author threads through them.

For all its brilliance, though, the novel does come with a sizeable health warning. This is not an easy book. Indeed, the word ‘labyrinthine’ might have been coined for it. From the sentence level up, it is intricate and demanding, often switching between time periods and perspectives in a handful of words.

This is made all the more challenging by the fact that there are no section or chapter breaks, so that the narrative is a single 351-page chunk. The reason for this could be, as a German critic writing in Die Welt has suggested, because the work owes a lot to a complex Eastern literary genre known as ‘divan’, in which threads weave together like the patterns of a carpet. While this may be true, it does not make for a relaxing read. In particular, Cherchesov’s tendency to withhold backstory until very late in the narrative can make for moments of extreme bafflement as characters’ carry out seemingly bizarre actions that only make sense much later.

Nevertheless, the book rewards those who persevere. I’ll warrant few of us raised in the Western literary tradition will have come across much like this before. It is certainly one of the strangest and at times most mesmerising stories I have ever read. And, like the region it comes from, it deserves to be more widely known.

Requiem for the Living by Alan Cherchesov, translated from the Russian by Subhi Shervell (Glass New Russian Writing, 2005)

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PODCAST: Interview with Marian Finucane

This weekend was exciting. I was invited to be a guest on the Marian Finucane show on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1. It’s always an honour when people are interested to hear about A Year of Reading the World, but I knew this was a particularly big deal when my Irish neighbour’s eyes lit up at the mention of the programme. ‘Oh how wonderful,’ she said. ‘I must try and listen in.’

Because Dublin was a little far for me to travel from London on a Saturday morning, the producers had booked a studio for me at BBC Western House near Oxford Circus. The arrangement was that I would go there and do the interview remotely.

There was only one snag: as the place is unmanned at the weekends, I would have to let myself in. There wouldn’t really be anyone around to help set me up.

Not being a technical person, this made me slightly nervous. I had visions of myself sitting in front of a bewildering array of buttons and switches desperately trying to work out what to press as poor Marian called my name again and again from across the Irish Sea.

Luckily, the reality was quite different. I arrived in the studio to find three microphones –coloured so that I could be sure I was sitting in front of the correct one – and an incredibly comprehensive list of instructions. ‘To your left there is a phone,’ I read. ‘Pick it up, dial this number and tell the control room in Broadcasting House that you are ready to proceed.’ It felt a bit like being a secret agent in a spy film.

Before I knew it, I was listening in to the show, waiting for my slot. If I’d been at all anxious from the technical shenanigans, I’ve no doubt Marian would have put me at my ease. She was so charming and interested in the project that it was a real pleasure to speak to her.

As you can hear from the podcast of the show above, we had a great chat. And if I needed any more proof of what a star Marian Finucane is, the number of visitors to this blog from Ireland over the last few days has told its own story. Céad míle fáilte to you all.

Photo by curtis.kennington

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