Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Annual St. Patrick's Day Guest Blog

For the third year, Gianna has conned a chump into writing a guest blog about being Irish as our tribute to St. Patrick's Day. Gianna spends all year telling people she's Italian, and then today she claims she's half Irish. It's so sad. Anyway, today's guest blog comes from Brian Contine. When his wife heard that he was writing this blog piece, her comment was "But you're not Irish...." Take that for what it's worth. Oh, right, and Brian is an assistant editor at The University of Texas Press.

Saint Patrick’s Day is a colossal waste of time, beer, and green food coloring.  Although beer and food coloring should never be wasted, wasting time is not such a bad thing. I work in the publishing industry, so I am beholden to the choices people make when wasting their time. I’ve got only so much time on this great green earth, why not spend it on something unnecessary like Saint Patrick’s Day?
This is Brian reading to his son Oliver.

I’m Irish in that very American way of not caring about Ireland at all. My mother cares, though, and because of that, I’ll dress my two boys in green pants and shamrocks on this most drunken holiday. In honor of my Gaelic past, we’ll play showtunes, watch Ellen, and worship at the altar of Tim Gunn. (It might be time to reexamine my phonetic understanding of the word 'Gaelic.')

And just as predictable as the bad decisions made on Sixth Street, the literary blogosphere will churn out the run of the mill Irish clich├ęs. There will be funny quotes from James Joyce, readings of Keats, and wonderfully staged photos of Dylan Thomas. Site after site will inundate us with Irishtopia. Not this site! No. We strive to go a little deeper here. To go the extra mile. On this most Irish holiday, I want to focus on what it really means to be Irish. Since I have no idea what it means to be Irish, I read the Wikipedia entry for the History of Ireland…

Holy crap. Ireland has had a tough time of it since 8000 BC. Seriously, why has the world so regularly stepped on the neck of this little green rock? From Viking invasions, to harsh English rule, to the Nationalists and the Unionists blowing stuff up, Ireland has seen a series of one bad time after another. There was also a little trouble with some potatoes between 1845 and 1852. The real essence of the Irish, it seems, is survival. They go through hell, and they endure. [Liz here: I wanted to add that this bum rap continues today. My last name is Sullivan...and I share a blog with Gianna. Hell.]

 How do we celebrate the Irish perseverance? We have two choices: we can punch ourselves in the face repeatedly throughout the day, or we can read.  We could also do both, but let's just stick to reading.  So what are the books that I feel best reflect that Irish spirit of getting kicked in the teeth and liking it?

Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter: Henry Bright went off to war, and he brought something back. The thing about Henry and WWI is this, and I’m paraphrasing Ritter here, imagine you were living in the early nineteen hundreds, in the mountains of West Virginia, and imagine you were poor- real poor. You would have lived a solitary life, maybe you’ve seen a thousand people your whole life. You’ve seen a car, but not that many, and most people you know walk and ride horses. Now imagine you get sent to WWI, you get on a boat and cross an ocean, you get off the boat, and you see a tank. Lots of tanks. And after you wrap your head around the magnitude of the tank, and the ocean, and the world, then you watch 20,000 people die in a single day. You’re damn right you bring something back, and that thing may be horrible, it may be an angel, or it may just be a figment, but it is real to you. All that you, or all that Henry, can hope for is that this something will help.

Ava by Carole Maso: I love Carol Maso as much as Saint Patrick hates snakes. Maso is what most people would call “experimental." Most people use this as a derogatory term, but not me. I love the stretching and twisting of language to do something new. Ava recounts the last day of Ava Klein. It is a collection of disconnected sentences. This, more than any book I’ve ever read, is about rhythm. When you pick up the novel, start reading and don’t stop. Keep going, go numb with the sentences, and come out at the end with something that is bigger than a collection of plot points. Two things that we can’t understand: birth and death. Ava is our best approximation of what someone might be thinking on their last day, and the brilliance of the whole thing is that it is partly nostalgic, hopeful, mundane, naughty, sad, funny, regimented, impossible, and inevitable. If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, I’d read Don Quixote, but if I could only read two books for the rest of my life, Ava would be the second.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan: Egan’s award winning history of the Dust Bowl is political for me. It had to be, right? The free market drove huge numbers of people to the High Plains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The free market told them to plow through millions of years of progress in terms of dirt and grass. The strong backs of these farmers actually moved an entire region of dirt. The problem was they left “the wrong side up.” The free market turned its back on them, and then forced them to double down on their bad idea. These people who came to the High Plains were the most productive farmers in the history of humanity, and they died because of it. Big Government saw this problem early, organized relief, and built a plan to regulate the mending of the soil. This book teaches a lot of lessons, but none are more important than the idea that the things we do matter and that we are a collective, beholden to each other for everything. If we ignore our neighbor, and try to take shortcuts with nature, the sky will open up and drop the earth on our heads. It happened, and not that long ago. Burt Reynolds was alive to see it happen. It may also be important to note that Egan can write. I’ve read some critiques that he spends a bit too much time talking about the land and its people. O.k., guilty. If you are not nostalgic about farmers and land, this book is not for you. If you are human, this book is just what you’re looking for.

When Pigasso Met Mootisse by Nina Laden: This book gets me every time. The plot is as follows: Pigasso is a pig that likes to paint strange pictures, and Mootisse is a cow that also likes to paint, and in a most unusual way. They both become huge stars in the anthropomorphic art world, and they also become friends. But, as we’ve seen time and again, professional jealousies take over, and ruin their friendship. Things happen that shouldn’t have, and things that should not have been said were said. These two giants of the animal kingdom, it seems, won’t ever get back together. But just when all seems lost, they begin to miss each other. Their friendship is rekindled, and all is well. Just like bacon wrapped beef tenderloin, these two were made for each other, and the world of fake animals making childish art has never been the same. 

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