THE BEST OF TIMES

Oh, how my summers have changed…
Clichéd and all as it sounds, it really does just seem like only yesterday, that summer holidays from school started with a trip to the Zoo.  The first sunny day after the kids finished in early July I would pack up the car with all necessary supplies and we would head over to the Phoenix Park. There we would pass happy hours marvelling at the exotic creatures until they started to flag – the children that is, not the exotic creatures.  The final few enclosures could be a bit tortuous but it was always a great day, well except for the traffic on the quays on the way home.
                   
Summer also meant a visit to Glenroe Farm in Wicklow, usually with the cousins.  A good summer meant we may get there more than once.  With the sun on our backs we would wander around talking to donkeys, cows and pigs before finally choosing a picnic table or two on which we would spread our food and treats.  Afterwards the kids would do another round of the animals or just spend an hour in ‘pets corner’ while the mammies and the grannies stayed and chatted or gossiped.  It was bliss.
But days out weren’t always so organised.  Most summers we had countless picnics in the local park which has a great playground which would keep them amused for at least an hour while I read my book.  Or we could go to the river bank – well stream bank really – with our fishing nets to catch pinkeens – on the strict understanding we threw them back.  Or we could just sit on the grass making daisy chains or eating ice cream. 
Other days we could head to the beach at Killiney for a walk and for skimming stones or to Sandycove for a paddle. 
The last summer treat, which began as they got a little older, was to take a trip down the N11 to Bray.  Old fashioned fun which carried echoes of my own childhood as we sampled rides on the bumper cars, the ghost train and the Waltzers.  We also had a budget amount of small change to lose on the slot machines.  The best part of the day though was ending with a bag of chips and a coke consumed in the car as we watched the sea through rapidly steaming up windows.
I miss eating chips from a bag in the car.  I miss paddling.  I miss daisy chains.  Hell I even miss catching pinkeens.
But we weren’t always out.  Every summer began in the hope of lots of warm weather and so we bought a paddling pool which over the years got bigger and very slightly more sophisticated.  But we had one rule for our paddling pool – it had to be able to accommodate the end of the garden slide.  On those sunny days, before water charges were even a glint in a Minister’s eye, I would rig up the garden hose to the top of the slide and off they would go; an aqua park in the back garden.  It made a muddy mess of the lawn and many bushes got permanently damaged from small bodies careering into them at high speed but it was the best of craic, even just for the observer.
As the summer slipped towards autumn, we bought new schoolbags and school socks in Dunnes Stores and assembled the books for the coming year without needing a mortgage. 
We also paid a visit to the toy store and the art shop to treat ourselves to some indoor activities for the winter; games and crafts and colouring books and crayons.  God I miss the excuse to lie on the floor for an hour colouring in.  Talk about being in the moment – ‘colouring in’ is the most amazing de-stresser.
I miss spending hours in the kids section of the bookshop among so many beautifully illustrated and magical books. 
But that’s what happens with kids – suddenly your sunny, exuberant, up for anything darlings leave junior school and head into secondary.  They get very tall and all of a sudden you are not great craic anymore (well you are, but never in public).
And while as a parent you relish the new freedom their independence affords you, there are things you will miss and will probably continue to miss until some day you will be called ‘granny’ and get to do them again.
But until that day comes, I vow that this summer I will return to the Zoo – on my own if necessary.  I might even paddle in Sandycove.  And come late August if you spot me in the local toy shop buying a colouring book and a box of crayons…. say nothing.  Oh and it is true that we view the past through rose tinted specs…. but they were the best of times…. honestly.

It’s that time again… SUMMER READ RECOMMENDATIONS

As usual here are my top picks for Summer Reading for you…. You are very welcome!!
My very top recommendation goes to THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion
This is an Australian story in the true tradition of Australian stories in that it’s quirky and witty and warm.  It’s the story of a nerdy, highly intelligent Genetics Professor called Don Tillman and his attempt to find a life partner.  But it’s not really that.  It’s a love story… but it’s not really that either.  It’s about relationships, control, love, food, travel and everything else that is important in life!
It will make you laugh and it will engage you totally.  I read it in just over 24 hours and I didn’t want it to end.  The film rights have been purchased… doubt the movie could match the book though.  It’s a cracker. 
Next up is WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud. 
This is an unusual choice for me because although it’s a beautifully crafted book, the main character is not totally likeable. Nora Eldridge has been a good girl all her life.  She is a great teacher to third grade.   She lives alone, is childless and looking after her elderly dad.  But she is also an artist who doesn’t ‘art’!  Those closest to her have no idea that she is unhappy, unfulfilled and craving a life that she glimpses through a new boy in her class. 
It’s not the easiest read but the main theme is one that I feel will particularly resonate with women who generally fulfil multiple roles in their lives while often subjugating what it is they really want to do.  It was an interesting read for that reason. 
STILL ALICE is by Lisa Genova is a beautiful book that tells the story of Alice and her journey into Alzheimer’s Disease.  It’s gracefully told and is set in one of my favourite places – Boston and Cape Cod. 
The main character Alice is not an elderly lady in the final decade of her life – she is a 50 year old Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University.  She is very much a career woman with three grown up children. 
What strikes me most about this book is its central message.  It is a message that I know something about from years working for The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and of watching my mother in law lose her memories to dementia.  That message is that behind the disease – our main character is Still Alice!
A moving but not depressing read.  I highly recommend it.
SUMMER OF 76 by Isabel Ashdown was recommended to me by a Twitter friend after I had written a piece about The Last Summer – you know that delicious summer you leave school and stand of the cusp of life.  For the record – my last summer was in 1979!  You can read my piece here.
The actual summer of ‘76 was remarkable for the heatwave that hit Ireland and Britain.  Temperatures soared and people sizzled.  Our story is set around the main character Luke who is enjoying his last months at home on the Isle of Wight before he heads off to college.  It’s a momentous summer of coming of age, of male friendships and at the centre is a salacious scandal that shocks the local community.
Again this book is well written and will have huge resonances with anyone who was a teenager in the 70s with the references to music and styles of the time.
This book for me is everything a summer read should be.
Now can I mention some Irish books that I haven’t read yet as they have all just or are about to hit the bookshops.
First up is Maria Duffy’s latest offering ONE WISH which tells the tale of Londoner Becky Greene who moves to Ireland for a fresh start only to find herself pregnant after a one night stand.  Four years later and her daughter is asking questions about her father. So Becky decides to track him down.  Maria is a prolific writer and this book is sure to be another goodie.  It launches this week but is in bookshops now.
Muriel Bolger is one of Ireland’s best known and most experienced travel writers who has taken to writing fiction in the last few years with some great success.  I have just started her latest book called THE PINK PEPPER TREE.  Muriel’s books always feature travel which is why they are such great summer reads and this latest one is no different with a trip to Monte Carlo featuring prominently.  Sure what’s not to like?
Caroline Grace Cassidy is another talented Irish writer whose story telling style often reminds me of Maeve Binchey.  Her last book The Other Side of Wonderful was an engaging tale but with a dark edge which was deftly handled.  Caroline is putting the finishing touches to her
latest story “I ALWAYS KNEW” which is out in August.  I am confident it will be another great story.
Finally anyone who was moved The Diving Bell and The Butterfly will be interested in IT’S NOT YET DARK by Simon Fitzmaurice.  In 2008 Simon was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.  He was given four years to live.  Against medical opinion he chose to ventilate in order to stay alive.  This book tells us starkly and clearly about his inner life, the power of love and living every moment.
So there you have it.. and like old Uncle Gaybo used to say every year on The Toy Show about giving the gift of reading to a child… let me say what I say twice every year… don’t buy online if you can support your local bookshop.

If money is tight – remember we are lucky in Ireland to still have a great network of libraries.

ESCAPE INTO A GOOD BOOK

This morning on my slot on 4FM with Gareth O Callaghan, I talked about books and the joy of escaping into a well written book. I am not one for thrillers, true life crime or gritty reality. No, my favourite type of book is a well written story full of quirky and well drawn characters. Bearing that in mind I mentioned some of my all time favourites, which are:

This is a great book especially if you own a dog. It is narrated by Enzo the family dog who is in his twilight years. Enzo is a wise old soul, who believes in reincarnation (he can’t wait to come back as a man with thumbs) and loves to watch motor racing on the TV. But this isn’t Marley and Me. Enzo tells us the story of family who deal with love, loss, trauma and illness. It is beautifully written and really gets under your skin as a story. You will laugh and cry and in the end you will look at your own dog in a whole new light.

This is a very charming book which tells us the story of Mr Rosenblum and his attempt to become the perfect English Gentleman. As you might guess the Rosenblums are German Jews and Mrs Rosenblum does not share her husbands obsession about becoming English. She works hard to remember where they have come from and protect their culture. But her husband leads them on a wonderful adventure in a rural English village which is comic but ultimately poignant. A great story, gently told. Takes a wee while to get started – so bear with it for the first couple of chapters.

I bought this book on a whim as a gift for a friend and borrowed it back as soon as I could. Set in the deep south of America it tells the story of the two Waverly sisters who live in a big house that has been in their family for generations. Magic is all around as the garden blooms all year around and has a particularly special apple tree. Claire Waverly is a caterer who makes treats and cakes using ingredients from her magic garden – so that her confections can have strange affects on those who eat them. Their perfect life gets somewhat ruffled when a new neighbor moves in next store and ivy starts to grow in the garden. A book to curl up with and dream about later.

A prolific writer Alexander McCall Smith is a charming Scotsman who only began writing after a long and successful career in law. To date he has written about 60 books and is probably best known for his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series which is set in Botswana. However I love his Scottish books particularly his Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher who edits a monthly journal and is hugely interested in people and in moral dilemmas. This can regularly lead her to get involved in other people’s issues more than she probably should. These books are set in Edinburgh, McCall Smith’s home town which he clearly loves. The descriptions of the city and the gentle pace of these books make them such relaxing reads.

So these are some of my very favourite books. If you like the same kind of books I do, I would love your suggestions for my reading list!

And don’t forget to tune in every Saturday to 4FM for Gareth O Callaghan’s ‘Anything Goes’ programme – a great magazine programme for a Saturday morning.

Photo by Raider of Gin on Flickr