Farewell Joan Didion


The writer and social commentator, Joan Didion has left us for good on 23 December 2021. It is perhaps fitting that not long before Christmas she goes Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the title of her first work of non-fiction.

The Year of Magical Thinking is an astonishing work - remarkable insights into bereavement.

December Stories by Ian Sansom

I have thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short stories for December by Ian Sansom. My intention was to read just one story a day for the month; to get me in the mood for Christmas. The stories however are so captivating that I found myself reading on and so finished them after about a week.

They instil a mix of emotions: sympathy, humour, sadness and vulnerability. Despite the quick read some of these vignettes have found their sticking place and the simple everyday situations he writes about resonate with personal memories of feelings, thoughts and actions. So although ostensibly these accounts relate to the end of year festive season they also speak to the human situation and the business of getting on with life. They therefore would be immensely readable in other months of the year.

I have to mention one story in particular, Down By The River for 23 December.  It's one of the longer pieces in the volume and oddly when I started reading it I had recently just watched two films: It's A Wonderful Life  (1946) and The Bishop's Wife (1947) both of which feature angels interacting with troubled humans. In Down By The River, we meet a brilliantly constructed pot-bellied foul-mouthed angel, so unlike the models depicted in the films. I enjoyed that story very much.

Anyway to cut a short story even shorter, the book is finished but there remains the possibility of a re-read of the first volume in similar vein - December Stories 1.

Do yourself a favour and get either, better still both, of these books, then return to them annually in December or any other time of year.

December Stories 2 by Ian Sansom
Published by No Alibis Press
November 2021
ISBN. 978-1-838108-13-7

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

The Inseparables: The newly discovered novel 

Simone de Beauvoir - Author
Translated by Lauren Elkin
Introduction by Deborah Levy  
Afterword by Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir  

Publisher Random House UK,Vintage  
Publication 2 September 2021  
ISBN: 978-1784877002 

“ They called us the inseparables” 

Lasting friendships that were formed in early childhood are a fascination for me.  What is it that brings individuals together, keeps them together and makes them inseparableAnd for me, as an avid Francophile, add to that the “mystery” of why a novel by French writer Simone de Beauvoir should come to light years after the celebrated author’s death then I’m hooked. 


I had joined the member community at NetGalley, requested and was sent a pre-publication copy of The InseparablesLong time aware of, but new to reading de Beauvoir, I was grateful for the introduction by Deborah Levy who rightly pointed out that her foreword contained spoilersI decided to stay with that however as it helped provide context and has prompted me to read some of de Beauvoir’s other works. Then on to the novel itself, translated from the French by Lauren Elkin, only confirming the intention to read moreThe text was accompanied by helpful footnotes explaining this or that term or historical background.  And what about that mysteryThe afterword, written by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, explains how the work was found among de Beauvoir’s papers and came to publication. The afterword includes photographs of the people aliased in the book and some facsimiles of the original handwritten draft.  

So in this small volume we get the story, the literary legacy and social context of the workThat impressed me and I liked it very much. 


The book recounts the story of two young women, Sylvie and Andrée, who meet in primary school at a very young ageWe learn from the opening dedication For Zaza that the story was inspired by the relationship between the young Simone in whose name Sylvie speaks and Elisabeth ‘Zaza’ Lacoin represented by Andrée.  The two become friends and rail against the prevailing orthodoxies of the time; they discuss God, religion, philosophy and then ultimately face a final reckoning. 


I was captivated by the language in the book. Yes there were all those discussions but they were essential to a sense of movement in the text; a dramatic tension drawing us to an anticipated but nonetheless abrupt conclusion that still leaves a sense of inseparability. 

Looking back over the text, there are several places where I have highlighted phrases and sections that stopped me short and made me thinkI love it when a book does thatFor example in describing one of the adults, Sylvie/Simone writes “His silky hair and Christian virtue feminised him and lowered him in my estimation.” That from a central figure in FeminismAnd from the socially engaged woman describing their respective freedoms, Sylvie writes that she ‘had often envied Andrée her independence, but suddenly she seemed much less free than I was’.  A sense of foreboding comes in a section where there is a description of a sculpted wooden clock, ‘which held...all the darkness of time’Foreboding reprised when ‘Andrée placed the violin in its little coffin’ after practising her music during which,’she seemed to be listening prayerfully to the voice of the instrument on her shoulder’.  There are many such examples, skilfully inserted throughout the text.  


One for the shelves? 

DefinitelyI am delighted to have read the ebook sent by the publisher through NetGalley but this a novel I would also like to have on my bookshelves so I have ordered a physical copy and will certainly reread.  






Cored limpet shells


Walking along the shoreline at Crawfordsburn Country Park I spotted something unusual - Cored limpet shells suspended from tree branches.

I cannot work out how they got there. But I can think of some questions.

Were the innards of the shells scavenged by sea birds and did they get at the flesh by piercing the crests?
But if they did why are the holes so large and even? Large beaked birds needing room to swallow.

Or did the sea sculpt the hole with its abrasive ebb and flow?  Scooping out the weakest part of the shell, where the limpet had no strength to hold?

And were the shells collected by children or beach-combing adults to be suspended from the branches in an act of creativity? They do look pretty.

Maybe it's a coast-liner rag-tree type custom. The hanging of a shell to make a wish or ask for favour.

I'll be on the lookout for cored shells when next there and for a suitable branch on which to hang them.

And make a creative wish.

Strenuous endeavours

It's by now a tradition in our house on Saint Patrick's Day to watch together a film with an Irish theme. Usually the day offers an annual excuse to watch Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People - a film that always seemed to be playing locally when I was growing up.

But this year nostalgia demanded something different, something more in tune with the sensibilities of these pandemic times. The choice was John Huston's last film The Dead portraying the last story in James Joyce's Dubliners set in 1904 on January 6 - the feast of the Epiphany. 

The film starring Anjelica Huston, the director's daughter, and Donal McCann was made in 1987 but I first saw it when it was released on VHS, replacing it years later when that platform gave way to DVD.

It would have been lovely if subtitles had been incorporated because some of the language is so beautiful. Not to worry though as the Penguin Modern Classic edition of the book has been a constant companion through various house moves and even more bookshelves. 

The 1972 edition, its cover depicting a detail of The Illuminated Town by Jack B Yeats (brother of William B), is showing some yellowing of pages but this somehow felt in keeping with ageing and the passing of time.  Having watched the film last night I took the opportunity to read the text again this morning. 

In the story the character Gabriel Conroy makes an after-dinner speech in which he laments the disappearance of more "spacious days" and departed loved ones. He reflects that there are many sad memories on our way through life but nonetheless we must continue our work among the living:

"We have all of us living duties and living afflictions which claim, and rightly claim,
our strenuous endeavours".

Joyce writing in 1914 could have been penning a memento vivere - remember you must live - for his time and ours. 

As the guests take their leave, there is a wonderfully described staircase moment, superbly conveyed in the film, around the rendition of a song, The Lass of Aughrim. 

This releases a flood of emotions in our two main characters, bitter regret, jealousy, passion and its absence, culminating in a sharp realisation of the human condition, that connection between the living and the dead.

My DVD film and book will continue our journey together. Granted it might be more poignant to watch and read on Epiphany evenings.

If not there's always Saint Patrick's Day.

Deckled edges

After initially feeling they were "unfinished" I've been learning about the paper process for deckle edged books. Now, I rather like them.

Dog ears on the other hand still get my deckles up.