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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels.¬†I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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AmsterdamNovel.jpgAlthough it took the 1998 booker prize, Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ was far from being universally liked. Critical opinion was divided, and perhaps a little heavier on the negative, some pundits wondering how it was even nominated, let alone that it took the award. It was with some trepidation then I picked it up, all be it some twenty years after publication. But I enjoyed it, though I’m prepared to admit this says more about me than the book, or maybe some of the heat has died down in the mean time and the novel has grown into itself. It goes to show one should never be put off by bad reviews, no matter how erudite.

In a nutshell the story opens at the funeral of one Molly Lane, formerly a beautiful fashion photographer, grown old and stricken by a slow withering malady that ended in madness. Two of her former lovers join the gathering to pay their respects – the ageing Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday editor of a struggling London Tabloid. Neither want to go the way of poor Molly, so resolve to see each other out, should the need arise, by way of euthanasia, which had recently (then) been legalised in Amsterdam.

Long time friends, they are united in their contempt for Molly’s husband, the rather dull and overly protective George Lane. They’re also aghast at her rumoured liaison with Julian Garmony, Conservative Foreign Secretary, an otherwise odious man touted as the next PM. When George discovers, among Molly’s effects, photographs she’s taken of Garmony dressed in women’s clothing, he offers them to Vernon for publication in his seedy rag, both men believing the resulting scandal will bring Garmony down. But Clive argues that no matter what any of them think about Garmony, publishing the pictures is morally indefensible, also a betrayal of Molly’s trust. This causes a rift between him and Vernon, and through a series of further misunderstandings, they wind up as bitter enemies.

Although Clive seems at first the more sensitive and likeable character, he’s actually quite a shallow and self centred aesthete. While out walking to clear his mind for composition, he witnesses a rape, but does nothing about it, and doesn’t report it either, seems actually to consider it of only passing importance and hardly relevant when compared with his artistic ambitions. He’s already mentioned the incident to Vernon, and given their later spat, Vernon seizes upon the admission as an opportunity for revenge, and dobs him in to the police.

Of the subject matter, perhaps euthanasia is the one we’d think of as being ripe for moral dissection here, and I admit I thought this was where McEwan was taking us, but he ends up using it as more of a plot device. The business of the closet transvestite politician is more unexpected – publication resulting not in the scandal Vernon (and perhaps we) are expecting, but rather the opposite, that instead it fleshes Garmony out, at least in the public eye, as the more sympathetic and wronged party – so if anyone gets the last laugh it’s him.

The actual denouement of the story was flagged quite early on, so I had a fair idea how things were going to end between Clive and Vernon – you can probably guess yourself. I’d hoped I was wrong because that seemed the least interesting outcome. I suppose, ever the optimist, I was holding out against their pettiness and stupidity and hoping for a reconciliation in Molly’s honour. There’s an element of farce too in the twists and turns, which many critics seem to have taken offence at, claiming the humour fell flat or wasn’t at all funny, and that was true in a way – transformed by the moral vacuity of the protagonists into something far more sinister, and lent instead an abrasive edge to the story that really got under my skin.

If you’re a fan of McEwan you’ve probably already read this one and have your own opinions on it. If not, don’t be put off by the poor reviews.

It’s a short read, and well worth it.

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long long wayIn this centenary of the first world war we’ve not been short of moving commemorations, and then there’s always a wealth of literature to remind us as well, and for me there’s been no more powerful and insightful an evocation of those awful years than Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel “A Long Long Way”. Unlike other Great War fiction, which tends to treat the United Kingdom as a uniquely Anglo-centric affair, this story follows the life of Willy Dunne, a young Irishman who enters the war by way of volunteering for the Dublin Fusiliers.

We’re reminded that the Ireland that entered the war, was not the same Ireland at the end of it. At the beginning, largely Catholic Nationalists from the South were encouraged to join up, the thinking being their fighting alongside Ulster Protestant Loyalists from the North would speed Ireland towards a more harmonious transition to Home Rule. But then came the 1916 uprising when Nationalist ambitions took a more aggressive turn with an uprising that was put down by brutal force of arms. So, while Willie Dunne and his fellows were away fighting for King and Country, and dying in vast numbers, news was reaching them of the same King sending gunboats up the Liffey to bombard the Hell out of Dublin, and executing fellow Irishmen as traitors.

Thus, on top of the horrors they face on account of the war itself, they must now come to terms with the bewildering loss of all certainties at home. They enter the war as part of the United Kingdom and the Empire, are waved off by their countrymen as heroes, but end up despised by many of those same countrymen for their service to a uniform that is suddenly seen as an oppressive force against Irish freedoms. As the war grinds on, and the troubles deepen, they also lose the trust of their fellow (non-Irish)comrades-in-arms, facing casual racism and suspicion as well as the more familiar horrors of war hurled at them by the Germans.

At home on leave, Willie witnesses the shooting of a young rebel, and in a letter to his father, expresses his confused sympathies for the boy’s needless death. He’s looking to his father for comfort and reassurance that all will be well in the end, but his father, a police superintendent and a staunch Loyalist, considers the rebels to be traitors, and disowns Willie on account of his sympathy. So Willie has the sense of having lost his father’s love, as well as all he has come to think of as home, that even if he survives the war, there is nothing for him to return to.

While the turbulent history of Anglo-Irish relations is a story in itself here, Barry holds us to the view of the world through Willy Dunne’s bewildered innocence and its gradual loss – loss of love and homeland, and all in a cause that grows more opaque and futile as the years wear on, so that in the end all that’s certain is the terror of the war itself, a dwindling number of surviving comrades, and memories of intense friendships born of war in the flicker of an eye, then lost in moments of horrific violence. Meanwhile, the enemy, though certainly feared for their ferocity, are blurred out to an almost abstract concept, rarely encountered face to face, and spared even the venom levelled at Willy and his mates by their own side.

This is not an easy read, in part because we know Willy is doomed, that the manner of his death is merely an event in the future we must work towards, and largely irrelevant anyway because Willie has been dead from the moment he joined up, the story of his brief young life thereafter being more a foreshadowing, an account of the slow hollowing out of his soul. The imagery of this most brutal war is as vividly portrayed here as any I’ve read elsewhere, but I felt its grotesqueries were brought to a more painfully sharp relief by the incongruous lyrical beauty of Barry’s prose, also that additional layer of the almost unbearable shredding of Willy’s inner being as everything that grounded him as a boy sinks into the mud as surely as his mates sink one by one into the mud of an obliterated Belgium.

As war fiction of the cautionary kind, this novel scores very highly indeed, bringing humanity front and centre and cherishing its innocence in the face of the unspeakable evils and the sheer stupidity that we all know stalks the world still. Also, coming at us as it does from such an unusual angle, it highlights all the more the futility and the tragedy of those years. I found it an awe-inspiring, deeply moving read.

May the ghost of Willy Dunne for ever haunt us all.

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rhinogI return from Wales feeling a bit flat. This is normal. Wales was beautiful and silent and very, very grand, but then I come home to find the garden around my ears, at least the bits of it not killed by drought, and there’s a pile of mail already nagging at me like flies, and the shower’s bust at the first twist of the dial so you can’t turn it off and the water’s gushing down the plughole and a drought order hanging over us.

So I’m wishing myself already paddling again like a little boy on Harlech beach, shoes and socks in hand, and for a short time not a care in the world, or walking a quiet stretch of rural lane of an evening, watching the sun set over the Llyn, and then a glass of Malt on the terrace of my little cottage as the moon rises over the Barmouth hills.

I fixed the shower with a blob of glue, which should hold until the next time someone uses it, and then I spent the day researching shower units to replace the broken one without needing to redecorate the entire bathroom and I ordered one off Amazon, thus neatly pushing the problem out in time to the mercy of the oppressed delivery man. And then I sat, and I tried to pick up a few threads of writing, but they were elusive, or maybe it was because the phone was in my hand and I’m glued to it already, like an addict, to the fall of the western world.

I learn that in my absence, it has been decided we are to stockpile food and medicines in warehouses that have not existed since 1945, and we’re to borrow generators from the army to keep the lights on in Northern Ireland. This sounds like fiction, the plot of a Ballardian dystopia, perhaps? It cannot actually be true, can it? It’s merely a ruse of those cheeky tabloids, something to show Johnny Foreigner we mean business, and we’ll damned well live off Spam post BREXIT, if it means we can still wag our Agincourt fingers. Or maybe these are the first Machiavellian priming strokes of a second BREXIT referendum, because who in their right mind is going to vote for Spam when we were promised milk and honey?

Then I’m sucked sideways into an article on the whys and wherefores of writing, and how it’s good for the soul and all that, and how money’s not the important thing, and just as well, and who can argue, except in the last paragraph I discover the writer’s just flogging his book on how to write, which is rather bad form, but not entirely unexpected because that’s the kind of world we live in – everyone a chancer and a spiv now.

Then another serendipitous swerve has me bumping into Vonnegut, a writer I don’t know that well, but he seems like a good egg, and he’s telling me yeah, you know it’s true, Mike, art’s not about making a living, it’s about making the living bearable,… which is something to ponder I suppose while we’re tucking into that Spam and wondering where our next tank of petrol’s coming from. At least we will have our art, except we don’t encourage it in schools any more, so we won’t even have that.

And I’m wondering about rushing out to Tescos to stockpile my own “no deal” BREXIT larder – hint, tins and dried stuff – and again feeling this terrible post holiday blues, and Vonnegut’s talking about just writing stuff because all there is is life and death and inbetween there’s this brief opportunity to grow some soul, and that’s where the writing comes in. For you. Your self. To grow some soul. You see, Mike? And I’m nodding my agreement because I’ve been living that story for a while now, but sometimes,… sometimes you forget, don’t you?

Except,…

I can’t forget that view inland from the Barmouth viaduct – that great sandy funnel of the Mawddach Estuary at tide’s ebb, or again in the evening with the flood roaring around the pilings and covering up the sand with quicksilver again, and the green mountains beyond, the mist and the light playing upon them in endless symphonies of mood.

And there’s been this poem trying to take shape in my head, something about those mountains not remembering, or the trees, or the hoary stones, or the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane. Not remembering what? I don’t know, but that’s what the poem’s trying to get at you see?

And it goes:

The hills will not remember,
Nor these scattered, hoary stones,
Nor the foxgloves
Nodding in the sleepy lanes,
Nor the oaks whose leaves,
Turning now their backs,
Anticipate the rains,…

There’s more, but I can’t feel the shape of it yet. It’s being driven most powerfully by the memory of a nearly full pre blooded Welsh moon rising, white as death over green hills and into a queer, luminous turquoise, and the air is warm and the night is still, and quiet. Then there’s the scent of that Islay malt I’m sipping, and it’s reminding me of another country, that’s also my own, a place I’ve not seen in thirty five years, but whose impressions remain strong, a place that doesn’t remember me either. And then there’s that other place, land of my grandfather I’ve yet to visit, and that’s been bothering me awfully of late. But in the main I’m thinking it’s a human thing, this curse of remembering, and those hoary stones and that Welsh moon are all the better for being without it.

Yes,… confusing I know – I’m English and Welsh and Scots and Irish, and I’m a European too, and proud of it. Identity is whatever you want it to be, and it’s best to let it stretch as wide as possible than to narrow it down so much it throttles the life out of us. Dammit what’s happening? Can we not fight back?

So, the poem? Okay, I think I know what it’s getting at now. It’s going to tell me that I am the mountains and the trees and the hoary stones, and all that, and even the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane, and that what I feel most keenly at times like these is my separation and a loneliness at the oneness now broken, yet reflected still in the things that are largely untouched, like the hills and the hoary stones, and the trees and the silver moon rising and that view up the Mawddach Estuary. It’s that final realisation on the path to healing the rift with this aching sense of “the other”, that in the final analysis there is “no other”. But that’s a tough sell when you’re drunk on secularism, or scientism, or religion 101, or that petty, petty nationalism, and all that’s holding the whole damned shower together these days is a blob of fucking glue.

(Sorry for the F Word)

Graeme out.

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history of loneliness

A History of Loneliness is a novel about the abuse of children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. It’s an important and unflinching work exploring the corruption of power on a vast scale, its systematic cover-up, and the devastating effect the scandal had upon the psyche of a nation when it woke up to the truth of its betrayal.

Odran Yates, is a good man, sent for the priesthood by his mother at the age of 17. He’s not sure if he has a true calling. It was simply the done thing and, in common with many other lads of his age, he simply went along with it. But he finds he enjoys the seminary life and excels at his studies. Scarred by tragic childhood events, and abused by the parish Priest – a thing he’s long suppressed – Odran is more damaged than he seems. Is the Church to be his rehabilitation into back life, or an escape from it?

Reticent and bookish, he begins his career teaching at the Catholic school, thinking to settle into the quiet cloistered life. For decades, he keeps the real world at bay, only to find himself suddenly sent to cover a parish for his old friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle who, after only a short tenure, has been quietly “moved on”. Although promised it’s only a temporary thing, Odran finds himself marooned in the position, a hapless pawn in a grand power-play as the first paedophile cases begin to break, and the church seeks to cover itself. We learn it’s not the first time Tom Cardle has been moved on, and though it’s obvious to us now in hindsight why, to Odran it remains a mystery.

To be a priest in Ireland at the outset of Odran’s career, was to be man highly regarded and trusted. People gave up their seats on trains for him, bought him food and drink and generally prostrated themselves in hope of currying favour with God. But when the scandal breaks, the priesthood becomes at once universally reviled, priests reluctant to go about in their collars for fear of attack. Odran is accused of attempting to kidnap a small boy when he was only trying to help the child who had lost its mother. Such is the paranoia and hatred of the public, he is set upon in the street, punched to the ground, then treated appallingly by the Garda who are quick assume him to be a paedophile “like all the rest”.

As the story shuttles back and forth in time, pieces of the puzzle and the all too human weaknesses in Odran’s character are revealed and we are forced to ask: how could such an intelligent man really have been so naive as not to know what was going on? Did Odran, and all the other good men of the Priesthood, simply turn a blind eye? Or were the good men themselves also victim to the institution they so loyally served?

Worse is to come with Odran discovering how the corruption goes to the core of the Church, that rather than work with the authorities in exposing and punishing rogue priests like Tom Cardle, the Church has defended them, covered for them, because the Church could not be seen to be anything less than omnipotent, having set itself above all other authority save God – above the state, and the law – that Ireland had become up to the time of the crisis a virtual theocracy, the Church unchallenged in its domination over the lives of the Catholic population, and under the cover of which many an appalling abuse took place.

All Odran wants is a return to the quiet life of the school, but as the layers of deceit unfold he looks back and asks himself has he not wasted his life in devotion to an institution that is morally unworthy, indeed responsible for ruining the lives of so many innocents? And as an outraged public turns upon anyone wearing the collar, including Odran, are the good priests not equally culpable and deserving of the public’s anger? But if that’s the case, with so many wrongs in world, who among us is entirely without sin? Who among us has never turned a blind eye to a thing out of a sense of one’s own powerlessness to make any difference whatsoever to a rottenness so deep?

Read this book if you can bear it. Put yourself in Odran’s shoes, then ask yourself, honestly, what would, what could you have done?

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avia-peseus

So, I write this blog and I publish novels online. I do it all for free because publishers don’t want my stuff, and life’s too short to be endlessly promoting it against a tide of whims all running the other way, and it doesn’t matter anyway because there are far too many books in the world and too few of them ever made a difference to anything, and no one actually reads books anymore, do they?

Writers! Well, we’re a pretty conceited bunch, all of us thinking our book, our blog, is going to change the world if only the world would shut up and listen, ether that or we’re thinking it might help us to get laid, or that this small clique of other writers we hob-nob with, will be daunted, if only for a moment, by the size of our gargantuan ego/intellect, as demonstrated by our latest killer piece.

There was an age when books changed the world, I suppose, back when knowledge was first written down and disseminated by copy-scribes – the mathematics of the Greeks, perhaps? Nowadays someone would be making it up, just to get a name for themselves and refusing to blush when the logic fell apart and swearing blind it was someone else’s fault, and everything is fake anyway, and most of us couldn’t tell the difference. And books are hard to take in, aren’t they? Five hours the last one took me to read, and I can barely remember any of it now. As for those seriously droneful fictions of the Victorian era, I’d sooner watch the box-set.

Books simply don’t matter any more. Nowadays we’ ve got Youflicks and Fishwit, and that Tweety-Bird thing and we believe every damned thing they tell us, their psychometric algorithms feeding back on our deepest darkest selves as betrayed by our clicks, and tuned in turn to bend the shapes of who and what it is we love or hate, and even how we vote. The Internet is the thing, you see? For sure it is! At least it is in its most addictive incarnations, where we crave the novelty of that latest notification and all in the hope it’ll finally change everything for the better. And even though you know by now it won’t,… go on, resist it, I challenge you. The Internet for five minutes is the same as all the books in the world on steroids. People walk the street like zombies, glued to it, plugged into it, oblivious of reality, so defenceless are we now against its clever little memes and all its tiny brain-devouring worms.

I mean how else do you explain it?

The fix we’re in.

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real magic

Psychical research, or Psi, is a subject I think most of us are interested in, though perhaps without going so far as to admit any firm beliefs in it – at least not to our friends. Indeed, a cautious approach is advisable, this being a field beset with poseurs and frauds. But there are serious researchers too, and Dean Radin is one of them.

By Psi we mean things like ESP, Psychokinesis, Divination, Clairvoyance and Mediumship. His previous books, Supernormal, Entangled Minds and the Conscious Universe detail his careful research
going back over the decades of his long career. What’s always separated him from other writers on this subject though is a reluctance to fly his kites too high. He sticks with the research, with the methods, and most of all with the evidence. And the evidence he has published is consistently persuasive.

One of the fascinations in this field is the ingenious methods devised by researchers to tease out what could be genuine anomalous phenomenon, and to isolate them from other effects, be they error, wishful thinking, or simply fraud. At times I’ve struggled to bend my head not only around the extraordinary concepts Psi research explores but also the fiendishly elegant reasoning behind the experiments. As a result Dean Radin’s books are ones I tend to have to revisit from time to time just to see if I’ve got it right, that he’s actually saying and showing what I think he is.

In his latest book though, ‘Real Magic’, it’s as if he’s looked back over a long career, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of these careful, double blinded experiments, and he’s said: you know what? To hell with it, here it is straight up: Psi is real, now let’s talk about what that means.

Psi effects in the general population are imperceptibly small. There may be just the odd occasion when they flare up and produce an effect that is stunning, at least to the person involved – say dreaming of something that comes true, or knowing with absolute certainty something bad has happened to a loved one. But as with all skills, some people are better at it than others, with some indeed being naturally talented to a degree that inspires either awe or deep suspicion. And so it is with Psi. In certain individuals these effects can be very strong but the trick is knowing who those individuals are, and how you tell them apart from the fraudsters.

For most of us its probably safer to assume someone’s pulling your leg when they say they can read your mind. But that people can indeed sometimes read minds, is proven and has been for a long time. They can sometimes see into the future, they sometimes know who’s ringing before they pick up the telephone. The fact that for most of us these effects are very small can be disappointing, but this misses the point, that what even a fraction of a percentage deviation from chance when guessing those cards tells us, is that the universe isn’t what a couple of hundred years of materialism has browbeaten us into believing it is. It’s actually more like what the Perennial Philosophy tell us, what Hermes Trismegistus tells us, and several millennia of other esoteric writings, be they religious, alchemical, mystical, heretical or downright diabolical, that at some fundamental level what underpins the physical reality of the universe is consciousness.

Real Magic is one of Dean Radin’s more accessible books. If you want to immerse yourself in the evidence you’ll need to look back over his other works. But what Real Magic tells us is that psi research over the past hundred years is where the scientific method has looked at “Magic”, not trick magic, but ‘real magic’, and has concluded that actually those old world magicians, alchemists, shamans, mystics, and holy-men weren’t completely crazy after all. Through their esoteric traditions, they were pursuing effects and working with a theory of the universe, millennia ago, that science is going to have to come to terms with if it wants to advance beyond its current materialistic impasse.

But this is not to say we abandon reason, quite the opposite. The protocols observed in Psi research are among the most stringent because they have to be. It’s only by applying such gold standards in a notoriously murky field we can expect to make reliable progress. But one of the reasons this work is not more widely known is an abiding prejudice within the established scientific community, also it must be said among even moderately educated people in general who ape the sneers of their scientific elders and betters – and for the first half of my life I would count myself among their number. This is understandable. It is by far the safest option, when reading about Psi, to react with a smug expression and dismiss anything that questions the mechanistic, materialistic world view as “woo woo”. In doing so we seek safety in the prevailing paradigm, but close our eyes to the real magic of the universe itself.

Such prejudice is of course strongest where vested interests are concerned. Those  who persecuted Galileo refused even to look through his telescope. Similarly much Psi research is undeservedly rubbished by ignorant, sneering debunkers, including many otherwise serious scientific minds, who refuse to even look at the evidence. I looked at the evidence, and was persuaded to open my eyes a little.

Real Magic is a compelling read from a highly respected, unflappable, and very sober-minded researcher of psi – there are even some instructions on how to practice a little bit of magic yourself. But as with all magic, be careful what you wish for or you might just get it.

I leave you with the man himself:

 

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