Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Ministry of Special Cases

 Nathan Englander's debut novel The Ministry of Special Cases is set in Argentina, and deeper, in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, and deeper still, in a family of outcasts of that community. Kaddish Poznan, a man with the sometimes irritating feyness of the traditional Yiddish hero, is the son of a prostitute, a girl who sold herself in Odessa to save her family, and transshipped to be part of the stable of the Jewish pimps 'and alfonses' (still wondering what an alfonse is) who take care of the appetites of Argentina.
Kaddish, a name redolent with death, and Lillian, his disappointed wife, have a squabblesome love fuelled by his only work: chipping the names of the dead - at least those with currently wealthy descendants - from the gravestones in the Jewish graveyard's own ghetto, the place where these whores and pimps were laid to rest; names like Talmud Harry and Bryna the Vagina.
Lillian's own job in an insurance firm is giving her an exceptional insight into the Argentina of the 1970s, because everyone wants the life insured now, even the general and his wife who turn up with a new baby that's obviously not theirs. 
Englander has used the Yiddish tradition, and a sophisticated sense of plot and character, to open the graves of the Disappeared. Just as babies are appearing in unlikely families, other families' children are disappearing, and nobody says a word.
As Kaddish and Lillian try to protect their 19-year-old son, Pato Poznan, a university student at a time when sociology lecturers and scientists and girls of 16 are seen one day and never seen again the next, Englander brings them and his quivering reader on a tour of murder. Every word of his book is based on what actually happened in Argentina, and throughout South and Central America, in those years: the murder-complicit priest taking bribes, supposedly to find out what happened to the desperate parents' child; the drugged children thrown from planes into the river ("like hitting a brick wall" from that height), the torture with electricity, the babies of murdered people given to the families of their murderers and of the directors of their murders. 
Englander tries for the black Yiddish humour - Lillian and Kaddish 'cut off their nose to spite their face', accepting erased noses in payment for an erased name; this makes them suddenly handsome; a last desperate kidnap attempt fails because the kidnapper has not factored in the coldness of heart of the ransom source; bureaucracy is at the root of everything, because if they're frightened of nothing else, the forces of law and order are always afraid of a paper trail. 
Englander's incisive eye is merciless: no government can succeed in anything without the complicity of the majority, he points out (a point that could well be noted in Ireland today). 
His dialogue is heartrending; at one point a wealthy military couple explain that there are no disappearences, it's merely a question of lax discipline - all over South America undisciplined youngsters are taking off to go and sun themselves on the beaches of neighbouring countries. 
At last, the most memorable character isn't Kaddish or Lillian, or the tousle-haired, rebellious Pato, the crooked plastic surgeon or the smooth insurance man, but the broken man whose job it was to push the children from the planes, sleeping children.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Fostering happiness

  DANA Johnson’s research on Romanian orphans was picked up by astonished reporters all over the world. The paediatrics professor studied 136 toddlers in six Bucharest orphanages.  When half of the children were sent into foster care, the difference between them and those left in orphanages was stunning. 
The children had been underweight and undersized. Now, with loving care from dedicated parents, they shot up in height and weight. 
Amazingly, their intelligence also skyrocketed, with their ability to learn and remember improving in line with their sturdiness. 
“Each incremental increase of 1 in standardised height scores between baseline and 42 months was associated with a mean increase of 12.6 points  in verbal IQ,” the study says. “Growth and IQ in low-birth-weight children are particularly vulnerable to social deprivation,” Dr Johnson’s study found. 
Deirdre McTeague, director of services of the Irish Foster Carers Association, wholeheartedly agrees. She has seen a child of 12 arrive into foster care taking size 5 shoes, and within three months he grew two shoe sizes and was taking size 7 - with a simultaneous cognitive boost. He’s now a successful professional who took time to come home last year to mind his ill father. 
Over 5,500 children in Ireland are in foster care, in roughly 3,500 foster families. 
Deirdre moved from social work into fostering in the 1970s, when nearly 90 per cent of children in care were in institutions. Gradually the giant institutions were replaced by smaller group homes. “Now we’ve moved almost full circle, and 90 per cent are in foster care,” she says.
Foster kids - who typically come from troubled homes - can have a hard time with their self-image, says Deirdre. They may feel rejected by their birth families, and conflicted about where they belong - who they should be loving, where their loyalties lie.
The trend today is to try to foster children within their own extended family, so that it is as if the wider family has opened its arms to accept them. 
This has its own problems, though, since legally - and quite rightly - children can only be assigned to people with Garda clearance and references, through a court order or voluntary care order. 
And foster parents don’t have the same rights as birth parents. Until children have been with you for four or five years, for instance, you can’t apply for a passport for them without a social worker’s ok.
Since there is a long queue for services, some foster families just don’t go abroad on holidays. 
There can be huge delays in speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, psychological services for children - even where there are excellent services, like the Mater and Castleknock child guidance service clinics. 
Some foster parents, desperate for help for a child they love, have simply - and this is not acceptable - paid for private services. 
“They’re living with the child, and living through the difficulties the young person has,” Deirdre says. “You get very attached to the child. You can see the blossoming, and the reward of that is great.”
The best foster parents are down-to-earth people who don’t have specific expectations of a child. “Salt of the earth types, who can absorb a child with its own needs and its own quirky nature - the old kind of family who’d say ‘That’s Sean, he likes to play football, and that’s Tom, he likes to read’.”

Irish Foster Care Association:
TimeWise fostering for teenagers: 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Sign's on it: the craft still lives

THE LYF so short, the crafte so long to lerne, as Chaucer had it - and so, all over Dublin, tacky vinyl signs are replacing the beautiful hand-lettered shop signs that once beckoned customers in.
But not everywhere. There are a few signmakers still left, like the Painted Signs crew at
You see them working, changing and restoring the lovely old gold leaf signs that were the pride of Dublin, bringing them back to their glory. And in the case of the Welcome sign on McCormack's Celtic Jewellery in Grafton Street, producing a glorious piece of fantasy.
In the multilingual welcomes, there's a curly fada over the 'Fáilte', and a 'kickout' - a dropping decorative serif on the 'N' of 'Benvenuto' that leads the eye into the centre line. The use of English and Irish in a larger face in the centre, and the longer welcoming words on the top and bottom line framing them, gives an impression of many more welcomes than the six there.
There are a few streets the vinyl bandits haven't got to yet, and there are a few shops that are searching out true signpainters who can give their premises signs of timeless beauty and lasting quality.
In a city that has abandoned the beautiful green street names with their white cló Gaelach and English lettering surrounded by a delicate curled line, and replaced them with a slamming industrial blue with misspelled, non-standard names in Irish, it's a real pleasure to see that someone keeps the faith yet.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Bad dentistry will mean bad health

“A YOUNG farmer came to me to have his teeth cleaned, and I looked into his mouth and saw something on the side of his cheek.” Wicklow dentist Dr James Turner says: “I didn’t like the look of it, so I sent him to a specialist. He had early stage dysplasia - a cancer in his mouth - which is completely curable, if it’s caught in time. The man has three young kids!”
But the changes in dental treatment for medical card holders mean that many people won’t be going for routine teeth cleaning. It’s no longer covered for anyone over 16 on a medical card. 
If you’ve lost your job and you’re trying to support your family on the dole, and you’re looking at that €50 note, what are you going to choose to spend it on? Getting your teeth cleaned, or buying food for your kids?
A fortnight ago [in May 2010], anyone with a full medical card had access to a range of dental care: examination, cleaning, fillings, extractions, dentures, front tooth root treatments. But last week the HSE decided that these people could only attend a dentist if they have an emergency - and then they can have one tooth out, or one filling.
“The mouth is the mirror of your body,” says James. “When we look in the mouth as dentists, people assume we’re there for the teeth, but we’re not, actually - we have to examine for all manner of conditions and the risks they present.”
There is a known link between bacteria in the mouth and cardiovascular disease - heart attacks and strokes. And expectant mothers who have periodontitis - a gum disease - are in danger of having underweight or overweight babies.
“Complications of diabetes will present in the mouth,” says James. “Therefore, dentists can be the first people to refer a patient to a GP or a specialist to have these symptoms checked out.”
Osteoporosis is obvious in your mouth: the terrible thinning and weakening of older bones that can end in a broken hip and ruined life. 
So is bulimia. “Sometimes we get young people - girls mostly - who show a striking pattern of erosion on the insides of their teeth where they eat too much and force themselves to get sick,” James says. “The acid in the vomit wears away the enamel.
“We can have a discreet word with the parents - and a disease that could destroy the young person is picked up early, and they can get help.”
And there are gum diseases. “If people have swollen or bleeding gums, that affects their physical health, because they can’t eat properly, and their mental health, because they’re dealing with long-term pain.” 
James has been in private practice for just eight years, and has already saved three patients with early stage cancer. But he’s heard the stories of older dentists, about the bad old days when people could only afford emergency treatment: “People in lines in their waiting rooms, with swollen faces, lots of kids in terrible bad condition with lots of pain, and they spent most of their days just extracting and trying to deal with emergency care.”
This changed with the introduction of preventative dentistry. “Since 1994, people’s dental health has improved immeasurably - the Government has got great bang for its buck. We were winning the battle,” he says. 
“Those huge gains are going to go. We’re picking up approximately three oral cancers every week in Ireland. By not allowing people these visits, all these oral cancers - the third biggest killer in the cancer ranking - will not be caught until a very late stage.”
Evening Herald, May 2010

Monday, 5 December 2011

Inequality: a social pollutant

DO YOU trust your neighbours? Do you lock your doors and windows up tight? Do you think you’re likely to be robbed on the street? If someone asked you whether you agreed with the statement ‘most people can be trusted’, how would you answer?
Don’t start. I know you’re going to go on about modern life and how kids can’t play in the road any more. 
It’s true - but not everywhere. In some countries, people answer those questions “I feel safe. I trust my neighbours. I’m unlikely to be robbed.” And they’re right, and not just about crime. They also have better health, higher education and longer lives.
Those countries may surprise you: Sweden, Norway, Finland,  Japan. All wealthy, but that’s not the reason they’re safe, according to two academics whose theory may change our attitude to wealth. 
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett say the difference is how much more money a country’s rich have than that country’s poor. The countries that do badly are often surprising: the US, Portugal, Singapore.
You wouldn’t imagine that a study collating years of figures from the WHO, the UN, the OECD and other alphabetical luminaries would be entertaining, but Wilkinson and Pickett’s book Spirit Level has sold and sold. 
Wilkinson, a public health expert for almost 40 years, and University of York academic Pickett collated information from some 200 sources. 
Inequality - they say - affects everything from the number of people in prison to how long people live, to obesity, mental illness, teen births, drug use and violence. Countries where the richest are only a bit richer than the poorest do well. Countries where the rich have 300 times more than the poor are in big trouble. 
Ireland is fairly near the middle of the countries studied in total income - but just the wrong side of the middle in income distribution, Wilkinson told me. “Ireland has substantially lower life expectancy than we’d expect,” he says. “So your health is less good than we’d expect it to be. 
“Infant deaths are substantially higher - that might account for the low life expectancy. Only USA, Portugal and New Zealand have infant mortality as high or higher.”
Mind you, these figures are old - they’re from the early to mid 2000s. And the professors don’t have last year’s CSO figures - our infant mortality rate halved between 2000 and 2009. But as the gap between rich and poor widens in Ireland, our health care is likely to decline, our crime rise, and our educational standards fall - if the two academics’ figures hold true.
The weirdest thing Wilkinson and Pickett found was that bad outcomes in unequal nations hit the rich as well as the poor. Rich guys in countries with huge gaps between rich and poor live less long than rich guys in countries where everyone’s wealth is relatively level. 
“Some colleagues at Harvard called inequality a ‘general social pollutant’, because it seemed to lead to worse health amongst the whole population, not just the poor,” said Wilkinson.
If he’s right, someone had better call the water board, because as Ireland’s rich get richer and our poor get poorer, the social sewers are about to overflow. 
Evening Herald, May 2010

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Descriptions in fiction

Describing characters and scenes in fiction is the heartland - it's where you draw your readers in - but it's one of the trickiest things to do.
The big beginner's mistake is to ladle on description by the potload:

The tax inspector, Grindle, was a small, dark-skinned man with a huge nose on which perched a tiny pair of rimless glasses. His wavy grey hair failed to conceal enormous ears that flapped on either side of his head like a warning system for a nuclear winter.
He wore a tweed suit, the kind of suit you'd imagine worn by the first Ministers in the Free State parliament, devoted to buying Irish produce and heroically bearing the heinous scratching of their inner thighs by the hardy produce of mountainy looms.
His shoes had the mellow shine produced by daily saddle-soaping of the undyed pigskin; somehow Ferber imagined that he could see remnants of the soap caught in the patterned holes on the brogues' toes. 
He had the scent of a subtle, expensive but not too expensive aftershave balm. 
Even his briefcase glowed.
When he spoke, it was with a preliminary throat-clearing. "Mr Ferber?" he said, in a voice that rubbed its hands with every syllable.

About halfway through the second line of this stuff - all useful stuff, by the way - the reader is already mentally moistening a thumb, ready to turn the page, while the unconscious mind is jumping up and down pulling at the reader's sleeve and screaming, "WHERE'S THE STORY????"
And this is the important thing for every writer to remember. That's the question that every line must answer: where's the story, and what's going to happen next.
This kind of massive infodump doesn't move the story along at all.
Another basic mistake in the wodge above: whatever you do, be cautious of adjectives of size. Every time you use big, small, large, wide, minuscule, loud, soft, and all their evil friends, remember that the concept you reach for first may not be the strongest one.
If you want to get across the fact that Mr Grindle is small, for instance, the most powerful way to do it is through action:

Ferber looked down at Grindle. Grindle stepped back and looked him up and down, as if to say that anyone over six foot was a lumbering boor.

This brings us to subtext; every statement ever made has at least two meanings: the overt one, and the one that carries the action. Here, you've got Ferber trying not to irritate Grindle by towering over him, and Grindle making a power play. And you've described the size of both, and given an impression of neat little Grindle and big awkward Ferber.
Dialogue is a shocking temptation for fiction writers. It's a nice easy way to carry the action, and you can go on for pages at a time. If you don't want readers, that is.
The thing to remember about dialogue is that less is more. A good - short - dialogue is like a close-up, where the reader's vision moves right in to see the characters with every open pore in clear view.

Grindle pulled a gun. "Gimme the cheque," he rasped. 
"The cheque?" said Ferber.
"Yeah, the cheque. I've got a private jet booked for the Bahamas," he snarled. "And I'm running late."
"But... but..." protested Ferber.

Writers often think they're raising the stakes by having conflict rise through a run of dialogue. Usually not. Usually, dialogue works best when it's short, terse, characteristic (Grindle should talk like a tax man, Ferber like whatever he is, without exaggerating it too much).
It's important in the commentary ("he said", "she whispered") to avoid allowing these phrases to take over the dialogue. If you find they are becoming intrusive, it's usually a sign that your line of dialogue is too long.
Young writers have been taught a passionate hatred of adverbs. There used to be a happy game called Tom Swift, which consisted of fitting horridly apposite adverbs to a statement:

"Gotta run," said Tom swiftly.
"I could eat a cow," said Tom hungrily.
"Is that a violin?" asked Tom musically.

...and so on, mocking an early 20th-century usage. Nowadays adverbs are regarded with such delicate horror that apparently some (probably second-class) agents simply do a global search of any submitted manuscript for words ending in 'ly', and if they come into thousands, the agent takes the manuscript in finger and thumb, drops it delicately, carefully, distastefully into an envelope and immediately writes a rejection letter redolent of horrified refusal like a country virgin of 40 who's met the Devil at the crossroads outside the graveyard.
(Which reminds me of such a story in which the Devil made a shocking suggestion involving oral pleasures to such a virgin, who was on her way to Midnight Mass; "Oh no, I couldn't," she said, "I'm receiving.")

Friday, 2 December 2011

Is your home a deathtrap for children?

EIGHT months pregnant and crawling around the floor - not a good image. And way too late - you should baby-proof your home the very second you know you’re going to have a child living with you. 
The first five years of our lives are when the real dangers lie. Delicious poisons under the sink and in the drinks cabinet, just begging to be tasted. Exciting games to be played near a stove bubbling with boiling soups and porridge. 
If you come from a family with a horrified addiction to scéal mór an úafás, you’ll have heard about the toddler that rocked itself in its high chair to the window of a tall Georgian house in Harcourt Street, and plunged to its death, chair and all. That’s why Victorian nurseries had bars on the windows.
Accidents are just waiting to happen. But you can make your home safe, if you think carefully about what the dangers are. 
Child-proofing your home is a matter of common sense, says Galway doctor Sinead Murphy. “Look at everything from the chemicals under the sink to the sharp knives that might be in the top drawer, but still within reach,” she says.
“Look for boiling kettles where the flex is trailing - and the same with other electrical equipment.”
Pad sharp corners and edges - little children racing unsteadily around can get a real crack on the temple.
Tie up the cords of blinds and curtains out of the reach of children to remove any risk of strangling.
  Paddling pools need to be treated sensibly. Dr Murphy warns that you should never  leave the pool full of water when it’s not in use. “And if you’re out in the garden with children playing in a paddling pool, if you have to answer the phone, bring the children with you - or else don’t answer it.” 
If you have a garden pond, cover it, or fill it with pebbles until the children are old enough to be safe with water, when you can gradually take the pebbles out. 
And lock away the medicines, even those innocent headache pills, says Dr Murphy. Ibuprofen, aspirin, paracetamol and codeine are among the commonest poisons for children. Liquid medicines are also dangerously tempting for toddlers.
Surprisingly, these are not the most deadly poison. More insidious, more permanently harmful, is something far less obvious.
“People won’t think of it as a major hazard, but probably the most serious problem in the home, and the one children are most commonly exposed to, is cigarette smoke,” says Dr Murphy. 
“Depending on the amount of exposure, in some children it can make them prone to respiratory conditions, asthma and recurrent respiratory infections, as well as failure to thrive.”
Dr Murphy also warns against keeping alcohol in unlocked cupboards - a long drink of vodka will do a toddler no good at all.
Always be on hand, and always be watchful, she says. “It’s when you’re off your guard that children are going to do something ridiculous.”

Where to Get Help:
The Poisons Information Centre of Ireland, based in Beaumont Hospital - - has very good seasonal information about everything from jellyfish stings to alcohol hand gels.
An American site with an excellent child-proofing list: 
Published in the Evening Herald in August 2010