Brendan Casey talks all things bookish for the companion series to our popular podcast, Burning Books
Told in a remarkable narrative voice, She That Lay Silent-like Upon Our Shore is a powerful fable about loyalty, isolation and humanity’s complex relationship with nature.
‘An act of pure imagination: this is one of those stories that arrive fully formed in the writer’s head, asking to be written first and understood later. The result is a kind of vision, told with great attention to language, voice and tone’—Anne Enright.
A book from your early days
I’d have to give two. The Best Nest by P.D Eastman, which was the first book I was completely crazy about. It details the misadventures of Mr and Mrs Bird who endure all kinds of calamities only to discover that their original nest was indeed the best. My copy of this book is still being read to, and by, various nieces and nephews.
The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola, a deeply religious retelling of an old French tale which I loved and feared in equal measure. DePaola’s washed-out, carnivalesque illustrations haunted me.
Dog ears or book marks?
Neither, I remember where I am in a book. Strangely, people consider this a conceit.
Do you lend without expecting a book returned?
Never. I have very strong feelings about this, which probably says a lot about me — in some oblique way. An extremely good friend of mine (he knows who he is!) gave my first copy of The Catcher in the Rye to his then girlfriend of about 5 minutes. Her flippant shrug when I asked after its whereabouts, coupled with the fact that my book/bible had been lent to a third party without my knowledge sent me into a very silent and enduring rage.
Disregard for things other people value (books in my case, particular books, particularly) is a very serious character flaw — in my book. I would not make a very good Marxist. I am ok with that.
Best book someone gave you?
The Red Tree by Shaun Tan was given to me by a great friend who knew instinctively how much I’d love it. The simplicity of the words alongside the dense beauty of Tan’s illustrations are beguiling. I had a physical reaction to the book as I turned its pages. It made me ask strange questions, such as; why do I sympathise, on such a visceral level, with a giant fish moving through the streets of a vast metropolis?
A book that taught you something important?
As far as writing is concerned, Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky taught me two things. The importance of a great beginning (see also Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, A Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson).
It also taught me, in very blunt terms that a book and/or its protagonist does not have to be likeable, and can in fact be petty and ostentatiously self-deprecating ‘I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man, I am an unattractive man.’ The opening of this book was a kind of revelation to me — a reader could, and perhaps should, be plunged rather than eased into a book.
Strangely, I remember the exact minutiae of buying Notes From Underground from Mary Ryan’s bookshop in New Farm, Brisbane, Australia. I was 19 and working as a dish pig in a café across the road — a great environment to observe and experience the resentment and frustration of which Dostoyevsky wrote so brilliantly. I remember where the book was on the shelf, and the conversation I had with the girl behind the counter.
‘Have you read Dostoyevsky before?’
‘He’s great. You’re going to love him.’
She was right.
A book that saved you?
Be wary of any book that saves you. To quote Jean Genet ‘miracles are unclean.’
One of your own stories that you’d choose to save, or leave to burn
I’d happily burn most of what I have written. In fact, burning it would require a conviction I just couldn’t muster.
Maybe I’d save a story I’ve carried with me for a very long time, 25 years or so. A wee strange story called The Regrettable Passing of Franklin J. Hosinbop. I’d pluck it from the flames not because I believe it to be particularly brilliant but because I’d really like to see it finished. Plus I love the illustrations the artist, Steven Aylin, did for it a few years ago.
A book you are reading now?
East West Street by Philippe Sands. I informed a friend I was heading down to the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas and he told me he was a fan of Philippe Sands and especially this book. It is a family history interwoven with the history of Lviv, the Nuremburg trials and the establishment of international law. I bought East West Street after listening to Philippe Sands and Fintan O’Toole talk about Europe in light of the war in the Ukraine.
I had gone to the festival with the express intention of listening to Warren Ellis talk about his book Nina Simone’s Gum. He cancelled at the last minute, and broke my heart.
A book you’d leave in there to burn
Mister Babadook because it can’t be burnt. I have two first edition copies of the pop-up book that came out of the movie. One signed by Jennifer Kent. I am slightly/very in love with them. Ba-ba-ba Dook! Dook! Dook!
You can save one non-book item: what is it?
Everything else can burn…