Review of Books

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2004

RECOMMENDED

Early in his new memoir Pull Me Up, New York Times columnist Dan Barry writes: “Noreen Barry, née Minogue, originally of Shanaglish parish, County Galway, and lately and sporadically of Sts. Cyril and Methodius parish, Deer Park, Long Island, died on a rainy morning in February; she was all of sixty-one. And that should have been that: another Irish mother dies and another brooding brood is less for it, weeping into its cups, unable to silence that awful old song about how you never miss a mother’s love ’til she’s buried beneath the clay.

“But six months later it was my turn to begin slipping away.”

Thus does Barry, who pens the poetic “About New York” column in the Times, begin this poignant book which somehow manages to balance the ruthlessness of cancer, the mysteries of Ireland, and the complex sociology of Long Island in the 1960s.

The title is a reference to Barry’s mother who, in a haze of pain and morphine, often asked her son to pull her up off of the sofa. Yet Pull Me Up does not barrel down the tragic route of, say, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

For all the pain on display — six months after Barry’s mother died, he himself was diagnosed with cancer at age 41 — Barry offers a well-rounded portrait of his Irish Catholic life and times. The youthful sections dealing with his, um, eccentric parents are among the book’s strongest.

Catholic school was a sometimes brutal place, but it was also where the seeds of reading and writing were planted in young Barry. Much space is also devoted to Barry’s love of sports, which verges on the religious.

Then there is the climb towards the top of the journalistic heap, which sees Barry, who has shared a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award, become a Pete Hamill or Jimmy Breslin for a new generation.

All in all, Pull Me Up is a unique spin on the Irish memoir, because it never takes the easy way out. Perhaps that’s because Barry, as Pull Me Up suggests, has not yet had the opportunity to take the easy way out.

($24.95 / 323 pages / Norton)

BIOGRAPHY

James T. Farrell’s trilogy of books about Chicago tough Studs Lonigan are arguably the most important Irish-American books ever published. And yet, one could argue that Farrell hated most of the very people who fill those books.

This is one of the central topics Robert K. Landers addresses in a fine new biography of Farrell, who was born 100 years ago, in 1904.

An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell is thorough and revealing, particularly in its detailing of the great amounts of pain and adversity Farrell faced throughout his life.

As a youngster in a large Irish Catholic family, he was sent to live with his mother’s family and never really returned to live with his parents.

It’s too simplistic to say this fueled some of the rage in Farrell’s novels. But this clearly had an effect on Farrell, who would become one of the few artistic types in his family, abandoning Catholicism and championing the Marxist Leon Trotsky.

Even later in life, though he was a well-known writer, there were always money troubles, and Farrell was never a critics’ darling. He also experienced divorce, lost a child at birth, and another was born so severely disabled that he lived for decades in a home.

Landers’ book is at its best when it relates Farrell’s life to his work, but there is far too much space devoted to arcane wars between various Communists, socialists, Marxists and other leftists.

Still, what emerges is a portrait of an ambitious, insecure, humble, and, in many ways, Catholic writer. Landers also does not ignore the flaws in much of Farrell’s work. An Honest Writer, ultimately, is, well, an honest assessment of an important American writer.

($28.95 / 562 pages / Encounter Books)

FICTION

Best-seller Marian Keyes is back, this time tackling a topic close to her heart. Oh sure, there’s love, lust, and related topics, but Keyes’ new novel The Other Side of the Story is set in the world of publishing.

Keyes begins with ambitious literary agent Jojo Harvey who is making million-dollar deals even as she has an affair with her married boss.

Then there’s best-selling author Lily Wright, one of Jojo’s clients, struggling with a second novel and mounting debt.

Finally there’s “events organizer” Gemma Hogan, who was best friends with Lily until they battled over the same man.

Much bickering and angry e-mailing ensue, and by now Keyes’ fans know what to expect, and that includes black humor and the inevitable heartwarming resolution. Early buzz suggested The Other Side of the Story was not quite as appealing as Keyes’ past efforts. That may be true, but this is no great departure for the Dublin-born author, so Keyes’ fans should be satisfied once again.

($24.95 / 528 pages / Morrow)

At first glance, the great American author Henry James would not seem a natural subject for Irish novelist Colm Tóibín. Hailed by the Irish Independent as “the best Irish writer of his generation,” Tóibín has written on a wide range of subjects, but his books have generally been rooted in aspects of the Irish and/or Catholic experience.

His last novel The Blackwater Lightship explored three Irish generations and was a finalist for the 1999 Booker Prize and the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, while his non-fiction books include Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border and The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.

Tóibín also edited the excellent Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, as well as a provocative revisionist history of the Irish Famine.

But after reading Tóibín’s at times mesmerizing new novel The Master, Henry James is a fitting topic after all.

James’ grandfather was in fact born in Cavan, even if the author is best known as an Anglo-American.

Equally important, James’ life allows Tóibín to explore important questions about sexual identity, ones similar to those he explored in Blackwater Lightship as well as in his non-fiction study Love in a Dark Time.

At times The Master is slow-moving, but it sheds a revealing light on James. Though he was regarded as a “master” writer, as a human being he comes off tentative, conflicted, and insecure, yet also driven to write. Tóibín’s book is also an impressive historical sketch of America, Ireland, and England from the U.S. Civil War to the dawn of the 20th century.

($25 / 352 pages / Scribner)

NON FICTION

Almost immediately Irish police knew Dublin gangster Martin Cahill pulled off a famous art heist in 1986. Yet the stolen paintings — which included a Goya, a Vermeer and two works by Rubens — could not be located for years, even as Cahill taunted the police.

But as journalist Mathew Hart shows in The Irish Game, Cahill would eventually be sunk. It was the art theft which ultimately led to Cahill’s assassination by the IRA. The Irish Game links this crime with two other world-famous thefts, of a Vermeer from the Gardner Museum in Boston, and of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” from the National Gallery in Oslo.

The Irish Game is that rare thing: a book which is smart about Ireland, art and crime. Should any writer down the road choose to give William Butler Yeats the treatment Colm Tóibín has given Henry James, Scribner’s 14-volume series on the writings of Yeats will surely be invaluable.

The latest volume, titled W.B. Yeats Early Articles and Reviews, edited by John P. Frayne and Madeleine Marchaterre, explores articles and reviews written between 1886 and 1900. Obviously this is not exactly light reading. Still, fans of Yeats will likely be fascinated by the extent to which Yeats was deeply engaged in intellectual arguments of his time, particularly those revolving around the “Irish Renaissance” he famously championed.

Already collected by Scribner have been the poems, plays and early and later essays of Yeats. Up next are later articles and reviews, “mythologies,” and two volumes intriguingly entitled A Vision.

($40 / 672 pages / Scribner)

It’s a diverse group of characters who populate Great Irish Heroes by Danny Conlon and Alan Barter. But this book shows that you can go a bit too far in trying to tap into the vast Irish-American reading market.

The authors manage to find room for Michael Collins and Tom Barry, but also Billy the Kid, President Teddy Roosevelt (some of whose distant ancestors came from Antrim in 1729) and even all the residents of the Great Blasket Island.

To some readers the authors’ loose, even random definition of “Irish” (or for that matter “hero”) may be a bit excessive. Still, if one entry falls flat, there’s another just a few pages away.

A broader problem with this book is its jumbled layout, which features written entries for some figures, but mere photographs and captions for others.

This is quite a slapdash effort, but at least the authors include great Irish writers, singers and artists as well as rebels and U.S. presidents.

($13.95 / 234 pages / Trafalgar Square)

Certainly a more learned reading experience can be found in Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland’s Holy Mountain.

Author Chet Raymo is an acclaimed science writer who for three decades has lived part of each year on the Dingle Peninsula, near the foot of Mount Brandon. He uses the mountain — a popular destination for religious pilgrims — to explore modern conflicts between science and religion.

He begins with Ireland’s conversion to Christianity, then outlines the evolving role the mountain has played over the centuries, weaving together myth and science, folklore and natural history, spiritual and physical geographies.

The result is a brainy but accessible exploration of just how unique Ireland’s religious experience has been, before and after St. Patrick.

($22 / 208 pages / Walker & Company) ♦

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