Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
June / July 2005
MYSTERIES OF MY FATHER:
An Irish-American Memoir
Publisher’s Weekly is the bible of the book industry, and is read closely by everyone from writers and literary agents to editors and book store owners. All of them have their eyes out for the next big thing, say, the next Angela’s Ashes.
For years, all of the reviews in Publisher’s Weekly were anonymous. Recently, however, the magazine started assigning books to literary stars. Fittingly enough, the first author they turned to for a review was Frank McCourt. The book was literary veteran Thomas Fleming’s new memoir Mysteries of My Father: An Irish-American Memoir.
Simply put, McCourt was blown away.
Calling Mysteries of My Father “majestic,” McCourt adds that this is a book “in which there are enough plots and themes for a dozen novels. There is the marriage of Fleming’s father, Teddy, to his mother, Kitty. They are a classic, almost stereotypical, pair: he the ill-educated tough ward politician aware of his shortcomings, she the gentle, well-educated beauty with social aspirations.”
Closing the review, McCourt says: “There’s gold here.”
Readers of Irish America magazine might recall that Fleming has written about his father’s world of Irish-dominated Jersey City politics in the past. But in this beautiful, moving memoir, Fleming finally pulls it all together: the power struggles in both marriage and politics, the love and difficulties inherent in any father-son relationship, and the tough Jersey streets ruled by boss Frank Hague and men such as Fleming’s dad.
Fleming, by now, is the author of more than 40 books. He is perhaps best known for his 1981 novel, The Officers’ Wives. But his overall body of work is heavily Irish and Irish American. His last novel, for example, explored the doomed Fenian invasion of Canada in the wake of the American Civil War.
But now, given McCourt’s rave — not to mention a haunting opening, involving a mysterious ring given to Fleming by his dad — it seems as if Thomas Fleming has finally produced his masterpiece.
($24.95 / 352 pages / Wiley)
GREEN SUEDE SHOES:
An Irish-American Odyssey
Black 47 rocker Larry Kirwan recently released a very different sort of memoir. Green Suede Shoes: An Irish-American Odyssey explores Kirwan’s youth in Wexford and takes readers on a joyous ride through a life of music, politics and the immigrant experience. Inevitably, the publishers’ have dubbed this book a “rock `n’ roll Angela’s Ashes.” But as with his music, there’s no need to compare Kirwan’s book to someone else’s. His latest literary effort is as interesting and idiosyncratic as his last book Liverpool Fantasy, an alternative history that explored what might have happened if the Beatles never formed.
Green Suede Shoes offers insight not just into Kirwan’s life, but also his music, as well as the scenes which influenced him, from Irish trad to New York punk and even hip hop.
Interestingly, to go along with the book’s release, Kirwan is also releasing a new CD entitled Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes as a kind of musical companion to the book.
Ultimately, Kirwan’s book is heavily Irish, but perhaps the most interesting sections are when cultures clash in the New York music scene. Some readers may be turned off by Kirwan’s politics (whether the topic is the Brits in the North or the Americans in Iraq) but Green Suede Shoes is an undeniably interesting read.
($15.95 / 400 pages / Thunder’s Mouth Press)
DON’T WAKE ME AT DOYLE’S
Yet another ill-fitting comparison to Angela’s Ashes is heaped upon Don’t Wake Me at Doyle’s, a memoir by Maura Murphy. The publishers say this book will make readers think Angela herself is telling the story.
But again, such a comparison is wholly unnecessary. Don’t Wake Me at Doyle’s is unlike any memoir in recent memory.
The author was 70 years old when she found out she had cancer. She then left her husband of five decades and began working on her memoirs, never certain if she would ever live to see them published.
Well, five years later, the Offaly-born Murphy is healthy and ready to begin promoting her book.
As readers will quickly learn, Murphy had every reason to leave her husband. She left school at 14 and eventually made her way to Dublin where she worked as a domestic servant. She met a soldier and soon found herself in a position no Irish Catholic girl wanted to find herself in some 50 years ago: pregnant and unwed.
Murphy did quickly get married, only to discover her husband was alcoholic and abusive. Unwilling to break her marital vows, children, miscarriages and a move to England followed. However, Murphy’s luck did not improve. The family lived in poverty and Murphy’s husband never changed his ways.
Don’t Wake Me at Doyle’s makes for some grim reading at times. But, of course, knowing that Murphy is alive (she had a lung removed) and able to see her saga published is a small glimmer of hope at the end of the book.
($24.95 / 416 pages / Thomas Dunne)
IN LIKE FLYNN
Meanwhile, on the crime books front, two well-known female regulars are back: Regan Reilly and Molly Murphy.
Reilly is the star of Carol Higgins Clark’s new book Burned ($23 / 288 pages / Scribner), which puts Reilly on a murder case in Hawaii. Murphy, meanwhile, is the creation of best-seller Rhys Bowen, whose new mystery In Like Flynn ($23.95 / 336 pages / St. Martin’s) unfolds in the slightly less tropical setting of early-20th-Century New York City.
Neither book is exactly daring, but both Clark’s and Bowen’s fans should be pleased by these latest efforts.
Belfast native Adrian McKinty recently followed up his smashing debut novel with another thriller Hidden River.
McKinty’s first book, Dead I Well May Be, was optioned for a film by Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the acclaimed film Traffic. Dead I Well May Be conjured up comparisons to the work of Tom Kelly, Michael Ledwidge, and other Irish suspense writers with an eye for New York’s dark side.
This time around, though, McKinty writes about his past home (Belfast) and his current home (Colorado, where he is a school teacher).
In Hidden River, we meet fallen police officer Alex Lawson, whose career was derailed when he got a job with the department’s drug unit and got hooked on heroine. At the end of his rope, having lost his job, Alex wanders aimlessly around Carrickfergus until he hears that a high school sweetheart has been murdered in Colorado.
As Alex heads to the states for revenge and possibly redemption, McKinty turns up the heat, introducing a powerful political figure who just may be involved in the murder. Ultimately Hidden River is as solid — and at times, as violent — a read as Dead I Well May Be.
($24.00 / 288 pages / Scribner)
A different kind of Irish-American read can be found in Bob Flaherty’s debut coming of age novel Puff, set in working-class Boston during the infamous blizzard of 1978.
In Puff, twenty-somethings John and Gully masquerade as Red Cross workers traveling across Boston hoping to buy some marijuana amidst the swirling snow. Within this comic premise, however, is an interesting portrait of working-class Irish Boston. The racism Flaherty portrays is, by now, perhaps too familiar. But John and Gully emerge as likable slackers who learn an important lesson, all the while understanding that lessons are best learned with healthy doses of comedy and laughter.
($13.95 / 269 pages / Perennial)
Irish-American Boston is also the setting for Richard Madnick’s novel Boyos. Marinick is that rare thing — an ex-cop and an ex-con. He served 10 years in jail for being a member of a ring of bank robbers. Such a wide range of experiences comes through in the gritty world of Boyos, which charts the rise and fall of Jack and Kevin Curran, two mobbed-up brothers who are looking to knock crime boss Marty Fallon off of his perch.
($24.95 / 274 pages / Justin, Charles & Co.)
A LEARNER’S GUIDE TO IRISH
Talk about a multicultural project! You might have heard that The Quiet Man was recently translated into the Irish language. The mega-best-selling book by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was also recently translated into Irish.
Well, if you want to enjoy these American and British classics in the Irish language, a handy book to have would be A Learner’s Guide to Irish, written by Donna Wong. Obviously, Wong’s name may not exactly be a common Irish one, but she certainly knows her Irish. Cois Life, the Irish-language publishing company, selected her to write this book specifically for people whose first language is English and who live outside of Ireland, and thus had no exposure to Irish while attending Ireland’s schools.
Wong herself did not learn Irish until she attended the University of California, Berkeley and then Harvard, where she has since taught classes in Irish.
To order this book from Cois Life, go to www.coislife.ie.