Review of Books
Edna O’Brien is best known for her provocative novels which, over a span of nearly five decades, have broken daring ground all across the world, but particularly in Ireland, where she was banned before she was beloved.
But O’Brien’s latest book is not another novel. Instead, it is a second short biography of a radical artist. This, naturally, is a good fit for O’Brien.
A few years ago, O’Brien wrote a biography of James Joyce, a writer she has said she still reads every day. It is understandable why O’Brien would see Joyce as an interesting subject. Not only was Joyce the most influential writer of the 20th century, he was also censored in his homeland – just like O’Brien.
O’Brien’s latest venture into biography is a powerful exploration of the life and times of the Romantic British poet Lord Byron entitled Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life. This might not seem as natural a fit as Joyce for O’Brien. That is, until you look at the details of Byron’s life a little more closely.
Seen by some as the world’s first literary rock star, Byron in Love focuses closely on his hedonistic side, particularly his seemingly endless appetite for sex. He grew up in London with an ill mother and absent father. He shot to literary fame at the age of 24. As O’Brien makes clear, Byron had, to say the least, a lust for life. He continued writing, but also participated in wars of revolution in Greece and Italy. He was also a notorious lover (and not only of women). Given all of this, it’s easy to forget Byron was also one of the great poets of the 18th century Romantic movement that produced the likes of Shelley, Keats, Blake and Wordsworth.
Readers of Byron in Love will come away understanding that Byron was a figure who captured his era’s political, sexual and artistic currents. In a way, he sounds like a character out of an O’Brien novel.
Of course, like many a rock star, part of Byron’s long-lasting appeal rests in the fact that he died young. He died when he was just 36, after becoming ill while fighting in Greece.
O’Brien has clearly found a kindred spirit in Lord Byron. Byron in Love shows that O’Brien is not only a great novelist, but also a brilliant interpreter of literary life.
($24.95 / 240 pages / W.W. Norton)
Following two novels about different kinds of artists (Dancer and Zoli), acclaimed novelist Colum McCann widens his lens with a new novel Let the Great World Spin. McCann channels the American novelist Don DeLillo in the new book’s opening scene. We get a breathless, microscopic panorama of downtown Manhattan as the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit makes his famous walk between the Twin Towers. Then, McCann takes us on a frenetic tour of New York in the 1970s, when the city was much more gritty than gleaming.
At the center of this book are two Irish brothers who settle amidst the prostitutes and violence of the Bronx. But McCann’s book contains a chorus of voices. We also meet a group of mothers from very different parts of the city who are bound by one simple fact: they have lost sons in Vietnam. This storyline has particular resonance in this day and age, as American mothers continue to lose sons and daughters in the Middle East.
McCann’s vision of New York is ecstatic, almost mystic, in this ambitious book. Let the Great World Spin may not quite measure up to Dancer, but is a disturbingly good read just the same. What Let the Great World Spin does show is that Colum McCann remains one of the most interesting fiction writers working today.
($25 / 349 pages / Random House)
One of the most talked-about debut novels of the summer is J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement. Sullivan’s book takes the reader through the different perspectives of four young women at Sullivan’s own alma mater, Smith College, and into the first few years of their adult lives beyond. Thus, she has drawn comparisons to fellow Irish Catholic author Mary McCarthy: many say Commencement is The Group for a new generation of American women. Gloria Steinem claims that “Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning,” but Sullivan’s four heroines struggle throughout the novel with different and often contradictory ideas about what it means to be a feminist, a friend, and a young woman in 21st century America.
Among the cast of Sullivan’s novel is the Irish (lapsed) Catholic Celia, who says Hail Marys like a superstition, the beautiful Southerner Bree, who arrives at Smith engaged to her high school sweetheart but graduates with a very different idea of love, radical feminist April, who is willing to risk life and limb to expose the horrors of sex trafficking in America, and Sally, who begins college mourning the loss of her mother. While the four girls initially seem to have nothing in common, they form a bond that stays with them even as they face marriage, motherhood, and mortality. Look for an interview with Sullivan, who maintains her day job in the editorial department of The New York Times, in the next issue.
($24.95 / 336 pages / Knopf)
Heather Barbieri’s The Lacemakers of Glenmara does not exactly have an original premise. Kate Robinson is a 26-year-old Irish American who flees to Ireland when she feels overwhelmed by life in the States. Naturally, she becomes enmeshed in the lives of a colorful cast of local characters in Glenmara, among them the members of a dedicated lace-making group. Still, Lacemakers has plenty of heart and charm.
“You can always start again,” Kate’s mother once told her, “all it takes is a new thread.”
Barbieri’s characters are nothing if not memorable, particularly the members of the group that gives the book its title. There’s Bernie, a widow, and Aileen, who seems helpless in the face of her teenage daughter’s growing independence. There’s also Moira, who is trapped in an abusive relationship.
Meanwhile, it just so happens there’s also a fella Kate meets, an artist, who perhaps could use a lady friend to overcome some of his own past traumas.
The Lacemakers of Glenmara is not exactly for everyone. But those who enjoy a colorful romantic yarn will eat it up.
($24.99 / 268 pages / Harper)
In 2003, best-selling author Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization) was in Texas. A retired Irish Catholic judge named Sheila Murphy recommended he pay a visit to a convicted murderer named Dominique Green. He did not encounter a cold-blooded killer but, instead, what Cahill calls A Saint on Death Row, the title of his latest book.
Green was arrested at the age of eighteen following the shooting of a man during a robbery, and was sentenced to the death penalty despite a lack of evidence.
A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green explores the fight to stop Green’s execution, a fight which included a visit from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In October of 2004, Green died by lethal injection, but knowing the ending shouldn’t stop you from wanting to read this harrowing piece and find out why.
Cahill outlines the serious flaws and corruption in the American justice system, as well as the spiritual journey undertaken by Green and his many supporters.
($18.95 / 160 pages / Nan A. Talese)
Another miscarriage of justice story is told in The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston’s Racial Lines.
At the center of the story is South Boston Irish American cop Kenny Conley. In 1995, several Boston police officers brutally beat a man who they believed to be a gang member. Instead, it was Michael Cox, an undercover African American police officer.
During the beating, Officer Conley captured another suspect, and, so, denied witnessing the actual beating of Cox. Federal prosecutors accused Conley of lying, drawing him into a legal morass which, in Lehr’s mind, exposes huge flaws in the Boston police department. Lehr knows a lot about the ethnic wars and justice system in Boston. He (along with Gerard O’Neill) wrote Black Mass, the definitive account of Whitey Bulger and how the Southie Irish gangster manipulated law enforcement and escaped prosecution.
($25 / 383 pages / Harper)
The massive new Collected Poems of Ciaran Carson shows the Belfast-born poet to be one of the most impressive of his generation, particularly in the diversity of his language and subject matter. Early poems such as “Our Country Cousins” and “Great-Grandmother” are insightful portraits of familial intimacy, while later works, such as the simply titled cycle “Letters from the Alphabet,” are complex in their form and content. Throughout, there is a heavy presence of history, of Irish and Gaelic culture, not to mention a strong sense of universality.
($19.95 / 591 pages / Wake Forest University Press)
Also new from Wake Forest (which specializes in Irish poetry) is Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain, a collection rich with imagery of both the lush beauty and danger of nature. “The Wolf Tree” reads at one point, “Imagine the field you might survey / before the wolf tree’s unleaving / like the hours of your life / finds you shivering, naked, unmasked and old.”
($11.95 / 100 pages / Wake Forest University Press