Review of Books
By Irish America staff
October /November 2009
Leo Tolstoy famously said that all great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. William Trevor’s latest novel is thus great literature two times over. The Cork-born Irish master, author of fourteen novels and twelve short story collections, came forth this September with Love and Summer, which focuses on the small town of Rathmoye and its inhabitants, tracing over the stories, true or warped with time or completely imagined, that they tell. The stranger in question is Florian Kilderry, who arrives in Rathmoye with his bicycle and camera already planning to leave Ireland forever. The book opens by bringing the town’s inhabitants together for the funeral of their beloved Eileen Connulty, leaving her shrewish daughter the mistress of their family-run bed and breakfast. The remaining Miss Connulty (called so formally even by her twin brother) sees Florian as a scoundrel and a threat to the peace and virtue of Rathmoye, represented best by young Ellie Dillahan, raised by nuns as an orphan before marrying a widower whose past is defined by a tragic accident. But Ellie’s own dreams and desires keep her from being either the victim Miss Connulty depicts with her gossip or a blank page for Florian’s prewritten story. The bittersweet novel twangs with a sense of loss, and Trevor’s language, both lush and restrained, brings an incredible tenderness and sympathy to the choices and heartbreaks of his characters. See the interview with William Trevor on page 64 of this issue.
($25.95 / 212 pages / Viking)
– Kara Rota
Maile Meloy, whose great-great-grandparents traveled from Bandon, Co. Cork via New Zealand to Montana, is the author of the short story collection Half in Love as well as the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, and is the winner of a PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Published in July, Meloy’s new collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, draws its title and unifying theme from an A.R. Ammons poem that reads, “One can’t have it both ways and both ways is the only way I want it.” Each spare and tense story in the collection depicts this human dilemma like a fable, but Meloy forgoes the less interesting angle of passing moral judgment in order to record in her adept language the disappointments and ambivalence of her characters, who are often indefensible but also moving and deeply familiar. In “The Children,”a man considers leaving his wife but feels guilty about “jumping ship on her in middle age, trying to swim to a younger boat,” and Meloy forces the reader to identify with his secret struggle, asking, “what kind of fool wanted it only one way?”
($25.95 / 219 pages / Riverhead Books)
– Kara Rota
This newest delve into the intriguing world of the paranormal, The Book of Illumination: A Novel from the Ghost Files comes from an interesting collaboration of writers. Mary Ann Winkowski is no stranger to writing the files of paranormal investigators. Her book When Ghosts Speak was a successful novel that inspired the CBS television series Ghost Whisperer. Winkowski’s co-author for this novel is Maureen Foley, who is a writer, producer and director of the films American Wake and Home Before Dark.
The two team up for The Book of Illumination, which chronicles Anza O’Malley, paranormal investigator and medium, as she uncovers the mystery of an ancient and priceless manuscript. Anza’s ghostly counterparts in this mystery include two medieval Irish monks and an Irish butler. With their help Anza attempts to find a stolen manuscript, which she believes to be the fabled Book of Kildare. A light read, the novel is an engaging story filled with plenty of references to its historic Boston setting. Anza’s side conflict as a single mother still hopelessly in love with her son’s father provides some air in the novel, though Anza’s constant yearning can grow tiresome by the novel’s end.
($14.00 / 320 pages / Three Rivers Press)
– Tara Dougherty
Irish-Canadian author Elizabeth Kelly’s first novel, Apologize, Apologize! is at once heartrending and uplifting, gloomy and victorious. Her narrator, Collie Flanagan, is a boy growing up in Martha’s Vineyard caught between the worlds of his wealthy but rebellious mother, his old-money media mogul grandfather, and his father and Uncle Tom (the Fantastic Flanagans, who show up drunk but impeccably dressed to crash cocktail parties, cook endless suppers and breakfasts, and teach Collie and his younger brother their questionable but goodhearted philosophies as well as the art of pigeon racing.) Collie and his brother Bingo are both named, by their mother, after dogs, creatures that haunt the novel as they overtake the sprawling Flanagan house, exemplifying the domestic chaos and infuriating confrontations that provide a stark counterpoint to the cool, reserved formality of Collie’s grandfather. Nicknamed “The Falcon,” he is a surprising sole source of quiet affection and encouragement in a family where Collie is often treated as the somber, affected weakling, the odd one out. Apologize, Apologize! traces Collie’s misadventures from his childhood to the doorstep of his thirties in pages teeming with Kelly’s luxuriant, though at times flinchingly direct, prose and undeniably compelling narrative voice.
($23.99 / 324 pages / Twelve)
– Kara Rota
Peter Murphy is a Dublin-based music journalist and critic whose debut novel, John the Revelator, smarts with both the gritty, disturbing content and incredible lyrical beauty of his foremost trade. It is the story of a boy named John Devine, growing up in a small town in southeast Ireland with no father, a busybody neighbor named Mrs. Nagle, a curious fixation on worms, graphic and persistent nightmares, and a chain-smoking, Scripture-quoting mother who is alternately mysterious and accusatory, all-powerful and, as her health gradually fails, vulnerable as a child. There are few important characters in the book and in John’s life, lending considerable weight to the relationships he does form. One in particular, the heart of the story, is John’s bewitching yet, beneath the surface, uneasy friendship with Jamey Corboy, which erupts in a blasphemous and climactic event that sparks a gripping series of stories written by Jamey within the novel. Murphy’s prose is gorgeous even when disconcerting, his dialogue rings true, and as a novelist he is ultimately fearless.
($25.00 / 272 pages / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Kara Rota
Minister of Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has a career in Irish politics which has spanned two decades as Teachta Dála for the constituency of Cork South central. Well-studied in history with an MA from University College Cork and extensive experience in politics, Martin explores the upheaval of Irish culture and the development of the political system in Ireland in the early 20th century in Freedom to Choose: Cork & Party Politics in Ireland 1918-1932. The historical exploration of the time is thorough and while the social aspect of the realignment of Irish society is missing, Martin leaves no stone unturned in his explanation of party politics in Ireland. Martin pays particular attention to electoral math throughout the early years of the Republic’s democratic system. The political parties formed and developed as the violence of the first twenty years after the rebellion died down. Martin’s focus on the way voter demographics influenced not only elections but the growth of the governmental construct itself is fascinating. Martin’s obvious experience with historical literature reflects in his style, as the structure of the book is strong and the tone informative. Freedom to Choose is a strictly educational read, feeling dry at times for the weight of statistics. However, the details make the book an essential item for any historian or politics buff.
($39.95 / 302 pages / The Collins Press/Dufour Editions)
– Tara Dougherty
Irish American Chronicle, a coffee-table book published this year, tells the story of how the Irish arrived in America, many in the mid 19th-century in the wake of the Great Starvation, and were welcomed with marginal and often demeaning employment as well as the scorn and abuse of their new country’s citizens. Today, Irish Americans are prominent participants in every facet of American life, including politics, arts, entertainment, and literature. “A funny thing happened to Irish America on the way to the future,” reads Peter Quinn’s preface. “A collection of immigrant outsiders became quintessential insiders. … America wouldn’t be America without the Irish.”
Edited by David J. Hogan, Irish American Chronicle is a collaboration of essayist Terry Golway, consultant Thomas Fleming, and a host of writers including Irish America’s Tom Deignan. Well-organized by historical period from the 1700’s to the present, the book is full of information broken down into succinct essays. Over 900 photographs and other images help bring the text to life.
($19.98 / 448 pages / Legacy Publishing, a division of Publications International, Ltd.) – Kara Rota
In Róise Rua: An Island Memoir, translator J.J. Keaveny offers English-speaking readers the opportunity to immerse themselves in an era gone by in Ireland. Róise Rua’s story was first recorded in its original ‘Donegal Gaeilge’ by Pádraig Ua Cnáimhsí as an account of her unique – yet in many ways characteristic – life on the mainland and Arranmore island. Keaveny’s new translation offers photographs in each chapter that supplement the imagery deeply embedded in Róise’s words, which are strong and sure. There is no sense of hesitation in her energetic voice as she depicts her life in vivid detail, from her birth in Donegal in 1879 up through her first time on the radio in 1952. Though at times you might find yourself a bit lost in all of the intertwining names, places, and descriptions, the story still flows naturally as if Róise Rua were peeling potatoes in front of you and telling it aloud herself. Not only does it preserve the history of a time and place that might sometimes go forgotten in today’s modern world, the translation captures the essence of Irish story-telling and the true voice of Arranmore island life.
($31.95 / 288 pages / Mercier Press & Dufour Editions)
– Kelly McDerby
For someone like Kathy Griffin, any publicity is good publicity. It’s one of the many life lessons I learned from her recent memoir, Official Book Club Selection, and there are a
multitude of examples to back it up, from her infamous “Suck it, Jesus” comment at the Emmy awards to her half-fabricated e-mail courtship of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Knowing this about Kathy, it would be easy to worry that her new book might exploit her own personal tragedies and family dramas for the sake of a juicy read, or even a cheap laugh. But that’s the thing about Kathy Griffin: there’s no such thing as a cheap laugh. And when she’s telling a serious story in her memoir, whether about her marriage and subsequent divorce or a fellow comedian’s substance abuse, she handles it with grace, dignity and her signature straightforwardness. Outlining the hilarious, painful and bittersweet details of how Kathy Griffin earned her stripes — playing to silent audiences who didn’t get or didn’t like her offbeat, straight-to-the-heart sense of humor, being a female comedian in an industry genre dominated by men, and of course, all that plastic surgery — this is a tell-all book in the best sense.
($25.00 / 368 pages / Ballantine Books)
– Kara Rota