Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
February / March 2012
Recently published Books of Irish and Irish-American interest…
City of Bohane
Kevin Barry’s eagerly anticipated debut novel, City of Bohane, confirms his status as one of the most exciting and inventive writers working in Ireland today. His first book, an award-winning collection of short stories titled There Are Little Kingdoms, introduced his unique voice and perspective, as he took readers on a hilarious journey through the strange but important minutiae of life in small-village Ireland. A departure in form and content, City of Bohane is set 43 years in the future, in a functionally depressed city on the west coast of Ireland. Bohane plunges straight into the city’s competing neighborhoods and gangs, street lingo, violence and erratic sartorial trends, gradually introducing us to the city’s key figures: Logan Hartnett, the man with the run of the place; his wife, Macu (short for Immaculata); his mother, Girly Hartnett; various boys from his gang, the Fancy, and the wildcard vixen Jenni Ching. Soon, another figure emerges in Bohane: Gant Broderick, Logan’s old nemesis, who has been gone for 25 years and is back, maybe, to win Bohane and Macu’s heart.
The storyline is slightly less important than the fun Barry palpably had in creating this idiosyncratic world. Half a Clockwork Orange-ish comedy, half an almost Joycean rendering of a dystopian city, Bohane goes wandering at points, but is more than worth reading for the brilliance of Barry’s language and his delightfully weird imagination. In fact, it somehow wouldn’t feel right if the book followed the straight and narrow. As the unnamed narrator who infrequently addresses the reader explains at one point, “In the Bohane creation, time comes loose, there is a curious fluidity, the past seeps into the future, and the moment itself as it passes is the hardest to grasp.” Readers should just go with it, and enjoy.
City of Bohane will be published in the U.S. on March 13.
– Sheila Langan
($25.00 / Graywolf Press / 288 pages)
The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City
In the newest addition to Penguin’s History of American Life series, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, James R. Barrett, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois, sheds new light on the role the Irish played in forging the American identity. Rather than the expected chronicle of Irish immigrants and their encounters with nativists, prejudice, and hardship, Barrett takes a significantly more positive and lively approach to the Irish experience. In attempting to prove that the Irish played a major role in influencing Americanization, Barrett uncovers that, rather than modeling themselves after a WASP society, new immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were more likely to model themselves after people of Irish descent because they represented the ideal: immigrants who succeeded in America.
Barrett’s principal focus is the specific areas in which the Irish succeeded in cities: in the streets, on the stage, in public schools and parishes. He clearly categorizes and chronicles where and how newcomer immigrants interacted with Irish Americans, as well as the Irish-American reaction to immigrants of other cultures, which, though initially somewhat hostile, became increasingly positive and accepting. Combined, these carefully presented facts and details provide great support for his fresh perspective on the history of Hibernian Americans and their impact on American identity.
– Molly Ferns
($29.95 / Penguin / 370 pages)
Benedict Kiely: Selected Stories
Benedict Kiely (1919-2007), novelist, lecturer and journalist, is best remembered as one of Ireland’s foremost masters of the short story. His works, which were first published in Ireland in the 1950s and went on to be printed in the New Yorker and the Kenyon Review, among others, were distinguished successors to the stories of Joyce, O’Connor and O’Faolain.
The skill and power of his short stories are evident in this new collection, edited and including an afterword by Ben Forkner. Editor of Modern Irish Short Stories and A New Book of Dubliners, Forkner was, until recently, professor of English at France’s University of Angers. His carefully chosen selections provide a comprehensive look at the span of Kiely’s work, from the earlier “A Journey to the Seven Streams” and “A Ball of Malt and Madam Butterfly” to the later, more personal “Down Then by Derry” and his last work of fiction, “A Letter to Peachtree,” both of which draw on Kiely’s time as a lecturer and writer-in-residence in the American South. Each story is a prime example of Kiely’s trademark conversational style of layering stories within stories and meandering digressions within larger narratives to create a much bigger picture – always with an understated sympathy for his characters and a distinct gift for capturing their unique voices.
As the afterword explains, in addition to studying Kiely’s works, Forkner also had the chance to actually spend time with him – talking not, as might be expected, about Kiely’s works or life, but answering the writer’s questions about his own. This experience led him to a special understanding of Kiely’s writing, as he pinpoints a “Kiely method” based on the writer’s ability to coax a person’s life story to “reveal itself as worthy of being remembered and told.” That very method, Forkner argues, “can be found in much of his fiction, especially in the short stories, in which the narrator, almost always Kiely himself, prompts and lures the main story out of whomever he is talking with, whether it be an old friend or a chance encounter on the road. “ As he concludes, and as the collection readily demonstrates, “There are stories everywhere, but it helps to have a Benedict Kiely close at hand to bring them back to life.”
– Sheila Langan
($34.95 / Liberties Press / 328 pages)
Begging for Vultures
A couple of pages into Lawrence Welsh’s Begging for Vultures, and your breathing begins to slow. The heart steadies, and, reluctantly, the mind quiets. A subway car can easily become the desert. The flashes of electricity which illuminate the tunnel look like heat lightning, and the voice crackling over the loudspeaker begins to sound more and more like the cawing of a distant crow. Reading the latest collection from this El Paso professor is a wholly meditative experience. The language is sparse, like the land it reflects. Change – relentless when unwelcome and lacking when needed – is a recurring theme, as are whiskey and the folkloric coyote.
That Welsh is a first-generation Irish American might come as a surprise, given the Southwestern setting. But he does slip in nods to his Irish heritage throughout, playing with the obvious clashes, and the less obvious similarities, between the two cultures. In a poem called “New Irish Whiskey,” he writes, “an ad tonight / for michael collins’ / irish whiskey // ‘the big fellow’ / it says // my god / i think of crazy horse / malt liquor / and its disappearance // but i will not drink / my heroes now/ i will not puke / or genuflect / on their graves.” Welsh manages to do in a few words what others fail to achieve with entire tomes. He creates a world so alive that it does not disappear with the turn of the page, but lingers inside the imagination, open to independent exploration. It is as if the reader has not simply finished a collection of poetry, but has instead just returned from an unexpected visit with an Irishman in the desert.
– Catherine Davis
(212 pages/ University of New Mexico Press/ $21.95)
Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema
At the beginning of Emerald Illusions Gary D. Rhodes, co-director of film studies at Queens University, Belfast, throws down a scholarly gauntlet. The increasingly popular field of Irish-American film studies, he argues, lacks a definition, a solid idea of Irish-American cinema and cinematic history from which the field can grow and become a true source for research and debate. His goal in writing this comprehensive volume, which mainly covers the years 1900 – 1915, is to question whether the idea of early Irish-American film is an actual part of film history, or merely a construct of over-eager contemporary scholars.
Rhodes tackles the question carefully, covering all angles, from the importance of Ireland as a plot element in seldom discussed films such as D.W. Griffith’s Caught by Wireless; to works of the Kalem Film Company, which were actually filmed in Ireland; to the influence of the Irish-American audience. With hundreds of photographs and extensive research, Emerald Illusions has set a new standard for studying the role of the Irish in the history of American film.
– Sheila Langan
($79.95 / Irish Academic Press / 426 pages)
Revolution: A Photographic History of Revolutionary Ireland, 1913–1923
Pádraic Óg Ó Ruairc’s recently published photo-history presents a new look at ten of Ireland’s most formative and turbulent years, from the stirrings of the 1916 Easter Rising, to the heights of the Irish Civil War. A concise timeline at the beginning of the book tells all of the crucial dates and facts, which many readers may already be familiar with. The pages that follow, however, provide astonishing visual insight into this period in Ireland’s history.
The carefully arranged and reproduced photos, many of which were previously unpublished, create a window into the key moments and confrontations of these years, as well as the realities of daily life during this time. An early photo shows Roger Casement, Lord Ashbourne and Alice Stepford Greene, architects of the Howth gun-running. A dramatic shot soon follows of Sackville Street blazing during the final hours of the Rising, with the GPO visible in the foreground, while another presents a view of Eamon de Valera’s 1917 election speech at Ennis Courthouse. Still other photographs depict families displaced by the sectarian unrest; violent clashes; carrier pigeons being prepared to deliver messages during the 1922 Irish postal strike.
The images in Ó Ruairc’s visual history range from early journalistic snapshots to memorabilia series, from photographs of captured prisoners or wanted rebels, to posed portraits of the Revolution’s key figures and family members, many of them left behind. Thorough and revealing, this collection is an important volume for anyone with an interest in Irish history.
– Sheila Langan
($39.95 / Mercier Press / 288 pages)
Ghosts of the Faithful Departed
In Ghosts of the Faithful Departed, Cork-based photographer David Creedon casts a new and timely gaze on Irish emigration. Rather than depicting those who left Ireland or the new lives they built abroad, Creedon points his lens at what Irish immigrants left behind. Inspired by a chance encounter with an abandoned house in Co. Sligo, where the image of a pink dress still hanging in a wardrobe etched itself indelibly into his mind, Creedon spent two years traveling throughout Ireland, looking for similarly deserted houses. His haunting photographs catalogue what he found along the way: Sacred Hearts resting on top of crumbling mantle pieces, propped up on chairs, hanging on walls covered with peeling plaint; a red 1970 Suzuki scooter covered in dust; a rusty Singer sewing machine; a yellow blazer; a half-used jar of Morgan’s hair color restorer; a trunk that once belonged to a Mary Sullivan and, according to its tags, went with her to the U.S. from Cobh in 1911 aboard the RMS Cedric, and returned with her to Ireland 19 years later.
Taken between 2005 and 2007, Creedon’s photographs are sad and eerily beautiful foreshadowings of the ghost estates that now dot the country in the wake of the economic collapse and the new surge of emigration. Occupying this unique space, the photos shed an important light on both Ireland’s past and present.
– Sheila Langan
($44.95 / The Collins Press / 168 pages)