Review of Books

On an Irish Island, by Robert Kanigel.

By Irish America Staff
April / May 2012

Recently published books of Irish and Irish-American interest.

Recommended:

Bloodland
In a genre that may seem to have exhausted all possible plot-lines, Alan Glynn’s new thriller, Bloodland, is refreshingly unpredictable. An out of work journalist researching a dead socialite, an American senator attacked in the Congo, a drunk former-Taoiseach, and an Irish real estate developer with a chronic tension headache are the seemingly unrelated players this Dublin-born author weaves together in his fourth novel – a conspiracy theory about corrupt business practices and international oligarchy.

Part of this unpredictability comes from the fragmented nature in which the events are presented to the reader. Focus continually alternates between the four main characters, and though these changes in perspective are indicated simply by an extra space between paragraphs, the words, “Cut To,” would not feel entirely out of place. Glynn’s first novel, The Dark Fields, came to movie theaters last March under the title Limitless, and narrated as it is – in the present tense with abrupt, conversational language – the teased out Bloodland often reads like a screenplay, or an ambitious television pilot.

Certainly, the story is timely. The financial crisis, the pervasiveness of the Internet, and the military industrial complex are all key elements. Drugs, too (the legal kind this time) are a powerful influence. Characters in search of answers are slaves to coffee’s stimulation, while those attempting to keep secrets buried seek comfort in whiskey’s depressant effects. In keeping with genre tradition, women are incidental at best – showing up to service the plot, and occasionally, the men. But in a world so unnervingly like the one portrayed in this paranoid novel, such cliches may remain one of the few consistencies on which we can continually rely.

– Catherine Davis
($16.00 / Picador / 375 pages)

On an Irish Island
Robert Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity and The One Best Way, has released a new book titled On an Irish Island. With his previous works, Kanigel told the stories of various cultures and their people. On an Irish Island seems to echo his 2002 High Season, which told how the small French city of Nice attracted visitors and tourists throughout the years. On an Irish Island does the same, taking the remote island of Great Blasket and telling the story of its history and culture through the words of writers and travelers who visited the island.

Great Blasket Island provides a very unique setting. When one thinks of remote western Ireland, it’s common to think of Connemara or the Aran Islands. But even those locations are places of year-round tourism; they lack that true quietness and simplicity which Great Blasket possesses.

The island is seen through the eyes of John Millington Synge and George Thomson, among others. Their writings tell of a beautiful island with little care for the advancing world save a constant struggle to preserve the Irish language. Descriptions from Synge, famous for works like The Playboy of the Western World, do not bore, to say the least, and Kanigel is a gifted storyteller in his own right. Rather than offering a typical historical narrative, Kanigel makes sure that his chronicle of Great Blasket Island is both entertaining and informative. The place comes alive.

– Molly Ferns
($26.95 / Alfred A. Knopf / 336 pages)

Memoir

Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage
In Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage, Brooklyn-based writer Honor Molloy looks back to the 1960s Dublin of her childhood. Her protagonist and sometimes narrator, Noleen O’Feeney, is a precocious and imaginative child. It is through her eyes that we first see how happy the O’Feeney home on Trolka Row is, with her multitude of siblings, her loving and practical American mother who keeps everything in order as best she can, and her rolicking Dubliner father, an actor and comedian who teaches her how to do back flips. From her perspective, with brief interludes from the points of view of her family members, we see the home start to fall apart, as her father grows more interested in drinking than acting and insists on blaming his family for his woes.

The names have been changed, but Molloy makes no secret: this was her childhood, her past. Her father was John Molloy, a fixture in 1960s Dublin, known for his great skill as an entertainer and, later, his alcoholism. Her mother was an American girl who fell in love with him, nurtured his craft, and then ultimately had to decide between him and  taking the family to safety in America. What Molloy does in remembering this journey is brave and honest, and the child-like spirit and voice she so skillfully captures are truly remarkable.

Smarty Girl: Dublin Savage will be released on March 17, an audio book by Simon & Schuster Audio will also be available. Molloy reads much of the book herself; collaborators include singer Susan McKeown and actor Aiden Moloney.

– Sheila Langan
($16.95 / Gemma Media /  240 pages)

Non-fiction

Painted with Words
Readers of the Irish Times will be most familiar with  Lara Marlowe for her work as a foreign correspondent. Over the last fifteen-plus years, she has reported from France, where she was based for quite some time; Afghanistan and Baghdad; and, more recently, from Washington D.C., where she is now the paper’s Washington correspondent. While in France, she was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government for her contributions to Franco-Irish relations, and when one reads her latest collection of articles, Painted with Words, the reasons she was deserving of such an honor become abundantly clear.

Painted with Words brings together the art writing she has done over the last number of years, including interviews, reflections and articles on prominent exhibitions. Whether writing about Picasso or Bonnard, raising an eyebrow at Gauguin or discussing Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Marlowe’s words manage to both reflect the natural thrall she feels for these artists, and her insightful analysis of their lives and works. Helpfully divided into seven cogent sections, including “Twentieth Century Painters,” “Collectors” and “Irish Connections,” the book is beautifully produced, with page after page of relevant paintings and photographs.

The book’s final articles touch on some of the interesting figures Marlowe has discovered since moving to the U.S., like Captain Francis O’Neill, the turn of the century Chicago police chief with a love of Irish music, but the majority of the artists  she discusses are French or in some way related to France. Painted With Words is, at its heart, a remarkably comprehensive journey around the world of French arts and culture, as experienced, researched and enjoyed by Marlowe herself.

– Sheila Langan
($44.95 / Dufour Editions/Liberties Press / 280 pages)

Poetry

Red is the Rose: A Book of Irish Love Poems
Reading Red is the Rose: A Book of Irish Love Poems, a collection of works carefully sourced by editor Jonathan Rossney from various movements in Irish poetry, I was reminded of a gag book that made the rounds a number of years ago. It was a thick, hardcover tome, with swirly writing on the cover that read “Erotic Irish Art.” “Scandalous,” one of the endorsements on the back read. Inside, the pages were blank, the point being “What erotic Irish art?”

Though Red is the Rose isn’t really scandalous, Eros is definitely present in the pages of this newly released collection of Irish love poems. The works included run the gamut from traditional Irish language poems in translation, to well-known and much loved lines by W.B. Yeats and Thomas Moore, to unexpectedly heated verse from J.M. Synge. The collection is divided into thematic sections with titles like “Inventions of Delight,” “Remembered Love,” and “Time will but make thee more dear…,” which means that readers will be able to find poems to identify with no matter what phase of love they may be in. Interspersed with evocative black and white photographs of Ireland’s lush landscape, this is a charming collection.

– Sheila Langan
($12.95 / Dufour Editions/O’Brien Press / 88 pages)

History: The Titanic

The Irish Aboard Titanic
The sinking of the Titanic holds an unending fascination for writers. Even before James Cameron’s 1997 film cemented the disaster’s appeal, scores of books – both fictional and nonfictional – were written about the sinking. In The Irish Aboard Titanic, Senan Molony, a former journalist who has worked with the Irish Press, Evening Herald, and Irish Independent, explores an element of the Titanic’s history which many of those accounts gloss over: the lives of the Irish passengers. Since the vast majority of the Irish on board were either traveling in steerage or were members of the crew, Molony’s research gives voice to those who were, for the most part, denied a place in the testimonies and accounts that followed the disaster.

Using baptismal certificates, census records, personal letters, news articles – anything he could find –  Molony carefully pieces together the lives of Irish passengers before, during and, for the lucky ones, after the ship sank. For some this means a paragraph with a name, basic facts, and whether they were “lost” or survived. For others, it means page after page of details: stories told by friends and family; hopeful or despairing letters exchanged  after news of the sinking spread; interviews from when the survivors finally landed in New York, rescued by the Carpathia; obituaries detailing full lives lived. Where possible, Molony has sourced photos of the passengers from archives and old newspapers. For anyone interested in learning more about the Titanic’s most overlooked demographic, this is the place to start.

– Sheila Langan
($22.50 / Mercier Press / 288 pages)

The RMS Titanic Miscellany
Just as The Irish Aboard Titanic tells the neglected story of the Irish third-class passengers on the doomed ship, The RMS Titanic Miscellany takes a comprehensive look at something that gets all too frequently passed over in the popular renderings of the ship’s journey: the straight facts. From the physical, mechanical, and organizational specifics of the ship itself to interesting ephemera, it’s all there.

Written by John D.T. White, a Belfast native whose father worked in the Harland & Wolff Shipyard where the Titanic was built, The RMS Titanic Miscellany is up front about its quirky, somewhat scattered nature. Each page is filled with succinct facts and anecdotes about the ship and its enduring legacy. “Did You Know” segments present obscure bits of information (the Titanic’s whistles were designed to be heard from 11 miles away); trivia about the making of Cameron’s film (before he announced that he was making Titanic, he accounted for the footage of icebergs he was accumulating by saying he was making a film called Planet Ice); mini biographies of the ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews, and its Captain Smith; and detailed records of the ship’s construction, dimensions and daily menus.

Painstakingly researched and approachably presented, The RMS Titanic Miscellany is a fun, informative read, and will be equally enjoyable for those who read in marathon sessions and those who read in small doses.

– Sheila Langan
($24.95 / Irish Academic Press / 300 pages)

3 Responses to “Review of Books”

  1. Susana says:

    You could definitely see your skills in the article you write.
    The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

  2. Marsha says:

    Keep this going please, great job!

  3. Tilly says:

    I every time spent my half an hour to read this web site’s articles or reviews every day along with a cup of coffee.

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