Review of Books
By the Irish America staff
June / July 2013
Recently published books of Irish and Irish-American interest.
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects
In late 2010, Fintan O’Toole, literary editor and long-time writer for the Irish Times, had an hour or two to kill in London. He wound up in the British Museum, where the complementary exhibition to the BBC series A History of the World in 100 Objects was on display. He wondered if it would be possible to chronicle the history of Ireland in the same way, and thus the acclaimed series that ran in the Irish Times each week from February 2011 to January 2013 was born. All 100 objects and their stories have been collected in book form, published by the Royal Irish Academy. As Ireland celebrates its presidency of the European Union for the next few months, the collection is also available as an app, which can be downloaded for a reasonable $2.99.
As O’Toole explains in the book’s wonderful introduction, the task of narrowing Ireland’s history down to 100 items presented its own special challenges. There was, of course, the risk of generalization. On the other hand, Ireland’s history is young and insular in comparison to that of the rest of Europe – the earliest evidence of human life in Ireland goes back to only 8000 B.C., while southern Britain was populated over a quarter million years ago. “We have,” O’Toole writes, “three characteristics present from the beginning of Irish culture: concentrated in time, shaped by distinctive conditions and small in scale.”
The objects, many of which can be seen at the National Museum of Ireland, span the centuries from 5000 B.C. to 2005. There’s a wooden fish trap from the Mesolithic era, found preserved in a bog in Co. Meath. There’s St. Patrick’s Confessio (460–90), the oldest surviving example of prose writing in Ireland. Books of Survey and Distribution from the mid-17th century chronicle the shift in land ownership in favor of Protestant families, while an emigrant’s suitcase from the 1950s tells the story of Ireland’s diasporic expansion. The final object was selected by readers from a shortlist of ten. A decomissioned AK47 assault rifle, it speaks to Ireland’s recent history of strife and commitment to peace; its links with the larger world, and its own unique story. – Sheila Langan (238 pages / Royal Irish Academy / $50.00)
This Magnificent Desolation
Thomas O’Malley made his literary debut in 2005, with In the Province of Saints, a wrenching but beautiful novel about coming of age in rural Ireland of the late 1970s.
This Magnificent Desolation, which takes its name from astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s remarks during the moon landing, is O’Malley’s second novel. Here, O’Malley again inhabits the mind of a young boy: Duncan Bright is 10 years old when the book begins, and is in the curious position of knowing as little about himself as we do. He remembers being born – the voice of God talking to him; his mother’s pale face and red hair – but nothing else about the first ten years of his life until 1980, when he emerges from a mental fog to find himself in an orphanage in the Minnesota plains run by the intelligent and caring monks of the order of the Gray Fathers of Mercy.
These first few chapters of the book are the most accessible and the most memorable, as the orphanage and the story Duncan creates for his past are brought to life. Hundreds died in the great winter storm of 1970, but on that night Duncan’s mother was able to walk to the orphanage and leave him at the flagstone, swaddled in a sheepskin blanket. As most of his fellow orphans do, he assumes she is dead but harbors hope that she will come back for him. Maggie Bright isn’t dead – a faded opera star with a taste for Old Mainline 454 whisky, she has been eeking out a life in San Francisco – and she does come back for him. In San Francisco, they learn to care for each other, and with Joshua, a Harvard-educated Vietnam vet Maggie grew up with in Boston, they form a sort of family.
Throughout there are hints of the otherworldly. Angels swirl at Duncan from a lamplight and one appears as an irate fry cook at a greasy San Francisco diner. The dead speak to him in dreams, and an electric explosion that should kill him, Maggie and his friend Magdalene simply wafts over them like ”clouds of arching blue spider webs.” Though other characters acknowledge these presences, we are never entirely sure if they are real or if they are products of Duncan’s beautiful mind.
Much like the world he has created, O’Malley’s writing is ephemeral, imbued with a soft and strange magic. This isn’t a book that sucks you in, but one that holds the reader at a slight distance, mystifying and mesmerizing at the same time. – Sheila Langan (416 pages / Bloomsbury /$26.00)
“Marriage is a good deal like a circus: There is not as much in it as is represented in the advertising.” – E. W. Howe
In her first two books, Commencement and Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan proved herself deft at weaving together individual stories to create books that were weighty networks of experience, run through with lines connecting families, friends, histories. In her third book, The Engagements, out in June, Sullivan applies the same style to a narrative that spans nearly a century, following multiple generations of interconnected families and taking a hard, complicated look at the history of engagement rings (and ultimately, marriage) in American culture.
The stories of five couples are interwoven with the life of Irish-American Mary Frances Gerety, who coined the tagline “A Diamond is Forever” in 1947 while working on a DeBeers campaign for N.W. Ayer. Gerety herself never married, but indirectly influenced the choices of innumerable couples since that ad was born, making a diamond engagement ring an expected synonym for adulthood, love and commitment.
We see some of these stories unfold in the crush of disappointment, as Delphine, for one, finds herself surrounded by the detritus of a marriage that ended in New York as passionately as it began in Paris. We see the constant tension and underlying anxiety of a working-class Philadelphia couple trying to hang tight to their high school affection amidst adult failings. We see second marriages infused with strength and faith, and one woman who builds a family without buying into the marriage-industrial complex at all. Throughout, that hard diamond glistens as a manufactured symbol of hope and despair, reminding us how little we really know about the lives beneath the shiny token. – Kara Rota (400 pages / Knopf / $26.95)
Stephan Talty’s first novel, Black Irish, is a grisly thriller that delves into the deeply rooted Irish-American history and community of Buffalo, New York. Silence and secrecy are the meat-and-potatoes of South Buffalo’s tight-knit Irish community, known as “the County.” This puts Homicide Detective Absalom (Abbie) Kearney at a critical disadvantage as she desperately hunts down a savage serial killer whose victims belong to a secret Irish organization to which her father has ties. With jet-black hair and half-Irish blood, Abbie does not share fully in the ancestral history the County prides itself for and has always felt like something of an outsider. Even though she bears the name of her adopted father, the esteemed cop John Kearney, the County are wary of her and abide by unspoken codes of secrecy, frustrating her investigation.
Black Irish is rich in the history of Buffalo’s involvement during and post Ireland’s war of independence from England, and Talty seamlessly weaves together historical fact into a fictional tale that will have you burning the midnight oil. His descriptions are meticulous, and the murder scenes are chillingly graphic. After dozens of enigmatic chapters, the conclusion of Black Irish blindsides you in just a few pages. This may leave some readers unsatisfied, though others will love its abruptness. Either way, with its intense tempo, raw dialogue and elegant craftsmanship, Black Irish will satisfy the most fanatical of crime novel lovers and is a summer must-read. – Michelle Meagher (324 pages / Ballantine Books / $26.00)
Whitey’s Payback and Other True Stories
T.J. English, a past contributor to Irish America and the author of The Westies, Paddy Whacked and Savage City, has published a collection of his best crime articles spanning over two decades. The first story, a seemingly impossible assignment he wrote for Playboy in 1991, delves into the serious shortcomings of the Witness Protection Program. The last is a short but sweet 2012 post from English’s website, about the death of Teresa Stanley (the long-time companion of Boston Mob boss Whitey Bulger) whom English had previously interviewed. Parts of those interviews appear earlier in the collection, in a Daily Beast article about what it was like to be in love with Bulger. The stories in between cover topics ranging from the decline of the Mob, to the ceaseless killings in Ciudad Juárez.
In the collection’s introduction, English provides an explanation for his interest in the darker corners of the crime world, compelling and eloquent as only he could phrase it: “A vast ecosystem we observe in the upper world on a daily basis. The way I see it, one cannot exist without the other. In the United States, business, politics and crime are frequently intertwined. What is happening below the surface shapes the world as we know it. What is presented to the public is occasionally wrapped in bullshit and lies.” The question he poses to readers brings it all back to the basics of the American dream: “How far would you go to achieve power and prosperity for you and your own?”
The answer for many of the masterminds, accomplices, lone wolves and incidental figures profiled in the following pages, is pretty damn far. – Sheila Langan (230 pages / Mysterious Press/$11.99)