Review of Books

By Irish America Staff
August / September 2013

Stand-out books by Irish-American authors that cover a range of health-related issues.

 

A Drinking Life

Pete Hamill’s autobiographical A Drinking Life is an important portrayal of the real life of an addict. He is unapologetic in this memoir taking readers from his childhood on to his drinking years and to his ultimate decision to put drink down forever. A talented journalist and fiction writer, Hamill hits a stride in A Drinking Life, which seems to effortlessly combine the best of his literary hats, the richly worded novelist and the direct and observational journalist.

Hamill’s book is a masculine exploration of his fascinating life, of Brooklyn saloons and the Korean War, of jail time in Mexico and chasing women. He carefully but forcefully guides the reader along the streets of his childhood to the New Year’s Eve that halted his drinking life forever and began a sober one. Among the most wonderfully portrayed characters in A Drinking Life are Hamill’s parents, both immigrants from Belfast settling in the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Hamill’s treatment of his father’s drinking is brutally honest, and while drawing parallels between the losses addiction cost his father and himself, Hamill does not succumb to placing the fault for his own struggles on his father. Hamill’s approach to the personal subject matter is both courageous and masterful.

Perhaps even more important to the story than Hamill’s addiction is the picture he paints of New York City in near perfect detail. Hamill balances presenting the environment, his family and his time in the Navy Yards all as heavy influences on his addition without ever placing blame. It is a unique, refreshing and realistic portrayal of addiction in which Hamill neither condemns drink nor mystifies it. –T.D.

(Published: 1995 / Back Bay Books / 265 Pages)

 

Hero Foods

After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, Manhattan restaurateur Seamus Mullen began experimenting with his diet, modifying it in ways that resulted in more manageable symptoms. His debut cookbook, Hero Food: How Cooking Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better, tells this story through his collection of tantalizing recipes.

The cookbook focuses on 18 ingredients that Mullen calls his “Hero Foods” which were most effective in relieving his symptoms. His recipes are a combination of traditional Spanish cuisine he mastered from years of working in Spain and traveling its countryside and influences from his own Vermont farm.

Mullen writes, “I know there’s no silver bullet, but I have discovered that some foods can make dramatic differences.”  Each chapter is an ode to one of those foods. Deliciously illustrated, Hero Food contains mouth-watering recipes for Crispy Tuscan Kale on the Grill and Slow-Roasted Lamb Shoulder just to name two. A virtual guidebook to a fresh, tasty and healthy lifestyle, Hero Food is an exciting tool for anyone looking to feel and eat a bit more heroically, because, as Mullen shows, the physical benefits of these foods can be just as delicious as the recipes themselves.  – T.D.

(Published: 2012 / Andrew McMeel Publishing / 320 pages)

 

Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia 

Patrick Tracey’s book, Stalk-ing Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia, is a memoir, a research document, a medical ethnography, and certainly a page-turner.

The story Tracey has to tell begins years ago, with a woman named Mary Egan. The Egan line is the one Tracey chooses to follow in his search through Ireland, as Mary Egan serves as the historical link that brought the “Irish madness” down to Tracey’s grandmother, May Sweeney, and eventually to two of his beloved sisters, Chelle and Austine.

The diagnosis first of creative, theatrical Chelle, then later of Tracey’s confidante and best friend, Austine, smashes a fragile family dynamic and sends Tracey into the depths of his own drug addiction and despair. Out of this period came the decision to undertake the journey to Ireland that shaped and became Tracey’s book. Tracey is clear about the fact that Stalking Irish Madness was written, first and foremost, for Chelle and Austine. This emotional attachment to the subject matter shines through on every page, but the book is also a gritty and engaging travelogue that pulls the reader along with it through the gorgeous Roscommon landscape as well as the muddy campgrounds where the author sleeps. While his own story is not the focus of this book, the writing and the experience clearly belong to Tracey.

As anyone who has gone to Ireland to search for their genealogical roots can tell you, the journey can be filled with dead ends and frustration. The process becomes even more difficult when the focus of the search is schizophrenia. Along the way, Tracey does encounter refusals to discuss what is often seen as a private family matter.

Transforming generations of shame and suffering into an open dialogue between those who have schizophrenia, those who love them, and the medical communities in both Ireland and America is an ongoing process, and Tracey’s book is indeed a great contribution.  – K.R. 

(Published: 2008 / Bantam Books / 288 pages)

 

Circles Around the Sun

Mike McCloskey, the eldest child of Nita and Jack McCloskey (a former basketball coach and general manager of the Detroit Pistons), was a golden boy in his youth. As a toddler, he is beautiful, snuggling up to his mother on the cover of Ladies Home Journal. In high school he is smart, cool (if a bit introverted), the star of the basketball team, and has a gorgeous girlfriend. At Duke, where he attends college on an academic scholarship, things start to slip away. He quits basketball, he takes acid, but he’s still functional. After college, he can’t settle, can’t hold a job. Friends gradually fade away. He has his first psychotic episode and is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

This is the Mike that his sister Molly, fourteen years younger, remembers most from growing up. Between his phases of wandering and hospitalization, he lives on the couch at their parents’ house in Oregon. Molly and her friend, not really realizing what they are doing, have fun aggravating his paranoia by ringing the doorbell and running away. After various attempts at getting back into the world, not ill enough to be permanently hospitalized, Mike joins a house in Portland where he  tolerates his housemates and spends most days at a nearby coffee shop.

Those are the facts of his life, carefully detailed in Molly McCloskey’s memoir Circles Around the Sun, published in October, 2011. Here, years of research, soul-searching, and interviews with family members, friends and distant acquaintances behind her, McCloskey (who now works as a writer and journalist in Dublin) takes an unsparing look at everything leading up to and following Mike’s diagnosis: their family, their childhood, the isolation of schizophrenia. Alongside this she reflects on her own struggles with alcoholism and paralyzing anxiety; the fear that what happened to Mike might happen to her. One of the toughest but most penetrating passages concerns her unraveling while living isolated in Sligo, two nearby pubs “the lodestones” of her existence, and the eventual forgiving of the self that came with sobriety.

To call the book a form of amends is to simplify what McCloskey has achieved. But poring over the pages, one can’t help but think about the difference between the Molly who played tricks on her brother as a child and the one who wrote this brave, beautiful and completely consuming account of his life and illness. – S.L. 

(Published: 2011 / The Overlook Press / 240 pages)

 

Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America’s Immigrant Hospital

Opposite the dedication page of  Lorie Conway’s Forgotten Ellis Island is a full page photo of the nurses and doctors who staffed the Ellis Island Hospital – many Irish faces among them. Another photo shows a young patient on the steps of the hospital with nurse Jennie Colligan, who went by the nickname “Mother.” But no matter how kind the medical staff, the physical exam was grueling. “The doctors were seated at a long table with a basin full of potassium chloride and you had to stand in front of them…. And you had to reveal yourself…. Right there in front of everyone. It’s a very unpleasant memory,” recalled one Irish immigrant. “We went to this big, open room, and there were a couple of doctors there, and they tell you, ‘Strip.’ And my mother had never, ever undressed in front of us. In those days nobody would. She was so embarrassed….”  recalled an immigrant from Wales. Page 37 shows a photograph of a dozen young men with a chalk mark X on their coats identifying them for further medical and mental testing. The X usually signaled the beginning of deportation proceedings.

The book has many never-before-published photographs and stories from patients and medical staff. We learn that “Often times a child with trachoma would be denied entry, requiring one  parent to [return home] with it.  Often times the mother and the rest of the children would have to return to Europe with the diseased one, and until the boat sailed, the father, wretched and unhappy, would haunt the detention quarters, while his family kept up a constant wailing and crying.”

Many immigrants who never made it out of the hospital were buried in paupers’ graves in cemeteries around New York City. As one record noted: “Received from the chief Medical Officer, the following property of Edward Moran, age 55 years, admitted to the hospital, Feb. 14, 1928 and died Feb. 18, 1928: 1 hat, 1 pair shoes, 1 gray suit, 1 white shirt, 1 pair socks, 1 pair garters, 1 union suit, 1 belt, 1 overcoat, 1 pair gloves, 1 watch, keys, rosary beads, $23.15.”

As tough as it was, there was also  much kindness. Rev. Grogan, Catholic chaplain at Ellis Island 1900-1923, wrote: “I have been in daily contact with the doctors and nurses and can testify to the kindness and care that the patients receive at their hands. It is not generally known that the hospital physicians and surgeons often call in specialists from the city in doubtful and obstinate cases.” – P.H 

(Published: 2007 / Smithsonian / 208 pages)

 

The Long Goodbye

As eloquent and thoughtful as it is brave, The Long Goodbye is poet/ writer Meghan O’Rourke’s account of her mother’s battle with cancer and the strange, difficult months following her death. O’Rourke’s taxingly honest account of her experience transcends the category of memoir as, in addition to sharing her personal story, she turns her critic’s eye to the question of what it means to lose someone and to grieve that loss in today’s culture.

O’Rourke re-lives and tries to make sense of her mother’s diagnosis of stage IV colorectal cancer at the age of 52, her remission and relapse, her care and her death, and the impossible settling of reality that came after. A voracious reader since childhood, O’Rourke turned to literature – from psychology to poetry – to help ger her through, and here she also shares the bits and pieces and larger ideas that were able to penetrate. The Long Goodbye is a difficult but cathartic read for anyone who has ever lost a loved one and is ready to reflect. – S.L.

(Published: 2011 / Riverhead Books / 320 pages)

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