Review of Books

By Irish America Staff
October / November 2014

Non-Fiction

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

By Kevin Birmingham

With the publication of Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses some people may be asking: do we really need another book about James Joyce? The answer after reading Birmingham’s debut novel is an enthusiastic yes! Much more than just a book about the life of James Joyce, Birmingham’s book tackles the famous, if little studied, 1933 trial that freed Ulysses from censorship and established a precedent of laxed censorship laws for the rest of the 20th century.

Woven into this rich tapestry is a biography of the book Ulysses, a study of the man who endured exile, poverty, and near blindness to complete it, and the resiliency of a group of supporters who rallied behind Joyce’s work and welcomed it as the dawn of a new era in literature.

During a conversation with Arthur Power, author of Conversations with James Joyce, the Ulysses author reflected on the importance of a writer saying:

Ulysses is evidence of Joyce’s lexical gambles, but Birmingham makes the case that the reason it survives today is as much, if not more so, due to a group of Joycean supporters who subversively fought through censors and jail time to see that his books were printed.”

Chief among them was Ezra Pound, the eccentric American expatriate who trumpeted the arrival of James Joyce while securing serialization of Ulysses in the Little Review. There was also Sylvia Beach who published the first copies of Ulysses in Paris, and Dora Marsden, a first-wave feminist and suffragist, who issued Joyce’s work in her magazine The Egoist in London. Bir-mingham also recreates the lives of those on the other side of the fence who suppressed the distribution of indecent materials like John Sumner, leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who oversaw the burning of obscene books like Ulysses. Birmingham has a born storyteller’s heart and mind and he effortlessly brings these characters and their world to life while managing to tell a thrilling and at times, hard to put down, story.

Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, showcases a deep respect and awareness for Joyce and his famous novel. Perhaps the strongest moments of the book are the personal touches in Joyce’s life like his love for Nora Barnacle and their very explicit and risqué love letters, or his days writing and drinking in Paris with Ernest Hemingway while he battled poor eyesight – a result of advanced syphilis. Nestled into the story are little anecdotes of people who read Ulysses for the first time and the interesting ways it changed their lives. Birmingham writes of how Virginia Woolf initially found the novel repugnant, but upon re-reading found “the undoubted occasional beauty of his phrases,” and upon completion embarked on Mrs. Dalloway, a novel which bears clear influences from Ulysses.

Even more impressive, Birmingham, uses Joyce’s Ulysses to delve into the fundamentals of the modernist movement by examining the importance of art in a society reeling from WWI and the dissident power it can carry. Margaret Anderson, founder of The Little Review and supporter of Joyce, declared, “the ultimate reason for life is art. And revolution? Revolution is Art.” Birmingham’s book stands as a testament to the importance of Ulysses and the power that great literature can have on all of us.

– Matthew Skwiat

(Penguin / 432 pages / 29.95)

Fiction

Hangman

By Stephen Talty

Stephen Talty is best known for his well-researched and immensely consuming historical narratives, including A Captain’s Duty, which he co-wrote with Richard Phillips and was turned into the 2013 Tom Hanks film Captain Philips. It’s no surprise then that when Talty turned his ink to crime fiction, he was able to conjure the same sense of narrative mystery and excitement around his protagonist.

Hangman is the second book in what promises to be a compelling series of novels that follow Detective Absalom “Abbie” Kearney through the post-industrial streets of Buffalo. That town is Talty’s own and, as was the case with Black Irish (reviewed in these pages last year), its geo-social divisions are on full display. Abbie is the adopted daughter of a former police detective and was raised in “The County,” a euphemism for Buffalo’s south end, playing on the idea of the 27th county, where clan logic and tribal affiliations dominate not only neighborhood politics but the primarily Irish American police force as well. An outsider to begin with, Abbie is even more at odds with her adopted community, having only recently returned to Buffalo with a Harvard degree and a stint at Miami Metro. She’s too fancy for the County, but too County for the North, Buffalo’s old-money neighborhood where a serial killer, escaped from prison, is once again hunting and hanging teenage girls.

In Hangman, Talty challenges the arbiters of class and kinship as bases for loyalty, but doesn’t necessarily offer new insights, not that it should. Like any readable crime fiction, the book lets these themes seep in between its neo-noir lines and procedural breakthroughs. It is about coming to psychological terms with the way the world operates and using the genre of thriller and catharsis in catching the killer to question the world as it is, in full, complex color.

– Adam Farley

(Ballantine / 320 pages / $26)

Poetry

When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive

By Timothy Walsh

Svetlana Boym, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard, has argued that there are two types of nostalgia: “restorative nostalgia” which reconstructs “rituals of… homeland,” and “reflexive nostalgia” which “cherishes shattered fragments of memory,” but accepts the necessity of social and technological change. Timothy Walsh’s new collection of poetry, When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive and a finalist for the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, is clearly influenced by both.

Walsh grew up in New Jersey in the early 1970s and the collection, subtitled “New Jersey Poems,” is an exceptionally personal study of discrete events of his Garden State adolescence. He treats that time like a jalopy, carefully restoring each part of his history, from cruising the 95 in the shadow of Bruce Springsteen to family trips to his Irish grandmother’s neighborhood in Queens.

The poems in this collection bear the marks of being raised in a devout, suburban, middle-class, Catholic family, as Walsh was – the importance of visiting relatives, a sometimes critical sense of historical resilience, playing stickball in the street, and making soda bread all command installments in the volume. Indeed, Walsh’s own loss of innocence is indelibly bound with what he perceives as the loss of mid-century American exceptionalism.

But even as Walsh attempts to reconstruct that period in his life through language, he embellishes, flourishes, and romanticizes. To paraphrase the writer Bill Morris, we all come of age in a vanished world. Walsh’s accomplishment here is that he doesn’t fall into what we might call pejorative nostalgia. Instead, he celebrates his own constructed memories of what is gone and creates a parallel, at times almost dreamlike, narrative to his own biography.

– Adam Farley

(Main Street Rag / 80 pages / $14)

History

East In Eden: William Niblo and his Pleasure Garden of Yore

By Benjamin Feldman

East_In_Eden_Benjamin_Feldman1 copyMy career has been focused on the lives of nineteenth century Irish born who had made a significant contribution to American culture – whether through the arts, the military, business, or politics – but subsequently fell below the radar and are today virtually unknown. With the publication of East In Eden, Benjamin Feldman brings long overdue attention to one of the most interesting and accomplished members of this group

Born in Ireland in 1790, William Niblo arrived in New York at the age of 16. He quickly found work in a local restaurant. He soon worked his way up the corporate ladder and then did the smartest thing any up and coming young man could do – he married the boss’s daughter. Niblo, however, worked hard and made the most of his good fortune. Apparently he was a natural “people person” who simply loved feeding and entertaining people. What started as an innovative restaurant, with what Feldman describes as an incredibly creative menu, soon morphed into New York City’s largest entertainment center. Niblo worked with many distinguished theater people, some of them Irish born, including John Brougham, Matilda Heron, Dion Boucicault and even Lola Montez.

Feldman has done extensive research into the complex personality of William Niblo. On the one hand, he was a likeable host and benevolent employer (instituting pensions for his many loyal employees, almost unheard of in that pre-labor-union time), a generous philanthropist, and an active member of his church, but on the other hand, the litigious Niblo was frequently a plaintiff or defendant in numerous lawsuits and not above physically ejecting undesirables from his various establishments, as on one occasion when he took a fireplace poker to several British Army officers he felt were behaving badly. Niblo had a policy of keeping his prices relatively high in order to attract the genteel crowd and at the same time keep the “riff-raff” out. The Irish-born writer Fitz-James O’Brien, who perhaps could be considered a member of both groups, was attacked in Niblo’s saloon by thugs hired by a rival writer. While O’Brien managed to escape unscathed, the incident was recorded in The New York Tribune as “A Ruckus Among Distinguished Journalists.”

Niblo was leasing the Astor Place Theatre when the notorious Shakespeare riots occurred, sparked by rival gangs over the merits of an American Shakespeare actor as opposed to a British one. It was one of the few times that nativist gangs and Irish gangs banded together against a common enemy – the British. He also staged shows from around the country and from around the world, including the first of P.T. Barnum’s many events. The gamut ran from Italian opera and French ballet to comic theater, and everything in between. Shortly after his retirement from active participation in the theater Niblo’s Gardens had the distinction of presenting the first musical comedy in New York City, “The Black Crook” which was reviewed by none other than Mark Twain. Until his death in 1878 Niblo was an active member of the New York Chapter of The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and for many years hosted their annual St Patrick’s Day dinner, along with other Irish functions, at his various establishments.

This volume is concise at a mere 99 pages, but lavishly illustrated, thoroughly researched, and an enjoyable, pleasant read. It covers the details of Niblo’s fascinating and complex career and encompasses not only his life but the mid-nineteenth-century New York theater and restaurant world in which he flourished. I feel that this book would be a welcome addition to the library of anyone interested in Irish American history as well as those interested in the history of the American theatre.

 – Michael Burke

The book is available on Amazon but best quality copies are available for $20 tax and shipping included by emailing the author at [email protected]

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