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Portals to the Other World

Jennifer Egan. (Photo: David Shankbone)

By Mary Pat Kelly, Contributor
August / September 2017

This fall, a number of our most celebrated Irish American authors will launch books into heavy seas where Twitter storms and televised tantrums batter our attention, but after spending time at the Book Expo, the publishing industry’s lollapalooza in New York City this summer, I realized all will be well.

I met with Jennifer Egan, Alice McDermott, Michael Connelly, Lawrence O’Donnell, Robert Gleason, and a number of other Irish American authors whose new titles represent a continuum of genres and subjects.

Top to Bottom: Lawrence O’Donnell (Photo: Er-nay / Wikimedia Commons); Alice McDermott (Photo: Jamie Shoenerger / Epic); and Michael Connelly (Photo: Mark Coggins)

Irish American women from the Greatest Generation live rich and complicated lives in both Jennifer Egan and Alice McDermott’s eagerly awaited new books. Anna Kerrigan in Egan’s Manhattan Beach becomes the U.S. Navy’s first female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, while Sister St. Saviour, the aging nursing Sister of the Sick Poor in Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour, set in the same period, intervenes to help a family shattered by suicide.

Mingling with the tens of thousands of attendees – from publishers to bookstore owners and librarians – and the job of meeting the authors up close and personal convinced me that the printed word will live on.

As Jennifer Egan said, “I’m thrilled to be surrounded by so many people who have books. It makes me feel the world will be okay.”

Unhurried, Alice McDermott took time to talk to each reader whose books she signed, and she’ll be doing the same when she appears at other events and bookstores. In what other area of the arts do we get to be that close to the creators?

John Grisham, on his first book tour in 25 years, was extending the same courtesy to his readers on the other side of the sprawling Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book is called Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics. He told his audience that the empathy for others that propelled him into politics came from his Irish American upbringing.

Michael Connelly, signing his new book The Late Show, recalled that one of the most gratifying turnouts of his career was the crowd that came to a Belfast book store. “They welcomed me home,” he said.

These authors are strengthening the bond between writer and reader, especially when they, too, are rooted in the Irish American experience. And we do come from a nation of readers. I was reminded of this recently while traveling around Ireland on public transport.

I couldn’t help but notice the number of passengers on trains and buses who were reading books. And my two favorite hotels, Lough Inagh Lodge in Connemara and the Beech Hill Country House in County Derry, both overflow with books.

In the old Celtic religion, you could enter the other world through a lake, a river, a well, or a sudden insight. Books are portals. Sometimes the journey is frightening, as in Robert Gleason’s And Into The Fire, an all-too-plausible tale of nuclear terrorism. But, luckily enough, we always have an author’s guiding hand. Once we are stuck in a story, distractions fall away. We Irish have been telling stories of thousands of years. They have seen us through very dark times. They will again. ♦

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