Irish Books & Literature

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Toibin collage
I wrote a post over on the ABAA blog about my reading resolution for 2015, to read all of Colm Tóibín’s novels (and a bunch of his nonfiction) in order.

For years. I’ve been picking at his books, reading his short fiction, and being generally blown away and awed by most of them. This year, I want to read them carefully, in order, and see what I learn. I’ll blog about the project here from time to time, but probably won’t review every single book. I’ve never deliberately tried to read through a writer’s collected works before, mainly because I enjoy variety and have been afraid of souring on the author before I’m done. But, the books of Tóibín’s that I have read have been quite different and his interests are such that I suspect the project will contain enough variety to keep me focused.

In the past, I’ve reviewed his novels Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster on this blog. Stay tuned for updates…

 

Ballymena author Jan Carson’s debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears is a quirky tale of a young boy whose family are slowly abandoning him.

Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)

Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)

First off, I should flag that Malcolm Orange Disappears is an incredibly creative and unusual novel. Call it magic-realist, call it quirky (to use the author’s word), or call it off-beat, it’s a very original book!

I’ll call it an episodic novel, because most chapters tell the story of a new character. Thus, we meet Malcolm and the inhabitants of a Baptist Retirement Village in Portland, Oregon, in which he finds himself marooned along with his baby brother and his silent mother, after his father abandons the family. It appears to be the first time Malcolm’s found himself stationary in his young life (he’s 11), as his restless parents have hurried the family along the highways of America for as long as Malcolm can remember.

Jan Carson is a similarly restless writer, painting minor characters with so much detail and verve that it’s easy to forget about the central plot — Malcolm’s strange titular malady: he is vanishing, piece by piece, new holes appearing in his body every day — in the face of each new chapter and its quirky characters and their gothic mis-adventures. Of course, that appears to be the point: Malcolm is disappearing, his body full of strange absences, and into these holes Carson pours stories, rich and vibrant. 
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Congrats to the European Space Agency, who successfully landed a probe on a comet yesterday!  The plan was actually to harpoon the comet in order to anchor the spacecraft. Oddly enough, the ESA scientists are not the first to think of employing seafaring tactics to snare astral bodies.

The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet by Jack B. Yeats

The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet by Jack B. Yeats (Photo credit: Tavistock Books)

The painter Jack B. Yeats’ short career as a children’s author has been largely overshadowed by his brother’s Noble Prize-winning poetry, but deep in the archives of a few libraries and antiquarian book shops it is possible to find copies of his children’s book The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet.

At least one contemporary critic predicted great things for Yeats’ “quaint and uncommon story” (The Bookseller, 1904) — however, to my eyes this review looks more like pre-publication puffery, than an honest critical opinion. While modern academics praise the “exuberant drawing with their superbly rhythmical use of line and masterly compositions,” they tend to dismiss Jack B. Yeats’ plays and books for children for “manipulation of all the cliches of childhood adventure” and “a disturbing juxtaposition of the ebullient and the macabre” (when they’re aware of them at all). So, it’s no surprise that the books have not stood the test of time. (Quotes from Robin Skelton’s 1990 book Celtic Contraries.)

The central plot of The Bosun and the Bob-Tailed Comet concerns a sailor who encounters a “playful comet,” contrives to capture and tether himself to it, then go for a ride. Inspiration for the ESA’s comet capture? Thanks to Villanova University’s digital library, you can judge for yourselves…  Read the rest of this entry »

Des Ekin has studied the Spanish invasion of 1601 and its aftermath for years, and his new book, The Last Armada, makes a compelling case to re-evaluate what we think we know about the Battle of Kinsale.

Last Armada detail large“Too little, too late,” runs the conventional wisdom regarding the Siege of Kinsale in 1601. It’s what I remember being taught in school, and that’s almost all I could remember about this pivotal piece of history before I read Des Ekin’s fantastic book. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Tis that time of year when people start making lists of potential gifts for their friends and/or family and publishers launch new books to appeal to every personality type and disposition. One of these gift books is Who’s Fecking’ Who in Irish History by Colin Murphy (with hilarious illustrations by Brendan O’Reilly).

Whos Feckin Who in Irish HistoryWho’s Feckin’ Who is the latest installment in a popular series of humorous books about all aspects of Irish life. It comprises hilarious biographies of famous and infamous figures from Irish history.

To start with, I should point out that the title is not as scandalous as the unfamiliar might think. Feckin’ is not an exact synonym for a much more-well-know and internationally used four letter word. While feckin’ is a gentle curse — one your Granny might use when discussing politicians — it isn’t used as a coarse description of the act of love. So, the title of the book does not refer to who’s getting it on with whom in Irish history — that might be a very interesting book, but it’s not this one. (With notable exceptions for Charles Stuart Parnell and Katherine O’Shea, as well as Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, whose stories, like their lives, are entwined.) Read the rest of this entry »

Colm Tóibín returns to the Wexford of his youth for his latest novel, Nora Webster, a tale of a widow in 1970’s Ireland reinventing herself.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster (US paperback cover)

I was a bit concerned when pre-publication interviews with Tóibín suggested a slightly depressing tale of emotional distance and maternal absence, but the actual experience of reading Nora Webster is completely different; it’s an uplifting and profoundly inspirational novel. Read the rest of this entry »

Anna Sweeney’s novel Deadly Intent is an atmospheric murder mystery set on the Beara peninsula in Co. Kerry.

downloadThe story opens with an unconscious woman found on an isolated path in the country. The woman, Maureen, is a guest at a high-end guest house run by Nessa, a former journalist from Dublin, and her husband Patrick, a political refugee from Malawi. Although the initial suspect is Maureen’s husband, an unstable man named Dominic, the case gets complicated quickly as there is a suggestion that she may have been having an affair with another guest, the rich industrialist Oscar Maldin, who has now vanished. Read the rest of this entry »

Wicklow is a great corner of Ireland if what you love is rugged scenery and outdoor pursuits. The mountains are picturesque, windswept, and just crying out to be the backdrop for your own romantic adventure. Helen Fairbairn’s Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide will ensure you don’t get lost on your trek, nor (if you follow her advice) will you find yourself hopelessly out of your depth.

Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide by Helen Fairbairn

Dublin & Wicklow: A Walking Guide by Helen Fairbairn

Beginning in Dublin, the routes Fairbairn details take you more-or-less gradually further and further into Wicklow, which is useful if you intend to follow the Wicklow Way for several days, or string a couple of paths together for a longer hiking experience. (Note on jargon: Americans go hiking, the Irish go walking. I use them interchangeably.) Each walk is graded for difficulty, so you can quickly find hikes appropriate for your party’s fitness level. Read the rest of this entry »

Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air is simply one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Using the Chernobyl meltdown as a prism through which to view the collapsing Soviet society of the late 1980s, McKeon weaves an incisive and deeply humane tale of powerless people dealing with corruption and change to the best of their abilities.

Two story lines converge in the shadow of a shattered nuclear plant. Dr. Grigory Brovkin is a rare honorable man amid a society of widespread corruption. He still cares for his ex-wife, Maria, a former-journalist now working a dull job in a factory. Maria wrote some articles in underground newspapers, and although supposedly anonymous, she lost her job and was forced into a divorce in order to protect Grigory’s career. While Grigory is whisked off to Chernobyl to treat the dying, Maria remains in Moscow, dealing with her precarious legal limbo. Read the rest of this entry »

What if alcoholism was a competitive sport? How would the professional drinkers differ from small-town drunks? That’s the provocative premise of Belfast novelist Jason Johnson’s new comic novel Sinker.

Sinker by Jason Johnson (Liberties Press)

Sinker by Jason Johnson (Liberties Press)

Baker Forley is a young man from Derry with an unusual talent, he can drink more than most people and remain upright without puking (instant disqualification during a competition). After failing at conventional life, he attempts to perfect this one skill. To this end, he finds a manager in Ratface, a retired American competitive drinker, or “Sinker” in the slang of the pro-drinking circuit. After initial success as a newcomer, and having gained the nickname “The Reactor” for reasons that only make sense to the inebriated, he is invited to an exclusive event in Mallorca, featuring only the best sinkers in the world, “The Bullfight.” Read the rest of this entry »

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