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Michèle Forbes’ debut novel Ghost Moth contrasts a Belfast newly emerging from WWII, a city of possibility, with the same city twenty years later, fast succumbing to the start of “the troubles.”

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes

Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes (US cover)

Ghost Moth, the first novel by Irish actress Michèle Forbes, is just magnificent. Focusing on one family and the secrets they keep, the novel jumps back and forth in time between 1949, when Katherine Fallon is about to get engaged to George Bedford, and 1969, when they are long-married with four children and living in a Belfast exploding with violence and hatred.

Katherine is pushed into a remembrance of things past when she almost drowns while swimming at the beach with her family. This causes her to withdrawn from her husband — with whom she has a companionable, if not emotionally intimate, relationship — and retreat into her memories of an affair she had with another man while being courted by George. Read the rest of this entry »

Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was the Irish Book of the Year for 2011. I first read it in Ireland during a visit home — where it was displayed prominently alongside the big names in supermarket book displays, a reflection of its popularity — and loved it. On rereading, Solace proved even better, richer and more nuanced.

Solace by Belinda McKeon (Irish cover -- Picador)

Solace by Belinda McKeon
(Irish cover — Picador)

At its core, like all great fiction, Solace is a family story, a tale of disfunction and inter-generational misunderstanding.  Mark Casey is a graduate student in literature at Trinity College in Dublin; approaching thirty, he teaches dull undergrads and has grown bored by his dissertation subject. He needs a kick in the pants, and his father is all too willing to give him one.

Mark’s father, Tom Casey, is a small farmer from Co. Longford; a practical man, he struggles to accept Mark’s seemingly never-ending student life. Constantly badgering his son to come down to the farm to help him with the “real work” of running the place. Mark’s mother, Maura, runs interference between them and keeps the peace. It’s a family dynamic that will be familiar to anybody who ever left their hometown or resisted joining a family business.

In the novel, Mark’s life is jolted from his comfortable rut by Joanne, a trainee solicitor he meets in a dingy pub. Before they have time to fall in love properly, she is pregnant, and they’re setting up home together and learning how to raise a baby. Joanne has her own issues with parental pressure and expectation, but it’s the story of Mark and his father, that dominates this novel — although their passive-aggressive arguments, quintessentially Irish, may seem alien to readers from other backgrounds. Solace is a book about home, and the inevitable struggle to escape it and to define yourself in your own terms; but, McKeon knows that the struggle is at best illusory, and eventually we have to reconcile ourselves with that home. The fight is not so much to escape it, but to come to terms with it.

Solace also captures an interesting point in Irish life: it takes place as the economic boom was at its peak, and ends just as everyone was waking up to the bust. The main characters in Solace, students and small farmers, were not reaping the benefits of the Celtic Tiger, nor do they initially notice the bust making much difference to their lives. But they display a reticence about the stability of the good times that perhaps many felt during those years, but did not articulate. In the pub one night Tom Casey reflects that nobody wants to reminisce about the old days: “There were things nobody thanked you for reminding them of. There were years that had slipped so far into the past that it was better not to mention them…. they acted now as though they had been happy in a way that they would never be happy again.” This in the middle of an unprecedented economic boom! In passing, McKeon seems to sketch a pub full of people who should be on top of the world, but who harbor this unmentioned dread. The old refrain of things being better in the old days feels completely out of place among the triumphalism of land exchanging hands for millions, houses going up like they were made of Lego, and everyone spending like there was no tomorrow. But it remained in people’s mind, unsaid perhaps, but present.

Mark’s mother Maura reflects that other parents have the same experience of their children not visiting enough, only those children’s distance was ostensibly because of their high-pressure jobs, their new financial success, rather than because they were working fitfully on a dissertation and avoiding their father. She sees the trappings of these children’s material success, fancy suits, big cars, foreign holidays, but wonders uneasily if “she should want those things for Mark, whether she should feel disappointed in him for not having them”? Again, the rural perspective in Solace reflects a distrust (but perhaps it’s only the typical Irish melancholy) of the flashy new world, coupled with the outsider’s feeling of powerlessness — who were they to articulate their doubts in the face of the official narrative of prosperity?

Towards the end of the novel, Tom Casey is prevailed upon to make a very unsound investment, and you realize that McKeon has been slowly sowing the seeds of a financial enmity throughout the book. Tom has been a small farmer all his life, instinctively distrustful of financial institutions and big talk. Now — like Jude in Julian Gough’s recent novella “Crash” — the steady Celtic Tiger drum beat of investment and prosperity has slipped under his skin, and he makes a poor decision. It’s a decision that forces Mark to grow up once more, a decision that makes him realize his father is aging, and the push-pull of the parent-child relationship has shifted, perhaps irrevocably.

McKeon is excellent at writing Irish men, particularly older men. Both Mark and Tom are alive and fairly leap off the page — even though Mark can be a frustratingly passive character, rent with indecision and content to bumble along in his laddish ways. To be fair, Mark is a very representative example of the twenty-something Irish male singleton, and the passivity is not so much a lack of imagination on the author’s part, but an accurate reflection of her source material. Children in Ireland are taught early on that it’s not good to stand out, not advisable to go first, or risk failure. Mark is a typical clever plodder, trusting to slow work and fulfillment of basic expectations to take him inoffensively to where he hopes to end up. Tom is wise in practical ways, reflective if not expressive, and can be wryly humorous, but his outlook is curtailed by the limits of his experience.

Solace is a book that haunts the reader in its assured power. It demonstrates the raw emotions and fierce clashes that are played out under the surface when families gather, and captures the way that youth is an essential process of fleeing from then returning to a family with clarity, nuance, and understanding. I have a feeling that Solace is a book I will delve into again and again over the years.

–Rich

 

Notes

Buy Solace in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Buy Solace in the US

Support the Irish economy by buying Solace from Kennys.ie… (free shipping worldwide)

 

 

Kevin Barry is the must-read Irish writer of the moment, and for good reason: his short stories feature the mad, the bad, and the dangerous to know, and his language is deliciously quotable and musical. I think of him as an Irish Coen Brother, writing dialogue so crisp and perfect you long for people to actually talk like that, even though you know that nobody really does.

Irish Literature Expert

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (US paperback cover)

City of Bohane has done nothing to dispel the cult growing up around its author. Barry’s recent triumph in capturing the Impac Award has capped a string of stellar reviews and ecstatic notices.

At its black, twisted heart, City of Bohane is a gangster noir. Set in an imaginary Irish city some 40 years in the future, City of Bohane tells the story of the struggle for control of a crime family. Logan Hartnett has control of the Hartnett Fancy, the gang who has been in control of the Bohane trace, the quarter containing all the dens of iniquity, and thus effective control of the city, for 25 years, an immense span of years in gangland. At the opening of the novel the first stirrings of gang warfare appears, as rival factions begin to agitate for more power. But as the feud plays out, the real power struggle emerges: which of Logan Hartnett’s deputies is going to succeed him?

The Ireland of Barry’s novel is one that has regressed into rule by local fixers, crime bosses who allow the veneer of society to function as long as the appropriate palms are greased. It’s an Ireland not hard to imagine in light of the country’s current machine politics, dynastic political families, and increasing levels of gangland violence.

Barry’s signature inventive language and vivid characters are on full display, and to these virtues he adds a confident world-building comparable to any first-rank science-fiction or fantasy author. However, over the course of the novel, it’s noticeable that there’s little character development — something that the brevity of a short story rarely allows. We have vivid characters, but they each do one thing well, rather than grow and change with experience. It’s a trait familiar from super-hero movies, where everything you need to know about a character can be seen on the poster.

Harnett is our aging mafia don: tall, immaculately tailored, suave, and striking. He may be getting long in the tooth, but he’s ruthless, and still fit to rumble. In a tight-fitting, white leather jacket, tight black pants, and high, sharp boots, we have Hartnett’s manipulative asian deputy, Jenny Ching. Equally ready to take out a rival with the knife, or use her body to gain an edge; she’s a Tarantino heroine transposed to the rain-soaked streets of the west of Ireland. Logan’s other deputies are tough-guy support roles, and would be played by former teen heart-throbs trying to establish their credentials as tough-guy leading men if this were a movie (and it would make a good one).

Barnes & Noble

Barry uses cinematic effects throughout the novel, to generally good effect: scenes are set with birds-eye views, the camera floating overhead to describe the movement of crowds, the lay of the land, or the emotional state of a city about to erupt into violence.  The antagonists’ clothes are described in lingering detail, sartorial choices being character in many cases. The affect is generally pleasing as spectacle, the mood of menace and inevitable showdown is built beautifully, until the violent denouement.

Here the cinematic influences of the novel fail to reach the same heights on paper as they can on-screen. Barry aims for a Godfather-esque finale of cutting between multiple scenes — there’s even a song that attempts to pull them all together — but the tension can’t be sustained in this way on paper, and truth-be-told, the outcome has long been certain by that point, so much of the hoped-for drama fails to materialize.

However, this over-reliance on cinematic devices does not lessen the novel’s joys or creativity in the slightest. Barry has proven he can sustain the mood and tone of his maddest stories at novel length, and hold the reader rapt. The intricacy of the world of Bohane, and its idiosyncratic dialect is fully realized, and never flags or fails to convince the reader. City of Bohane deserves all the plaudits and awards it’s earned. The most-apt comparisons for City of Bohane may be the fabulist world-building of China Miéville, rather than the usual suspects of Barry’s Irish literary forefathers.  Kevin Barry continues to be a breath of fresh air through the Irish literary landscape, and City of Bohane will provide Irish writers and readers with much to argue over and much to champion.

–Rich

 

Notes

Buy City of Bohane in the US from Barnes & Noble…

Buy City of Bohane in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Buy City of Bohane in IRL from Kennys.ie…  (free shipping worldwide)

Read my review of Kevin Barry’s second short story collection, Dark Lies the Island

 

The Guardian has a great collection of authors’ annotations on hard copies of some of their books, revealing roads not taken, regrets, and the motivations behind some creative choices. Here are the Irish writers:

 

Irish Writers, Irish authors, Irish literatureSeamus Heaney on Death of a Naturalist

John Banville on The Sea

Sebastian Barry on A Long Way Home

Anne Enright on The Gathering

Colm Tóibín on The Heather Blazing

 

And one foreign writer who’s apparently taken to life in Leitrim so well that we may as well adopt him as honorary Irish:

DBC Pierre on Vernon God Little

 

And J.K. Rowling, who’s just awesome:

J.K. Rowling on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

 

Notes
You may also be interested in these future award-winning Irish authors:
Review of Solace by Belinda McKeon…
Review of The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan…
Review of City of Bohane by Kevin Barry…
Review of You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir…

The news that Richard Bausch has been award a Dayton Literary Peace Prize for his novel Peace, made me dig through the archives for the blurb I wrote for it last year.

Peace is the intense story of the long night of the soul faced by a  three American GIs when their sergeant casually murders an Italian civilian while on patrol behind enemy lines in the last year of WWII. Their struggle to do the right thing, to understand whether one more killing makes a difference during the insanity of war, reflects our own uneasiness at the messiness of conducting a war, no  matter how justified, and shows that though the technology of war and the speed of reporting it may have changed, the basic moral confusion and chaos remains. This will be of great interest to  military history buffs, military families, as well as lovers of fine writing. Peace is strong liquor; a visceral, intense reading  experience, which brings on a mellow reflectiveness.

I’m glad to see it winning the award.

Sarah Hall’s Booker-nominated How to Paint a Dead Man is brilliant, there’s really no other word for it. It’s also idiosyncratic like only great art can be, and is likely to be something of a love it or hate it novel.

htpdmThe novel intertwines the stories of four artists: Giorgio, a reclusive still life artist in 1960s’ Italy; Peter, an iconoclastic landscape painter who was obsessed by Giorgio’s work in his youth; Susan, Peter’s daughter, a budding photographer; and, Annette, once a talented student of Giorgio’s, now struck blind at a young age.  Hall skillfully employs a different narrative style for each story. Giorgio’s story unfolds in the first person through the translation of a journal kept during his final years; Annette and Peter’s stories are told through traditional third-person narration; but, Susan’s chapters provide the most-impressive stylistic pyrotechnics, as she is the surviving member of a set of twins, and consequently her story is told in the second person. The tone is that of one who has been carrying on a conversation for years, and suddenly finds herself alone, but can’t stop holding up her side of the dialogue:

“You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident. More accurately, not since the moment you heard about it. That morning, that minute, holding the phone to your ear and hearing your father say those horrific words; it was then you felt the change, then when you were knocked out of kilter.”

The connecting themes of the narrative strands is how to live as an artist, how to combine your passion and move in the contemporary world, how to combine your inner vision with the often hostile or opposing realities of the outside world. For the non-artist reader, this is of course a metaphor for the oldest theme in literature: how to be, how to move through the world. Giorgio has lived through the fascist years, has seen art twisted to meet the demands of the state and nonconformists punished and killed. His reaction was to reject society and live simply in order to learn to see things as they truly are, and, through repetition and practice, capture this on canvas. His subject matter over the decades was a series of still-lives of blue bottles and other household objects.  Critics have come to be as interested in his privacy as in his seemingly simple art. Giorgio, however, is not a stereotypical recluse, rejecting or overwhelmed by the modern world; instead, he has always been interested in and aware of the changing tides of politics, art and fashion. However, to him they are secondary to the development of his sight, his perspective, his artistic vision:

“Often I tell visitors, who come and who sit uncomfortably in their city garments, to be heedless of the train timetables. I invite them to remain past the hour of their appointment, to take some wine and sit outside and relax. Take your hand from your wrist, I tell them. Listen to this greater pulse, to the lowing of cattle and the beating of wings against the winds.”

Naturally, his wisdom and truth is rarely theirs, and few truly understand what he’s attempting to say.

One who would have understood, had they ever met, is Peter. As an idealistic young artist in the 1960s, Peter writes to Giorgio about his art, and Giorgio recognizes a kindred spirit. Peter walks the path of any self-conscious artist of the time, living the hippie experience to the full, traveling, experimenting with drugs, before settling down in a loving marriage, moving to a remote part of the north of England and devoting himself to landscape painting. Like Giorgio, Peter rejects the pre-packaged comforts of the consumer society in order to expand his own vision, his personal understanding of the world through art.

To me, Peter and Giorgio are interesting, wise and very appealing characters, but both somewhat archetypal: the artist as reclusive visionary – and that’s how I think Sarah Hall intends them to be seen. The most interesting characters and storylines are in the paths taken by the offspring of these artists: Peter’s children Susan and Danny, and Giorgio’s student Annette.

Danny and Susan grow up in very permissive surroundings; there are no boundaries, no rules, and no polite lies for the sake of social conformity. To Danny, this is heaven. He is the life and soul of the party, an incredibly open, trusting and indulgent personality. For him, the question is, having seen how his parents have combined art and life so openly, honestly and successfully, how can he ever leave the fold and go out into the world? Ultimately, he cannot; he is a child who never grows up. Though he becomes a “found” artist, making sculptures out of scrap metal and the detritus of life, his real talent is for living, for friendship. When a road accident takes his life at a young age, hundreds come to his funeral. In the most basic sense, his way of life was his art. It can be argued, or course, that his art is never very deep or meaningful because he doesn’t go through any process of coming to understand what he’s trying to achieve, he doesn’t struggle with the question of what he wants to be, of why he’s an artist. He simply copies the aspects of his father’s unconventional lifestyle that appeal to him and has fun.

The question of reconciling life and art is a very real one for me – and probably for anyone likely to be drawn to this novel. Danny reminds me strongly of my own brother, a musician and artist who has chosen to live simply on his own terms in order to pursue his projects. He may not be famous, but I think he’s very successful in terms of what he sets out to do. In contrast, though I studied writing and film-making, I was far less single-minded. Ultimately, I put my faith in something other than art.

Susan is much more worldly than Danny, although, like him, she doesn’t have a strong concept of her art. She’s a competent photographer, but conscious that she gets attention as much for being her famous father’s daughter as for her work’s merit. She’s dully aware of this, but it doesn’t become an issue until her brother dies, and all her certainties and complacent attitudes towards life die with him.  She embarks on a self-destructive affair as a means of distraction from the pain of separation. Fundamentally, she has nobody to talk to, because Danny was always the one who knew her best, the one whose approval she sought. Her faith wasn’t in the power of art to get her through life, it was in the certainty of Danny’s presence and approval, and she’s utterly unmoored when he dies.

HTPAintBack in the 1960s, Annette is a high-school student whose talent Giorgio thinks highly of before she loses her eyesight. Afterwards, her horizons narrow to the confines of her mother’s fearful Catholicism and the familiar geography of her family’s house and the market where she works. Her mother is another recluse, a fearful woman convinced the devil, which she calls the Bestia, is out to destroy her, and consequently never leaves the house. Annette’s challenge is whether to internalize her mother’s fear and accept a constrained life after she goes blind, or embrace life, continue living in hope and working in the market despite the chance that people might take advantage of her lack of sight.

I find it interesting that some reviewers have omitted Annette from the company of artists struggling to build a life in this novel, or simply skipped over her story in their reviews. She’s a naïve teenager, struggling to reconcile a rather negative religious view of the world with her innate optimism, and the sense of joy, hope and redemption she finds in Christianity. The implicit parallels Hall appears to draw between artistic expression (the faith that a commitment to art as a way of life will see you through) and religious faith (the process of determining the balance point between one’s faith and one’s life) are subtle and not often raised. Should Annette become a nun, as her mother suggests, because the world is too dangerous for a young, blind woman? Should she find a way to live as normal a life as she can, trusting in a just and protective god, or stay at home fearing the ill intentions of the Bestia? [*Blogger KevinfromCanada makes the interesting point that Annette’s artistic endeavor is literally developing her inner vision.]

Annette greets life on her terms, in that sense her story parallels Danny’s, who greets life openly and ‘follows his bliss.’ His choice of found art reflects this laissez-faire attitude, and contrasts with Peter and Giorgio, who go through years of searching and questioning before arriving at their respective understandings of their art.

Ultimately, it’s Susan’s story that opens and closes the book. The question is what can she find to replace Danny as the rock upon which she rebuilds her life? Like her father and Giorgio, she must come to terms with life and art, where one ends and the other begins. What sacrifices will she make to follow her path? The resolution may disappoint some readers because a) it’s something that happens to her, rather than something she chooses consciously, and b) it’s slightly ambiguous. I found it completely believable and very fitting. Again, this is probably due to the circumstances of my life and my choices; I fell in love and got married young (at least by the standards of my peers). So, in a sense, I placed my trust in love, not art. Across time, and without ever being aware of them, Susan comes to trust Giorgio’s words of wisdom, offered decades earlier: “If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.” I completely understood Susan’s feelings and the ending felt natural and justified. One could interpret the conclusion in terms of the parallels between art and religion explored in Annette’s story, but I can’t really go there without giving too much away.

Suffice to say, How to Paint a Dead Man is a beautiful, heartfelt novel. Sarah Hall displays a technical virtuosity and narrative skill that wows you with her words, while her deft weaving of the various stories allows the bigger picture meditation on the difficulties of where to draw the line between art and life – or more simply between work and home – to unfold naturally. Each storyline exists at its own time and place, but each episode subtly enriches the events of the last and highlights different choices, different priorities, and different outcomes.  It all boils down to a rich and perceptive meditation on the choices, accommodations and decisions we make in shaping a life, and is a joyful celebration of the pursuit of art, in whatever form one may choose.

 

 

Links

Sarah Hall’s website…

One of the many websites of my brother, Stephen Rennicks, conceptual artist.

 

I’ve always loved the Booker Prize, and tried to read as many nominees as possible. You could say it’s always been my favorite literary prize.

man booker logoMy annual goal is always to read the whole of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. I never achieve that goal, but then the purpose of goals like that is aspiration. Why do I have this reverence for the Booker when I don’t attach any special significance to any other book award? The answer is that the Booker is inextricably tied up with my personal ‘Golden Age’ of reading, the time I woke up to the joys of reading for more than simple distraction.

As background, you should know that in secondary school in Ireland I devoured every book about WWII and Vietnam I could find, dipped into the usual science-fiction and fantasy classics (2001, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and regurgitated the accepted interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea for my final exams. I wasn’t a particularly good English student, but I enjoyed stories. After graduation, lacking any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and scratching the itch to travel, I moved to the north of England for college.

What I lacked in the way of intellectual stimulation from my classes (business and computers –- Hey, it was the end of the 1980s, greed was good, and computers were the thing to study!), I found on the shelves of the local WHSmith and in the discussions on The Late Show. Before you snigger too much, consider that I came from a small town without a bookstore. Discovering writers like Pynchon — then in the news with his ‘comeback’ novel Vineland — Eco and Rushdie, seemed to take the tropes of my escapist teenage reading and transform them into the social commentary of “real” literature.

bkofevidenceMy ‘problem’ was that although I loved to read, I didn’t know a thing about literature. I needed guidance and initially found it at the bookstore. I was an undiscriminating reader, devouring my share of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz novels, but the merchandising decisions of my local WHSmith – the only bookstore in town – introduced me to many new authors and impressed the importance of the Booker Prize on my mind. Cardboard displays of the shortlist (the first year I remember saw Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day pitted against Banville’s Book of Evidence and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, among others) looked terribly cool to my young self.

Having had the name ‘Booker Prize’ impressed on my mind, I then heard and saw it everywhere. Articles on the shortlist in the Sunday papers, editorial cartoon’s lamenting the “difficulty” of reading the Booker contenders, and interviews with authors on The Late Show.

times arrowAt the time, the BBC was renowned for great arts programming, and I loved The Late Show, then hosted by future bestselling author Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) and future leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (who later authored a Booker-nominee himself, Scar Tissue). The Late Show made me aware of the contemporary arts scene, giving authors and poets the cultural cachet of the indie rock stars with whom they shared the stage. Mainly, I think it was all the Booker hoopla that caught my imagination: the betting, the breathless marketing copy, the front-of-store displays and the entertaining reviews in the papers. Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a book I read because of a fabulously rancorous debate over its merits on some arts show, blew me away (but I haven’t dared go back to see if it still does). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was required reading for anyone interested in the arts, and debating the fatwa, whether you’d read The Satanic Verses or not, was a never-ending conversation among the politically awakening students in my circle for a time.

qmWith the controversies (Was James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, an unreadable book? Was The Unconsoled a worthy follow-up to Remains of the Day?), the clever marketing and the consistently high quality of the books, the Booker was simply the most entertaining of literary prizes, and it still is. I’ll be online refreshing the Man Booker website to learn the shortlist on September 8, and I’m currently working my way through some of the long list (I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man is my favorite thus far.  Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is beautifully observed and written, but I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.).

Although I can no longer watch the BBC arts shows dissect the nominees, the blogosphere provides plenty of discussion and commentary. Below are some links to blogs where readers are also working their way through the longlist and some especially interesting interviews with the nominated authors.

HTPAintLinks:

The 2009 Longlist

Interview with Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

Farm Lane Books Blog — reading her way through the longlist

@Suejustbooks – a bookseller who doesn’t blog, but tweets her impressions

Both Eyes Book Blog – has reviewed several of the contenders

Review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn from the LA Times

Seamus Heaney at 70

This week is Seamus Heaney’s 70th birthday. The Irish national television station, RTE, has made a new documentary about the poet that airs tonight. It should be available for webstreaming for a week after broadcast at RTE’s Heaney at 70 website. I have no idea if it will be downloadable outside Ireland, but it’s worth a shot. [Update: Nope, not downloadable outside Ireland. Sorry to get your hopes up.]

stepping-stonesI’ve been reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful and massive book of interviews with Heaney, Stepping Stones over the past couple of months, and while it wouldn’t be right to review it without finishing it first, I must say it’s a marvelous consideration of the poet’s life, his memories and ruminations on the significant events that shaped him, and contains some fascinating insights into some of his best-known poems. Its strength is the digressive nature of the recorded conversations — obviously between two old friends who know Irish poetry inside out — which brings out both an air of candor and also creates an atmosphere of after-dinner conversation that sets the book apart from a typical dry, academic biography.

If you’ve never read Seamus Heaney, I’d recommend running out to your local bookstore and picking up Opened Ground, which collects the best poems from his career up to 1996. If you’re already a fan of his poetry, I recommend Stepping Stones highly.

Links

Seamus Heaney’s biography at nobelprize.org

Watch a video of various Irish television & arts personalities talking about why they love the poetry of Seamus Heaney:

With the awesome news that the wonderful Kelley Eskridge (author of the novel Solitaire) has a novella nominated for the Nebula Award, I dug through the hard drive to find a short review I wrote about her excellent collection of short stories, Dangerous Space, a year ago — the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted it in the header graphic above. It turned out to be very short, so I picked up the book, reread the brilliant “Dangerous Space,” and wrote a longer review.

The opening line that I wrote last year is still true: this is the best collection of short stories I’ve read in forever. Cutting edge in every sense, Eskridge mines the raw edges of emotion — love, lust, and fear — and places her characters in settings just a little bit different to our own — the near future, the recent past, or the slightly fantastical. It’s odd that I respond to a collection of short stories, because I usually find the form disappointing: just when I’m getting to like a character or understand their world the story is over. But the fault lies with me, not short story writers: I guess I’m simply a story fan, and shorts generally don’t have enough story to keep me happy.

This isn’t the problem in Kelley Eskridge’s fiction. It’s quickly apparent that she knows the minutia of each milieu she depicts in incredible detail. After reading stories like “Strings” and “Dangerous Space” I am impressed by her knowledge of music, both the specialized vocabulary of the aficionado, but also the technical knowledge of a professional sound engineer. Eskridge may be neither of those things, but she completely convinces the reader that her characters are, and makes the world they inhabit fully real and vivid. Like her partner Nicola Griffith, Eskridge understands violence at a bone-deep level, the casual, understated violence of conversation, the accepted institutional violence of office politics, as well as the thin line between pleasure and pain often present in physical violence.

Nebula–nominated “Dangerous Space” concerns the romantic entanglement of Mars, an in-demand sound engineer and music producer making her way in the sexist music business. [Edit: it turns out the question of Mars’ gender is entirely up for grabs – see comments. You can make a case for the character being male or female, which makes the story all the more amazing. I’m sticking with my initial, gender-biased response because the comments would make no sense if I changed it;-)] Mars is highly competent and very successful, able to pick and choose the bands she produces. She agrees to work with Noir, an up-and-coming rock band fronted by a charismatic lead singer. While Mars isn’t willing to be another notch on his bedpost, she feels that the process of making music with him is as intimate as anything they might get up to in the sack. The sexual tension in the story is stretched tighter than guitar strings and the narrative arc is not your conventional opposites-attract love story. Eskridge plays with gender boundaries by introducing F-tech, a new technology that allows an individual to experience everything another individual does. Developed initially for the medical field, the adult entertainment industry quickly exploits it. Mars feels she has no need of it, because she knows “how the best sex feels. It feels like music.” “Dangerous Space” is a brave and convincing meditation on love, on sexuality and the possibility of truly connecting with another human being. (But don’t take my word for it, the whole story is available online. Go read it.)

Another story that explores the tortured path to sexual and emotional fulfillment is “Eye of the Storm,” a tale about a group of mercenaries perfecting their fighting techniques and seeking stable employment. One soldier is conflicted about his guilty secret: he’s turned on by the violence. Starved of physical comfort or affection as a child, he grows to manhood knowing the touch of others only through the use of force.  The small group of mercenaries, male and female, he bonds with come to understand his enjoyment, and must decide whether they can accommodate it. This is probably the story in the collection that most screams out to be expanded into a novel, as it features a rich cast of characters and wrestles with taboo themes.

Published by the tiny feminist publishing house Aqueduct Press in Seattle, Dangerous Space is a book you’d be hard pressed to find in a chain bookstore, and is just the combination of high-quality storytelling and unorthodox perspective that independent bookstores should be promoting in order to set themselves apart. There isn’t a bad story in the whole book, and all reward rereading. If you (or your customers) like the work of Kelly Link, Nicola Griffith or Neil Gaiman, you’ll love Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space.

Links

Kelley’s blog

Interview with Kelley Eskridge about Dangerous Space.

Aqueduct Press