Preparation for the next life by Atticus Lish
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither by Sara Baume
Me and my mate Jeffrey by Niall Breslin
Eggshells BY Caitríona Lally
Death of a football club : the story of Cork City FC, Season 2008 / Neal Horgan
Lines of Vision edited by Janet McLean
Harvest by Jim Crace
No man's land : writings from a world at war edited by Peter Ayrton
The New Emperors : power and the princelings in China by Kerry Brown
The last Irish plague : the great flu epidemic in Ireland, 1918-1919 by Caitriona Foley
The Great Famine : Ireland’s agony, 1845-1852 by Ciarán Ó Murchadha
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Before I go to sleep by S.J. Watson
The vanishing point by Val McDermid
Country girl : a memoir by Edna O'Brien
The Lewis Man by Peter May
Breakthrough : Elizabeth Hughes, the discovery of insulin and the making of a miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg
Joan Denise Moriarty : first lady of dance by Ruth Fleischmann
There but for the by Ali Smith
Earlier book reviews may be accessed here
Every so often a book comes along. Raymond Carver’s editor’s son came out with a book. Carver was brilliant, no doubt, but the effect of his editor defines a literary divide. Gordon Lish was associated with the Merry Pranksters and visits to his house feature in both Neal Cassady’s The First Third and Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road. Working as literary editor of Esquire he worked with writers such as Richard Ford, Cynthia Ozick, Doin DeLillo, Reynolds Price and T. Coraghessan Boyle. However, Stephen King referred to Lish as a baleful influence in the New York Times. Lish himself has been less than kind about authors such as Philip Roth, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster.
Atticus Lish was estranged from his father for over a decade. In 2012 he brought out Life is with People, a collection of drawings with captions published by the small independent Tyrant Books. It wasn’t his first time in print. When he was 9 Don Delillo used a piece he wrote verbatim in his novel The Names. Atticus Lish’s second book, Preparations for the Next Life (also published by Tyrant), won the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Father and son have reportedly reconciled and Gordon has arranged that his agent, Amanda Urban, also represent his son.
What of the book? I cannot do it justice. The publisher summarises: “Zou Lei, orphan of the desert, migrates to work in America and finds herself slaving in New York's kitchens. She falls in love with a young man whose heart has been broken in another desert. A new life may be possible if together they can survive homelessness, lockup, and the young man's nightmares, which may be more prophecy than madness.”
The critics raved and it sold well but it’s not light or explosive or any of that. It is special. I don’t know that I could read it again but my life is better having read it. The Guardian found it profoundly political. The Irish Times said the story is “sympathetic, disturbing and unusually powerful”. The truth is that it’s not a pretty read, it’s in no way sugar coated, it’s the kind of read that is difficult to follow because it is so well executed. It really is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
Review by Paul Cussen
The Book of Night Women
by Marlon James
Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his third novel A Brief history of seven killings. His first novel The Book of night women is, like the Booker winner, set in Jamaica. In The Book of Night Women almost all of the story takes place in a large sugar cane plantation called Montpellier, in the late 1790s and into the early 1800s. The narrative and dialogue are in Jamaican patois. It is not until the end of the book that we find out who the narrator is, and that is of no small significance.
The two main protagonists are a young slave woman called Lilith and the plantation’s Irish overseer, Robert Quinn. We Irish like to line ourselves up with nations who suffered under colonialism, but James’ raw and sometimes unbearably painful narrative is a reminder of how different our ancestors’ experiences - no matter how harsh - were to those of the slaves brought to the Caribbean from Africa. Quinn is the most sympathetic white character in the novel, not much competition it has to be said, but even he cannot cross the divide between slave and non-slave.
For once the commendations from critics which are reproduced by the publisher are borne out by the book itself:
The Boston Globe called it “a devastating epic of savage history, relentless oppression, and souls that refused to be shackled”. For Dinaw Mengestu, the Ethiopian-American novelist, it is “an exquisite, haunting and beautiful novel, impossible to resist”, and for the Los Angeles Times it is “a book as heavily peopled and dark as the night”.
This is a very different book to A Brief history of seven killings. The Booker winner has multiple narrators, and uses different, seemingly unconnected, segments to paint an overall picture of Jamaica’s troubles, from the 1970s to the recent past. The Book of Night Women builds to a cataclysm in a more traditional style, and it is clear from the beginning that we are heading for a bloody conclusion. That cataclysm is brought vividly to life in a masterful piece of writing; the denouement is also well handled.
This is not easy reading – the book is uncompromising in its treatment of slavery and the violence it both springs from and engenders – but a book well worth reading, and in some ways a better book than A Brief history of seven killings which won Marlon James the Booker.
Review by Liam Ronayne
This is a different animal entirely. Not the sort of thing to pick up on a whim but rather something that needs tolerance. There is no major drama. No fireworks. Instead there is a story of one man and his dog. This is no Rin Tin Tin story and no curious incident. It may be a slimmer book but there is more to it. There is more even than its poetic use of language and its depth of thought.
A man visits town once a week. He is an outsider used to his routine and on the first page he gets a dog in need of tolerance and compassion, a dog which like himself is an outsider, strange and different. The man doesn’t tell us his name, we work it out. That simplicity and patience on the part of the author in unfolding the story, allowing the reader to work things out, adds an extra dimension to the book. The man’s character is fully rounded by omissions and admissions. The reader learns about them at their pace. If the reader were to meet the character the result would not be so blissful but that is what gives the book its awesome heartbreak quality.
One loves the man despite his turgid breath and reeking feet. One believes that the dog slowly begins to trust him because we see and feel that time pass. One sees that the man is not what he thinks of himself but the perception of what other people think is utterly believable.
The intimacy of the book is staggering, not only in the development of the relationship between the man and his dog but also in any given moment. The man may be a bit strange, his one eyed dog may have a vicious streak but they share the poetry of any given moment.
This is an exceptional book.
Review by Paul Cussen
‘Me and My Mate Jeffrey’ is the autobiography, for want of a better word, of Niall Breslin or ‘Bressie’ as he is better known. I say for want of a better word, because this is not your average run of the mill autobiography, but one that specifically deals with Bressie’s mental health issues, beginning from his time spent living in Israel while his father was stationed there with the UN. Once you get over the nauseatingly grammatically-incorrect title and any resulting preconceptions about the literary worthiness, this is actually a very readable and surprisingly illuminating book. From that brief period in Israel, through his secondary school days in Mullingar, his ill-fated pro-rugby career, and right up to the present day, Bressie highlights in a very open way his ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression (and with his related inner critic, whom he names Jeffrey). There is an honesty and integrity to the writing that is very refreshing. I could find no evidence in any reviews or reports of this book of a ghost-writer, which means that a considerable amount of credit has to go to Bressie for how well the writing flows. I still could not identify a ‘Blizzards’ song if I heard it on the radio and in the early years of The Voice, I have to admit, Bressie was that fella I never heard of from that programme I never watched. Now, however, Bressie is synonymous with mental health campaigning. Do not be under the impression that this book is overly heavy, mind you - there are lighter moments such as his tale of how he successfully bluffed his way to special treatment in the VIP section of a New York Club, using an American footballer’s money. All in all, it is a story of hope, of how ubiquitous mental health struggles are in our society, and of how they can be overcome through de-stigmatisation and the building of positive social networks.
The last few chapters do read somewhat as advertising for his various mental health websites and projects, but given the context, that's forgivable. The websites are not self serving business ventures aimed at financial gain and self promotion, but progressive, well intended initiatives aimed at bringing public attention to a very serious issue in contemporary Irish society. I despise modern celebrity culture and would normally prefer to have all my teeth removed than read the ‘memoirs’ of a thirty-something year old pop star. However, in a world of banality, superficiality and ready-made stars, with all of the marketing and none of the talent, here is the brutally honest, engaging and inspiring story of someone who actually cares about others. I was already a Bressie fan before ‘Me and My Mate Jeffrey’ (again based on his campaigning work, not his music), but reading this highly engaging and thought provoking book copper-fastened my high opinion of him. Bressie is not just immensely likeable, but inspiring too. The fact that he also seems well able to write is an added bonus. As grammatically appalling and all as the title is, the book itself is well worth a read.
Review by Donal O'Driscoll
This is not an experimental book. Reviewers and critics have used the word but they are to be ignored. I am more fearful than reluctant when I approach a book that has been labelled experimental as such books may be rewarding but they often take more time to read and end in crushing disappointment. As a result they sit in the lower half of my pile of books. Other books arrive in and are read before I go experimental.
Eggshells is a simple story well told. It is a funny book about a girl called Vivian who believes she is a changeling. She lives alone in a house with a vast collection of chairs, left to her by her great aunt. Vivian has a sister also called Vivian who is married with children.
Each day Vivian goes out with a plan. She has a list of places that may be portals to the fairy world and she is determined to get back there. Meanwhile she makes the most out of her life with humans. Her interactions with other people are fantastic. She makes sure to talk a certain amount each day, often using clichés but in her own unique way.
She deals with a social worker, her obnoxious sister, the neighbours and a telephone survey monkey and such interactions cement her character. It is easy for the reader to like her and to laugh along through the story. She advertises for a friend called Penelope by sticking a homemade poster on a tree. Penelope who paints cats, talks loudly and drives terribly, becomes her best friend.
This book is as funny as the critics say and its black comedy is quite moving. The character treks forth each day to find her way out of Dublin and through her Lally draws a marvellous map of that awful city. Finding the portal to the otherworld is Vivian’s primary objective but for the reader we want her to tally and spend more time with us, telling us of her exploits. But the book ends and that’s the worst thing I can say about it.
There is no plot, no tension, no explosions, no love story. What there is suffices. I don’t want Vivian to tell me what she has been through – the hints are enough and she has suffered enough pain.
This really is a book that may be enjoyed by anyone who reads it. Well done to Caitríona Lally for such a debut.
Review by Paul Cussen
Here is a rare thing: a football book actually written by a professional footballer telling a gripping tale, yet skilfully avoiding the genre’s obsession with cliché and footballer-speak. Neal Horgan writes a regular column in the Irish Examiner. But this terse page-turner deals with the crisis that befell Cork City FC in summer 2008 when the club’s somewhat mysterious owners – a “venture capital fund” named Arkaga – pulled its backing literally overnight in mid-season. The immediate result was chaos; Arkaga walked away leaving City with estimated debts of €1.3 million and a slew of unpaid creditors. The club was placed in short-term Court-protected examinership in a desperate bid for survival. Arkaga’s promised €40 million investment, which was to include a 20,000-seater new stadium, simply vanished leaving, Cork City reeling and its future in the balance.
Horgan, a long-serving player with generations of family ties to the game, recounts the club’s previous glory days of trophies won and famous European encounters, but the guts of his work focuses on the shattering fallout following Arkaga’s sudden desertion. He gives us a rare and engrossing series of insights from the training ground, from the dressing room, and from the squad’s fraught meetings with the examiner, club CEO and union representatives. The players learned of administrative staff losing their jobs while dealing with 70% salary cuts themselves. Also drawing from a diary he kept that season, the author walks the reader through the examinership process as turmoil swirled around the club he loved and supported from boyhood.
Lines of Vision
edited by Janet McLean
Every once in awhile a book comes out that makes you pause, and wonder why no one every came up with that idea before. ‘Lives of Vision’ is one of those books. Here we have a collection of short writings on selected pictures from the National Gallery of Ireland collection. Selected by Irish novelists, playwrights and poets – over fifty in total! Each writer uses their selected picture (which is reproduced beautifully in the book) as the source of inspiration to explore themes of love, dreams, identity, family and of course art itself. The collection of art chosen is a wonderful testament to the National Gallery of Ireland that such fantastic art in held in trust for the Irish people to access and experience for themselves. The writers featured in the book are an astounding list of who’s who on the landscape of Irish contemporary writers. Some are among the truly great writers of our time, no matter where they hail from; Seamus Heaney, Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle, John Banville to name but a few. Through the format of this book the reader can also get an insight into the thought processes of the featured writers, as the source of their inspiration is pictured along with their writing. This book is lovingly put together and is the kind of book that promotes the reader dipping in and out as the mood takes you. I can only highly recommend this book, which is available now to readers through Cork City Libraries.
Walter Thirsk is the narrator in this novel set in a remote part of England in an unspecified time, when gibbeted corpses are still remembered though not expected to be seen again. It is harvest time, and newcomers arrive. A trio of vagrants, a lame clerk who plays the fiddle and makes maps, and the landlord’s cousin by marriage, Jordan, who is the real owner of the land, as Master Kent’s wife has died without issue and the estate is entailed. The vagrants are blamed for a fire in the corn stacks, two of them are put in the stocks, the master’s mare is killed, and Jordan promises the assembled villagers that one of them will surely hang before the week is out. The villagers realise that this harvest will be the last to be reaped here. The land is to be enclosed, crops and common land to be replaced by sheep fields, tillers of the soil by a few solitary shepherds, all for the profit of the new master Mr. Jordan. The lame fiddler is making maps to prepare the new enclosures, Jordan’s roughnecks are putting the frighteners on the villagers to ease the change, while the vagrants’ fate initiates a stately dance of consequences that can only end in tragedy. The novel is imbued with a sense of human dignity, injustice, foreboding and loss. As Thirsk puts it, ‘Dissent is never counted, it is weighed and the master always weighs the most’, so there is no hope. Harvest is a haunting novel, its prose measured and rhythmic, begging to be read aloud. Its themes are timeless, its descriptions of rural life and landscape realistically harsh yet achingly lovely in tone. The central characters; Thirsk, Mr. Quill the fiddler, and the old master, Kent, are sketched with a loving sympathy. A good read on many levels, ‘Harvest’ is available in Cork City Libraries.
Review by Tim O’Mahony
Part of the ‘History Is To Blame’ reading list, Cork City Libraries would like to recommend Pete Aryton’s “No Man’s Land”.
The effect on European and Irish society of World War I was so profound and wide ranging we sometimes miss the change from the world ‘before to after’ that horrific war. Sometimes the over-emphasis on history books leaves us with lists of facts and figures, and we miss the real-life consequences which have helped shaped every facet of our world today. This powerful collection, edited by Pete Ayrton, gives us a clear understanding of just how traumatic World War I was for those who lived through it and survived. The writings featured are from all corners of the world and include D.H. Lawrence, Ernst Junger, Mulk Raj Anand and Jaroslav Hasek to mention just a few. This is what people were reading in the aftermath of the Great War, so those who were not direct participants on the battlefront were able to get a glimpse of the horrors of industrialised warfare.
This is not just another World War I anthology. Here we have 47 authors covering 20 of the countries that fought in the war. There is a mix of fiction, memoirs and what is now termed "new journalism" – a new literary form that developed through the writings of WWI writers. We read about events and battles that some of us will be very familiar with, but I’ll wager there are a few writings from fronts that we have never heard or read about - Serbia, India, central Europe and Greece feature as well as the more familiar Western Front. It’s a superb collection, and should be a must read for everyone,as by reading this one book you will have gained a deeper and wider view of what WWI meant to those who lived through it and after it, including here in Ireland.
‘No Man’s Land’ is available now to members of Cork City Libraries and is just one of the ‘History is to Blame’ recommended reads.
Review by Matthew Farrell
For a few years now we have been told that the writing is on the wall, China is the future - the future of world economics, trade and even technology. With a seemingly immune domestic market, a growing middle class and a population that rivals most continents it’s hard to argue with that logic. But who runs China, and how do China’s leaders become...well...leaders? China’s governmental administration is famous for being secretive and difficult for westerners to negotiate. “The New Emperors” by Kerry Brown aims to help you tackle this problem. This book clearly sets out not only who is who in the top levels of the Communist Party and those who make up the Politburo, but also how they got there. Brown tries to show us who they really are, in as much as a westerner is capable of doing so. This is no small task, considering the level of secrecy these leaders surround themselves with in order to thrive and indeed even survive. This culture of secrecy makes China’s one of the most obscure and confusing government systems on the planet. China’s politics are unlike that of any other country you may have come across.
Indeed the very terms that describe the upper levels of power (the Communist Party, Politburo etc) are misleading leftovers from a USSR dominated communist system. These bodies have evolved well beyond their original descriptions into difficult-to-define and ever evolving arms of government. There is a bewildering number of names to remember, or rather maybe the point is that there are too many names to remember! Brown paints a picture of a leadership based on alliances, of the dual importance of political and historical pedigree on one side and big business contacts on the other. Also he explains the boon and the very real danger of patronage and family relationships – not least in the context of the Cultural Revolution. A quick recap of Bo Xilai’s fatal high profile fall from the highest positions of power brings home this reality. This book won’t tell you everything you need to know if you want to understand the workings of the world’s newest superpower but it certainly will give you the basic facts necessary to understand how and why China works the way it does. A great read and an essential book for understanding modern China ‘The New Emperors’ by Kerry Brown is now available to members of Cork City Libraries.
‘Plague’ is an aptly-chosen word in this title, as many at the time doubted that the Spanish flu was really flu at all. Then as now, it is hard to imagine any great danger accruing from flu…a few days in bed, a cough, at worst a visit to the doctor. The symptoms of the Spanish flu were painful and frightening, including bleeding from the ears, coughing blood, blackened skin, and a repulsive smell. Many died within a few days of presenting, and unlike other flu outbreaks, it was the young and strong who succumbed in greatest numbers. More than 20,000 died from Spanish flu in Ireland, and up to 800,000 were infected.
Foley trawls through local newspapers, the reports of the Boards of Guardians, private correspondence and parliamentary papers to construct a thoroughly-detailed account of an epidemic which touched rich and poor, urban and rural populations alike. In particular she portrays the heroic efforts of an overworked medical profession, doctors, nurses and nuns, as well as the charitable work of the lay middle classes who organised relief and collected to ensure the sick and poor had nourishing food. She explains how the flu ran its course against the backdrop of the Great Election of 1918, the return of thousands of soldiers from the Trenches, the internment of many nationalists, and the opening salvoes of the War of Independence, but it is in the accounts of individual patients’ experiences that she excels, and it is these stories that haunt the reader. All in all, this is an excellent, accessible and moving study, and is available for loan at Cork City Libraries.
Review by Tim O’Mahony
While reading this recent book I realised why we should still be donating to Third World charities even though Third World governments can afford to spend millions on armaments. Sure, it’s an anomaly, but the ordinary poor of the Third World will still perish if we don’t, having absolutely no capacity to change the pattern of income distribution in their societies. And so it was too in Ireland during the Famine, as this excellent and heartbreaking book makes clear. Shiploads of grain were exported as a matter of course throughout the Famine, whilst the ruling elite arrested and imprisoned the starving poor who sought to prevent the grain reaching the ports.
Using eyewitness accounts which tell the story from all points of view, the author brings home to us the shocking effects of the Famine, the utter wretchedness of the starving and their pitiful efforts to retain some human dignity, and the courage, commitment and sense of responsibility which many individual members of the ruling classes displayed in spite of official indifference. Particularly affecting are his accounts of the Famine clearances which left thousands homeless on top of everything else, the kindness showed by the most miserable to their fellow-sufferers, and the awful silence in the land in the post-famine years, remarked on by many travellers.
This is a book which everyone in Ireland should read, accessible, truthful, balanced, and beautifully written, and illuminating the root causes of much of what has been wrong in Irish society since that tragic time.
Wexford man Colm Tóibín is at it again. Since first coming to our attention as a novelist with ‘The South’ back in 1990, he was already well established as a man of letters in the world of Irish journalism. Since then he has proved to be a growing figure in exploring the human conundrum, but now very much on an international stage. ‘The Testament of Mary’ is another cracker by Tóibín, and to be honest I am surprised nobody came up with the idea before. But that is maybe the genius of the writer – to see the exceptional opportunity to explore humanity through a well known story. And what better story than that of a loving mother who has lost her son a in a most brutal way, to corrupt and tyrannical system.
The short novel came about through Tóibín’s work on a play for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011 called ‘Testament’. Recently Tóibín explained that walking home after the last performance he could not help but ask ‘Is that it?’. He had been bitten by the theatre bug, and the experience of putting himself in Mary’s shoes. So he gathered together all of the material from the writing of the play and ‘The Testament of Mary’ was born. So how does it read?
It is amazing that in just 81 pages Tóibín can get so much raw emotion across. The separation of Tóibín’s characters from their homeland or family has always been a prominent feature of his work, and The Testament of Mary is consistent with that. But it seems almost that Mary’s loss dwarfs that sense of loss which has gone before. Set in Turkey, we meet Mary many years after the death of her son. She lives alone. She has no interest in preserving the words he spoke in the emerging gospels. No interest in the proclamation that he was the son of God. She is a mother wracked with guilt, grief and self hatred. The horrific way that his life ended haunts her days, and is constantly brought back to her through the persistent questioning by the gospels authors. This is a difficult read. Tóibín refuses to let us detach ourselves from Mary’s pain through his sympathetic and flowing prose portraying a mother of a murdered son. Well worth a read. Copies of ‘The Testament of Mary’ are available for loan to members of Cork City Libraries.
This is the thrilling debut novel by S.J. Watson which is making a few waves at the moment. The central character of this brilliant first novel is Christine Lucas. The book opens with Christine waking up in a bedroom she does not recognise , next to a total stranger, a man wearing a wedding band. She can think only of escape, and creeps down an unfamiliar hallway into a bathroom which is equally unfamiliar . It is not until Christine looks in the mirror, and sees the face staring back at her is twenty years older than it’s supposed to be, that things begin to spin out of her control. Panic rises up in a wave and threatens to completely engulf her, as she realises she does not know who she is. Some opening!
What Christine does not realise yet is that she loses her memory when she goes to sleep and has to start afresh every time she wakes up. Each day she has to relearn who she is. Her husband Ben (the total stranger she woke up next to) calmly and kindly explains that she had an accident some years ago, and this has been their life together ever since. Her doctor calls every day to walk her through everything, including her treatment, and to remind her about her journal, her own record of what has happened - not that she remembers that she ever wrote one. A great scenario for a novel, and we soon begin to get to grips with the fascinating existence of our main character. There is just one problem – three little words written inside Christine’s journal. “Don’t trust Ben….”
Watson manages to maintain the sense of shock and confusion of Christine’s ‘wake-up’ each morning without letting it become stale or tired. No mean feat! The elements of Christine’s life are fascinating and enthralling to read about, and represent a great creative accomplishment by the author. This on its own would be enough for me to recommend this book. Add to it the fragile shifting foundations of Christine’s world, and those three words ‘Don’t trust Ben’, and the sense of foreboding which they create will always push you to one more page … just one more page! Already the rights for a movie have been bought, by Ridley Scott no less! ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by S.J. Watson is available now at Cork City Libraries.
Review by Matthew Farrell
Probably best known for her Tony Hill series, Val McDermid has continued with her refreshing habit of producing ‘stand-alone’ novels. Val’s latest instalment of stand-alones is The Vanishing Point, her 11th so far. The quality of McDermid’s writing in the crime genre is well established, and I think it is to her credit that she ventures outside the well established ‘brand’ characters and come up with something completely different each time. In fact many say her stand-alone novels can be more interesting than the series novels!
Very much part of the "Tartan Noir", McDermid’s latest has a bit more of nerve-shredding tension than the graphic violence and torture from which she made her name in crime fiction. The book opens with a rising panic scene where Stephanie Harker is stopped at a metal detector at airport security. She is led to a searching booth, all pretty straight-forward you might say. Except that Stephanie has been entrusted with a 5 year old boy, Jimmy. While she is behind the safety glass she sees a uniformed man take Jimmy by the hand and walk off with him through the milling crowd of Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Stephanie reacts as we would all would. She tries to go after Jimmy and shouts and screams when security prevents her. Airport security staff react as one might expect, thinking they have a hysterical woman on their hands. Meanwhile Jimmy is gone….
To say any more would take from an unusual story which is well worth the read. After the grippingly descriptive opening the plot slows right down before building to a conclusion that does not fail to reward. The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid is available now to Cork City Library members.
It is a pleasure to rediscover a writer, and that happened to me recently when I took up Edna O'Brien's memoir Country girl. As a teenager I had read the once banned novel The country girls, set in County Clare. Later I read In the forest, O'Brien's fictional account of the real-life murders of Imelda Riney, her young son, and a priest, Fr. Joe walsh, in Whitegate, County Clare, not far from where O'Brien grew up, and i thought it wrong to turn such recent and heartbreaking events into a psychological thriller. Edna O'Brien was for me an institution, either a Mother Ireland figure - she always seemed so sorrowful, a mother of sorrows, with an accent which hovered on the verge of stage-Irish - or a kind of James Joyce-lite, a latter-day literary exile hounded out of Ireland by priests and censors.
But this memoir has changed my opinion of her, and if it does nothing else it proves that she is a born writer. Her words and sentences, with their harsh and uncompromising beauty, cut clean to the heart of a life of 'high drama and contemplation' - this last from the blurb. True enough the high drama is often of her own making - think Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights - but from her lonely childhood, her unhappy relationship with her parents, and her disastrous marriage she has made a poignant and seductive work of art. And behind the somewhat staged aspect of her radio abnd TV appearances there is here an engaging ability to laugh at herself which has always been the best thing about the Irish. Read Country girl : a memoir and surprise yourself. Request it at your local library.
The Lewis Man
by Peter May
This is the second book of the Lewis trilogy, a series of crime novels set in the islands of the Outer Hebrides. In the first book, Blackhouse, we met troubled policeman Fin Macleod. Fin is called to the Isle of Lewis, where he spent his childhood, to investigate a murder. In The Lewis Man, Fin has retired from the police force and is now living on Lewis. As he tries to rediscover his roots, a preserved body is found in the turf with shocking injuries than can only mean murder. Tests, and an Elvis tattoo, prove the body has been in the ground for only 50 years. DNA establishes that the body is a relative of Tormod Macdonald, the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart. Tormod is now an elderly man suffering from dementia. Fin finds himself drawn in, and family skeletons new and old emerge as he tries to find the identity of the body. Can the murderer still be alive?While the concept of a troubled policeman with a past is far from new, and the plot is a standard but satisfying who-dun-it, May’s real skill lies in his ability to draw vivid pictures of the wild landscape of the Scottish islands. Island names - North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay - are enigmatic and evocative, as the reader wonders at the harshness of life in these remote communities. The Lewis Man will appeal to fans of Nordic atmospheric crime, and is available now to members of Cork City Libraries. The Chessmen, the third book in the trilogy, published in January 2013, is also in stock.
In 1919, when Elizabeth Hughes, the daughter of American politician Charles Evans Hughes, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, the treatment was Allen’s “starvation” cure, by which the patient was put on such a restrictive diet that though the blood sugars remained stable, death from starvation ensued within a year. But the hope was that some young diabetics would survive long enough that a cure might be found, so Cooper counterpoints Elizabeth’s plight with the research undertaken by Frederick Banting, who began his experiments with “diabetic” dogs in 1921 and eventually discovered how to extract usable insulin from the thousands of animal pancreases delivered from the slaughterhouses of the Mid-West.
Reading like a novel at times, Breakthrough includes imagined re-creations of conversations and emotions, though the book is well-researched and accompanied by copious notes. It is an eye-opener on many fronts. As a lifelong diabetic, I hadn’t had a clue, least of all about the suffering of the ‘diabetic’ dogs, whose pancreases were removed and transplanted by Banting every other week. Banting is the hero of the story, and it is to his credit that he knew and loved the dogs he operated on, and their pain haunted him, and haunts the reader as much as Elizabeth Hughes’s struggle. Elizabeth was a survivor, but kept her diabetes secret, which raises many questions on its own account. Was she guilty because her money bought her first place in the queue for the new treatment, or was she ashamed of her illness? The reader may decide.
I found the book informative and moving, and I am certain that others, diabetics and non-diabetics alike, will find the same. Breakthrough is available for loan at Cork City Libraries.
Joan Denise Moriarty: Ireland's First Lady of Dance, edited by Ruth Fleischmann has been published recently by Cork City Libraries. Two years ago Cork City Libraries published The Fleischmanns, a remarkable Cork family, to mark the centenary of the birth of Aloys Fleischmann Jnr. Continuing this celebration of remarkable Cork persons the library service has now published the Joan Denise Moriarty study. The book is very much a companion to that earlier publication, as there were many parallels between Moriarty And Fleischmann, both artists, creators and indomitable activists for an Ireland that would place music, dance and the arts at the heart of daily life.
The book brings together five major pieces on Joan Denise, and five shorter pieces, beginning with a tribute by Domy Reiter-Soffer, collaborator and friend from 1962 to 1989. These contributions tell of her life, the dance companies she founded and led, the music, and the dance. The book concludes with four short pieces on her legacy, still vibrant and still relevant in the twenty-first century.
She was and is, as Ruth Fleischmann writes in the book, ‘the central figure for ballet in Ireland for a quarter of a century’. With the support of Aloys Fleischmann she organised the Cork Ballet Week in the Opera House, with the Cork Symphony Orchestra providing the music. From there they brought their shows to many Munster towns. Indeed for over three decades her two professional ballet companies brought dance from Cork to audiences right across Ireland. The book is available to be borrowed from all public libraries in the city, and is also available for sale in the libraries and in all good book shops.
A man goes to dinner in somebody's house. It is not someone he knows, he is brought along by a recent acquaintance. Between the main course and dessert he leaves the table, goes upstairs, enters the spare bedroom, locks himself in and refuses to come out. His acquaintance leaves, weeks pass and this novel relates the tale to the reader. There are four narrators, one for each chapter. There are four chapters, one for each word of the title. There is Anna’s story. She knew the man from decades earlier when they won a continental tour for aspiring writers. But is the story of Mark, the gay man who brought the man to the dinner, and his story is often interrupted by his rhyming and often obscene mother. May is the story of an old lady suffering dementia and confined to hospital. She also has a connection to the man in the spare room. The last chapter is told by a young girl, Brooke Bayoude, who appears in each of the other chapters. Brooke describes herself as a smartist, she loves facts and playing around with words. There are some terrible knock knock jokes in this chapter!
It’s unusual that the main character, Miles (the man who locks himself in), does no narration but the story is told around him. He is locked away in a self imposed exile, we don’t even know why. The book, especially the last chapter, is full of enjoyable and awful puns, rhymes, jokes, allusions, double entendres and the like. It is a simple story with peripheries, the characters are very believable (even if Mark’s mother is as annoying as Mark) and the writing is exquisite. Well done Ali Smith! There But For The is thought provoking, entertaining and highly readable, and is available from Cork City Libraries.