A Sampling of the Latest Irish Books
By Irish America Staff
August September 2005
THE SECRET LIFE OF OSCAR WILDE
There is no shortage of Oscar Wilde biographies out there. And, at this point, it would seem difficult to suggest that there are any “secrets” left to tell about the always-controversial Irish-born writer of plays, poetry, novels and more.
But Neil McKenna seems to have broken new ground in his acclaimed new book The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the bulk of new material in this bio focuses on Wilde’s sexual journey through Victorianera London.
For some readers, McKenna’s focus (one might even call it an obsession) on Wilde’s sexuality may be a bit excessive. McKenna more or less argues that Wilde’s attraction to men is at the center of pretty much all of his work. Meanwhile, you might argue that there could be more in this book about Wilde and his Irish background. Still, McKenna does analyze a large amount of previously unknown and unpublished material about Wilde’s life and times. No less important a publication than Publisher’s Weekly gave The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde a coveted starred review, writing: “Not even a great biography can explain everything about its subject’s life — and certainly, despite the groundbreaking research here, this book will raise eyebrows as well as controversy. But it’s also the most exciting and important Wilde scholarship to be published in decades.”
($23.95 / 539 pages / Basic Books)
WASHINGTON’S GENERAL: NATHANAEL GREENE AND THE TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Irish-American author Terry Golway has written about Irish Rebel John Devoy, as well as many Irish American topics from John Cardinal O’Connor to the New York City Fire Department (Golway’s father was a firefighter).
Now, Golway ventures into the field of American history with Washington’s General: Nathaneal Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution.
For all the massive interest in America’s founding fathers, Greene has gotten lost in the shuffle. As Golway’s book indicates, that is a shame because this self-made man played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, eventually becoming what Golway calls “Washington’s right-hand man.”
He managed to do this because, though untrained in military tactics, he became an innovator on the battlefield by waging a sort of guerrilla war against the British, even before that term had been invented. Lord Cornwallis once commented: “Greene is as dangerous as Washington. I never feel secure when I am encamped in his neighborhood. He is vigilant, enterprising, and full of resources.”
($26 / 368 pages / Henry Holt)
THE MARRIAGE BED
Regina McBride grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but she spent part of her later life in Ireland and she has since mined that time to great effect in novels such as The Land of Women. That novel (which was, fittingly enough, set in Ireland and Santa Fe) centered around Irish mythology and a young woman named Fiona whose relationship with her parents was, to say the least, complicated.
In her latest novel, The Marriage Bed, McBride takes the theme of parent-child relationships into even darker territory.
It is a tragedy involving her parents which drives McBride’s protagonist Deirdre O’Breen from the Great Blasket Island off the southwest coast of Ireland to Dublin.
Deirdre is just 14 years old. She has lived her life on an isolated island but now finds herself living in a tumultuous city at the turn of the 20th century. McBride captures Deirdre’s sense of dislocation wonderfully in this novel, which is filled with rich writing and illuminating details.
Hoping to find a place for herself in Dublin, Deirdre goes to a convent school and plans to become a nun.
It is there that Deirdre’s life become intertwined with that of another young girl, Bairbre, as well as her determined, devout mother.
Bairbre’s mother is so driven, in fact, that she methodically plots to arrange a marriage between Deirdre and her son Manus, an architect with dreams of designing and planning Dublin’s future.
McBride has brought this young couple together by two forces beyond their control — parental tragedy and a pushy mother. Like Ireland itself, Manus and Deirdre face the question of whether or not they will move forward peacefully and happily, or instead will be haunted by the tragic past.
McBride’s prose seems, at times, excessive. However, she is a poet as well as a writer of fiction, and when she settles on a rich image she is able to call on a poet’s skills to bring her words alive. All in all, The Marriage Bed is a challenging but satisfying work which explores distinctly Irish themes.
($13 / 289 pages / Touchstone Books)
THE AMERICAN CLASSICS: A PERSONAL ESSAY
Another writer often associated with Irish topics who has now tackled a deeply American topic is Irish-born poet and critic Denis Donoghue.
In The American Classic: A Personal Essay, Donoghue uses his famous brains, wit and ability to mingle the personal with the historical to explore the writings of Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Donoghue anoints these writers the most important American authors, and contrasts their American spirit with the Irish sensibility with which he is more intimately familiar.
He then explores the broader forces which have shaped not just these authors and their books but America in general, including the contemporary world superpower, of which Donoghue is not exactly a fan. Donoghue, for example, sees in Emersonian individualism as the roots of imperialism which have come to fruition in present-day Iraq.
Argumentative and erudite, The American Classic is far from a beach read but it is another eye-opening work from Donoghue, who is currently University Professor and Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University.
($27 / 304 pages / Yale University Press)
COVER THE BUTTER
Kate Cadogan is over forty years old, yet she still lives in the shadow of her demanding Irish mother. This when she is not tending to her needy husband and children.
Perhaps it is this demanding life which results in Kate, the protagonist of Carrie Kabak’s light but engaging novel Cover the Butter, slipping back in time. Her future seems bleak, so maybe Kate can find some satisfaction in the past.
Cover the Butter (which is set in Wales) is more of a beach read than a demanding one. Kabak (a former children’s book illustrator from the U.K. who now lives in Missouri) also pours it on rather thick when it comes to establishing that Kate’s Irish mother Biddy is a tyrant. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with Kate, and Cover the Butter delivers a satisfying conclusion.
($23.95 / 368 pages / Dutton)
IN THE PROVINCE OF SAINTS
Another excellent novel of dark secrets and the Irish past is Thomas O’Malley’s In the Province of Saints.
O’Malley’s first novel is about Michael, a young boy in 1970s rural Ireland, where the ghosts seem to be as natural a part of the landscape as the trees. Michael knows that there are undercurrents of suspicion and distrust in his community. But it is not until the sudden death of a family friend that Michael grasps the full extent of the hatred close to him, as well as his own parents’ intimate involvement in what may be murder.
O’Malley was raised in Ireland and England, but later came to the U.S. to study at the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He now lives in upstate New York.
Buried beneath the murder-mystery surface of In the Province of Saints is the struggle of a young boy simply trying to figure out who his parents are. Inevitably, this also leads to an exploration of the sometimes dark forces which shaped Michael’s community, and even his country.
At one point Michael comments: “Father once said, You had to pick your battles, and that he’d never been much good at it.”
Michael’s struggle, and O’Malley’s fine achievement with this novel, is to try to figure out how any of us can win a battle we had no choice in whatsoever.
($23. 95 / 320 pages / Little Brown)
THE QUICK OF IT
No one could ever accuse Dublin-born poet Eamon Grennan of being conventional, and his latest collection The Quick of It shows why. Grennan, who divides his time between the west of Ireland and upstate New York, has produced an offbeat collection of untitled poems, all exactly ten lines in length.
Images of nature and the human body dominate, but, as usual, Grennan — whose poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Irish Times — keeps the reader on his or her toes with all sorts of startling visions.
This is a challenging poetry collection that, because of the brevity of each work, can be explored and appreciated in small doses.
(71 pages / $14 / Gray Wolf Press)