Review of Books

By Tom Deignan,Contributor
August / September 2007

The earlier decades of the 20th century provide the settings for two new works of Irish-American fiction.Dream When You’re Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg explores life on the homefront during World War II, as seen through the eyes of the three Irish-American Heaney sisters from Chicago.Kitty, Louise, and Tish each have differing conflicts, and Berg masterfully divides time between each character.Kitty, for example, does not merely sit home and weep about her lad off at war. Instead, she works a hard job at a manufacturing plant. In the end, Berg illuminates this oft-forgotten era in U.S. history, while also beautifully recreating a slice of Irish-American life.
($24.95 / 288 pages / Random House)

Thomas Mallon’s latest novel, Fellow Travelers, meanwhile, is set in the 1950s, in a Washington D.C. which is about to become consumed by the actions of an Irish Catholic senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy.

But instead of focusing entirely on the well-known names in history (Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover make cameos), Mallon presents Tim Laughlin, an Irish Catholic New York City boy from Fordham. A budding reporter, his final assignment for his summer in the nation’s capital is McCarthy’s wedding ceremony. Mallon is clearly looking to explore class conflict when Laughlin, the working class Catholic, becomes friends with a well-bred Boston Protestant who works at the State Department.

It turns out, however, that this seemingly privileged character harbors a dark secret, which will expose him to the dark forces of persecution sweeping through Washington during McCarthy’s reign. Mallon’s fascinating twist is that Laughlin himself gets stuck in the web of lies and deceit so many people were spinning during this time.
($32 / 343 pages / Pantheon)

Tyrone native Roisin McAuley combines romance and mystery in her latest book Meeting Point, which shifts from the South of France to Ireland, as clues to a gruesome cold case murder mystery are revealed.

Meeting Point begins with an investigator named Claire falling in love with a mysterious stranger named John while on vacation. Claire is nagged by the feeling she has met her lover in the past.

Is he related to the case of a dead woman whose body was found at the bottom of a cliff in Northern Ireland, which seemed like a suicide? If so, then why is Claire unable to control her passions about John?

At times predictable and breathlessly written, Meeting Point is nevertheless a fine page-turner from the author of Singing Bird.       ($24.95 / 320 pages / William Morrow)

In a sense, Thomas Mallon’s fictional portrait of Tim Laughlin in Fellow Travelers supports the real-life themes of a new book by Joshua Zeitz called White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics.

Exploring the Irish as well as other ethnic enclaves, Zeitz argues that Irish Americans and other Catholics remained deeply unmelted even after Word War II, when many people believed they’d simply faded into the vast American middle class and became like everyone else.

“Between the 1940s and the late 1960s, New York’s three largest white ethnic groups, Jews, Italian Catholics, and Irish Catholics,  numbered as many as 4.3 million people, roughly two thirds of New York’s white population and more than half of its total population,” Zeitz recently wrote in American Heritage, describing his book.

“In New York, for instance, in any given year upwards of two thirds of all Catholic children from kindergarten through eighth grade were enrolled in parish schools. At home and in parish schools, generations of Catholic New Yorkers internalized a respect for public and religious authority and a general skepticism of radical dissent, attitudes that were at once the product of their religious subculture and a reflection of their predominantly homogeneous working-class environment.”
($24.95 / 296 pages / North Carolina)

Irish historian and scholar Padraig O’Malley, currently a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, turns his attention to the struggle for freedom in South Africa in his latest book Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa.
This book is an exploration of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement as well as the story of a heretofore little-known liberator, Mac Maharaj, a South African freedom fighter of Indian descent.

An agitator for four decades, Maharaj eventually spent twelve years in jail alongside Nelson Mandela, before serving in the negotiations which led to an independent South Africa in 1994.

O’Malley’s book includes an introduction by Mandela.
($32.95 / 672 pages / Viking)

Finally, for those who prefer listening to reading, an 18-disc set of Samuel Beckett: Three Novels has just been released. Barry McGovern (who has performed a one-man show based on Beckett’s work) reads Molloy, Malone and The Unnamable, all written in the 1940s. Beckett, of course, is best known for his plays, particularly Waiting for Godot. But any list of the great novels of the 20th century also must include these three masterpieces.
($70 / RTE-Lannan)

Dublin theater veteran Declan Hughes has given mystery fiction another try with his second thriller The Color of Blood. Set in Dublin, The Color of Blood features investigator Ed Loy, who is hired by a member of one of Dublin’s most respectable families. Loy is charged with finding the missing daughter of venerable dentist Shane Howard. Swiftly, however, a missing-person case becomes a murder case, when people related to the missing girl start dying. But even those cases are less complicated than the clues Loy is uncovering about the beloved Howard family.

Not unlike John Banville’s recent mystery Christine Falls (written as Benjamin Black), The Color of Blood is also about the corruption at the heart of respectable Dublin.

For 20 years, Hughes has worked as a director and playwright in Dublin. His skills with pacing and plot are put to excellent use in The Color of Blood.
($24.95 / 352 pages /William Morrow)

Galway resident Ken Bruen has legions of Irish fans because of his Jack Taylor series. His latest is actually set in London, and features Inspector Brant. All the same, expect a lot of what Bruen does best in Ammunition: dark humor, twisted plots and violent crimes. Ammunition kicks into high gear when Brant and numerous others are gunned down at a pub, leaving him near death – but also thirsty for revenge. This sets up Bruen’s vengeance-driven novel, which will most definitely win over fans of Bruen’s Taylor series.
($13.95 / 272 pages / St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Editor and poet Daniel Tobin took on a mammoth task in attempting to compile the most authoritative collection of Irish-American poetry. The result is The Book of Irish American Poetry: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, and weighs in at nearly 800 pages.
Some legitimate questions have been raised about this book. A Publisher’s Weekly review, for example, wondered if the many poets gathered in this volume are Irish in any way other than their name. Another way to look at this is that along with explicitly Irish-American poetry from the likes of Billy Collins, Galway Kinnell and Paul Muldoon, you get noticeably less Irish-themed work from the likes of Marianne Moore and Tess Gallagher. Either way, this book is a must- have for lovers of Irish and Irish-American writing.
($65 / 760 pages / University of Notre Dame Press) ♦

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