Review of Books


By Tom Deignan, Contributor
December / January 2008


In October, Dublin-born novelist and short story writer Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction with her latest novel The Gathering. The book takes a close look at how the past haunts one large Irish family.

The Hegartys at the center of Enright’s tale are shaken when son Liam (one of nine Hegarty children) commits suicide while living in England.  Liam’s sister Veronica becomes responsible for coordinating efforts to bring the body back to Ireland.

Following the initial tragedy of Liam’s death, The Gathering (Enright’s fourth novel) slowly explores the aftermath, as well as the seemingly mundane, yet in some ways equally tragic, events that took the Hegartys to this terrible point.

Perhaps the most vivid character is Veronica, lost in mourning partially because a bond had formed between her and Liam while they lived as youngsters at a relative’s house.

Readers will certainly sympathize with Veronica’s need to understand why Liam ended his life. But in Enright’s hands, it is also clear that the search for an answer to such an unanswerable question creates its own kind of profound trauma.

All in all, The Gathering is a powerful novel of quiet, intense emotions, even though it is rooted in some of the harshest facts of life – and death.

In winning the prestigious Man Booker, Enright became the second Irish writer to win the prize in three years. (John Banville won in 2005 for The Sea.)

Chairman of the prize’s judging panel, Howard Davies, said:  “We found it a very powerful, uncomfortable and even at times angry book. It’s an unflinching look at a grieving family in tough and striking language.’’
($14 / 272 pages / Grove Press)Fiction

William Trevor continues to astound with both the quantity and quality of his fiction. He has released yet another story collection, Cheating at Canasta, and it stands alongside some of his most mesmerizing work.

Among the standout tales in Canasta is “The Dressmaker’s Child,” which appeared in the 2006 O. Henry Award collection. The story revolves around a mechanic who has a bizarre confrontation with a local girl.

Perhaps the most provocative story is “Men of Ireland,” which explores an altar boy and priest with a past. In this day and age, this could be a salacious story ripped from the headlines, but with Trevor it is impressively understated, without losing the heft its characters might suggest.

Cheating at Canasta is Trevor’s 26th book, and it is tempting to believe one is more or less the same as the others.  But after reading this latest work, you will feel its urgency and the simple honor of experiencing a master whose work will endure for a very long time.
($24.95 / 240 pages / Viking)

Ann Patchett’s new novel Run explores key themes in the Irish-American experience. This is Patchett’s highly anticipated follow up to Bel Canto, which sold more than a million copies and won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2002.

Run revolves around the fictional Bernard Doyle, a former Irish-American mayor of Boston, a city scarred by the bussing crisis of the mid-1970s, which pit the working-class Irish against blacks.

Doyle has adopted two African- American boys and named them Tip and Teddy, after two of Boston’s most famous Irish politicians. The past collides with the present on a snowy night during a lecture by Jesse Jackson.

This is not the first time Patchett has explored Irish characters. Her book Truth & Beauty was a memoir of her friendship with Irish writer Lucy Grealy, who
struggled with cancer, disease and drug addiction and died in 2002.
($25.95 / 304 pages / HarperCollins)

In the Woods is Dublin resident Tana French’s first novel. This literary mystery delves into the grisly murder of a Dublin girl. The detectives on the case end up learning more about the victim’s family than the possible killer.

Meanwhile, not unlike Maeve Binchy’s recent novel Whitethorn Woods, French’s book also explores changes in Ireland, as residents debate the construction of a highway. Efforts to compare In the Woods to Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones may be a somewhat clunky attempt by the publishers to lend a Hollywood sheen to this novel. But this is an engrossing read, in which the police may be concealing as many secrets as the suspects.
($24.95 / 429 pages / Viking)

The Deportees and Other Stories, the latest from Roddy Doyle, started out as a series of topical newspaper pieces. These stories (it is the first such collection from Doyle) don’t have the impact of his novels such as the recent Paula Spencer, not to mention the classic Barrytown trilogy.

The eight stories all revolve around an Irish-born character encountering someone who has come to Ireland to live. Like Tana French (and so many others) Doyle presents a vivid take on the new multicultural Ireland. It is worth adding that the title story continues the saga of The Commitments.
($24.95 / 256 pages / Viking)

Retired FDNY lieutenant John Finucane has written a deeply authentic novel called When the Bronx Burned. Set in the South Bronx during the notorious late 1960s and 70s, Finucane offers an insider’s perspective on an era when arson ruled and firefighters battled a dozen blazes every day.

Finucane also explores the supporting characters from this terrible time, such as the arsonists themselves, residents driven from their homes, slumlords and even dirty politicians.

Finucane (a South Bronx native) served in two of the Bronx’s busiest fire companies, Engine 85 and Ladder 59, so he knows what he’s writing about.
($15.95 / 236 pages / iUniverse)MEMOIR

Mike O’Connor‘s family seemed more or less like most others around.  It was the 1950s, America was prosperous and Senator Joseph McCarthy was doing his best to keep the Communists at bay.

Then, as he notes in Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe: A Memoir of Life on the Run, the O’Connors moved and moved again. They settled in Texas but then moved on to Mexico.  It turns out that Mike’s Boston Irish dad and English mother are hiding a dark secret from their three children.

What were the O’Connors running from? What were Mike’s parents hiding? Why did they always seem to run out of money? This book is O’Connor’s unflinching effort to answer these grueling questions.
($24.95 / 304 pages / Random House)

One does not normally expect to find an Irish immigrant story in a book by the president of Mexico. Yet just as U.S. presidents have had roots in Ireland, so does Vicente Fox.

In his new book Revolution of Hope: The Life, Faith, and Dreams of a Mexican President, Fox writes about his grandfather, Joseph Fox, an Irish immigrant who went to Ohio and then to Mexico around 1890 where he found work at a carriage factory. Joseph never learned to speak Spanish but that didn’t stop him from eventually becoming an affluent plantation owner.

In a recent interview about his book, Fox said he wanted to remind Americans of their country’s “rich immigrant soul, its heritage that is now threatened by fear, xenophobia . . . ”

Fox added: “My grandfather embodied the dream of many Latin Americans and Americans who believe the American dream exists, whether in the United States, Mexico, or other parts of Latin America. That says something about the universality of immigration.”
($27.95 / 352 pages / Viking)

Many human rights advocates are already calling for nations to boycott the 2008 Olympics in China.  But this is certainly not the first time calls have been made for an Olympic boycott. In fact, a recent book outlines how Irish Catholic Americans played a key role in efforts to boycott the 1936 games.

Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 by David Clay Large outlines the extensive Irish Catholic involvement in the boycott movement. Two of the most prominent figures calling for a boycott of Hitler’s games were Al Smith, the beloved former governor of New York, who faced Ku Klux Klan opposition when he was the first Catholic to run for president in 1928. Another well-known Irish-American who supported a boycott was James Michael Curley, the rascal king governor of Massachusetts. But perhaps the most important figure in the movement was also the least well known. His name was Jeremiah T. Mahoney, a judge who was a former Olympic athlete. The boycott effort failed, but time has shown that Mahoney, Smith, Curley and others were on the right side of history.
($27.95 / 416 pages / Norton)

In his new book Ireland Now: Tales of Change from the Global Island, William Flanagan focuses on the past decade and a half, which have seen such profound economic, religious and cultural changes in Ireland. Perhaps most interesting about Ireland Now is that it combines analysis of broad current events with interviews with regular Irish people whose lives have been upended in recent years – for better or worse.
($23 / 288 pages / Notre Dame)

From the British Charles Dickens to the Irish Joseph O’Connor, authors have always been fascinated by America, setting out to travels and write about it.
Irish documentary host Manchan Magan puts a twist on this genre and sets out to find the essence of North and South America in Angels and Rabies: A Journey Through the Americas.

Magan visits Colombia and Peru, as well as Hollywood and Seattle, exploring environmentalists and missionaries, not to mention a gallery of odd folks such as (believe it or not) women addicted to menstrual blood and others obsessed with enemas.  The author lingers a bit too long on the bizarre, and it’s not clear, in the end, what links the Americas on a broad scale.  But there is no denying this is an often fascinating read.
($22.95 / 278 pages / Brandon-Dufour)

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