Review of Books

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2009


Over the last decade or so, Brooklyn has gone from a byword for gritty urban life – the place where Pete Hamill and Spike Lee told their stories – to a punch line referring to the chic hipsters who have flocked to the borough.

Colm Toibin might seem an unlikely candidate to add a fascinating new chapter to Brooklyn’s literary life.  After all, his novels, such as The Blackwater Lightship, have explored life in Ireland, while his most recent novel, The Master, was a fictional take on the life of great novelist Henry James.

His non-fiction books, meanwhile, have also ranged far and wide, from explorations of Catholic Europe to gay artists.
But Toibin explores mid-century Brooklyn, the era of The Honeymooners and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in his new novel, which is entitled, simply enough, Brooklyn.

The novel revolves around Eilis Lacey, who grew up in rural Ireland in the 1940s. A victim of the sagging Irish economy, Eilis goes to America and settles in Brooklyn, which one person promises is “just like Ireland.”

At first, this seems true enough. Eilis looks at the women around her at one point and thinks: “All of them [are] older than me, some with faint American accents but all of Irish origin.”

But, of course, 1950s Brooklyn is a buzzing, multi-cultural borough. Fittingly, Eilis falls in love with an Italian American – only to learn about bad news from back home in Ireland, where her sickly mother and sister still live.

Toibin’s book is an insightful look at the immigrant experience in New York, not to mention something of a love letter to old Brooklyn.  We are taken to Coney Island as well as beloved Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers used to play.

Toibin renders Eilis’ life with all of the uncertainty and wonder inherent in both the immigrant and the New York City experience.  He also takes on characters and environments which have been the subject of plenty of stereotyping, and breathes much-needed new life into them.
($25 / 262 pages / Scribner)


In her first novel The Walking People, Mary Beth Keane covers some of the same territory as Colm Toibin. The book opens with a detailed description of Irish immigrant Michael Ward’s last day of work as a New York City sandhog – a laborer who digs water tunnels deep under the earth.

But then The Walking People travels back to 1950s Ireland, and we learn about Ward’s youth, as well as the life of the woman who would ultimately become his wife.

Keane has produced a highly impressive debut, spanning 50 years of family tragedies, triumphs and secrets.  Never sentimental or shocking, The Walking People is an intricate rendering of complicated lives, filled with suppressed desires and glimmers of hope.  Particularly interesting are the sections in which Keane explores the electrification of rural Ireland in the 1960s. Meanwhile, as fascinating as Keane’s characters are, her research is also impressive. The details of The Walking People – from the labors of sandhogs to the traditions of the Irish travelers – ring true. Overall, The Walking People shows Mary Beth Keane to be a writer to watch.
($25 / 392 pages
/ Houghton Mifflin)

In her novel The Swan Maiden, Jules Watson tells the famous Irish story of Deirdre, who some call the Helen of Troy of Ulster. Deirdre is the woman whose beauty may bring ruin to the kingdom of Ulster and its ruler, Conor.  Watson, an acclaimed Celtic historian, renders Deirdre’s coming-of-age as a process of liberation.  She is a child of nature who rebels when she is treated as a possession. This fierce spirit, combined with her beauty, ultimately unleashes warfare as if it were fated by the gods. At times a bit overblown, The Swan Maiden is nevertheless a fine updating of this timeless tale.
($12 / 540 pages / Bantam Spectra)

Keith Donohue’s first novel, The Stolen Child, was a surprise bestseller. His follow-up, Angels of Destruction, opens at the home of an elderly Irish-American woman named Margaret Quinn, who lives with the fact that her child ran away from home years ago to join a radical group.

One night, when there is a knock at Margaret’s door, an old hope – that her daughter has returned – is revived.  But instead, it is a nine-year-old girl at the door – who just might be Margaret’s granddaughter.

Donohue (who recently wrote an Introduction to a new edition of writings by Flann O’Brien) constructs a fascinating story about fantasy and reality, politics and history, with Angels of Destruction.
($24 / 368 pages /
Shaye Areheart Books)

Non Fiction
On the heels of A Course Called Ireland (reviewed in the last issue of Irish America) comes another book about Ireland, Irish-Americans and golf:  Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations by John Garrity. Garrity, who writes for Sports Illustrated, travels to Ireland to see where his great-grandfather came from.  The ancestral home site is now, it turns out, home to a new golf course. Garrity also goes to Scotland, where some of his mother’s ancestors came from.

In the end, Garrity explores how his family – as well as Ireland – was literally and metaphorically shaped by the game of golf.
($24.95 / 292 pages / New American Library)

For those who loved Touched by an Angel (or even the current CBS show The Ghost Whisperer), Angels in My Hair by Lorna Byrne will probably be a fascinating read.

The author says she has seen angels since she was a young child growing up poor in Ireland. Not surprisingly, many people believed young Lorna had mental problems.

These days, however, people seek her out for guidance or comfort, or to even see if they can contact a deceased loved one.

Along the way we also learn that Lorna, despite being poor and ostracized, found the love of her life, a blessing which was ultimately ended by tragedy.

Suffice to say, Angels in my Hair is not for everyone. Some may find the mystical qualities of the book hard to take. But if you miss Roma Downey as an angel, Lorna Byrne might just make a fine substitute.
($24.95 / 303 pages / Doubleday)

The Irish role in one of early America’s most important and ambitious construction projects is explored in Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and The American Empire by Gerard Koeppel. There was once a saying – you need four things to build a canal: a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and an Irishman.

All in all, it is believed that as many as 5,000 Irish immigrants helped build the Erie Canal, which linked New York City and the Atlantic Ocean with the interior United States. The leading champion of the canal was New York governor DeWitt Clinton, the product of a famous Scotch Irish political dynasty.  For a while, as the canal project dragged on, it was called “Clinton’s folly.” But once completed, commercial activity exploded, helping make young America a powerful nation.
($28 / 480 pages / DaCapo)

Chicago Tribune Magazine writer Mike Houlihan has released a collection of his work from the magazine, as well as work which has appeared in The Irish American News and on Chicago Public Radio.

The product of a large Irish Catholic family from Chicago’s south side, Houlihan is perhaps best known for the Hooliganism column he wrote for The Irish American News.  These yarns, all gathered in this collection (fittingly titled Hooliganism), venture from Houlihan’s days as an actor and bar owner in Rockaway Beach, New York, to his experiences as a father and husband. Filled with his trademark wit, Hooliganism is a fine collection from a classic Irish-American raconteur.
($25 / 216 pages /
Dog Ear Publishing)

The Irish-American queen of murder mystery is back.  Just Take My Heart is a new thriller by Mary Higgins Clark, and dabbles in the sci-fi notion of personality changes springing from donated organs.

Clark’s story begins with two struggling theater actresses, Natalie and Jamie, the latter of whom once had an affair with a married man.

Years later, Natalie is found dead – following a chance meeting with the married man. It is up to Emily Wallace, a young prosecutor, to sort through the suspects and motives when Natalie’s estranged husband is accused of the murder.

But Wallace herself becomes endangered when, as she’s researching for the trial, she becomes too trusting of a neighbor. We also find out that she is a donor recipient, which may or may not explain some of her strange recent behavior.  Once again, Clark, whose books have sold over 85 million copies in the U.S. alone, has produced a satisfying mystery.
($25.95 / 322 pages / Simon & Schuster)

Meanwhile, Carol Higgins Clark – Mary’s daughter – also has a new book out – Cursed, a Regan Reilly mystery. Reilly, a private investigator, has moved to New York City from L.A. to be with her husband, the head of the New York Police Department’s Major Case Squad.  Soon enough, Regan is drawn back to the West Coast. A friend calls and tells Regan she believes that her entire life is “cursed.” (The friend was born on Friday the 13th, after all.)

It is a lover who “borrowed” $100,000 from the cursed woman, which drags Regan back into the L.A. underworld – and may also get Regan herself hurt.
($25 / 242 pages / Scribner)

Finally, don’t miss Rhys Bowen’s latest Molly Murphy mystery In A Gilded Cage.  Once again, Bowen sets a thrilling plot amidst the history of early 20th-century New York, when women were fighting for the vote and the automobile was just beginning to clog the streets of Manhattan.
($24.95 / 276 pages / Minotaur)

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