Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
February / March 2011
A selection of recently published books of Irish and Irish-American interest.
Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox
A couple of years ago, comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, known to me as Greg Fitz or Fitz, was honored as one of Irish America’s Top 100 and we roped him in to perform. He brought the house down with his stories of growing up in an Irish household where a sense of humor was not only highly valued, it was a necessary tool for survival.
Fitz grew up in Tarrytown, New York and started out in stand-up as a student at Boston University doing the rounds of the clubs in Boston. He looks like a cross between Tim Conway (the much underappreciated genius of The Carol Burnett Show) and Bob Newhart, both of whom have Irish roots, and he has the comic timing of both, with the irreverence and edginess of George Carlin, another Irish-American great, thrown in.
I knew Fitz was funny but I didn’t know he could write, so it took me longer to get around to reading his memoir than it should have.
Fitz can write (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that he’s a friend of a dear friend). At just 44, he may seem a bit young to write a memoir, but when he came across a box of notes from teachers that his mother had kept, including one from a Kindergarten teacher complaining that he didn’t know “how to wiggle,” a flood of memories came back and an idea for a book was born.
The notes and letters act as a linking thread in Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox, but the writing in between the notes has a purity and directness that is elegant, and of course, since it’s Greg Fitz we are talking about here, a good dose of bawdy. One gets the impression that every insult or injury is remembered, but he gives equal time to people he sinned against.
In addition to teachers complaining about Greg’s inability to pay attention, we learn that Fitz’s Irish family includes cousins and aunts who are “ball busters,” and an uncle Jimmy who is a down-and-out but who gives him lots of great books to read about the Bible and American history. And about his early days breaking into the business when he figured out how not to let the tough, largely Boston Irish, audiences break him down. And that’s the fun part. There is also the stuff that will gut you, like his early addiction to drugs and alcohol and how he decided to quit cold turkey when he bombed at a charity event because he was so stoned his timing was off. Most poignant is his coming to terms with his relationship with his father, a radio talk show personality, whom he adored, but who had his own addictions and a dark side.
At the launch of this book, Greg signed a copy to me, “Thanks for honoring our people no matter how we act.”
Comedienne Sarah Silverman describes Fitz as “Irish to the core. Despite himself, Greg Fitzsimmons has this bottomlessness oozing from his pores, and it’s raw, honest, and hilarious. This portrait of one comic’s life is funny, and true.” I can only concur.
Watching Fitz perform on stage at Caroline’s, as I did recently, I realized that what makes him so engaging as a stand-up artist is the undercurrent of empathy and understanding of human nature. This sensitivity, which he uses so well in his stand-up routine, translates beautifully into this memoir.
Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox deserves a standing ovation and months on the bestseller list.
– Patricia Harty
(210 pages / Simon & Schuster / $25)
There may be no finer Irish writer of historical fiction than Joseph O’Connor. Author of the equally beloved and acclaimed novels Star of the Sea (2003) and Redemption Falls (2007), O’Connor approaches his genre and the pages of Irish history with unsurpassed depth and, for this reader at least, the perfect amount of artistic liberty necessary for conjuring the emotional truth of the past.
In Ghost Light, O’Connor’s seventh novel, he turns his attention from emigration and the famine (the topics explored in his last two books) to the well-known but little documented relationship between the Irish playwright John Millington Synge (writer of The Playboy of the Western World and founder, with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre) and the actress Molly Allgood (stage name Marie O’Neill). For various reasons, including differences in class, religion and age and Synge’s failing health, their relationship was essentially doomed from the start. But in O’Connor’s rendering of 1907 Edwardian Dublin, the time they do spend together deeply affects Synge’s work and Molly’s life (it is said that the role of Playboy’s Pegeen Mike, which Allgood originated, was influenced largely by the time Synge spent with her).
Readers access these years in Dublin through the memories of a now older, poorer Molly, just getting by in a dark 1952 London still recovering from WWII. O’Connor portrays his protagonist with compassion and honesty throughout her ruminations, which take place over the course of one day, as Molly slowly makes her way through the city to a rare job opportunity: a part in a BBC Radio reading of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie. O’Connor makes unexpected shifts in narration, switching suddenly from addressing Molly in the second person to describing her in the third. Though initially somewhat disorienting, this choice is ultimately a powerful one, mirroring the shifts in Molly’s focus between her present circumstances and her deep nostalgia.
In the “Acknowledgments and Caveat” section that follows the close of the novel, O’Connor freely and somewhat apologetically admits “most events in this book never happened at all.” and expresses concern that he will suffer the same fate as as Old Mahon in Synge’s Playboy, since “certain biographers may want to beat me with a turf shovel.” The biographers can quibble all they like – readers will be immediately drawn in by O’Connor’s interpretation of this fascinating pair.
– Sheila Langan
(256 pages / Farrar, Straus and Giroux / $24)
In Liz Murray’s honest and moving memoir, Breaking Night, she recounts her journey from a child who subsisted on egg and mayonnaise sandwiches and chapstick while her parents used their welfare checks on cocaine to an accomplished Harvard University student. Her experiences in the years between included staying up until all hours of the night waiting for her parents to come home from drug runs, skipping school, watching her parents’ relationship dissolve, sleeping in different houses and subway cars every night, and losing her mother to AIDS. Murray eventually found Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan and teachers who did not give up on her. Murray does not ask for the reader’s pity although many might feel that her experiences warrant it. She speaks of her love for her parents and her perseverance to rise above the circumstances she was born into. What Murray has overcome in her life gives hope that other children in similar circumstances will use her experiences as a guide and as inspiration. Her fortitude is simply remarkable.
– Kerman Patel
(249 pages / Hyperion / $25)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary
In addition to being a gifted statesman and sociologist, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) was also a writer – a fact made clear by the close to twenty books he authored or contributed to. A dedicated writer of letters, the four-term senator also approached his personal writings with equal enthusiasm. These letters have been carefully compiled and introduced by Steven Weisman, a journalist and friend of Moynihan’s, in the late 2010 release Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. They span an impressive period of time – from a 1951 letter Moynihan wrote to apply for a job while completing his Fulbright, to a brief, contemplative memo from the month of his death, detailing what he learned during his years in office. The letters in between range from political writings to his contemporaries to personal correspondences, from musings to humorous dispatches to The New Yorker. What emerges is a vivid portrait of Moynihan’s many sides.
– Sheila Langan
(708 pages / Public Affairs /$35)
Tales of Irish Enchantment
The stories of Cuchulain and Finn Mac Cool have been passed down through generations and are among the most well known Irish legends. Patricia Lynch adapted these tales, along with other classics, so that young children could learn about the heroic myths of ancient Ireland. Combined with vivid illustrations by Sara Baker, a Northern Ireland native and mother of two who won the Mercier Press Illustrators’ Competition, Lynch’s stories come alive to a whole new generation of readers. Baker uses her skills as an artist to hold the reader’s interest with her illustrations, which liven every page of the book. The images are somewhat reminiscent of the animation in the 2009 film The Secret of Kells, and are sure to capture the imaginations of both children and adults.
Lynch had the ability to keep true to the original legends while also adding a child-friendly spin to the story. Tales of Irish Enchantment is the type of collection that can be read in chapters by parents to their young children or devoured in one sitting by eager young readers.
– Kerman Patel
(208 pages / Mercier Press & Dufour Editions / $ 29.95)