Review of Books

The Empty Family, by Colm Toibin

By Sheila Langan, Katie McFadden and Kristin Romano, Irish America Staff
April / May 2011

A selection of recently published books of Irish and Irish American interest.
Click Here to purchase these books at Kenny’s Books

The Empty Family

I did everything I could to not finish Colm Tóibín’s latest collection of short stories, The Empty Family. I stared out of a bus window and watched the monotonous Garden State Parkway go by; I purposely did not sit down on the subway. This was not because I disliked Tóibín’s latest work but, on the contrary, because I didn’t want to reach the last page.

To put it simply, the stories in The Empty Family require pause. In his second collection of short fiction, Tóibín grants the same level of care and depth of inner life to each of his characters as he does to the protagonists of his seven novels, the most recent of which was the 2009 best seller Brooklyn. As Tóibín has acknowleged, these are stories of exile and return. His characters, all of them natives of either Ireland, Spain or Pakistan, are, for the most part, either finding their footing in a new land or faced with some reality of their old one. These are stories of being somewhere but having been elsewhere, and of struggling (often unsuccessfully or unconsciously) to reconcile the two.
Tóibín’s fascination with Henry James is no secret: his 2005 novel, The Master, centers around a fictionalized and brilliantly empathetic account of James’ life. Tóibín’s interest in James also extends far into the stylistic realm, and in these stories Tóibín is arguably at his most Jamesian yet – from the quietly penetrating way he renders each of his characters to the deceptively uncomplicated grammar he employs to precisely unfold their thoughts and actions.

Fittingly, James makes an appearance in the first story of the book. Based somewhere in the truth (as many of the stories in this collection are), “Silence” details a little-known affair that Lady Gregory, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre and wife of the significantly older Sir William Henry Gregory, had with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Long after the affair has ended, Lady Gregory yearns to relive it in some small way, and tells a very rearranged version of her story to an attentive James at a dinner party. This example of an inner world or a secret carefully tended to by its holder and barely glimpsed by another sets the tone for each of the powerful stories that follow – from an Irish film set designer’s quiet encounter with her deceased lover’s widow in “Two Women” to the slow emergence of a gay relationship between two immigrants in a Pakistani encleve in Barcelona in the final masterpiece of the collection, “The Street.”

– Sheila Langan

(275 pages/Scribner/$27.00)

JFK in Ireland

Ryan Tubridy, the award winning Irish journalist and host of The Late Late Show, brings history to life in JFK in Ireland: Four Days that Changed a President. It opens in the Oval Office, with Kenny O’Donnell, the President’s Secretary, trying to convince JFK not to go Ireland. The book quickly captures the reader’s attention as Kennedy responds: “I am the President of the United States, not you. When I say I want to go to Ireland, it means that I’m going to Ireland. Make the arrangements.” Having traveled to Ireland before, JFK had a strong desire to return as President.

Part travel narrative, part biography and part political discourse, the book details JFK’s four days in Ireland, giving a stop-by-stop account of the trip. Yet Tubridy also takes readers on a journey through Kennedy’s family history, starting with his great-grandfather’s emigration from Wexford to America in 1848, all the way to JFK’s assassination and funeral.

With never-before-seen photographs, as well as images of personal correspondence scanned directly into the pages of the book, JFK in Ireland is a complete portrait of JFK’s love and admiration for the country of his 

– Kristin Romano
(303 pages/HarperCollins/£20.00)



A Radiant Life: The Collected Journalism of Nuala O’Faolain

Most American readers will remember Nuala O’Faolain for her brave and powerful memoirs Are You Somebody? (1996), Almost There (2003) or for her novels, Dream of You (2001) and The Story of Chicago May. But O’Faolain, who died tragically early of lung cancer in 2008, was a journalist before and after she was a memoirist and novelist. From 1986 until 2007, she wrote an op-ed column for The Irish Times. In those twenty-one years, O’Faolain chronicled a changing Ireland – both its deep societal flaws and its promising milestones – from a singularly intellectual, feminist, and totally unpretentious perspective. Her articles have finally been gathered together in this posthumously compiled collection, A Radiant Life.

The columns are both funny and deeply insightful, as O’Faolain zeroes in on truths about Irish society and much more, covering everything from the class-based complexities at play during a U2 concert in Croke Park to a love letter to New York following September 11. No matter what the subject, O’Faolain is always eloquent, accessible and bitingly perceptive.

– Sheila Langan

(320 pages / Abrams / $18.95)

This is Your Brain on Shamrocks

Mike Farragher, a longtime writer for the Irish Voice, has published a collection of articles from and inspired by his popular “Off the Record” and “Narrowback’s Corner” columns (devoted to music and the Irish-American experience respectively). In This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks, Farragher is as humorous and delightfully irreverent as ever, tackling topics such as lessons learned from guilt doled out by his mother, memories of his high school prom and St. Patrick’s Day, self-deprecating and honest accounts of his efforts with diet and exercise, and a joyful account of playing the U2 album Joshua Tree all the way through with some of his buddies. In this collection, Farragher openly discusses all aspects of his experience as an Irish American in a manner that many readers will instantly connect with – pausing to think at certain moments and heartily laughing out loud at others.

– Sheila Langan
(174 pages / Author House / $17.95)


Ireland Unhinged: Encounters With a Wildly Changing Country

David Monagan, author of Jaywalking with the Irish and Journey into the Heart, once again captures the essence of Ireland in his third book, Ireland Unhinged: Encounters With a Wildly Changing Country. Monagan, a Connecticut native with the hope and dream of finding a happy, mystical, culturally rich land, moves his family to the country of his ancestors. The Monagans settle in Cork and find themselves in the midst of the Celtic Tiger period of economic growth. Along with the changing economy, Monagan takes note of the changing culture of classic Ireland as it flourishes and falls. In great detail, he recounts his adventures all around the country to places including Dublin, Belfast, Donegal, Sligo, and Waterford. With his journalistic background, Monagan interviews a cast of characters he encounters such as his neighbors, relatives, a witch, a monk, musicians, IRA men, and famous author J.P. Donleavy. In descriptions of hilarity and heartbreak, Ireland Unhinged offers a look at modern Ireland, showing its dramatic changes and determination to hold on. Although Monagan describes the downfall of a once successful country, he leaves readers with a sense of hope, saying “somehow, I think Ireland will prevail again, because it must.”

– Katie McFadden
(300 pages/Council Oak books/ Kanbar & Conrad $28)

A Third Life: Sculptures for God, Country and Notre Dame

Jerry McKenna’s recently published memior prompts us to wonder, how does one make the transition from being a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force to becoming one of our country’s leading sculptors? A Third Life: Sculptures for God, Country and Notre Dame has the answer. Readers will know McKenna as the creator of bronze masterpieces that dot the United States and the world. His works are easily identifiable for their realism in form and attitude  (take, for instance, his famous renderings of Notre Dame football coaches being lifted by their players after a victory or counseling their teams mid-game). What many people might not know, however, is that McKenna (though always artistically inclined) didn’t  try his hand at sculpture until he was 42. The fact that he had already chosen a path, lived a life in the Air Force, didn’t stop him from  pursuing sculpture with passion and determination. This inspirational story, complete with pictures of McKenna and of his works at various stages in the artistic process, is a real treat.

– Sheila Langan
(177 pages / Haynes / $45.00)


The South Lawn Plot

With his debut novel, Ray O’Hanlon has placed himself somewhere between Dan Brown and Michael Connolly within the realm of suspense writing. O’Hanlon, editor of the newspaper The Irish Echo, has created a  thoroughly engaging plot that twists and turns and spans continents and centuries – from 15th century England to the present-day South Lawn of the White House. The South Lawn Plot opens with Nick Bailey, a seasoned tabloid reporter, getting the scoop on a most mysterious death: a priest has hanged himself from Blackfriars Bridge. As the mystery unfolds, the chances of this being a suicide quickly diminish and turn into something markedly more sinister, with implications for 10 Downing Street, the White House and the Catholic Church. Bailey makes for a likeable protagonist and is joined by a diverse and well developed cast of characters. O’Hanlon has formed a fascinating world of words; I look forward to his next one.                     

- Sheila Langan
(340 pages / Gemma Media / $24.95)


Celebrating 250 Years of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Not many people realize that the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade is older than the United States. But it’s true: the New York celebration of Ireland’s patron saint began in the 1760s, and  this year marks its 250th anniversary. In recognition, Quinnipiac University and the NYC St, Patrick’s Day Parade Committee have issued a special commemorative book. Celebrating 250 Years of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade tells the long and fascinating history  of the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration. An incredible collection of historic and more contemporary photographs mark the parade’s progress through the years and up 5th Avenue. Author John T. Ridge and editor Lynn Mosher Bushnell have created a treasure: turning through the pages, I was brought back to my childhood experiences of watching the parade, and the awe and pride it inspired. For anyone who has ever marched in the procession or braved the crowds for a glimpse of the bagpipers and societies, this book is a must.
– Sheila Langan
(146 p/Quinnipiac University Press / $49.95)


Children’s Literature

Irish Alphabet

Irish Alphabet, the second collaboration of writer Rickey E. Pittman and illustrator Connie McLennan, is an A-Z guide to Irish history and folklore for children. Each letter is represented by iconic figures and words, such as Molly Malone (M), Finn MacCool (F), the shamrock (S) and tea (T). Pittman’s stanzas for each letter are delightful, and McLennan’s illustrations are vivid and enchanting. Together they creatively give the twenty-six letters a distinctly Irish personality. Notable is the passage for the letter “X,” in which Pittman writes:
“There’s no letter X in Gaelic, / Except in borrowed words / And in the names of Irish towns, / Like Foxrock and Wexford.”
In response, McLennan depicts a map 
of Ireland with both towns marked with an “X.”
The last page of the book includes a mini-glossary, an alphabetical list of the thirty-two counties of the island of Ireland, and the lyrics to “Molly Malone.” For young readers, Irish Alphabet will be a stimulating introduction to Ireland.

–Kristin Romano
(32 pages/Pelican Publishing Company/$16.99)

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