Winter Reading Turns Green
By Martin Russell
Irish American Post Book/Poetry Editor
There is still plenty of time this winter to curl up with a good Gaelic-themed
book or one written by an Irish author. These are perfect for forgetting
the season’s frosty wind and snowdrifts pre-St. Patrick’s Day. Histories,
biographies, photo spreads, cookbooks and novels await. Don’t forget the
Country Girl: A Memoir by Edna O’Brien (Back Bay Books, paperback,
Distinguished novelist Edna O’Brien naturally starts from her beginning,
of course. Her birth. Breadmaking was the cause of it all with the sweet
smell of her own soda bread was the "beggeter of many a memory." So, well
primed at age 78, she sat down to write this fascinating overview of her
life of letters, loves and living at its fullest. She delves deeply into
what was important to her, whether it’s her love of Ireland, her family
or her writing. Her honest prose can be described as funny, tough and exciting,
with no holds barred. Her battles with the Church, critics and lovers are
worth the read. O’Brien wins them all. In the doing so, she captures the
hearts of her readers.
Black Lake by Johanna Lane (Little Brown & Company, 2014).
Johanna Lane grew up in Ireland and studied English literature at the
University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Moving Stateside, she earned an
MFA from Columbia University and never stopped writing. Black Lake relates
the experiences of the Campbells of Dulough, as they weave the tenuous
bonds of family ritual even in the face of tragedy. She paints a vivid
portrait of rural Ireland in a simple, spare style that sparks imagination
and leaves readers hoping for more. She does her best with descriptions
of childhood and the promise it holds.
All That Is Solid Melts into the Air by Darragh McKeon (HarperPerennial,
A native of the Irish midlands, first-time novelist Darrah McKeon tackles
the horrors of the Chernobyl nuclear accident disaster, one of the world’s
most horrific environmental disasters. His gripping tale relates how a
young and old residents of the region try to make sense of the terrible
doings around them, as they watch their world fall apart. McKeon, born
in 1979, is a graduate of the University College Cork and a theater director.
He has worked with Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Royal Court in London and
Rough Magic Theater in Ireland. McKeon’s lyric prose as evidenced in All
That Is Solid is guaranteed to earn him a dedicated fan following.
He said he was inspired by Colum McCann’s Dancer, where "reading
a Dubliner write about a Russian ballet dancer gave me permission to take
on a subject that was so distant from my own experience."
Tommy: The Gun That Changed America by Karen Blumenthal (Roaring
Brook Press, 2015).
Historical Karen Blumenthal tells of the invention, development and
evolution of the Thompson submachine gun. While much of the book describes
how the weapon came about, it also touches on plenty of Irish links, including
from mobsters and revolutionaries. The weapon, developed by John T. Thompson
(hence the "Tommy" gun), was funded in large part by Thomas Fortune Ryan,
son of Irish immigrants. Former U.S. Army officers turned weapons-runners
James Dineen and Patrick Cronin were among the first to smuggle the Tommy
gun into Ireland during the revolt against the British, with others bringing
in these weapons during the Irish Civil War -- all of which were used to
good advantage, depending upon which side one was on. Blumenthal also relates
the gun’s use by Irish gangsters such as Bugs Moran and Dean O’Banion.
is a quick, easy-to-read volume for action lovers.
Mark Sullivan (Minatour Books, 2015).
Boston-born Sullivan was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa,
after college graduation. He then attended the Medill School of Journalism
at Northwestern University and launched a long career as an award-winning
journalist. Thief is his eighth novel, most of which are mysteries,
in a hard core detective genre that probably has roots as an avid extreme
skier and martial artist. Hero Robin Monarch is a former CIA agent who
has become the world’s most skilled thief. He breaks into the home of one
of the world’s richest men for the largest score of his life, but his shot
and wounded in the attempt. Subsequently, Monarch needs to confront where
he is going in his life. He is spurred on by the devotion of a devoted
nun friend, to whom he contributes much of his stolen gains to help her
orphanage, but not to her knowledge. Helping a group of scientists pursuing
the "secret of life" in the Brazilian jungle, Monarch fights off the bad
guys going for the same end. In his rough, tough prose, Sullivan scores
high grades for adventure thrills. True to life, Sullivan lives in Montana
where he can continue skiing and revel in the outdoors along with his wife,
Betsy and sons Connor and Bridger.
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Andrew O’Hagan has captured numerous writing awards for his detailed
tales of characters who need to confront their past while edging into a
tenuous future. In The Illuminations, referring to Blackpool’s annual
holiday light spectacle, an elderly Anne Quirk tries to recapture the dreams
of her youth as a noted photographer. Her beloved grandson, Luke, a captain
in the British army, returns from another tour in Afghanistan after a horrible
battlefield tragedy in the desert, and helps her grasp the past. Poignant,
funny, thrilling - O’Hagan brings his skills to the fore, both in telling
how loss of memory can be dealt with gently, as well as highlighting the
crazy din of battle. Of Irish Catholic heritage, O’Hagan is a Scottish
novelist whose works have been translated into numerous languages. He is
also an editor-at-large of Esquire and the London Review of Books.
The Thing About December by Donal Ryan (Steerforth Press,
Month by month throughout year, the slow, deliberate Johnsey Cunliffe
needs to deal with bullies, the death of his parents and other ongoing
absurdities of life. His grasp of the familiar fades quickly after he inherits
the family farm and he begins a slow into despair and fear. Even the promise
of love doesn’t pan out and by December, Johnsey’s inner demons are raging
full force. Ryan delivers great doses of humanity to this gentle soul,
a troubled young man incapable of dealing with his surrounding world -
no matter how hard he tries. Ryan’s novel is a true tour de force
in contemporary Irish writing. His first novel, The Spinning Heart," won
two Irish Book Awards and The Guardian’s First Book Award. He lives
with his family near Limerick City.
Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Black Cat Press, 2014).
The scene is fictional town of Glanbeigh, facing the demise of the
Celtic Tiger. Its young residents are driftless, not knowing what an unpredictable
hardscrabble future holds for them. In dealing with an economic crash that
has devastated their lives, their lives begin a slow spiral downhill. Colin
Barrett paints a bleak picture of modern Ireland’s dark side; yet his characters
keep trying muddle through it all. Sometimes comic, sometimes melancholy,
Skins touches the heart, as well as the mind. This story is about sorrow,
adventure, longing, engagements, bar fights, alcohol, self-destruction
and happiness. Hey, isn’t that just like adolescence, whether in reality
May the Road Rise to Meet You by Peter Troy (Doubleday, 2012).
This book popped up out of the to-read pile, demanding to finally be
savored for its style, vim and detail. Peter Troy relates four epic stories
covering the Irish émigré experience from Famine of the 1840s
through the bloody conclusion of the American Civil War. Hero Ethan McOwen
is one of the first recruits into the famed Irish Brigade and eventually
becomes a noted photographer. Other characters are woven in and out of
his life in a seamless narrative. Troy has been a journalist, which shows
in his skillful use of words and history, as wells as being a high school
teacher in New York state.
A Greater Ireland: The Land League and Transatlantic Nationalism
in Gilded Age America by Ely M. Janis (The University of Wisconsin
Ely M. Janis is an associate professor of history at the Massachusetts
College of Liberal Arts. As Janis points out, the Land League, founded
in 1879, provided the Irish enough power to pressure the British to reform
the landholding system and permit a modicum of self-rule. The author does
a fine job, although one that is academically intense, on exploring the
links between nationalism, politics, gender and class - especially as Irish
carry their cause to the New World.