WINTER/SPRING 2015 / VOL. 15 ISSUE 1
Book Reviews

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 hot toddies.


Country Girl: A Memoir by Edna O’Brien (Back Bay Books, paperback, 2014). 
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, 2014).
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. Tommy is a quick, easy-to-read volume for action lovers.


Thief by 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, 2015).
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, 2014).
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, Young 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 or imagined?


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 Press, 2015).
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.
 
 


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