Review of Books
A selection of recently published books of Irish and Irish American interest.
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
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
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)
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