"Byron in Love" by Edna O'Brien
Edna O’Brien is best known for her provocative novels which, over a span of nearly five decades, have broken daring ground all across the world, but particularly in Ireland, where she was banned before she was beloved.
But O’Brien’s latest book is not another novel. Instead, it is a second short biography of a radical artist. This, naturally, is a good fit for O’Brien.
A few years ago, O’Brien wrote a biography of James Joyce, a writer she has said she still reads every day. It is understandable why O’Brien would see Joyce as an interesting subject. Not only was Joyce the most influential writer of the 20th century, he was also censored in his homeland – just like O’Brien.
O’Brien’s latest venture into biography is a powerful exploration of the life and times of the Romantic British poet Lord Byron entitled “Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life.” This might not seem as natural a fit as Joyce for O’Brien. That is, until you look at the details of Byron’s life a little more closely.
Seen by some as the world’s first literary rock star, “Byron in Love” focuses closely on his hedonistic side, particularly his seemingly endless appetite for sex. He grew up in London with an ill mother and absent father. He shot to literary fame at the age of 24. As O’Brien makes clear, Byron had, to say the least, a lust for life. He continued writing, but also participated in wars of revolution in Greece and Italy. He was also a notorious lover (and not only of women). Given all of this, it’s easy to forget Byron was also one of the great poets of the 18th century Romantic movement that produced the likes of Shelley, Keats, Blake and Wordsworth.
Readers of “Byron in Love” will come away understanding that Byron was a figure who captured his era’s political, sexual and artistic currents. In a way, he sounds like a character out of an O’Brien novel.
Of course, like many a rock star, part of Byron’s long-lasting appeal rests in the fact that he died young. He died when he was just 36, after becoming ill while fighting in Greece.
O’Brien has clearly found a kindred spirit in Lord Byron. “Byron in Love” shows that O’Brien is not only a great novelist, but also a brilliant interpreter of literary life.
$24.95 / 240 pages / W.W. Norton
"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann
Following two novels about different kinds of artists (“Dancer” and “Zoli”), acclaimed novelist Colum McCann widens his lens with a new novel “Let the Great World Spin.” McCann channels the American novelist Don DeLillo in the new book’s opening scene. We get a breathless, microscopic panorama of downtown Manhattan as the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit makes his famous walk between the Twin Towers. Then, McCann takes us on a frenetic tour of New York in the 1970s, when the city was much more gritty than gleaming.
At the center of this book are two Irish brothers who settle amidst the prostitutes and violence of the Bronx. But McCann’s book contains a chorus of voices. We also meet a group of mothers from very different parts of the city who are bound by one simple fact: they have lost sons in Vietnam. This storyline has particular resonance in this day and age, as American mothers continue to lose sons and daughters in the Middle East.
McCann’s vision of New York is ecstatic, almost mystic, in this ambitious book. “Let the Great World Spin” may not quite measure up to “Dancer,” but is a disturbingly good read just the same. What “Let the Great World Spin” does show is that Colum McCann remains one of the most interesting fiction writers working today.
$25 / 349 pages / Random House
"Commencement" by J. Courtney Sullivan
One of the most talked-about debut novels of the summer is J. Courtney Sullivan’s “Commencement.” Sullivan’s book takes the reader through the different perspectives of four young women at Sullivan’s own alma mater, Smith College, and into the first few years of their adult lives beyond. Thus, she has drawn comparisons to fellow Irish Catholic author Mary McCarthy: many say “Commencement” is “The Group” for a new generation of American women. Gloria Steinem claims that: “’Commencement’ makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning,” but Sullivan’s four heroines struggle throughout the novel with different and often contradictory ideas about what it means to be a feminist, a friend, and a young woman in 21st century America.