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Review of Books

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Fiction


It is rare for a first-time novelist to tackle historical events in as refreshing a manner as Patricia Falvey does in The Yellow House. Falvey, born in Newry, Co. Down where her story is situated, immigrated to the States at twenty. Leaving a career at PricewaterhouseCoopers to pursue writing, her debut novel shows a mastery of craft lacking from much of today’s fiction.

Beginning with a dramatic end to a family’s well-being, we are introduced to protagonist Eileen. Her father has been killed in a fire and her mother has run off with her brother Frankie. Eileen, strong-willed and fiery, moves on with her youngest brother to work and eventually restore the yellow house and her life. Falvey controls the story, weaving her characters through the First World War and the Troubles, allowing the characters to be the masters of their own fate rather than falling back on history to guide the plot. Eileen is torn between her instinctive rebelliousness to join the revolutionary cause in Ireland and her new growing wisdom. Readers will be inclined to gluttonously scarf down this novel in one sitting as I did. Take your time reading The Yellow House, you’ll be sad to see the last page.
– Tara Dougherty (352 pages / Center Street / $21.99)

National Book Award finalist Thomas Lynch came forth this February with Apparition & Late Fictions, a novella and four short stories colored by death and set largely in Michigan, where Lynch’s experience as a funeral director has informed his meditations on human experience and the natural world.

While the unfolding of events and emotional developments in the stories sometimes feel contrived, as in “Catch and Release,” about a son coming to terms with his father’s death on a solo fishing trip, the overall effect of Lynch’s spare and straightforward narrative is haunting and satisfying. “Matinee de Septembre,” in which a widowed professor becomes increasingly bewitched during a retreat at Mackinac Island by her surroundings and their inhabitants, is an eerie and successful variation on Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice.

The novella in the book, Apparition, is the story of a pastor who achieves success in the public eye by writing a self-help book on his divorce, and Lynch manages to craft it with elements of both deep cynicism and touching naiveté. 
– Kara Rota (216 pages / W.W. Norton & Co. / $24.95)

In Double Happiness, a collection of delicately crafted short stories that are simultaneously beautiful and deeply sad, author Mary-Beth Hughes has captured emotional catastrophes and small joys that span time and place. In the title story, recently widowed Ann McCleary takes one of her six young children to the Dairy Queen. When the boy’s sister Kathleen demands an explanation and Ann tells her the boy is sad, Kathleen replies, “We’re all sad,” in an ultimatum that rings true throughout the stories contained in Double Happiness.

From “Pelican Song,” about a grown daughter unable to extricate her mother from a life of domestic abuse that she has repeatedly chosen, to “Rome,” about a young girl becoming increasingly party to her father’s infidelities, the stories often revolve around the devastating theme of children suffering for the indiscretions of the grown-ups that surround them and dictate their realities.
– Kara Rota (148 pages / Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. / $15.00)

Simultaneously a thriller, mystery and romance, Darling Jim began when author Christian Moerk found an old newspaper clipping describing the mysterious murders of three sisters and their aunt in their suburban Dublin home. Moerk decided to transform the gruesome event into an otherworldly love tale, weaving the tradition of Irish storytelling into his characters’ lives as well as his own narrative.

Beginning in the coastal town of Malahide, the novel delves head on into the horrific discovery of the corpses. However, only two of the sisters’ bodies are found. The third Walsh sister, Fiona, has vanished, leaving in her wake a diary that tells of an intense romance that is far from over. To complicate matters, the local mailman discovers the diary just as an alluring stranger, Jim, shows up in town. The Walsh sisters are strong enough to resist Jim’s charms, but are they in too deep when they begin to uncover his past?

Moerk keeps the mystery going by slowly unfolding the story through entries from the sisters’ diaries. With rich, detailed language that envelops the reader from the first page, Moerk’s unique spin on Irish mythology combines the grisly with the magical for a suspenseful read.
– Aliah O’Neill (288 pages / Holt Paperbacks / $15.00)

Larry Kirwan, frontman of Black 47 and author of Green Suede Shoes, returns with Rockin’ the Bronx, another story of the Irish experience in America, this time through the eyes of Sean Kelly, a recent immigrant who comes to the Bronx in search of his girlfriend Mary. What he finds, based on Kirwan’s lurid descriptions, is an urban wasteland: the Irish stronghold on Bainbridge Avenue is barely a comfort in this utterly bizarre landscape, full of garbage, crime, and violence. Kirwan’s choice to set the novel in the early 80s increases the general tension of the story; among the novel’s many tribulations are the death of Bobby Sands, the destitution of drug addiction, and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, all amid the struggle to survive in a place far from its idyllic status across the Atlantic.

Kirwan’s language is dense, rich and frenzied, mirroring Sean’s naïveté and stubborn inability to cope with the hard facts of Bainbridge Avenue, where the promise of a drink is a temporary escape from the outside world. The characters surrounding Sean are necessarily hardened by Bronx life, full of secrets and indiscretion, yet their complexities grow as Sean matures, revealing fragile personalities and murky pasts. While Sean’s love for Mary endlessly transforms in its definition, his devotion to his friends becomes fiercely strong. Stringing it all together is music, which propels Sean to work out his troubles through songwriting and gives the language of the novel an ever-changing rhythm, recording the cacophony of the city in an explosion of sound and feeling.
– Aliah O’Neill (276 pages / Brandon Books / $19.95)

Nonfiction


James P. Cantrell takes on the task of dissecting the tradition of Southern American literature and examining its Celtic roots. His How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature brings readers into a literary examination of Scottish, Welsh and Irish culture as it pertains to the South and its presence in the prose of that region. A native of Warren County, Tennessee, Cantrell puts his Ph.D. in American literature to good use in his work of literary criticism which proves to be a concise and useful tool for any student or enthusiast of Southern literature.

Exploring the Tennessee mountain cultures, the Civil War era and all the great Southern authors and those you might not have thought of, Cantrell’s work argues exactly what its title suggests in an insightful and complete way. Picking away at what has become the dominant idea of Southern culture as an offshoot from a strictly English milieu, Cantrell looks deeply into the influence of Celtic cultures on the South and the surfacing of that culture in the most famed contributions to Southern literature. From Gone with the Wind through to more contemporary works, Cantrell dedicates entire chapters to exploring the religious influences of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh as well as familial constructs and language. The book reads not as a list of writers or as yet another attempt to reinvent Faulkner, but as a careful look into a cultural movement underscoring this genre of fiction.
– Tara Dougherty (288 pages / Pelican Publishing Co. / $29.95 )

Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is an ode to traditional recipes and cooking skills that have been lost in recent generations with the onslaught of modern-day conveniences and mass production in the food industry. Growing up in County Tipperary, Allen learned how to forage for food, cook seasonally, and raise animals for the table, all skills that she explains thoroughly in this well-organized cookbook. The book is divided into sections such as fish, eggs, dairy, bread, vegetables and preserving, each with beautiful color photographs picturing the delectable dishes.

Allen’s instructions are clear and simple to match the spirit of her mission: to inspire the younger generations to reconnect with the food traditions of their grandparents. We often think of cooking from scratch as time-consuming, but Allen sees it as a labor of love—the joy in knowing that you preserved your own fruit for jam or gathered greens from your own garden for a salad is worth the work. With cakes and breads that are often named after loved ones from Allen’s childhood, the cookbook has a warm and personal feel as though it is being handed down to the reader like another family recipe. Forgotten Skills of Cooking is not only a recipe book but a guide to being more connected to your food, a tradition that is surprisingly modern in the era of “green living.”
– Aliah O’Neill (600 pages / Kyle Books / $40.00)

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