May 31, 2010

Book 28: This Charming Man

This Charming Man
Marian Keyes

It is easy to dismiss books aimed at a female audience as chick-lit fluff, and I admit that I was ready to wave this book off despite its being named of the the Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards 50 Books of the Decade. Though many familiar chick-lit elements are present in This Charming Man, there is a far greater depth to this novel, which is, ultimately, about power. Using a pattern of horrific domestic violence as her core theme, Marian Keyes offers portraits of four very different women, each told in a distinct style. By doing this, Keyes reveals not only the most private thought of these women, and therefore their reasons for becoming enamored with the charming man of the title, but also her own range and talents. From a slightly ditzy stylist's stilted journal entries to a seasoned journalist's fluent cynical sarcasm to heavily personal third-person narration, Keyes effectively uses language to build her protagonists and by allowing each to tell her story allows the book to resonate very powerfully. The book's intimate portrayal of severe, self-feeding anxiety and alcoholism is absolutely riveting, a perfect depiction of a relentlessly self-critical and over-analyzing mind.

The book is not, however, all doom and gloom and indeed carries quite a sense of humor. Various running jokes prevent the book's dark moments- which are occasionally pitch-black- from becoming overwhelming and act to demonstrate the discovery that humor is never entirely gone (except, of course, when it actually is). The book, despite creating four powerful and realistic lead characters, can, however, drag at times, often opting for a slow reveal rather than offering relevant information more directly. It quickly becomes obvious that the book is about domestic violence, and there is no need to prolong several big reveals for as long as the book does; most readers will have figured out the most important "secrets" long before they are revealed (though Keyes very effectively deploys one giant red herring). Another large, plot-thickening event comes so entirely out of the blue that it strains credibility, being so inexplicably out of (thoroughly developed) character. Love stories are also easily predicted; though there is enough heart and good writing to sustain the novel, it drags on somewhat longer than it should in its denouement and cannot be in any way considered a narrative trailblazer.

This Charming Man is an odd concoction. It reads alternately as a traditional chick-lit story, a journalism-fueled mystery/thriller, and a stream-of-consciousness character exploration. It has bone-chilling depictions of violence and an army of rural Irish crossdressers. It is, then, perhaps an outstanding reflection of reality in some of its myriad facets. Despite some missteps in plotting, Marian Keyes puts her talents on display in depicting and successfully juggling the stories of four compelling modern women caught in the brambles of ages-old patriarchy. Add to this a slight hint of satire and This Charming Man becomes much more than the standard chick-lit fare; this book is a powerful novel that is, despite its stunningly realistic take on a very real problem, fun and edifying to read.

Grade: A-

May 28, 2010

Book 27: A Star Called Henry

A Star Called Henry
Roddy Doyle

Having heard of the author of this book, I decided to read this wide-spanning work of historical fiction that begins a trilogy tracing the personal history of Henry Smart from, thus far, the streets of the Dublin slums to the ranks of the IRA. Doyle uses the powerful narrative voice of Smart to evoke a first-hand view of some of the worst neighborhoods in Europe and to present an alternative, less nationalistic, view of the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence. Henry's voice may at times seem a bit more sophisticated than his self-reported upbringing would imply, but it is full of joyful cynicism and skepticism and more often than not rings true as he brings readers through important historical points in Irish history. There is a hint of magical realism to the book but it balances nicely with the harsh reality portrayed, actually grounding the book by remaining consistent with the way Henry must see things. the most egregious of the fantastic elements occur with Henry's grandmother, but she arises seldom enough that the oddity doesn't become overwhelming or unnecessarily distracting.

Doyle seems to have a firm grasp on history, but unfortunately goes a bit too far in inserting Henry into contemporary events- putting him in the GPO during the Rising makes sense, but making him the protegé of James Connolly less so. Nonetheless, Doyle is able, through Henry, to make keen observations about the Irish wars and, indeed, larger patterns of violence and social class. A Star Called Henry is not, however, a plot-driven novel, and it finds most of its narrative momentum in Henry's accelerated growth. Henry is complex and fascinating, full of anger and resentment but at the same time naturally intelligent and very intuitive. Roddy Doyle is able to bend Henry's language nicely, giving the novel a distinct feel and creating very vivid portrayals of the complex emotions wrought by rough historical waters. A Star Called Henry is a remarkable, personal, and accessible history of Ireland's growing pains juxtaposed with those of an unforgettable angry young man.

Grade: A

May 24, 2010

Book 26: The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009

The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009
Edited by Mike Cronin, William Murphy, and Paul Rouse

It has been a longstanding ambition of mine to see a hurling match, and I decided to take advantage of the greater number of books available on the subject here in Ireland to familiarize myself with native Irish sports. I turned to The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 as an academically slanted collective history of the organization that oversees the Irish games, choosing the book primarily because of its recent publication. The name, however, is a bit misleading, as the chronological coverage of the volume ends, for the most part, far before the present state of the games. Nor is this book particularly good as an all-around, basic introduction. With its essays concerning very specific facets of the Gaelic Athletic Association's presence in, and effect on, Ireland, The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 fulfills the promise of its own introduction by prompting further academic debate, assuming basic familiarity with the history of the GAA and some of its social aspects. By this standard, however, the book largely succeeds in presenting well-argued, thoroughly researched, and generally readable chapters on a good variety of aspects of the organization. Background essays on the history of sport in Ireland are excellent, particularly Richard Holt's illuminating essay on the context of American and Continental sports against which the GAA originally developed in the late nineteenth century, nicely complicated by Dónal McAnallen's essay on the amateurism within the Irish sports. Also intriguing are essays offering competing views on the association's effect on, and concern with, outside political and historical events and attitudes, solidifying the book's academic credentials. The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009 may be slightly mis-titled, but it nonetheless provides a solid intellectual basis on which to consider the history of Gaelic sports in Ireland.

Grade: A-

May 21, 2010

Book 25: Winterwood

Patrick McCabe

As the winner of the 2007 Irish novel of the year award, Winterwood comes with a set of expectations, though it's difficult to explain what, exactly, lies behind this book. McCabe used an erratic, unreliable narrator for his book which, while initially disorienting, gives the story a certain air of mystery that echoes its thematic journey into the depths of grief. This is not, however, a mournful novel- McCabe and his narrator take matters into their own hands and chart a rather twisted path through the rough "outlands" of madness. The book maintains a strong connection to its Irish setting, exploring the impact of folk myths on the modern country, and portraying a sense of a haunted culture. Redmond Hatch's journeys away from and back to his old mountain home are framed uneasily by narratives that waltz through time as McCabe reveals the backstory piece by painstaking piece. A lack of certainty may frustrated some readers, but as the book progresses it becomes increasingly clear that this haphazard construction is, in fact, another facet of the story, which upon reflection is rendered quite thoroughly by the uneasy narration. Winterwood is a far from concrete novel that looks at madness and loss and leaves the question open whether we can ever fully escape our past.

Grade: A-

May 19, 2010

Book 24: And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is a legend in the world of mystery for a very good reason- her imagination is incredibly inventive in this classic twist on the locked room mystery. The story opens with a series of brief sketches of the main cast, handy to refer back to later, as they converge upon Indian Island, to which they have been summoned (mysteriously, of course) from a variety of half-known acquaintances. The story unfolds from there as the guests, each of whom harbors a dark secret from their past, are murdered one-by-one in line with the words of a children's nursery rhyme. Christie's prose is straightforward and tells the story without distracting embellishments, moving swiftly from frame to frame without losing the reader. Her characters, despite a discouraging tendency to notice how things are "just like in books", adapt to the situation at hand and adopt an amusing rapport. Indeed, the dark humor in this book (usually at the expense of its characters) comes as a pleasant surprise and itself produces an interesting reaction in the reader when juxtaposed with very inventive modes of murder.

And Then There Were None employs a strange sort of suspense, for the ending is more or less exposed by the title. The fun comes from observing the increasing levels of paranoia exhibited by the colorful characters and in following their reasoning while attempting to pull the pieces of the puzzle together. The inevitable Big Reveal puts a philosophical twist on things while inviting a second, closer reading and speaking to the efforts employed in attempting to figure the mystery out. But within this starkly humorous story there lurks a philosophical examination of justice and of culpability. Christie weaves in a bit of deeper thinking without burdening the story, and at the end the book's various elements come together seamlessly, the author's ingenuity on grand display. And Then There Were None is a dark, funny look at justice and human nature that is a great mystery but, more importantly, a highly entertaining little book.

Grade: A

May 16, 2010

Book 23: Good Omens

Good Omens
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Being vaguely familiar with each of these authors, but not wanting to get sucks into a series, I was happy to stumble upon this hilarious collaborative effort which, to boot, features an excellent sending-up of the traditional Christian apocalypse. Starting rather strong, Good Omens is a satisfying, often laugh-out-loud book that contains some sharply pointed barbs aimed directly at Christianity while delivering an interesting, mile-a-minute story. For beginners, the collaborative effect of the book is seamless- despite the occasional over-the-top showmanship, the book reads as the work of one coherent generative force, consistent in style throughout. The English humor adds a layer of depth to the book but may trip up some Americans; it does not, however, detract from the novel but rather serves to place it in a firm geographical context.

The story is fairly strong, though the book is best read in as few sittings as possible. Through many section breaks and distinct narrative threads, characters and plots multiply quickly and may be forgotten in the crowd. This speaks to a decline of quality in the book's second half, where the plot becomes a bit too odd and convoluted, with the accompanying jokes feeling far more forced than in the book's more successful opening. Regardless, Good Omens is fun throughout, and the post-climax wrap-up brings it back around to its previous good form after a few plot missteps in the final climactic buildup. The book features among its delightfully named cast the Antichrist as an eleven-year-old and several humans humorously involved in the world of magic, but none can compare to the wonderful angel/demon duo who drive the entire narrative- and who strike comedic gold time and again, inducing fits of laughter nearly every time they appear. Good Omens contains enough glorious moments and spot-on satirical observations that it is, overall, a fun and satisfying book.

Grade: A-

May 13, 2010

Book 22: The Course of Irish History

The Course of Irish History
Edited by T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin

I decided, prior to and during my departure for the Emerald Isle, to read up on Irish history, complicated and controversial as it is, and The Course of Irish History was recommended to me as a thorough and relatively unbiased account. Editors Moody and Martin have put together a comprehensive collection of historical essays that, all told, create an intelligent and pleasantly readable history of the tumultuous island. There is the expected variation of quality amongst the essays, but each appears to be written by an expert in the time period, lending the volume intellectual depth throughout. Additionally, the project coheres incredibly well, and aside from a few spelling inconsistencies across chapters, reads as a singularly conceived and executed history rather than as a selection of essays. Each essay naturally builds and expands upon the ideas in preceding chapters and, generally speaking, the authors are aware of the overall aims and scope of the project. This ensures that a sense of balance and focus is maintained throughout the book, broken only in the final three chapters (which were, in fairness, each added in revised in expanded editions), which occasionally stray into the unnecessarily specific.

Regardless, The Course of Irish History is readable and informative for both scholars and those simply interested in, well, the course of Irish history. With its essays presenting a variety of perspectives, particularly the later chapters that address the divergent, yet intimately connected, histories of Northern Ireland and the Republic, this book provides a full and remarkably even story with intellectual integrity and easy prose. The Course of Irish History is an excellent introduction to the story of Ireland for those with limited preexisting knowledge as well as providing a useful jumping-off point for future study.

Grade: A

May 3, 2010

Book 21: The Living Great Lakes

The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas
Jerry Dennis

As I will shortly be leaving for Ireland, I decided to read about a subject very close to home: HOMES, or the Great Lakes. Though told with a somewhat uneasy combination of science, memoir, and history, The Living Great Lakes presents a loving homage to some of the planet's most astonishing (and perhaps under-appreciated) natural features. I remember once asking my mom why, if Lake Michigan was indeed a lake, I couldn't see Wisconsin from Grand Haven; she replied that the lake is almost as wide as Indiana. It's impossible to think of these lakes in any traditional framework, a fact that Dennis makes clear time and again throughout the book, particularly when he elicits the opinions of long-time oceangoing sailors who hadn't been on the Great Lakes before- the hardened salts are uniformly amazed at the power of these inland bodies. Dennis recounts these and other facts with a gushing sense of pride that borders between sincerity and self-aggrandizement; he is guilty of the latter particularly when mentioning time and again his lifelong credentials from living near the lake. It is, however, clear that the book is a labor of love, and his feelings for the lakes and the environment drive the book and serve to connect its sometimes straining threads of narrative.

The heart of the book is the oft-interrupted story of a journey from Traverse City to Maine, through the bottom four lakes, the Erie canal, and the Atlantic Ocean aboard a sailing ship. This story itself is fascinating, though non-sailors would benefit from a small glossary of jargon that is alternately defined condescendingly within the text or left ambiguous for non-sailors. Unfortunately, this narrative becomes increasingly tired as the text wears on, penetrated more often and for longer periods by side narratives that often appear out of nowhere and bear no discernible relation to the narrative framing it. Each chapter is at its head divided into constituent parts (a la Democracy in America), but within the text itself these divisions are ambiguous and often confusing, as they leap back and forth in time without a discernible anchor. Aside from a few uninteresting asides (particularly the repetitive environmental studies, which certainly have their place but are presented in a disjointed manner that makes Dennis come across as annoying), background information and even unrelated stories from Dennis's own experiences intersect well with the main sailing story and do provide a comprehensive, multi-layered view of the Great Lakes region.

The strength of The Living Great Lakes is its scope, as Dennis as narrator/memoirist eventually becomes tiresome. His forays into the geological, economic, political, and environmental history of the Great Lakes may not always be well integrated, but combine well to make the book an excellent introduction/love song to the area. Passion shines through every word of this book, for both better and worse, and the book is enjoyable for its thoughtfulness and for the very earnestness that sometimes sinks the prose under its own weight. Particularly informative are early chapters on Lakes Michigan and Superior, those with which Dennis is most familiar and whose identities are most strongly connected with Michigan. Historical asides on explorers such as La Salle and tributes to the many victims of intricately described weather patterns (such as the famous Edmund Fitzgerald) find a home amidst personal narrative, scientific exploration, and political pronouncement. The voyage of The Living Great Lakes can get a bit bumpy with a lack of clear transitions and some repetitive content, but it is nonetheless a moving testament to these powerful bodies of water that so thoroughly define the land and people they touch.

Grade: B+