Recently published books of Irish and Irish American interest.
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The Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game
Dan Barry, renowned New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, saw something in the longest game in the history of professional baseball: that it was about much more than baseball. It was an April 1981 Triple A minor league game between the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. With a tied score of 2-2, the game continued until 4:00 a.m. on a cold Easter Sunday. A misprint in the 1981 Minor League Handbook had excluded the guidelines for games that went into excessive overtime, so the teams played on until the Red Sox managers finally contacted the league president, who advised them to pause the game. It resumed in July and finally ended after 33 grueling innings. Barry does much more than relay the facts of the record-setting game, he gets to the heart of it. From the first page, when his narrative slowly zooms in on the quiet town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island and settles on the decrepit, depression-era McCoy Stadium, Barry begins to build a stunning panorama of a baseball game, a moment in history, and all the lives involved.
Though ostensibly about baseball, The Bottom of the 33rd is also about America. Barry sees beyond, for example, the announcer’s calling of the players’ names: “If Drew had rattled off the birthplaces of each player, rather than their names, he would have sung an anthem of the Americas…From the mill towns of New England to the suburbs of the Pacific Coast; from the housing projects of the Midwest to the sugar-cane fields of the Caribbean: a ballad of bus fumes and ambition.”
But it isn’t just the ballplayers. Barry overlooks no one: the team owners and managers, the Pawtucket Coach Joe Morgan (of later Boston fame), down to the bat boy, the clubhouse manager, and the brave few attendees who lasted in the stands through the cold night and morning. A masterful storyteller, he deftly decides when to tell and when to hold back what is already known to history. The fate of Wade Boggs the third baseman for Pawtucket? Those not quite as familiar with the baseball greats of the 1980s learn early on that he will make it to the major league. And what of Dave Koza, the PawSox’s first baseman, “baseball old” at age 26 and dying for a real chance in the majors? Not until the very end do we find out what became of Koza – who would likely be the main character if it could be said that this collage of a book had one – and what became of many of the other people brought together that night. The research this must have involved and the empathy Barry has for each individual is astounding and makes for a wholly engrossing and affecting book – for lovers of baseball and lovers of literature alike.
– Sheila Langan (288 pages / Harper Collins / $26.99)
Those who read to escape reality, to immerse themselves in a fictional world more interesting and more exciting than their own, probably won’t be very taken by Bullfighting, Roddy Doyle’s second collection of short stories. Unless, that is, they happen to find something particularly exotic in the everyday lives and inner-most thoughts of thirteen middle-aged, middle-class Dublin men.
Famous for realistically, humorously, and empathetically chronicling the lives of often overlooked Dubliners in novels like The Commitments, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and the Booker prize winning Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, Doyle now turns his attention to fathers and husbands of a certain age, quietly puzzling over or simply going about their lives. Some of them, like Hanahoe in “Recuperation,” have lost track of things. On his daily walks up the highway for exercise (doctor’s orders following a brief, unexplained health scare) he wonders when and how things got so bad between him and his wife without him even noticing. Others, like George in “Animals,” obliquely question their purpose now that the kids are grown and out of the house. But others, like the narrator of the final story, “Sleep,” are – more or less – content, “shockingly happy” even, by what life has brought them. Doyle explores these states of mind and being without the slightest trace of sentimentality or unwarranted cliché. The stories are not the most exciting or action-filled, but then, neither, for the most part, is life. Bullfighting is all the more important and moving for that very honesty and plainness
– Sheila Langan (215 pages / Viking / $25.95)
Set in modern-day Dublin, Maeve Binchy’s Minding Frankie chronicles Noel Lynch’s dramatically changing life as he learns that a former fling is pregnant with his child and is dying of lung cancer. Though struggling with alcoholism, Noel takes custody of the little girl, Frankie, and with the help of his American cousin Emily, builds a support system of family, friends and neighbors all willing to help watch Frankie. The only person not happy with these arrangements is Moira Tierney, the social worker in charge of Frankie’s case, who believes the little girl would be better off in foster care. Here, Binchy explores how everyone in a community can positively contribute, as Noel and his neighbors work to disprove Moira’s belief that a “proper” home consists of a mom and a dad: sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child.
Binchy deftly creates an intriguing and diverse cast of characters, from problem-solving Cousin Emily to the uptight social worker, Moira. True to current events, Binchy does not shy away from Ireland’s economic troubles and their influence on the lives of several people in the novel. Though it may take new readers a while to figure out who’s who, loyal Binchy fans will recognize some of these characters from previous works.
With a nice balance of hilarious, poignant and everyday moments, Minding Frankie is the perfect book for a leisurely spring weekend.
– Kristin Romano (383 pages / Knopf / $26.95)
With the publication of her debut novel, Commencement, in 2009, J. Courtney Sullivan adeptly proved her ability to inhabit multiple consciousnesses simultaneously, slipping easily between the narratives of different women whose disparate perspectives are often at odds with one another but voiced with equal depth and sympathy. Sullivan exercises this skill again in Maine, a delectable beach read as vast and sprawling in scope as the Kellehers’ three-acre family property it details. Won by Daniel, the deceased head of the family, in a poker game six decades before the book opens, the Kelleher summer home is still at the mercy of the fates and the family matriarch, Alice, who takes to heart the letters that Daniel carved into a tree at the fork of the road leading to the cottage: A.H., Alice’s house. But Alice’s prodigal daughter Kathleen; daughter-in-law Ann Marie, whose perfectionism is channeled into a cleverly conveyed obsession with dollhouses; and granddaughter Maggie, struggling to carve out a functional adulthood amidst heartbreak and disappointment; all stake their own claims on the Kelleher house as well as on the family history of alcoholism, tragedy, dark secrets and Catholic guilt that persists through generations. In Maine, Sullivan explores with grace, depth and good humor what it means to belong to an Irish-American family.
– Kara Rota (386 pages / Knopf / $25.95)
The Linen Queen
Following her highly praised debut novel, The Yellow House, comes Patricia Falvey’s second work of historical fiction, The Linen Queen. Falvey, who grew up in Northern Ireland, uses her knowledge of history and the area to tell the story of Sheila McGee, a young woman who dreams of escaping her small-town life as a mill worker in County Armagh.
Initially, I found it difficult to like Sheila. Her self-centered personality comes though strongly as she makes it her goal to get the attention she believes she deserves. For a while, the beautiful girl receives that attention as she is crowned the town’s Linen Queen, the face and spokeswoman of the millworkers. After receiving prize money for this honor, Sheila is ready to make her escape to a new life in England, but her plans change as the world is turned upside down by the events of World War II.
Ever focused on her goal, Sheila sees potential in the arrival of the American troops. She attracts Joel Solomon, a Jewish-American army officer, who she plans to use as her way out. Instead, she finds herself falling for him. Sheila starts to see the world through different perspectives as she gets to know Joel and a young, troubled Belfast evacuee named Grainne. The Linen Queen takes the reader through an emotional ride as World War II transforms the lives of those in Northern Ireland and Sheila McGee possibly learns to leave her old ways behind.
-Katie McFadden (320 pages / Hachette Books / $21.99)
Eating for Ireland
Loath as I am to admit to judging a book by its cover, at first glance I was drawn to Irish food writer Tom Doorley’s latest book, Eating for Ireland. Not by the clever, laudatory quotes from the Sunday Independent and Food and Wine magazine, nor by the nostalgic main cover image of a 70s era child’s birthday party, but by a smaller yet infinitely more alluring graphic: a vintage bag of cheese & onion Tayto crisps. Any book with the potential to bring me back to childhood summers spent in Ireland, gorging myself on the delectably pungent potato chips and other exotic delicacies such as lemon barley water, Jacob’s biscuits, and 99s had to, I was sure, be a delicious read.
It was. Doorley, restaurant critic for the Irish Daily Mail and a judge on RTE’s hit show The Restaurant, is a gifted writer whose enthusiasm and curiosity for his subject is both palpable and infectious. In this delightful collection of essays, he reminisces about his own experiences with everything from Marmite and Oxo cubes, soft-boiled eggs and banana sandwiches, to a tender account of his mother’s love of pepper. These personal anecdotes mingle nicely with Doorley’s larger exploration of the origins and histories of some of Ireland’s most beloved and idiosyncratic foods.
Eating for Ireland reads as a light-hearted culinary history – tracking and gently poking fun at the slow evolution of restaurants from serving the soggy trifecta of peas, corn and carrots; attempting to pinpoint the origins of red lemonade (likely from the beverage company Nash’s in the late 1800s), and much more. The book is a fun trip down memory lane and a thorough rendering of how Ireland’s palate has changed in the past century. My only word of caution is to have a snack on hand – Doorley’s descriptions are that good.
– Sheila Langan (250 pages / Liberties Press/Dufour Editions / $22.95)
Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends & Folklore
Niall Mac Coitir’s Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends & Folklore is a lovely, informative book dedicated to “the animals that have shaped the landscape of Ireland,” such as horses, cows, bees and salmon. Each animal’s chapter is comprised of three sections: “Folk Beliefs and Customs,” “Myths and Legends” and “Relations with Humans,” and lovingly illustrated by Gordon D’Arcy, whose stunning, original watercolors, bring the magic and wonder of these animals to life.
A nice blend of natural history, mythology and Irish folklore, Ireland’s Animals is hard to put down. This is in great part due to Mac Coitir’s fluid, down-to-earth writing style. Some of the most engaging moments are when he describes various folk cures associated with an animal.
The mythology explored goes beyond Celtic mythology to Classical (Greek and Roman) mythology and Egyptian mythology, exploring links between animal myths, from The Táin Bó Cúailgne and Cú Chulainn to Pan the Greek god of nature and the Celtic horned god Cernunnos.
One purpose of the book, Mac Coitir writes, is “to rediscover the sense of wonder about animals that has been lost in the modern, more scientific approach.” In Ireland’s Animals, he succeeds in doing just that.
– Kristin Romano (264 pages / The Collins Press/Dufour Editions / $48.95)