Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
December / January 2012
Recently published books of Irish and Irish-American interest.
Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes
Thirty-six years after publishing Legs, the first book in his acclaimed Albany Cycle, William Kennedy, 83, has added an eighth book to his dedicated rendering of his home town. Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes tells the story of Daniel Quinn, another son of Albany, whose life bears a striking resemblance to Kennedy’s. Just as Kennedy once was, Daniel is a reporter. And, similar to Kennedy, he travels to Cuba to report on the Revolution with the hope of securing an interview with Castro himself. There, he meets another legend, Ernest Hemingway, and a beautiful, well-connected revolutionary, Renata Suarez Otero. He quickly determines to befriend Hemingway and marry Renata, and consequently becomes embroiled in the struggle to oust the President, Fulgencio Batista.
Split into three parts and three different times – Albany in 1936, Cuba in 1957, and Albany again in 1968, where racial tensions are coming to a height right after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in California – it is a beautiful whirlwind of a novel, filled with passion, history, revolution and music.
This unique musicality of Kennedy’s is felt in the two-step rhythm of its title, and becomes immediately apparent in its opening scene, where a young Daniel Quinn wakes in the middle of the night to hear Bing Crosby singing an “old coon song,” “Shine” in his father’s living room, accompanied by a black piano player, Cody Mason. It continues throughout the book – from the rhythms of the Santeria ceremony that eventually binds Daniel and Renata together, to the streets of Albany, where – in what may be the best passage of the book – Daniel’s amnesiac father, George, wanders the city with his former flame, Vivian. And finally, it goes back to a now old Cody Mason, who plays another, more meaningful rendition of “Shine” as the city around him grows restless. The music is also, of course, found in Kennedy’s writing, from his staccato dialogue to his sometimes understated, sometimes meandering prose. Chango’s Beads is sure to leave readers eagerly anticipating the next movement in the cycle.
– Sheila Langan
Few adults would be ashamed to step forth as fans of Irish writer Eoin Colfer’s best-selling Artemis Fowl series for the younger set. Still, the announcement of the Wexford native’s first venture into adult fiction was met with much anticipation, and the wait has certainly been worth it. With Plugged, Colfer offers a book expressly for his older readers, written to suit their tastes for bawdiness, violence and brilliantly sarcastic humor.
Plugged’s narrator, Daniel McEvoy, is a 42-year-old Dubliner living in the dismal fictional town of Cloisters, NJ, which boasts the slogan “For People Who Are Tired of the City.” At the start of the book, it seems as though Daniel has had a rather ho-hum existence, working as a doorman at a local casino, handling the occasional brawl and worrying principally about his balding pate. But the drama builds quickly for Daniel. He kills the local Irish gang boss’s right-hand man in self-defense, and then finds Connie, his on-again-off-again fling and fellow-casino worker, murdered in the parking lot. Zeb Kronski, the Lebanese doctor who was overseeing Daniel’s hair transplants (and who was possibly his only friend) is missing, possibly dead, and was likely mixed up in whatever is going on. Things get progressively hilarious and confused as Daniel tries to figure out who exactly is after him, and why.
Plugged calls itself crime fiction, but humor definitely trumps suspense in this madcap mystery – especially since, as always, Colfer’s word play has a tendency to steal the show. The twists and turns are still plentiful, though, and the roving plot laughs in the face of anyone who would dare call it predictable.
– Sheila Langan
(288 pages/Overlook Press/$24.95)
Following her brave, powerful and deeply reflective memoir, The Long Goodbye, which chronicled her mother’s death after a harrowing struggle with cancer, Meghan O’Rourke returns to poetry with a new collection, Once.
Her debut collection, Halflife (2007), was met with praise by The New York Times, and Publisher’s Weekly hailed O’Rourke’s “playful, energetic intelligence, varied aesthetics and…welcome self-possession.”
Once shares all of these qualities, but its soul is, quite understandably, more solemn and meditative. Those who have read The Long Goodbye will recognize moments first encountered in O’Rourke’s prose, now expressed through poetry: her description of her aunts, for example: “Grew up on the Jersey Shore in the 1970s. / Always making margaritas in the kitchen, / always laughing and doing their hair up pretty, / sharing lipstick and shoes and new juice diets.” Or her mother’s confusion in “When it Went to Her Brain,” “On TV a hurricane beats a boat. / Gazing at the air, / you ask me, ‘Is that our wind I hear?’” Other poems in the collection, which is divided into three parts, make new explorations into the landscapes of childhood, relationships, adulthood and grief.
In an interview with Irish America following the release of The Long Goodbye, O’Rourke explained that after her mother’s death, she was almost afraid to write poetry: “It was too scary, too emotional, like going into a well. Whereas with prose, I had the through line of the sentence, which became a tightrope that I could hold on to on the path.” In Once, she lets go of the tightrope, braves the well, and ventures off the path. Readers will be grateful that she did.
– Sheila Langan
(92 pages/W.W. Norton/$24.95)
The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America
Karen F. McCarthy’s The Other Irish is a delightful and deeply informative new take on the Scots-Irish who, despite being relatively unknown, made a tremendous contribution to America’s culture. What I particularly appreciate about the book is the way in which she tells their story by concentrating on the incredible characters in that tradition. She thereby circumvents the dry as dust abstractions of the more conventional approaches taken by academic historians and sociologists. Because she is an experienced journalist with an eye for the telling detail, the figures she writes about leap off the page in all their wonderful idiosyncrasy, orneriness, hardscrabble toughness, occasional tenderness and persnickety charm. For the first time she really brings the whole Scots-Irish saga to life and makes us understand why they have made such an extraordinary contribution in so many different ways to Southern, and indeed American, culture in general, nowhere moreso than through country music. As well as by providing more U.S. Presidents than any other ethnic group.
– James Flannery
Irish People, Irish Linen
Certain crafts have become synonymous with certain cultures and places: Delft tiles, Grecian urns, Chantilly lace – Irish linen. Irish People, Irish Linen, by writer and crafts historian Kathleen Curtis Wilson, is a comprehensive study of the refined and complex art of linen making, which has been a part of Irish society for generations.
Rather than simply summarizing the history of the craft and the industry, Wilson makes a strong and eloquent case for the close connection between Irish emigration and Irish linen. In the same way that the Irish diaspora has been compared to a fabric, she points out, “so too has linen been described metaphorically as a person.” Irish emigration, she argues, was instrumental in the journey of Irish linen from local craft to global product.
But before it became a global phenomenon, linen making took root in Ireland and was urged on by many patient workers and a few key characters, to whom Curtis is careful to give their due credit. She also takes the time to explain the linen making process in detail, and the interesting and innovative ways in which it has evolved over the years. Beautifully compiled with nearly 200 color photographs of threaded looms, flax stalks and gorgeous patterns, Irish People, Irish Linen presents a little-known segment of history well worth acquainting oneself with.
– Sheila Langan
(328 pages/Ohio University Press/$49.95)
Young Adult & Children’s Literature
John Connolly, the Dublin-born author of the best-selling Charlie Parker detective series, has released his second book for young adult readers. A sequel to 2009’s The Gates, The Infernals features heroic teen Samuel Johnson and his aptly named dog, Boswell.
After their unplanned Halloween adventure in The Gates, one would rightly suspect that Samuel and Boswell have had quite enough of the underworld. Unfortunately, fate seems to have other plans for them. When the same Large Hadron Particle Collider that created a hole in the universe in the first book opens yet another portal into hell, the evil Mrs. Abernathy, whose evil plans Samuel and Boswell foiled, is determined to journey back to Earth and seek revenge. To make matters worse, Samuel’s poor eyesight is preventing him from asking out his crush, Lucy Highmore, as he keeps mistakenly chatting up inanimate objects like the lamppost on his way to school.
Intelligent, witty, suspenseful and filled with irreverent and surprisingly philosophical footnotes, The Infernals is sure to keep young readers fully engrossed and older readers thoroughly amused and enchanted.
– Sheila Langan
(311 pages/Atria Books/$22.00)
With his latest book, Stuck, Belfast-born illustrator Oliver Jeffers has created an amusing tale for children – one that is at once minimalist and zany. Following a boy named Floyd and his innovative if misguided attempts to retrieve his kite from a tree, Jeffers’ story begins quite simply, as do his drawings. Squiggles and swirls, the kind that children will recognize from the back pages of their own coloring books, serve as shadows and clouds, but these form only the foundation of Jeffers’ world. He layers textures, combining mediums and expressive colors to create a vibrant and visually comical picture-book.
Readers will find their expectations continually subverted in increasingly absurd ways. The narration is dry and self-aware – meaning that adults, too, will appreciate this clever, if unapologetically silly story. Stuck has no straightforward message. Which is not to say that it is hollow, but rather that it is ambiguous. Is it a parable about perseverance? About faith? Is it satire on single-mindedness? An exploration of humanity in the face of futility and randomness? This is Kafka for the 3-7 set.
Stuck is a charming story; familiar enough to draw in young readers, and respectful enough of their intelligence to keep them returning years past the ages indicated on the bookjacket.
– Catherine Davis
(30 pages/Philomel Books/$16.99)