Reviews from the past

From the archives.
These reviews were written back around 2004 but never made it to the website. It’s not a complete inventory of books I had been reading at the time -- more a smattering of titles that came to mind.

The first few I suppose I would think of as travel books -- Bill Bryson -- Notes from a Small Island; Peter McCarthy - McCarthy’s Bar; Cole Moreton -- Hungry for Home.
  Bill Bryson is a wonderfully appealing writer and his travelogue of Great Britain is both amusing and informative. I lived in England for a number of years and have a great affection for the place. Bryson captures the English spirit with an affectionate net and pins it firmly to the page. And, while he is endlessly amusing, he manages to be perfectly truthful about English foibles. Many years ago I read Paul Theroux’s Kingdom by the Sea and, though I think his observations were (for the time) painfully accurate, I found the book depressing and more-than-a-little mean-spirited. Anyway, I recommend the Bryson without reservation; the best book on Britain of that time that I know of.

The late Peter McCarthy made his name with McCarthy’s Bar, which despite its madcap and slightly loony feel, had an underlying current of identity crisis. Born into an Irish family in England, he doesn’t feel English and yet somehow doesn’t manage to feel fully Irish either. He wrestles with the notion of settling in Ireland and travels the country in order to gain some insights to help him make his decision. It’s a funny and often touching book.

Cole Moreton’s book, Hungry for Home, describes the circumstances events of the evacuation of the Blasket islands, off the coast of Kerry, in the early 1950s. He does an extraordinary job of describing what island life meant to to the islanders and, later in the book, the yearning in the minds of those now long moved to America. There are many fine books about life on the Blaskets -- my favourite is Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years a-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin -- but Moreton’s book is a valuable addition. I think I have all these books beside each other on the shelf because each of them deals with a notion of ‘home’. Bryson is an American who lived in Britain for many years; he wrote this book just before returning to the States. McCarthy, the English-Irishman wonders where he belongs. Moreton, the London journalist looks at the displaced Islanders in Ireland and America. I was brought up in Ireland, spent my twenties in England and now live in the US; I’m not sure where I belong ... 

Which brings me to Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters' Club. Set in England in the 1970s -- the very time I lived there -- this was pure nostalgia for me. References to music, the social and political scene, the pub culture were all spot-on. I enjoyed it a lot. I don’t know what you’d think of it if you’d weren’t there ...

This year I also read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Just wonderful, -- imaginative and extremely well-written. It got into a bit of trouble for being ‘anti- Christian’ but that quieted down a bit when the Archbishop of Canterbury came out in favour of it as a moral work. You’ll find a fascinating discussion between the two here.
 On a similar note, I also found a wonderful book called Godless Morality by Richard Holloway. It argues that our understanding of the word ‘God’, and what is expected of us in that name, is so varied as to be essentially useless in any discussion of ethics, it behooves us to drop the whole notion and work from a humanistic approach. As someone who is more than a little tired of hearing that I can have no real morality if I don’t believe in God, this was a refreshing read, coming as it did, from the pen of the Bishop of Edinburgh. So, if you’re tired of hearing the argument that you have to be religious to be good, you’ll like this book.
I’ve also read a fair bit of Buddhist thought -- more from a Western approach than from the classic Buddhist texts. I’ve found Pema Chödron particularly illuminating and I’ve enjoyed the work of Sharon Salzberg, Mark Epstein, Stephen Batchelor, Panjak Mishra and many others. Thomas Merton’s commentaries on Eastern thought have provided some wonderful insight, too. I’ve been meditating for a number of years, so it’s kind of inevitable that I would start reading Buddhist ideas. I must say, I’m greatly impressed with the Buddhist approach. They don’t speak of good and evil but rather skillful and unskillful means; they speak of pain rather than of sin. No Ten Commandments but an Eightfold Path. Buddhist meditation techniques are quite marvelous and the psychology profoundly liberating. I do have some problems with the practice of Buddhism. For a religion/philosophy that eschews ‘attachment’, I’ve noted a lot of people attached to many aspects of the discipline and to the notion of being ‘a Buddhist’; but, in all, it’s a rich humanistic philosophy that is firmly rooted in a kind approach to life and oneself.
 Two good books on meditation are Teach Yourself how to Meditate in 10 Easy Lessons by Eric Harrison and Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The former is a practical, no-nonsense guide to meditating, with observations on gullibility, cults, the vanity of ‘self-improvement’. A wonderfully refreshing take on a subject that can overindulge in the ‘flaky’. Kabat-Zinn might be on the ‘flakier’ side for some tastes but I found the book inspiring and warm and very real.
A fiction I enjoyed on the Buddhist theme was called Buddha Da by Anna Donovan. It’s set in Glasgow and is the story of what happens when house-painter Jimmy (what else would a Glaswegian be called) decides to take an interest in Buddhism. The story is told from three points of view -- Jimmy’s, his wife Liz’s and his daughter, Anne Marie’s. The book is written in Glasgow dialect and the voice of Anne Marie is particularly rich. The dialect might slow you down at the beginning but you’ll soon get used to it and it’s a lovely warm voice -- I have family in Glasgow, so I’m a bit ahead of the game.
I’ve read a good number of mysteries, of late. Some good offerings from Renee Airth - - River of Darkness and a few by Charles Todd - A Test of Wills, particularly. Both these authors set their books in immediately post-World War One England. The books are pretty dark and fairly disturbing - even harrowing. Lighter fare (though not frivolous) has included books by Michael Dibdin -- Medusa and Donna Leon -- Murder at La Fenice. Both writers place their books in Italy -- Leon’s all take place, I believe, in Venice. Anyway, they’re very fine reads and it’s always nice to get away to somewhere different.
Getting “away to somewhere different”, may not be such a pleasure in a couple of mysteries that I recommend but which might not please everyone. The Hard Shoulder by Chris Petit and The Crooked Man by Philip Davison are both very well written and and very quiet books. The crime world is a shabby, grey place in these books but, in both cases, the main characters -- and many of the lesser characters -- are what keep the interest. ‘Engaging’ is not the word I would use but you do end up caring and sympathizing for these people, living out grim existences in Thatcher’s Britain.
 Morality Play by Barry Unsworth was a good read -- I got this one from Mike. Despite one slightly heavy hand when pointing out the obvious -- and, to be fair, it was only once, but it grated -- he wields a graphic pen. The book is set in Medieval England and involves a band of ‘players’ -- traveling actors. They come to a town where a murder has just been committed and rather than play their usual performance they improvise a speculative enactment of the murder. “I believe this is how plays will be made in the future” intones one -- that was the heavy-handed bit I was referring to.
This performance is very popular, but also raises many questions as to what really happened. The time and place are wonderfully captured and worth the read just for that. A film, called The Reckoning has been made of the book; it stars William Dafoe. I’ve not seen it or heard anything about its virtues or lack thereof.
Unsworth won the Booker Prize for his novel, Sacred Hunger (also a great read).in 1992. Last year I thought I’d try the Booker winner, DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and I have to say I was grievously disappointed. I didn’t find it funny -- it reminded me of another very unfunny book I once tried to read Confederacy of Dunces. That book came recommended by a number of people and I tried hard to like it, but I found the humour unwitty and broad, the characters unsympathetic caricatures -- it was hard to care. The same with ‘Vernon’.
 On the other hand, a runner-up for the Booker Prize completely won my heart. Brick Lane by Monica Ali was a delightful book. It’s the story of the bride in an arranged marriage who comes at the age of 18 to the East End of London from Bangladesh. She speaks no English and knows no-one, not even her husband, Chanu -- one of the best-drawn characters I have read in years. The book is at times hilarious and at other times wrenching, but always you feel great affection for all the characters and the authors affection for them, too. This is a wonderful, richly human book.
 On the ‘Sci-Fi’ front -- no doubt, I’ll be offending somebody’s genre definitions here -- I recall Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, William Gibson’s The Neuromancer and Iain BanksWalking on Glass. Gaiman was great -- powerful, imaginative and vivid characters; I was sorry when it was over. Gibson, I had a little trouble with. Sense of place got very slippery for me, and, though I came to root for the main character, sense of his identity was pretty slippery, too. Not unrecommended -- I imagine many people would love (did love!) this book. Iain Banks was a revelation; got the book as a present from my old friend, Chris Bareford, when on holiday in England. Three very different stories are heading for a conclusion involving them all. On their own, they’re great stories -- one is an absolutely heart-rending love story -- then they tumble in together at the end. Very satisfying; very good.
 A great little book is Strangers by Taichi Yamada. I’ll not say too much about it; only that I read it in one sitting and so did some others I know.
On the nonfiction front I can recommend The Star Factory by Ciaran Carson. It’s memoir of Belfast, my mother’s home town. Brian gave it to me for Christmas and I’ve been dipping into it off and on all year. Carson really knows how to write -- check out the highly recommended Last Night’s Fun. I am greatly looking forward to his translation of Cúirt a’ Mhean Oíche by Brian Merriman. There have been numerous translations (and partial translations) of this 18th Century poem over the years -- I’ve read some parts translated by Brendan Behan, Frank O’Connor and a fairly recent translation by Seamus Heaney of the first 200 words or so and some of the very end of the poem. All the above translations have much to recommend them. But just recently the Guardian newspaper of England printed an excerpt of the first 30 or so lines as translated by Carson and it was just great -- I can’t wait.
 And while we’re on poetry, I’d like to mention I am -- the selected poetry of John Clare -- English, born 1793 in Northamptonshire. Most self-educated and later suffered severe depression -- and wrote lovely verse.
Other nonfiction I enjoyed: Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King - given to me by Mike’s brother, Jim Fitzmaurice, when we were staying as guests of him and his wife Robin. Jim is a fine muralist, so, as you might imagine, this was of particular interest to him -- but it’s a fascinating book about the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the character of Michaelangelo and his times come vividly alive. So too with Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt -- a ‘speculative biography’ (quotes are mine) of William Shakespeare. The book starts out in a conjectural tone as what events ‘might have’ happened to Shakespeare or what his situation might have been, but an initial frustration with all the positing soon gave way to fascination as the world of the day is brought vividly to life -- and what a cruel world it was. Torture and execution as public entertainment ...
Two memoirs -- Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faoláin and Chronicles by Bob Dylan. The former is a riveting read, particularly for someone who grew up in Ireland in the 50s and 60s. The feel of the country is right there and the repression and narrowness are painted all too vividly, Her childhood of neglect has many resonances for me.
The Dylan started out promisingly -- after all, here is the enigmatic Bob Dylan talking openly and uncryptically and saying ... nothing. Nothing of real interest, anyway. It’s engaging enough for a while to hear about his early life in the first person but I found no original thinking or observation ... I mean I’m not looking for anything earth-shattering, but the Dylan of this book is a bore. I can’t help but feel that he’s been so successful at being elusive -- which is at least a silly vanity -- because there’s nobody there. Sorry.
Have started reading Seán Ó Riada, his Life and Work by Tomás Ó Cannáin. I have a copy of this in Irish that my Dad gave me and into which I have delved over the years. It’s an account of the life and influence of the Irish composer/arranger who was so instrumental (no pun intended) in the great resugence of interest in traditional Irish music fifty
years ago

 And speaking of books in Irish, Céard é English? by Lorcán Ó Treasaigh (the title translates as ‘What is English?’) is an absolutely wonderful, funny and moving account of a young boy brought up in an Irish-speaking family in the middle of an English-speaking community. I’m not sure that a translation would do it much credit -- in fact, it might get into some very weird postmodern convolutions if it tried. But, if your Irish is half- way decent, give it a try -- highly recommended!
Two books that I would like to recommend very highly are by Graham Swift. They’re quiet, character-driven and set (mostly) in London. Last Orders and The Light of Day are both lovely, introspective and, ultimately, affirming books.
A couple of good short story collections are Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Whole Story by Ali Smith.
 And finally -- a great cookbook: Fresh Food Fast by Peter Berley. This is wonderful vegetarian food with the recipes divided according to the seasons. Each menu is based around a game plan that can be great help in seeing the structure of the meal before you make it. Everything I’ve tried has been extraordinarily good. Another highly recommended book.






2 comments

  • Colleen Fullbright

    Colleen Fullbright

    I agree that Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody is riveting and I loved her honesty--a complex woman both tough and vulnerable. Did you read her follow-up, Mick (or any readers of this blog), Almost There? Unfortunately,that book was an enormous disappoinment for me. Her "voice" had changed and the self-disclosures were no longer interesting or enlightening, only highly irritating. I love Jon Kabat- Zinn's Wheverever You Go, There You Are and take it out often to look at what I should be doing. Then I go on with my very frantic mindless life and forget the lessons of Kabat-Zinn! I'm going to read Teach Yourself to Meditate. I was just thinking the other day that I must learn how to calm my-- what I guess is called --"monkey mind." Thanks for the reviews. It's fun to read about what you've read...

    I agree that Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody is riveting and I loved her honesty--a complex woman both tough and vulnerable. Did you read her follow-up, Mick (or any readers of this blog), Almost There? Unfortunately,that book was an enormous disappoinment for me. Her "voice" had changed and the self-disclosures were no longer interesting or enlightening, only highly irritating.
    I love Jon Kabat- Zinn's Wheverever You Go, There You Are and take it out often to look at what I should be doing. Then I go on with my very frantic mindless life and forget the lessons of Kabat-Zinn! I'm going to read Teach Yourself to Meditate. I was just thinking the other day that I must learn how to calm my-- what I guess is called --"monkey mind."

    Thanks for the reviews. It's fun to read about what you've read...

  • Mick

    Mick

    Hi Colleen ~ No, I never read the follow-up to Nuala's first memoir but, like you, I loved 'Are You Somebody?'. I recently got a copy of some of her journalism -- 'A Radiant Life' -- which is excellent. And I agree about JK-Z; wonderful stuff.

    Hi Colleen ~
    No, I never read the follow-up to Nuala's first memoir but, like you, I loved 'Are You Somebody?'. I recently got a copy of some of her journalism -- 'A Radiant Life' -- which is excellent. And I agree about JK-Z; wonderful stuff.

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