Tag Archives: Irish Literature

The Green Road: What we mean when we say ‘a good book’

Countryside-scene-in-repu-008Imagine you’ve just finished reading a good book. You put it down and you think to yourself, ‘gosh, that was a really good book’ (okay, you probably don’t say ‘gosh’). You try to put your finger on what made it good. If someone asks you about it, you don’t hesitate to tell them to read it, but you probably don’t go out of your way to recommend it. You think about the characters again for a few days, but then the specificity of their story seeps into a wider feeling you have about the book: it was good.

I’ve just finished Anne Enright’s The Green Road and I can safely report it’s a good book. The writing is at once grand in its capacity and small in its attention on detailed, particular moments. With a compelling use of a shifting third person limited narration, the plot traces the Madigan family over decades. Each long chapter follows one of the four children in a specific moment in time, richly evoking place and character. Each successive chapter moves chronological leaps forward, always toward something. That something is the eventual family reunion when all children are gathered at their childhood home for Christmas.

It wouldn’t be an outrageous argument to claim these chapters are linked short stories, such is the telescopic focus on the one child, the particular time and place. For instance, the (best) chapter following Dan through the gay community in the 1980s, AIDS ravaged New York, is a tight story unto itself. Even while the development of Dan’s character comes to have resonance in the eventual reunion chapter such that this earlier chapter is necessary for the latter, the chapter could be self-contained for its own sake.

To this point on the function of the character-focused chapters: Perhaps because the mother in the story, Rosaleen, does not get a chapter onto herself (in this way the form mirrors the message that she has devoted her sense of self entirely to serving her children), the climactic moments that focus on her feel less pressing than they might had we had time to connect with her first-hand. That said, the children’s reaction to these climactic scenes give the reader a firm sense of the importance and reverberations of the moments.

It’s a good book for exploring questions of familial loyalty, of how and when identity becomes fixed, of who we want to be versus who we might actually be, and of what we owe our family (read ‘owe’ as broadly as you can: what debts we aim to repay, what we have because of them, what obligations are due). These questions get worked out in individual chapters and across the whole with each successive chapter adding layer and echo as the reader comes to piece together both chronology and family hierarchies.

A good book, then, is one that is well written, with strong character development and thematically rich. It’s not a great book because it doesn’t quite leave you shaken, not changed by the beauty of the work or by the questions it explores. This one then is good, and given the profile of Anne Enright, will probably be described as great. You be the judge.

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We Are Not Ourselves: Why You Shouldn’t Read Book Reviews

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The only book assigned to me in high school that I didn’t finish reading was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. I made it far enough to write a term essay and also to know I didn’t need to finish reading it (to be fair, Pamela was published as a serial and Richardson probably wanted to finish the thing eons before he did, but popularity being popularity, the guy couldn’t say ‘no’ to churning out another excruciating letter).

I may not be in school anymore (!), but the guilt I feel in not finishing a book remains a combination of panic that I’ll be found out and a sort of bafflement that this terrible book had been assigned in the first place. Sure no one “assigned” Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, but they may as well have: the book reviews proclaimed its excellence and compared it with the genius of Franzen.

And this is why you shouldn’t bother with book reviews. As I committed another day’s worth of reading to this interminable and ponderous novel I kept reminding myself how well it was received elsewhere. Kept urging myself to find in the insufferable level of detail something akin to beauty or marvel. Kept assuring myself that this book had been awarded prizes and so had to be of some quality. The fault was mine, I thought, for being an impatient reader. Well, no more. 250 pages into an infinite waste of time, I stopped. I’d figured out where the plot was going (to give it it’s airing: an Irish-American family lives its life: the mother wants a bigger house, the father has early onset Alzheimer’s and the son is an undefined, ill-described mess of wanting to hit someone) and I didn’t care enough to force myself through the purchase of the overly expensive house, the unravelling of the Alzheimer’s mind and the (one can only assume) eventual character development of the son.

It’s very possible I’m wrong. That in my impatience for excruciating detail and an absence of conflict I’ve missed a gem of a novel. That said, I’d in no way encourage you to read this one. But then, this is a book review, and you’ve already stopped reading it.

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Nora Webster: Unflinching (Lessons in appreciating unlikeable characters)

grumpy-catThere are no cats in Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. But there is an awful lot of grumpiness. My cat, Titus, makes this sound (I call it playing her like an accordion) when properly prompted, that sounds much like the titular protagonist, like this: *harumph, grump, grump, grump *harumph, grump grump grump

Oh sure, Nora has many good reasons for being a total grump: her husband dies, she’s left to raise four difficult (and well drawn) children, she has to scramble to earn a salary after years of being comfortably supported, in making the salary she has to give up reading for fun, she’s a Catholic sorting out Irish politics. And then, what seems to pain Nora the most is having to rely on others. No, she doesn’t have to actually ask anyone for help, but perhaps just as bad (worse?) she has to accept help that’s offered to her. She’s entirely self-interested and self-obsessed, convinced always that other people are judging her appearance, her spending habits, her parenting style, her grief. For instance, when her daughter goes missing she spends as much time wondering how others will view her reaction as she does worrying about where Aine might be.A self-interest that raises challenging questions about the role of a parent. She rationalizes that her indifference or purposeful silence in response to the obvious needs of her children spares her children humiliation or more pain; the reader is left to wonder whether this silence is yet further evidence of her selfishness in that she doesn’t engage their pain because she’s too busy thinking about her own. To what extent must parents subsume their own feelings to protect/respond to/engage the feelings of their children?

Is it a pleasure to read such a grumpy-grump character? Well, it’s as much pleasure as it is to play Titus like an accordion. A kind of voyeuristic enthusiasm for seeing someone else get it all so perfectly wrong. Someone who could have more friends, greater satisfaction from her relationships, more confidence and comfort in her own skin, but who… doesn’t. Elects not to. Or does she? I suppose it’s not a conscious choice for Nora. She sees it all as put on her. The judgement of others. The circumstances of her life.

When she does make choices – to take singing lessons or to decorate her living room – these choices are couched as concessions to others. She’s not doing these things for her own pleasure or enjoyment, but rather to satisfy others (her singing teacher, her children).  No escaping the guilt.

It makes for a somewhat claustrophobic read. All the same, it’s a fascinating character study and a triumph of writing when this reader stayed with the rather wholly unpleasant Nora and continued to hope she’d do something surprising (like smile) (or care for someone else) while knowing that the book is a reminder that as readers we make unrealistic demands of authors. We expect likeable characters. We ask for a character development that will make our characters better, more heroic, more likeable. What Tobin presents instead is a rich character, who does develop over the novel, but becomes no more heroic, no more noble or likeable. She remains reproachable, unpleasant and grumpy. And instead of complaining about how frustrating and sad (and grumpy) she is, this reader was thankful for the long and deep engagement with the unlikeable.

And because I’m such a delight to be around myself, it was a chance to embody and empathize with the deeply flawed and unpleasant of the world.

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Love and Summer: When gorgeous sentences make me cry

            

It is easy for me to feel on occasion overwhelmed by the world – work place stress, family illness, lack of motivation and purpose – and on those occasions I do one of two things: I take a bath or I take a nap. However, last Wednesday, I could neither bath or nap during on of these moods because I was at work, and so I walked to the local bookstore (the very terrific Bryan Prince Bookseller) and bought a book that caught my eye.* I can’t necessary recommend this practice as I feel like it falls dangerously close to retail therapy, but I can say that walking back to work with a book I was excited to read made a significant difference. 

My pleasure quickly grew beyond the discovery of a new, unexpected and wholly unburdened-by-expectations book, because Trevor William’s Love and Summer is pretty well perfect. It contains sentences that brought me precariously close to tears. Though I am not one who zealously commits to the “great sentences movement” (see Stanley Fish), I am one who genuinely appreciates the beauty of a well crafted and evocative sentence. And Love and Summer is full of such gems.

When suggesting this book to a friend I described the plot as not about very much at all, and this (for whatever reason) dissuaded her from accepting the book. My mistake, as the plot is about a great deal – a woman discovering her desires, the poignancy of unrequited love, selfishness and pity, the urge to recapture lost youth – but it is short on great plot events. I’m just fine with the pace and “eventfulness” of the book, if only because the “events” that do take place are so much more calamitous, so much more eventful, precisely because William has taken such time and care in developing each character and in establishing why a particular event will reverberate beyond its particular temporal moment.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. Both for the surprise of it – an author I’d never heard of (shame face, as Trevor William is, how do they say, “a big deal”), a book I wasn’t expecting to read – and for its absolute expression of that which is beautiful and terrible in human relationships.

*A note on finding books that “catch my eye”: I’ve participated in conversations about ‘how to choose books,’ and have, on occasion, found myself between books and ‘available.’ Like the beginning of any good date the strategy ought to begin by assessing the exterior – the weight, cover and size matter to me – and then test the waters by reading the description (I can’t explain it, but I tend to avoid books that describe themselves as utterly unique or providing “portraits” of something) and the first paragraph. I’ve been known to leave a book with strong reviews and take books with reviews by unknown authors – “Fantastic” says some author I’ve never heard of – but generally in these uncharted forays I steer toward those books the NYTimes say are okay, or the Booker Prize has deemed worthy of consideration. But I have to say the best finds have been the ones that I entered with little intention, allowing a book to present itself to me, and taking a chance.

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