“The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd
This is on the new Leaving Cert English syllabus and I had never read it. It’s a beautifully written book with lots of interesting themes: race relations; family tensions; religion; gender roles; chance; and bees.
“Count Karlstein” by Philip Pullman
I picked this up in the library. I found it to be a slightly dull offering for younger readers. Disappointing.
“The Moronic Inferno” by Martin Amis
I do like the way that Martin Amis writes but this is a dull collection of old, old journalism dragged together, rather unwillingly, under the unifying theme of America. The best parts are the pieces on authors but, frankly, there is only so much that I want to hear about Saul Bellow whom he worships. The article on Truman Capote was much better. His articles on Norman Mailer and Philip Roth are alright. Norman Mailer sounds like a pain. I’ve read a lot of Philip Roth and I thought that the article suffered quite a bit from having been written well before Roth’s most recent spate of books from the mid-90s onwards. The political and current affairs stuff dates very badly. The article on AIDS is a mildly interesting insight into the height of hysteria in 1984. Current affairs in a mobile free/internet free world is just weird. There is one very good essay on child murders in Atlanta but that and a flashy cover is not enough really. So disappointing when I consider how much I enjoyed “The War against Cliche” (another reheated journalism collection).
“The Clothes on Their Backs” by Linda Grant
I quite enjoyed the themes explored in another book by Linda Grant, “When I Lived in Modern Times” and I bought this on the strength of it. I found “”When I Lived in Modern Times” full of plot and incident and interesting background but not very well written. I think that this book is a much better written book but I found it less engaging. Perhaps this is because I know more about Jewish refugees living in England (not a lot but more) than I do about the State of Israel. I am fascinated by Israel as a State more nakedly founded on an idea than any other. I was a little disappointed by this book. On the plus side, the author has a blog about clothes.
“The Northern Clemency” by Philip Henscher
It took me ages to get into this large tome and I had to incur a 50 cent late fine from the library upon returning it. I am very glad that I persisted. It’s an excellent book though I remember thinking that the author was having his own little joke when he wrote at page 482 “she’d been reading The Far Pavilions for four weeks now, persevering with it; handling seemed to have incresased its bulk by half as much again”. Also very true of this 738 page book; Sheffield all week long. It’s a sprawling family epic (my favourite), competently written and more slice of life than plotted but it works reasonably.
“Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin
This is a book about emigration. Emigration is a big theme in Ireland. If I may present a potted history of Ireland since Independence, you will see why this is so (I can’t face going back to the Famine).
Ireland Since Independence – A Potted History
1920s: War of Independence/Civil War, continuing emigration
1930s: The Losers get into Power and, with brief interruptions hang on to it ever after, continuing emigration
1940s: The Emergency (this is how WWII was known in neutral Ireland), continuing emigration
1950s: Comely maidens dancing at the crossroads, continuing emigration
1960s: The modern era, the Whitaker report, free second level education and continuing emigration
1970s: The oil crisis and continuing emigration
1980s: The IMF is on the doorstep and continuing emigration
1990s: Jobless growth and continuing emigration
2000s: The Boom (when we lost the run of ourselves) and net immigration and then the Bust.
2010s: OK, any predictions?
My children have two parents, four grandparents and two great grandparents who have lived abroad and come home. They have innumerable relatives they will never know at all who emigrated in the past: their great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their children. The phrase “American Wake” was coined to describe saying goodbye to someone who was going to America and who you knew that you would never see again.
Colm Toibin’s book taps into the banal misery of emigration. It highlights how you can never go back (the “returned yank” syndrome). Initially, I found it gently and persuasively sad. He is convincing in small town Ireland; he fails in Brooklyn. Also, I got very tired of the heroine who is a pain, frankly. I have two further reservations. Firstly, I went to see the Man Booker International jury talk about their deliberation process and Colm Toibin chaired the session. For a man who writes thoughtful, inward looking (in a good way) books he is a very annoying, mouthy chair. He and Jane Smiley, the chair of the jury, clearly didn’t get on and he talked to much and didn’t let the interesting Ukrainian man get a word in edgeways. I suppose, if disliking the author put one off a book no one except Kingsley Amis would ever have read Philip Larkin. Secondly, I read this for bookclub and everyone thought that it was distinctly underwhelming. The author was writing as a woman and they felt that he was unconvincing. I am not sure about that myself. It’s just that the character was shy and reserved and kind of annoying.
Updated to add: I see the Booker jury does not share my views.