• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,063,253 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,713 other followers

Irish Reads

Some Irish reads in observance of St. Patrick’s Day.

Ulysses by James Joyce
The novel chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. It epitomizes Modernist literature and I seriously have to sit down, re-read, and give it my undivided attention.

The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
This is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde. The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art.

Amongst Women by John McGahern
This one has been on my shelf forever. It tells the story of Michael Moran, a bitter, aging Irish Republican Army (IRA) veteran, and his tyranny over his wife and children, who both love and fear him. It is considered McGahern’s masterpiece.

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien
Flann O’Brien is the pseudonym of Irish author Brian O’Nolan. The book is widely considered to be one of the most sophisticated examples of meta-fiction.

The Book of Evidence by John Banville
My favorite modern Irish author! The book is narrated by Freddie Montgomery, a 38-year-old scientist, who murders a servant girl during an attempt to steal a painting from a neighbor. Freddie is an aimless drifter, and though he is a perceptive observer of himself and his surroundings, he is largely amoral.

Strumpet City by James Plunkett
This is a historical novel by James Plunkett set in Dublin at the time of the Dublin Lock-out. The novel is an epic, tracing the lives of a dozen characters as they are swept up in the tumultuous events that affected Dublin between 1907 and 1914.

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
This was the first novel written by Irish author Edna O’Brien. It was released in 1960, and later made into a movie. It tell the story of Kate and Baba who have spent their childhood together. As they leave the safety of their convent school in search of life and love in the big city, they struggle to maintain their somewhat tumultuous relationship.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
I didn’t known she’s Irish until recently! It’s the portrait of a young woman’s coming of age in a brutalized time and place, where the ordinariness of life floats like music over the impending doom of history.

[650] A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

1artist1

” I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” (Chapter V, p.268-9)

The novel portrays Stephen Dedalus’s childhood and youth up to the age of about 20. “This race and this country and this life produced me,” declares Stephen, an alter ego, and artistic image of James Joyce himself. As a young boy growing up in Ireland during a period of political turmoil, Stephen’s Catholic faith and Irish nationality heavily influence him. The world presses on him incessantly and he cannot tolerate the painful form form of reality—the dread of boarding school life, bullying, class difference, poverty, perpetual struggle between catholic and Protestant, and a continuing quarrel with his mother.

He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon. (Chapter II, p.102)

Joyce has a cunning capacity to externalize Stephen’s consciousness. Reader is given only some highly concentrated sense of home, school, and streets that presses so intensely upon Stephen’s spirit. While he is acutely sensitive to all that happens around him, he doesn’t necessarily understand everything. As reality slowly encroaches upon his internal reveries and teenage angst, he becomes alienated from his peers as his family struggles from one property to another and his father, for whom he loses respect, from pub to pub seeking work. Straitened finance also means withdrawal from boarding school. The prize from an essay contest also becomes succor for family rent and provision. During his attendance in a prestigious day school in Dublin, Stephen, in defiance of religious upbringing, throws himself with debauched abandon.

All through his boyhood he had mused upon that which he had so often thought to be his destiny and when the moment had come for him to obey the call he had turned aside, obeying a wayward instinct. (Chapter IV, p.179)

Recognized he might be condemned for his sins, he is immersed in a pronounced but short-lived religious devotion. His fate is almost sealed as he is invited to take Holy Orders, which he rejects with conviction, at the realization that he must arrive at his conviction through spiritual agony.

The novel, retrospective speaking, heralds Stephen’s rejection of the environment and traditional voice of authority that eventually shapes his artistic talent. He must break away from the consciousness of the boundaries of family and religion in order to be in touch with his consciousness of the world. Wisdom of the priest didn’t touch him quick because he must experience the snares of the world to see sensual beauty. Joyce’s style is direct and visceral, but memories are recollected in a disjointed manner—so capricious and random is his perception of events. The prose gives reader the sense that he is seeing what Stephen sees and experiencing his life first hand.

329 pp. Penguin Classics 2003. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Joyce

1artist

I have a plan to re-read Ulysses, probably the most difficult and challenging work of literature ever published. Having read it in college, I couldn’t say I have understood it to the full extent, let alone enjoyed it. The book’s reputation for density, erudition, and inscrutability still daunts many readers, including myself. In spite of the glut of guidebooks, summaries, and annotations meant to accompany Ulysses, I have chosen to ignore them. I only remember, from the hasty read back in college, that it generously overflows with insight into the human experience, and it’s very, very funny. This time around, I’ll give myself plenty of time in indulge in the book, without time constraint. It’s okay to re-read passages and go track. But before tackling Ulysses, I decided to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the first in Joyce’s whopping hat-trick of great novels, is both shorter and more approachable than either of Joyce’s later masterpieces. To say the least, it really unleashed the massive power of Joyce’s innovation and unconventionality upon the literary world. It lays the ground for Ulysses as the novel starts to make use of the famous (or infamous) Joycean techniques such as stream of consciousness narration, interiority (a revealing view of the character’s inner workings), and a very frank realism. In short, it’s Stephen Dedalus’ coming-of-age story and mirrors the author’s life up to age 20.

[609] The Forgotten Waltz – Anne Enright

anne

” I go through the darkening town with Sean’s beautiful mistake. Because it really was a mistake for Sean to have a child, and it was a particular mistake for him to have this child; a girl who looks out on the world with his grey eyes, from a mind that is entirely her own. Lovers can be replaced, I think—a little bitterly—but not children. Whoever she turns out to be, he is forever stuck with loving Evie. ” (Part III, The Things We Do For Love)

The Forgotten Waltz is a quiet, contemplative novel about a woman’s affair with a married man. Told in retrospection, the book illuminates the power of hindsight. As it opens, the young, married Gina Moynihan is kissing an older man, Sean Vallely, upstairs in his house, when she realizes they are being observed by Sean’s daughter, Evie. Sean’s wife calls up Evie to rejoin the New Year’s party downstairs. The nine-year-old just bursts out laughing at the sight of them.

The affair, as I had learned to call it, progressed in its Friday pace. The sex became less filthy and more fun, the silence filled with talk—laughter even—and this unsettled me. I might have preferred silence. Every normal thing he said reminded me that we were not normal. That we were normal for the twelve foot by fourteen of a hotel room. Outside, in the open air, we could evaporate. (Part I, The Shoop Shoop Song)

No adulterer is selfless, but this Gina is the unrepentant, selfish woman who is indifferent about the sad home she’s wrecking. Nor is she concerned with the pain she is causing the wife. She is annoyed and repulsed by Evie, whose neurological affliction, a seizure disorder, has been a worry and that has put a strain on Sean’s marriage. Gina is delighted that when the affair blows in her face, the end of her marriage to Connor rescues her from the obligatory visit to in-laws. To make a long story short: Gina is not a likable woman.

That said, her voice—snarky and self-mocking—really stays with me. Enright’s handle on Gina’s interior monologue is accurate and unsparing that whole reading experience is, at times, like eavesdropping on a very long, intimate phone conversation. The economic clash comes about two-thirds the way through the book, shattering what little self-assurance of both Gina and Sean and explaining much of her self-mockery. She is in love with a man whose philandering ways she chooses not to see. She is in love with someone who is incapable to reciprocate.

My problem with this book is the way Gina narrates the events of several years in roughly chronological order but with many flashbacks and slips forward. So I’m not always sure when I am reading about. Gina is also the ultimate narcissist, and because of which, all characters exist within the constraint of her intelligence and insight.

230 pp. Jonathan Cape London. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[513] Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle

” I loved making stuff up; I loved the way the next bit came into my head, it made sense and expanded and I could keep going till I came to the end; it was like being in a race. I always won. I told it the second I made it up, but I believed it, I really did. ” (229-230)

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is narrated, first-person, by 10-year-old Patrick Clarke, whose name is all over Barrytown, a suburb of Dublin, written with sticks
in wet cement. He lives with his working-class parents and a younger brother and sister. Despite his many escapades with his friends, from drawing big V on his chest for vigor, to parading with only underpants on in front of the new row of Corporation houses, to setting booby trap all over town, the kid is distressed over his parents’ fighting that he stays up all night to prevent their quarrels.

I had a book on top of my head. I had to get up the stairs without it falling off. If it fell off I would die. It was a hardback book, heavy, the best kind for carrying on your head. I couldn’t remember which one it was. I knew all the books in the house. I knew their shapes and smells. I knew what pages would open if I held them with the spine on the ground and let the sides drop. I knew all the books but I couldn’t remember the name of the one on my head. (75)

The plot structure, if there is one, is unconventional—takes a little while to get used to. It’s not entirely coherent, but made up of numerous vignettes. Roddy Doyle starts with an incident, a fire that leaves a barn slowly crumbling, its roof like a crooked lid of a can, and uses it to link to past events pertaining to Paddy’s family. The language is beautifully child-like, vulgar at times, dotted with Irish colloquialisms. reading it is like a 10-year-old is talking to you, full of childish wonderment and innocence.

They were fighting all the time now. They said nothing but it was a fight. The way he folded his paper and snapped it, he was saying something. The way she got up when one of the girls was crying upstairs, sighed and stopped, wanting him to see that she was tired. (221)

I have to keep reminding myself that the narrator is only 10 years old. That said, I still can’t help feeling he sometimes does very silly and random acts. The book gives me the feeling that I do not (and I cannot) have to remember most of the details but rather emotions evoked from the language and reactions of Paddy. There exudes a constant sense of his evolving emotions and turmoil. The emotions move from the light-hearted fun of his escapades to real-life harshness of his parents’ divorce. It’s a painful and bitter coming-of-age story.

282 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Quick Read: Albert Nobbs

Despite the negative feedback of the film and the story itself, I enjoyed Albert Nobbs, a long out-of-print novella by Irish novelist George Moore. It’s a very interesting story of a man who lived in mysterious circumstances. He worked for years and years as a waiter at a posh hotel in Dublin, never known for being anything but a hard working serious man. Then after one chance encounter everything changes. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger discovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. The story of his life is rather tragic, but Albert never dwells on it, the story concentrates more on his dreams and his attempts to find happiness.

At first glance this story seems to be nothing more than a sorrowful tale of lost identity and of love; how sad it must be to recognize that you can have more in life, but not know how to get it. Albert’s loneliness is what I got out of this book. Her almost desperation to achieve her dreams and plans is heartbreaking. In this compact book, Moore criticizes the atmosphere of unrelieved poverty and squalor; the frustration of all ideals; the suppression of individual thinking; the hysterical fear of sex as the supreme evil of which man is capable; the confusion of servility with obedience, furtive inhibition with virtuous self-denial, caution with wisdom; the fear of full expression and hence the distrust of the artist. 121 pages, Penguin.

[482] The Woman Who Walked into Doors – Roddy Doyle

” That was my life. Getting hit, waiting to get hit, recovering; forgetting. Starting all over again. There was no time, a beginning or and end. I can’t say how many times he beat me. It was one beating; it went on forever. I know how long: seventeen years. One stinking, miserable, good lump of days. Daylight and darkness. Pain and the fear of it. Darkness and daylight, over and over; world without end. ” (Ch.25, p.206)

The novel is about a battered wife who makes excuses for and justifies her husband’s wrongdoing. The Woman Who Walked into Doors tells the story of Paula Spencer, who struggles to reclaim her dignity after a violent, abusive marriage and a worsening alcohol problem, which she admits to nobody. Roddy Doyle takes us inside the head of Paula, who is now 39 years old, mother of four, and has been widowed for a year. The story is told in a circular and timeless manner. At the beginning we learn that she has just found out her husband is dead. But the prose immediately shifts to her family and childhood. She is the daughter of two affectionate, responsible parents; she is a pretty girl whose early puberty brings her mixed delights and sorrows. There is a profoundness to her sadness recalling the courtship she had with Charlo and the life they lived as a couple and as parents.

I keep blaming myself. After all the years and the broken bones and teeth and torture I still keep on blaming myself. I can’t help it. What if? What if? He wouldn’t have hit me if I hadn’t . . .; none of the other fists and belts would have followed if I hadn’t . . . He hit me, he hit his children, he hit other people, he killed a woman—and I keep blaming myself. For provoking him. For not loving him enough; for not showing it. (Ch.25, p.170)

The tragedy of Paula and Charlo is that they weren’t always tragic. He was a handsome boy with Elvis lips; she was a lovely girl who could sit on her hair. They had a blissful honeymoon at the seaside. But when she becomes pregnant, he turns abusive. The question for Paula is whether the end of things destroys the beginning? Were there any good times, or were they all polluted, all ruined? She seems to be always troubled by memory and broods upon its power to give life and to distort it.

I can’t pick and choose them. I can’t pretend. There were no good times. I can never settle into a nice memory, lie back, and smile. They’re all polluted, all ruined. (Ch.26, p.197)

I finish this novel drained and upset. Paula’s story is one that by the end has an outcome where all the victims of Charlo’s violence are still alive—if they actually have lives. The Woman Who Walked into Doors leaves you with this disturbing feeling that her husband has killed parts of her. If love is really blind, Paula’s example is unmatched. All that hurt, brutality, and physical abuse to which Charlo has subjected her seems to make her a woman. As she ruminates on the endless torture, she allows herself to be convinced of his love for her. It’s morbid and excruciating. Doyle modulates his prose with such fine pace, in sinuous variations. Whether Paula is ruminating or drunk, the writing is finely tuned to her emotional state.

226 pp. Random House UK. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]