The Narrow Land is really a fine novel. Christine Dwyer-Hickory treats of the relationship between the american artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. It is a tense relationship, withe a lot of resentment on her part over the way her own art has been overshadowed by her famous husband. There is also the story interwoven of a refugee boy from Germany taken in after the war on an American scheme for relocating children left orphans after the war. This is a book which would reward a second reading. Sharp detail, psychological insights and very moving descriptions. 9/10
‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney did not appeal to me, probably because, aged 71, the sexual relationships of teenagers do not hold my interest. However, the problem it is not just that: the book is a rather tedious read and centres around two young people, leaving all the rest of the characters making only incidental presences. I suppose one could say the same about Leopold Bloom in Ulysses but … I don’t think so. Sally’s book is boring. 2/10
Richard Russo’s novel, ‘Straight Man’ has its faults (it goes on a little too long and it has jokey situations that do not quite come off) but it’s a great read. And very amusing. Set in the English Department of a University, it has all the evils to be found in an English Department in a University (or in an English Department anywhere): pride, covetousness. lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The main character is refreshingly cynical. Well-written. 7/10
My friends at the Lucan book club make the last Wednesday of the month a pleasant experience. It’s always good to talk to people who like reading. ‘A Keeper’ (by Graham Norton) turned out to be rather a flat read. Most people thought it a competent work, which engaged the reader’s curiosity to the end, but did not consider it a very good book. For my part, I found the plot improbable and the characters poorly drawn. The book’s chapters alternate between ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ and so one has two stories popping up and down as one goes along. I find this construction confusing, since I prefer a story told straightforwardly without this kind of to-ing and fro-ing. All in all, I would give it 4/10 and would recommend it to anyone only if they had absolutely nothing else to read. To be fair, it would pass the time. Lukewarmly recommended.
When one reads Christine Mangan’s ‘Tangerine’ , one’s immediate thought is: come back Graham Norton, all is forgiven. This is a hopelessly tangled story that goes nowhere, with two main characters that are almost indistinguishable: ‘Alice’ and ‘Lucy’. Separate alternate chapters are given to each. and again this kind of structure does not appeal to me. Maybe it would work if the two women were drawn in a way that they appeared different as people. The only difference I could see is that one is silly and the other sillier. A silly book too, and most other people at the Book Club thought so, though a few were inclined to be less harsh than I. I give it 2/10, 1 because it’s always a success to have a book published and. 2, because I do not doubt that a lot of work went into it. There a ‘puff’ on the cover from Joyce Carol Oates extolling the book’s virtues. Oates is such a great writer herself that I will find it hard to forgive her. Not recommended.
Eva Dolan’s ‘This Is How It Ends’ is streets ahead of the above two. Again, there’s a lot of jumping around with chapters dated before and after and before again, which I found confusing. Fortunately, being confused as to when things were happening in relation to other things didn’t impair my reading too much because there is a definite plot-line and very good characterisation of the book’s people. There’s a very good description of a woman who has spent a lot of her life ‘protesting’ (on the Greenham Common demonstrations, for instance) and now finds herself aged and alone. And the other characters are also very well drawn. I thought it a good read and would give it 7/10. I took off 3 for it being a bit long-drawn out towards the end. 3? Oh hell, I’ll give it 8/10 and recommend it.
The Lucan Book Club meets in Lucan Library every last Wednesday of the month. Free admission
Want an extensive selection of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry? It’s here. Want an overall view of contemporary poets writing today? That’s here too.
Eileen Casey’s dedication to poetry is well known. Besides being a fine poet herself, she has contributed enormously over the years to furthering the appreciation of the craft through her critical articles and essays. Many poets owe much to her advice and support, including the present writer.
In this volume she has taken on the herculean task of collecting the responses of more than seventy contemporary poets to the poems of Patrick Kavanagh. The book includes a fine essay from Gerard Smyth, and Dr Una Agnew — who collaborated in the production, writes: ‘The poet Patrick Kavanagh would take enormous pleasure in having a standing army of poets and writers pay tribute to his work …”. Indeed he would, and this is a fitting tribute. The front cover is designed by Eoin Flynn and the very evocative portrait of Kavanagh is by artist Paul McCloskey.
Apart from mentioning the above names, such is the wide range and type of the responses that it would be entirely unfair to single out particularly for remark any of the contributors. Emerging new poets are included, as well as … er … old stalwarts (no offence intended).
The book is published by Fiery Arrow I SBN 978 1 999636807 and is available from Dubray books and other outlets.
My local Book Club in Lucan Library regularly blasts me out of my comfort zones and into the world of the Modern Novel. So it is I read ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ (1996) by Joyce Carol Oates and found it a really good book.
It is written in that ‘tumultuous’ style of many American novelists (Saul Bellow comes to mind) where there is so much information constantly thrown at the reader that it is a dizzying experience at times. It is tempting to say that there is often just too much to take in and that such an amount of tiny (and great) detail interrupts the flow of the narrative. However, it is this ‘overflow’ that is very much the style of the novel and gives it its momentum and its charm. And these details do indeed contribute to a very rounded description of the characters and provide information for the reader on the kind of people they are reading about, and also without that annoying method of halting everything so that a (sometimes rather lengthy) ‘descriptive paragraph’ can be inserted. Corinne, for example, the mother who is at the heart of the book and its concerns, is conveyed as the kind of person who could be described as ‘scatty’, but who also has a business sense which stays with her despite the demands of raising a family of five. One does not find out about these facets of her personality in a couple of descriptive paragraphs but from her words and actions throughout the book. This is rather like the way one finds out about people in real life.
I do have one difficulty with the book and it concerns its central event. This event occurs when one of the family undergoes a traumatic experience. I do not want to say any more and ‘spoil’ the book for a future reader, but I will say that I am not sure that the ensuing effects of this event on the family would necessarily be as great and widespread as Oates depicts, even though they are so serious and, indeed, devastating.
But of course I could be wrong. Trauma affects different families in different ways. On a personal level I know that a tragic deed can have far reaching consequences because when I was very young, there was a terrible event involving a young woman who was a namesake of mine. Subsequently and all through my youth I was constantly asked if I was related to her (because of our slightly unusual surnames. I am not directly related, as far as I know). The resonance of the event has died down as the years have passed and as I have grown older and yet just recently a stranger, somewhat older than I, surprised me with the old question: ‘Are you at all related to that unfortunate girl in that dreadful case some years ago?’ I was really taken aback at the way that event is still rippling outwards and so it is that I am very aware that the depiction of the long-term effects of the event at the heart of the Joyce Carol Oates book could be entirely true.
There are the usual conjectures on the cover as to whether this is finally ‘The Great American Novel’ we have all been waiting for. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s certainly a great novel. And it’s not just another ‘entertaining’ work. It really strikes into one, and makes one think about things.
The same is true of ‘A Book of American Martyrs’ (2017), which I have just today (31.01.2017) finished. Over 700 pages long, it is a gripping novel, and a riveting read throughout. However, the last 100 pages might have been cut, I think, because they seem like something of an ‘add-on’ and the final pages seem a bit like a search for that ‘closure’ that we all seek after some horrendous event in our lives. However, it is my experience that, frequently, there is no closure possible and so this part of the novel does not ring entirely true to me.
Nevertheless ‘A Book of American Martyrs is a really fine novel, carefully structured and meticulously written about a subject always controversial: the right to life. It did not change my views on that subject (nor does Oates set out to do so) but it did soften my view of the ‘the other side’.
A great time was had by all at the pre-launch of issue 7 of Skylight47 at the public library in Clifden on Thursday 15 September as part of the Arts week. The magazine is the result of some very hard work from the Clifden Writers Group and the accomplished poet Robyn Rowland was at hand to officiate. A number of the contributors attended and read out their pieces. I was very taken with Anne Irwin’s‘Omey Island Races 2015’ with its vivid description of the event; and ‘Elegy to Some Mysterious Form’by Ria Collins was quite a moving and unsettling poem on a very personal and traumatic decision that had to be made. Indeed all the contributors must be congratulated on a very fine selection of poems. There are prose articles too in the magazine on topics ranging from poem-writing itself (Kim Moore’s ‘Poetry Masterclass’) to reviews of recent books published.
The venue of Clifden Public Library contributed enormously to the cordial atmosphere of the proceedings, especially the three skylights overhead which, Tony Curtis assured us, were put in specially for the occasion and at great expense! Congratulations to all the Skylight Team on such a fine magazine and compliments to the library staff on the wonderful venue.
As mentioned, Australian poet Robyn Rowland did the honours and I was pleased to meet up with her again. I remember well her reading from her collection ‘This Intimate War’ recently in Dublin at The Sunflower Sessions in Jack Nealon’s (Capel Street, every last Wednesday, 07.30pm. Come along!). It is a most impressive book dealing with the terrible Gallipoli engagement in WWI and is a hard read since it eschews any self-serving attempts at ‘glorification’, and conveys much senselessness and absurdity of war. Robyn gets down into the dirt and blood with the soldiers and the sense of verisimilitude is stunning. Extra-fine poetry, then. And what a great writer she is and what a great thing to meet her … twice within a very few months!
My poem, Day of Judgement, was the last to be read out, and just as well too since it is a poem about ‘last things’. Not the kind of poem one would like to hear at a Christmas party (or any party!) but poems like this do have their place in the Great Order of Things to Come (but not to come too soon we hope!)
Day of Judgement
They who come to clear this room
will show a ruthlessness unknown
to me. The histories of my books
and how they came to claim a space
along these shelves will be unknown
to them. The brush and vacuum cleaner
will probe every corner, frames
will leave rectangles on the walls
and files of half-formed poems will bulk
black plastic sacks. This desk and chair
and radio/cd/clock will find
our long companionship concluded.
Half an hour will be enough
to sweep away a life, to feed
the hungry skip, allow the skirting
run around the room again
unhidden; there will be no mercy
for old pencil stubs, news clippings
yellowing in trays. Each spring
I tried, but never could be heartless,
emulate that day of judgement
when my loves must face the flames
or crowd the local charity shop,
forlorn— hoping for salvation.
Single issues of Skylight 47 are available at €5.00 plus postage, from skylight47.wordpress.com or come to the launch in Galway City Library at 6.00pm on Thursday, September 29 and pick up a copy.
Submissions for Skylight 47 issue 8 (Spring 2017) will be accepted between 1 Nov 2016 and 1 Jan 2017. See skylight47poets.wordpress.com for details.
Before Baghdad was bombed that fateful evening in 2003 I saw a TV report in which Baghdadis were demonstrating against the imminent war. Prominent among the placards was one which depicted the US Secretary of Defence with horns added to his head over the slogan ‘Devil Rumsfeld’. We are always cautioned against demonizing the enemy but maybe we can say in this case the Baghdadis were right.
I’m still not clear which of the Imperial Triumvirate at the top of the American Empire (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) was most responsible for the Iraq tragedy but Andrew Cockburn’s very detailed book makes a good case for Donald. His book is rampacked with so much information about Rumsfeld’s dogged pursuit of position and power – including a stab at running for President – that this reader was somewhat overwhelmed. It is a book in the tradition of every minute detail being laid out … in detail, and is therefore something of a tough read. After all, when one has been led through half a dozen highly questionable wheelings and dealings one tends to fast forward through the next dozen or so. In defence of this ‘fault’ I have to admit that I did not need much convincing that Rumsfeld was – as the subtitle has it – a ‘disaster’ for America. My prejudice against the man is quite strong.
Apart from this suffocating welter of information the book is a very good read and exposes, once again, how a nation was misled into one of the most dreadfully mistaken foreign policy ventures in all history, and for which we in the ‘West’ are now reaping the whirlwind and will continue to reap for the foreseeable future. If, unlike me, you need to be more persuaded about Donald’s miscalculations and pig-ignorance about Iraq and Iraqis, you should read this book.
[By the way, Donald’s observation that ‘there are known unknowns. That is to say there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know’ is a surprisingly profound insight and has, before reading this book, acted as something of a brake on my outright prejudices against the man. Not any more. Cockburn asserts that ‘old Pentagon hands recall it circulating in the Office of Defence Research and Engineering in a xeroxed compilation of similar maxims as long ago as the 1960s’.]
The problem with reading the history of American Native Peoples and their virtual annihilation by my European ancestors is that one can become very depressed at the horrors they endured for centuries. From the initial deprivations under the early settlers, on through the ‘opening of the West’, and well into the last century their story is a heart-breaking one of mass extermination amounting to genocide. And so, to read a book that has a happier tale to tell about Native Americans is something wonderful. Charles Wilkinson describes a resurgent Native American movement intent on reclaiming its rights and on bringing an end brutal and degrading treatment (the book is subtitled ‘The Rise of Modern Indian Nations’). It is not at all an unqualified success story. There is still a long way to go and of course entitlement to the full extent of the lands which were stolen from them (i.e., all of North America!) can never be adequately addressed, but this book gives an account of the many successes Native American tribes have had since the middle of the last century in reclaiming at least some of their heritage, both in terms their traditions and of their lands, and this has had the effect of restoring confidence in themselves and in their efforts to assert their rights.
The question of when began this rowing back of age-old mistreatment is a bit clouded, but Wilkinson locates it somewhere around the mid 1950s. The burgeoning civil rights movement was a big influence, although it seems that there was a somewhat uneasy relationship between the black people and native Americans despite the ill-treatment they suffered in common. Black/coloured people had been forcibly removed from their homelands and shipped to America, where as the Native Americans were forcibly deprived of their (sovereign) homelands in America by the various means of fraudulent treaties and genocidal massacres.
The resurgence of the Native American movement to assert this sovereignty was greatly helped by the returning Native American war veterans who had put their lives on the line for their country and expected better treatment at home than had been afforded their parents. Many of these men and women used their education grants to study law and then to use their skills to further the cause of their people, many of whom were still living in the reservations they had been forced into long ago and in which they were also still enduring appalling conditions.
Other books I have read have gone into considerable detail about these conditions and the assaults on the dignity of these ancient and civilized peoples and, quite rightly, the tone has often been one of sincere regret and severe condemnation. Wilkinson eschews a ‘horrified’ tone and allows the facts to speak for themselves. In so doing, he lays bear in a matter-of-fact way the unspeakable injustices of expropriation wreaked on these aboriginal peoples in the fevered days of the white man’s land-grabbing in the ‘New World’. The book is not just another denunciation of the white man (indeed there is mention of white men and women who have fought the Indians’ cause along the way). It is a reasoned and factual account of what was lost and the relatively recent efforts to turn the tide and make better the life of today’s tribes. The successes are enumerated along with the future difficulties. Furthermore, most of the accounts and narratives are given by Native Americans themselves, with Wilkinson adopting a facilitator’s role.
Recent events that mark this change in attitudes towards the Indian Peoples can be seen in the return of many lands important to the tribes culturally, for example the return of Blue Lake and its surrounding forestry to the people of the Taos Pueblo by President Nixon in 1970. There had been a long road to travel through red tape and bureaucracy before this happened, but it did happen in the end. Like in other instances, the persistence and resilience and courage of native Americans, coupled with dedicated legal know-how, finally won the day. The American Indian always had plenty of courage, but legal know-how is a more recent acquisition and has made all the difference.
This book also has the advantage of being one more deadly blow against the self-serving notion which has it that Europeans found their ‘New World’ virtually devoid of people and with vacant land there for the taking. I find this still a commonly held view here in Ireland. In fact, as this book shows conclusively, the array of nations and cultures present when the white man arrived was widespread over the entire continent. Wilkinson also provides maps of Indian reservations which show their present lands and what has been gained since the more recent affirmative actions of the tribes. The comparisons of their present holdings with what was the extent of their original territories says it all, as is evident in the Taos Pueblo map (above) of the 1970s returned lands.
The best thing about this book, apart from its being a scholarly but eminently readable achievement, is that – like I said at the start of this piece – its message is positive. There’s a lot to be done yet, but the position of the American Native Peoples is improving, even though the progress is slow and the road ahead anything but easy. And because 10 years have elapsed since its publication I am driven search out news of developments since then.
About the author:
Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Charles Wilkinson is the author of twelve books, including American Indians, Time and Law and Crossing the New Meridian. A former attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, he has travelled to more than one hundred Indian reservations. Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation said of him: “Of all the students of American Indian law, Charles Wilkinson is the best. He is down to Earth, loves the people, and appreciates the beauty of the land.” Wilkinson currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. (2005)