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Top Ten Reads – Says Who?

19/06/2011 Comments off

Recently I took a notion that I would like to re-read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I searched high up and low down but couldn’t find it on my shelves, so I dropped into Easons where I was able to buy it for three euros, all 800 pages of it. And off I set again, starting with that  famous first sentence: ‘All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Anna Karenina seems to always feature in lists of the literary greats and reading the book again got me thinking of such lists. Then I stumbled on the web site for The Top Ten – the book edited by L Peder Zane, where he asked 125  American and British authors to list their 10 favourite works of fiction.

He ended up with 544 titles and from these tabulated a series of Top Ten Lists, including:

The Top Ten Books of All Time

The Top Ten Books of the 20th Century

And yes, there it was, Anna Karenina is listed as the number one choice in the Top Ten Books of All Time.

I take out the book and skip to the novel’s last sentence: ‘My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.’ 

A thought to be going on with from the number one literary great.

I met him in my sister’s garden ….

15/05/2011 Comments off

I haven’t yet read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz – only the first chapter that you can read on BBB 4 web site and where you can also hear an interview with the author herself. It was my Kindle e-book reader that first got me into reading first chapters. Reading first chapters for free became my favourite Kindle feature.

My Kindle was a gift from Santa in Christmas 2009 when the snow seemed to stay forever. The Forgotten Waltz works backwards from that snow-bound winter as the narrative is told in retrospect. It is the story of an affair set in the Ireland of the late 2000s when the property-fueled economy was imploding.

‘Love is always deluded,’ Enright says in her interview about the novel. The story is a trope, she says, an image of the delusion that was the Celtic Tiger. And it starts in the late afternoon of a suburban barbecue: ‘I met him in my sister’s garden in Enniskerry.’ There is a moment when she watches him – the man who is to become her lover – through a haze of cigarette smoke before he turns to look at her: ‘For the moment I am just breathing.’

The first chapter is enough to get me hooked. I need to know what happened next. It will be on my winter list for the Kyleglass Book Worms.

A Book Club Take on The Boy In The Gap

15/04/2011 Comments off

They’re a fussy lot in our Book Club but each and everyone gave the thumbs up to Paul Soye’s The Boy In The Gap. Can it really be that this is his first novel, so fine is the writing achievement?

We were into the suspense from the very first line, I remember the first night ‘on remand’ watching the news, and the tension is held right to the end through the device of having Jack  Sammon – the main character – jot down his thoughts in prison in an exercise book; more precisely, in The Ireland Series No. 03. Coipleabhar – 120 pages. Paul Soye’s writing is exquisitely precise.

Jack’s father dies when he is six and his mother takes on a partner, to whom Jack and his brother assign the nick name Latchico. For our non-Irish book club member we spent a few giddy minutes coming up with expressions to explain our understanding of the term Latchico: ass-hole, wastrel, good-for-nothing, gob-shite….

The story is set in te west of Ireland, in the area of County Mayo around Clew Bay ‘like a grey-blue desert from Achill and Clare Island to Newport and Westport, out along by the Reek…’ The landscape is finely evoked as is the animal life. The young boys get their early sex education as they watch a ram circle with twisted nostrils and mount his first ewe.

The book reaches into deep psychological recesses and the trauma that can erupt when an individual’s balance is disturbed: ‘The world shakes. The world and the delicate things around you are no longer stable.’

There is a consensus among the Kyleglass Book Worms: already we are looking forward eagerly to Paul Soye’s next novel.

Dublin Doubles – A Book Club Take on Neil Jordan’s Mistaken

10/02/2011 Comments off

Neil Jordan’s new novel Mistaken is about two Dubliners, Kevin and Gerard, who spend their lives being mistaken for one another.  A mix of thriller and gothic genres, it is Neil Jordan’s first novel in six years. You can see Neil Jordan talk about his work on TV3 here.

All the Kyleglass Book Worms agree that the book gives a rich, immediate and evocative picture of Dublin in the sixties, seventies and eighties: Woolworth’s, Bewley’s, the Wellington Monument, Burgh Quay Irish Press offices and the real-life figure of David Marcus.

All agree that the Neil Jordan’s writing is crisp and direct with a strong visual eye – a skill inherited from his painter mother, he says. One sees the screen writer at work, every word selected with precision.

One of us has read an interview Neil Jordan gave to the The Telegraph where he talks about the two Niel Jordans: the writer and the film maker. ‘This mildly schizophrenic feeling triggered the idea for this novel.’

Some of us think that the book sags a bit in the middle; others that the narrator device of addressing Emily as ‘you’ is confusing in parts; that the Bram Stoker thread seems contrived; that the Manhattan gothic strand is over the top; that it is pretentious to be dragging Joyce into the story as if it is a modern-day Ulysses.

A ‘Small Talk’ interview Jordan gave to the Financial Times was intriguing. Asked what his current favourite word was, he replied, ‘Dinnsheanchas. An Irish word meaning “the lore of place.”‘ What comes across in Mistaken is Neil Jordan’s deep and abiding immersion in his Dublin places.

After all that, I can say that this ode to Dublin, Jordan’s place, with its stories, its lore and its literary ghosts, was not a bad January read. That’s the consensus from the Kyleglass Book Worms.

A half-dozen selection of Irish Short Stories

12/01/2011 3 comments

 

It was one of my books for Christmas. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. And it was my recommended read for our book club this month.

But they’re a stubborn crowd, my book club lot. They know their own minds. What did they think of the book? 

Took a long while to get into.

Some of the stories were lousy.

There are writers  here  I like, but they have better stories than what we got in this collection.

Some of the stories had no beginning or middle or end.

These can’t be the best Irish short stories of the last century!

It was time to turn the discussion around, get it working on a more positive vein.

Well, can we talk about the stories we DID like. Let’s see if we can select a half-dozen.

This did the trick. Lots of stories were enjoyed. We got a consensus on the top half-dozen Irish short stories from the Granta selection:

Claire Keegan’s ‘Men and Women’

From the 1999 collection Antartica, this story gets going with the great opening lines, ‘My father took me places. He had artificial hips, so he needs me to open gates.’ For our discerning lot, Claire Keegan’s stories, set in her rural mythic landscapes, are a triumph of writing.

Colm Tobin’s ‘A Priest in the Family’

We admired the grit, the dignity, the self-possession of Molly, mother of the child-abuser priest. After informing her of the devastating news, Father Greenwood adds, ‘I’d say people will be very kind.’ Molly replies knowingly: ‘Well, you don’t know them, then.’

Edna O’Brien’s, Sister Imelda

It’s almost 30 years since this story first appeared and it captures the boarding school world of bacon and cabbage, tapioca pudding, ‘fairly green rhubarb jam’ and the nuns’  ‘monotonous Latin chanting, long before the birds began’.

Eugene McCabe’s ‘Music at Annahullion’

 Three siblings share a home on ‘thirty wet sour acres’ and their wretched lives are captured in words spoken in Annie’s dream: ‘I wish to God we were never born.’

Mary Lavin’s ‘Lilacs’

This piece goes back almost six decades to Mary Lavin’s collection Tales from Bective Bridge.  The images of dung and lilac counterpoint the worlds of gritty reality and class aspiration with astute precision.

William Trevor’s ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’

The last story in the Granta selection and the master does not disappoint with this world of the greasy garage, the wayside weeping statue and the strange dressmaker.

We all agreed there were enough good stories in this collection to be getting along with – even if each of us had our hate list.

Fear, Grief and Unexpected Hope

22/11/2010 2 comments

This Irish Citizen found hope from an unexpected source in a week when four children died violently in rooms at their homes and the IMF and ECB arrived in Ireland.  My source of hope came from Emma Donoghue’s novel  Room. In a 12-ft square room where a sky-light gives the only glimpse of the outside world, a young woman nurtures her child and preserves her own sanity through the power of language, storytelling and imagination.

I could not have believed that I would turn to such a book in a week when we were shocked and numbed by public and private tragedy. How could a novel that evoked the horror of a family’s incarceration by Joseph Fritzl  bring hope? But it did just that for me in a memorable and multi-layered read.

Five year old Jack finds richness and wonder in the confined room that he shares with Ma – he knows no other world. It is a place where he has  ‘thousands of things’ to do  like following a spider’s movements, watching a new leaf emerge from a potted plant and listening to Ma‘s advice: ‘It’s called mind over matter. If we don’t mind it doesn’t matter.’

This trailer for Room catches some of its magic, I think.

This is my book of the year.

Maybe you found hope this week gone in story?

Best Book Club Reads: a half-dozen selection

20/09/2010 1 comment

To pick our Best Book Club Reads out of fifty books and five years of reading from an opinionated group can be daunting. We stuck to the task, made lists, noted votes, talked, changed our minds, remembered a great read that we’d omitted, voted again and came to our decision, exhausted and only slightly happy because of the great, great reads that we had to leave out. So here it is then, the Kyleglass Book Worms’ list of Best Book Club Reads:

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Clean, elegant writing from a German law professor; deals with the Holocaust for subsequent German generations and immediately reminded me of Uwe Timm’s moving memoir, In My Brother’s Shadow. As for the narrator’s motivation in writing the book,  ‘Maybe I did write the story to be free of it.’

The Sea by John Banville. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 with it and The Sea is one of Banville’s most accessible books. Max Morden, mourning the death of his wife, returns to the seaside scene of his childhood summers and the sea becomes memory, its surges ‘another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference’.

Englby by Sebastian Faulks. Mike Engleby, a fresher at Cambridge in the 1970s, is an odd, unpleasant, possibly evil, but engaging and funny character who uses his diary to chart his unravelling life. Story turns into a black mystery.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows. An off-beat read by an ex-librarian and bookseller who died months before publication of a book that she finished off with the help of her niece Ann Barrows. A quirky epistolary novel about the war years in Guernsey under Nazi occupation and imbued with a powerful love of books and reading.

Everyman by Philip Roth. A slim read about a Jewish-American confronting old age and death with Roth’s usual strong autobiographical influences. The page-long, one sentence description of a boy riding the ocean waves and running home ‘remembering the mightiness of that immense sea boiling in his own two ears’ is mesmerizing.

A Fine Balance by Rohinson Mistry. A sweeping story of contemporary India from Independence in 1947 to the Emergency of 1977 with a character cast of innocents and outcasts who show the power of the human spirit in adversity.

Hours of shared reading and great chat, not all of it about books. Looking forward to the next fifty reads. (See Joe Duffy and Fiona Looney top reads shared at Ennis Book Festival here.)

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