Brooklyn – Colm Toibin (2009)

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Sometimes I happen to pick up the perfect book to read for one reason or another, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn just ended up being one of those incredible experiences. I’d been having just an OK reading life lately – nothing too exciting (although the African-Am titles in Feb were great) – and was strolling around looking for a domestic novel of sorts: nothing that dramatic and with a good story about everyday lives with easily relatable characters. Brooklyn was a perfect storm of great reading for me, and, as you can probably surmise, I loved every minute of reading it.

It’s an Irish novel set in fairly recent times (mid-20th century?) with a young woman growing up in a small town with not much to offer her. Her family’s priest knows another Irish priest in Brooklyn who is willing to set her up with a new life out there in the already well-established Irish neighborhood and her parents feel that it’s an opportunity that she could not turn down. This novel follows that journey and protagonist Eilis Lacey as she travels forth into the great unknown and a new life.

Toibin is a well known Irish author (see review of his 2005 The Blackwater Lightship here), and after thoroughly enjoying my read of the Irish writer Edna O’Brien Country Girls trilogy of novels, thought this would be a good pick for now. Additionally, I’d just seen the really good film adaptation of Brooklyn the other day and after having really enjoyed that, thought I would do a brief compare-and-contrast (as you do).

So it’s a narrative arc that’s not really that thrilling when you look at it from a distance, but when you are immersed in Eilis’ life throughout the story, it was such a strong pull for me to continue reading to find out how things worked out for the characters. In fact, it was so strong that I ended up staying really late a couple of nights as I just had to find out what Eilis chose in the end. (And I’m a dormouse usually, sleeping-wise.)

I’m not sure what exactly was so perfect about this book. The writing was great, the narrative arc was strong (without being predictable), but I think it was the actual characters (especially Eilis and her friend Tony) who really pulled me back into the pages each time. I became so immersed in their story that whenever I did end up putting the book down (for sleep and life etc.), it was a struggle to not pick up the story at every chance that I could get.

It’s a great feeling to have such a connection with a book’s story and characters, so all praise must surely go to Toibin for inventing such characters and then writing about them in such a way that I was really pretty riveted for the whole read.

I know. This sounds a bit gushy, but if you’re looking for a REALLY good read, a read that sucks you in and then keeps you there (even when you’re doing something else), you may want to try Brooklyn. It will definitely end up on my list of favorite books for the year, and I’m jazzed to try more of his work now. It was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and other big booky prizes, all of which it deserves if you ask me.

Highly recommended. (The film is good too, btw.)

The Girl with Green Eyes – Edna O’Brien (1962)

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Found in a thrift shop one day, I picked this title up having some faint inkling of O’Brien’s name but no clear idea how that was so. I knew that she was an Irish author, and probably wrote gritty domestic drama type stuff which happened to be exactly what I was looking for… So I snapped that little baby up.

This was a good read. The plot was pretty typical (it seems to me) – a young rural Irish lass from a strongly Catholic family falls in love with an “unsuitable” man (much to her parents’ dismay). Then conflict arises (with an unintended pregnancy) leading to conclusion. (I’m not knocking the narrative – that was what I was looking for, actually.)

O’Brien writes lyrically about the Irish countryside which leads to an interesting comparison: the quiet and calm of the countryside vs. the high stakes drama of the young woman and her lover. Perhaps this was also a subtle reflection of control: being controlled by the church/being free to make own decisions, the push for women’s rights and the role of women in 1960’s Ireland, perhaps even the idea of Ireland chafing under English rule?

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So – this was a good read. As I came to the end, I realized that this was Volume II in a trilogy (called “The Country Girls”) which follows the trials and tribulations of two young Irish friends. This was fine as a standalone and as a new reader, I didn’t feel lost at all with regard to the narrative.

Some background about O’Brien: according to Wiki, O’Brien is considered by some to be the “doyenne” of Irish literature, and the first volume of this trilogy was banned, burned and denounced by the Catholic Church of the time. After this, naturally, O’Brien left Ireland and went to London where she went on to write about the 1960’s taboos about sexual matters and social issues in her work, continuing to ruffle the feathers of the Church.

O’Brien herself was the youngest daughter of a very strict family – her parents were vehemently against literature (except, presumably, the bible) and this is reflected in the comment O’Brien made at one point, saying “Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories.” Knowing this and having read this second volume, I think it’s safe to say that this one was fairly autobiographical in places.

This was made in a film of the same name in 1964. Anyone seen it?

So, overall, I enjoyed this read and will probably search out more O’Brien work in the future.

Catching Up Time…

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(This post is a little early as I will be out of town tomorrow and thus unable to post. I realize how important my blog posts are for your general wellbeing and the smoothness of your day, so here you go for Wed’s edition. :-} )

So – catch up in my world of books…

Finished up The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin which I almost dropped halfway through due to ongoing and deep confusion about the characters…

I finished it in the end and it was actually pretty good. (It was shortlisted for the Booker in 1999.) This is another Irish author with the story set in Ireland in the early 1990’s. A ruptured and dysfunctional family are thrown together when one of them is found to be dying of AIDS and they all reconvene at Grandma’s house for his final days.

It’s not an easy read – it’s actually quite an uncomfortable read really – but it is very good. Toibin liked to add unpredictable twists in how he explains the characters and as the story changes, so do the names of one or two main characters. Tricky at first but once I understood what was going on, I could pick up on it and enjoyed the sly word play.

For example, the grandmother of the family is called “Granny” for all the first third of the novel. When one of the brother’s friends shows up to help with his health care at home, suddenly the grandma is called “Mrs. So and So” whenever the scene links the friends and her. So when she has a conversation or interacts with these non-family people, she is referred to (by Coibin and his characters) as Mrs. So-and-So. When she’s interacting with her family, she is referred to by everyone as Granny.

So, it’s confusing but worth it when you work it out — like being a member of a secret club idea.

It’s a novel where “nothing much happens”, but with this one, it’s all under the surface. Beautiful writing, tough stuff, good read. I recommend it and I also recommend that you stick with it until at least after halfway. It’s worth the effort.

Additionally, I’ve been reading the 1963 edition of Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy. Ogilvy founded the worldwide ad agency, Ogilvy and Mather, and was considered the “Godfather of Advertising” back in the day. (Bit later than Mad Men if you know that show.)

Written 50 years ago, the advice is still golden and good to know if you’re in a communications field (which we all are as we communicate with other people all day every day in general). It’s written in bullet style, for the most part, and I’m enjoying being reminded of advertising “best practices” ideas and also learning new things.

Speaking of which, I’m learning Twitter (and how to) at work. I already FB, but needed something more immediate to reach our audience. I’ve finally jumped into the world of Immediate Social Media. Does anyone else twitter or Instagram or use any other tool? I’m always up for tips of the trade.

Update about the Ogilvy book: I couldn’t take its dated approach after a few more pages and its discriminatory advice, so I placed in the charity pile unfinished. Bah.

Felicia’s Journey – William Trevor (1994)

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A title that was picked rather randomly off the TBR shelf, this was a great surprise read for me. William Trevor, described by Wiki as “one of the elder statesmen of the Irish literary world,” is famous for his short stories, but his back list is HUGE and so there are loads of different books to choose from. He’s won quite a few prestigious literary prizes (including the Whitbread Prize and has five nominations for the Booker Prize.) Irreverent sidenote: He sounds a bit like the Snoop Dogg/Lion of the Booker World.*

So – to the plot of this fast-moving and short book: Felicia is an unmarried and naïve Irish girl who ends up getting pregnant by a visiting no-good lad from her village who has moved away to England. In Felicia’s impoverished family, there are few options for her to follow, so she leaves Ireland to go to the Midlands to chase down this boy who, she is certain, would like to know she is pregnant and would do the right thing. Her family is against this lad from the get-go as her father believes that the guy has run off to join the British Army, and as they are extremely wound up in Irish Independence activity and history, this act means he has joined the enemy.

Along with this is the fact that the family is Roman Catholic and her father works at a convent in the garden, so options for her pregnancy are not available either. Poor thing – it’s a no-win situation for her all around, it seems, and so she visits England for the first time in secret – a foreign country for her as she has not traveled much before.

Aside from the facts that Felicia has little money, no friends, no housing, and a fake address for this boy of hers, it doesn’t look very hopeful. Then she meets Mr. Hilditch (always used with that title) who is a quiet nondescript middle-aged catering manager for a local factory near where Felicia is staying. He presents himself as a kind and rescuing father figure for her, but in his thoughts, the reader can see that there is a history of something weird. He has “rescued” girls before, but what has come of them? And will he do the same with Felicia?

This is a taut psychological novel about the hunter and the hunted: Mr. Hildich is the predator and naïve girls “who won’t be missed” are the prey. At the same time as this is happening, you also follow Felicia’s thoughts as she is scared and confused. She lives on the street for a few days, gets in with a rather strange but benign religious group who can give her a place to sleep, and she keeps being circled by Mr. Hildich, as a shark does bleeding seals. You just know that something is going to happen…. But what?

The ending comes quite quickly and it’s not what I had thought it would do. (I love this unpredictability in a plot.) There are a few major twists and in the end, things are left hanging unsolved really. (You’ll get the hanging ref when you read it. The plot also tightens as a noose would… )

Again, not sure where this title came from but thanks for the heads-up whoever it was. I loved its taut plot and believable characters. There will be more Mr. Trevor reads in the future.

  • Snoop Dogg/Lion has been nominated for lots of Grammy Awards, but has never been awarded one in 20 years. Kinda like Susan Lucci of the rap world. 

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The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne – Brian Moore (1955)

Judith HearneAbsolutely definitely one of the best books that I have read this year, I am not sure where I came across this title or what it was that pushed me to get it through ILL, but suffice to say, I did and I loved it. A novel in the same realm as “Stone Angel” or perhaps one of Doris Lessing’s characters (or Muriel Spark), this protagonist is a middle-aged unmarried woman in the 1950’s in Belfast. During this time period, there were some options (but not many) for women who were not that well educated and unmarried.

Miss Judith Hearne is a part-time music teacher, but this is not enough to fill her  bank account or her long days and hours that she has to spare whilst she moves from one boarding house after another. It’s from the PoV of Hearne, and it’s interesting to see how Moore matches her speech to her thoughts (as it would in real life). She has a secret habit in her life, and as this becomes more and more of a problem, the reader is allowed to see this in Judith’s speech. (I don’t really feel right calling her “Judith” – she’s more of a “Miss Hearne” to me).

“Around the table the guests sat in semi-gloom, silent except for the tiny crash of tea cups and the tearing of toast…”

(What a perfect description of life in a dreary boarding house on a rainy day!)

And here is a description of Miss Hearne’s landlady at tea one day:

“…[she] drooped her huge bosom over the table like a bag of washing…” – what a great choice of words! The heaviness of laundry, the domesticity of it all…  And the landlady also had a “wicked parrot smile” — what an image that is.

Her life has not been that easy, and it is this sense of doubt of where she has and what she had done with her life that pervades this story. It’s a life that seems hopeless in many ways with no way to change or go a new direction. Miss Hearne’s Catholic religion plays a huge role in her life, but with some problems come some doubts and to those around her, her voicing these doubts is threatening and uncomfortable. Despite her religious belief, she is extremely judgmental and yet, like Hagar in “Stone Angel”, despite her being unlikeable, the reader can’t help but understand her and sympathize with her on some levels.

It’s a grey, rainy and inner-city novel – full of wet cold days and characters much the same. Miss Hearne does make her own problems worse, it is true, but at heart she is very lonely, poor, unwanted and sad. She’s not malevolent but her actions can be misunderstood and so her usual shield against the comments of others is defensiveness. However, I couldn’t help but feel for her – what other choices had she had in her life?

“The habits of her years, the constant counting of the cost, the careful measuring of pounds, shillings and pence, wondering if there will be enough to last the week…”

And then this description of another part of Belfast that Miss Hearne visits one night:

“the gritty gloom of evening, down grey drab streets, fringed by row upon row of mean little working class houses, brick red, stone grey, each and every one the same. At each window, between fraying lace curtains, a coloured vase, a set of crossed Union Jack flags, or a figurine of a little girl holding her skirts up to wade, set like little altars, turned towards the street for the edification of the neighbors…”

There is a lot of mention about alcohol – its effects, the drinking, the pub environment – and so I thought it was quite appropriate that in the middle of the book there were some cigarette burns and drink spills.

I was mulling over why the title was called “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” and why they used the word “Passion”. After some thinking, I think perhaps it was for several different meanings. First, Miss Hearne is inexperienced with love and so has an almost dreamlike quality to how she thinks life would be with her True Love (whoever that might be). Passion is made to be shared, I think, and so the title emphasizes her lone role in life. The plot also revolves around her religion, so perhaps it could be argued that there is the “passion for Christ” side of things. And then she has that secret passion which she thinks no one knows about…

Secrets also play a huge role in this novel – everyone has secrets and many people more than one. Bernie and the maid, Maddon and the maid, Maddon and his true past in the States, the question of money (and who has how much) for Miss Hearne and Maddon. Bernie is obese so it might be argued that he is hiding behind that, but what is he hiding? His lack of success as a poet? His unhappiness at living at home as a grown adult? Does his obesity keep him safe and therefore living without risks? The other resident teacher in the boarding house is always hiding behind her books at meal time – is she hiding her true feelings? For whom? And then curtains and doors play a large role as well – people hiding behind them, listening…

Seriously, this is a fantastic read. It’s not a happy one, by any means, but it’s a well written one.

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The Sea – John Banville

A short but intense novel about Max, a middle-aged man who goes back to his childhood holiday home when his wife dies of cancer.  The protagonist wants to revisit his childhood memories by staying in the house where a very influential family lived
when he was a kid. The family had two twin children, a boy and a girl, who were absolutely hideous in how they behaved with Max on holiday, and this book explores his memories of how he felt treated by the family.

Lyrically written, it’s a slow read and Banville had a different style of writing, employing long sentences with numerous comma splices (grammar nerd alert), but once you got used to his lengthy sentences, they worked well.

The actual plot was well arranged: the twins with whom Max makes friends (only to find out that they are really awful when together), the mother of the twins (with whom Max falls in adolescent love), the father in the family. Plus there is a really good twist at the end with a few characters which I did not see coming. (Love that when it works.)

Lovely descriptions of the seaside, but more of a psychological description really – how it all felt, how the characters felt. Not too much physical description.

Stunning vocabulary range, although I would probably dread having a conversation with him if he knows this many words. Some of words I needed to look up: cerements, rufous, rubescent, craquelured, groynes, blench, coevals, horrent, cinereal, anabasis, vituperation, prelapsarian, anaglypta, glair, ovine, homunculus, soughing, plangent, apercus, crepitant, refection, casuistry, mephitic, caducous, congeries, crepitant… Phew. I thought I was quite well read, but I have not heard of many of these words. Smackdown.

This enormous vocabulary did start to smell of showing off after a while, and it really slowed down the reading of the book, plot-wise, as I pondered the definition and meaning of the more unusual words (which were not always clear from context).

Another bonus: it’s a book about twins (except these two are really horrible).

More of a broccoli book than anything; hard work to complete, but done with satisfaction.

Man Booker Prize winner in 2005.