Author: Thomas H. O’Connor
Title: The Boston Irish
Publication Info: 9780316626613
ISBN: Back Bay Books (1997)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Eminent Bostonians
Summary/Review: Subtitled “A Political History” this is the Dean of Boston History’s story of the rise of Irish from subjugated minority to political power in Boston. While there is a lot more that could be said of Boston Irish history this book focuses on the Irish mayors and a few other political leaders as well as Irish-American Catholic bishops attempts to help lead their flock into the Boston mainstream. O’Connor follows to trends – the business-like, accommodationist attempts to work with the traditional Yankee power elite and the more confrontational, neighborhood-focused style emphasized by John Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley. This was an interesting summary of politics in Boston history and especially informative of the big figures in recent history of Boston.
Recommended books: How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald, and Ethnics and Enclaves by William Michael Demarco.
Author: Roddy Doyle
Title: The Dead Republic
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2010.
By the same author:
- Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
- A Star Called Henry
- The Woman Who Walked into Doors
- The Commitments
- The Snapper
- The Van
- Oh, Play That Thing
- Paula Spencer
- The Deportees: and Other Stories
Summary/Review: Doyle completes The Last Roundup trilogy, a story of Ireland and the Irish in the 20th century through the lens of one everyman – Henry Smart. The first book in this series A Star Called Henry is one of my favorite novels of all time. The sequel which follows Henry to America in the Roaring Twenties – Oh, Play That Thing – starts of brilliantly but then collapses due to some poor narrative choices. The final installment brings Henry back to Ireland and is a return to form albeit still failing to approach the brilliance of the first novel.
Henry accompanies John Ford to make a film based on his own life which Ford turns into The Quiet Man. Escaping Ford’s green-tinted lens view of Ireland, Henry settles into working as a janitor at a school in a modern Dublin suburb where he may or may not be reacquainted with his long-lost wife. Henry gets caught in the 17 May 1974 terrorist bombings in Dublin (coincidentally the second book this month I’ve read where these bombings play a crucial role after Let the Great World Spin) and his true identity is revealed. He’s hailed as a hero of the rebellion and called back into action by the modern IRA. Yet, Henry soon comes to realize that the IRA’s vision of Ireland is as false and idealistic as Fords.
Overall, Doyle does a great job in this series at taking on modern Irish history – warts and all – through the lens of this fascinating (if not always likable) character. I highly recommend reading all three books even if you have to slog through the second half of Oh, Play That Thing.
Author: Sinan Antoon
Title: I’jaam : an Iraqi rhapsody
Publication Info: San Francisco : City Lights, c2007.
Summary/Review: This short book is set in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and purports to be the memoir of a student who ends up as a political prisoner. The conceit of the novel is that the i’jaam – dots added to Arabic script – have been left off leading to ambiguous (and presumably comical) meanings to some of the words, but even the author gets tired of this after a while. I wasn’t too impressed by this book as it seemed to be trying to be too avant guarde without really delivering.
Recommended books: A Sky So Close: A Novel by Betool Khedairi
Author: Ulrich Boser
Title: The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft
Publication Info: Smithsonian (2009)
For the 20th anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, I read this book detailing the heist. The first chapter gives a blow-by-blow of all the known details of the heist itself in the early-morning hours of March 17, 1990. Next, Boser introduces Harold Smith, an art detective who dedicates many of the remaining years of his life gathering clues and following leads about the heist. After Smith dies in 2005, Boser himself picks up Smith’s casebook and begins immersing himself in the case to the point of obsession. The trail of the crime leads Boser to look into various Boston underworld characters such as a noted art thief, Whitey Bulger and his mob cronies, and even the Irish Republican Army. At one point the obsession gets ridiculous as Boser visits a town in Ireland thinking he’ll be able to pick Bulger off the street. In the end, there’s no solution yet for the mystery of missing art, but Boser gives some interesting insights into how art theft is perpetrated and how that art may hopefully be returned.
Recommended books: Dead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations by Simon Schama, Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective by Jay Atkinson, and Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr
Author: Harvey Karp, M.D.
Title: The Happiest Toddler on the Block
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Bantam Books, 2008.
Karp’s follow-up to The Happiest Baby on the Block offers very practical advice to parents for dealing with the toddler years of 1 to 4 years old. I think it’s an even better book partly because it avoids the “infomercial style” of writing and is a more practical manual. The basic gist of the book is that when a child starts to throw a tantrum the parent should acknowledge what is upsetting by repeating back it back (“the fast food rule”) and to use a simple vocabulary of words called “toddlerese” that toddlers will understand most when they are upset. This book doesn’t have all the answers, for example, what to say to your son when you have no idea what is making him upset. Overall though I found it a book with useful advice and practically organized.
Author: Alec Wilkinson
Title: The Protest Singer : an intimate portrait of Pete Seeger
Publication Info: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
This is a short and easy read that summarizes Seeger’s life & career succinctly but still captures why he’s in important. Seeger himself who never wants much attention focused on him wanted a book that someone could read in one sitting. Much of the book is based on interviews between Wilkinson and Seeger and takes on a conversational tone. The book jumps around between events in Seeger’s life similar to the way that one memory can prompt another only tangentially related. It’s also good for seeing what Seeger finds memorable and important from his own past. While are more thorough books on Seeger out there, I recommend that anyone interested in learning about this remarkable man start with this book and then check out his albums and a concert if possible. Then start to make your own music.
After consulting with his lawyer, Seeger said, “I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.” – p. 81
Recommended books: Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing? by David King Dunaway, and Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie.
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Title: A Fine Balance
Publication Info: Books on Tape, Inc. (2001)
This novel – epic in length – tells the story of four people in Mumbai, India who come together during The Emergency of the mid-1970’s. They are:
- Dina Dalal – a young widow who takes up clothing manufacture to maintain her independence from her controlling brother.
- Ishvar Darji – a kindly tailor from a low caste background who comes to Mumbai to work for Dina.
- Omprakash – Ishvar’s more unruly nephew who works with him as a tailor.
- Maneck – a young man from a mountain village studying at the university and staying with Dina as a paying guest.
In the first part of A Fine Balance, Mistry tells the life stories of each of these characters which actually could be four gripping novellas in their own right. Then the story is told of how they all come together under one roof and after a rocky start forming a friendship.
This novel is marked by stark descriptions of poverty and injustice in India which Mistry none-too-subtly lays at feet of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s corrupt regime. This novel does not have a happy ending, but there is joy and love in the brief time of friendship of the principal characters that shows that their is some hope in the most dire of circumstances.
She envisioned two leaky faucets: one said Money, the other, Sanity. And both were dripping away simultaneously.
Recommended books: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie.