Book Review: Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly

On a flight to Portland, OR a little over 10 years ago I read Payback a novel by Irish-American writer Thomas Kelly.  It told the story set in the mid-1980’s about Sandhogs, construction workers who build tunnels, with a mix union-management strife, corrupt politicians, Irish gangsters, and family squabbles turned violent.  It was a breezy read full of violence and machismo, but intelligent as well.

Now I’ve listened to Empire Rising (2005) read by Michael Deehy, which is a similar story but set in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, amid Prohibition, with the construction of the Empire State Building at it’s centerpiece.

  • Michael Briody – a recent emigrant from Ireland.  Fought with the British in WWI, against the British in the Anglo-Irish War, and against the Free State in the Irish Civil War.  Briody lives in the Bronx, works on a team of iron workers on the Empire State Building, and is an amature boxer.  Also he continues to do jobs for the IRA and for Tommy Twohey.  Oh yeah, and he also wins the heart of Grace in this novel’s central romance.
  • Grace Masterson – an Irish woman with a troubled past who settles on a house boat in Brooklyn.  She visits construction sites to sketch and paint the workers.  As Lewis Hine’s assistant she’s able to enter the ESB site.  She’s also the paramour for Johnny Farrell who has her “deliver money” to banks around town.  Scarred by life, she’s surprised that Briody wins her heart despite everything.
  • Johnny Farrell – the head honcho of Tammany Hall behind the Walker administration.  A finger in every pot, whether legal or illegal.  Not too pleased to learn that Grace is having liasions with Briody.
  • Tom Twohey – a boyhood friend of Farrell’s who is the chief gangster in their Bronx neighborhood.  Also runs guns for the IRA.  Finds himself making an uneasy allliance with the Italian mob.

Kelly’s fictional characters mix with real-life historical figures such as Mayor Jimmy Walker, Governor Franklin Roosevelt, photographer Lewis Hine,  failed presidential candidate Al Smith (also head of the Empire State Building project) and Judge Joseph Crater (working in an answer to Crater’s mysterious disappearance).

For the most part this is an entertaining book weaving together New York City history, the Irish-American experience, and the romance of the era.  Towards the end it gets over the top as seemingly everyone wants to kill Briody, and for good reasons too as he’s got himself mixed up in everything.

Author Kelly, Thomas, 1961-
Title Empire rising [sound recording] / Thomas Kelly.
Publication Info. Hampton, N.H. : BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 13 sound discs (974 min.) : digitally mastered.

Book Review: The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon

The Lazarus Project (2008) by Bosnian-American author Aleksander Hemon represents Bosnia and Herzegovina in my Around the World For a Good Book project, albeit only a small portion of the novel takes place in that stricken country.  Still it captures the spirit of ATWFAGB in the way it travels between the “countries” of America and Europe, and of past and present. The author Hemon was born in Sarajevo of Ukrainian and Serbian ancestry. He went to Chicago in 1990 and found himself unable to return home once the war began.

The Lazarus Project tells two stories.  First, there’s Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jew who having survived a pogrom emigrates with his sister to Chicago.  There on March 2, 1908, Lazarus attempted to deliver a letter to the chief of police, the latter refusing the letter and instead shooting and killing Lazarus.  Amplifying the attrocity, the police chief concocts a tale that Lazarus was a dangerous anarchist.  From this kernel of a true story Hemon draws out the aftermath of the anti-anarchist hysteria on Lazarus’ sister Olga and his colleague Isador.

The second story, in alternating chapters, is the contemporary tale of Brik, a man much like Hemon himself – an immigrant from Sarajevo suffering a sort of survivor’s guilt for not being at home during the war and attrocities.  He’s out of work and in a loveless marriage with an American-born neurosurgeon, but holds on to the promise of writing a book about Lazarus Averbuch.  Receiving grant money for his research, he sets of on a journey through Eastern Europe to follow Lazarus’ path to America.

Accompanying Brik is a friend and photographer Rora.  Each chapter begins with a beautiful photograph with the conceit that they are from the lens of Rora himself.  Rora is also a  counterpart to Brik as a survivor of the war, participating in a paramilitary group in Sarajevo.  Rora’s stories of the war and Brik’s ceaseless curiosity about them are a major theme in this book.

This is not a cheerful book.  Brik and Rora’s journey seems to be through an Eastern Europe full of sad prostitutes, mobsters, and sterile fast-food chains.  Olga and Isador must survive insults and degradation.  It would be hard to read this book without gaining a sense of fatalism.  Yet, Hemon’s way with language redeems the book, drawing beauty out of suffering.

Fall Foliage Festival at Arnold Arboretum

On Sunday, October 26th, the Arnold Arboretum hosted their first ever Fall Foliage Festival, an autumnal counterpart to spring’s Lilac Sunday. What a great idea!  I mean why drive to New Hampshire and Vermont for leaf peeping when there’s a little bit of the great outdoors right here in Jamaica Plain?  The timing is difficult of course as the foliage was actually more brilliant a week earlier, but it was a great event all the same.  There were demonstrations, tours, hayrides, and great music.  I saw a group of parents and children gamely dancing the Virginia Reel to the Bagboys and everyone was having a blast.

My son Peter & I checked out festival, albeit only the last hour as Peter was napping.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed this great event and hope to return next year.  And if anyone from the Arboretum is looking for ideas, I think it would be cool (no pun intended) if they held a winter festival focusing on the conifers.  That way the flowering plants, deciduous trees, and evergreens would all have their special day.

Where the Monkey Craps in the Buckwheat (concert review)

Last night I was fortunate to see folk singer/songwriter Peter Mulvey play a set at the Passim Folk Music and Cultural Center. Apparently, the last time I went to a concert it was also Peter Mulvey as reviewed on this blog a year ago (before the baby was born, but not before I was married). I sat with my friend Craig as well as his friend Sheila who I met for the first time. Sadly, Susan was not able to attend because our baby Peter had a fever.   One day we’ll take Peter to see Peter.

Beyond brilliant guitar playing and lyrics, it’s a joy to see Peter Mulvey because he tells great stories between songs.  Some of the best are about his father Frank, who apparently used the phrase “I told him I know where the monkey craps in the buckwheat.”  Frank Mulvey tried to defend this as a commonly-used phrase, which it isn’t, but it should be and I’m going to work it into my everyday conversation.  Peter Mulvey also told tales about his second No Gasoline Tour, where he traveled between shows in Wisconsin on bicycle.  Next year he promises to ride to Boston.

Mulvey played a great set with many unfamiliar songs – some new songs of his own and a lot of great covers.  The complete set list is below.  The titles of songs #3, #4, & #14 are my best guesses.

Openers: Ryan Fitzsimmons (guitar) with Ian Goldstein (mandolin)

  1. Stranded in a Limousine (Paul Simon)
  2. If Love is Not Enough
  3. I Go Mmm-Mmm-Mmm
  4. Raven on the Roof
  5. The Kids in the Square
  6. Old Fashioned Hat (Anais Mitchell)
  7. Health Food Girl
  8. Welcome Back (John Sebastian) – with Ian Goldstein
  9. Easiest Thing to Do – with Ian Goldstein
  10. Hang Down Your Head (Tom Waits) – with Ian Goldstein
  11. The Knuckleball Suite – with Ian Goldstein
  12. Dynamite Bill
  13. Shirt
  14. Black Rabbit (instrumental)
  15. Mailman
  16. Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad, and Far Away From Home

Encore: All You Need is Love (Lennon/McCartney)

Book Review: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis

I’m not too interested in football but I read (with my ears) The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (2006) by Michael Lewis because it sounded like an intriguing story and I’d liked Lewis’ earlier sports book MoneyballThe Blind Side deals with a change that occurred in the NFL with the emergence of the New York Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor.  Taylor was able to change the game because he was a huge man but also fast, agile, and athletic.  As a result he was able to put fear in the hearts of NFL quarterbacks by being able to come at them fast and furious from the right, their blind side.  Lewis details LT’s effect in a second-by-second retelling of the four-second play that ended Washington QB Joe Thiesman’s careeer (which you can see in all its gory on YouTube).  As a result, NFL teams had to find big, agile men to play Left Tackle to defend against the rushing Lawrence Taylors of the game.  The importance of a good protection for the QB has resulted in Left Tackles being among the most highly paid players in the game.

After this prologue, the narrative switches to the story of Michael Oher, a left tackle at Ole Miss expected to be one of the top choices in next year’s NFL draft.  Oher is a big, athletic young man and a talented football player, but his life story as told by Lewis is far more intriguing.  Oher never even played organized football until he was 16 and that was at the unlikely location of a private Christian school in Memphis.  Escaping poverty in this wealthy, mostly-white school, Oher wins the hearts of a coach Sean Tuohy and his wife Leigh Ann who take Oher into their home and eventually adopt him.  Oher’s struggles to improve academically after a lifetime of almost no formal education are the most inspiring parts of the book, especially a section where Sean and Michael work out the poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Despite the title, this book actually has little to do with football, but it is a story of hope and generosity and what can happen when an impoverished boy receives some loving nurturing.  When amateur drafts are discussed in the sports media, they can be dehumanizing, treating the players as commodities.  Thanks to Michael Lewis, we can know the story of one of those very real human beings who happen to play the sport of football.

A portion of the story may also be read in the New York Times article “The Ballad of Big Mike.” There are also plans afoot to adapt the book into a movie.

Author Lewis, Michael (Michael M.)
Title The blind side [sound recording] : [evolution of a game] / Michael Lewis.
Publication Info. New York : Random House Audio, p2006.
Edition Abridged.
Description 5 sound discs (6 hr.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.

Book Review: “Solomon’s Gold” by Neal Stephenson (Book 6 of the Baroque Cycle)

Volume III of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, The System of the World (2004), begins with Book Six “Solomon’s Gold.”  This book picks up where the very first book, Quicksilver, left off with Daniel Waterhouse returning to England.  Waterhouse immediately finds himself in the midst of intrigue including attempted assasinations by an Infernal Device, counterfeit coinage, and various missions for Leibniz, Duchess Sophia, and Isaac Newton.  All around him rumors swirl about Queen Anne’s succesor.  Will it be the Hanovers supported by the Whigs or the Jacobite restoration of the Stuarts?

While this is primarily Daniel Waterhouse’s story, the book ends with a cliffhanger as Jack Shaftoe, aka Jack the Coiner, attempts an audacious (and comical) heist at the Tower of London.  I like how Daniel Waterhouse comes into his own in this book.  He’s still plagued by doubts but shows resourcefulness and leadership.  In an interesting reflection on fear he wonders if everyone else is as afraid as him. This novel also really uses London as a character with Waterhouse visiting the various historic (and not-so-historic) haunts of the city.  The London map in the flyleaf is a vital part of this book and I enjoyed following Daniel around town.


Author Stephenson, Neal.
Title The system of the world / Neal Stephenson.
Publication Info. New York : William Morrow, c2004.
Edition 1st ed.
Description xv, 892 p. ; 25 cm.

Book Review: Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle

Paula Spencer (2006) is a recent novel by one of my favorite authors Roddy Doyle.  It’s a sequel to an earlier novel called the The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. In that earlier novel the title character dealt with sever physical abuse from her husband Charlo. I read this book over a decade ago so I don’t remember it well beyond the fact that it moved me to tears and that it was written in first person from Paula’s voice. This new novel is in third person, but it works effectively. A lot of the novel follows Paula in her daily life and decisions with series of sentences beginning with “She…” It creates a poetic repetition that emphasizes how vital every moment is in Paula’s recovery.

In Paula Spencer, it’s ten years later, and with Charlo long dead, it’s a challenge for Doyle to make Paula a sympathetic character.  She’s a survivor but she’s no saint.  In fact her abuse of alcohol has gravely affected her family and friends.  The novel follows Paula in her first year of sobriety as she tries to rebuild her life.  There’s John Paul who had run away and become addicted to heroin, now clean and married with children who is tentatively trying to reconnect to his mother.  There’s Nicola who took care of the family while Paula was drunk, who has now made a good life for herself but still resents and mistrusts Paula.  There’s Leanne still living at home and following Paula’s footsteps into alcoholism.  And there’s the teenage Jack, who’s typically remote from his mother and atypically wise.

The world around her has changed too as the Celtic Tiger has swept over Dublin bringing coffee shops and cell phones.  When Paula goes to her job cleaning offices she now works alongside immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe.  With sobriety she also gains more responsibility as a supervisor as well as some extra money to save for the future.

This book deals honestly and without sentimentality with a lot of issues: family, addiction, social change and life in general.  It also is uproariously funny at times.  Doyle is a master of dialog.  I highly recommend reading this book or listening to the audiobook beautifully read by Irish actress Ger Ryan.

Other books I’ve read by Roddy Doyle include: The Barrytown Trilogy, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, A Star Called Henry, Oh, Play That Thing, and The Deportees.  Reviews are online at LibraryThing.

Author Doyle, Roddy, 1958-
Title Paula Spencer [sound recording] / by Roddy Doyle.
Publication Info. North Kingstown, RI : BBC Audiobooks America, p2006.
Description 6 sound discs (6 hr., 49 min.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in

Beer Review: Anchor Liberty Ale

A San Francisco treat!

Beer: Anchor Brewing
Brewer: Liberty Ale
Source: Draft
Rating: *** (7.5 of 10)

Comments: A golden, bubbly beer like champagne in a pint glass.  It offers a smooth, wheaty aroma and slightly bitter, nutty and tangy taste.  After sitting in the glass for a bit the ale loses it’s head and carbonation and leaves little lace on the glass.  Overall a good beer.

Book Review: Manhattan ’45 by Jan Morris

Manhattan ’45 (1985) by Jan Morris attempts to capture New York City at the time of its greatest success, optimism, influence and power, just as the Second World War comes to an end. This is not a travel book so much as an historical recreation.  The author never even visited New York until nearly a decade later.  Writing in 1985, the book is full of copious footnotes where Morris tells us what is gone and different.  Reading this an additional 25 years later my mind adds another layer of meta-analysis of things further lost and changed in Manhattan’s continuous build and demolish cycle.

This book is filled with details of life and how it was lived in 1945 mostly from books, letters, photographs and interviews.  Everything’s discussed in categories and in a gossipy tone that covers people, places, race, class, shopping, transportation, music, technology, slums, mansions, art, parties, and schools.  I kind of wish I’d taken better notes on this book since it’s full of fun little tidbits, but no great memorable themes.  I’d like to read it again, perhaps while in Manhattan, the book tucked under my arm as I visit what’s there and what once was.

I’ve previously read the following books by Morris: The World of Venice and Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress.

Author Morris, Jan, 1926-
Title Manhattan ’45 / Jan Morris. —
Publication Info. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987.
Description 273 p., [12] p. of plates : ill. ; 22 cm.