Author: Mary Beth Keane Title: Ask Again, Yes Narrator: Molly Pope Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019) Summary/Review:
This novel begins in 1973 when recent Irish immigrant Francis Gleeson falls into becoming a cop and meets Brian Stanhope, an American-born child of Irish immigrants, at the police academy. They are paired on there first beat in the Bronx for a few summer weeks, and share their dreams, although they don’t become particularly close. Francis marries a Polish-Italian woman named Lena and they settle down in a quiet (fictional) suburban town north of New York called Gillam. Shortly afterwards, Brian and his newlywed Irish immigrant wife Anne move into the neighboring house.
Lena makes every effort to reach out to Anne as a neighbor, but Anne is at first reserved, and then outright antagonistic. Lena gives birth to three daughters in quick succession. After a couple of miscarriages, Anne gives birth to a son, Peter. Despite, the coldness between the two families, Peter and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter Kate become best friends. And then in 1991, when the kids are on the verge of graduating middle school, they share that have romantic feelings for one another. On the same of night, an act of violence permanently changes the lives of both families.
The bulk of the novel follows that night in 1991 up to the present day focusing on the lives of all six of these characters as they struggle with their past. Kate and Peter reunite in college and eventually marry, to the disappointment and befuddlement of their parents. I found the childhood lovers still devoted to one another as adults hard to swallow, and this book also has a number of the coincidences that only occur in literature. Setting that aside though, the book is an excellent character study that examines generational trauma that contributes to depression, alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness. It also is a story of compassion, where the characters learn to recognize that people are not their worst actions.
Recommended books: Saints for All Occasionsby J. Courtney Sullivan, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, and Payback by Thomas Kelly Rating: ****
We met our guide Erin at St. Paul’s Chapel, and although her name was appropos to the day, she told us she was not actually Irish. The St. Paul’s churchyard has a memorial – but not the actual grave – of Thomas Addis Emmet. He was the elder brother of famed Irish martyr Robert Emmet, and participated in the rebellious United Irishmen in the 1790s. Exiled to the United States, he did pretty well for himself, and even became New York Attorney General.
The next stop was at St. Peter Catholic Church, the oldest Catholic parish in New York, established in 1785. The current church building dates to 1840.
The Marble Palace is under scaffolding right now, but it is a historic landmark that once held America’s first department store. Opened in 1846, it was home to Alexander Turney Stewart’s dry goods store. Stewart was an Irish immigrant made good. The store provided same day tailoring of clothing thanks to dozens of seamstresses working on the top floor, many of them recent immigrants from Ireland.
The Tweed Courthouse is associated with the graft of Tammany Hall, the powerful political machine that was initially nativist but grew to welcome Irish Catholic immigrants in return for votes. Across the street is the former home of Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, founded in 1850 by the Irish Emigrant Society to protect the savings of newly arrived immigrants.
We took a brief tangent from Irish history to discuss the African Burial Ground, which was pretty cool. Nearby in Foley Square, in the midst of a rally opposing discrimination against Muslims, we talked about one of New York’s first suburbs, built on the site of the Collect Pond which was drained in 1811 through a canal at what is now Canal Street. Since it was a natural spring, the water returned, making the houses unstable. As the wealthy moved out, the poor occupied the abandoned houses and created New York’s first slum. A short walk away in a Chinatown playground, we talked about Five Points, the notorious neighborhood known for its mid-19th century gang violence. But it was also a place where Irish immigrants and free blacks got a toehold in the city, and even invented tap dancing!
On Mott Street, the Church of the Transfiguration shows the immigrant heritage of the neighborhood. Initially a place of worship for the growing Irish community in the 1840s, by World War I it was a largely Italian parish, as the names on the World War I memorial plaque indicate. Today the church serves a Chinese Catholic community.
Another fascinating diversion from the Irish theme was passing by the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jewish Graveyard, which is associated with Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, founded in 1654!
Around the corner, we visited another Roman Catholic church, St. James, where the Ancient Order of Hibernians was founded in 1836.
We stopped by Public School 1 to talk about how Irish Americans had their children educated. Erin also noted the architectural design of the school pays tribute to New York’s Dutch heritage. In the heart of Chinatown, we talked about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how an Irish American woman could lose her citizenship if she married a Chinese man. At the final stop, we discussed the notorious riot brought on by the conflict between two street gangs, the Irish American Dead Rabbits and the nativist Bowery Boys.
Finishing our Irish tour in the heart of Chinatown, we of course had lunch at Thai Jasmine. It was yummy. Then we headed uptown to see part of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I hadn’t been to the parade since in 22 years, but had a lot of nostalgia for my childhood when it was an annual event. We remembered the year when the wind was so strong it blew wooden police barriers down the street like tumbleweeds, and told stories of family friends we met at the parade. I was impressed that the pipe and drum bands have significantly more women than in my childhood, and that black and latinx people were in the parade as participants as well as spectators, making it a much more diverse celebration than it used to be.
The crowds were light and I didn’t witness any misbehavior, which was also a plus, although it may have been due to the fact that we arrived late in the day and were way uptown. When the winds got too chilly, we decided to drop in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an hour or so. We wandered into a gallery of art from New Guinea, which was fascinating, and definitely not anything I’d ever seen before.
If the day wasn’t full enough already, we finished things of with a performance by the New York Philharmonic, who played Mozart’s Requiem, but only the parts that Mozart wrote. I had a peaceful half-nap to the music in the first half of the perfomance.
On Sunday, we went to the New York Botanical Garden for the Orchid Show. There were significantly fewer orchids on display than last year, and the greenhouses were very crowded, but it’s always a lovely place to visit regardless.
I like how these two photos turned out. One is a picture of the dome of the greenhouse, the other is the reflection of the dome in the water.
To finish out a proper St. Patrick’s Day, we went to An Beal Bocht Cafe in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. They had sweet Guinness poured properly and musicians playing a traditional Irish seisiún (although they snuck in a couple of crowd pleasers like “The Wild Rover”). It was crowded but friendly and definitely a place I’d like to visit again, albeit it’s a steep climb uphill from the subway station!
Caribbean music traditions and US dance beats come together in the only place they can: the United Kingdom. A history of jungle, garage, drum & bass, and grime. This made very nostalgic for the dance tracks of yore.
This is a novel of contrasts. It’s an epic story covering three centuries and as the title implies crossing back and forth the Atlantic from Ireland to Canada and the United States. And yet it is a very personal book with detailed character studies of four men and four women. The men are well-known historical figures: American abolitionist Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour of Ireland, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown making the first nonstop transatlantic flight, and US Senator George Mitchell brokering the Good Friday Agreement. The women are four generations of the same family whose lives briefly intersect with the historical figures: an Irish housemaid Lily Duggan inspired to go to America by Douglass, the journalist Emily Ehrlich who settles in Newfoundland, the photographer Lottie who marries an RAF airman from Northern Ireland, and Hannah Carson whose loses her son in The Troubles and as we read her story in her own voice in the present time is on the verge of losing all of her family history to the bank.
Just as in Let the Great World Spin, McCann does not interweave the stories, yet characters from other stories appear later on. The stories are also connected by an unopened letter which acts as kind of a McGuffin and is one of the less effective aspects of the novel to me. Other than though, the writing in brilliant and McCann has a special gift for capturing the human experience in words. The fictional figures seem as real as the historical figures and the historical figures are so detailed as to appear as fully-realized literary characters. This is another great novel by McCann and I highly recommend it. Favorite Passages:
“What they need are the signatures. After that, they will negotiate the peace. Years of wrangling still to come, he knows. No magic wand. All he wants is to get the metal nibs striking hard against the page. But really what he would like now, more than anything, is to walk out from the press conference into the sunlight, a morning and evening jammed together, so that there is rise and fall at the same time, east and west, and it strikes him at moments like this the he is a man of crossword puzzles, pajamas, slippers, and all that he needs is to get on a plane, land, enter the lobby of the apartment on Sixty-Seventh Street, step into his own second chance, the proper silence of fatherhood.” – p. 120