short story reviews: Mr Salary & Color and Light by Sally Rooney

MR SALARY by Sally Rooney              |    COLOR AND LIGHT by Sally Rooney
★★★★★ |    ★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2019    |    The New Yorker, 2019

I want to first say that if you don’t quite ‘get’ the Sally Rooney craze, I don’t blame you – is she really achieving something that other authors are failing to do, or does her writing offer a comfortable familiarity; does her work hold universal appeal or is it uniquely resonant with young people; no one seems to have a very clear answer on any of this – but that said, I think her writing is magic. Normal People took me entirely by surprise, Conversations With Friends is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in years, and now these two short stories have solidified her place as one of my absolute favorite authors.

The thing about Sally Rooney is that while her storytelling is incisive and forthright, she always leaves me wanting more – not in the sense that what she offers is lacking, but in the sense that you can instinctively discern that Rooney understands her characters inside and out, backwards and forwards; they feel like living, breathing entities who continue to exist once you’ve ceased reading.  Rooney writes about people I want to know – not in real life, necessarily, although realism is arguably the great strength of her character work – but all of her characters come to life under her perceptive gaze and she excels both at chronicling the internal and the interpersonal.

While both of her novels beautifully showcase her prowess at character development, these two short stories prove that she still has a lot to offer in just a few short pages.   Color and Light follows a young hotel receptionist Aidan who meets an enigmatic screenwriter named Pauline that he becomes drawn to.  Mr Salary is told from the perspective of a 24-year-old woman named Sukie, who’s in love with a 30-something man named Nathan, a family friend that she’s lived with for years.  Both stories are brief snapshot pieces – we get a bit of background, but we don’t learn these characters’ life stories, nor do we need to.  Each story crackles with sexual tension, although it would be dismissive to reduce them to this one element – Mr Salary is noteworthy for its macabre undertones, as Sukie’s obsession with death mirrors her sexual obsession with Nathan, and Color and Light probably has less of a straightforward romantic trajectory than anything else Rooney has written.  The inevitable romance between Aidan and Pauline isn’t really inevitable at all, as it develops – Aidan’s interest in Pauline isn’t sexual as much as driven by a desire to understand and be understood, a theme that underpins all of Rooney’s work.

If you like stories about flawed, lonely, emotionally distant people, told with honesty and lively, absorbing prose, I’d implore you to give into the Rooney hype.  Everything she writes somehow moves me, saddens me, and delights me all at once.  I will say, I’ve noticed a sort of divide between people who loved Conversations With Friends and found Normal People underwhelming and vice versa (personally, I just love it all), but if you do fall into this dichotomy, I’d recommend Mr Salary to those who preferred Conversations With Friends and Color and Light to those who preferred Normal People.

Read Color and Light on the New Yorker website here, and pick up a copy of Mr Salary from Book Depository here.

book review: When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

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WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin
★★☆☆☆
Thomas Dunne Books, March 5, 2019

 

Oh man, this is a tough one. It is not often the case that I look at glowing reviews and think ‘did we read the same book?!’ but here we are… I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to love this, too! When All Is Said is a contemporary Irish novel about an old man named Maurice who’s looking back at his life and giving a toast to the five people who had the greatest influence on him, most of whom are already dead. So it’s a premise that promises nostalgia and regret and heartache, but I never really felt any of it.

My main issue with this book was Maurice’s first-person narration – I just wasn’t convinced by his voice. Forgive me, but you know how sometimes you read a female character and think ‘yep, a man wrote this book’ – I felt the opposite here. (Which is more of a gut feeling and probably a baseless one that’s impossible to quantify, so I’m just going to move on.) It’s established early on in this book that Maurice has dyslexia which led him to quit schooling at a very early age and develop a lifelong antipathy for literature; instead he fills his days with farming and various other business ventures. So while Maurice is clearly an intelligent man, and I have no qualms with that intelligence being on display, I’m not sure why Anne Griffin wanted us to believe he was a poetic one? Lines like this:

But her story is like the wind under the front door, whistling its way through the crevices, getting through the cracks in my skin.

and this:

There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.

pulled me out of the story again and again, because why would this 84 year old farmer use that simile, why would he have that sophisticated emotional vocabulary? I guess this goes hand in hand, but what also grated on me was the fact that we were essentially spoon-fed the ways in which the love and loss of these five characters shaped Maurice. Take this passage from the first chapter, where Maurice describes the death of his older brother Tony:

It’s so hard to lose your best friend at any time, but to do so at such a young age was pure cruel. At sixteen I was heading into my life. Having travelled those precious years with Tony by my side, I now had to venture forth into the most significant of them alone. Without his guidance, his cajoling, his slagging. It didn’t feel possible.

It’s too articulate, it’s too on the nose. Funny that this is called ‘When All Is Said,’ because that was exactly my problem: nothing is left unsaid. There is no room for the reader to think or feel anything organically, because we are told exactly how we should think and feel about Maurice’s story. This was missing tension, nuance, thematic complexity. I’ll concede that Maurice is a well-constructed character, and that Anne Griffin makes a real effort to weave together moments of joy with moments of sorrow to paint a three-dimensional picture of this character’s life, I just felt utterly empty while reading this.

Thanks to Netgalley and Thomas Dunne Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can pick up a copy of When All Is Said here on Book Depository.

Reading Ireland Month TBR & Recommendations

Reading Ireland Month 2019 is being hosted by the lovely Cathy over at 746 Books, along with Raging Fluff.  It’s a month-long readathon where you’re encouraged to read Irish lit during the month of March, but I’d highly recommend you check out Cathy’s post for more information.  Cathy’s breaking her reading down into a schedule which you’ll see below, which I’m also roughly going to attempt to follow, but if you read even one Irish book in March you can participate.

March is going to be a busy reading month for me, because I’m also eagerly awaiting the Women’s Prize longlist announcement and knowing how obsessed I can get by literary prizes, I’m sure I’m going to want to dive straight into that.  But, given my love of Irish lit this is a readathon that I’m very excited to participate in.  So without further ado:

TBR:

25th February – 3rd March: Contemporary Irish Novels

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When All Is Said by Anne Griffin.  I have an ARC of this and it’s being published on March 5 in the US, so that’s perfect timing.

4th – 10th March: Classic Irish Novels

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell.  People are often surprised to learn that despite my love of Irish lit I’ve never actually read any James Joyce, and I wasn’t even in a huge rush to change that.  …but then this happened and if you follow me on Twitter you will know that I am a pretty big Colin Farrell fan, to say the least, and having watched 40+ of his films I figured an 8 hour audiobook should be nothing.

Alternately: Troubles by JG Farrell.  This is the only book off my 2019 backlist TBR that fits this category and I’m trying to read one of those per month.  (Technically this Farrell is Anglo-Irish but I’m counting it.)  (Technically it’s a very modern classic but I’m counting it.)

11th – 17th March: Irish Short Story Collections

Young Skins by Colin Barrett OR The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers by Sinead Gleeson.  I got both of these for Christmas and they’re both high up on my TBR, so I’m very very torn.  Which should I read in March?!

18th – 24th March: Irish Non-Fiction
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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe.  I may cheat and read this one before March, because I have an ARC and it comes out in late February.  Then again, I’m so far behind on my reading that I may miss the publication date altogether… we’ll see!  At any rate, this is my nonfiction pick.

25th – 31st March: Irish Miscellany (Poetry, Plays, Film Reviews)

It’s gotta be plays, for me.  I have three main options that I’m considering: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett OR Faith Healer by Brian Friel OR The Mai by Marina Carr.  I’ve never read Beckett (I know, that’s embarrassing), but I’ve really enjoyed Friel and Carr in the past.  Which shall I choose?!

Recommendations:

So, I read more than a fair share of contemporary Irish lit, so rather than going through these titles one by one and giving a summary, I’m going to just list a bunch that jump out at me.

Contemporary novels:

John Boyne: The Heart’s Invisible Furies, The Absolutist, A Ladder to the Sky, This House is HauntedLisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies, The Blood MiraclesLouise O’Neill: Asking For It, Almost LoveSally Rooney: Conversations With Friends, Normal PeopleDonal Ryan: All We Shall Know, From a Low and Quiet SeaColm Toibin: House of Names, BrooklynOther: Milkman by Anna Burns, Himself by Jess Kidd, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan, The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, Tender by Belinda McKeon.

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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  Possibly the only Irish nonfiction I’ve read, but well worth the mention and it’s one of my all-time favorite memoirs.

Plays:

Martin McDonagh (also Anglo-Irish): The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Lonesome West, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, A Skull in ConnemaraOther: Translations by Brian Friel, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr.

Are you planning on participating in Reading Ireland Month, and if so, which books are you planning on reading?  Let me know!

short story reviews: Edna O’Brien and Julia O’Faolain

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PARADISE by Edna O’Brien
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 2013

 

Originally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor to teach her how to swim. What I took away from this story was an allegory about the self-congratulation of the rich when they take someone poor under their tutelage; performing in a proscribed manner is expected, developing your own ideas and aspirations is dangerous – and the metaphor is executed with searing prose and beautiful imagery. This was a great introduction to Edna O’Brien and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.


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DAUGHTERS OF PASSION by Julia O’Faolain
★★★☆☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 1982

 

I really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from a hunger strike looks back on a friendship that led to her involvement with the IRA. It’s just very bare-bones and doesn’t dig as deep as it needs to into the relationship between Maggy and Dizzy, the relationship that propels the main conflict in this story but which reads like a quick sketch that hasn’t been colored in yet. That said, I did enjoy Julia O’Faolain’s writing and would happily read more from her… but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little disappointed, as this was the short story from Faber’s 90th anniversary collection that was I was the most looking forward to.

book review: The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney

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THE BLOOD MIRACLES by Lisa McInerney
★★★★★
John Murray, 2017
(review of The Glorious Heresies)

Apparently this is an unpopular opinion, but I loved this just as much as The Glorious Heresies. I understand why a lot of people didn’t. The Glorious Heresies is dark but it still retains a lot of signature Irish humor, and some warmth along with that. The Blood Miracles on the other hand is just a black tragedy. It picks up where McInerney’s previous novel left off, but it follows the thread of only one of the protagonists (though a few others play peripheral roles). And it was an interesting choice to shift from following five characters to following only one, but I have no complaints here as McInerney picked the right one.

I can’t think of any character I’ve read recently who I love as much as Ryan Cusack. Ryan is a drug dealer, both his own worst enemy and a victim of circumstance as he was raised by his abusive alcoholic father after his mother’s death. While The Glorious Heresies thoroughly examined Ryan’s relationship with his father and the near impossibility of breaking out of the life of crime and poverty that he’s been raised into, The Blood Miracles shifts the focus to another aspect of Ryan’s identity – the Italian side he inherited from his mother. As his boss Dan brokers a deal with the Italian Camorra and forces Ryan into the role of translator, Ryan faces conflicts both internal and external, as he tries to forge a place for himself in this new enterprise without alienating his concerned girlfriend Karine.

The main reason I imagine The Blood Miracles hasn’t gone over as well as The Glorious Heresies is that the only plot here revolves around the intricacies of drug dealing and Irish gang dynamics, and if you tried to sell this book to me with that pitch alone I can’t say I’d be terribly excited about it. But I think it’s a testament to McInerney’s skill that I was riveted. She expertly peels back the layers of contemporary Irish society to reveal its dark underworld, infusing her narration with Cork dialect to lend it a vibrant authenticity. This book is brutally, unflinchingly honest in a way that I find so refreshing.

I just adore McInerney’s writing. I love her distinctly unpolished style, her flawed and vulnerable and occasionally loathsome characters, her skill at tying together personal and social conflicts. This book is even darker and more violent than its predecessor and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if any of that appeals to you, I cannot recommend these books highly enough. I’m not sure if she’s planning on writing more in this series, but I thought the ending was perfect – it ties up all loose ends while still leaving the door open if she chooses to continue Ryan’s story. I really hope she does.

book (play script) review: By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr

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BY THE BOG OF CATS by Marina Carr
★★★★★
originally published in 1998

One of the many reasons I love Irish lit is that its signature fusion of comedy and tragedy is something I find so shockingly, painfully honest. I love reading something that has me laughing out loud on one page, and has me covering my mouth in horror on the next. Mastering that tonal shift is a fine line to walk, but Marina Carr manages it with aplomb here.

By the Bog of Cats is a play about a traveller woman called Hester, who feels a deep connection with the bog she lives on, but who’s being forced to leave because her former partner is now marrying a younger woman and the two of them forced Hester to sign over the rights to her property. Throughout the course of the play we see Hester defend her relationship to the land, while she’s also tormented by memories of the mother who abandoned her.

Though there are more than a fair share of comedic moments, the heart of By the Bog of Cats is pitch-black, and the conclusion is absolutely harrowing. It’s also a deliberate nod to Greek tragedy, and I am nothing if not predictable. I absolutely loved this. I read it in an hour this weekend, but I’d love to see it performed live one day. Until then, I can only recommend the script very highly to those who love stories which are in turns shocking, disturbing, and darkly funny.

book review: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

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ALL WE SHALL KNOW by Donal Ryan
★★★★★
Penguin, 2017

This book was stunning.

I’m struggling to give a brief summary of the plot, because although it’s a relatively simple story, everything I write feels reductive of the emotional journey that Donal Ryan takes the reader on, and the larger themes that he explores in his narrative. The bare bones of the novel are this: 33-year-old, married Melody Shee finds herself pregnant by a 17-year-old boy who she was teaching to read. But it’s not really a book about marriage and affairs. At the heart of this story is the bond that Melody forms with a young Traveller girl, Mary, as the focus shifts to their weird and unconventional friendship as Melody seeks atonement for something that happened in her past.

Ryan’s prose is lyrical and gorgeous. It’s the kind of carefully constructed writing that forces you to slow down and really take in each word. It’s a short novel, but one that’s not to be rushed through. I loved the experience of reading this as much as I love the impression it left me with.

This is ultimately a story about guilt, redemption, and betrayal, told with a searing and brutal honesty that made my heart race. This is one of those books that isn’t afraid of confronting the ugliness of human nature – how we’re capable of hurting those we love, how we lie to ourselves to cope with bad decisions we’ve made. I felt Melody’s pain and regret so acutely while I was reading this.

All We Shall Know is an intense, draining, and emotionally exhausting read – and all in under 200 pages. This was my first Ryan novel, but I have The Spinning Heart sitting on my shelf, and I think I need to bump it up on my TBR after how much I loved this.

book (play script) review: The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh

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THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE by Martin McDonagh
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2001
Review on Goodreads

This is probably McDonagh’s most absurd work, which is saying something. The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a farcical look at Irish terrorist organizations, set on the island of Inishmore in the Aran Islands in the early 1990s. The play focuses on a cycle of small-town bloody revenge set into motion by the death of an INLA man’s beloved cat.

As usual, much of McDonagh’s humor relies on the irony behind corrupt morality – in this case, we meet Padraic, who’s literally in the middle of torturing a man when he gets a call that his cat Wee Thomas is poorly. (It’s reminiscent of Woody Harrelson’s character in Seven Psychopaths, a violent gangster who’s unnaturally attached to his shih tzu Bonny, or Ralph Fiennes’ character in In Bruges, a hitman with a selectively rigid moral code.) But even though McDonagh likes to revisit similar themes time and again, it never gets old for me. He fuses comedy and tragedy/morality and violence in such a uniquely striking way, each of his plays approaching the theme from a distinct angle. And while most of his plays are rather silly on the surface, there’s something so much darker lying beneath, and that’s what he really excels at with Inishmore.

Better than The Cripple of Inishmaan; not as good as The Pillowman. Major trigger warning for animal death (which for some reason doesn’t bother me so much in this particular brand of absurdist comedy).

some Irish lit to read this St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  I figured this was a good excuse to talk about some of my favorite Irish lit.  If you wanted to read something Irish this St. Patrick’s day, here are a few recommendations:

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Translations by Brian Friel: Friel was a seminal twentieth century Irish playwright, whose Field Day Theatre Company (founded in 1980 with Stephen Rea) was created to bring themes of Irish national identity to life on the stage in Northern Ireland.  Translations, the first production they put on, is a phenomenal piece of theatre, which tells the story of a group of Irish Gaelic-speaking students in the 1800s.  One day English soldiers arrive in this fictional Donegal village to conduct an Ordnance Survey and anglicize all Irish-Gaelic place names, and their inability to communicate with the native Irish speakers sets the stage for the story.  Both an incisive commentary on English imperialism and a fascinating look at the function of language, Translations is a masterful piece of writing.  Highly recommended reading for all theatre fans.  You can also listen to the 2010 BBC radio play here! + my full review here.

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Tender by Belinda McKeon: Set in Dublin in the 1990s, Tender is a story about the friendship between two university students.  When quiet, insecure Catherine meets the confident and charismatic James, the two build a strong friendship which quickly devolves into an intense and unhealthy relationship, as something irreconcilable sits between them.  This is a story about desire, about obsession, about the parts of human nature that we want to distance ourselves from, because they’re so ugly and raw.  Set against the backdrop of the turbulent social climate of 90s Ireland, this book is one of the most intense and frantic and claustrophobic things I’ve ever read.  In a good way, because McKeon’s stellar prose makes this impossible to put down.

23230030The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh: I am absolutely obsessed with Martin McDonagh, best known for his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.  But before he was a director, he was a playwright, and in my opinion The Pillowman is his masterpiece.  In this play, a writer in a totalitarian state is brought in for questioning about a series of recent murders which bear a striking resemblance to the content of his stories.  Typical of McDonagh’s nonpareil black humor, The Pillowman is strange, moving, gruesome, horrible, poignant, and wickedly funny.  If you liked In Bruges, you’ll probably love this.  If you hate morbid humor, stay far, far away.  As I love black humor, this is one of my all time favorite plays.

51ilsnc5chl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: Honestly life-changing.  If you haven’t read Frank McCourt’s memoir about growing up poor in twentieth century Limerick, you must.  I read this when I was probably too young to get everything out of it that I could have, so I intend to reread it one day, but it’s stayed with me for years.  Born in New York, Frank McCourt and his Irish immigrant parents move back to their homeland during the Great Depression.  Honest, forgiving, and relentlessly depressing, this is a truly poignant book that I find myself unintentionally measuring all other memoirs against.

4954833Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: This is one of the few cases where I actually liked the movie better!  I blame Saoirse Ronan’s incredible performance.  But I liked the book too.  A really interesting story about Irish immigration from the point of view of a young girl who finds herself torn between two cultures.  If at times not as emotionally resonant as it has the potential to be, Brooklyn is still a great examination of the factors which lead one to leave their home and start a life in an entirely new country.  Toibin is a really fantastic writer; his prose is steady and it’s easy to read this book in a single sitting.  Not an all time favorite, but one which I find myself liking more and more, the more I think back on it.  So if you’re curious, definitely check it out!

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The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: And finally, a classic.  And another play, because I love them and the Irish do them so well.  This ridiculous story about mistaken identities remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.  Whoever said classics aren’t fun clearly hasn’t read Oscar Wilde.

 

What are some of your favorite Irish plays and novels?  I’m always looking for recs!