Category Archives: books

Two books from Ireland.

Recently I read two books by Irishmen, far removed from one another in time, but both with prose and dialect that are music to the ears and heart.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan consists of separate stories of three men whose lives intersect in the end. Lots of dialogue which reveals the fascinating characters, and I did love the Irish turns of phrase, and underlined many. I just realized I already gave the book away so I can’t quote even one here.  But I think all three men are trying unsuccessfully to deal with shame, and a couple of the stories are just too gritty and bleak for me. If there was relief from the cyclic and destructive effects of shame at the end, I was too worn down to see it.

Dubliners by James Joyce was published more than a hundred years before Ryan, in 1914. This one I listened to in my car (over the course of a couple of years), and the narrator Jim Norton added greatly to my enjoyment, I’m sure, with his Irish accent and intonations. On one road trip I was so engrossed in the drama of Dublin streets and homes that I missed a turn and prolonged the drive an extra half-hour.

It seems that the literary analysts debate about the symbols and meanings of these fifteen short stories. It took nine years and eighteen submissions to fifteen publishers before the book was finally published in 1914. There were obscenities; there were unflattering references to the king who had not been dead very long; it was anti-Irish. Joyce kept making changes to make the collection more acceptable, and finally, he was successful.

I don’t know the subtleties of Irish politics and history and probably I missed a lot of undercurrents and meaning, but I was more than satisfied by being able to watch the characters in the stories and to listen to their rich Irish thought and language. I would call them finely crafted character studies in which the characters reveal a great deal by their behavior and words. I admire writers who can create characters who live, and live their own stories, so it doesn’t bother me that “His characters’ personalities can only be observed because they are not explicitly told,” as one reviewer put it.

And yet a few of the lines that popped out at me are from the narrator’s telling, for example, about Mr. Duffy, in “A Painful Case,” who “lived at a little distance from his body.” And when he realizes a great disappointment in himself, “He felt his moral nature falling to pieces.” There were many other passages that I would have underlined had I been reading a hard copy. I would like to get one of those and read these tales all over again in the traditional way, the way Dubliners themselves would have read.

I had planned to include in this one post, a paragraph for several more titles — but I’m so far unable to be that concise for very many of the books I read. First, it takes a lot of effort to get to the pith and be able to express it, and second, if I like a book, why not tell you more about why? I still hope that more book reviews short or long are in my future.

She could not be negative or perfunctory.

I’m reading My Antonia again — actually listening for the second time, to the recording narrated by Jeff Cummings. Next time I’d like to hear a different narrator, because I think Cummings makes the adult narrator of the story, Jim Burden, sound like young Anne of Green Gables. And he reads too fast, which doesn’t suit the pace of life depicted in the novel, and does an injustice to Willa Cather’s evocative prose.

This may be the fifth time I’ve read the book, and every time is a fresh experience. A paragraph or a personality will jump out at me as though I’m encountering it for the first time. For example, the introduction to the Burdens’ Norwegian neighbors after they moved into town:

“Mrs. Harling was short and square and sturdy-looking, like her house. Every inch of her was charged with an energy that made itself felt the moment she entered a room. Her face was rosy and solid, with bright, twinkling eyes and a stubborn little chin. She was quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul. How well I remember her laugh; it had in it the same sudden recognition that flashed into her eyes, was a burst of humour, short and intelligent.

“Her rapid footsteps shook her own floors, and she routed lassitude and indifference wherever she came. She could not be negative or perfunctory about anything. Her enthusiasm, and her violent likes and dislikes, asserted themselves in all the everyday occupations of life. Wash-day was interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings’. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival, and house-cleaning was like a revolution. When Mrs. Harling made garden that spring, we could feel the stir of her undertaking through the willow hedge that separated our place from hers.”

The-Harling-House_Red-Cloud_1013763 (2)
The “Harling House” in Red Cloud, Nebraska

In that book flies a bird.

The library is a pleasant walk away from Kate’s apartment, but maybe not on a day when it’s over 90 degrees and the library didn’t open until 1:00. So Kate drove the two of us while Raj was napping, and that way we could completely focus on finding the titles we really wanted, most of which we had researched together online the night before.

We were looking not for ourselves, but for a toddler. Kate’s eager to fill her child’s life with the most enriching books, nourishing not only because of the pictures or the text but also for how they provide an experience for the adult and child to share — and that they both enjoy. We’ve been talking about what makes a child love a book, and why we don’t like some of the traditional favorites. But even in cases where we can’t quite put our finger on what is “wrong” with a story or the illustrations, one reading to find out is more than enough time to give to it.

Today the bag of 14 books we brought home included 6-8 board books, including a few by Sandra Boynton and Byron Barton (Mi Carro); there were many sweet options in this category, so many that we had to narrow our choices by such considerations as, “Let’s not borrow this book I Hear, because listening to a book is not an experience of hearing the birds, rain, or wristwatch that are pictured; why don’t we talk about sounds when we are actually hearing them.”

One charming picture book with fold-out pages is Papa, please get the moon for me, by Eric Carle. It’s a whimsical tale in which the girl making the request does get her wish, and she even plays with the moon as soon as it gets small enough for her dad to bring it down the ladder. Raj seems to focus on the pictures of the moon in his story books, and I always love to return to the more poetic depictions of the moon when reading or singing to children.

A title that popped up on my screen was The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, with pictures by Beth Krommes. It appealed to me right off, and the majority of reviews were positive, but some people said it was too dark and that several children had not liked it. As luck would have it, the small local branch had it available so I was able to see it for myself very quickly; now it’s my latest favorite picture book.

It has elements of Goodnight Moon, but the verse form of the traditional “This is the Key of the Kingdom.” And though it is about nighttime and there is little color on the pages, it is about light even more, somewhat in the way that the novel All the Light We Cannot See is radiant with love and hope.

The moon is shining in the sky when the scene opens, of a bed, where a violin and a book are lying. Only one line describes each scene.

In that book flies a bird.
In that bird breathes a song…
all about the starry dark.

Every week at Vespers we pray “Thou appointest the darkness and there is the night,” and it reminds me of how C.S. Lewis wanted to name his space trilogy something about Deep Heaven, because space sounds cold and unfriendly, whereas heaven is full of angels. God created the night and He is in it. This book seems to be about the sun (shining on the moon, even at night) and the electric lights in our houses, but when you come to the end and read about “a home full of light,” you realize that it is also about the human love and care — and that is only an overspilling of the love of the Holy Trinity — undergirding it through the night, making it the most restful place that is both safe and bright.

Lifting the eyes without horror.

In White Road, Olga Ilyin writes her memoirs of the years 1919-1923 in Russia. I am not very far into the book, but I want to share a short passage describing one Siberian winter morning as she was fleeing eastward with the White Army and some members of their families. Each night they would billet with sympathetic peasants, and move on the next day.

“It was one of those windless mornings…when the air is frozen to the crispness of glass and every sound engraves itself on the darkness with such precision that you can trace its outline with a pencil.

“I had just come on the porch of our cottage. I loved to be the first one to come outside with Bibik [her baby] to steal a moment of quiet before the noise and movement of departing troops, to gaze at the stars overhead, and listen to my footsteps on hard-packed snow fall into silence like notes of music.

“And yet, how could I? For these were the same stars I had watched with horrified eyes on the night when I fled from home; the same stars at which my father had looked from an open truck just a week later when a firing squad drove him to where he was shot. Never again, I had felt, could I lift my eyes without horror to this unyielding gulf between God and man, hammered in by myriads of frightful metallic nails. So, why should I come out to catch a moment to be alone with them? How was it possible that again the stars should reassure me of the wonder of life, telling me that nothing great could really be broken or vanquished? At least within us.”