Writers reveal the books they couldn't put down
Published 15/12/2013 | 18:04
Fellow authors choose their favourite reads, including crime thrillers, biographies and history
MY THREE books of the year deal with the formation of the State: Ronan Fanning's Fatal Path, British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-22, Charles Townshend's The Republic, The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923, and Gerard Murphy's novel, The Kindness of Strangers. Fanning, an Irish historian, writes fluently about the intricacies of British Government policy, keeping a firm grip on slippery eels like Lloyd George. Conversely, Townshend, a British historian, writes knowledgably about the Old IRA's ambushes, raids, rallies and -- with restraint -- about some of their darker deeds in Sligo and west Cork.
Murphy is restrained too, but spares us no terrible detail in depicting the journey of a decent young IRA volunteer to the heart of darkness. As I read all three books alternately, I felt I was turning a prism that constantly refracted a fresh aspect of historical reality. But of course it's a recovered reality that requires both scholarship and storytelling skills. Luckily for the general reader, the historians, Fanning and Townshend have the narrative skills of a novelist, and the historical novelist, Murphy, has a sound sense of history. Read all three and you will bring both a sceptical and sympathetic eye to the forthcoming commemorations of 2016.
Author, winner of the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award for her novel The Herbalist.
It's hard to pick from a year of such good writing but I'll begin with Elske Rahill's Between Dog and Wolf. A debut novel, it's a refreshingly direct treatment of young love in this brave new pornified world of ours. Set in Dublin, the plot revolves around Helen and Oisín, and follows them from tenderness to disenchantment through the power struggles that play out in their sexual relationship. The unflinching narration makes for a fascinating, sensual and sometimes brutal read. Fresh, witty and visceral, I couldn't put it down.
Another wonderful book was Alice Monroe's collection Dear Life. Monroe is the recent winner of the Nobel Prize For Literature. A Canadian, she has been compared to Chekhov and I'm only being slightly tongue in cheek when I say that the honour is entirely his. Dear Life is comprised of 13 rich and startling stories, a must read. Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is a memoir and companion to her semi autobiographical 1985 debut Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, it charts her search to find her real mother and is honest, moving and funny.
Most of my reading this year was sports/work related; some of it was a pleasure. I've been badgering Penguin for two years now about Eamon Dunphy's autobiography ("Is he there yet? Is he there yet?") and The Rocky Road does not disappoint. Beautifully produced and brilliantly written, it appeals on many levels. Eamonn McCann described it recently as the best depiction he had read about working-class Dublin. My barber, a Liverpool fan, loved the Steve Heighway story ("He's not one of us. He doesn't piss in the sink.") and the insights into George Best. Personally, I'd have liked a bit more 'Dunphy' in it but that's (hopefully) for volume 2. He's not there yet.
It hasn't been a great year for sports books but Domestique by Charly Wegelius was my favorite read of the summer. Wegelius spent 11 years as a world-class cyclist but never won a race. How? He was a "domestique" -- a racer who devotes himself completely to the service of his team. The book is a terrific insight into a world rarely seen. And there's a touch of Dunphy's Only a Game? about his bottom line: "I knew the truth about professional cycling: It's no fu**ing fairytale."
There's a great book in Johnny Sexton: Becoming a Lion but a diary of his final year at Leinster is not it, and won't make many shortlists for Book of the Year but I enjoyed it. And as these things (they call them "Diary jobbies" in the Leinster dressing room) go it's not bad.
Ballyknocken House & Cookery School. Author of The Weekend chef, Easy Food for Lazy Days
Kokken by Timm Vladimirs. Perhaps a strange suggestion, but I had the pleasure of welcoming Danish Celebrity Masterchef, Vladimirs to my cookery school over the summer. Subsequently, I spent two days teaching at his cookery school in Copenhagen, where I got my hands on his beautiful cookbook. All delicious photographs and recipes are by Timm -- I want to make and eat everything right now!
How to Really be a Mother by Emily Hourican. A refreshingly honest book about modern motherhood. As mothers, we all compare ourselves -- maybe to our own mothers or to the glam mums at the school gate. Emily brings normality to motherhood and not without a large dose of humour. This book is the antidote to the busyness and stresses that touch all of our lives.
Here in No Place by AW Timmons. What an enjoyable debut novel. An engaging story about Murt Dolan, who has lost all that is important to him, this book reunites the lead character's past with his present. The detail in description of everything from the bitterness of a cold day to character's hurt and loneliness is both raw and vivid. I could not put this book down, not because Mr Timmons is my dear cousin but because it is a beguiling story, well told.
Professor Emeritus of Modern History at UCD whose latest book Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution, 1910-22 (Faber & Faber) was short-listed for the 2013 Irish Literary Awards.
Charles Moore's Margaret Thatcher: the Authorized Biography: Volume 1: Not for Turning (London: Allen Lane) is always empathetic but never uncritical. His account of how Margaret Roberts, the daughter of a Grantham grocer, went to Oxford, acquired a wealthy husband and forged the persona of a future Tory prime minister is especially compelling. But this is also dispassionate political history at its best: thus the account of the relationship in Cabinet between Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe in 1979-82 never anticipates the subsequent fate of that relationship.
Alastair Campbell's The Irish Diaries (1994-2003) (Dublin: Lilliput Press) draws together the Irish material scattered through his four volumes of diaries. Sensitively edited by Kathy Gilfillan, it is an invaluable account of the inside story of Tony Blair's Irish policy of a kind unparalleled since the Irish volume of Tom Jones's diaries did the same thing 40 years ago for Lloyd George's policy in 1918-22.
James Salter's All That Is (London: Picador) is a masterpiece by a great American novelist. The backdrop is vast -- from the Second World War in the Pacific through four decades in Harvard, Washington, New York, London, Venice, Paris. But, in essence, it is a short and ultimately devastating story of the perils and rewards of the search for love.
Christina Reihill Poet.
Her exhibition The Present is currently on at the Crypt, Monkstown Church.
My favourite book of the year -- James Hillman's Suicide and The Soul -- is not everyone's idea of cosy bed time reading but so utterly mine. His understanding of the nature of soul and the philosophical questions around soul's longing/calling to die are rich in insight and poetic idiom. I read his book every year and in a time when so much fear seems to surround the subject, I find his writings soothing and assuring.
I also loved God In A Taxi Ride by Paul Arden -- a wonderful dance through the big questions but with childlike simplicity, he cuts through the theory.
Finally, Stepping Stones -- Dennis O'Driscoll's hefty biography of Seamus Heaney. The person was of more interest to me than his work -- he embodied all I imagine a poet to be and how I like to live my life -- asking the big questions but never forgetting the child's voice or sense of play. As a writer I wondered how with great grace he wrote with such love and sense of fun with his wife and children. I have a cat and we fight all the time when I write!
The clear winner in this category has to be Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath. Since his seminal work, The Tipping Point, Gladwell's combination of fascinating, quirky research and a marvelous gift for telling the story have made his works indispensible for anyone interested in how the world works.
In David and Goliath, Gladwell starts with the Biblical tale of how the underdog shepherd boy can win by fighting the favourite on the underdog's terms. Once he has us hooked, Gladwell then takes us on a breathtaking tour detailing how underdogs can beat the favourites in all walks of life. Not only does he highlight the cleverness of the underdog, but he also focuses on the limitations of power and how power plays tricks on the powerful making them vulnerable.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is an oldie, but it's a goodie. For the past two years, I've been trying to set aside the time to read Mantel's acclaimed account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, the power behind the throne of Henry VIII.Even though Cromwell is an utterly Machiavellian, deeply malicious and utterly contemptible person, you are so drawn into his complex life that you are rooting for him, even against your better judgment.
Cromwell, the self-made man who is good at knowing how to make a fortune, in a court of aristocratic buffoons, reinforces Gladwell's thesis that the underdog can triumph by recognising his own innate talents and the limitations of the apparently God-given power of others.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, who appeared at Dalkey Book Festival in 2013, has been a famously slow burner but finally everyone is raving about it. I practically inhaled it in one sitting. Tremendous!
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely is a classic in the increasingly essential world of behavioural economics. Ariely is a true one-off; the professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, a brilliant mathematician, psychologist and a wonderful human with an infectious fascination in almost everything. If you want to know why we are irrational, why we do seemingly illogical things, why we behave as we do, this is the book for you.
Poet. His Collected Poems is published by Bloodaxe Books
It's always so difficult to choose just three books. I was delighted to get Brendan Kennelly's new book Guff from Bloodaxe Books. Though now a senior presence, Brendan has no time for complacency and, alongside Cromwell and Judas, he presents us with yet another self-doubting, questioning alter ego who tells him:
Surrender, first, then let your mind run free
back to the moment when the hurt began
and the first thrust of ecstasy
saw a trembling boy become a trembling man.
It is good to see the publication by Gallery Press of the late Dennis O'Driscoll's The Outnumbered Poet, Critical and Autobiographical Essays. Known for his wide-ranging interest and encyclopaedic knowledge of the poetry scene, this posthumous collection will be widely welcomed as a companion to his earlier Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams. This furthers a tradition where poets provide essays which enhance the general understanding of poetry.
Following a recent reading at Oxford, I was browsing in a bookshop and I found End This Depression Now by Paul Krugman published by Norton. Apart my own general interest in economics, I found this a fascinating read. In times of righteous bookkeeping, Krugman demands an immediate Keynesian approach. I recommend it highly.
I was doubly lucky this year -- lots of wonderful travel and lots of superb novels to deaden the dullness of the actual journeys. A mind-blowing 11 flights in 10 days (Africa) was eased by the appearance of the enigmatic Donna Tartt who emerged from her customary decade-long silence with The Goldfinch, a riveting narrative about a teenage boy called Theo who suffers the violent loss of his mother and is suddenly catapulted into a world of unmitigated strangeness. Flawed but fabulous.
I adored Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs -- a brilliant roar of rage about elementary school teacher Nora who is dazzled and ultimately betrayed by the exotic Shahid family. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter was a bittersweet tale of love lost and found, vividly located between Italy and Hollywood and peopled with captivating characters. Finally my favourite novel in a long time was The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer -- a rich read about six friends, who meet as teenagers. A moving meditation on what happens to us in life and how we deal with it and an intense, perceptive study of that most corrosive of emotions -- jealousy.
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