Current Reads, Part III

It appears reading has taken up most of my blogging time lately. That being the case, I thought this week I’d tell you a bit about those books that are keeping me from writing.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

It’s been a while since I invested some time in a great classic novel. I’m only six chapters in, but so far, I love Brontë’s writing, and the whole dark atmosphere of this story. I also love little Jane, even as my heart breaks for her.

“Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell?  Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die.” [Chapter 4]

Selected Poems: 1931 – 2004 by Czesław Miłosz

Like Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Czesław Miłosz is one of those writers that I like to preach about to people. Even before I really began to appreciate poetry, I still read his work, and now that poetry has become a love of mine, I find myself only falling deeper in love with these poems. And why is that? The answer to that question would fill a post on its own, but among other things, I love how much he can say in just a phrase or a few lines. I love the range of his poetry, which discusses everything from war, death, and love to train rides and strawberry jam. Rather along the lines of someone like Chesterton, he receives the world with awe and writes from the conviction that “every day is sacred” (which is not a quote from him, but from this poem by Adam Zagajewski. If you want my opinion on Miłosz, that poem about sums it up). I also love that Miłosz is one of the most truthful poets I’ve ever read, especially in his religious verse. I can’t think of too many poets who are as candid in their handling of sin and doubt as Miłosz is.

Since the poems in this collection are arranged in chronological order, it means that this book is very interesting to read side-by-side with the third book I currently have going….

Miłosz: a Biography by Andrzej Franaszek

Originally published in Poland in 2011, this book was edited and translated by Michael and Aleksandra Parker, who published it in the U. S. last month. This is the first time since Abigail Santamaria’s Joy where I’ve read a biography without already knowing a lot about the subject–yes, despite his being one of my favorite poets, I knew only the bare outline of Miłosz’s life going in. Even that is pretty incredible: displaced by war as a child, survived the Nazi occupation of Poland, made a deal with the Soviet devil, risked his career and his life to break that deal, then later settled into relative obscurity in America, only to gain international attention when, in 1980, he won the Nobel Prize. It’s been a fascinating book so far, and Franaszek’s gifts as a writer make it that much better.

So, what have all of you been reading lately? Have you read any of these books, and what did you think? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll

Year of Publication: 2008

Number of Pages: 522

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genre: Interviews, biography

Find it on Amazon.


As far as I know, there exists no full-length biography of Seamus Heaney. I thought that was an odd omission for the world’s biographers to make, until I heard about this book, a marathon series of interviews covering the entirety of Heaney’s life and career, from early childhood to the publication of what was then his latest book, District and Circle.

While this book does aim to be a “biography in interviews,” these interviews go far beyond strictly biographical material: in addition to that, we also get commentary on Heaney’s main influences and contemporaries, meditations on Irish politics, thoughts on the craft of poetry, etc. If you’re just starting to get into poetry, or if you’re fairly new to Heaney’s work, all of the minute detail about people and poems could start to bog you down. (Pun not intended, unless you like it.) If, on the other hand, you already love poetry, this is the book for you.

Right from the beginning, O’Driscoll’s questions are penetrating and wide-ranging, while Heaney’s answers are thorough, insightful, and rather poetic in their own way, especially when he talks about the poets and poems he most admires: R. S. Thomas, for example, is described as a “loner taking on the universe,” while poems like Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and Ted Hughes’s “The Bull Moses,” he says, “put me through the eye of my own needle.” Heaney and O’Driscoll knew each other well even before embarking on this project, so they play off of each other brilliantly. (If you want an idea of what these conversations are like, the Lannan Foundation in New Mexico filmed one of these interviews and later posted the video on their website.)

Over the past few years, I’ve been keen to learn as much about poetry as I can, so it was wonderful to hear someone who lives and breathes poetry talk about what makes it work for him: things like the importance of the word “now” in the first line of Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” or the example that Osip Mandelstam–the Russian dissident poet who spent years dodging Stalin’s secret police –sets for poets living in times of political turmoil. I find that Heaney is better at talking about poetry than most, so for me, the analytical parts of the interviews were fascinating.

I had been wanting to read Heaney’s biography for a while, but in some ways, this is better than a traditional biography: it’s more free-ranging, more thorough, and it gets down deeper into the poetry itself. It has also made me eager to read more biographies, interviews, and memoirs of authors, so if you know of any good ones, leave them in the comments.

Robert Hass Reads Czesław Miłosz

Currently, I’m reading Andrzej Franaszek’s biography of Czesław Miłosz, which is utterly fascinating and which I will review at a later date. It reminded me of this video, a poetry reading that former Poet Laureate Robert Hass gave in 2011. Besides being one of Miłosz’s primary English translators, Hass was also a colleague of his at UC Berkeley and a close friend of the great poet. Hass is one of those few poets who actually gives good readings, and I especially love this one: his love both for these poems and for Miłosz himself permeates his entire performance.

Enjoy.

(P. S. If you want to skip the introductions, go 6:12.)

National Poetry Month Wrap-Up

April, in case you didn’t know, was National Poetry Month. I’m afraid I only remembered that on March 31, so I didn’t have time to prepare much in the way of poetry-related blog posts. So instead, I decided to tweet a poem every day in April. Here’s the full list:

April 1: “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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From the Penguin Classics edition of Hopkins’s Poems and Prose.

April 2: “O Taste and See” by Denise Levertov

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From the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which is outrageously expensive to buy new. Here’s Levertov’s Collected Poems instead.

April 3: “Love (III)” by George Herbert

For Herbert’s 424nd birthday, I decided to go with this gem.

Find this in Herbert’s Complete Poetry.

April 4: “Veni Creator” by Czeslaw Milosz

From The Poetry Foundation.

April 5: “Entrance” by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Dana Gioia)

From 99 Poems by Dana Gioia.

April 6: “Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Find this one in Brooks’s Selected Poems.

April 7: “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry

Of course, the whole poem is much too long for me to share in screenshots on Twitter, so I just shared this excerpt of it.

Originally published here.

April 8: “If I can stop one heart from breaking” by Emily Dickinson

From Barnes and Noble’s Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

April 9: Holy Sonnet X: “Death be not proud” by John Donne

From Donne’s Complete English Poems.

April 10: “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti

 

From The Complete Poems

Continue reading “National Poetry Month Wrap-Up”

Bookish Links — April 2017

The Waterstone’s bookstore housed in the Bradford Wool Exchange building. Image by Michael D. Beckwith

The C. S. Lewis Quote That Everybody Gets Wrong

As I mentioned last week in my review of C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, the book contains one of the more famous Lewis quotes. You’ve probably seen it before:

Source.

It certainly sounds like good advice, and read in isolation, it is open to the interpretation that most people give it. Oddly enough though, Lewis was making the exact opposite point when he wrote it.

Near the beginning of chapter six of The Four Loves, Lewis references the following passage from Book 4 of St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine recalls his reaction to the death of his dear friend Nebridius:

Wretched I was; and wretched is every soul bound by the friendship of perishable things; he is torn asunder when he loses them, and then he feels the wretchedness which he had ere yet he lost them.

Rather than quote Augustine directly, Lewis instead summarized his point with the famous quote. But his whole reason for summarizing it was so that he could argue against it. From The Four Loves:

There is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the ground for loving? Would you choose a wife or a friend—if it comes to that, would you choose a dog—in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.1

Lewis also refers to Augustine’s original idea as “less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up.”2 Ouch.


1 Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves New York: Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 120-121.

2 Ibid. Pg. 121.

Book Review: The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1960

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2012

Number of Pages: 141

Publisher: Mariner Books

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Theology, Philosophy


I think it was the C. S. Lewis scholar William O’Flaherty who called The Four Loves one of Lewis’s least-read books. I call that a crying shame. Not only is it a great book, it’s also an important one, I think. Especially now, when it’s easier than ever for our ideas about love to run awry, books like this are helpful in eliminating some of our misconceptions and teaching us to love in a more God-honoring way.

Before going on to the actual review, I thought I might write a bit about how this book came to be written in the first place. I enjoy odd trivia like that, and I thought some of you guys might too, but none of this information is necessary for understanding the book, so if you want to skip straight to the review, go right ahead.

Background

Similar to Lewis’s earlier book Mere Christianity, The Four Loves began life as a series of radio addresses. In 1957, the US-based Episcopal Radio-Television Foundation (ERTF) asked Lewis to record a series of talks for their network on any topic he chose. Lewis recorded ten episodes on “the Four Loves” over two days in London, though not quite to the producers’ satisfaction. As Abigail Santamaria records in her excellent biography of Joy Davidman, the network didn’t care for the matter-of-fact style of presentation that Lewis had perfected in his 1940’s “Broadcast Talks” for the BBC. “But we want you to give the feeling of embracing [the audience],” one of the producers told him, to which Lewis replied with, “If they wanted an embracer, they had the wrong man.”

It wasn’t just Lewis’s tone that upset the station: his casual references to alcohol and tobacco use did nothing to endear him to the very conservative producers, and when he came to the section on erotic love, the network was so scandalized that they didn’t even air the program as originally intended, deciding to publish the transcripts of the talks as pamphlets instead. Three years later in 1960, Lewis published The Four Loves as we know it today, expanding upon the original radio talks and adding both an introduction and a chapter on “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human.”

A side-note: copies of the original ERTF recordings are pretty easy to find these days, but beware that these are the original talks without all of the material that Lewis added to the book The Four Loves. So if you want his complete thoughts on the topic, you’ll have to read the book.

Now, the review…

Reading The Four Loves, I was again amazed at the agility of Lewis’s mind, as he jumps from point to point without missing a beat. Everything is clear, above-board, and in the open. And as always, Lewis’s prose is concise, stylish, and eminently quotable. (Speaking of quotes, stayed tuned Wednesday for a post on one of the most misquoted passages in Lewis’s oeuvre.)

It’s a great book overall, but I was especially drawn to the chapter on “Friendship,” likely because I can’t remember the last time I heard a Christian teacher treat the topic with any amount of seriousness. And that’s a problem, because friendship is one of those topics a person never stops learning about.

The older I get, the more it seems to me that society as a whole is losing the concept of friendship. It appears to have forgotten what friendship is, what it looks like, and what its purpose is. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the sexualization of pretty much everything. I know from personal experience how confused some people are by the idea that two people of opposite sexes can discuss things with each other without wanting to date each other. And even some of the pairs of same sex friends I know are sometimes mistaken for couples, simply because they appear to enjoy each other’s company. In the culture’s obsession with Eros, it has lost Friendship almost entirely by declaring it just another manifestation of Eros.

Another part of it, I think, has to do with a devaluation of friendship. More often than not, I think we tend to view friendship mostly as a type of insurance against future boredom—friends are the people you go shopping with or gossip with, never anything more. What Lewis presents in this book is a much grander vision of friendship, one whose primary goal is not sex, networking, or temporary amusement, but rather to “seek the same truth.” Seeing as Lewis knew quite a lot about having good friends, I was glad to get his perspective on this woefully neglected topic.

***

The book ends with a chapter on agape, or “Charity,” which encompasses God’s love toward us, our love toward Him, and our love for our neighbors. It’s the “charity” that the Apostle Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. And of all the loves that humans are capable of experiencing, this is the one that brings us nearest to “Love Himself,” to use Lewis’s phrase.

The great thing about this chapter is that, while it is truly and completely impossible to write about heaven in a way that does it any justice, Lewis is able to discuss the future communion with God that awaits all Christians in a way that feels more immediate than descriptions of heaven often do. The problem with writing about heaven is that, while it is the most attractive thing existing other than God Himself, its attractiveness is so other and so unworldly that we are not able to comprehend it. As Dr. Karen Swallow Prior noted in a recent talk (drawn in part from another Lewis book, The Weight of Glory), “we cannot desire what we cannot imagine and we cannot imagine what we have not seen.” It’s hard to really be excited about heaven when we can barely even understand what it is or what it means.

If you’ve read Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy (or my review of it), you know how important the concept of “Joy” was to Lewis. This “Joy,” this longing for the completeness and the perfection that could only be found in God, is a constant theme running through Lewis’s writing, and it makes its appearance in The Four Loves as well. Rather than try to describe heaven and the presence of “Love Himself” in abstract terms, Lewis instead makes his appeal to Joy, to the innate conviction that, much as we love our fellow creatures, such earthly pleasures can never be enough to satisfy us completely. In the book’s final pages, Lewis taps into that sense of incompleteness and helps to point it in the right direction. He describes not the hoped-for thing itself, but rather its absence, and in doing this, gives us a much better idea of the thing itself than we might have had otherwise.

For such a short book, The Four Loves has given me a lot to think about regarding not just love between people, but also the love between people and God, the ways we talk about God, and how He works in and through our loves. I highly recommend this very underrated book to any and all.

Spring Library Sale Haul

As has become a biannual tradition, I recently went to a used book sale that one of the local public libraries hosted. You know the kind: where nearly everything is $4 or less so you come away with an armful of books, blowing up your TBR in the process. Here’s what I got:

1: The Chosen by Chaim Potok

Having read and enjoyed another of Potok’s novels, My Name Is Asher Lev, I was eager to get my hands on this one. Similar to Asher Lev, this book is set in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community. It concerns two boys who form a friendship, despite growing up in opposing religious sects.

2: Collected Poems: 1928-1985 by Stephen Spender

This was something of an impulse buy: I can’t remember if I’ve ever read a Stephen Spender poem, but I do remember hearing him be favorably compared to W. H. Auden and other poets that I like. So, why not?

3: Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories edited by Vincent O’Sullivan

A few of these books I bought because their authors were mentioned at some point by other authors that I like. In the case of Katherine Mansfield, she was highly spoken of by Ray Bradbury, and Seamus Heaney mentions her by name in his poem “Fosterage,” quoting the advice his mentor Michael McLaverty gave him: “‘Remember / Katherine Mansfield—I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked … that note of exile.'” That Mansfield quotation apparently came from one of her letters, which I was able to find an excerpt of. She sounds interesting. So I want to read her stories.

4: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

True, I already own a copy of Jane Eyre, and I have it on my e-reader (or could easily download it if I don’t). But this copy was printed in 1950, has a pretty green cover, and smells like a library.

5: The Necklace and Other Stories by Guy de Maupassant

For me, Guy de Maupassant was one of those blessed angels, an author you’re forced to read in school whose work you actually really enjoy. I read him from Project Gutenberg when I was in high school and after, but now I finally have a print copy of some of his work.

6: Selected Poetry and Prose of Coleridge edited by Donald A. Stauffer

I have a sort of prejudice against the first wave of Romantic poetry (and most of the second wave, to be honest), but Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the one righteous for whose sake the rest are spared. I didn’t own any books of Coleridge’s poetry before (only read him in anthologies), so I was glad to find this.

7: The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber

In case you don’t recognize him, James Thurber is the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” both of which are adorable, so I thought I’d pick up this antique anthology of his work.

8: Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein

My jacketless, 1956 hardcover edition of Time for the Stars

My edition is 61 years old and it (thankfully) does not have the same tacky sci-fi cover as the edition I linked to. Heinlein is considered one of the masters of twentieth century science fiction (along with guys like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, etc.) and I still haven’t read him, so, this will probably end up being my first Heinlein.

9: The Traitor and the Spy by James Thomas Flexner

A joint biography of Benedict Arnold and Major John André, the British official who helped Arnold betray the Continental army. There was a period in my teens when I was reading everything I could find about the Revolutionary War, and that fascination with colonial history never entirely went away, so I’m excited about this one.

10: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Once again, this author was recommended to me by another author: Ray Bradbury raved about this book in several lectures, interviews, and book introductions, saying that it inspired his own masterpiece The Martian Chronicles.

So, have you read any of these books? In any particular you’d like to see me review? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Year of First Publication: 2017

Number of Pages: 293

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Mythology


For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the Greek myths. What began as a school assignment quickly turned into a passion as I began to learn more and more about the classical world. I dabbled a little in other mythologies (mostly Egyptian and Irish), but as far as I was concerned, nothing could match the beauty of the Greek stories.

My preference is still for the Greeks, but I’m now finding out that the Norse myths are a lot of fun too.

As you could probably guess from the title, Norse Mythology is a collection of some of the best-known Norse myths as told by one of the world’s greatest living fantasy authors, Neil Gaiman. According to Gaiman himself, his main sources for this project were translations of the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, the two ancient Icelandic documents from which we derive nearly all of our knowledge of Norse mythology. He then took those stories and rewrote them in his own words.

I suppose I should mention now that my knowledge of Norse mythology effectively ends with this book and Bulfinch’s Mythology. I have no idea how true or untrue Gaiman is to the original Eddas, nor can I tell you how this book measures up to other retellings. All I can tell you is what impression the stories themselves made on me.

Odin by Arthur Rackham. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

So, this book has been on both the New York Times bestseller list and Amazon’s Top 100 Books list ever since its release in February. It’s been a huge success, and I think there’s a good reason for that, one that doesn’t have to do with Gaiman’s notoriety as an author or the Marvel Cinematic Universe: while the world of the Norse myths can be very dark and harsh, there’s also a thread of hope that runs through these stories. No matter what kind of harrowing adventures these characters get into, the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose (eventually). I know I’m not the first person to observe that our entertainment has gotten dreadfully cynical as of late, full of anti-heroes and ambiguous villains. There’s something to be said for a good anti-hero or a complex villain, but every now and then, you want to be reminded of brave warriors and heroic courage, to steal a line from C. S. Lewis. This is what myths and legends are for, and this is why, no matter who you are, how old you are, or where you’re from, these stories will resonate with you.

In addition to being rollicking fantasy tales, the Norse myths can also be very funny. For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that Norse mythology is dark and serious all the way through, so I was surprised when I found myself laughing—hard and loud at 1 o’clock in the morning—over some of these stories. It’s not a type of humor that everyone will necessarily enjoy: some of it is a little dark and most of it is crude. But I laughed nonetheless.

Another thing that surprised me in this book was the narration. I anticipated that the tone in these retellings would be similar to the tone that Gaiman uses in his adult fiction, things like The Ocean at the End of the Lane or “’The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains’” (both of which I highly recommend, by the way). Instead, the vocabulary is simplified and there’s less of that sense of mystery and suspense that you sometimes see in Gaiman. But, because this book is intended for all ages, I can understand why he would choose to adopt a more straightforward writing style.

That’s all for now. What about you all? Who’s read this book and what did you think? What other books on Norse mythology would you recommend? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — March 2017

The famous “Sky Road” in Clifden, Co. Galway (Image by Morna, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

It’s the last day of Reading Ireland Month, so this month’s installment of “Bookish Links” is going to include only links about Irish books and writers.

  • First off, there’s the official Reading Ireland Month link-up, which you can check out here.
  • Here, we run the gambit of obscure Irish curses, from the inconvenient (“That you may be badly positioned on a windy day”) to the diabolical (“That the Devil will make a ladder out of your spine”) to the feline (“My cat’s curse upon you”).

Book Review: History of the Rain by Niall Williams

First Published: 2014

Number of Pages: 358

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Contemporary fiction


History of the Rain_WilliamsA while back, a friend of mine, after finding out that I love Irish literature, recommended this book to me. I’m terribly glad that he did. The one-sentence review he gave of it on his blog sums it up pretty nicely: “This is a thing of beauty.” Just the same, I’d like to add a few words to that.

On its surface, History of the Rain is the story of the Swain family as told by one of its last surviving members, nineteen-year-old Ruth Swain. Having been confined to bed by a mysterious illness, Ruth begins writing her family’s history in order to “find” her late father, a poet named Virgil Swain. Really, though, this book is about a lot of things.

It’s about perfection and the impossibility of attaining it. For instance, one recurring theme in the Swains’ history involves sons who fail to live up to their own and their fathers’ expectations for them. Beginning with Ruth’s great-grandfather, a zealous English minister determined to make a difference in the world, each generation of Swain men tries to live up to the impossible goals he sets for himself, fails, and then tries instead to find his ultimate fulfillment in making his son all he hoped he would be himself. The tradition of remaking the son in the father’s image, fortunately, stops with Virgil Swain. Nevertheless, Virgil is still haunted till his dying day by a desire to find or create perfection and sublimity in everything he meets. “My father bore a burden of impossible ambition,” Ruth tells us on the first page. “He wanted all things to be better than they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world.” Again and again, the book returns to the idea of longing for something out of this world, of missing something that was never ours in the first place. In a way, it reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his experience of an insatiable longing for something that he had never yet found, calling this longing either “Joy” or sehnsucht. But where Surprised by Joy was concerned mostly with how Lewis found a consolation for that longing through his faith, History of the Rain is more concerned with the longing itself: how and when it appears and the futility of trying to satisfy it with earthly things. The book gives no answers but asks a lot of questions, enough to put you into that mindset of longing and wishing and hoping as well.

This is also a book about books. For both Ruth—trapped in her room with nowhere else to go—and her father—dogged by that sense of sehnsucht I mentioned a minute ago—books are an escape. They remind them that there’s a bigger, better, and more beautiful world out there than anything they could imagine. Books also become the link between them after Virgil dies. He owned 3,985 books at the time of his death and Ruth says she’s going to read them all. That’s another way in which she intends to “find” him. So between the narrator’s passion for reading and her frequent references to great books and authors, you might say that History of the Rain is a kind of love letter to literature and to the people who create it.

Speaking of writers, the writing in this book, for me, was one of its real high points. Williams’s style is intensely lyrical and imaginative throughout, with just a touch of stream of consciousness. The idea is that Ruth is a writer-in-training with a flair for the dramatic, so you end up with passages like this one, in which she describes her grandfather Abraham practicing pole-vaulting as a teenager:

And here he is, Abraham in lift-off, his soul bubbling as he climbs, entering the upper air with perfect propulsion and ascension both. An instant and he no longer needs the pile. Hands it off. It falls to ground, a distant double-bounce off the solid world below. The blackbirds take fright, rise and glide to the goalmouth. Amazement blues my grandfather’s eyes. He’s at the apex of a triangle, a pale angular man-bird. His legs air-walk, his everything unearthed as he crosses the bar above us all. There is a giddy gulp of the Impossible and he sort of rolls over in the sky, pressed up against the iron clouds where God must be watching. His mind whites out. His body believes it is winged, has vaulted into some other way of being. Abraham Swain is Up There and Away, paddling the air above the ordinary and just for a moment praying: let me never fall to earth. (Pg. 8)

I for one love this kind of writing, but I know that it’s not for all tastes. So if you’re not so terribly fond of ornate prose, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The River Shannon is also really important in this book. Here’s a shot of it from County Clare, where History of the Rain is set. (Although the weather for most of this story is not nearly this nice.) // Image by Liam Moloney, CC BY-SA 2.0

There are a few rough spots here and there. The symbolism, while very beautiful and poignant sometimes, could be a little heavy-handed at other times. And then there’s Ruth’s twin brother Aengus, known as Aeney to the family. Aeney gets talked about a lot in this story, but we never really get to see him do or say anything memorable. Really, most of what we know about him are the things that Ruth explicitly told us. We know that Aeney was kind because Ruth said he was kind, we know that he was the apple of his father’s eye because Ruth said he was the apple of his father’s eye. In other words, Aeney never really gets to speak or act on his own behalf. Personally, I would have appreciated if his character had been fleshed out a bit more.

Even so, my friend’s verdict still stands: this is a beautiful novel, full of the lyricism and wonder and the nerdy literature references that I love. Glad I could end Reading Ireland Month on a high note!

Book Review: Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

First Published: 1996

Year of Publication for This Edition: 1997

Number of Pages: 246

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Historical fiction, Bildungsroman


Reading in the Dark_DeaneReading in the Dark follows its young, unnamed narrator throughout his life in the Northern Irish city of Derry just before the Troubles. As the son of a working-class Catholic family, he already faces challenges that most boys his age would not usually meet. Soon, though, his life takes a much darker turn when his dying grandfather confesses to a crime committed decades earlier. Little by little, this boy begins to piece together the history that his family has tried for so long to keep hidden.

First of all, this book is beautifully written. Though he’s best-known in the States for his prose, Seamus Deane is also a prolific poet, and it shows in his fiction.

Fire was what I loved to hear of and to see. It transformed the grey air and streets, excited and exciting. When, in mid-August, to commemorate the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, the bonfires were lit at the foot of the sloping, parallel streets, against the stone wall above the Park, the night sky reddened around the rising furls of black tyre-smoke that exploded every so often in high soprano bursts of paraffined flame.

Chapter 2, pg. 31-32

The book is full of passage like this, where not even the small details of color or smell or sound are overlooked. It does its best to put you in the story’s time and place and immerse you in the narrator’s experience.

Second, this style of storytelling intrigues me. Rather than gives us one continuous narrative from beginning to end, Deane instead tells the story in brief vignettes from the narrator’s daily life. At first, you’re a little unsure of how all these pieces match up, but as the story goes on, the connections between one episode and the others become clearer. Our hero faces a similar task, having to piece together a family history that he’s only heard about in rumors, whispers, and last-minute deathbed confessions, so the almost fragmentary narrative pairs well with the story itself.

As for the plot, I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as wild about it as most other readers seem to be. At a point, the book consists mostly of the narrator’s own internal monologue as he tries to get straight in his head who knew what and when, and this sort of story just didn’t grab me. I know that puts me in a very small minority, and maybe someone in the comments could point out what I’m missing. I enjoyed the book, but it’s not necessarily something I’ll feel compelled to reread any time soon.

That’s not to say, though, that I’m not impressed by Deane’s talent as an author. I mentioned earlier how the book’s imagery reminds you of the fact that Deane is a poet; another way in which I think Reading in the Dark imitates poetry is the way in which every component of the narrative serves to reinforce the others. In a way, it’s hard to focus just on one particular aspect of the story—setting, atmosphere, characters, or what have you—because each is so closely related to the other. And then at the same time that all of these separate threads reinforce each other, they also all bring you back to the main idea that the book is trying to get across. I love how the whole novel hangs together so gracefully.

So, even though this book may not have been my ideal, it’s still a beautiful novel and one that I’m glad to have read. Stick around for next week’s post, when we wrap up Reading Ireland Month with one last book review.