Uncovering family secrets in seaside Ireland

Elizabeth Keane has been living in New York City for the past 20 years. Six months after her mother’s death, she is back in her Irish hometown of Buncarragh for perhaps the final time, tying up the final threads of her late mother’s estate. She’s already exhausted just thinking of all she has to do when she is distracted by discovering a trove of letters hidden away in her mother’s closet. The letters are from Edward Foley, the father Elizabeth never knew. On impulse, Elizabeth decides to travel to the West Cork address Foley wrote on his letters and try to learn more about the time of her life that her mother Patricia refused to talk about. From there, the narrative alternates between the present and the past, as we slowly learn the story of Patricia and Edward’s courtship and how everything goes pear-shaped.

For all that it starts as a conventional family saga, A Keeper (2018) by Graham Norton takes a turn toward what I can only term Irish Gothic in its recounting of what really happened 40 years ago that ended with Patricia raising Elizabeth as a single parent. There are so many parallels among the generational stories: Patricia raising Elizabeth as a single mother; Elizabeth marrying and divorcing, leaving her to raise her own son, Zach, in a single-parent home; Zach’s own complicated romantic entanglements. Norton deftly juggles all three storylines without losing sight of the narrative’s focus. The answers may lie in the past with Patricia and Edward, but it is Elizabeth’s present and to a lesser extent Zach’s future that form the heart of the novel.

Norton is a skillful storyteller. I was immediately engrossed in Elizabeth’s life and shared her curiosity about what her mother had been hiding all those years. And I felt equally sympathetic and interested in Patricia’s story, such that the impatience I often feel when a novel switches from one timeline to another never materialized. The ending, while just a bit on the nose in its dénouement, was nonetheless satisfying. A keeper, indeed.

Literary Links: July 9, 2021

photograph of stylized metal chain links, with text "Literary Links" superimposed on top.
Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I read a lot every week, and it’s not all in books! Here’s a roundup of some of the best articles I read this week about books, reading, and words.

Scottish Crime Debut of the Year 2021 Shortlist Announced!

I’m a bit late with this news, but the shortlist for the Scottish Crime Debut of 2021 has been announced. The winner will be announced during Bloody Scotland, an International Crime Writing Festival in September. As if I needed more books to add to my TBR. Have you read any of these? Tell me everything! (via Bloody Scotland)

’It Drives Writers Mad’: Why Are Authors Still Sniffy About Sci-Fi?

I don’t read a ton of science fiction, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve read. And I am a big fan of other genre fiction, like mysteries, so I find the snootiness of Ian McEwan (who claims his latest novel is a fiction about science, but not science fiction) insufferable. It’s right up there with people who claim that an excellent mystery or fantasy book “transcends the genre.” No, it’s just an excellent book. (via The Guardian)

In One Modest Cotton Sack, a Remarkable Story of Slavery, Suffering, Love and Survival

This new nonfiction book by Tiya Miles is definitely on my radar. It ticks all the boxes for me — about history, shining a light into the corners that don’t normally get seen in historical works. I’ve recommended it for purchase to my library, but I may have to suck it up and buy this one myself. (via The New York Times)

Liking Books Is Not a Personality

Do you remember the phenomenon of Marie Kondo, and her KonMari method of de-cluttering your home? For a while there, it seemed like every person I knew was in a frenzy to apply her rules about only keeping possessions that “spark joy” to their lives. Of course, this is the Age of Social Media Outrage when any harmless thing can become a target for some aggrieved group or another, and it didn’t take long for people who called themselves book lovers to lash out. The point of books, readers raged, was not joy as Hannah McGregor puts it in this article that also examines the racial overtones of the criticism directed at Kondo. I have not KonMari’d my possessions, but I am steadily downsizing my collection of physical books (let’s not talk about ebooks right now) and managing to do it without working myself into a lather. What sparks joy for me, it seems, is what’s actually inside the books, not the objects themselves. Your mileage, as always, may vary. (via Electric Lit)

Why Are There So Many Holocaust Books for Kids?

I never got around to watching the first season of the BBC/Amazon adaptation of one of the funniest books I’ve ever read before I canceled Prime, and now word comes that there’s a second season on the way. The good news is that the general storyline hews closely to one that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett talked about years ago, when they thought they might write a sequel. (via The Guardian)

The 100 Best, Worst, and Strangest Sherlock Holmes Portrayals of All-Time, Ranked

The first takeaway from this article is that there have been at least 100 cinematic/television portrayals of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective. And some of them go back to the earliest years of the 20th century, amazingly. This list has all the usual suspects—Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Benadryl Cabbagepatch Benedict Cumberbatch—but there are many more I’ve never heard of that sound interesting and horrifying in varying measures. The only thing missing is some indication of where these are available for modern viewers, whether streaming or DVD. That information would seem to be, ahem, elementary in a roundup like this. (via Crime Reads)

Mary Roach pokes her curious mind into the laboratory & the bedroom in ‘Bonk’

Mary Roach has a knack for distilling complicated scientific topics into prose that the general reader can understand. She does it with her own sense of curiosity and humor, which makes the learning fun. Previously, I’ve chortled my way through books that examined the afterlife for human cadavers (2003’s Stiff), and human spirits (2005’s Spooks), space exploration (2010’s Packing for Mars), the digestive system (2013’s Gulp), and the military (2016’s Grunt). Somehow I had missed reading her second book, Bonk (2008), although not from a sense of squeamishness about the subject. Or at least, not my squeamishness; for a long time it was the only Mary Roach book my local library did not have on the shelves.

Happily, that was no longer the case when I checked the ebook catalog earlier this year, and I was quick to add myself to the holds list. I can report that the expected mix of knowledge and good humor were present in the usual abundance for a Roach production, even as the subject once again would not seem to lend itself to jocularity. Sure, people take death and war seriously, but sex occupies a particularly fraught place, at least in modern American culture. For proof, you’ve only to look at the fact that a movie is much more likely to receive an R rating for showing a woman’s bare breasts than for showing crowds of people getting mown down with an automatic rifle.

The idea of studying sex as a scientific topic, in a lab with experiments involving real people, seems particularly fascinating. Roach provides a good overview of the difficulty in quantitatively measuring something whose most notable effects seem psychological rather than physiological. And that’s not even to get into the aversion of funders in providing money to study such a ticklish subject (no pun intended). Roach’s interest was piqued years ago when she stumbled on a medical journal article about a 1980s UCLA study that measured human sexual response. One group of men were asked to manipulate “the more usual suspect” during the experiment, while the control group was asked to rub their kneecaps at measured intervals:

Requesting that a study subject twiddle his knees is not immoral or indecent, but it is very hard to explain. And even harder to fund. Who sponsors these studies, I wondered. Who volunteers for them?

One of my favorite features of Roach’s work is how she cheerfully submits herself to observing and sometimes participating in the scientific research, the better to understand and explain it to her readers. And Bonk is no exception, although I’ll leave it to you to discover exactly how she accomplishes it. (All I’ll say here is her husband Ed must be a singularly good-natured and accommodating spouse.)

I can’t say Bonk is my favorite Mary Roach book (that’s a tie between Gulp and Stiff), but it was an enjoyable romp through the laboratories of sexuality.

They Said It: Stacey Abrams

American is a contradictory and precocious country, sir. We have, in a very short period of time, managed to commit venal sins against our own people and offer the world repeat examples of exceptionalism. Americans are greedy, brilliant, ambitious, and compassionate. We like to remind everyone about our genius, and yet our leaders make fun of smart people. In less than two centuries, we took over more than half a continent, placed a man on the moon and invented the Clapper. I enjoyed the contrasts.

While Justice Sleeps

Who is the pawn in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’?

I heard the buzz last year surrounding the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit, and I was tempted by the notion of a story set in the world of competitive chess (I don’t play chess but I enjoyed the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was my general reasoning). But before I got around to clicking the Play button, I discovered the series is based on a 1983 book by Walter Tevis, and I thought I’d read the source material first and watch the dramatization afterward. It took a while to work my way to the top of the library holds list (all that Netflix buzz wasn’t only affecting me, apparently) but eventually I got my hands on it.

A quick synopsis: The main character, Beth, grows up in an orphanage where she is deprived of any love or affection but is fed daily tranquilizers (along with all the other orphans) to keep them quiet and compliant. The only avenue of individual expression she finds is in the basement, watching the custodian play one-sided games of chess. He is gruff and dismissive of the little girl, but she is undaunted and continues hanging out as often as possible. Eventually, she makes comments that lead the custodian to realize she is teaching herself to understand how to play chess just by watching him, and he begins to actively teach her. She turns out to be a prodigy, and her talent leads her to the heights of competitive chess even as her warped upbringing has planted the seeds of her own potential destruction within her.

Tevis’ writing is strong and I found the storyline engaging from the start. Beth is not an entirely likable character, but she was easy for me to root for. As I mentioned, I do not play chess myself, but I found the play-by-play of the chess tournaments pretty riveting despite that lack. I never felt lost in jargon or minutiae during those scenes.

With such a positive experience reading the book, I was looking forward to finally watching the Netflix series. I did watch the first episode and it was fine, but I haven’t felt drawn to watch anymore. Tevis created such a strong combination of character, place and plot that seeing it depicted visually seemed superfluous, particularly the scenes that tried to depict Beth’s mental working out of chess moves during a game. In this particular case, I’m content with my own mental movie.

Complicated family dynamics drive the action in ‘Bonecrack’

There are two themes that run through most if not all of Dick Francis’ acclaimed mysteries: All of them involve the sport of horse racing to a greater or lesser degree, and most of them feature protagonists with less than convivial family relationships. Both conditions turn up in Francis’ Bonecrack (1971), which I re-read recently as part of a group read at LibraryThing.

Neil Griffon is a business wunderkind, who accumulated a fortune buying and selling antiques and went on to make a career out of diagnosing and advising struggling businesses. He has a polite but distant relationship with his father, a highly successful horse trainer in Newcastle. When his father suffers an accident that lands him in the hospital with a complicatedly broken leg, Neil steps in to keep the stable running until his father is on his feet again. With his business instincts, it doesn’t take him long to discover that the place is in financial difficulties, a fact his father has been hiding from everyone.

Before Neil has time to absorb all of this, he is kidnapped from his father’s office and forced to hire the mastermind’s son as an apprentice jockey, despite his utter lack of experience. On his own, Neil would be inclined to risk the consequences of refusing such extortion, but there’s his father and the stable’s shaky finances to consider, as well as the fact that the kidnappers cleverly threaten not his own life but those of his father’s horses. How Neil balances giving the kidnappers enough of what they want while finding ways to use the apprentice’s own complicated father-son relationship to his advantage, provides most of the novel’s interest.

This isn’t one of my favorite Francis novels. Because we don’t meet Neil’s father until he’s already laid up in hospital, it’s hard to get a sense of him as a fully formed human being. That makes the estrangement between him and Neil feel somewhat distant rather than visceral, and makes it harder to understand why Neil is so intent on solving his problem with the least amount of damage to his father’s business and reputation. And the mastermind criminal’s villainy is so broadly drawn as to seem cartoonish. But some secondary characters are appealing, including the stable’s female head groom. And Alessandro, aspiring jockey and son of a thug, undergoes the kind of personal transformation under subtle manipulation from Neil that makes him by far the most compelling character in the whole book.

A final note: I do not recommend this book to anyone who recoils at the depiction of animals being killed (a theme Francis would return to in 1987’s Bolt). The violence can seem jarring, especially at the hands of Francis, whose own love and respect for horses makes them full-fledged characters alongside the humans.

Literary links: June 18, 2021

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Here’s a look at some fun stuff I’ve been reading outside of books lately. If you’ve got some articles or websites to recommend, please drop them in the comments below. There’s no such thing as too much of a good thing!

2021 Pulitzer Prizes: A Guide to the Winning Books and Finalists

Here’s a nice roundup of all the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the categories of Fiction, History, Biography, Poetry and General Nonfiction, as announced on June 11. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve read any of these, or if there were other books you read this year that you thought were more worthy. (via The New York Times)

Authors to Earn Royalties on Secondhand Books For First Time

I’ve always felt regret that the buckets of books I’ve bought at secondhand stores and library sales don’t earn their creators any direct money (although I’ve certainly discovered authors from secondhand books whose later works I bought new). Now someone is doing something about it, although in a limited way. I hope this AuthorSHARE program is a success and expands to many other secondhand sellers. (via The Guardian)

Bogus Social Media Outrage Is Making Authors Change Lines in Their Books Now

 This is so ridiculous. And maybe I’m naïve but I refuse to believe that the people making these complaints are doing so in any kind of good faith. Surely no one honestly believes that a character in a novel who has problematic views actually reflects the author’s own values. (via Slate)

Oh, Dewey, Where Would You Put Me?

Especially for Pride Month, a sweet story from a librarian who identifies as queer about the human compulsion to classify both books and people. (via The New York Times)

The Last Printing Press in America

Promise me you’ll take seven minutes out of your day or evening to watch this marvelous little video of the last printing press in the United States where books are handmade, start to finish. Such artistry. (via The Study)

Birth and death in the midst of a pandemic

Julia Power, the narrator of The Pull of the Stars (2020) by Emma Donoghue, is a young maternity nurse in 1918 Dublin. World War I rages on throughout Europe, while the so-called Spanish Influenza stalks prey much closer to home. Nurse Power knows all too much about both plagues: More and more of the hospital staff are succumbing to the flu, while at home her brother Tim, her only surviving relative, has been mute since returning from the war front.

But wasn’t it the whole world’s war now? Hadn’t we caught it from each other, as helpless against it as against other infections? No way to keep one’s distance; no island to hide on. Like the poor, maybe, the war would always be with us. Across the world, one lasting state of noise and terror under the bone man’s reign.

Nursing duties in the tiny makeshift maternity ward meant to segregate flu-stricken expectant mothers from their healthy counterparts have fallen almost entirely on Nurse Julia. She’s been promised a visit from a new doctor soon, but meanwhile does the best she can to care for her four patients, all in various stages of pregnancy and illness. One of the nuns who run the hospital responds to her pleas for more help by bringing her Bridie, a young woman who lives in the convent after being raised in its orphanage. Julia is dubious about the arrangement, but she finds the unschooled Bridie to be a bright and curious assistant eager to make herself useful.

The women in Julia’s charge come from a range of economic strata, but most are grindingly poor, undernourished, dirty, and ignorant of the natural processes underway in their bodies. When one of them dies while giving birth, it’s Nurse Power who, in the absence of a physician, must fill out the death certificate:

If I’d been the one to write the concluding line in the regulation tiny lettering that filled both sides of her sheet, I’d have been tempted to put ‘Worn down to the bone’. Mother of five by the age of twenty-four, an underfed daughter of underfed generations, white as paper, red-rimmed eyes, flat bosom, fallen arches, twig limbs with veins that were tangles of blue twine. Eileen Devine had walked along a cliff edge all her adult life, and this flu had only tipped her over.

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between that long-ago pandemic and the one that swept the same globe a little more than 100 years later. Julia observes the same tendencies in people to deny the severity of the disease, to refuse to wear masks, to prioritize themselves over their fellow citizens, that we’ve all witnessed over the past year. It’s small comfort to know the world hasn’t necessarily become more selfish over the past century, and even less comfort to realize it certainly hasn’t become more compassionate. But even in the midst of so much death, Julia draws strength from her young protégé and clings to, if not a sense of optimism at least a refusal to succumb to despair.

As far as I could tell, the whole world was a machine grinding to a halt. Across the globe, in hundreds of languages, signs were going up urging people to cover their coughs. We had it no worse here than anywhere else; self-pity was as useless as panic.

This book is not for the squeamish. If you’ve seen any episodes of Call the Midwife on the BBC or PBS, you know that pregnancy and poverty can be dirty, bloody, gruesome things. Donoghue spares no details in showing her readers the reality behind the process that generates the cute little tykes in all those cheerful diaper commercials. But if you can look reality square in the eye without a soft-focus filter, your reward will be a story that seeks light in the darkness that surrounds us all.

They Said It: Jane Harper

Could this be enough? Kieran wondered. If this was all that was possible? If Brian didn’t remember what he thought Kieran had done, didn’t remember those black days when they lost Finn? If what had happened was gone forever, was that the same as forgiveness? Kieran wasn’t sure, but he thought about it, as they sat there together, looking out at the moon on the water.

‘The Survivors’