Coming of age during The Troubles

Bog Child ★★★★★
Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books, 2008

bogchild

Ah Jesus. This really is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story. My one piece of advice? If you do the audio thing, then that’s how to do this one. Sile Bermingham is the perfect reader, her soft lilt a gorgeous accompaniment not just to the lyrical prose that will make you shudder when it’s read aloud, but delivering on the Irish accent transporting you to a very particular time and place.

It should have been the Irish history content of this novel that brought it to my attention (more on that later), but it wasn’t. It was its author – Siobhan (pronounced She-von) Dowd. I discovered Ms. Dowd the summer of 2011 when I read A Monster Calls. That book shattered me on a cellular level. The author of A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness – describes his collaboration with Dowd this way:

She had the characters, a detailed premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.

Siobhan-Dowd-002

Siobhan Dowd (author)

Dowd was diagnosed with breast cancer and succumbed to her disease in 2007 at the age of 47. Ness courageously took on the project and the completed novel is both exquisite and a lasting tribute to its progenitor.

So I went looking for something else to read by this woman and came across Bog Child. There was a time in my life when I was marinating in a stew of Irish history. I took an interest in it at University and it became my declared major. My BA Honors essay was on the IRA’s guerrilla tactics during the Irish War of Independence. By the time I hit grad school I was practically obsessed. I knew my next step was an even bigger research project and a trip to Ireland, hence my Master’s thesis which you can read here if you’re ever really desperate for reading material or have a love of the subject yourself.

the-troubles5Even though my subject area was late 19th, early 20th century Irish history, it was unavoidable that I would become consumed by the on-going Troubles that exploded again in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s. I eventually did get myself to Ireland on a work/study visa in the fall of 2000 lasting until April 2001, which by pure coincidence coincided with the 20th anniversary of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.

I witnessed a candlelight vigil along O’Connell Street and listened to Gerry Adams (and the sister of Mickey Devine) speak at a public gathering. It was an emotional affair, but at the same time I remember feeling removed from the entire experience. It felt too raw and personal for me to be looking on like that, a Canadian girl who was only seven years old when ten young Irishmen starved themselves to death in political protest.

It’s easy for anyone on the outside of any event to have opinions of it one way or the other — whether those young men really knew what they were doing, or were just desperate and confused by dehumanizing prison conditions, or whether they had been brainwashed and/or intimidated to “the cause”. Some consider their actions a waste and abhorrent, while others see their deaths as an important political event worthy of commemoration as we do for soldiers who die in battle. For me, it isn’t the Strikers I think about (as sad and frustrating as their stories are), but their families. How excruciating and traumatic must the whole process have been to watch a son die slow like that.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The ten men who died on their Hunger Strike.

The worst part? It’s within your power to take them off the Strike, against their will, so that the doctors hook them up to an IV saving them from certain death. How does any parent make that choice? It seems easy, right? Of course you would save them. It would be mad to let them die. But ten families made that choice. Other families did not, and ended their son’s hunger strike. I’ve always wondered how each family survived the very different choice they made. Is there bitterness? Doubts? What about the men taken off the Strike by their families…did they forgive them? Did they suffer from survivor’s guilt for living when others died in their place? Or was it relief? Relief that they were saved from themselves and the insanity that had taken hold of the times. For a cinematic portrayal of what the families faced I recommend Some Mother’s Son.

I haven’t thought about Irish history in any shape or form in years. I left grad school in 2005 and I was done with all of it. I had been supersaturated, I had overdosed on it. No more! I cried. Then this book.

In Bog Child, the late Siobhan Dowd is not romanticizing the Hunger Strike. It’s not a political book, for or against the Strikers. It’s just a simple story of an eighteen year old boy facing manhood. His final exams are in full swing and his dreams of becoming a doctor have never been so close, yet so out of reach. He’s falling in love for the first time. He’s getting pressured from the local IRA goon to run packets across the guarded border. But most devastating and confusing of all, his older brother Joey is on Hunger Strike in Maze Prison and it’s tearing his family apart.

Fergus stole and then broke my heart. All he wants to do is the right thing, but in a messed up world during a messed up time what the right thing is isn’t always clear. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s light and laughter and hope in these pages too, and an abiding love for the affirmation of life and all the joy and pain that living brings.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

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Review: A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

A Land More Kind Than Home ★★★★★
Wiley Cash
William Morrow, 2012

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback

This book has everything I love — a Southern setting, secrets, family tragedy, religious zealotry run amok, and strong narrative voices. If I had read it, it would have been an easy four stars. But because I listened to it, and the audio version is one of the best I’ve ever heard, it’s getting five stars.

This is a debut novel — is it flawless? No. But you know what? I didn’t care. I don’t think you will either. I got so swept up and carried away by the story I was being told I was living it. I was right there in that small town watching it all go down with a flutter of anxiety in my stomach, and a lump of sadness in my throat.

What really made me love this story as an audiobook is that we have three narrators read by three different readers– 1) Jess Hall, a precocious nine year old who has a penchant for spying and will eventually see something he wishes he hadn’t that will change his life and the life of his town forever 2) Adelaide Lyle, a feisty old woman who has born witness to much of the town’s history and dark secrets and 3) Clem Barefield, seasoned Sheriff with a painful past who must confront the evil that has taken hold of his town like a cancer.

Getting the story from these three very distinct voices and points of view is fantastic. It makes what is essentially a simple and straight forward story feel richer, more layered and emotional. I loved the reader for the Sheriff. What a fantastic performance. That voice married to the author’s prose is a match made in heaven. In the best ways it reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance in No Country for Old Men.

A Land More Kind Than Home is set deep in the heart of snake-handling country where you better hope that when the preacher arrives in town, he ain’t the devil in disguise.

Read this book — and if you do the audio thing — listen. You won’t be able to stop, I promise.

And since I have a thing for book trailers, this one does a great job of capturing the edgy, southern Gothic mood of this novel that’s so portent with revelation, betrayals, and tragedy.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

Recommended Readalikes:

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter | Tom Franklin
The Devil All The Time | Donald Ray Pollock
The Scent of Rain and Lightning | Nancy Pickard

Revisiting one of King’s most memorable characters

Dolores Claiborne ★★★★★
Stephen King
Viking, 1992

Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to.
~Dolores Claiborne

DoloresClaiborneNovelMeet Dolores Claiborne — island woman, mother of three, murderess and overall high-riding bitch. And I love her! She is strength and smarts and dignity personified and in my opinion, one of the most vivid and memorable literary creations ever to walk the pages of any book. I don’t say that lightly. Yes I’m a fan, yes I’m gushing, but this is also a more tempered, critical evaluation after living with her existence these many years. She has stood the test of time and I have no doubt she will continue to do so long after her creator has passed.

Arguably one of Stephen King’s most underrated and dismissed works, Dolores Claiborne remains for me one of his best and most literary novels. The first-person narrative voice is brilliantly executed, the island dialect ringing true, the rhythm of the language making the sense of place so vibrant and tangible. The reading experience is only enhanced by the audio version (which I highly recommend).

Bringing nothing but his A-game, King delves into the life of a poor, uneducated, island woman, who marries young and gets to repent in leisure. I love this story so much because not only does it capture small town life and a woman’s place in it, but also the unshakeable bonds of friendship that can be forged like steel between women, and the ferocious love a mother feels for her children.

In her awesome review, Catie puts it this way:

This book is a powerful and naked look at mother-love, at how desperate, intense, and all-consuming it really is….But mainly this is the story of an unlikely alliance between two hard talkin’, high riding bitches; two women from very different walks of life who find that they have a similar core of bitter strength.

At its heart, this is a book about a desperate woman who is driven to a very desperate act. It is a crime novel built around a detailed confession that’s so urgent, so immediate, the story sucks you in like quicksand and does not want to let go. This is not a horror novel, but there are a few moments of unadulterated suspense and terror that had my heart jack-rabbiting in my chest. [When Dolores returns to the well and Joe has nearly succeeded in climbing out and grabs her ankle, I just about screamed and threw the book across the room! When you have to do such a dirty deed, you want it to happen as fast and clean as possible. It could not have turned out more ugly and terrifying for Dolores and is it any wonder she imagines Joe’s face grinning out at her from behind the wheels of Vera’s wheelchair on the day of Vera’s death? (hide spoiler)]

Dolores Claiborne is not the only high-riding bitch in this story, there is also Ms. Vera Donovan, her contrary, vitriolic employer who explains the facts of life thusly: “Husbands die every day Dolores. Why, one is probably dying right now while you’re sitting here weeping….An accident can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.” Dolores and Vera make an unlikely pair, but over the years they cleave to one another in an unexpected, unforgettable friendship that runs dark and deep.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Taking another look at The Shining

The Shining ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Stephen King
Doubleday, 1977

Jack Torrence thought: officious little prick

**Note: I chose not to put this review behind a spoiler tag. Below I discuss both the book and the movie assuming if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with both.

shiningEven though Stephen King’s primary reputation has been ‘America’s boogeyman’, I can count on one hand the number of pure horror novels I feel he’s published (and they all come early in his career) — ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, It, Misery and of course, The Shining. King is most famous as master of the macabre, but fans know he is also a keen observer of human behavior and emotions. He knows what makes us tick, and he’s just as likely to make us laugh and cry as he is to scream. These five books? These he wrote to make us scream – and shiver, and look over our shoulder, peek under our bed, bar the closet door, and leave the lights on. He wrote them – to put it bluntly – to scare the shit out of us.

His tale of the doomed Torrence family and the sinister Overlook Hotel is in many ways a classic ghost story with its roots firmly planted in Gothic literature, Anne Radcliffe, Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe. More than these however, King is clearly writing under the influence of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. The notion of a malevolent house, seething from within with awareness and intent, was far from virgin territory by the time King came to it in the 1970’s. Yet, King brought his own distinct brand of terror to the table and the result has left an indelible mark on not just the genre, but on contemporary literature.

Is The Shining scary? You’re goddamn right it is. And I think I never really thought about how scary until I listened to the audiobook. Actor Campbell Scott does an outstanding job, and like all the best ghost stories going all the way back to caveman times, this one is meant to be told, you kennit? Not merely read – but listened to — surrounded by darkness, hunched around a dwindling fire. There are tropes and themes embedded in The Shining that penetrate to the very lizard part of our brain where fear and anxiety make their home.the-shining

(more…)

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