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book review

The Globe and Mail’s Arts staff John Doyle, Marsha Lederman, Brad Wheeler and Kate Taylor give their picks for summer reading.

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland
By Fintan O’Toole (Liveright; 624 pages)

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For ages people have been suggesting I read and review Fintan O’Toole’s book. I get it. O’Toole and I are of the same age, and similar background. We attended University College, Dublin, together, graduated at the same time and, unknown to many making the suggestion, were on nodding acquaintance there. He became the theatre critic for the Irish Times and I became the television critic for The Globe and Mail. He went on to become a hugely influential general columnist for his paper, Ireland’s best, and both of us have written about growing up in Ireland at a particular and peculiar time.

The book, dense and copiously researched, is a personal-lens history of Ireland since he was born, cultural, political and focused on the waves of change as he and his family experienced them. This makes for storytelling and analysis that is striking, as much for what it surveys as for what is sometimes missing. Of course, Ireland fascinates many readers and scholars. This fragile democracy born out of revolution in 1922 has had a heavyweight literary impact and some of that is here. O’Toole is a vivid writer, careful and hesitant in generalizing about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, offering a viewpoint – that of the Dublin working-class – more realistic than much that’s been written on the subject.

In his childhood there was in the air the idea of a “disappearing Ireland.” Emigration was so widespread, especially from rural Ireland, that there was a visceral sense of a shrinking population and culture. Even by 1971, he points out, the Republic of Ireland’s population was less than 3 million, smaller than the city of Paris. What dominates his history of the past few decades is the drag put on Ireland by the Catholic Church and its related institutions. In fact, almost every institution, from elementary and high schools to much of the health sector, and even academia, was in the hands of Church figures. His heroes, if there are any, amount to a handful of politicians and civil servants who in the 1960s determined to pull Ireland toward economic modernity via industry and tourism.

If much of Europe changed in the sixties, it was a decade later that Ireland shifted course, often inelegantly. I was charmed to find that O’Toole as a teenager rebelled against short haircuts and plain school clothes. Like me, he went to the then-glamorous Herman’s Klipjoint on Grafton Street, to look like someone keeping up with style and enjoying personal freedom.

He is excellent on the series of political scandals that even today beggar belief. The scams and chicanery, the millions made from dubious deals. But the book can get lost in the corridors of power in Dublin. Also, O’Toole is inattentive to sport in Irish life and its meaning. It’s a sporting nation and the success of the national men’s soccer team in the 1990s has far more connotation than is acknowledged. The difference between me and O’Toole is that I left for Canada’s embrace. Ireland seems to me less fascinating than it was. The corridors of power in Dublin are narrow and small, while the world outside is bigger and more open. This fine book is for those a bit fanatical about Ireland’s miseries and new modernity. John Doyle

Pure Life
By Eugene Marten (Strange Light; 385 pages)

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There is a comfort in seeing yourself and your experiences reflected in a work of fiction – that’s great. But I also love a novel that takes me on a journey far away from what I know. Add evocative prose and sharp cultural commentary and … touchdown.

In Pure Life, the new novel by Winnipeg-born Eugene Marten, a young man from a depressed U.S. town plays football. Quarterback. He works very, very hard to overcome his physical deficits. Luck intervenes and gives him a professional career. And with that, fame, riches, a beautiful wife – daughter of the team’s owner. But none of this lasts longer than the injury to his body – in particular, his brain. He has taken too many hits to the head. He suffers from depression, drug and alcohol abuse, blackouts. Things go awry: in his marriage, with his kids, his finances. The former winner loses it all, even his chain of steakhouses. When he travels to Honduras for experimental medical treatment, the story takes another, even darker, turn. And the final part of the book is absolutely harrowing, told in vivid, excruciating detail.

We never learn the name of the protagonist; we only know him by his jersey number – Nineteen – which adds to the haze of the reading experience. Everything is a little off-kilter. We have to work to figure things out. Just like Nineteen does. For the reader, the work pays off. Marsha Lederman

This Woman’s Work: Essays On Music
Edited by Sinéad Gleeson and Kim Gordon (Hachette; 257 pages)

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After reading This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music, it’s hard to give a damn about whether Pitchfork gave the new Harry Styles’s record a 4.2 pan or an 8.7 rave. My god, decimal points – please tell me Lester Bangs died for something other than numbers.

The book of 16 essays by women is edited by Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon and Irish author and music journalist Sinéad Gleeson. There are no album reviews; no adjectives from The Rock Snob’s Dictionary were harmed in the making of a collection of pieces on pioneering female musical artists.

Highlights (for this man, anyway) include Anne Enright’s Fan Girl essay on fame, Laurie Anderson and identity. “Music undoes me,” writes the Booker Prize-winning novelist. “It does not tell me who I am. It is something I listen to on my own.”

I enjoyed Rachel Kushner’s Country Girl, a tale of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. There’s a story about Elvis Presley telling Jackson she should wash her fake ponytail. Jackson took it off and flung at Presley: “Here, you wash it.” Take that, King!

The Jackson essay reads like a movie waiting to happen, but more compelling is an essay that scans like a saga. Maggie Nelson’s My Brilliant Friend is not only a 21-page salute to the late, great American-Canadian singer-songwriter Lhasa, but a poetic mini-memoir of Nelson herself. She describes a female bohemia that seems from some planet where I do not exist. And in any way that matters, I really don’t live in their world. Full marks for Nelson’s piece, and 8.7 for This Woman’s Work. Brad Wheeler

Homo Irrealis: Essays
By André Aciman (Farrar, Straus, Giroux; 239 pages)

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Although he does not say so directly in this penetrating cultural memoir, the American writer André Aciman belonged to the Jewish community that was forced out of Egypt in the 1950s by the nationalization policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Instead, Aciman describes, from a boy’s perspective living in a place one knew one must leave, how his family experienced the city of Alexandria through a kind of pending nostalgia.

Aciman is now best known as the author of Call Me By Your Name, source of the hit film, but not coincidentally he is also a Proust specialist. There is a parallel here with the way the narrator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time starts missing loved ones while still in their company, or the way his character Swann obsesses over his mistress Odette, both men anxiously experiencing separation before it has even arrived.

He has written elsewhere (Out of Egypt) about his family history in Alexandria; this collection of essays hones in on the emotional states produced by a disinclination to settle in the present place or time. These are the irrealis moments, passages in life where one feels outside of oneself, so intense is regret of the past or longing for the future. The self-help psychologist might deliver a lecture on mindfulness and the importance of living in the present; Aciman judges neither himself nor the various filmmakers, writers and artists who, it seems to him, capture these states.

There are excellent essays here on the films of Éric Rohmer, and the experience of seeing them in the New York rep houses that have now disappeared, on reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and considering the theme of misspent lives, and on Proust, who made a life’s work of his emotional entanglement with time.

Aciman approaches these cultural experiences from a purely personal angle – where he was when he read a book or saw a film; how it related to that period of his life – with a method that deepens the reader’s insights rather than indulging the author’s self. He ends with the intriguing Fernando Pessoa, provocatively rejecting as uninteresting the Portuguese poet’s use of numerous pseudonyms. Instead, he writes: “I am interested in his conscious inability to set his feet in one time zone.” Like Aciman, the poet inevitably inhabits the irrealis mood. Kate Taylor

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