Early on in John Crowley’s Nick Hornby scripted film adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, the director wisely let’s his camera linger on star Saoirse Ronan’s face while at a neighborhood dance where her BFF Nancy has nabbed a man on the dance floor and Eilis is once again left to ponder whether there will ever be anything or anyone to keep her in Ireland. Ronan, whose performance would be a revelation if she hadn’t already proven herself as a wee lass in Atonement, completely and subtly commands the camera and the audience, the slight tensing of her neck tendons, the nuanced flint in her eyes, that almost imperceptible sigh. The whole plight of everyone who has ever wondered what else might be out there is written on her face. And off to America…and to Brooklyn…Eilis goes. Brooklyn is blessed by a few of these very smart moments, and also by a lot of clichéd ones. There’s really not much suspense in guessing our heroine’s fate, but there are moments of sincere heartache and gentle beauty. Continue reading
Ah, the Emerald Isle of rolling hills, bucolic villages and ancient ruins. Away from the bustle of Dublin City, this is the Ireland most know and dream of visiting.
While visiting Dublin I took a day tour on a bus out to County Wicklow on a beautiful clear-skied sunny day (the only sunny day during my stay in Ireland) – the timing and weather was perfect. Over the years I’ve become a mountains and lakes kind of guy…with upstate New York and western North Carolina being my favorite stateside haunts. Ireland’s County Wicklow is like some fever-dream version of those verdant visions…the shapes more dramatic, the sheep fluffier, the lakes darker, the tall tales spun there taller, the ghosts older…full of something more ancient and fecund…and land so inspiring I couldn’t help but be touched as a wicked little short story (perhaps even a novella?) was born in my mind as I strolled the trails of Glendalough (which ooze a peacefulness coupled with that eerie sense of “other” hidden in the woods and the hills) and heard a stray sheep bleating unseen lost in some bush. The monastic ruins in Glendalough (dating back over a thousand years) were like nothing I’ve ever seen in person and spoke of a thousand ghosts and stories. It’s not surprising that County Wicklow has become a popular filming location with TV shows like BBC’s classic Ballykissangel and The History Channel’s The Vikings and films like The Quiet Man, Ryan’s Daughter, Saving Private Ryan, Michael Collins, Excalibur, Braveheart, and P.S. I Love You (whether actually taking place in Ireland or not) having made appropriate use of the photogenic environs. Marvel at the mountains and lakes, the turf cutting through peat bogs and the trickling source of the River Liffey, and dream of all the stories told and untold that haunt the space. Continue reading
“I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.” – James Joyce, Dubliners
You’re my kind of town and you’re full of contradictions. You’re immensely walkable and compact yet your streets make no sense (at least to Americans bred on city grids) as they meander like tangled spider webs from the city center, and you’re lucky if you find any signage on the building edifices at round corners. Thank god for the River Liffey, dividing the North and South sides and giving pilgrims their bearings for centuries. You have no skyscrapers, the outline of your cityscape stooping to great visitors while spiked spires of churches and monuments point to the heavens. You’re grimy and gritty and often overcast, yet when the sun makes an appearance it casts a lovely sheen on your hidden beauty. Overall I wouldn’t cast you as a beautiful city (you wouldn’t want to be called that either), yet there are breathtaking medieval churches around every corner (topped in population only by your orgy of pubs) and heading out towards the suburbs and heather-strewn mountains of Wicklow you boast Georgian-era streets whose artfulness put Philadelphia’s Society Hill to shame. You seem to want to jam in as many shops, pubs and whatnots into as tightly packed tenement-style spaces as possible (with only Jervis and Grafton Street shopping districts gentrified with wide boulevards), yet you luxuriate in the tranquility of St. Stephen’s Green. Never have I seen more buses (both touring and commuter), your car traffic is thick and wicked (rivaling the “get the f*** out of my way” rudeness of NYC and where bikers dart to a fro at their own risk unlike in Amsterdam where bike lanes are the norm), and your pedestrian throngs would indicate a city three times your size, yet you claim to be a small city with a laid-back, friendly vibe (which is also true). You have monuments and markers for everything and everyone of note spanning your over thousand-year history…for saints and writers, patriots and politicians, Vikings and Celts and Brits, beheadings and crownings, history and myth. You love your bloody history as much as you love your sweet elixirs of whiskey and beer brewed in waters from that “black pool” from which the Vikings gave you your name.
Dublin…you’re a city so bursting with inspiration and things to do, one could never do you justice in just one trip. I was with you long enough just to get to know you a bit, to see the hints of your charms amongst the slivers of your faults, and I saw enough to know that one day I would want to see more, more that I could never fully have because you belong to everyone and no one, to Joyce alone and to all the world. Is it any wonder that James Joyce said, “When I die Dublin will be written in my heart”? For was it not you that made him immortal? Once touched by you, we all become Dubliners. I’ll be back, my dear. I consider myself warned.
Sincerely, Dave. Continue reading
Kurt Vonnegut once said of novels that “reading one is like being married forever to somebody nobody else knows or cares about.”
I couldn’t agree more while I find myself in a laborious relationship with The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. The novel is a fictionalized account of a Baltimore lawyer’s quest to solve the mystery behind the death of Edgar Allan Poe. This is one of those books with an interesting concept ruined by the author’s insistence on telling the story in the static, unimaginative style of prose from the stuffy time period in which the novel takes place. It’s makes for a dry, boring read. Much like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, I fear I may never finish it. I’m currently stuck at about the 100 page mark. I should’ve known better when I saw Carr’s glowingly positive blurb splattered on the cover of Matthew Pearl’s magnum opus. Though I find the topic of Poe’s death fascinating, reading Pearl’s novel makes me feel…well, dead.
And that brings us to James Joyce and “The Dead.” Thankfully for every bad novel I torture myself with, there are dozens of short stories I can read in between chapters that are as Vonnegut once described, “Buddhist catnaps.” Short stories provide perfect little meditative escapes from everyday life and respite from bad novels. Occasionally, I come across one that reaches the level of art. James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one such story. It’s possibly the greatest short story I have ever read. Continue reading
Chilly Scenes of Winter
Patrick McCabe’s haunting novel “Winterwood” begins charmingly enough with our narrator Redmond Hatch telling of his time revisiting his old mountain home in Ireland and reveling in the tall tales of the proud local drunk, Ned “Auld Pappie” Strange. There’s an almost instant undercurrent of dread to the storytelling as we quickly become aware that neither Ned nor Edmond are going to be very reliable narrators, both soon overcome with the dark secrets and the Banshee ghosts of their pasts. Ned, it seems, my not be so innocent a weaver of tales, and Redmond is crippled by a crumbling marriage to a woman he is madly in love with and a troubled childhood he can’t seem to escape.
McCabe is a master of writing dialogue in local dialect, as I often found myself reading out loud the early stories of Ned Strange and speaking in a rather effective Irish accent.
Even more so, McCabe is a master of stark, economical writing. Shocking details come quick and fast, presented nonchalantly as the story progresses so that they soon fester in the mind of both the reader and the narrator until they creep back into the narrative in horrifying ways.
There are times when the narration becomes a challenge to follow, as the book becomes rife with name-changes, locale-switching, and no apparent chronology to the order of events. Even the chapter titles and time and place headers become deceptive, as once lost inside Redmond’s head, all becomes jumbled in half-truths, lies, exaggerations, under-statements, and grotesque speculations.
Still, McCabe is able to ground things with simple passages that are both lyrical and haunting in their slim descriptive power. By the time you finish visiting “Winterwood” you are left with the singularly unnerving feeling of being chilled to the bone. Hell, it seems, is a cold, cold place where the devil can’t wait to shelter you.