Message in a Bottle
Reading My Way Back to Ireland

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With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I am reminded that my Irish passport is due for renewal. You may wonder why a girl from Walla Walla who married a bookseller from New England even has an Irish passport and you wouldn’t be alone. The short, logical answer is that Ireland is generous in bestowing citizenship rights on the descendants of its residents.

The longer, more personal answer started in an old farm house on the edge of town where I could turn left and walk a mile through tree-lined streets to St. Patrick’s Grade School or borrow the always available pony from the neighbor lady and ride straight out through the green fields of the Palouse. And if I rode that pony far enough in a northwesterly direction, I would land right on the fields that my Irish great-great-uncles and their sister homesteaded long ago. The very mention of their names and the whole idea that homesteading conjured up in my young mind made me think that was all ancient history. Then one day in my late teens an Irish cousin just my age appeared in my life and those ancient times got a whole lot closer.

imageimageOver the last thirty years, I’ve gotten to know more of my relatives and heard many of their tales (and I’ve received many St. Patrick’s Day cards exactly on March 17th—now that’s the luck of the Irish). Their stories aren’t unusual, just American immigrant stories like so many others. Nearly every Irish writer that I have read describes a character just a degree or two off from the ones in my own family. The books, of course, tell about them so much more beautifully than I ever could.

When I read William Trevor’s Lucy Gault or Sebastian Barry’s Secret Scripture the families making their living off the sea and land in Skibbereen come to life. Their stucco farm houses exist on rolling fields that could be placed in the landscape of eastern Washington. The ground in both places is as green, but the ocean is a good bit farther away from Walla Walla, mind.

imageimageWhen Irish fiction turns to America, I recast the starring roles with actors I know. Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn may ostensibly be about a young immigrant to New York, but for me it’s really about my great aunt Ann and her friend Peggy who as young women left the farm for the big city of Cork then decided to really bust out and head for the States. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, which I read for our book club last month, was really about my grandmother, Mary O’Donovan, who was brought to Boston at age 15 for a better life with her cousins. Like Kline’s protagonist, my Irish lass headed west, sent by her uncles Dan and Con down the rails to the wide Palouse.

imageimageFast-forward through history to my most recent visit to the old homeland where cousin Danny, father now of young adults, looked at me and said “We were poor when you came last, and we’re poor again.” He was speaking of the ten-year span when Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger, when its economy soared and an entire generation was raised like American children, privileged and entitled, thinking they were invincible and the world was their oyster. Kevin Barry is the voice of these now thirtysomething children in his collection of short stories, Dark Lies the Island. Anne Enright in The Forgotten Waltz reflects on the adult lives torn apart when the boom times were followed by the fall of the housing market. And of course, Roddy Doyle’s expertise with dialogue puts me right into contemporary Dublin; he revisits the rollicking band we first met in The Commitments, now in their declining years, in his latest novel, the funny, poignant The Guts.

imageimageIn Mink River by Brian Doyle it seems that all of my experiences of Ireland and Walla Walla come full circle. Doyle writes about life in a small coastal Oregon town populated by Northwest loggers, Irish immigrants, and Salish storytellers. With a beautiful narrative voice enlivened by just a touch of magic (there’s a speaking crow) and a setting not so different from Skibbereen or the town where I was born, I am there again in my ancestral lands. Perhaps I don’t need that passport renewed after all. I can read my way home.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you all.

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—Nancy

A Preview Instead of a Review

Around here we generally write about books we’ve already read, but to avoid staleness, I’m going to switch things around today. Instead of talking about something I know is good, I’m pausing at the moment of peak expectation to talk about a novel I hope is great.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava tells the story of Casi, a public defender in New York who’s never lost a case, but more than that, it’s a “huge, ambitious novel … told in a distinct, frequently hilarious voice, with a striking human empathy at its center. Its panoramic reach takes readers through crime and courts, immigrant families and urban blight, media savagery and media satire, scatology and boxing, and even a breathless heist worthy of any crime novel.” Or so the flap copy says. In this case I’m inclined to believe the publisher’s spin, partly because the book is also getting endorsements from critics I respect. For example, Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History, lends his support: 

"Sergio De La Pava brings linguistic energy and grim hilarity to this furious novel about the dysfunctional criminal-justice system. His novel evokes such maximalist masterpieces of the 1970s as Robert Coover’s Public Burning and William Gaddis’s J R—he has Coover’s rage and Gaddis’s ear—yet also grapples with current issues hot off the AP wire. Socially engaged, formally inventive, and intellectually challenging, A Naked Singularity is a remarkable performance.”

Maybe that kind of recommendation doesn’t sell everyone, but it pushes the right buttons for me. This by itself would be enough to make me want to read it. It’s the story behind the story, though, that pushes the needle into the range of actual excitement.

A Naked Singularity has just been released in paperback by the University of Chicago Press, yes, but it was originally self-published back in 2008. De La Pava queried 88 agents, all of whom passed on his complex but entertaining novel, before opting to go it alone, trusting that his voice would eventually be heard by the right audience. By 2010, his book had reached a handful of lit bloggers and independent booksellers who agreed that this debut work could duke it out with any other famous veteran heavyweight, and they started spreading the word about it. A tiny but fervent cult developed, and that’s when I trundled over to my neighborhood Espresso Book Machine and had a copy manufactured for myself.

I’m not sure why I didn’t read it right then, but I know it had something to do with not being able to easily share the book, or the idea of the book, with others. When you’re in the business of selling stories, I think you tend to gravitate toward the ones that are part of a public conversation. If customers ask what you’re reading and the answer is completely unrecognizable, they’re not confident that you’ll be able to understand their own tastes and opinions—they have a hard time judging your judgment, so to speak. My awkwardly-printed copy (the text on the spine is misaligned and wraps halfway onto the front cover) has been waiting patiently for my interest to ripen, and harvest day is finally at hand.

To celebrate the new, wider release of the novel, one of the web journals that first championed it is hosting a group read, and I’m joining in. I’m a few days behind, but planning to catch up fast if A Naked Singularity is anywhere near as good as advertised. Even if it proves to be not quite all that, it’s pleasant to savor the moment of anticipation before plunging in—it feels like the first day of summer for a schoolkid, or looking at the pile of shiny presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

—James