In Saturday’s Irish Times, leading writers and critics pick their best books of 2021. Reviews are Marian Lyons on Imagining Ireland’s Pasts: Early Modern Ireland Through the Centuries by Nicholas Canny; Tom Hennigan on Beyond Belief by Elle Hardy; Declan Burke and Declan Hughes on the best crime of 2021; Helen Cullen on Gifts by Laura Barnett; Donald Clarke on Will by Will Smith; Claire Hennessy on Wish You Were Here By Jodi Picoult; Paschal Donohoe on Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021 by Thomas Piketty; Sarah Gilmartin on The Love Makers by Aifric Campbell.
Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes is this week’s Irish Times Eason offer. You can buy the reissued classic for just €4.99, a saving of €5, when you buy The Irish Times at any branch this weekeend.
Arne Weingart’s Cicadas has won the 2021 Moth Nature Writing Prize.
“Choosing a winner for the Moth Nature Writing Prize was phenomenally hard,” said this year’s judge, Helen Macdonald, herself one of the foremost nature writers.
Macdonald’s task was to choose a piece of unpublished writing which best combines exceptional literary merit with an exploration of the writer’s relationship with the natural world.
“The quality of the entries was very high. So many that I read deeply moved me, so many were both technically outstanding and lyrically beautiful. But this particular poem gripped my heart and it won’t let it go: it’s as glossy, precise and perfect as the carapace of an imago cicada, and its final couplets brought tears to my eyes.
“For centuries, cicadas have been seen as emblems of insouciance and immortality,” said Macdonald. “Where they occur, their eerie, periodic mass emergences mark the passage of time in our own lives. This poem is deft, surprising, quietly devastating; it speaks of the way we project our own lives into the lives of creatures around us, and how we see our own lives reflected back at us from the natural world. Strange and rich and poignant, it courses with death and love and wonder. I’m honoured to have read it and delighted to award it the prize.”
Weingart, lives in Chicago with his family, where he is the principal of a graphic design firm. His poetry has been published widely in the US and he won the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Prize in 2019. His collections include Levitation for Agnositcs, winner of the New American Press Poetry Prize, and Unpractical Thinking, winner of the Red Mountain Press Poetry Prize. Weingart receives €1,000 and a week at the Circle of Misse, a retreat for writers and artists in the Loire Valley.
“I don’t think of myself as a nature poet,” says Weingart. “Any poem (and to make the obvious argument, any work of art) aims to clarify something about how to be in the world. This is a problem uniquely designed for human consciousness and conspicuously not for what we are accustomed to regarding as nature. But we are in it and of it, conscious or not. We are both landscape and binoculars, viewer and viewed. I try to write from that shifting, unstable, vernacular middle ground, where the actual and the figurative collide. It’s thrilling to find an audience for this particular point of view, much less to win an award, get a handsome fistful of money and a week in France. I am eternally grateful, however much of eternity I have left in me.”
Cicadas appears in the winter issue of The Moth, alongside the winner of this year’s Moth Art Prize. The Moth’s Will Govan will be interviewing Helen Macdonald at a boutique festival at Hilton Park in Co Monaghan, one of only four accredited wildlife estates in Ireland, on Sunday, December 5th, at 3pm. Limited tickets are available here. themothmagazine.com
By Arne Weingart
Midday late August and the cicadas are all singing
'Louie Louie' at the top of their lungs. They know it cold
and what it really means, like every seventeen-year-old
you've ever known or been. They also know, exoskeleton deep,
they've got six weeks, max, to lose their insectival virginity and die.
How would you act if you had spent your first and last
seventeen years buried in the dirt? Looey Looayyyy,
oh baby. Meanwhile the human teenagers keep taking on
the appearance of life forms newly emerged from the earth,
vivid and slightly shiny, strangely attired and no longer caring
to communicate in a language we thought we had in common.
Some will successfully mate, others will die in flamboyant car crashes
graduation week, hopped up on exotic intoxicants and endless potential.
It's as seasonal as the flu. Most, however, will live to see thirty-four
and fifty-one and even sixty-eight before they turn back, reluctantly,
towards the undercrust. I remember those desperate nights - don't you? -
when we were neither tired nor resigned and full of insane hope
for nothing we could have named but would gladly die for.
There will be an evening at the Royal Irish Academy next Wednesday, December 8th, at 7pm, to celebrate the life and works of Jane, Lady Wilde known as Speranza, Irish revolutionary poet, gifted translator, proto-feminist and sharply observant critic and essayist. December 2021 marks the bi-centenary of her birth.
Her great grandson, Merlin Holland, will be in conversation about her legacy with Wildean specialist Dr Noreen Doody in an online event livestreamed from the academy. There will be an informal gathering at 11am that day at the Wilde family tomb in Mt Jerome Cemetery to lay flowers in her memory.
The Linen Hall Library has announced the winners of the Linen Hall Ulster-Scots writing competition at a special ceremony to mark Ulster-Scots week. The competition was sponsored by the Ulster-Scots Agency.
First prize in the prose category went to Alan Millar for Sam an Jeck speel Parnassus tae see Rabbie Burns; second prize was awarded to Angeline King for Lang Toon Hotel. In the poetry category the winners announced were: Angela Graham in first place for A Heerd tha Sodjer on tha Radio; and Gray Morgan in second place for The Confession. The winners received a cheque for £500, and the runners-up a cheque for £250.
The competition was launched earlier this year to help people understand more about the Ulster-Scots language, the role that it plays in the lives of its speakers, and the place that it has within our wider community.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by biologist and writer Merlin Sheldrake has won the annual Royal Society Science Book Prize.
Chair of the 2021 judging panel, Prof Luke O’Neill FRS, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, said: “Entangled Life is a fantastic account of the world of fungi, which to the uninitiated might seem unpromising as a topic, but which Merlin Sheldrake brings alive in the most vivid of ways. We learn all kinds of interesting things about fungi, from how they helped plants colonise land (which means without them we wouldn’t be here) to how they form huge networks allowing trees to communicate (in the form of the ‘Wood Wide Web’), to stories of fungus-gathering enthusiasts, how fungi might help save the planet by digesting plastic, and even how they can manipulate our minds. This is science writing at its very best, which yet again emphasises how the scientific method is so important in our effort to understand the world around us. Entangled Life is an important, scientifically rigorous and most of all entertaining read.”
The Irish Writers Centre has marked its 30th anniversary with the launch of a new website and a video that reflects on the contribution the organisation has made to the Irish writing landscape over the past three decades, featuring IWC ambassadors Anne Enright, John Banville and Ciara Ní É, along with board member and writer Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan and director Valerie Bistany.
The full video is available to view here. Enright notes that "writerly ambition works in generations and works in groups and tribes", offering the advice that those "looking for their tribe" should seek out the Irish Writers Centre, and observing that the strong tradition of Irish writing worked by "mysterious interconnections".
Bernardine Evaristo has become the first writer of colour and only the second woman to be named president of the Royal Society of Literature, succeeding Marina Warner.
Evaristo, who won the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other, said: “I am deeply honoured to take on the role of the new president of the Royal Society of Literature. Although founded 200 years ago, the society is boldly embracing the 21st century as a great champion of the possibilities of a more egalitarian culture for literature. Storytelling is embedded in our DNA as human beings – it is sewn into the narrative arc of our lives, it is in our relationships, desires and conflicts, and it is the prism through which we explore and understand ourselves and the world in which we live.
“Literature is not a luxury, but essential to our civilisation. I am so proud, therefore, to be the figurehead of such an august and robust literature organisation that is so actively and urgently committed to being inclusive of the widest range of outstanding writers from every demographic and geographical location in Britain, and to reaching marginalised communities through literature projects, including introducing young people in schools to some of Britain’s leading writers, who visit, teach and discuss their work with them. I look forward to the next four years as the figurehead of such a wonderfully impressive organisation.”
Waterstones has named Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, as Waterstones Book of the Year 2021. Over a period of five years, McCartney worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, to edit their conversations about his songs into fascinating accompanying commentary.
“The Lyrics is stunningly beautiful and a masterpiece of book design, a true joy for bibliophiles” said Waterstones CEO, James Daunt. “Paul McCartney has fashioned, through the explorations of his songs with the poet Paul Muldoon, a fascinating insight into his life and creative genius.”
Muldoon said: “To work with Sir Paul on this project was a blast from beginning to end. I’m thrilled to think readers can now get in on the fun. I myself am glad to see that the more serious side of the venture – to properly recognize Paul McCartney as a literary figure – is itself being recognized.”
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston has been selected as Waterstones’ Children’s Gift of the Year 2021.