Browser: Fidel Castro, Elizabeth Bowen, urban animals and more

Brief reviews of: Ten Days in Harlem; Hitching for Hope; Petticoat Pilots; The Shadowy Third; Civilised by Beasts; Let Me Tell You What I Mean

Ten Days in Harlem: Fidel Castro and the Making of the 1960s

By Simon Hall

Faber, £16.99

In September 1960, Fidel Castro attended for the first time a gathering of the UN General Assembly in New York. Leaving his midtown hotel over a row about money, he moved to Harlem where he was received rapturously by the local African-American community and held court with such well-known figures as Malcolm X, president Nasser of Egypt, Khrushchev and Allen Ginsberg. Decolonisation was gathering pace, the civil rights and black power movements were stirring, as was a radical student counterculture. For all of these, Castro had a powerful, iconic appeal. His brief American stay “proved to be both a turning point in the history of the Cold War and a foundational moment in the creation of what we think of as ‘the 1960s’,” argues Simon Hall in this perceptive, thoroughly researched and readable study. – Brian Maye


Hitching for Hope

By Ruairí McKiernan

Chelsea Green

In 2013 Ruairí McKiernan was depressed about austerity Ireland, particularly that those who caused the economic collapse had not only escaped unpunished but had actually been supported and enabled, while those who had suffered were abandoned. So he decided to make “a journey into the heart and soul of Ireland” by hitching around part of the country to listen and give voice to ordinary people, particularly to discover if they felt hopeful for the future. He heard stories of anger and disappointment at the economic disaster but also stories of hope and resilience, and he encountered numerous examples of community initiative, co-operation and self-help. Combining his own and others’ personal stories, travelogue and advocacy for change, this is a perfect match for these unprecedented times. – Brian Maye

Petticoat Pilots

By Michael Traynor


Those magnificent women in their flying machines are the subject, the Irish female pioneer pilots of the 1920s and 1930s. Sixteen are featured, with detailed biographies told against the backdrop of Irish economic, social and political life. Some were from very wealthy backgrounds, others were not. They shared a love of flying, a sense of adventure and boundless courage. Antrim-born Lilian Bland was the first woman to design, build and fly her own aircraft. Limerick native Sophie Pierce won worldwide acclaim for being the first woman to fly solo from Cape Town to London. Monaghan’s Mary Westenra became the first woman to fly from London down the east side of Africa and return by the west side. Michael Traynor’s lavishly illustrated volumes tell a fascinating story. – Brian Maye

The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen

By Julia Parry


Elizabeth Bowen’s writing has undergone a resurrection in recent decades, but it is her life and loves that have opened out the rather amoral world of the English elites, particularly in the inter-war years. An impenetrable and unconsummated marriage left plenty of room for ambiguous relationships with men and women. Julia Parry’s fascinating and poetic book is a rich evocation of one such: Bowen’s affair with Parry’s grandfather, Humphrey House, literary critic and teacher. She inherited a box of letters by House and Bowen – unusually, both sides of the correspondence. Parry’s subsequent journey of self-discovery carries her into a love triangle between House, his wife Madeline, and the “shadowy third”, Elizabeth Bowen. – Ian D’Alton

Civilised by Beasts: Animals and Urban Change in 19th-century Dublin

Juliana Adelman

Manchester University Press, £80

The 19th century saw significant change and reform and this book examines how local government, public health, policing and other reforms in Dublin, in the context of human-animal relationships, transformed the city. The approach is chronological, with separate chapters focusing on specific animals (especially horses, cattle, pigs and dogs), and draws on a diverse range of sources, such as the archives of the Zoological Society and the DSPCA, personal diaries, popular songs etc. Most of the animal regulations introduced from 1830 to 1900 “sought to alter the urban environment by removing animals, and their wastes, from it”. We get a fresh, different perspective on the distressed Victorian city where official attitudes to animal ownership reflected political, religious and class divisions. Pity the book’s price will put it beyond most ordinary readers. – Brian Maye

Let Me Tell You What I Mean

By Joan Didion

Fourth Estate, £12.99

Joan Didion has an enviable knack of making the truth look obvious. The disparate essays collected here on topics like Martha Stewart, college admissions and Hearst Castle present her as a source of clear light held up against the baroque facades of American mythmaking. Her spare, pellucid prose is backlit by the sense that an equal honesty would be available to anyone capable of an equal detachment. The widely read Why I Write lends the volume its title and its introductory feel. However, at 149 double-spaced pages this volume isn’t quite worth the price of entry. It would be hard to recommend it to newcomers over and above The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem or even the frankly indispensable Collected Non-Fiction.