Tales in a time of turmoil
BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2009:Books on the boom - and the bust, John McGahern’s postumously published essays and a lifetime’s poems by Paul Durcan are among the treasure trove of titles that emerged when FIONA McCANNcast her net in a pool of readers to see what impressed them most in 2009
Of the novels I read this year, I think I enjoyed John Banville's The Infinities(Picador) and Jennifer Johnston's Truth and Fiction (Headline) most. But I'd like to choose four novels from other Irish writers, some of whom haven't received the attention they deserve.
The Walking People(Houghton Miffin Harcourt) is the first novel by Mary Beth Keane, a beautifully-crafted story reminiscent of the best Mary Gordon or John McGahern or Claire Keegan. She's got heart and subtlety all at once. John the Revelator,by Peter Murphy (Faber), is a fabulous novel about an introverted adolescent stuck in small-town Wexford. Murphy hits all the right notes. It's some of the best writing I've seen from a younger Irish writer in a while. I'm only halfway through Trevor Byrne's Ghosts and Lightning(Cannongate), but this is a cracking novel in a voice that reminded me of Roddy Doyle, James Kelman and Jon McGregor. What I like most about Christine Dwyer Hickey's The Last Train From Liguria(Atlantic) is the character of Anna, an Italian-Irish woman living in Dublin in Celtic Tiger Ireland, a reality check of where we are, and where we have been. ...
Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spinwon the 2009 US National Book Award for fiction last week
This year has seen the publication of two very important European novels; Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones(Chatto) is the defiant confession of an SS officer involved in the Holocaust. It is a masterpiece, however flawed and controversial because of a sexual-scatalogical element. American reviewers hated it, perhaps because the French had lauded it so much with the Prix Goncourt and Prix de l'Académie Française.
Javier Marias's final volume in his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell(Chatto), is a novel of ideas focusing on secrecy, betrayal and the threat of violence, both state and private. Twisting like the double-helix of human DNA, shame and guilt, power and impotence, treachery and loyalty, domination and humiliation, love and hate, the past and the present, all are revolved in this extraordinary and unashamed novel of ideas.
Antony Beevor's D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, was published by Penguin in May
Like many people, I have been impressed by the Stieg Larsson trilogy. I enjoyed The Girl Who Played With Fire(Quercus) and look forward to reading the final instalment. In journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his investigative sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, he has created two of the most intriguing characters in recent crime writing.
In No Workers' Republic(Watchword) Barry Desmond draws on his voluminous archives and his own experiences to provide a fascinating account of key events in the history of the Labour Party from 1913 to 1967. Barry paints vivid "warts and all" portraits of well known figures such as Jim Larkin and William Norton, but also lesser known activists, such as Bobby Burke, whom he describes as "a Christian Socialist", who carried the flag for Labour in my own area of East Galway during the bleak days of the 1930s and 1940s. This is a book that should have an appeal for anyone interested in Irish politics.
Also, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Penguin), the Pulitzer Prize-winner described by Barack Obama as "a remarkable study in leadership".
Eamon Gilmore is leader of the Labour Party
The only sensible way to understand what is going to happen to the Irish economy in the next decade is to look at the experience of other economies that have gone through debt-fuelled property bubbles, and the closest example is Japan. In The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics: Lessons from Japan's Great Recession(John Wiley) economist Richard Koo shows how Japan experienced 15 years of "balance-sheet recession" as firms struggled to pay back the debt incurred during the bubble. Required reading for anyone who thinks that Irish property prices will do anything but continue to fall for the next decade. In Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding(Harvard University Press), Sarah Hardy argues that what makes humans different from other apes is our need to rear children cooperatively. Elegantly written and, to any parent, compellingly argued.
Among history books, : Peter Wilson's Europe's Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War(Allen Lane), a huge but readable account of the sequence of wars that wracked Germany between 1618 and 1648. And best novel? Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice( Cape), the tale of a hippy detective (or "gum-sandal") in Nixon-era Los Angeles. His most relaxed and enjoyable work since Gravity's Rainbow.
Morgan Kelly is professor of Economics at UCD
The Lamentsof 16th-century Polish poet Jan Kochanowski has been reissued with a new preface by translator Seamus Heaney (Gallery Press). These impassioned, poised poems recount the grief of a father at his two-year-old daughter's death. That they retain their power to move a reader across four centuries speaks of the accomplishment of the well-made, sincere poem.
MJ Hyland's This Is How(Canongate) takes us inside the mind of an "innocent murderer" - a man who kills, but scarcely understands how or why he does. Patrick Oxtoby is a damaged, brittle, ordinary man: his actions and their consequences are presented in deceptively transparent prose that balances honesty with integrity, and brutality with a tiny, corrective possibility of hope. A wise and truthful novel.
Weighing in at just over 600 pages, Paul Durcan's Life Is a Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems, 1967-2007(Harvill Secker) offers a survey of an important and original poet who has gambled with darkness, tenderness, outrage and humour, and been in the habit of winning. Don Paterson's award-winning poetry collection, Rain(Faber) acknowledges the demands and rewards of fatherhood, friendship and poetic inheritance. And one from the vaults: James Salter's 1975 novel, Light Years, (Penguin), a searing account of a marriage rendered in breath-taking, word perfect prose.
Vona Groarke's poetry collection, Spindrift,was published by Gallery Press this autumn
"The intestinal pains are worse than they have been so far". It can only be The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume I: 1929-1940(Cambridge University Press), sedulously edited and annotated by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck. Whether detailing his ailments or disparaging his writing, the young Beckett's is a tortured but ribald and engaging voice. The first volume of his correspondence is also a viciously funny counter to the year's other instance of fascinating juvenilia. Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-1964(Penguin) casts the teenage and twenty-something Susan Sontag as a monster of cunning and self-belief, her brilliance coolly constructed out of lists of impressive words and ruthless notes-to-self. The French novelist Marie Darrieussecq's recent books have been neglected by her UK and US publishers, so for now English-speaking readers ought to track down the Australian edition of her extraordinary Tom Is Dead(Text Publishing).
Darrieussecq has always written ghost stories of a sort, but this is her most unsettling yet: the story of a woman's mourning for her young son, told with devastating precision.
Brian Dillon's Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Liveswas published by Penguin Ireland in September
Towering over the history books is the Royal Irish Academy's nine-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography,edited by James McGuire and James Quinn (Cambridge University Press). Eleven years in the making, it consists of eight million words and is the result of an extraordinary collective endeavour by Irish scholars. It is an indispensable reference work, as well as reflecting a wide definition of what constitutes a historically significant character.
The Lost Revolution,by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar (Penguin Ireland), is a vibrant, balanced narrative of the history of the Official IRA and Workers Party that avoids sermonising. Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn(Penguin Viking) is a moving exploration of 1950s emigration and the characters are skilfully drawn. Aodhan Madden's Fear and Loathing in Dublin (Liberties Press) is an absorbing and honest account of his experiences in the 1970s as an alcoholic journalist and contains a marvellous portrait of his father and their relationship. Paul Durcan's Life is a Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems, 1967-2007(Harvill Secker), contains a wide range of funny, angry, honest and memorable poems and it humanises the history of the last 40 years, as does journalist James Downey's caustic and insightful memoir I n My Own Time(Gill and Macmillan) which incorporates a searing social history of 1950s Ireland.
Diarmaid Ferriter's Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland was published in September by Profile
I have read very little fiction this year, but two gems were Me Cheeta, by James Lever (Fourth Estate), which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and surely should have won. It is the supposed autobiography of Tarzan's chimp, a foul-mouthed primate with a line of hilariously filthy Hollywood gossip; also, it is a most unexpected and affecting love-story.
Stacey D'Erasmo's The Sky Below (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a truly strange and compelling work of art, in which a young man passes salamander-like through the purifying fires of illness and loss into a curious kind of immortality.
Robert D Richardson's 1995 biography of Emerson is a masterpiece, and his First We Read, Then We Write(University of Iowa Press) might be a coda to it. A sort of handbook for aspiring writers, it should be thrust into the hands of every student of creative writing, though it will be enjoyed by anyone with even the mildest regard for good prose.
John Banville's novel The Infinitieswas published this year by Picador
I love a good thriller and there have been excellent ones this year from Michael Connolly, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, but my favourite has to be Declan Hughes's All The Dead Voices(John Murray), the fourth book starring Ed Loy and the best yet. Hughes delivers a cracking plot and although he writes with passion and humour about contemporary Ireland, in some ways his books are reminiscent of the hard-bitten noir of the likes of Raymond Chandler.
I don't know how Curtis Sittenfelt got away with not being sued by the Bush family because American Wife(Doubleday) is a thinly fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush and oddly enough, although it's about a meek, bookish woman, it makes for gripping reading. Historical fiction gets a bad rap but Philippa Gregory has redefined the genre. She's most famous for The Other Boleyn Girlbut The White Queen(Simon & Schuster) kicks off a whole new series, this time set during the War of the Roses. It explores the mystery of the Princes in the Tower and is a rollercoaster of a read, clearsighted about human nature, and utterly unputdownable.
Marian Keyes's The Brightest Star in the Skywas published by Michael Joseph this month
William Trevor's Love and Summer(Viking) evokes smalltown Ireland where very little really happens. The main characters are a man with no future and a woman with no past. Trevor's telling of their tale underlines how much of Ireland's social history has been written by our novelists, filling in the gaps left behind by political historians.
All Names Have Been Changedby Claire Kilroy (Faber) is a sharply-written novel of confident prose. Some great lines last in the memory. It is essentially about a group of aspirant writers and their fawning relationship with their teacher. The character Giz is worth the read alone.
Judging Lemass(Royal Irish Academy), by Tom Garvin, makes the great leader accessible to the amateur historian. It is a short book and doesn't claim to offer the full picture but it clearly illustrates the manner in which Lemass elevated pragmatism to the status of an ideology.
Finally, Grand Slam 2009by Gerry Thornley et al ( Irish TimesLtd) is the definitive history of one of our greatest sporting achievements.
Barry Andrews is Minister for Children and Youth Affairs
Marc Coleman's Back from the Brink(Transworld Ireland) is a savvy essay on how Ireland got into such a set of fiscal and financial messes in the last seven years. What is particularly refreshing is its essential optimism, the idea that the Irish have been doing foolish things and can quite easily stop doing so and mend their ways. A basic problem is a failed party system, with base support for the two old civil war parties gradually but steadily waning. Another problem is sclerotic government.
Ben Goldacre's Bad Science(Fourth Estate) is a sometimes hilarious but fundamentally disturbing account of how bad and fake science can be used by drug companies and other commercial concerns to persuade people to take up poor dietary habits and drugs that not only do not cure - but may endanger life. John McGahern's posthumous Love of the World (Faber) is a collection of his essays and journalism over the decades. Beautifully written, it includes several drafts of some of his pieces, revealing how he worked from a first draft to a final version. A real writer's book.
Tom Garvin's Judging Lemass: The Measure of the Manwas published by the RIA in September
Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is tip-top of my pleasure list for 2009. The first two books eased me through a damp August while the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest(Quercus), in October provided the escapism required to enter this gloomy winter. These pacey, crime-meets-politics thrillers are a stomping read. The heroine, a petite, beautiful, complicated hacker and the hero, a larger-than-life, political investigative journalist, are firmly established in my world as virtual comrades. My one regret is that I can't have dinner with their creator. Stieg Larsson died young, shortly after submitting the books to a Swedish publisher in 2004.
Inspirational reads were Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better(Allen Lane) and Kathleen Lynch, John Baker and Maureen Lyons's Affective Equality: Love, Care and Injustice(Palgrave Macmillan). Amidst the vacuum of political solutions, these books are essential reading for anyone interested in proving that equality is core to the foundation of a better society.
Sara Burke's Irish Apartheid. Healthcare Inequality in Ireland,was published by New Island in June
Diarmaid Ferriter's Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland(Profile) is a brilliant re-examination of the gnarled intersection between public life and private life in Ireland since the foundation of the state. His use of the Irish Queer Archive in the National Library is particularly valuable.
Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger(Faber) offers an account of what was done to the Irish economy over the past 20 years which is lucid and convincing. It is an essential book for anyone who wants the facts and the background to refute the idea that what happened to the Irish economy was a sad accident.
Paula Meehan's Painting Rain(Carcanet) displays one of our best poets at her most eloquent. These are poems which both confront and celebrate the world we inhabit, but they also manage in their rhythms to transcend that world. Eibhear Walsh's Cissie's Abattoir(Collins Press) is a wonderful memoir of growing up gay in Waterford city, and growing up in a funny and loving and often hilarious family.
Colm Tóibín's Brooklynwas published in April by Penguin Viking
The finest reads are the ones you want to go to bed early to read and these have been few and far between for me in 2009. Having said that, Pat Leahy's Showtime(Penguin Ireland) provided a stomping run through Fianna Fáil's 12 years in power. Insider information on "The Bert" was provided by "treacherous" former staffers who traded stories over pints, no doubt in Doheny and Nesbitt's. It's a great read and a perfect dose of hardcore gossip for the modern political anorak.
And having spent the year researching my book, a history of JFK's Irish visits, I picked up Theodore H White's The Making of the President, 1960(Harper Perennial). His attention to colourful detail, command of language and respect for history is inspirational.
Ryan Tubridy's Bookclub features regularly on RTÉ Radio 1's The Tubridy Show
Julia O'Faolain's novel, Adam Gould(Telegram), set in a 19th-century asylum in Paris, skilfully weaves together several stories in a strikingly energetic narrative style. The protagonist is the son of an Irish Catholic landlord, and his story has echoes of George Moore, while the issue of the balance of power between church and state remains relevant to today's Ireland.
Desmond Hogan's Old Swords and Other Stories(Lilliput Press) shows he has lost none of his ability to catch the pulse of contemporary Ireland. William Trevor's Love and Summer(Viking), reveals that he remains one of the most accomplished stylists in the form, fashioning tiny miracles out of the everyday in an unflashy manner that invariably gets to the heart of the matter. Jennifer Johnston's Truth or Fiction(Headline), portraying characters stumbling towards knowledge through a series of small revelations interspersed with glasses of Sancerre and whiskey, provides the perfect Christmas read.
Heather Ingman's History of the Irish Short Storywas published by Cambridge University Press this year
After a certain age you just read books to fuel your bitternesses and scratch at your inadequacies. I always read Michael Chabon, for instance, partly because he is very good but mainly because I noticed years ago that I am three days older than him and every book he produces makes me think how nice it must be just being Michael Chabon, having all that talent which wasn't being given out three days earlier. This year's offering were essays, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands(Harper Perennial). Chabon has a fetish for genre fiction and the bulk of the pieces explain why. What I liked more though, were the essays on his own writing and books. It's an area where writers can be pompous but Chabon remains entertaining. I wanted to go back and reread the novels he was discussing. Disgusting. Three days younger!
I was also sickened by the latest Ross O'Carroll Kelly, Rhino What You Did Last Summer(Penguin Ireland). As a kid I used to love those stories about prisoners of war in the second World War. The ones who escaped and made it to neutral Switzerland would always send back postcards to the lads left behind the wire: "Having a lovely time in the health spa, your Aunty Joan and Aunty May". Paul Howard, who writes the Ross O'Carroll Kelly books, used to be a sportswriter of great note. He escaped to the real world. I regard all his work with the faintly resentful feeling of a prisoner standing in a yard reading the news from Aunty Joan and Aunty May.
Tom Humphries assisted in the writing of Donal Óg Cusack's autobiography, Come What May,published by Penguin Ireland
Where are all the Irish women writing about the financial crisis and near political meltdown in Ireland in 2009? Amazon keeps suggesting I buy all the angry lads' books (and the not so angry) but I've resisted, apart from Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger(Faber). Maybe 2010 will bring the books by women about putting the nation back together again or documenting the stories of ordinary people and the effects of the depression on their lives. I also enjoyed The Lost Revolution: The Official IRA and The Workers Party,by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar (Penguin Ireland). The level of detail, research and remembrance is astonishing and the book brings reminders about the history of the modern left leadership's origins, and even Eoghan Harris.
Definitely not the book about the film, My Life in France(Duckworth) is Julia Childs's own re-published memoir about her arrival in France as a "six-foot-two-inch, 36-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian". I was delighted to read this plain-speaking memoir of Julia's discovery of cuisine, integration into French life and struggle to get published.
We've sadly lost many founders of Irish women's movements recently and Nuala Fennell's memoir, completed before her death, Political Woman(Currach Press) is an often caustic look at the birth of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, and other women's rights groups in Ireland. Her memories of her three terms as TD and period as minister for women's affairs are still relevant today, with only 23 female TDs in Dáil Eireann.
Suzy Byrne writes the blog Maman Poulet (mamanpoulet.com)
With its deliciously retro cover art and rock-hard, pitch-perfect prose, Megan Abbott's Queenpin(Pocket Books) is a brilliant slice of pulp noir. Updated James M Cain, it comes on at first like a pastiche but very soon transcends this as Abbott achieves a poetic voice all her own. Inherent Vice,by Thomas Pynchon (Cape), is a private eye novel with a hero and a plot, but don't let that fool you. It is set in California in 1970, and Pynchon shows us the frontiers of consciousness expanding, but also contracting, or being subtly co-opted, as the very "public eye" of the nascent internet looms on the horizon. Staying with the 1970s, Francis Wheen's Strange Days Indeed(Fourth Estate) dissects the golden age of paranoia. It includes the best potted account of Watergate you're ever likely to read, as well as an utterly terrifying chapter on the relationship between Harold Wilson and his political secretary, Marcia Williams. Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writingsby John Gray (Allen Lane) is an endlessly stimulating collection of the English philosopher's writings. Select any piece at random and prepare to have your perspective bent and realigned like a laser beam.
Alan Glynn's Winterlandwas published by Faber last month
Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn(Penguin) is a small masterpiece of resonant understatement. While maintaining complete fidelity to a simple, beautifully detailed story, it becomes a luminous exploration of the central human experience of exile. It tells us what it is like to live in two worlds at the same time.
Emigration - as a source of shame and as a way of preserving the myth of purity at home - also hovers over much of Diarmuid Ferriter's landmark history Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland(Profile). Drawing on a huge range of sources and moving deftly between the intimate and the political, Ferriter captures the contradictions and psychoses that could make Ireland such a dangerous place for women and children.
Lest we are inclined to the smug belief that the mentality that Ferriter describes is now dead, Justine McCarthy's damning but compelling account of child sexual abuse within Irish swimming, Deep Deception(O'Brien Press), is essential reading. The best of the large crop of books by Irish journalists this year, it grows beyond its immediate subject to become a terrifying anatomy of the capacity for denial and vilification within any enclosed world.
Paul Durcan's poems have always expressed the darkness and pain of Irish life, but they have also enriched it with wit, compassion and a unique combination of melancholy and playfulness. Life is a Dream: 40 Years Reading Poems, 1967-2007(Harvill Secker) is the ideal place for new fans to begin and old converts to luxuriate.
Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tigerwas published by Faber in October
The history book all central bankers are reading this year is Lords of Finance(Heinemann) by Liaquat Ahamed. This is a quadruple biography of four idiosyncratic figures who dominated world financial policy in the first third of the 20th Century.
They all knew - but did not necessarily like - each other: Hjalmar Schacht, who single-handedly ended the German hyperinflation in 1923; Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, who catastrophically forced deflation onto Britain by putting sterling back onto the Gold Standard at the old rate in 1925; Emil Moreau, who adopted the contrasting policy of undervaluing the French franc; and Ben Strong, of the New York Fed, who might well have averted the Great Crash of 1929 or at least its aftermath had he not died at the age of 55 the previous year.
Covering an overlapping period, Frank Partnoy's The Match King(Profile), is a most entertaining story of a rogue: Ivar Kreuger, the Madoff of the 1920s, though with a difference. Of the many books on the current crisis, I got most out of Fool's Gold(Little Brown), by Gillian Tett, a social anthropologist turned financial journalist, who has researched the bankers who invented some of the fancy financial derivative products that caused so much trouble. Most of the key figures worked for JP Morgan, a bank whose unscathed survival probably reflects the fact that the inventors understood the risks as well as the benefits of their inventions. In fiction I enjoyed the cool reflective mood and the effortless evocation of contrasting voices in Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes(Faber).
Patrick Honohan is governor of the Central Bank
Brian Dillon is one of the smartest and most readable young cultural critics in Ireland. His most recent book, Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives(Penguin Ireland), sounds erudite and stuffy but is in fact hilarious and moving. Dillon gives us well-researched portraits of nine artistic or historical (and always weird) giants, including Proust, Glenn Gould, Florence Nightingale, and Darwin. One expects, perhaps, a bit of superficial biographical insight: what one gets is an ambitious study of the relationship between frailty and eccentric genius.
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a Russian writer you've either never heard of or love so intensely that you want to carve her name into your body with a rusty knife. A collection of her short stories was selected and translated last year: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales(Penguin). A new translation, by Daniel Mendelsohn, of the great erotic sensualist and antiquarian Greek poet CP Cavafy, CP Cavafy: Collected Poems(Knopf), is terrific. Mendelsohn is a classicist, and this gives him a unique connection to Cavafy, evident in every line.
Greg Baxter is the editor of the online journal Some Blind Alleys(someblindalleys.com). His memoir, A Preparation for Death, is forthcoming in July
The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera, by Daniel Snowman (Atlantic) is a fascinating and atmospheric portrayal of opera, from its origins in candle-lit theatres in 17th-century Italy through its gradual global spread. John Potter's Tenor: History of a Voice(Yale) chronicles the evolution of the tenor voice. Potter provides extensive bibliographical information on almost 500 famous singers, many of whose adult careers were indebted to their early formation as choirboys.
Not so fortunate in his early musical training was Irish playwright John Millington Synge who abandoned his musical studies to take to literature. Synge's works are among those examined by Harry White in Music and the Irish Literary Imagination(OUP), a remarkable study identifying music as a preoccupation in Irish writing over the past two centuries.
Ite O'Donovan is director of the Lassus Scholars, who will be joined by Piccolo Lasso and the Orlando Chamber Orchestra at the Great Christmas Concert on Wednesday December 9th, at the National Concert Hall
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall(Fourth Estate), is a terrific read and a deserving recipient of the Man Booker prize. In a compelling historical narrative, Mantel dramatises the life of Thomas Cromwell, born the son of a blacksmith and gradually advancing to become Henry VIII's most powerful servant. What I liked most was the way Mantel revised the usual perception of Thomas Cromwell as cunning and self-serving. Instead her portrait shows us a capable, sensitive, gifted man.
The writing is unsentimental and even-handed and includes wonderful portraits of Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell's first mentor, of Thomas Cromwell's own family life, and of Henry VIII himself, and centres on a striking characterisation of the shrewd, level-headed Anne Boleyn. I also enjoyed William Trevor's Love and Summer(Viking), beautifully written and full of perfect, unexpected detailing. Clair Wills's scholarly study Dublin 1916, The Siege Of The GPO(Profile) is an example of the best kind of cultural history, shedding fascinating new light on this crucial moment in the making of the modern Irish state.
Eibhear Walshe's memoir, Cissie's Abattoir,was published this year by The Collins Press
Given the recent economic drama, Irish political books were at the forefront of my reading, and all had their qualities: for sheer drama there was Pat Leahy's Showtime: The Inside Story of Fianna Fáil in Power(Penguin Ireland ) while Matt Cooper's Who Really Runs Ireland? (Penguin Ireland) was an impressive compression of detail and narrative. David McWilliams's Follow the Money(Gill & Macmillan) was his usual zesty fizzle of insight and condemnation.
Otherwise, I was taken with the latest selection of essays by the late and incomparable John McGahern, Love of the World(Faber), while, by complete contrast, I am right now reading The Knights of Glin: Seven Centuries of Change(Glin Historical Society), a lavish family history compiled by Desmond FitzGerald, the art historian, conservationist and the present 29th Knight of Glin, which combines local history, photography and illustration to create a fascinating read.
Eamon Delaney's latest book , Breaking the Mould: A Story of Art and Ireland,is published next month by New Island
Lords of Finance: 1929, The Great Depression and the Bankers who Broke the Worldby Liaquat Ahamed (Heinnemann ) covers the catastrophic economic mistakes made by the world's financial establishment in the period 1918-1938, zipping along from the desperation and excitement of Germany during the Weimar Republic, to the delusional arrogance of the City of London as the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire. All the while, the rise of the US as the world's banker and major financial power, offers the perfect background noise to a gripping financial fable.
For those of us trying to make sense of the world we live in, substituting the rise of China now for the muscular America of the 1920s is instructive. For those worried about the competence of the mandarins and politicians who are running Ireland, this book is insightful yet worrying. As we grapple with very similar economic conditions, the litany of basic economic mistakes made by the people at the top of the financial system in the 1920s and 1930s should prompt us to question the bona fides of those who now suggest that "we know best; there is no alternative ".
By clinging to old ideas in the face of a vastly changed world, the financial leaders sealed the fate of the world economy in the 1930s. What is fascinating about this absorbing book is that it shows that bad decisions made by a few individuals can affect the lives of hundreds of millions.
David McWilliams' Follow the Moneywas published by Gill & Macmillan last month