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Archive for the ‘Fintan O’Toole’ Category

After slacking off a bit with my non-fiction reading earlier in the year, May saw me stepping up my game (also receiving a number of much-anticipated library holds – truly the deciding factor when it comes to what I read) with seven non-fiction titles.  But it was still balanced by many, many rom-coms.  

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary (2022) – Three women are stood up by Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day: Siobhan, who enjoys their hotel hook-ups when she’s visiting from Dublin; Jane, who Jospeh had promised to partner as a fake date for an event she dreaded; and Miranda, his girlfriend.  None gets a straight answer as to why she was stood up and so their doubts begin to grow.

O’Leary treads a line here between slick and smart and I’m still not entirely sure which I think she pulls off but it’s fundamentally a fun book, even if Joseph remains a (necessarily) distant figure throughout and therefore not an ideal romantic hero.

Free by Lea Ypi (2021) – a wonderful memoir about growing up in Albania in the dying years of communism and in the desperate 1990s.  Ypi provides an interesting glimpse into a country I know little about and her memories of helped me understand all the modern stereotypes I’ve absorbed – of gangsters trafficking people across the Adriatic and illegal workers in Italy – and how they came to be.  A good country to leave, sadly.

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart (2021) – the subtitle for Sieghart’s entertaining and enraging book is “Why Women Are Still Taken Less Serious Than Men, and What We Can Do About It”, but it’s hard to get excited about the (very practical) actions she outlines when you realise just how many of them there are.  I suspect there won’t be many surprises here for most women, especially those in the corporate world, but it’s helpful to have the facts.  A book you’ll want to make every man in your office read (but will they take it seriously?).

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake (2019) – Reread.  A joyous foodie memoir about Cloake’s bicycle journey through France to explore regional specialties.

Goblin Hill by Essie Summers (1977) – After Faith’s parents die, she discovers she was adopted with only just enough time to reconnect with her dying birth mother.  Now knowing the identify of her birth father, she looks for a job near his New Zealand farm until she can work up the courage to present herself.  She starts work as a family historian only to discover that the women who have hired her are her great-aunts.  Soon she is caught up in the family (especially with Gareth Morgan, her stepbrother) while waiting for her father to return from his travels.  There are many silly secrets and the overall effect is classic Summers but far from her best.

The Wedding Crasher by Abigail Mann (2022) – an enjoyably slow-moving romcom about a woman who finds herself swept up into the wedding chaos of her university housemate years after last seeing him.  It’s a bizarrely complicated set up but Mann makes it work with fundamentally relatable characters.  This is her third novel and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

Twelve Days in May by Niamh Hargan (2022) – jumping from one novel about two university friends contemplating what-might-have-been, I fell straight into another.  I guess we know what people were musing about during Covid lockdowns.

Twelve years after meeting in Bordeaux, Lizzy and Ciaran reconnect at the Cannes film festival where his film is debuting and she is working for the Scottish Film Board.  With allegations of plagiarism against Ciaran, his PR team pulls her in to the media whirlwind to attest to the originality of the film, based on their Erasmus experience.  But the film – and being together – brings back memories of their intense friendship all those years before and its abrupt ending.  Soon Lizzy is wondering how well she really remembers what happened and if there is a chance to start again.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood (2022) – Hazelwood has a trio of linked novellas that have come out before her second novel is released in August.  They’ve been released first as audiobooks and I did listen to the other two but this was the only one I read.  About three friends in STEM fields, I honestly found all the characters very annoying and the romances frustrating, though this one – about two unwilling housemates who eventually fall in love – was…the least frustrating?  Faint praise, indeed.

The Temporary European by Cameron Hewitt (2022) – For North American travellers, Rick Steves is a dependable and practical travel guru, inspiring others with his passion for European travel.  Cameron Hewitt is his right-hand man and equally excited about sharing his love of Europe.  I’ve loved reading his blog posts over the years, especially since his main area of focus is Central and Eastern Europe, so it’s no surprise I loved this collection of travel essays.  Like Rick, Cameron is funny, generally optimistic, and candid about his likes and dislikes.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry (2022) – when literary agent Nora’s sister insists they take a holiday together to a small town in North Carolina, Nora can’t refuse.  Ever since their single-parent mother died twelve years before (and even before that), Nora has felt responsible for Libby’s happiness.  Seeing how harried Libby is now – pregnant and with two young daughters already – Nora goes along with the plan.  She’s less willing to go along with Libby’s romance-novel-esque list of things to do while there (ride a horse, go skinny dipping, date a local).  But when Nora finds a familiar face in the small town – Charlie, an editor she’s crossed paths with in New York – things begin to look up.

Henry is very, very, very good at romcoms and this may be her best so far.  Nora is the anti-Hallmark heroine.  She feels cast as the evil urban ice queen, whose boyfriends go on business trips to quirky small towns and find love with peppy girls trying to save their family companies.  When she finds herself in a small town…that does not change.  And I loved that.  Nora gets to be who she is throughout – a successful, competent, in-control woman.  And she gets a successful, competent, in-control love interest who doesn’t need to challenge or change her, just be there for her to rely on and let her feel comfortable enough to relax a little.  Truly, the dream.

We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole (2022) – a superb blend of history and memoir in which journalist O’Toole looks at the changes in modern Ireland over the course of his life, from his birth in 1958 to the present day.  Reviewed here.

Borders by Thomas King (2021) – a graphic novel adaptation of an old short story by King about a boy and his mother trying to cross the Canada-US border.  When his mother is unwilling to identify her nationality as anything other than Blackfoot (whose lands straddle the border), the boy and his mother find themselves stuck in a no man’s land at the border crossing.

The Meet Cute Method by Portia MacIntosh (2022) – Still enjoying my discovery of MacIntosh’s romcoms.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016) – Reread of Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport (2022) – another fascinating history from the always reliable Rappaport about the Russians who found their way to Paris both during the early years of the 20th Century and after the revolution.  Reviewed here.

A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1931) – excellent sequel to A Lantern in Her Hand from the perspective of Abby Deal’s granddaughter Laura.  Laura is determined to fulfil the gentile aspirations her grandmother never achieved but, ultimately, like Abby she finds herself tempted by love and the promise of friendship and a family.  Aldrich poignantly tracks the decline of the first generation of pioneers and reflects on how quickly the country has changed, that the grandchildren of those early settlers now take going to college for granted and have the whole world at their feet.

New Zealand Inheritance by Essie Summers (1957) – this was Summers’ first book and she certainly began as she meant to go on.  Roberta returns to her grandfather’s Otago farm in her mid-twenties, after travelling the world with her artistic parents and nursing them through their final years.  Now she is looking for roots and feels drawn back to Heatherleigh, where she spent one idyllic summer as a child.  When she arrives, it seems as though her grandfather’s one-time shepherd and now neighbour, Muir Buchanan, is paying her attentions with an eye to her inheritance.  Roberta, fighting her attraction, decides to lead him on a merry dance.

Roberta is the worst kind of heroine: a sensible person doing absolutely bonkers things to serve the plot.  And Muir is uselessly uncommunicative and struggling a bit with the chip on his shoulder.  Backed up by some absurdly melodramatic stories for secondary characters, it’s all a bit much.

How We Met by Huma Qureshi (2021) – a short, gentle memoir about Qureshi’s experiences growing up in a family and culture that shaped her approach to finding a romantic partner – and how she eventually chose a different path and a very different sort of husband.

Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan (2022) – I loved the writing in this story of a young woman starting a new life at university in Dublin, growing away from the swimming that defined her teen years and delving into her family’s past and the suicide of her famous poet grandfather. But…there are too many buts to count.  The plot and characterization are bog standard and I’m sure I’ll forget everything within a month or two.

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2022) – Extremely good YA novel about two university freshmen who find themselves stuck – à la Groundhog Day – reliving the same day over and over.  When they realise it’s happening to them both, they band together and start trying to break out of the loop and move forward with their lives.  As days turn to weeks, they have time to get to know one another, go a little loopy, work through some issues, and, very sweetly, fall in love.  It’s all delightful, funny, and poignant, and the characters, both dealing with baggage they don’t particularly want to confront, are highly relatable (if a little too emotionally evolved for eighteen year olds).

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We are almost half-way through the year and while there are already a number of books in the running for my end-of-year list of favourites, there is only one that is currently in the race for the number one spot: We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole.  A blend of history and memoir, journalist O’Toole looks at the changes in modern Ireland over the course of his life, from his birth in 1958 to the present day (this was published in 2021), an extraordinary period of social and economic upheaval.

I was born in the mid-eighties so my first impressions of Ireland were shaped in the 1990s, when the economy was booming and the country was being shaken by revelations about the Catholic church’s involvement in decades of child abuse and the incarceration of girls and women in the Magdalene Laundries.  While we learned a fair amount in school about Ireland in the 19th Century, given how significantly it impacted Canada – around a million Irish people immigrated here during and after the famine, explaining why every farm town where my father’s family is from in Southwestern Ontario is named after an Irish village – our only 20th century content was a quick overview of the War of Independence and the Civil War to give us context for the Troubles and the ongoing peace talks that were always in the news.

What I didn’t learn in school or through the news, I supplemented with Maeve Binchy books, which it turns out were excellent social histories to cover the changing attitudes of a country that changed incredibly quickly.  As O’Toole says early in his book, “the transformation of Ireland over the last sixty years has sometimes felt as if a new world had landed from outer space on top of an old one.”  Fiction has done a good job of capturing that, but not as good as memoir.

The Ireland O’Toole was born into was a land of emigrants.  The birth rate was low because a generation of child-bearing adults had disappeared, looking for jobs and a future in England or America:

In 1841 the population of what became the twenty-six county Irish state was 6.5 million.  In 1961, it would hit its lowest ever total of 2.8 million.  By that year, a scarcely imaginable 45 per cent of all those born in Ireland between 1931 and 1936 and 40 per cent of those born between 1936 and 1941 had left.

Yet from such hopeless beginnings, O’Toole has seen Ireland ascend (and fall and ascend and fall and ascend – it’s been a turbulent few decades) to become, unbelievably, a country that draws immigrants.  Economically, this is primarily due to huge investment from America (the numbers are staggering – “by 2017, US direct investment stock in Ireland totalled $457 billion, a greater investment stake than in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined”), which is slightly worrying as a model for a stable economic future but I digress.  That’s a topic for another book.  Economic growth and stability always drive social change and the liberalising of the country has been, if anything, even more extreme.

Seeing the church through O’Toole eyes is fascinating.  Ireland has modernized so fast that, from the outside, it is easy to forget what a stranglehold the church had on all aspects of society.  They taught your children (and beat them, and molested them), they decided what could be printed or shown on film or TV, and they insisted that women and children who transgressed should be shut up in terrifying institutions.  And in their stranglehold, they allowed corruption to flourish, answerable to no one – an inspiration, surely, for the politicians to come.

Reading Maeve Binchy, not generally an author given to shocking her readers, I was always shocked by the corruption of some of the characters and the casual acceptance of it by others.  What to me seemed so over-the-top and unbelievable now, with all these real-life examples laid before me, seems like harsh social realism.  Still bizarre though, wound up in a society trained for generations by the church to pretend that they don’t see what is happening in front of them and to believe they have no power to change it.

That infantilizing of a nation was, O’Toole asserts, the Catholic church’s greatest achievement.  For years, people had had no way of even finding the words to talk about what had happened to them.  When they tried, when families spoke to the church about what had happened to their children, it was with shame and embarrassment rather than outrage:

It had so successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong that it was the parents of an abused child, not the bishop who enabled that abuse, who were ‘quite apologetic’.  It had managed to create a flock who, in the face of an outrageous violation of trust, would be concerned as much about the abuser as about those he had abused and might abuse in the future.  It had inserted its system of control and power so deeply into the minds of the faithful that they could scarcely even feel angry about the perpetration of disgusting crimes on their own children.

The most heartbreaking thing is how widely known the abuses were and how a country chose to live silently with the shame for so long.  Catholicism and Ireland were inexorably entwined.  Everyone knew who the dodgy brothers were at the school, or that when girls disappeared for a few days to England that it was for an abortion that could never be spoken about.  What was then surprising is how quickly the nation embraced changed, how it longed for future generations to have more freedom than theirs had had.  The Irish are great ones for referendums and passed both the 2015 one in favour of same-sex marriage and the 2018 one to legalize abortion with majorities of greater than 60 per cent.  In both cases, O’Toole reports his generation reacting with some surprise to their parents’ votes in favour.  When the abortion ban was repealed, O’Toole was drinking with a politician friend who was happy but conflicted, having not spoken to his elderly, very devout parents who lived on their rural farm, feeling uneasy since he had publicly voiced his support for the repeal.  Their drink was interrupted by a call from his sister, ringing to share her happiness with the result:

Then he asked her how their father and mother were taking it all.  Delighted, she said – sure both of the parents had voted for repeal.  ‘Daddy said he couldn’t bear thinking of all those women coming back from England and not being able to tell anyone what they were going through.’  There had been, all along in the old man’s mind, another history, a history of migrants and absentees, of secrets and silences.  He was, it seemed, glad to let it out at last.

The one thing I’d (naively) not expected to have been so dominant were the Troubles.  I’d always thought of them as specific to Northern Ireland but O’Toole’s memory of his father coming home one day in the early 1970s and saying that it looked like he and his sons would soon be forced to go up north, certain they were on the brink of a war where Irishmen on both sides of the border would be fighting, impressed on me what that level of unrest felt like contained on a small island.  The family had another tense evening in 1972 waiting for O’Toole’s father, a bus conductor, to come home after an IRA bomb exploded near the company canteen and it wasn’t clear who had been killed.  His father was safe but two colleagues died.

It’s moments like that – the family conversations, the memories of certain television programs or exchanges at school – that make this such a vivid and impactful book.  O’Toole does a wonderful job of presenting his country’s history but an even better job of expressing what it was like to live through.

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