Book Review: ANGELA’S ASHES by Frank McCourt

AngelasAshesI don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor. Near the beginning of his memoir, McCourt sets the scene in the following way:

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges…

The rain drove us into the church–our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flower and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain. (1-2)

We learn that it rains in LimerickLimerick, but Limerick is not just wet, it stays wet for eternity. The great sheets of rain drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick (emphasis added). We learned that the rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. Not only does the detail of the ‘Feast of Circumcision’ sound humorous, but that sentence actually means that it stayed wet from January 1 to December 31. In the next sentence, McCourt takes things up a notch by providing us with a marvelous list of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Again, the details are compelling. We don’t just have a cacophony of coughs, which sounds clichéd, but a cacophony of hacking coughs. Just when you think this can’t possibly get any worse, McCourt tops that sentence with the next one: “It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges.” After a few more sentences (omitted for brevity), we learn that the rain drove everyone into church, it was “our refuge, our strength, our only dry place.” In this sentence, McCourt gives us a list which acts like a garden path sentence. It implies that it’s talking about one thing (the piety of the people of Limerick), when it’s actually talking about something else (their wish to get out of the rain). The next sentence gives us a marvelous image of all those people crowded into church in “great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone,” and this sets us up for the punch line at the end, that Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but “we knew it was only the rain.”

And so the story begins with some humor, to ease the way for the tragedies that follow. I highly recommend this memoir. Five Stars.

 

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book Review

Monday Craft Tips: Using narrative to convey humor

I don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor.

newsagentPerhaps my favorite moment of this whole memoir was the incident in which the teenaged McCourt is commanded by his boss, Mr. McCaffrey, to go around all the magazine shops in Limerick and tear out page 16 of John O’London’s Weekly, because it has an ad for birth control:

The biggest customer for the magazine, Mr. Hutchinson, tells Mr. McCaffrey get to hell out of his shop or he’ll brain him, get away from them magazines, and when Mr. McCaffrey keeps on tearing out pages Mr. Hutchinson throws him into the street, Mr. McCaffrey yelling that this is a Catholic country and just because Hutchinson is a Protestant that doesn’t give him the right to sell filth in the holiest city in Ireland. Mr. Hutchinson says, Ah, kiss my arse, and Mr. McCaffrey says See, boys? See what happens when you’re not a member of the True Church…

We scoop up everything on the floor and he’s happy sitting at his desk at the other end of the office ringing Dublin to tell them how he stormed through shops like God’s avenger and saved Limerick from the horrors of birth control while he watches a dancing fire of pages that have nothing to do with John O’London’s Weekly. (497-498)

McCourt doesn’t need scenes with dialogue to convey the humor of the situation, he does it in the narrative. It is a very clever way of controlling pacing. If McCourt had put this into a scene it would have slowed down the dramatic flow. But in this situation we want to feel that the characters are rushing around, trying to get rid of page sixteen. So McCourt keeps the pacing fast by keeping it in the narrative summary, giving us the details of the conversation in the form of a list. This excerpt ends with a wonderful sentence that gives us the punch line; of course the boys are not throwing the ad into the fire, they’ve saved the pages to sell later.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Craft, Monday Craft Tips

Friday Pictures: Unusual places for books

I found this picture on Stumbleupon. I’m not sure where it is, but I would guess (from the shape of the window, and the eccentricity) that this HAS to be somewhere in England! If any of you know, please drop a comment below…

tumblr_lk54v8CaVo1qacmz1o1_500

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Friday Pictures

Book Review: “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

SonnysBLuesJames Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem.

At the end of the story, Sonny, out of jail and back home with his brother, rediscovers his lifeline, the one thing that makes his life worth living, his music. But his first attempts to play piano are rocky:

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seem to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck (49)

The rhythm of the sentences mirrors Sonny’s panicky attempts to play jazzHonkyTonk. The first two sentences start with ‘And’, a short word that sounds like a gulp. In the third sentence, one can almost hear Sonny try to play. The sentence is full of clauses of different lengths, that mirror the lengths of the musical phrases. So Sonny and the piano stammer, they “started one way”, “got scared”, “stopped,” started another way” and so on. What is so brilliant about this passage is that you don’t have to know anything about jazz to hear it. Each word contributes to the effect. Five Stars.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book Review

Monday Craft Tips: Using details to avoid cliches

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a short story that sounds like a memoir. Baldwin’s powerful un-clichéd writing stems from the details he uses, particularly his choice of words. “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem. In this excerpt, they are being driven north, in a taxi, through New York City:

So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, towards the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap…(13)

harlemBaldwin uses compelling detail to make this scene come alive. The hotels and apartment buildings don’t just have an elegance to them, they have a stony, lifeless elegance (emphasis added). This is an acute observation as it both tells us that poorer neighborhoods often have more life to them, probably because people are forced to co-exist in a small space, but also that rich people don’t care about poor ones. They are not going towards the streets of their childhood, but to the vivid, killing streets. The word ‘killing’ is an arresting word that shocks the reader because it precisely describes exactly what was happening on the streets of their childhood. (I believe that this phrase has now entered the cultural lexicon.) Baldwin’s word choices contribute to the theme of the book, the rage and helplessness of black people. The housing projects don’t just jut up from the street, they jut up like “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea.” This image makes us feel the bubbling rage and resentment of black people. Baldwin goes on to talk about the inhabitants of these houses, particularly the boys who, “smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.”

With this arresting image, Baldwin makes us feel the trap they are in.

Follow Me on Pinterest

2 Comments

Filed under Craft, Monday Craft Tips

Friday Pictures: Unusual places for books

Can you believe the size of some bookstores? This is the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa or Academic Bookstore in Helsinki. Don’t you love that sleek Scandinavian design?

Academic-Bookstore1

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Friday Pictures

Book Review: Charles Dicken’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES

A Tale of Two CitiesIf there is one thing that people remember about Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, it is of Madame Defarge knitting while the heads roll: “The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready. Crash!–A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One.” (178)

This is a brilliant example of how brutality dulls the mind in the face of horror. Dickens uses knitting, which we normally associate with a cozy home life, and pairs it with the guillotine to make it seem sinister and arresting. What is odd about this scene is that it is the only example I could find of Madame Defarge actually knitting beside the guillotine, and she isn’t there, a fact that is made much of by her side-kick ‘The Vengeance’. So one could say that this scene is also a perfect example of how memory has difficulty in processing negatives. Because what people actually remember is that she is there, in her chair, knitting. Here is an actual example of Madame Defarge knitting, and why it is so important:

 Next noontide saw the admirable woman in her usual place in the wine-shop, knitting away assiduously. A rose lay beside her, and if she now and then glanced at the flower, it was with no infraction of her usual preoccupied air. There were a few customers, drinking or not drinking, standing or seated, sprinkled about. The day was very hot, and heaps of flies, who were extending their inquisitive and adventurous perquisitions into all the glutinous little glasses near madame, fell dead at the bottom. Their decease made no impression on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something as far removed), until they met the same fate. Curious to consider how heedless flies are!–perhaps they thought as much at Court that sunny summer day.

A figure entering at the door threw a shadow on Madame Defarge which she felt to be a new one. She laid down her knitting, and began to pin her rose in her head-dress, before she looked at the figure.

It was curious. The moment Madame Defarge took up the rose, the customers ceased talking, and began gradually to drop out of the wine-shop…(85)

MmeDefargeMadame Defarge, while talking with the spy Barsad in the most unhelpful fashion possible, is knitting in code such details as his name and appearance. Which is presumably why she wants the other inhabitants of the shop to go away, so that she can concentrate. I love the way in which Dickens picks out seemingly unimportant details to make a point. For example, the flies are compared to those courtiers who lounged around Versailles, pursuing pleasure with abandonment, heedless of the storm that is brewing up beneath them. Five Stars.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book Review

Monday Craft Tips: Using details to bring an historical event alive

FrenchRevolutionA Tale of Two Cities is an historical novel by Charles Dickens about the French Revolution. Dickens is famous for the way in which he brings his minor characters to life, and makes them so memorable. They way in which he does this is to attach a telling detail to them, such as Mr. Micawber’s dictum that sixpence in the pocket means happiness, while sixpence in arrears means misery. But Dickens can also talk about the universe in a raindrop:

 With a wild rattle and clatter, and an inhuman abandonment of consideration not easy to be understood in these days, the carriage dashed through the streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way. At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices and the horses reared and plunged. (50)

The Marquis St Evrémonde is leaving Paris for his country home. Not unlike the way in which the French drive their cars today, Evrémonde allows his coachman to drive through the streets of Paris in a way that is hazardous to the well-being of everyone around him. The result is that he kills a child. This story explains brilliantly, in a few words, what the French Revolution is all about. It encapsulates the haughty disregard of the aristocrat set against the helplessness and rage of the people.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Craft, Monday Craft Tips

Friday Pictures: Unusual places for books

If you have never been to the Marcher lands that border Wales and England, you might not have heard of Hay on Wye, which is a wonderful place for those of us that love that musty smell of second-hand books. Here is a picture of Richard Booth’s bookstore…

Richard Booth's bookshop

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Friday Pictures

Book Review: THE EMPEROR by Ryszard Kapucinski

TheEmperorThe Emperor is so powerful that when he elevates someone to a new position, he changes their body language completely:

First, the whole figure of a man changes. What had been slender and trim-waisted now starts to become a square silhouette. It is a massive and solemn square: a symbol of the solemnity and weight of power. We can already see that this is not just anybody’s silhouette, but that of visible dignity and responsibility. A slowing down of movements accompanies this change in the figure. A man who has been singled out by His Distinguished Majesty will not jump, run, frolic, or cut a caper. No. His step is solemn: he sets his feet firmly on the ground, bending his body slightly forward to show his determination to push through adversity, ordering precisely the movement of his hands so as to avoid nervous disorganized gesticulation. Furthermore, the facial features become solemn, almost stiffened, more worried and closed, but still capable of a momentary change to optimism or approval. (34)

The man becomes old, he becomes slow, he becomes massive and solemn as he attempt to stifle his quirks to fit into that stagnant court atmosphere. Power sits heavily on his shoulders. All of these observations become ironic when one realizes, by reading through Kapucinski’s piece, that in fact the ministers spend most of their time not doing their jobs, but hanging around court just to catch the Emperor’s eye to indicate their “unshakable loyalty”. (50) And that, moreover, the Emperor doesn’t like his ministers to be good at their jobs, so that he “shined by contrast”. (33)

Kapucinski doesn’t need to write a voluminous tome in order to convey what life was like under the repressive rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.  Instead he chooses a few details that stick out in the mind: such as the specific way in which a new minister’s body posture changes upon his promotion to power. There is something about each of these images that causes the reader to pause and think, and remember them afterwards. Five Stars.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Filed under Book Review