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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In This Issue:

Books: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry should appeal to all readers of literary fiction; Roseanne McNulty's story becomes an alternative, secret, history of Ireland. Henry Alford is witty and literate, but somehow he has allowed his talents to be diffused, by mixing the intensely personal with the reportorial in How to Live; A Search for Wisdom from Old People. Bailey White's Quite a Year for Plums setting is southern Georgia; the characters are a collection of psychologically peculiar scarred individuals their inventor has endowed with flaws that in spite of being exaggerated don't become burlesque.

And Consider This: Online attendance at Shakespeare's Staging is a feast and celebration of images and videos


by Sebastian Barry, ©2008

Published by Viking, Hardcover; 300 pp

As readers of my essay Looking Back (also on this website) will know, my sister Carolyn and I are dyed-in-the-wool Hibernophiles. In fact we both consider Ireland our 'spiritual home.' So it is no wonder that each year, shortly before Christmas, I receive from Carolyn a package containing her latest pre-read Irish selection for my holiday enjoyment.

This year I received Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Secret Scripture, shortlisted for the Man Booker 2008 Prize for Fiction and winner of the 2008 Costa (formerly Whitbread) Book of the Year Award. I settled down to read it last month and enjoyed it tremendously. I think it should appeal to all readers of literary fiction, whether or not they share our Hibernophilia, and especially to the senior women demographic which we serve in these pages.

Told through the counter-narrative journals of Roseanne McNulty, a patient nearing her hundredth birthday in a mental hospital in Roscommon, and her psychiatrist Dr Grene, the story that emerges — of Roseanne’s family in 1930s Sligo — is both shocking and beautiful. Gradually emerging through the haze of memory and retelling, Roseanne’s story becomes an alternative, secret, history of Ireland. Masterfully written, it is the story of a life dominated the powerful Irish Catholic Church, blighted by terrible mistreatment and ignorance, and yet marked still by love and passion and hope. The poignancy of Barry’s beautiful denouement brought me to tears.

Sebastian Barry, born in Dublin in 1955, is an acclaimed playwright, novelist and poet. His 2005 novel, A Long, Long Way, translated into seven languages, was also shortlisted for the Man Booker that year and won several awards in Ireland. He currently lives in rural Wicklow, the scene of his excellent 2002 novel Annie Dunne, about the courage of another wonderful “senior woman.”

And, yes, I also got Carolyn’s hand-me-down copy of that one. I wonder what book she will be reading and sending on to me next Christmas?

John Malone

HOW TO LIVE; A Search for Wisdom from Old People

by Henry Alford, © 2009

Published by Hachette Book Company; Hardcover, 262 pp

I wish I had liked this book better. I certainly came to it ready to do so. After all, these days, anyone who acknowledges that older people may possess wisdom will find an appreciative audience in someone over seventy.

Maybe the young, who are in search of capital-W Wisdom, will find it helpful. As one of the old, alas, I found it not-so-very. It’s not for lack of research or wit. Alford has done a good job of the former, and possesses plenty of the latter. But in his effort to keep his chronicle lively, he bounces all over the place. He interviews everyone from the famous to unknown to the occasional eccentric. He quotes aphorisms, some of which are delightful. He even gives us a l-o-n-g discourse on the demise of his boyfriend’s cat, an experience that will dredge up pain for anyone who ever loved a pet. But in all, he really doesn’t uncover much advice that hasn’t been uncovered before. Old wisdom it is indeed.

Alford cites his decision to look closely at the two elderly people he knows best, his mother and his stepfather, as something that will enhance his research. Somehow, however, the book then becomes his own effort to come to terms with the fact that his mother has decided to end that 36-year marriage. The reactions of the stepfather, the mother, and Alford’s siblings begin to take over the story. There’s nothing wrong with that as subject, but wrapping it around a title like How To Live; A Search for Wisdom from Old People seems intrusive, and the little epiphanies of the individuals involved don’t give us much reward for being dragged through the tale.

There are lighter moments in this book, and they may make it worth reading if you’re willing to be depressed by the family drama. Alford is witty and literate, but somehow he has allowed his talents to be diffused, by mixing the intensely personal with the reportorial. Separately, and in his talented hands, either subject might have made a very good book.


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©2009 John Malone and Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb


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