Ireland Reading Challenge 2011 Update

The Ireland Reading Challenge is being run by Carrie at Books and Movies. It involves reading any book written by an Irish author, set in Ireland, or involving Irish history or Irish characters. It can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, audiobooks, children’s books ‘“ all of these apply.

I have now completed the first level, Shamrock,  by reading these two books, both by Irish authors:

Two very different books!

The Luck o’ the Irish is next level of the Challenge, and it involves reading another two books. With a bit of luck I should manage this by the end of the year! 🙂 Oops just realised the Challenge ends at the end of November!

My choice of books, from my stock of to-be-read books is this:

  • Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch
  • Ulysses by James Joyce ‘“ if I read that next year I’ll be really pleased (and surprised)!
  • The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  • Watchman by Ian Rankin
  • Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

I might try Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of Good next – a bit of philosophy, that should make a change!

Dracula by Bram Stoker: Book Notes

These are my thoughts and reactions on reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I knew the story of Dracula from film and TV versions – with most notably Christopher Lee and later Louis Jourdan as Dracula, but have steered clear of reading Bram Stoker’s book until now. I didn’t really know what to expect from the book but I was interested to know how Stoker described Dracula, was it anything like the film versions? This is what he looked like when Jonathan Harker first entered Castle Dracula:

… a tall old man, clean-shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.

… he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength that made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice – more like the hand of a dead man than a living man.

… His face was a strong – a very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily around the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over his nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor. (pages 22 – 25)

Not like the film versions I’ve seen.

Dracula is composed of letters, journal entries, newspaper articles and transcripts of phonograph diary entries, from several characters, so the story is told from several different viewpoints. Stoker used a variety of sources in telling his tale – folklore, myths and legends and historical facts, all blended together with his own inventions. It’s a very scenic novel, and I could easily imagine the locations  – most memorable are those describing Jonathan Harker’s journey and first meeting with Dracula. Dracula doesn’t eat and has no reflection in a mirror, can change his shape dramatically and grows younger, but apart from the opening chapters he remains an elusive figure.

It’s also a very sensual and melodramatic novel, full of religious references. So there is the question of life after death, the existence of the soul, the triumph of good over evil, the nature of sexuality,  fear and superstition. Vampires are at the same time appealing and repulsive. Much use is made of hypnotism and putting people into trances. I was struck by the comparison with Christianity – Dracula drinks the blood of his victims and has everlasting life as one of the Un-Dead and Christ gave his life to redeem the world. It reminded me of the Communion Service – this is my body, this is my blood.

It is too an adventure story with a final chase scene and a love story. It reflects the time in which it was written, with women seen as frail creatures unable to withstand the danger that the men confront. Mina Harker, that most resourceful woman, is left behind whilst the men seek out Dracula and plan to kill him. I was puzzled – why was she left alone with no cross and garlic flowers to protect her when the men were fully armed? The outcome was predictable.

I found the character of Renfield most interesting. He is one of Dr Seward’s most dangerous patients in the lunatic asylum, who wavers between lucid and intelligent episodes and sheer madness. His hobby is catching flies and eating them. He progresses to eating spiders and birds.

I thought it was a fascinating book, found it thought-provoking, both whilst I was reading and after. A book which certainly qualifies for the RIP Challenge.

The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney

The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney turned out to be a mammoth read that took me far longer than I expected. I received my copy, an advanced uncorrected proof – without the lovely cover I’ve shown here – courtesy of Meier, the marketing company. It’s a story of journeys, of love and romance, and of war and mystery. I should have loved it, but I didn’t.

It’s narrated by Ben McCarthy looking back on his life as he tells his story to his children. Set during World War II, Ben, still grieving after the disappearance of his wife Venetia ten  years earlier, is travelling around Ireland collecting folklore and trying to find out what has happened to her. He meets Kate Begley, known as the Matchmaker of Kenmare and they become friends. Ireland was neutral during the war but that didn’t stop Ben and Kate’s involvement, after Kate’s husband Charles Miller, an American soldier is reported killed in action. I found it hard to get interested in the story at the beginning and in fact stopped reading it for a while. It was slow to get going and I had to keep looking back trying to work out what was happening and who was who. It didn’t help that this book follows on from a previous one that I haven’t read, which tells the story of Venetia’s mysterious disappearance.

It gathered pace for a while as Kate and Ben travelled to Europe trying to find Charles, who Kate refuses to believe is dead, and into the war action. And there is plenty of action when they are captured by the Germans, despite their Irish neutrality. Even though the war is coming to an end they are in desperate danger. This is, I think, the best part of the book, full of tension and pace. Neutrality is a theme throughout the book. As Frank Delaney writes in his Author’s Note:

… the word neutrality has many shades. For example official papers, released long after 1945, show that Ireland did, in fact, exploit the war politically and contributed many actions to the Allied cause. As to affairs of the heart, who would ever dare to define where friendship should end and passion begin?

Did Ben eventually find out what happened to Venetia and was Charles really dead? I read on, and on, and on as Kate and Ben continued to search for Charles after the war ended. The section where Kate stands waiting for the troops returning from the war, hoping to find Charles amongst them was very moving. But I became tired of their searches and by the time I came to the section where they are travelling to Lebanon in Kansas, the centre of America, the episode with a giraffe and small pig was almost too much to believe. It had all the trappings of a “tall tale”.

Overall, I did enjoy most of it. The book rambles along with many diversions from the main story, some amusing like Neddy who hires a set of false teeth, ‘a set of tombstone dentures’ to make him more attractive to a prospective wife, but mostly I found them distracting. It has a mythic quality. Ben was taught to view his life as though it were a myth, a legend and there are many hints all the way through of the tragic events that are about to unfold – too many hints, I thought, which meant that there were few if any surprises.  Interspersed with Ben’s narration are excerpts from Kate’s journal and his own journal and yet at times the text read more as an objective rather than a personal narrative.

Here is a book trailer featuring Frank Delaney reading from his book.

I agree with Dorothy in her review at Books and Bicycles, in which she says ‘The book would have worked better if told in a more direct manner, without all the editorializing from the older version of Ben and that it ‘does have its pleasures ‘” as you can imagine, the love triangle that develops between Kate, Ben, and Charles is consistently interesting ‘”unfortunately, the quality of the writing kept interfering with the fun.’

And for a more favourable review see Karen’s post on her Cornflower Books blog – ‘it’s a beautifully pitched, fluent story of charm, humour and some inspired ‘“ and even Homeric ‘“ touches.’

The Matchmaker of Kenmare

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House USA Inc (1 April 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1400067847
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400067848
  • Source: free review copy

This is my second book for the Ireland Reading Challenge.

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden: Book Review

I loved Molly Fox’s Birthday by Irish author, Deirdre Madden.

It takes place in one day, that day being Molly Fox’s birthday. Her friend, the unnamed narrator is staying in Molly’s house in Dublin whilst Molly is away and she reminisces about their friendship, wondering why Molly doesn’t like to celebrate her birthday. Molly is an actress and her friend a playwright, who has written plays in which Molly acted. Their friendship goes back a long way and during this one day she contemplates their past, how their relationship evolved and the relationships with their friends and families.

She thinks about their mutual friend Andrew, an art historian, Fergus, Molly’s disturbed brother, Tom, her own brother who is a priest and during the day both Andrew and Fergus turn up an announced on Molly’s doorstep. It’s written at a gentle pace, with vivid descriptions of the setting – the house and garden in Dublin

The big clock at the head of the stairs bonged softly for nine-thirty. I carried the mug out of the kitchen, into the hall and through to the sitting room. It looked this morning like some kind of jewelled casket, like a box of treasures. sunlight caught on copper and brass, was reflected in polished wood and mirrors. All this glitter and brightness was offset by the rich dark colours of the kilims on the floor. (page 44)

It’s a novel about identity as well as family and friendship, about how we see other people and how they see us. For example she had never really got to know Fergus but had heard of his problems from Molly. During her conversation on this day she realised that the Fergus she knew through Molly ‘timid, weak, a failure in life‘ had disappeared and the man she now knew for herself was a ‘man of wisdom and acute moral knowledge‘. It’s a novel about character and about the parts we play as well as the people we are, what we hide from others and what we reveal  to others. It’s the sort of book I could happily re-read and still find plenty to think about.

My first book towards the Ireland Reading Challenge.

Ireland Reading Challenge 2011

I’ve been having a re-think about reading challenges. I had decided that I wasn’t going to join many challenges for 2011, but was going to read whatever takes my fancy. BUT I’ve been looking through my list of tbr books on LibraryThing, where I have 328 books listed as unread and I think it’s time I reduced that down as much as possible. This challenge should help me do that.

The Ireland Reading Challenge is being run by Carrie at Books and Movies. It involves reading any book written by an Irish author, set in Ireland, or involving Irish history or Irish characters. It can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, audiobooks, children’s books €“ all of these apply.

There are three levels:

Shamrock level: 2 books
Luck o’ the Irish level: 4 books
Kiss the Blarney Stone level: 6 books

I’m aiming for the third level as I have  several books in my tbr list that are set in Ireland, or are by Irish writers:

  • Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker – finished see here
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden – finished see here
  • Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch
  • Ulysses by James Joyce – if I read that next year I’ll be really pleased (and surprised)!
  • The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  • Watchman by Ian Rankin
  • Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy