Tributes to Brian Lenihan — In Calm and Crisis

Cover Image Brian Lenihan In Calm and CrisisWhatever you thought of Brian Lenihan’s decisions and actions as Finance Minister, his character and dignity won him widespread respect and admiration and that is reflected in this collection of essays by former colleagues, family and friends who recall the personal, political and professional aspects of his life and career, particularly his final years.

Appointed Finance Minister at a time of unprecedented difficulty for the Irish economy, Lenihan faced extraordinary pressure compounded by personal difficulties when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Many questions remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding Ireland’s bank guarantee and subsequent bailout programme and although the recollections contained in Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis provide insights into those events  by some key players close to the Minister and the corridors of power at the time, essentially, this is a collection of personal tributes.

The essays include brief contributions by Jim Flaherty, Former Canadian Finance Minister and Christine Lagarde, former French Finance Minister alongside pieces by names now familiar from the crisis such as Alan Ahearne and Patrick Honahan.

The recollections include the intensely personal (Mary O’Rourke, Paul Gallagher) to the more circumstantial (Eamon Ryan). Perhaps the most interesting contribution is “The Poisoned Chalice” essay by the former Irish Finance Minister, Ray McSharry who argues that Lenihan and Cowen, through the bank guarantee, saved the euro but failed to utilise the leverage that gave them — a failing he also attributes to the current Government.

“Incidentally, I should add that the current Government is also under-estimating the leverage that our membership of the EU still gives Ireland. I think Ireland should be taking a tougher stance to bring about a write-off on our bank debts. We should not forget that the European Council requires unanimity to effect change in major policy areas. I think that some night that our vote is required we should insist that the price of our vote is a deal on our banking debts.”

Other contributors include Brian Murphy, Cathy Herbert, John Mullen, Martin Mansergh, Marie Louise O’Donnell, Harmon Murtagh, John Trethowan and Jillian Van Turnhout. The introduction is by Noel Whelan.

Appendices include Dáil tributes following Lenihan’s death and the text of Lenihan’s Michael Collins Commemorative Lecture at Beal na Bláth on 22 August 2010, where he said “the job of Government is to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of individual groups and the greater good.” Arguably, that’s precisely where government appears to get things generally wrong by having too much regard for the great and the good, too little for the greater good.

Brian Lenihan In Calm and Crisis is edited by Brian Murphy, Mary O’Rourke and Noel Whelan and published by the Irish Academic Press, 2014. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Irish Cancer Society.

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Nora Webster – A Quiet and Profound Novel by Colm Toibin

Cover Image Nora Webster by Colm ToibinNora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s seventh novel is set in the 1960s and early 1970s in his native County Wexford where the seaside villages Ballyconniger, Blackwater, Curracloe and nearby towns of Enniscorthy and Bunclody are beautifully present on the page as the backdrop for an intensely focused study of character and grief. Wexford is famous for its international opera festival and music plays an important role in Nora Webster. Civil unrest in Northern Ireland and the political differences between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Minister for Finance Charles Haughey will have particular resonance for Irish readers familiar with this period.

As always, Tóibín writes with tremendous authenticity about ordinary people and has the gift of making the ordinary seem profound.The novel opens with Tóibín’s heroine, Nora Webster struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Maurice, a well-regarded school teacher. Well-meaning neighbours from their small, tightly-knit community call to Nora’s house each evening to offer sympathy and share stories about Maurice. Nora realises that the past cannot be rescued from their memories and she faces the practical difficulties of trying to keep her home together while she finds a way to live without the anchor of her husband.

Nora longs for the questions and the sympathy to cease so that she will no longer have to respond to those who offer their sympathy looking into her eyes and waiting for her reaction.

So intense and personal is her grief, that Nora is emotionally neglectful of her children and surprisingly blind to their loss — particularly that of her sons Conor and Donal who are clearly struggling— and yet she is capable of tremendous understanding and empathy and fearlessly stands up for them when she is put to the test.

Tóibín shows empathy for his heroine but is also unsentimental. When she takes up singing — and in the process unlocks a gift she inherited from her late mother — Nora find a route to independence as well as a source of solace — not in the sympathies of friends and neighbours but in her own inner resources.

Character and place take precedence over plot in Nora Webster, a quiet, atmospheric novel that in my opinion represents Tóibín at his best.

[Disclosure: I received an Advance Review Copy of Nora Webster from the publisher via Netgalley]

See also Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin.

Legal argument and Moral Dilemma in The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Cover Image The Children Act by Ian McEwanIan McEwan first came to my attention a few years ago when On Chesil Beach was selected for discussion by my local book club. A poignant novella about newly-weds on honeymoon in Dorset, the story appealed to me for the way it demonstrated how lives are sometimes ruined as much by what is left unsaid as by what is said and done.

McEwan’s best-known work is, perhaps, Atonement, the novel that would become a movie of the same name starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

His recent novels include Solar, the story of a Nobel prize-winning physicist which won an award for comic writing and Sweet Tooth, the story of a Cambridge graduate who is recruited to Britain’s secret service. Neither of these two held the same appeal for me as his earlier work so I was not sure to expect when I picked up The Children Act. This time, his heroine, Fiona Maye is a High Court judge whose job involves making life-changing decisions for the families that come before her. Married and childless, Fiona’s marriage hits troubled waters when husband Jack becomes involved with a younger woman. Work provides a refuge and Fiona becomes absorbed in the case of a seventeen-year old boy with leukaemia who is refusing blood transfusion because of his religious beliefs. Will she decide in favour of the hospital and save the boy’s life or will she be swayed by his parents’ argument and the boy’s own religious views even though, should they prevail, the boy will die. Whatever Fiona’s decision, it will have lasting impact on all parties — including Fiona herself.

McEwan’s research into the Courts is apparent and the legal arguments from relevant case law influence Fiona’s judgement but ultimately the decision she makes is hers alone.

The Children Act is a thoughtful novel and at just over 200 pages, it’s a quick and easy read.

[Disclosure: An ARC was made available by the publisher, Jonathan Cape, via Netgalley for the purpose of this review.]

Fiction For Autumn/Winter 2014

Cover Image Before I Go To Sleep by SJ WatersThere are so many good books around this year, it’s hard to keep pace. Here are a few of the selections I’ve made for my autumn / winter reading list.

SJ Watson’s debut novel Before I Go To Sleep is a thriller soon to hit screens in a movie starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It’s the story of woman with amnesia who wakes up each day not knowing where she is or who she can trust — including whether she can trust her husband, Ben. Usually it’s a good idea to read the book before you see the movie, so Before I Go To Sleep takes the number one spot on my To Be Read (TBR) list for September.

Ian McEwan now has more than 20 published books under his belt. Atonement (2001) and On Chesil Beach (2007) are probably my favourites. Of his more recent fiction, neither Solar (2010) nor Sweet Tooth (2012) held much appeal for me but the earlier works have stayed fresh in my mind and so The Children Act will certainly get a look.

While we await the final part of the trilogy that began with Wolf Hall and continued with Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel provides us with a collection of contemporary short stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

Cover Image Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary MantelSet in post-war London in 1922, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters tells the story of the Wrays — a mother and daughter — forced by economic necessity to take in paying guests with life changing consequences. Waters has a strong reputation and the blurb for this one promises tenderness, tension and a compelling story.

Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl is the story of a grandmother — Addie Baum — as recounted by her to her grand-daughter. Addie’s life spanned most of the twentieth century taking in events such as the Spanish Flu and two World Wars but essentially The Boston Girl is a family story and an ‘everywoman’ tale — warm and rich in empathy, it has a feel good impact that makes it hard to put down. One of those rare books that you hope will never end.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer — a novel about grief and mental illness written by a mental health nurse and published earlier this year to good reviews.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling is the second detective Corcmoran Strike crime novel — the first being The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Two Irish writers make it on to this list: The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry was published earlier this year and promises a haunting, sad read as Irish man Jack McNulty whose existence coincided with the founding of the Irish state and two world wars looks back on his life and loves. In October 2014, Colm Toibin’s new novel Nora Webster comes out. It’s the story of a 40-year old widow coming to terms with grief and finding independence and is set in County Wexford in the 1960s — a place and period Toibin has written about before.

I’ll be posting reviews here as I go and in the meantime, if you’re reading any of the above I’d love to hear from you!

 

Before I Go To Sleep — a powerful psychological thriller by SJ Watson

Memories define us.

So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep?

Cover Image Before I Go To Sleep by SJ WatsonI wanted to read Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson l before I went to see the movie which stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. It came highly recommended and for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. It reminded me a bit of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn in that it’s a page turner — at least for the first third of the book or so and then again in the final chapters.

It’s the story of a woman called Christine who lost her memory in a traumatic incident and now wakes up each day with no memory of the past. Christine’s life is necessarily narrow — her only two relationships for most of the book are with her husband Ben and with the mysterious Dr Nash. Christine uses a journal to record what she uncovers each day and her own writing becomes her only reliable guide to her past. But can she even trust herself?

Like Christine, the reader too is not sure who to believe. The seeds of mistrust are sown at the outset — the very first page in Christine’s journal says “Don’t trust Ben”. But is Christine a reliable narrator or is her journal made up of imagined events rather than real? What about the creepy Dr Nash? Can Christine’s former friend Claire be trusted? Who is lying and why?

As a tool, Christine’s journal works well bringing the reader with her as she slowly pieces together her past. Before I Go to Sleep is a powerful page turner — worth a look, particularly for readers who enjoyed Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

[Disclosure: A free copy of Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson was made available via Netgalley for the purpose of this review].

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant — a novel to share with all generations

CoverImage The Boston Girl by Anita DiamantThe Boston Girl is the story of a Jewish girl, born in 1900 to immigrant parents. It takes the form of an 85-year old grandmother — Addie Baum — talking to her 22-year old granddaughter, Ava. Structured in short chapters, The Boston Girl is an easy and comforting read that nevertheless touches on some significant themes and covers a period of tremendous political and social upheaval in the USA and around the world.

Amongst other experiences, Addie’s life span covers two world wars, changing attitudes to religion and race and the emergence of women’s rights. She sees these events not as a politician or from a position of power or influence but rather from the perspective of an ordinary woman living an ordinary life — working to earn her living adapting to the changes around her — always positive, always learning — working to maintain family relationships, sustain friendships and ultimately to build an independent life.

At its heart, The Boston Girl is a novel of family and friendship — rich in emotion and empathy and it is perhaps Addie’s intensely personal experiences that will hold the greatest resonance for most readers — whether that’s the youthful experience of falling for the flattery of a handsome but predatory young man, class and cultural sensitivities, friendship, the responsibilities and support of family — particularly siblings, the joy of finding love and happiness.

While not without troubles — and she has some serious troubles to contend with — Addie is a positive and optimistic character — likeable, wise, non-judgmental like the best of grandmothers. In telling the past, she is not sentimental nor does she seek to return to former days but instead she shares what she has learned always adapting, always looking to the future.

I enjoyed The Boston Girl enormously — for its subject matter, for its geographical setting, for the era 1900-1985 that it spans — most of all for the empathy and insights of its heroine, Addie Baum. A book to share with women of all ages.

[The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant is published by Scribner — a division of Simon & Schuster. Disclosure: An Advance Review Copy was made available by the publisher via Edelweiss for the purpose of this review]

See also The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.