A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters | Review

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters is the most unusual book I’ve read this year. Thinking about this review, I tried to come up with a novel to compare it to and the only one I can think of is Tristram Shandy.

Like Sterne’s novel, A Life Discarded is curious and whimsical. It’s a much shorter work than Tristram Shandy though and, to me, that’s a good thing.

It was the description of A Life Discarded that first caught my attention. A biographical detective story based on diaries found in a skip sounded  intriguing.

The diarist is a young woman, interested in the arts and apparently a bit eccentric. She writes a lot — thousands of words every week — and her notebooks are illustrated with occasional drawings.

Much of her writing is about how she isn’t exploiting her talent for writing. This is partly because the diaries take up time that she could spend more creatively. Somewhere, the narrator admits he spent five years “studying diaries nobody wants in which nothing happens”. However, don’t let that put you off because, if anything, that’s kind of the point of A Life Discarded.

“Writing destroyed her writing”

It took me a while to get into this book. This was because, initially, I found it frustrating that the narrator didn’t put the diaries into chronological order and get on with cracking the case.

As the book progressed, I began to see method in the narrator’s madness. But I still questioned whether I wanted to continue reading because neither the diarist nor the narrator captured my interest.

However, the idea on which the book is based held my attention, perhaps more than the quirkiness of the writing. So, by the end, I found it an easier read and felt that, at least partly, I understood what the author was trying to achieve.

[Disclosure: I received a digital review copy of A Life Discarded by via Netgalley]

If you enjoy biographies/autobiographies, here are a few other titles reviewed on izzyreads.com

The Third Daughter | Eileen O’Mara Walsh Memoir

This Eileen O’Mara Walsh Memoir — The Third Daughter : A Retrospective — is an intimate and conversational account of the personal and professional life of one of Ireland’s best-known business women.

O’Mara Walsh’s achievements include stints chairing the board of Great Southern Hotels (1984-1999) and the Irish state agency Forbairt (1993-1998) as well as founding the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation in the mid-1980s.

Born in Limerick in the early 1940s, O’Mara Walsh was the daughter of a War of Independence verteran, Power O’Mara and his English socialist wife, Joan Follwell.

Follwell, who features strongly in the early chapters of The Third Daughter, was a protegée of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell and would have a lasting influence on her daughter’s life:

“When I think of my parents, my mother always comes first to mind and is still a constant commentator, mentor and arbiter against whose taste, judgment, beliefs and prejudices I measure both myself and the world around me.”

Power O’Mara, the son of an operatic tenor, came from a wealthy merchant family in Limerick but the family’s wealth had diminished and, in 1953, he moved the family from Limerick to Dublin.

In the 1950s, Dublin was home to a cast of colourful characters such as the writer Brendan Behan, poet Patrick Kavanagh and artist Seán O’Sullivan. O’Mara Walsh’s memoir shows how she encountered them all — and many others — in the city pubs. Her lifestyle was bohemian and she enjoyed remarkable freedom as a young girl and developed an affinity for the arts that would remain with her throughout her life.

Love interests

At 18, she moved to London to work and subsequently lived in Paris. There she recounts details of her love interests including a significant relationship with the French artist, Pierre Catzeflis.

But for all that her personal life was colourful, it is her business life that produces some of the best anecdotes in this O’Mara Walsh memoir. For example, she tells how shortly after she established her company, O’Mara Travel, a French travel agent asked her to put together the itinerary for a garden tour in Ireland. It transpired that the tour was for the Garden Club of Monaco and included in the party was none other than Princess Grace. O’Mara Walsh recounts an hilarious anecdote about some formally attired dignitaries gatecrashing an informal evening of Irish music and dinner attended by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace at the Abbey Tavern in Howth.

Politicians too make an appearance among the colourful cast. Charles Haughey turns up in Chapter 24 along with Ruari Quinn and Des O’Malley but it’s an HR executive from one of the large accountancy firms who provoked the sharpest response.  O’Mara Walsh — then Board Chairman of Great Southern Hotels — had engaged the firm to hire a Chief Executive and the HR executive made the mistake of calling her ‘love’

“You may call me Eileen, Ms O’ Mara Walsh or even Madam Chairman, but never again address me by ‘love’.

Throughout her adult life, O’Mara Walsh’s most significant personal relationship was with the Irish artist Owen Walsh with whom she had a son. Although their relationship ended, they remained close and she writes movingly of caring for him in the weeks leading up to his death in June 2002. The memoir closes with his passing.

The Third Daughter : A Retrospective by Eileen O’Mara Walsh is published by Lilliput Press. [Disclosure: a copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.]

Brian Lenihan Biography — In Calm and Crisis

This Brian Lenihan biography is more a series of reflections and memories than a biography in the true sense of that word. Although some criticised Lenihan’s decisions as Ireland’s Finance Minister, his dignity won widespread respect.

For the most part this collection of essays reflects that admiration. The essayists are by Lenihan’s former colleagues. Family and friends recall personal, political and professional aspects of his life and career, particularly his final years.

Lenihan became Finance Minister at a time of intense difficulty for the Irish economy. He faced extraordinary pressures compounded by personal difficulties when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Questions from that period remain.  Although the recollections in this biography provide interesting insights, essentially, this is a collection of personal tributes.

Contributors to this Brian Lenihan biography

There are brief contributions by Jim Flaherty, Former Canadian Finance Minister and Christine Lagarde, former French Finance Minister. Mary O’Rourke, Paul Gallagher provide personal recollections while Eamon Ryan’s contribution is more circumstantial.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution is by former Irish Finance Minister, Ray McSharry. In a chapter titled ‘The Poisoned Chalice’ McSharry says that Lenihan and Cowen saved the euro. However, they failed to use the leverage that gave them, McSharry suggests.

“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 Alan Ahearne Patrick Honahan, 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.

Striking a balance for the greater good

The Appendices in this Brian Lenihan biography include Dáil tributes following Lenihan’s death. Also included is the text of Lenihan’s Michael Collins Commemorative Lecture at Beal na Bláth on 22 August 2010.

In that speech, Lenihan 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.