Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’Toole

Review: We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Fintan O’TooleWe Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole
Published by Liveright ISBN: 1631496530
on March 15, 2022
Genres: History, Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 624
Format: E-Book, eBook
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Goodreads
five-stars

A quarter-century after Frank McCourt’s extraordinary bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, Fintan O’Toole, one of the Anglophone world’s most consummate stylists, continues the narrative of modern Ireland into our own time. O’Toole was born in the year the revolution began. It was 1958, and the Irish government—in despair, because all the young people were leaving—opened the country to foreign investment. So began a decades-long, ongoing experiment with Irish national identity. Weaving his own experiences into this account of Irish social, cultural, and economic change, O’Toole shows how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a Catholic “backwater” to an almost totally open society. A sympathetic-yet-exacting observer, O’Toole shrewdly weighs more than sixty years of globalization, delving into the violence of the Troubles and depicting, in biting detail, the astonishing collapse of the once-supreme Irish Catholic Church. The result is a stunning work of memoir and national history that reveals how the two modes are inextricable for all of us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a great deal. As O’Toole argues in the Acknowledgments (and also in speaking engagements), his “life is too boring for a memoir and there is no shortage of modern Irish history” (587). So he combined the two and described the changes Ireland has undergone while sharing his personal stories and anecdotes as well as connections to and recollections of those events. The result is a thoroughly engaging read.

I appreciated O’Toole’s facility with a turn of phrase as much as his skill with organizing his ideas. I was glad I read the book on Kindle, as it’s a hefty tome at more than 600 pages, but I also felt freer to highlight and otherwise markup the text. O’Toole’s central argument is that Ireland has attempted to operate under a “doubleness… [a] permanent state of contradiction” (33) that O’Toole describes throughout the book as “a society that had developed an extraordinary capacity for cognitive disjunction, a genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time” (168). This capacity, O’Toole argues, prevented Ireland from progressing socially until the 1990s and from progressing economically until roughly the same time. The abuses of the Irish Catholic Church came to light in the 1990s, and O’Toole sees this as no coincidence. As I read, I kept thinking of how Sinéad O’Connor tried to cast light on these abuses and was ostracized and criticized for telling the truth. Ireland’s capacity to both know abuses were happening and pretend they were not resulted in mass emigration and trauma, but O’Toole believes Ireland may have “reached the point of accepting that half-knowledge—the ability to see clearly what is, while also acknowledging what is dark—is better than the swinging between the pretence of knowing everything and the denial of what you really do know” (569).

O’Toole thoroughly covers many major events in Irish history over the last 60 or so years, and I was especially interested in reading about the Troubles. One of my earliest memories of a news story that captured my attention was the hunger strikes in the early 1980s. I just couldn’t fathom how someone might stop eating to protest. I had a very simplistic understanding of the Troubles until recently. O’Toole argues that at least in part, admiration for martyrdom prolonged the Troubles. O’Toole explains that the hunger strikes were a part of this mindset: “We sacrifice ourselves. By doing so we show that life itself—including your life—is not the ultimate value” (325).  Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t get a pass. O’Toole criticizes the UK’s lack of understanding and treatment of the prisoners during the hunger strike. O’Toole says if the British government had allowed the IRA prisoners to wear their own clothes “a year earlier, dozens of people, inside and outside the prison, would not have died” (335).

I first heard about this book from a book review by Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic. The review intrigued me, so I purchased the book for my Kindle. I had a feeling I’d want to own this one and mark it up well. I have been on spring break for the last two weeks, and I wanted to go into Boston and get a library card from the Boston Public Library, so I visited their website to find out the requirements. The website advertised that Fintan O’Toole would be giving a talk about his new book at the library on Friday, March 18. It seemed like kismet. My son and I rode the train into Boston and enjoyed a great day wandering around the city, culminating our visit with a library visit to hear O’Toole speak. I was fascinated to hear him discuss his frustration with Brexit. He said that no consideration had been given to Northern Ireland in Brexit at all, but as he explained it, citizens of Northern Ireland are free to define themselves as Irish, English, or both. I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know that they can rejoin the Republic of Ireland any time a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland decide they want to. I think it will be very interesting to watch how Ireland’s future unfolds, especially now that Brexit means the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is an EU border as well.

five-stars

February Reviews

I fell a little behind in reviewing books. It seems like January and February are always the busiest months at my school. I finished three books in February and early March, some of which I counted for reading challenges.

February ReviewsCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Published by Random House ISBN: 0593230256
on August 4, 2020
Pages: 496
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

While Wilkerson’s analogy between caste and race has been criticized, I found this book very interesting and illuminating. I agree with some of Charisse Burden-Stelly’s arguments in the article I linked. I don’t know enough to argue either for or against thinking of the U.S. as a race-based caste system, but it was interesting to see the ways in which the Indian caste system, the Nazi regime, and America’s racism were similar in construction. I will also add that it’s important to be cautious about comparing any system to Nazi Germany. The Nazis killed 11 million people. I would never argue that American racism or India’s caste system haven’t been deadly. Of course they have. As Sunil Khilnani argues in an article for The New Yorker, “Applying a single abstraction to multiple realities inevitably creates friction—sometimes productive, sometimes not. In the book’s comparison of the Third Reich to India and America, for example, a rather jarring distinction is set aside: the final objective of Nazi ideology was to eliminate Jewish people, not just to subordinate them.” In spite of these valid critiques, I found the book interesting, and I recommend it to people who want to understand racism.

February ReviewsJohn Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
Published by Yale University Press ISBN: 0300124651
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Pages: 446
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats's entire life, from his early years at Keats's Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats's poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.

Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats's childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats's father, his mother's too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats's doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

I checked this book out of my local library, and as I was writing this post, I discovered I must have purchased it about nine years ago. At any rate, Amazon says I did. I have no memory of buying it, and I could not tell you where it might be. However, I’m glad to learn that I have a copy of this book somewhere because I really enjoyed it. Nicholas Roe is extremely thorough. I have to admit I was really waiting to get to the part when Keats met Fanny Brawne. I have a girl crush on Fanny Brawne. However, I enjoyed meeting the Keats who emerges from the pages of Roe’s biography. The biggest scandal stirred up by this particular book was Roe’s speculation that Keats was an opium addict, or at least that he dosed himself with laudanum. I didn’t find that particularly shocking. If it’s true, Keats joined a great number of other people living in his era (and for that matter, our own, as we’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic). One aspect of Keats’s story that really struck me was that he knew immediately that he was dying when he contracted tuberculosis because of his medical training. He identified the blood sputum as “arterial blood.” How horrible it must have been to be a young man, just discovering his genius as a writer, only to understand he would not live. No wonder he wrote this remarkable poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I’d love to read more literary biographies like this one. My one quibble with the book is that it had two image collections, including pictures of many people and places important to Keats, but no pictures of Keats. I mentioned this complaint on Twitter, and a writer acquaintance of mine said it might be true that Roe couldn’t afford pictures of Keats. When I asked if his press couldn’t have helped with that, she said maybe not. I find that to be puzzling, if true, especially as Roe describes some of the more famous images of Keats. I would think he’d want to have copies of those images, at least, in the book.

February ReviewsIreland by Frank Delaney
Narrator: Frank Delaney
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0060838833
on February 1, 2005
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 19 hours and 29 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

From a land famous for storytelling comes an epic novel of Ireland that captures the intimate, passionate texture of the Irish spirit.

One evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller arrives unannounced at a house in the Irish countryside. In exchange for a bed and a warm meal, he invites his hosts and their neighbors to join him by the wintry fireside, and begins to tell formative stories of Ireland’s history. Ronan, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the storytelling that, when the old man leaves abruptly under mysterious circumstances, the boy devotes himself to finding him again.

Ronan’s search for the Storyteller becomes both a journey of self-discovery, long unspoken family secrets, and an immersion into the sometimes conflicting histories of his native land. A sweeping novel of huge ambition, Ireland is the beautifully told story of a remarkable nation. It rings with the truth of a writer passionate about his country and in full command of his craft.

This book was utterly charming! I put out a call on Twitter for books set in Ireland, and everyone was recommending Tana French. I am not opposed to mystery or thrillers. I read them sometimes. But I was looking for this book, which no one was recommending—I found it on my own. I wanted to read something that captured the place and its people. Delaney was a fantastic narrator, and the book was shot through with humor. When I initially saw how long the audiobook was, I was nervous about finishing it before it was due to the library. I was only able to borrow it for 14 days, and it’s over 19 hours long! But I needn’t have worried. I was looking for excuses to listen to it. Part travelogue, part history, part myth, and all story, Ireland is highly recommended for anyone who wants to travel to Ireland through a book. It’s one of the most delightful books I have read in a long time. I won’t give away the ending, but I appreciated the direction Delaney took it.

I’m going to make an effort to finish writing reviews a bit more quickly, but we’re all caught up for now.

Review: U2 by U2, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr.

Review: U2 by U2, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr.U2 by U2 by U2, U2
Published by It Books ISBN: 006190385X
on December 1, 2009
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 460
Format: Paperback
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Goodreads
five-stars

U2 by U2 is the only definitive, official history of one of the most famous bands in the world, by the members of the band themselves. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen offer a unique, insightful account of everything fans want to know, from U2's birth 25 years ago and its evolution to become the biggest band in the world to their personal dramas and successes to the politics and emotions that drive them and their music. As cool, elegant, and exciting as the band itself, U2 by U2 is a must-have for any music fan's collection.

It’s pretty cool right now, at least from what I can tell online, to dislike U2. Anytime I read comments on any articles about them, it seems like people really can’t stand them—Bono, in particular, is referred to quite often by the sobriquet “wanker.” I can’t figure out why, nor does it square with my experience of going to two U2 concerts, both sold out. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and they were excellent performances. As far as I can tell, there are several reasons why people seem sour on U2: 1) they’re successful and have been for a really long time, 2) they are politically involved (though, to be fair, they always have been, so to be mad about it now seems disingenuous), and 3) they gave their album Songs of Innocence away for free to all iTunes users (I mean really, you don’t want it, just delete it). Maybe I’m missing some reasons, but these seem to be either the entire text or the subtext of all of the negative comments I have read.

I remember seeing their video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when it was on heavy rotation on MTV, soon after the single came out. I was intrigued because I knew this band was playing at Red Rocks, which is a natural amphitheater near Denver. I lived near Denver at the time and had been to Red Rocks, albeit not for a concert. It’s a really cool place, and as I lived in a “flyover” state (or that’s how it seemed to me at the time) and didn’t see my home reflected in media, this band playing at a venue I knew, a place I had been, intrigued me. It was a way of saying that my home existed apart from New York or California, which seemed to be all I ever heard about.

So I started paying attention.

And I noticed that I liked them, but this was before I was really buying my own music. When The Joshua Tree came out, I was fascinated. I loved their videos for that album. MTV was always on because I was in high school by then, and I loved that album. But I still didn’t own it yet because I was sort of running with the heavy metal kids, and I was sure it wouldn’t be considered cool. I know now how stupid that was, obviously, and I wish I could say I was the sort of person who never cared what people thought, but a judicious rejection of what others think is a relatively late development for me.

My French teacher used to play U2 music for us over the language lab headphones. I remember her saying “I don’t care if it’s your taste, it’s mine.” I loved those days. I probably never told her I appreciated it.

And then they released Achtung Baby, which was great, but they were acting kind of weird after that, and I wasn’t sure what had happened. As the 90’s rolled on, and a lot of what I heard them releasing didn’t appeal to me, I admit I didn’t pay as much attention, but my tape of The Joshua Tree was on heavy rotation during commutes in the late 1990’s. I was glad they sort of outgrew that “techno” phase and decided to play more to their strengths. To this day, I own all their entire albums except for Zooropa and Pop. Every once in a while, I will look on iTunes and see if I want the rest, and nope, still don’t. That’s not to say I don’t go back and give some songs a second chance. I have done that and discovered I actually like them. There are some gems on those albums, but there are also a lot of forgettable and plain, well, bad songs on them, too. I can appreciate they were trying to experiment, but I personally think they forgot what people liked about them.

The reason for this long introduction is to explain why I read this book. I was curious as to what made this band tick, how they came up with some of their ideas, how they managed to stay together so long (an apparently still seemed to like each other), and what exactly happened to them in the 90’s. The book is really written by music journalist Neil McCormick, whose interviewed the band and collected snippets from the band members’ own voices, starting at the very beginning and ending around 2006. If you’re thinking of reading, be prepared for the fact that there are a good twelve years not covered (to date), including three albums and the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree tour as well as the tribute album Ahk-toong Bay-bi Covered, which features the entire Achtung Baby album covered by artists like Jack White, Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, Depeche Mode, and Garbage. (I would have liked to have heard what the band thought of that tribute album.) In addition, their longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, has since passed away, and his voice contributes much of the story in this book. Their reflections on his passing, therefore, are also missing.

One big thing I learned is that the band should listen to Larry Mullen, Jr. more. He seems to have the most solid instincts about what will work, and it seems pretty clear to me that they didn’t listen to him as much as they should have in the 90’s.

If you’re a fan, you will learn pretty much whatever you’d like to know from this book. If you’re not a fan, I wouldn’t recommend this book. It won’t necessarily convert you if you’re among the group of people I mentioned at the beginning of my review. However, if you do love the band as much as I do, you will enjoy reading about how their albums came to be, and their reflections and recollections will make for an enjoyable excursion, especially if you were with them part of most of the way on their journey.

five-stars