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Seanachie: A Boston Irish Storyteller and Part-Time Shaman

Books about place, magic, Faeries, Ireland, sex, God, and love

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New Orleans as It Was
Charles "Pie" Dufour, Henry C. Castellanos
New Orleans after the Civil War
Justin A. Nystrom
Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (complete: First & Second Series)
Isabella Augusta Persse (Lady Gregory)
Bright Dead Things: Poems
Ada Limon
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
Mark Manson
Desire: Poems
Frank Bidart
Selected Poems 1976-2012
Jorie Graham
An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry
Wes Davis (Editor)
I Am An Executioner: Love Stories
Rajesh Parameswaran
An Artist of the Floating World
Kazuo Ishiguro

The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction

The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction - Mary Gehman, Lloyd Dennis This history of free people of color is a mere introduction. Its scope is decidedly small and it is not a work of any original scholarship, as far as I could see. There is some interesting but undeveloped work at the end of the book as to what it means to be a Creole of color today, but the work on the antebellum period was derivative at best, and the post-war Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods received barely a nod of recognition. There are far better works on the free people of color of New Orleans, many mentioned in the extensive bibliography that is part of this work.

Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century

Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century - Thomas Ruys Smith With the caveat that I only read the antebellum portion of this very capable history of New Orleans, I found the work had a strong combination of facile and adept narrative and a wonderful particularity, which is the stuff of which great histories are made. This work is readable in a single sitting, but memorable for weeks after.

Slade House: A Novel

Slade House: A Novel - David Mitchell From the author of “Cloud Atlas” comes short, this highly imaginative and unconventional ghost story. Spanning approximately 36 years and five narrators (a miniature for this gifted writer), Slade House tells the story of a haunted house, the entrance to which appears only every five years on the last Saturday in October. The two living residents of the house lure in innocents to feast on their souls. Those lured in become paintings on the house’s walls. The novel traces five of these luring episodes during which the ghosts (for lack of a better word) of those lured in become progressively stronger and disrupt the residents’ soul feasting.

Mitchell’s particular talent is telling the same story essentially five times and having it each time be made new by the powerful voices of the separate narrators. That most narrators are the victims leaves him with the challenge of exposition, so we can better understand our villains. Occasionally, exposition becomes clunky (this is a fault not uncommon in Mitchell’s work, which is so imaginatively complex that much exposition is needed), but Mitchell rescues it in the end because his clunky exposition actually becomes part of the plot.

Highly recommended.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights - Salman Rushdie Not Salman Rushdie’s best effort. There was the usual mix of jinns, philosophers, religious figures, legends, characters of multiple backgrounds, God(s), fate, and storytelling a la "1001 Nights," but it felt like a mailed-in effort, because none of the normal characters around which all this imaginative machinery was deployed was him-or-herself particularly imaginative or even sympathetic. In addition, all too often it seemed Rushdie was winking at me from the page, so pleased with the joke he had just told, he wanted to make sure the reader didn’t miss his cleverness. In a word, it was a bit precious, without the intimacy of prior efforts.

Ostensibly, this is a retelling from the future of a war between powerful jinns taking place more or less in the present time. (The text is littered with references to terrible modern day events, from school shootings to Donald Trump.) Because the membrane between the other world of the jinns and the human world has weakened, the jinns conduct their war in the human world. The war begins with “strangenesses” in which the laws of physics of our world give way; for example, many characters no longer are fully subject to gravity and begin to float like balloons while others are crushed under a supergravity. The strangenesses give way to outright warfare.

The outcome of the war is never in doubt because of the structure of the novel, which is a little bit like a holy book recording the long ago clashes that made the present of the narrator more wonderful than the current world. In that future world, resort to God and religion has been rejected, but with its eradication has come the loss of dreams at night. While at certain points Rushdie manages to cleverly portray real life events of our own world as themselves “strangenesses,” where facts and science give way to opinion, lust, and the irrational, in my view, the novel never really achieved a coherent story or convinced me to care much about the human characters or various jinns.

The Stone Of Truth, And Other Irish Folk Tales

The Stone Of Truth, And Other Irish Folk Tales - Douglas Hyde A solid but slim collection of familiar and not-so-familiar Irish folktales, combining both anti-clericalism and at the same time a Christian moral framework one suspects did not exist in the original tales from which these were derived.

Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color

Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana's Free People of Color - Sybil Kein This university press collection of essays both historical and contemporary addresses multiple aspects of lives of free Creole people of color of New Orleans mainly in the nineteenth century with occasional jumps to the twentieth. Topics include food, labor, Marie Laveau, language, race, and many others. Perhaps the only poorly developed theme was that of religion; while reference is made to the mostly Catholic faith of the Creoles, the influence of African belief systems, and the influx of Anglo-American Protestants, no one essay explores how this interaction shaped the lives of the Creoles. The collection is marred by some academic gobbledy-gook substituting long tired words for analysis and occasional specious reasoning from the facts presented (for example, the author of one essay on “passing” as white stated boldly that most blacks who could “pass” did not want to … but then goes on to cite many counterexamples as well as economic data showing the gains to be made by so passing, which undermined the author’s conclusion). In general, however, this was a readable collection providing decent depth on the given topic and raises questions about a future more mixed-race America.

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans - Lawrence N. Powell I don’t typically judge a book by its acknowledgements, but the Accidental City had pages of acknowledgement so turgid that one suspected they were not driven by genuine gratitude or humility but instead by a swollen pride and self-regard. It was this tone that marred much of the good work in this history of New Orleans from its founding to the Battle of New Orleans. As an example, the author seemed not to trust the reader to remember allusions and characters referenced pages earlier and hence themes and anecdotes were repreated presumably to refresh the reader’s feeble imagination. This is no way to write a history.

The theme of The Accidental City is that New Orleans was an unlikely outcome of conflicting forces and outsized personalities. Very close readings of politically expedient marriages and French court intrigues are this history’s strength. Never was there a more obvious illustration that inner workings at power centers can have profound effects on far flung places like New Orleans, which was at the epicenter of European struggle for dominance among Spaniards, French, and English. The Accidental City is also good at tracing the effect of San Domingo and the slave rebellion of Toussaint L’Ouverture on the whole Caribbean trade.

All in all, I would deem it a solid work marred by a pompous tone and the occasional imposition of a form of cultural analysis decidedly academic, politically correct, and anachronistic.

Homegoing: A novel

Homegoing: A novel - Yaa Gyasi Homegoing is a brisk but relentlessly bleak saga of the diaspora from Western Africa occasioned by the slave trade. Each section is narrated by a different narrator, generation after generation, both by those who stayed in Africa and those who were sold into slavery in the U.S. No cartoon villainy is depicted here; the evil -- and it inheres in both black and white characters, male and female -- is widespread and the resulting shattering of families and severing of ties with ancestors leaves many characters marooned in their own time. The “homegoing” in the title is the ultimately successful redemptive attempt to reconnect.

The novel is obviously a product of great research. Each era is portrayed with daunting particularity. The relentless stream of unhappy endings is tempered only by the passing on of a black stone talisman from generation to generation, which -- though not the most original symbol -- has sufficient gravity to anchor the novel in a bit of hope.

The Gap of Time

The Gap of Time - Jeanette Winterson The Gap of Time is Jeannette Winterson’s retelling (“cover version” in her words) of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. She says stories have only three possible endings: tragedy, comedy, or forgiveness (“Happily Ever After is just a coda to one of these endings,” according to Winterson). In this version, Winterson amplifies the forgiveness, which she says is implicit in Shakespeare’s work.

This tells the tale of Leo, London-based venture fund Titan, who suspects his best friend (who is gay in orientation, but bisexual in practice) is sleeping with his best friend. His inchoate and unreasonable rage (bedroom webcams, murderous carpark chases, raping his very pregnant wife) leads to his new baby being orphaned and adopted by an African-American father and son in Louisiana. Fate being what it is, all the players in the original drama reunite when the girl turns eighteen with some traumatic and surprising results for all involved.

The novel has a brisk and sometimes breakneck pace, managing to leap years backward and forward seamlessly and maintain a sense of tension even where the results, as in Shakespeare, are inevitable. She manages to weave into the narrative multiple allusions to multiple texts, disquisitions on the plasticity of time, and above all, meditations on the power of fate.

Like her inspiration, Winterson loves genderbending and ranges of sexual orientation, which has been present in all her novels that I have read, and this one is no different. Similarly, while it begins anchored in the economic meltdown of 2008, most of the action takes place in a somewhat nondescript future not clearly of a different sort than or disjointed from our present, but somewhat indistinct--a commonplace in Winterson, where the exact setting -- like certain characters’ gender or orientation -- is never perfectly clear.

At times, the dialogue, particularly amongst the younger characters, is a bit stilted, but this is a brisk, generous work, and a due homage to the Bard.

Classic Irish Short Stories, Vol. 1

Classic Irish Short Stories, Vol. 1 - George Augustus Moore Solid collection of (somewhat dated) Irish shorts with characteristic Irish black humor, but maybe a "wee" too much of the use of stereotypical Irish accents rendered into print. My favorite was the last, a running feud between two village elders as to the proper location of a deceased neighbor's family burial plot, and the only semi-bereaved widow (a fourth wife of the deceased) finding much to admire in the gravedigger twins who put her late husband in the ground.

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Colson Whitehead Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad is marvelously inventive and fiercely told. Many have commented on his rendering of the Underground Railroad as an actual steam railroad, with engines fronted by cowcatchers, the occasional well-appointed passenger car, and secret depots under the earth all over the south manned by stationkeepers working at great peril from many walks of life. Even more inventive are the alternative realities of the various states at each station along the way, each of which appears to riff on actual historical events (e.g., Nightriders, the Tulsa race riot; eugenics). South Carolina is a place of federally sponsored Nego uplift with a dark secret. North Carolina is a place of dark genocide, a fingerpointing society of those who sacrifice their freedoms out of fear and are proud of it, and where abolition of slavery means the murder of dark skinned people and the importation of starving Irish to pick their cotton instead. Tennessee is largely lawless, and Indiana hosts an all-black farm where the residents live with dignity, culture, and its own library.

This novel is a brutal runaway tale, pitiless and bleak, but not without hope. Cora escapes from her Georgia farm, and is pursued and captured several times by the resolute slavetracker Ridgeway and his enigmatic well-dressed ten-year-old black sidekick Homer. Scarred by plantation life, Cora likes the sound of a world where justice triumphs in the end and her owner, overseers, and Ridgeway get their just rewards, but tells herself she doesn’t believe it. In the morning, she admits maybe she believes it a little bit.

The prose is workmanlike rather than lyrical; one suspects that, like Cora, Whitehead is a little suspicious of versifying, which sounds too much like prayer. Where Whitehead occasionally stumbles is the insertion of manifesto-like language untethered to and unspoken by a particular character. It mars the narrative and the events speak for themselves. They don’t need to be tied in oratorical bows, and, moreover, he depicts some eloquent speakers -- it would have been better to insert the oratory in their mouths.

All in all, however, this short novel makes you wish at the end that we saw more stops along Cora’s way, and yet confident such stops occurred and Cora lived through them, but on account of her experience has not yet built enough trust in the reader to share her secrets.

The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World

The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World - Thomas Keneally From the beloved author of Schindler’s List comes a sprawling account of the lives of dozens of Irish men (and some women) who fled or were transported from Ireland to farflung places, including principally the penal colonies of Australia, the United States, Central America, and Continental Europe. The story begins with one of Keneally’s own relatives by marriage, a minor figure named Hugh Larkin who is meant to typify the Irish in his relative anonymity, his revolutionary tendencies, his forced family-separating transportation, and his new life abroad (including a new wife and family). Quickly, however, the stories Keneally retells are those of the more famous: John Mitchell, William Smith-Obrien, the poet Esperanza and her son Oscar Wilde, Thomas Meagher, John Boyle O’Reilly, Charles Stewart Parnell and dozens of other familiar names. Keneally is a magnificent juggler; for the most part he manages to keep all the balls in the air as he tells these interwoven stories over the decades from the 1820s into the early 20th century. Certain accounts are riveting; the elaborately plotted escape of six Fenians from the penal colony aboard a New Bedford whaler is a tale of great suspense. Other choices seemed a little odd: a minute-by-minute account of the last hours of John Boyle O’Reilly lacked both tension and interest. This sprawling tome needed an editor. (Indeed, the text was marred by careless grammar errors, such as the use of the phrase court martials instead of courts martial.)

Keneally has made great use of original sources, from which he recites at length, and he is a master at deploying particulars to convey a sense of the whole -- at times, however, one wondered whether continuously referring to one member of the diaspora as "Saint Kevin" from beginning to end was a bit laborious and I wasn't sure I needed to hear about the (sad) end of every single one of his offspring, no matter how tangential to the history.

The title and subtitle were also confusing. While Keneally attempts to explain the use of the word “shame” in an afterword, one does not sense in his retelling either shame concerning the failure to build an Irish state or survivor’s guilt. Indeed, I read more frustration than shame into these stories -- primarily at the unending streak of factionalism and backstabbing that typified every effort to launch a free Ireland in the period. As for “triumph” of the Irish in the English-speaking world, the lives told were indeed in some cases very successful and even redemptive, but as many ended in the gutter dead of alcoholism or its complications. Triumph did not seem like le mot juste for this disparate collection of lives.

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square - Ned Sublette From Ned Sublette comes a lively, rollicking recounting of the three histories of New Orleans: French, Spanish, and American. Covering the earliest days of the city through the first quarter century or so of the Nineteenth Century, Sublette’s is detailed, nuanced work, focusing particularly on the connections between La Nouvelle Orleans and Havana and Saint Domingo. Drawing the musical and spiritual connections between the three locations and their roots in West Africa, Sublette describes the interplay of cultures and the central role of free people of color in the burgeoning port as well as the world-wide political events that influenced the city’s history.

Sublette’s technique is the opposite of dry history; it is told in a louche, mischievous voice that occasionally slips into the first person and draws incisive connections between historical events and those more contemporary, such as Hurricane Katrina. Sublette’s sorrow over the displacement of residents and disruption of (especially black) culture post-Katrina causes him to get a bit lost in the out-of-place coda to the book; here, the narrative loses a little force due to nostalgia. But overall, Sublette, a New Yorker but Louisiana native gives us an admirable and entertaining work about America’s most interesting city.

The Infinitesimals

The Infinitesimals - Laura Kasischke This collection contains domestic poetry that is at once brusque, argumentative, and beautiful. She is a poet of particulars, which are familiar and yet just subtly off true (infinitesimally unexpected) in a way that gives pause and reflection:

A familiar sweater in a garbage can
A surgeon bent over our baby, wearing a mask

Highly recommended.

Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans

Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans - Michael D. Pierson The lack of actual evidence from the mutineers at Fort Jackson forces this author to guess and speculate based on other contemporary evidence about other phenomena besides the mutiny, such as life in New Orleans and other instances in which confederate troops threw in the towel. It appears there was a reason no other writer addressed the topic of the mutiny: because there isn’t enough evidence to put together a convincing case to back a thesis one way or the other -- and virtually nothing to indicate the mutineers’ motives or sympathies.

Ultimately, the book devolves into a mass of maybes and guesses and conclusions that are poorly supported with evidence. For example, the author seemed particularly intent on showing that the residents of New Orleans were not uniformly or enthusiastically behind the confederate cause, but the stats cited (7.5% of Union recruits in New Orleans were southern born) did not seem to support the case and, in fact, seemed to suggest strong support for the Confederate cause. Further, the author drew the conclusion that there must have been sympathy for the Union and its philosophy when the facts cited equally supported a different conclusion: that the actions cited by the author showed a populace driven by hunger and poverty, not politics.

The book's one distinguishing feature was the defense of Benjamin Butler as a ruler over captured New Orleans. Butler is nearly uniformly presented as an overly harsh disciplinarian. Pierson persuasively argues that Butler's dispensation of patronage, his focus on the under classes, and his use of political theater (however brutal) was effective in firming the Union hold on New Orleans with far-reaching consequences on the outcome of the war.

The Louisiana Irish

The Louisiana Irish - Margaret Varnell Clark A very basic, workable introduction to only the most well-known tales of Louisiana Irish history -- at once a bland, surface treatment and at other times much too much information about the multiple and simultaneous marriages and courtships of certain colonial era rogues of Irish extraction. Each chapter addresses a different historical figure or topic, so it doesn't proceed in a chronological way. The author even admits at the end that she has only scraped the surface, but somehow doesn't elicit a desire to learn more about the Louisiana Irish.