What Do You Mean You Haven't Read...?

Galwegians recommend the best books to read during the coronavirus restrictions

Fred Johnston, poet, author, critic

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans

Fred Johnston

THE TITLE is from Sirach, one of the Old Testament Apocrypha: "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us.” James Agee became famed as a novelist, Evans a revered photographer, and this began as a piece of journalism.

The primary objective was to investigate the lives of poor white sharecroppers in America’s South after the Depression. Agee wrote a book of journalistic poetry complimented by Evans’ black-and-white photos. It sold badly; it was heavy going, spared nothing.

And Agee seems to have despised himself – and says so – for daring to interlope on the daily intimacies of these people. Impoverished Afro-Americans are mentioned too, but often, in the mouths of the white landlords, with lavish use of the ‘N’ word. In a way it curiously transcends racism. A landlord has some young Black men sing for him and berates them for not offering something uplifting - this in front of Agee and Evans.

Here are women whose many pregnancies have destroyed them, aged thirty-odd who look seventy. Agee pulls poetry out of every board and plank and nail, every play of light. “Four to six months of each year, in other words, (the sharecropper ) is much more likely than not to have nothing whatever: . . .”

In the Penguin Classics edition, Blake Morrison prefaces on Agee’s ‘style,’ his Joycean manner, his excursions into poetry and a quaint, almost 18th century use of syntax. Agee did not wish to ‘use’ his subjects, but move inside them, as it were, make them human beings and sustain them as such and not merely as documentary fodder. Nothing like it surfaced until ‘gonzo’ journalism and Hunter S Thompson.

Agee won a posthumous Pulitzer in 1958 for his novel, A Death in The Family. Evans made a failed attempt in Paris and Greenwich Village to be a writer. I doubt I should ever have written a line without this collaborative great work.

Maeve Mulrennan, visual arts officer, Galway Arts Centre

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Maeve Mulrennan

I CANNOT remember why I decided to buy this, but wish I had bought it sooner. Based on Ephron's real life marriage breakdown with Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame ), the reader is immediately embroiled in this intense relationship and early 1980s New York.

The book uses recipes and therapy to structure the story and to further describe characters. The protagonist, Rachel Samstat, discovers her husband's affair while seven months pregnant with their second child. This could be a misery-fuelled novel but it is hilarious. Rachel's friend Betty knows who the other woman is because she got her legs waxed when it wasn't Summer yet. When you know, you know.

The humour is balanced with prose to bolster the reader and is actually quite positive - which is why I selected it. She makes the decision to control the controllables. She talks about the 'happily ever after' being a false start and which leads her to think: "And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream."

Donal Lyons, Independent Galway City West councillor

Front Up, Rise Up - The Official Story of Connacht Rugby by Gerry Thornley

Donal Lyons

NOTHING BEATS attending sporting events. Live sport brings out every emotion possible as teams excel and face challenges throughout the seventy/eighty/ninety minutes of action.

Being an avid Connacht supporter, I know emotions can run high in the Sportsground. Front Up, Rise Up by Gerry Thornley tells the story of Connacht Rugby and the challenges and successes they have faced throughout their history. It tells the story of a province facing extinction in 2003 to one that took the rugby world by storm in the 2015-2016 season by winning the then Pro 12 Championship and everything else inbetween.

Connacht have an interesting history, quality players, and have had a host of big name managers (Warren Gatland, Michael Bradley, Eric Elwood, Pat Lam ) that have all added to helping the province survive and develop. While this book celebrates that epic 2015-2016 winning season, it shares the insights of players, former managers, and coaches about what it means to be part of the Connacht Clan.

This is a book you can dip in and out of with chapters on Bundee Aki, John Muldoon, and of course that famous trip to Krasnoyarsk. It also acts as a reminder of the achievements of all involved in Connacht Rugby culminating in that unforgettable day in Edinburgh. This is a definite read for Connacht and rugby fans alike. Hopefully we’ll all be back up in the Sportsground soon.


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