Our best books for Christmas reading
By Laura Hillenbrand
SANTY will probably bring me the new biography of Dickens Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, but my biography recommendation of the year is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. This is a remarkable tale of war and redemption, with a difference. This biography of Louis Zamperini is not just confined to his years as an airman and a prisoner of war during WWII but takes the reader through his remarkable and remarkably long life.
Zamperini was a gifted athlete who competed in the 1936 Olympics and, ironically, given that it was torture and abuse at the hands of his Japanese captors that ended his athletic career, he was marked as the man to break the elusive four-minute mile in the scheduled 1940 Tokyo Olympics.
The most interesting aspect of this fine book is that it is not a tale of derring-do, escape bids and stiff-upper-lip Bridge On the River Kwai japes that comes to an abrupt end when the war does and our heroes are rescued.
The book follows the process of dehumanisation that turned a fine athlete into a wreck of a human being who was lucky to reach the end of the war alive, and also looks at how he coped with his return to civilian life and dealt with the trauma he, like so many other survivors, carried home with him. Highly recommended.
HOW IRELAND REALLY WENT BUST
By Matt Cooper
IF you’ve ever been talking when you should have been listening you might have experienced waking up with a crowd around you and asking them “what happened?”
For those of you recovering from the economic KO, Matt Cooper is probably the best man to tell you what happened.
Strangely, his account of how the country was run into the ground and how we lost our economic sovereignty is an eminently readable book. I’ve read a fair few similar accounts and this is the first I’ve come across that didn’t necessitate a defibrillator on the couch beside me as I read.
He doesn’t gild the lily, but spells out in a calm, measured and digestible way for the non-egghead reader just how we reached our sorry impasse. Without a doubt, the best account I have come across.
THE EIGHTY-FIVE BILLION EURO MAN
By Donal Conaty
Y Books €14
GENUINELY funny books are as rare as hen’s teeth but I hit pay dirt recently with one of the best I’ve ever come across.
Donal Conaty’s The Eighty-Five Billion Euro Man is a marvellously satirical take on our IMF bailout and the clowns who made it all not only possible, but necessary. It would dovetail wonderfully well with Matt Cooper’s more sober book.
This is the tale of Ireland’s woes told through the eyes of an IMF watchdog left behind by Ajai Chopra to put manners on the Department of Finance and its unreconstructed head, Dermot Mulhearn.
Dermot is a terrifying caricature of a top civil servant, at least we can only so. If he bears any resemblance to reality then we’re in worse trouble than we thought.
This is a man who sees no need for any cutbacks that would impinge on his or his cronies’ habit of living well off the public purse.
The politics are spot on — think Gene Kerrigan in malevolent mode. The economic commentary is David McWilliams in party mode and the insight into our native court eunuchs who hold the real power in this pathetic excuse for a democracy is Fintan O’Toole at his best. Throw in a good dollop of Miriam Lord and Kevin Myers and you’ll get a flavour of what’s in store.
STEVE Earle is best known around these parts as the author of the song Galway Girl but he also penned my favourite fiction read of the year, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
This is the story of a morphine-addicted, struck off doctor, who is haunted by the ghost of none other than Hank Williams.
Doc, as he is universally known in the San Antonio slum where he resides, is a hopeless hop-head, as morphine addicts were termed back then. This is 1963 Texas and the Doc requires regular shots to keep himself steady to carry out his trade.
For those of you who think this sounds like a jolly trip through a country music catalogue, stop here. Doc works far off the wrong side of the tracks. He’s an abortionist who services the prostitutes of his district. As a sideline he sows up knife wounds and patches bullet holes acquired by those who can’t show up in A&E.
Then a mysterious Mexican girl and a priest from Letterfrack enter the picture and matters take a bizarre twist. A fine read for the fireside.
For true Western aficionados, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is definitely one for the collection. However, this is not for sissies who go in for that soppy stuff involving shooting the gun out of the baddie’s hand and letting him walk away to mend his evil ways. No this is shoot him in the back and rob his wallet while he’s dying territory. As for singing cowboys and kissers, they wouldn’t last the morning.
This is in the Cormac McCarthy range, not the gentlemanly range trod by Louis L’Amour. The man with no name as opposed to a name like Roy Rogers. You have been warned.
CRIMEA — The Last Crusade
By Orlando Figes
THE Crimean War (1854-56) is chiefly remembered for two of its sideshows — the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Lady of the Lamp, Florence Nightingale. This is chiefly because these were the stories the popular media zoomed in on.
Crimea was the first media war. It was covered by correspondents sent out by the major British and French newspapers as well as Russian journalists on the other side. It was the first war to be photographed and the first time the general public were made aware of the conditions on the ground for the men who fought it. Best known of the correspondents was Irishman William Russell who informed the readers of The Times of the bungling of the officer class and the dreadful conditions the troops suffered.
Writing across the lines from him was a young Russian officer named Leo Tolstoy and Orlando Figes makes ample use of his dispatches in his Crimea — The Last Crusade.
Orlando Figes not only presents this incredibly brutal conflict in all its military detail, but he also sets it in the context of the geopolitics of the age and the impact it had on shaping the future of Europe.
THE MISSING POSTMAN
By Fachtna Ó Drisceoil
I’VE JUST finished reading this absorbing account of a murder mystery that began on Christmas Day 1929 in the village of Stradbally, Co Waterford. Postman Larry Griffin disappeared on his rounds (they delivered post on Christmas Day back then), and a community cast a cloak of secrecy over the scandal.
The Gardai were both obsessed with solving the case and very closely implicated in the crime. This is a fascinating slice of social history. At one stage there were a number of Stradbally Gardai, the school teacher, a publican and a few farmers in prison charged with the postman’s murder.
But the wall of silence couldn’t be broken and the case was thrown out. What was broken were the careers of a number of Gardai, a few hapless witnesses, who were ostracised, and, of course, Larry Griffins’s wife and family.
This is post-Civil War Ireland where divisions still ran very deep. It’s all here. Politics, mystery, class divisions, court cases, botched investigations, personal stories. LP Hartley said “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” On reading this fine account of these events, I wonder. Highly recommended.
By Maureen Gaffney
I’M not a great fan of the literary snake oil salesmen and women who churn out self-help tosh to exploit a gullible public. But cynic that I am, I’m very impressed with Flourishing by Maureen Gaffney. Gaffney is a well-known psychologist who never seems to be off the airwaves, but she’s definitely someone who has a lot to say that is relevant to the predicament we now find ourselves in.
Working on the premise that serious research has whittled out the dross over the years, she delves in detail into what methods have been found to work when it comes to promoting confidence, optimism and the “flourishing” of the title.
This book may be a little academic for some addicted to the quick-fix, feel-good factor peddled by the merchant princes of the self-help industry, but if you can stay with it you’ll find plenty of solace here. A rational approach that serves as an antidote to the all-pervasive pessimism and gloom we are engulfed in.
ATLAS OF THE IRISH RURAL LANDSCAPE
Cork University Press €59
THIS is something very special, which I hope Santy will have room for this year. The controversial reference in it to the phenomenon of “muck mansions” that spread like a fungus over the countryside during the Celtic Tiger years has drawn a lot of media comment, which was possibly the intention.
I haven’t come across any travel book that I really covet this year, a very unusual situation for me, so I’ll opt for this beautiful and informative book instead.
This is a major update of this bestselling work on the Irish landscape. When it appeared in 1997, it was hailed as a pioneering work aimed at increasing appreciation of the Irish landscape as a crucial component of our national heritage.
For those with any interest in the landscape, or indeed the evolving social history of this country, this volume is a treasure trove of information and knowledge.
It’s not cheap, but it’s a collector’s item, and the quality of the publication is second to none.
Happy Christmas reading to you all.