Monday, April 19, 2010

Book of the Decade

The fifty best Irish books of the decade have been announced, and they are to go before a public vote to decide on a winner. An Spailpín Fánach has been going through the shortlist and it makes for interesting analysis.

Of the fifty books, thirty-three are fiction. This further breaks down as twenty-one literary fiction, nine popular fiction and two mysteries with one book, With My Lazy Eye by Julia Kelly, that seems to defy easy classification. An Spailpín hasn’t read the book and sees no good reason to do so; therefore, Ms Kelly will have to settle for an asterisk I’m afraid. Better than nothing.

Of the seventeen books remaining there are five memoirs, three children’s books, two sports books (both soccer; more of that anon), five history/sociology and two volumes of short stories. There are no books in Irish, not even for the sake of tokenism, and poetry is also absent from the list. (Tuilleadh faoi leabhair Ghaeilge níos déanaí, nuair atá an You Tube faoi smacht ceart agam).

Of those fifty books there are thirty-three in which your correspondent has no interest whatsoever, six that I respect but either haven’t read or have no plans to read, five I never even heard of (all of which I’ve categorised at literary fiction, which may be a tale in itself), two I bought but haven’t yet got around to reading yet, Miss Kelly’s whom nobody seems to know is either fish or fowl, two I have grave doubts about and only one which I’ve actually read and liked.

I can understand why The Builders, by Kathy Sheridan and Frank McDonald is on the list, considering the influence the same demographic has had on the country in the past number of years. But a little like the “angry men” of O’Toole, Cooper, Ross and Pat Leahy, I’m not at all sure this book will tell me anything I don’t already know.

I don’t remember anything from The Builders causing a ripple on its publication (the way Andrew Rawsley’s book on the British Labour Party caused a ripple across the way, for instance), and this would suggest that it may be what no book on a list of Best Books of a Decade should be: boring.

The sports books are very disappointing. Paul McGrath’s book is fair enough, but it’s as much a personal memoir of one man’s battle with the bottle as it is a sports book proper. The inclusion of Eamon Dunphy’s Roy Keane book, however, is very hard to justify.

The Irish Book Awards website is correct in assessing Roy Keane as a significant figure of contemporary Irish but that does not mean that the book is worthy of the man, any more than either of Brian O’Driscoll’s two autobiographies are worthy of him.

Ghost-writing is often derided as a skill but it is very much a skill, especially when ghosting for so multi-faceted a personality as Roy Keane. Paul Kimmage and Tom Humphries are the two best sports ghosts we have, and either would have written a better book.

Eamon Dunphy failed to sublimate his own ego – which does not sublimate easily, of course – in writing Keane. Read the passages about Saipan or Alf Inge Haaland aloud and after a few sentences you find yourself doing your best Eamon Dunphy impression. That makes the book a failure, and that should disqualify it from this list.

On the broader sports front, I posted here some weeks ago that this has been the best decade for GAA books ever, with some outstanding work in what is by no means a full field. For not one of these books to have made this list tells us a lot about ourselves, who we are and who we pretend to be. It’s a pity.

The books I respect but don’t plan on reading in the immediate – or ever – future are Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Judging Dev, Bill Cullen’s Penny Apples, Netherland, PS I Love You and Should Have Got Off at Sidney Parade.

PS I Love You got shocking reviews here when it was published. Not because it was awful, but because of who wrote it and who her father is. An Spailpín had the honour to rent a bedsit that was as draughty as it was expensive from the father of a chick-lit queen, and he assured me that PS would never have been published were it not for Bertie Ahern. But PS I Love You sold like hot cakes and even got made into a(n awful) movie, so good for Miss Ahern, who stuffed it down their jealous throats.

Sidney Parade is worthy of respect because in Ross O’Carroll-Kelly Paul Howard has personified exactly to whom we aspire now as a nation. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly started off as a satire in the Sunday Tribune but as the Tiger roared we all wanted to be like him. Howard softened the character to make him that bit more likeable at a cost to Howard’s art but to the considerable reward of his bank balance.

Immigrants read the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books in translation in order to figure out what the Irish are like. Fintan O’Toole may be who we’d like to be, a moralist in a post-Catholic Ireland, but Ross O’Carroll-Kelly holds a truer mirror up to our contemporary reality. Focking deffo.

The only book of the fifty your correspondent not only bought but liked? The Pope’s Children by David McWilliams. The Pope’s Children, as identified here at the time, is not so much a work of economics as of sociology, in which McWilliams forensically details what it was like to live in Ireland in the first decade of the 21st Century, when all we cared about was money and turning a buck any which we way we could. It’s the only possible contender for Irish Book of the Decade.

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