American Pastoral by Philip Roth

american pastoral

Set principally in New Jersey during the 60’s and early 70’s, but tangentially spanning nearly the full 20th century, American Pastoral retells the fable of the rise and fall of the American dream, succinctly analogous to the shattered lives of the Levov family. With the influx of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, the American economy boomed to become one of the world’s great superpowers. However, after the close of the 2nd world war, American ideals and values began their downward trajectory. This descent was hastened by the horrors of the Vietnam war and finally reached their nadir with the fall of Nixon. A prosperous family of business owners, the Levovs are self-made millionaires, intrepid businessmen who built their wealth from the ground up. But the order, the rectitude and the sanctity of their lives, indeed, of the American way of life, comes careening down in a burning wreck taunting them in their impotence and their ignorance.

My reading of this novel coincided with my listening to the Slowburn podcast, which I also heartily recommend. Slowburn is the story of the watergate scandal which brought an end to the Nixon presidency. The fear and confusion that so convulsed America, that a president of theirs could be so immoral, is the very same fear and confusion that mark Roth’s novel. Having both at the same time was like looking at a society in 3D.

It’s long but it’s a fantastic book. Loquacious in the extreme but with masterful prose; you never feel bored with Roth. Also quite unique in its form. I’m not sure a narrator has ever been so easily dispensed in place of the all conquering protagonist, Swede Levov. Anyway, 5 stars. No question.


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

5 New Music Books to Watch Out For

Nothing is Real: The Beatles Were Underrated And Other Sweeping Statements About Pop by David Hepworth (21 Mar 2019) 
nothing is real
Pop music’s a simple pleasure. Is it catchy? Can you dance to it? Do you fancy the singer?

But what’s fascinating about pop is our relationship with it. David Hepworth is interested in the human side of pop. He’s interested in how people make the stuff and, more importantly, what it means to us.

In this collection of essays written throughout his career, Hepworth shows how it is possible to take music seriously and, at the same time, not drain the life out of it. From the legacy of the Beatles to the dramatic decline of the record shop via the bewildering nomenclature of musical genres; with characteristic insight and humour Hepworth asks some essential questions about music and, indeed, life: is it all about the drummer; are band managers misunderstood; and is it appropriate to play ‘Angels’ at funerals?

As Pope John Paul II said ‘of all the unimportant things, football is the most important’. David Hepworth believes the same to be true of music and this selection of his best writing, covering the music of last fifty years, shows you precisely why.

Dayglo!: The Poly Styrene Story by Celeste Bell and Zoe Howe (28 Mar 2019)
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Poly Styrene was a singer-songwriter, an artist, a free-thinker, a post-modern style pioneer and a lifelong spiritual seeker: a true punk icon. But this rebel queen with the cheeky grin was also a latter-day pop artist with a wickedly perceptive gift for satirising the world around her – her brightly coloured, playful aesthetic sharply at odds with the stark monochrome style and nihilism of punk. Here, for the first time, the vibrant jigsaw of Poly s inspiring and often moving story has been lovingly pieced together by her daughter, singer-songwriter Celeste Bell, and writer/artist Zoë Howe (author of the acclaimed Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits, amongst many others). From growing up mixed-race in Brixton in the 1960s, to being at the forefront of the emerging punk scene with X-Ray Spex in the 1970s, to finding faith with the Hare Krishna movement, to balancing single motherhood with a solo music career and often debilitating mental health issues, the book honestly and openly explores Poly s exceptional life, up until her untimely passing in 2011. Based on interviews with those who knew and loved Poly whether personally or through music, this oral history book includes testimonies from Vivienne Westwood, Don Letts, Glen Matlock, Jonathan Ross, Neneh Cherry, The Slits Tessa Pollitt, Thurston Moore, Jon Savage, and many others. Heavily illustrated throughout including personal photographs, flyers from the punk scene and hand-drawn artwork and lyrics for X-Ray Spex and beyond the book beautifully captures Poly Styrene s creative and personal legacy, reminding us that if anyone had the power to turn our worlds dayglo, it was her.

Withdrawn Traces: Searching for the Truth about Richey Manic by Sara Hawys Roberts & Leon Noakes (28 Feb 2019)
withdrawn traces
New discoveries and a fresh perspective, with unprecedented access to Richey’s personal archive

On 1 February 1995, Richey Edwards, guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers, went missing at the age of 27. On the eve of a promotional trip to America, he vanished from his London hotel room, his car later discovered near the Severn Bridge, a notorious suicide spot.

Over two decades later, Richey’s disappearance remains one of the most moving, mysterious and unresolved episodes in recent pop culture history.

For those with a basic grasp of the facts, Richey’s suicide seems obvious and undeniable. However, a closer investigation of his actions in the weeks and months before his disappearance just don’t add up, and until now few have dared to ask the important questions.

Withdrawn Traces is the first book written with the co-operation of the Edwards family, testimony from Richey’s closest friends and unprecedented and exclusive access to Richey’s personal archive.
In a compelling real-time narrative, the authors examine fresh evidence, uncover overlooked details, profile Richey’s state of mind, and brings us closer than ever before to the truth.

Record Play Pause by Stephen Morris (9 May 2019)
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Stephen Morris has had a distinguished career, spanning nearly forty years, as a pivotal member of Joy Division and New Order with his trademark machine-like drumming. After the death of Joy Division’s singer, Ian Curtis, in 1980, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Morris and his wife Gillian formed New Order, one of the most critically acclaimed and influential bands of the late twentieth century. New Order became the flagship band for Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and, alongside him, opened the infamous Hacienda nightclub, the centre of the acid house movement. In 2015, after a ten-year hiatus, New Order released Music Complete; which charted at #2 in its first week of release (the band’s highest position in over twenty years).

Stephen’s book won’t be that typical music autobiography, which tends to be high on mischief and low on the music. Part memoir, part aural history, it will be a hybrid memoir in Stephen’s wry and witty voice. Stephen will weave a dual narrative of growing up in the North West during the 1970s with how the music actually works. It will also explore what it is to be part of a mythologised band and the idea of what you do becoming who you are.

No Walls And The Recurring Dream: A Memoir by Ani DiFranco (9 May 2019)
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A memoir by the celebrated singer-songwriter and social activist Ani DiFranco.

In her new memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, Ani DiFranco recounts her early life from a place of hard-won wisdom, combining personal expression, the power of music, feminism, political activism, storytelling, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and much more into an inspiring whole. In these frank, honest, passionate, and often funny pages is the tale of one woman’s eventful and radical journey to the age of thirty. Ani’s coming of age story is defined by her ethos of fierce independence–from being an emancipated minor sleeping in a Buffalo bus station, to unwaveringly building a career through appearances at small clubs and festivals, to releasing her first album at the age of 18, to consciously rejecting the mainstream recording industry and creating her own label, Righteous Babe Records. In these pages, as in life, she never hesitates to challenge established rules and expectations, maintaining a level of artistic integrity that has impressed many and antagonized more than a few. Ani continues to be a major touring and recording artist as well as a celebrated activist and feminist, standing as living proof that you can overcome all personal and societal obstacles to be who you are and to follow your dreams.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

the fifth season

I am the kind of person who you would think reads fantasy and sci-fi extensively. But I don’t. A lot of times, it just doesn’t hold my interest.

This, however.

This, frankly, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in a world called The Stillness, which occasionally have Fifth Seasons – ecological disasters that ravage the continents for decades, sometimes hundreds of decades. To control this are orogenes, who can quell earthquakes and the like.

So far so good, but the writing, the writing is so so wonderful, and beautiful, and well-crafted. And the building of the characters, and the world, and the mythology. Essun is an orogene in hiding, dampening her gift to live a normal life, with her husband and two kids, but her kids are orogenes too, and they are feared like witches were, and she comes home to find her very young son dead, killed by his father, now absconded with her remaining daughter.

Alongside this are two other narratives, Damaya who is scooped up by the Guardians (think Watchers, a la Buffy, only much more sinister) to be brought to The Fulcrum to be trained, and Syenite, an orogene in training who has been sent out in the field to earn their wage with one of the most powerful orogenes out there, with whom she is expected to mate and produce more orogenes.

I want to say no more. The characters. The voices. The surprinsingly wonderful amount of perfectly done LGBTQ representation. It’s a story about a group of people who are feared and misunderstood, but needed. And since then, they are kept oppressed. But they have all the power.

Read nothing else about this – I’ve been careful not to spoiler anything – apart from the fact that it deservedly won the 2016 Hugo Award, and the fact that I, who rarely reads/enjoys fantasy, bought the next two books in the trilogy before I was halfway through this one. And it made me tear up and my jaw drop more than once. Seriously, I cannot recommend this enough. Get it, now.


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Brilliant Book Titles #280

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I lay there alone in bed, feeling the black shadow creeping up the underside of the world like a flood tide. Nothing held, nothing was left. The silver airplanes and the silver capes all dissolved and vanished, wiped away like the crude drawings of a child in coloured chalk from the colossal blackboard of the dark.

The writings in this collection outline Plath’s early preoccupation with issues of mental illness, creativity and femininity, all of which would become recurrent themes in her later work. They offer special insight into her development as a writer, and arguably paved the way for her only full-length piece of prose writing, the loosely veiled fictional autobiography, The Bell Jar.

This second edition contains the thirteen stories included in the first edition together with five pieces of her journalism, as well as a few fragments from her journal; and a further nine stories selected from the Indiana archive.


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Brilliant Book Titles #279

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A Grand Master of Science Fiction and the multiple-award-winning author of A Boy and His Dog presents seven stunning stories of speculative fiction.

Hugo Award winner I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is living legend Harlan Ellison’s masterpiece of future warfare. In a post-apocalyptic world, four men and one woman are all that remain of the human race, brought to near extinction by an artificial intelligence. Programmed to wage war on behalf of its creators, the AI became self-aware and turned against all humanity. The five survivors are prisoners, kept alive and subjected to brutal torture by the hateful and sadistic machine in an endless cycle of violence.

Presented here with six more groundbreaking and inventive tales that probe the depths of mortal experience, this collection proves why Ellison has earned the many accolades he’s received and remains one of the most original voices in American literature.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream also includes “Big Sam Was My Friend,” “Eyes of Dust,” “World of the Myth,” “Lonelyache,” Hugo Award finalist “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer,” and Hugo and Nebula Award finalist “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.”


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Fantabulosa: The Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang by Paul Baker


Language – you never stop changing, do you? This is evident in both good and bad ways here.

The good: the dictionary of Polari, a mostly dead language used by gay men. Polari, being dead, is time-specific and this makes it good to collate (although it seems to be a little – not too much, but a little incomplete). A mix of Parlyaree, cockney rhyming slang, backwards slang and words cribbed from all over, this book features a good introduction to the the coded language – made mainstream by the characters of Julian and Sandy on the BBC radio show, Round the Horne –  that allowed gay men to say secretly what they couldn’t publicly, and a 60. Examples of Polari in speech include:

How bona to vada your dolly old eke – How lovely to see you (literally: how good to see your beautiful face)

and many more which describe things much more salaciously (and in detail!) but for those who aren’t interested in that, cover your ogles with your lappers, duckie – there’s nada to vada in the larder! There is also a paid app – available in the app stores – by the author and an artist, that features the dictionary on your phone. A brilliant example of how complicated, complex and how much of a language Polari can get is shown here in this poem by Adam Lowe (in which he also invents a few phrases – showing again that language never dies!).

The bad: the dictionary of gay slang takes up over two-thirds of the book and, whilst good, the problem here is that this book was published in 2002. I read it and kept thinking of terms that were missing, or – strangely – incorrectly defined, the most egregious of which is ‘shade. noun: attitude” which is just incorrect. And there is, for example, a definition of shade given in the 1993 doc, Paris is Burning. Mostly it’s just out of date and makes me long for an online encyclopaedia of gay slang- like a wiki or urban dictionary where people can upvote – something I hope already exists. Also, there is a small pool of sources used – hence why I think that an online wiki would suit it much better.

Despite these drawbacks, there are some fascinating and fascinatingly specific terms throughout the book. And being one of the few of its kind, the book is one to pick up if you come across it.

5 New Biographies/Memoirs to Watch Out For

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (16 May 2019)
furious hours

Alabama, 1972.

Reverend Willie Maxwell, a charismatic, authoritative black preacher, is suspected of murder. His past two wives, brother, nephew and stepdaughter have all died in suspicious circumstances. There are whispers of secret voodoo practices, and suspicion of life insurance fraud.

Despite the mounting evidence against him, Tom Radney, a young white lawyer, miraculously protects him from legal trouble.

And then the Reverend is shot dead in front of 300 witnesses at his step-daughter’s funeral.

As Alabama is consumed by these gripping events, it’s not long until news of the case reaches Alabama’s – and America’s – most famous writer. Intrigued by the story, Harper Lee makes a journey back to her home state to witness the Reverend’s killer face trial – where none other than Tom Radney is defending him. Captivated by true crime, having worked closely with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood and having studied criminal law, Lee became obsessed with this twisted case and the small Southern town consumed by it. She planned to write a book on the Maxwell murders. She never did.

This is the story Harper Lee wanted to write. This is the story of why she couldn’t.

Everybody Died, So I Got a Dog by Emily Dean (7 Mar 2019)
everybody died

‘A wonderful and very special book.’
Adam Kay, author of This is Going to Hurt

‘Will make you laugh, cry and stroke your dog (or any dog).’
Sarah Millican

* * *

The funny, heart-breaking, wonderfully told story of love, family and overwhelming loss which led Emily Dean to find hope and healing in the dog she always wanted.

Growing up with the Deans was a fabulous training ground for many things: ignoring unpaid bills, being the most entertaining guest at dinner, deconstructing poetry. It was never home for the dog Emily craved.

Emily shared the lively chaos with her beloved older sister Rachael, her rock. Over the years the sisters bond grew ever closer. As Rachael went on to have the cosy family and treasured dog, Giggle, Emily threw herself into unsettled adventure – dog ownership remaining a distant dream.

Then, tragically, Rachael is diagnosed with cancer. In just three devastating years Emily loses not only her sister but both her parents as well.

This is the funny heart-breaking, wonderfully told story of how Emily discovers that it is possible to overcome the worst that life can throw at you, that it’s never too late to make peace with your past, and that the right time is only ever now, as she finally starts again with her very own dog – the adorable Shih-tzu named Raymond.

Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas by Dustin Lance Black (30 Apr 2019)
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This heartfelt, deeply personal memoir explores how one family built bridges across today’s great divides–and how our stories hold the power to heal.

Dustin Lance Black wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk and helped overturn California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, but as an LGBTQ activist he has unlikely origins–a conservative Mormon household outside San Antonio, Texas. His mother, Anne, was raised in rural Louisiana and contracted polio when she was two years old. She endured brutal surgeries, as well as braces and crutches for life, and was told that she would never have children or a family. Willfully defying expectations, she found salvation in an unlikely faith, raised three rough-and-rowdy boys, and escaped the abuse and violence of two questionably devised Mormon marriages before finding love and an improbable career in the U.S. civil service.

By the time Lance came out to his mother at age twenty-one, he was a blue-state young man studying the arts instead of going on his Mormon mission. She derided his sexuality as a sinful choice and was terrified for his future. It may seem like theirs was a house destined to be divided, and at times it was. This story shines light on what it took to remain a family despite such division–a journey that stretched from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to the woodsheds of East Texas. In the end, the rifts that have split a nation couldn’t end this relationship that defined and inspired their remarkable lives.

Mama’s Boy is their story. It’s a story of the noble quest for a plane higher than politics–a story of family, foundations, turmoil, tragedy, elation, and love. It is a story needed now more than ever.

Magic Is Dead: My Journey into the World’s Most Secretive Society of Magicians by Ian Frisch (4 Apr 2019)
magic is deadIn the vein of Neil Strauss’ The Game and Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein comes the fascinating story of one man’s colorful, mysterious, and personal journey into the world of magic, and his unlikely invitation into an underground secret society of revolutionary magicians from around the world.

Magic Is Dead is Ian Frisch’s head-first dive into a hidden world full of extraordinary characters and highly guarded secrets. It is a story of imagination, deception, and art that spotlights today’s most brilliant young magicians—a mysterious club known as the52, who are revolutionizing an ancient artform under the mantra Magic Is Dead.

Ian brings us with him as he not only gets to know this fascinating world, but also becomes an integral part of it. We meet the52’s founding members—Laura London, Daniel Madison, and Chris Ramsay—and explore their personal demons, professional aspirations, and what drew them to their craft. We join them at private gatherings of the most extraordinary magicians working today, follow them to magic conventions in Las Vegas and England, and discover some of the best tricks of the trade. We also encounter David Blaine; hang out with Penn Jillette; meet Dynamo, the U.K.’s most famous magician; and go behind the scenes of a Netflix magic show. Magic Is Dead is also a chronicle of magic’s rich history and how it has changed in the internet age, as the young guns embrace social media and move away from the old-school take on the craft.

As he tells the story of the52, and his role as its most unlikely member, Ian reveals his own connection with trickery and deceit and how he first learned the elements that make magic work from his poker-playing mother. He recalls their adventures in card rooms and casinos after his father’s sudden death, and shares a touching moment that he had, as a working journalist, with his childhood idol Shaquille O’Neal.

“Magic—the romanticism of the inexplicable, the awe and admiration of the unexpected—is an underlying force in how we view the world and its myriad possibilities,” Ian writes. As his journey continues, Ian not only becomes a performer and creator of magic—even fooling the late Anthony Bourdain during a chance encounter—he also cements a new brotherhood, and begins to understand his relationship with his father, fifteen years after his death. Written with psychological acuity and a keen eye for detail, Magic Is Dead is an engrossing tale full of wonder and surprise.

Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood by Andrew Rannells (12 Mar 2019)
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From the star of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon and HBO’s Girls, the heartfelt and hilarious coming-of-age memoir of a Midwestern boy surviving bad auditions, bad relationships, and some really bad highlights as he chases his dreams in New York City

When Andrew Rannells left Nebraska for New York City in 1997, he, like many young hopefuls, saw the city as a chance to break free. To start over. To transform the fiercely ambitious but sexually confused teenager he saw in the mirror into the Broadway leading man of his dreams.

In Too Much Is Not Enough, Rannells takes us on the journey of a twentysomething hungry to experience everything New York has to offer: new friends, wild nights, great art, standing ovations. At the heart of his hunger lies a powerful drive to reconcile the boy he was when he left Omaha with the man he desperately wants to be.

As Rannells fumbles his way towards the Great White Way, he also shares the drama of failed auditions and behind-the-curtain romances, the heartbreak of losing his father at the height of his struggle, and the exhilaration of making his Broadway debut in Hairspray at the age of twenty-six. Along the way, he learns that you never really leave your past–or your family–behind; that the most painful, and perversely motivating, jobs are the ones you almost get; and that sometimes the most memorable nights with friends are marked not by the trendy club you danced at but by the recap over diner food afterward.

Honest and hilarious, Too Much Is Not Enough is an unforgettable look at love, loss, and the powerful forces that determine who we become.



Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

girl in pieces

I picked this book up by chance; the dust cover was lost so I had no blurb to go by. I just read a few lines from the first page and was instantly hooked. Charlie Davis is 17, and a self-harmer, who has done great damage to herself. She is currently in a residential psychiatric hospital, being paid for by her estranged mother, with whom she’s had a troubled relationship. When the money for the hospital runs out, Charlie is released into the care of her mother, who swiftly abandons her barely two minutes after she is released, leaving Charlie to try and make a go of it on her own. 

Charlie starts on the right track, she finds a flat and a job and along the way meets a variety of personalities, all of whom are battling their own demons. She gets sucked back into old habits and some sticky situations. This book is tough going in parts and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. I’ve a relatively tough constitution but even I found some paragraphs tough to read. It is graphic in is descriptions of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual encounters, self-harm and mental health but it gives great insight into how people end up with, and try to deal with, these issues. With 404 pages, this is not a small book but I managed to get through it in two nights. It is extremely captivating and very difficult to put down. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a gritty and realistic read.


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here

Brilliant Book Titles #278

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The New York Times bestseller

‘This selection of 43 stories should by all rights see Lucia Berlin as lauded as Jean Rhys or Raymond Carver’ Independent

The stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women make for one of the most remarkable unsung collections in twentieth-century American fiction.

With extraordinary honesty and magnetism, Lucia Berlin invites us into her rich, itinerant life: the drink and the mess and the pain and the beauty and the moments of surprise and of grace. Her voice is uniquely witty, anarchic and compassionate. Celebrated for many years by those in the know, she is about to become – a decade after her death – the writer everyone is talking about. The collection will be introduced by Lydia Davis.

‘With Lucia Berlin we are very far away from the parlours of Boston and New York and quite far away, too, from the fiction of manners, unless we are speaking of very bad manners . . . The writer Lucia Berlin most puts me in mind of is the late Richard Yates.’ LRB, 1999


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Brilliant Book Titles #277


Joan Didion’s savage masterpiece, which, since first publication in 1968, has been acknowledged as an unparalleled report on the state of America during the upheaval of the Sixties Revolution.

We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were

In her non-fiction work, Joan Didion not only describes the subject at hand – her younger self loving and leaving New York, the murderous housewife, the little girl trailing the rock group, the millionaire bunkered in his mansion – but also offers a broader vision of the world, one that is both terrifying and tender, ominous and uniquely her own.


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.