Crépuscule sur Dublin
Photo of Dublin by FroZman used under a Creative Commons license.

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls (Henry Holt & Co., 2007).
Quirke is a Dublin pathologist; his brother, Malachy, is the most popular obstetrician in town. Drunk after a party one night, Quirke finds Mal in his office, doctoring the autopsy report of a dead mother, Christine Falls. Quirke’s efforts to find out who Falls was and what happened to her infant child lead him into dark corners of Dublin and across the Atlantic to Boston. What I saw of Boston here wasn’t enough for me to recommend the book to someone going there, but there is plenty to make you feel 1950s Dublin. Black is the pen name of Irish writer John Banville, winner of the MAN Booker Prize, and this book received quite a bit of attention as a result. Banville writes wonderful sentences; on the other hand, mystery devotees might find the plotting somewhat pedestrian. For better or worse, Christine Falls is more literary than most mysteries.

Here is Google BookSearch.  Here’s “Black’s” website, with an excerpt (.pdf).  The Elegant Variation has Jim Ruland’s four-part profile of Black — here are part one, part two, part three, and part four.   Janet Maslin (The New York Times) calls it a swirling, elegant noir.  Michael Allen thinks it’s more of a mainstream novel than a genre thriller.  Ted calls it an anti-mystery.  C.B. says the depth of characterization makes it memorable.  Michael Dibdin (The Guardian) says Banville can plot.  Bill Peschel rates it highly.   Critical Mick thinks it falls short.  Gideon Lewis-Kraus thinks it a promising experiment.  Mark Sarvas says Dublin is rendered with a damp, creaky specificity (scroll down).  Kathryn Harrison (The New York Times) says Black’s Dublin oozes existential dread.  Patricia Craig (The Independent) says his Dublin is an overwhelming churchly muck.  Smithereens loves the wordplay and imagery.  Chuck Leddy (Boston Globe) calls it intricately plotted and beautifully written.  Tony Bailie says it carries you along but never flows easily.  Frank Wilson (PopMatters) says Black paints a scary atmosphere of moral claustrophobia.  Jon Polk thinks not many mysteries are better written.  downstreamer appreciates the exquisite attention to descriptive detail.  rjhowell prefers Banville to Black.  Josephine Damian sees flaws but calls it a decent readWatch Banville explain that he and Black are very different.  Listen to him on KCRW’s Bookworm.

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Anne Brontë's grave
Photo by lant_70 used under a Creative Commons license.

Daniel Hahn and Nicholas Robins, eds., The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain & Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2008).
In his review in the Financial Times, Mark Ford writes:

This wonderfully informative volume, published in 1977 and now fully updated to include references to recent books such as Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane , has entries on every town or district that has ever enjoyed even 15 minutes of literary fame, or played any part in the biography of a celebrated writer. Its photographs are fascinating too: Mrs Conrad serving Joseph tea in his study at Orlestone, Brendan Behan in his cups at the Fitzroy Tavern, PG Wodehouse proudly behind the wheel of his motor outside Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order within geographical sections. It opens with Adlestrop. Edward Thomas’s 16-line poem named after the tiny town where his train stopped one late June afternoon captures much about our fascination with the connections between names and places. Steam hisses, there is not a soul on the bare platform: “What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name.” But as he recalls the moment, he remembers also that during the minute his train stopped there

A blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The mixture of the banal and the mythical evoked in Adlestrop is in many ways akin to that experienced by today’s literary pilgrim: here we are in Max Gate, in Haworth Parsonage, in Dove Cottage, in search of some ineffable spirit of the writer, of the nation itself. And yet we’re surrounded by other tourists, listening to a guide who tells us Dorothy Wordsworth had wooden teeth, and half- wondering what postcards to buy.

You can read all of Ford’s review here. (One minor mistake in it: The co-author’s name is Nicholas Robins, not Rolin.) This is the third edition; the first edition was published three decades ago.

Here is Hahn’s bio. Here is the publisher’s description. Toby Barnard (Times (UK>) writes that conjurors of place through words are the business of this Guide. Patricia Craig (The Irish Times) is generally positive but notes that parts of Ireland come in for cursory treatment. Sam Jordison (The Guardian) says it’s a treasure trove of anecdotes, quotes obscure and reassuringly familiar, odd poetry and literary pub trivia. Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) says it delivers an addictive tour of the topography of the word. According to Roy Johnson, it’s packed with little gems.

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guess where
Photo by Tal Bright used under a Creative Commons license.

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998).
Writing in Salon’s Literary Guide to the World, John Banville recommends this novel as Ireland reading:

While the celebrated “The Third Policeman” is probably the finer work artistically, “At Swim-Two-Birds” is funnier. O’Brien, real name Brian O’Nolan — which, paradoxically, sounds, to an Irish ear, entirely made up — was one of the oddest birds in the Irish aviary of literary oddities, a self-loathing product of an ultra-nationalist family whose humor was as black and twisted as a blackthorn stick. “At Swim-Two-Birds” — that hilarious postmodernist-before-its-time fantasia, with Mad Sweeney in the trees and Wild West cowboys galloping through the streets of Dublin — sank like a stone when it came out on the eve of war in 1939, and even lifelines from the likes of Graham Greene could not rescue it, but it remains a comic masterpiece, as galling as a bad draught of Guinness, and as Irish as rain.

Graham Greene called it “one of the best books of our century.” And Dylan Thomas said, “”This is just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl!”

Here is a brief excerpt. Google Book Search has a preview and more. Here is Wikipedia’s page on Flann O’Brien, the nom de plume of Brian O’Nolan. Allen Barra wrote about O’Brien in the St. Petersburg Times. Eric Mader-Lin wrote this brief essay on the book. Eight years later, Eric Mader (coincidence? I think not) wrote this somewhat longer essay. Here is The Modern Word’s Flann O’Brien page, and here is the discussion of At Swim-Two-Birds. Sheila O’Malley writes about it, and also links to this essay by John Updike on O’Brien. Nathaniel Rich writes about O’Brien and the novel at Slate. Here’s a review by Anthony Campbell. Christopher says “approach with caution.” Lev Grossman (in Time) says it’s one the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. Nicholas “can see why people get obsessed with” it. Fionnchú discusses the technique that has made it “memorable for nearly six decades of flummoxed, chortling, and delighted readers.” Graeme Mitchell calls it a “must must must (etc.) read for one and all.” Matt says it’s “brilliant and intricate.” It made Profmike laugh out loud. Brian Rock posted the abstract of his paper on the novel.

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