Friday, 27 November 2020

An Irish Country Family

An Irish Country Family       By Patrick Taylor

With the current pandemic keeping us apart from those we love, I am finding it important to connect in other ways. My reading choices of late seek comfort and escape and this has led me back to old friends, Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly, and Dr. Barry Laverty, GPs of the Irish village of Ballybucklebo. Irish born Canadian author, Patrick Taylor, brings the village to life in his Irish Country Series that is set in the 1960’s, a time of some incredible medical breakthroughs, and some political upheaval.

 My current read in the series is An Irish Country Family which, although set in 1969, contains the perfect story line for today’s times.  This chapter in the lives of the Ballybucklebo residents shows how a small village takes care of its own at a time when Northern Ireland is being torn apart by the tumultuous riots that began the 30 year “troubles.”

 While Taylor weaves in the violence, it is always just on the periphery and our little village demonstrates how the conflict does not affect how they live their daily lives. The village comes together to rebuild a family home that was destroyed by fire, to raise funds for children to attend a new camp, and to help each other in times of illness, with Protestants and Catholics, Loyalists and Republicans each working side by side to shore up the village family.

 This volume (#14) is particularly poignant as it travels back in time to Dr. Barry Laverty’s medical student days. He is beginning to practice at the Royal Hospital, where he rotates through different wards to help him decide where he wants to focus his medicine. In his work, Laverty meets many patients and fellow physicians who become friends and help steer him towards his preferred specialty.  Barry dislikes the practice of referring to patients by their affliction, rather than their name. Barry believes that each patient deserves to be treated with care and compassion, a feeling that leads him to join the general practice in Ballybucklebo. 

 The bonds of family, friends and general human kindness resonate through Ballybucklebo, and give the series the warm fuzzies we are looking for in this time of separation. It reminds us that collectively we are stronger and shows us the importance of neighbourly love and support in times of strife.



Monday, 16 November 2020

Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

by Kathleen Rooney

New York City, New Year's Eve, 1984. A woman named Lillian Boxfish, about the same age as the century, has no particular place to be. Dressed in her favourite mink coat, she embarks on a miles-long stroll around lower Manhattan. The novel switches between Lillian's encounters with ordinary New Yorkers and her memories of six eventful decades living in the city.

Based on the life of the copywriter and poet Margaret Fishback, author Kathleen Rooney begins with Lillian's stint at Macy's department store, where she's one of the first and highest paid women in advertising. Rooney's lively prose is peppered with witty poems written by the real life Fishback.  The  crackling writing brings the Jazz Age to life: from the wood-paneled walls and elegant elevators of Macy's, to sparkling Prohibition-era cocktail parties.

Lillian is in her element as a career woman, and becomes a published poet. Eventually the self-proclaimed "single girl" falls for a charming Italian-American, and she's forced to give up her career as she becomes a wife and mother.  As Lillian’s memories turn to her middle years, life no longer seems as “bright as a penny" and she stumbles under the weight of personal problems.

Although 1980s NYC is beset by a crime wave , the elderly Lillian has clearly regained her resilience. She is undeterred when she sets out on New Year's Eve, having always been energized by long walks through the city. Lillian meets a limo driver who's baffled by her refusal to take a ride, a security guard haunted by his tour in Vietnam, a convenience store clerk with dreams of making it big, a young man traumatized by the AIDS epidemic, a barman, a maĆ®tre d’, and even three muggers. Among the many stops and landmarks mentioned along the way, Lillian visits the famous Delmonico's restaurant where she once experienced a devastating break-up. Lillian orders Delmonico's legendary steak, determined to enjoy it more than the last time she was there.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a novel packed with charm, with a firecracker of a main character. It is a love letter to New York City , a meditation on the things that sustain us as we age, and an homage to pioneering career women. Like a meal at Delmonico's, this is a novel to be savoured.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

The Glass Hotel


The Glass Hotel
The Glass Hotel

By Emily St. John Mandel

Vincent grows up in the fictional village of Caiette, just across the water from Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island.  Her tiny town has no road and is accessible only by water taxi. Her unusual name (for a girl) was given to her by her mother, a big fan of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The Pacific Ocean is an integral part of life in Caiette and looms large in Vincent’s mind, especially after her mother drowns.

Cut to Vincent’s life at age seventeen when her half-brother, Paul, shows up at her doorstep.  Vincent lives in a dismal apartment with roommate Melissa on the downtown eastside.  But Vincent shows herself to be self-sufficient and strong, determined to find her own way in life while Paul, perpetually down on his luck and addicted to heroin, can’t even hold down a job.

We then meet a slightly older Vincent who has taken a job at the Hotel Caiette.  This luxury inn has been established alongside her old stomping grounds, attracting rich tourists looking for a forest-and-ocean retreat while never really having to leave the glass-walled interior.  It’s here that she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, and her life takes another distinct turn.

Vincent soon becomes Alkaitis’s “wife”, or plays the role of his wife in a luxurious “fairy tale” life based in New York.  Alkaitis is an investment banker with an eclectic group of investors. Life at the peak of affluence is explored in detail, along with the aftermath.  When disaster strikes during the 2008 financial downturn, the dire consequences of Alkaitis’s hubris impact many of those intimately involved with him.

But Vincent, as always, quickly manages to redefine her life and finds herself returning to the ocean.

Vincent is a constant throughout this engrossing story, but Emily St. John Mandel delves deeply into many other lives.  Jonathan Alkaitis, his staff and investors, Paul and even some of the staff at the Hotel Caiette make up the cast of characters.  From the steel and glass opulence of New York to the grey-green beauty of a B.C. rainforest that skirts the ocean, Mandel’s depictions are deeply believable and moving.

Like her previous novel, Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel is well worth reading.