Books of the Year 1977
A personal choice by Magill's writers
CIARAN MAC MATHUNA
THE BOOKS I have chosen are both autobiographical but that's about all they have in common. For one thing they are in different languages, Irish and English. The English book is Dear Me (Heinemann, £6.49), the very funny autobiography of Peter Ustinov, actor, film star, playwright, director, designer, linguist and raconteur supreme. The book is full of wonderful stories and aneccdotes and all one misses here are the delightful imitations of voices and acccents which one has heard on film, radio and television. Ustinov was born in England but this is almost incidental for he is truly a citizen of the world.
In contrast, the world depicted in the Irish book Seanchas Thomais.Laighhleis (An Clochornhar Laighleis, £3,50,) (roughly translated, 'The Reminiscences of Thomas Lawless') is the little and almost forgotten Gaeltacht of Menlo on the Corrib where the author, now in his 80's, has lived as a farmer all his life. Menlo is within spitting distance of Galway city and this very proximity is one of the things which makes this book especially interesting.
Peter Ustinov and Tomas Laighleis will probably never meet but if they did I am sure they would delight in each other's company.
THE PRESS participates in the Amerrican political process to a degree unheard of elsewhere, one of the consequences of which is that literary as well as political reputations are made in Washington,
In recent years, journalists have, it seems, profited rather more than politticians from this unique state of affairs. The rise of journalistic stars like Theodore White, Jack Anderson, Woodstein, etc. has paralleled the political destruction of Johnson, Humphrey, Muskie,Agnew and Nixon.
Timothy Crouse, in his brilliant book, The Boys on the Bus (Random House), describes how the press live and work through the presidential campaign year of 1972. Crouse works from the belief that America needs a more candid press
Essentially Crouse criticises his collleagues on the campaign trail for "not telling it as it really is". Thus, Muskie's foul temper remains just campaign gossip, likewise the ruthlessly pragmatic side of George McGovern's overtly liberal nature.
But Crouse is at his best when proofiling his fellow reporters. In doing this he demonstrates that if you scratch the cynical surface, most journalists on the campaign trail care passionately about the issues. The trouble is most newsspaper proprietors and editors never bother to scratch.
JENNIFER JOHNSTON's Shadows on our Skin (Hamish Hamilton, £3.85) elicited a slightly plaintive and puzzled response among Derry folk. Even ardent admirers felt she had vaguely lost her hitherto unerring touch. They were wrong. Ms. Johnston had written another masterpiece. They had got hung up on trivial details of geography and the social mores of Creggan, the Moor and the Bog. She had captured again, just as she had done in How Many Miles to Babylon the traumas and terrors and tears of growing up, this time against the backdrop of the present troubles and Derry of the 70's. This delicate story of Joe Logan and his love/hate relationship with his dreadful beddridden father, his clean-living, sheettboiling mother, his messer of a brother and most of all, his strange involvement with Kathleen Doherty, a young liberated schoolteacher, was certainly one of my most satisfying reads this year.
I FOUND James Plunkett's Farewell Companions, (Hutchinson, £5.44'h) abbsorbing, because it dealt with a world I knew, the xenophobic war years and the period immediately after. It also gives a picture of the frugal, uncertain Thirties, as the new ship of state lurched into motion. It has not been written about by anyone else and there is a calm about the book that corrects the savagery of writers writing about a land they left.
I also liked Leland Bardwell's Girl on a Bicycle, (The Irish Writers' Co-operative, £1.65). She deals with the world of the Protestant gentry as seen through the eyes of a stable girl. There is a musty dampness about the chapters that I can feel still, and the sort of despair that Holden Caulfield could interest you in.
Ben Keily's Proxopera, (Victor Golllanez, £3.24'h) is a fine novella about the North. it tells of a man forced by the Provisionals to carry a bomb in his car to a nearby town. Those prolific Ulster writers, with a few exceptions, have not yet come into the open about the North in their work. Ben faces up. I disagree with his politics, but not his view of human beings.
The Penguin Dorothy Parker, (Pennguin, £1.25) came along as I'd always known it would. Someday. Parker died ten years ago, almost fifty years after writing the first of the pieces included in this collection. All of her best work, and a lot of the not so good, is in this volume, thick as a brick. A handy blunt instrument for the next time a friend stops me in mid-sentence and says "Dorothy Who?", The book is an urn. No ashes, just the distilled remains of a lifetime of confusion, contradiction and compassion. And only Groucho Marx was funnier.
It's impossible to describe the attraction of The Princess Bride, (Mac Millan, 88p) by William Goldman. "A tale of true love and high adventure" comes close. I remember with delight the sword fight atop the Cliffs of Innsanity, the battle of wits between Vizzini and the Man in Black and the shock of discovering that the tale has a moral: life isn't fair, same of the wrong people die. I, and at least one other person I know who read it at the beginning of the year, have been saving it to re-read at Christmas.
Best buy of the year was How the Other Half Dies, (Penguin, £1,37Y2) by Susan George. With a skill born of anger and an authority born of experience she rips apart the population myth, the scarcity myth and renders obsolete the sterile and misleading arguments about "redistribution of wealth versus indivvidual freedom". The apologists for capitalism are confronted with an incontrovertible fact: it cannot keep its slaves alive. The connections between power, profit and the deliberate starving of millions are carefully detailed. I would defy arty one to read this book and then watch the cavorting of the politicians and their backers and masters without seeing them as walking, talking obscenities.
All but one of these books are available from APCK, Dawson Street and 37 Cook Street, Cork. Postal orders welcome. Seanchas Tomais Leighleis can be got from Celtic Books, Harcourt Street, Dublin 2.