This week: Brendan Behan's columns written for the Irish Press
This week there’s a most welcome volume of Brendan Behan’s newspaper columns, written mostly for the Irish Press and never before put together all in one book. There’s a beautiful collection of essays on family and home from a terrific young Irish writer, and there’s a grisly but highly original collection of fantasy short stories from an author who’s half French and half Irish. There’s also something here for the chisellers; a graphic novel from the outstanding Eoin Colfer and a young kids’ book introducing mindfulness.
A Bit of a Writer, Ed. John Brannigan, Lilliput Press, €25
This utter delight of a book places all of Brendan Behan’s short works – mostly newspaper columns written for The Irish Press – in a single book and captures the real essence of the man. We tend to remember him as he was portrayed in British media when he was acting the maggot, often feeling a bit under the weather. This image has endured, unfortunately, but Behan was so much more than any typical Irish drunk stereotype. He lived in Paris as well as London and was friends with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Albert Camus, Groucho Marx and Norman Mailer, to name just a few. He did enjoy considerable fame in his lifetime, but as the editor of this volume says in his introduction: “celebrity killed him”.
These articles range across the length and breadth of Ireland and Behan exalts not only his native, rapidly changing Dublin, but also the west coast, a place he had a special love for. Each piece bears the date it ran in the paper and his scope of subject matter expands as the years roll on. But the big gotcha in this book, for this reader, is the humour. He wasn’t Flann O’Brien and he never tried to be. This is a gentler wit rather than a gag in every line, but it’s superb. As a book it’s a ‘dipper’. You can read and savour one piece at a time or swallow it whole. Either way, it’s a beauty.
Eyes Guts Throat Bones, Moira Fowley, W&N, €19.95
If fantasy is your thing, you’ll like this book. If ‘queer fiction’ is also your thing, then you’ll definitely like this book. Merging fantasy and queer fiction is the very stuffing of this work, where ancient mythical queens roam ancient hills, keeping watch over their respective territories, lovers eat each other (not figuratively speaking but literally – like oysters), there are monsters hiding in unlikely places and flowers fall from the sky. Descriptions of both lesbian sex and gratuitous violence are extremely, impactfully, graphic. The end of the world is upon us and in these stories it’s drawing creatures out into the light of day that we could never imagine in our worst nightmares. Like I said, if this kind of fiction floats your boat, and it floats many boats, it’s the perfect book.
Minor Monuments, Ian Maleny, Tramp Press, €15
This collection of loose-bound essays on time, memory, place and family is a beautiful read. It was first published in 2019 but the paperback came out just last month, so don’t miss it if, like me, you missed it first time around. Central to the essays is Maleny’s grandfather John Joe, who is losing his grip on time, memory and speech itself as Alzheimer’s drags him down. But his clarity on some (not all) of his earlier memories is present and beautifully rendered by Maleny. Offaly is the author’s home place and he records sounds from the bogs that surround his birthplace, evoking a kind of peace that’s difficult to fashion through words, but Maleny manages to do it. He also manages, somehow, to lend a kind of meandering feel to this work, almost like some of his ideas have just now struck him and he’s slowly – but ever so eloquently – teasing them out.
Maleny’s meanderings are placed somewhere between those of Michael Harding’s and some of John Moriarty’s but he’s a highly original writer, a watcher who can see the things most of us miss, and crucially also a listener (he studied sound recording and records many moments in the course of writing this book). It’s at the same time a touching tribute to his grandfather and to his own roots, while also a set of treatises on other artistic works, many involving sound. An elegant, gentle, reflective and original work.
Global, Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, Hodder €17.99
Brilliantly illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, this graphic novel for kids is an absolute rollercoaster and not without its fun. One would imagine a novel about global warming wouldn’t be fun at all, but once Eoin Colfer is on board, youngsters know they’re in safe hands and will not only be enthralled but amused, too. Yuki lives in a remote Innuit community in cold, icy Nova Scotia. Sami lives in a fishing village in the Bay of Bengal. Due to climate change, both of their communities are under enormous threat. Sami’s home has been washed away. Yuki finds herself afloat on a melting glacier.
And the reader’s heart is in their mouth wondering how these kids are going to get out of their dilemmas. It’s pure adventure, children will adore it and they can’t miss the message either.
Mighty Mindsets, Niamh Doyle, Little Island, €12.50
This is not the first mindfulness book for kids I’ve encountered but it’s probably the nicest and the most picturesque, and Carol Betera’s illustrations elevate it into something really special. Starting off with simple information on how the brain works and how it reacts to stimuli, it uses basic, easily understandable language to help young readers make sense of the frantic world around them while teaching them how to disengage from the madness. I imagine schoolteachers would find this a gem when it comes to story time. A gorgeous book that can be read by young readers who already have a grounding and also could be read out loud to the younger ones.
The Kells Hinterland Festival is on June 22-25 – there are a few weeks left to book your tickets for the likes of Val McDermid, Michael Harding, Fintan O’Toole, Marty Morrissey, Kila and a whole lot of others. See hinterland.ie.