I saw something cool in O’Mahony’s Bookshop last week. At first I thought it was just a miniature book (novelty wears off quickly when you’re straining to see the tiny text) but it was a little tome called a ‘Flipback’ book. The concept is that it fits in your handbag/pocket and you read the book turned sideways. You can also read it one-handed and the text size isn’t too small.
This is the latest advance in print publishing seemingly, complete with clever tagline: “The next little thing”. It’s a big hit with the Dutch market since it was launched there in 2009. It has its own website and (albeit hammy) promotional video:
An article in the Guardian claims it could kill the Kindle—a tantalising prospect… but then concludes that it won’t because the flipback can’t hold thousands of books at once. Damn! Foiled again! I think there’s something wrong about electronic reading devices and I poured my heart out in this post about them last year.
Flipbacks have a downside. The range is limited to certain titles and they cost around a tenner—more than a standard paperback (but Hodder would probably argue that as they’re a lightweight hardback, it’s economical). It’s gimmicky but practical-a good combination! I think it’ll appeal to people who have to have the latest trendy gadget/fashion accessory. It’s aiming to corner the Christmas stocking filler market. Fair enough, although it’s made painfully obvious in the promotional push.
But I actually admire the marketing. It’s very slick. One of the comments on the Youtube video just about sums it up: “This is how to make a bestselling product: Take a product that has existed since a few thousand years, turn it by 90°, and there you have it: millions of dollars, bitch!”
As this week is the 15th anniversary of the publication of Angela’s Ashes, I said I’d do a more personal post about when I met him and his lovely wife four years ago around this time of year incidentally. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in the swanky surroundings of the Clarion Hotel in Limerick for profile in the newspaper, The Limerick Independent, which I was working for at the time. It was a career highlight for me. I had long admired his writing (reviews here). It’s not just technically good but also has a lot of humanity in it, good and bad. And thankfully, I found him to be a charming and engaging interviewee.
He’s had his fair share of critics and those who say he took liberties with the truth in his famous memoir. When I asked him about this, he said: “I didn’t ever think that Angela’s Ashes would be as successful as it was. I didn’t even know if it would be published, let alone become a bestseller. There was a lot of negative criticism. My response is always that the book is my story, written about my experiences living in a lane in Barrack Hill near Sarsfield’s Barracks in a town called Limerick. If I was from Mullingar I would’ve written about that. I told my story. People don’t have to read it and they don’t have to like it.”
He also recounted how at a local book signing, a old classmate of his had torn up a copy of the book in front of him and told him he had “disgraced Limerick”. He added that “People say, ‘I could have written that book’ and I say ‘Why didn’t you?’”, which I think is as fair and concise a response as you’ll get!
We spoke about a lot of other things including the Regeneration plans for Limerick’s troubled estates. He said: “I’ve heard about the plans and it got me thinking about all the housing estates opened up before World War Two, places like Bomber’s Field and Janesboro, that worked very well. Moyross and Southill just don’t seem to work. I saw the same thing in New York with huge housing projects full of mostly black people and they became mini cities of crime…It’s all very nice to move into a new house in a new area but where are the neighbours? Where is the community spirit? Those things are so important.”
He said that Jim Kemmy was a “socialist atheist from Limerick and a very honourable man. I asked him about Moyross one night and he just said ‘We have our problems’ and it’s great to see people doing something to solve them.”
As we were parting, I said that my name was Rachael Finucane. As readers of Angela’s Ashes will know, Frank worked for a moneylender called Mrs Bridget Finucane—writing fierce letters to her customers who weren’t paying her back. The letters are one of Frank’s first forays into creative writing and the results are brilliant.
He’s guilty that friends and neighbours are complaining to his mother because “that oul bitch, Finucane, down in Irishtown” is sending them threatening letters, which he’s writing. Frank is anxious to save the fare for America so if she falls into a sherry-induced sleep and her purse falls, he often helps himself to an extra few shillings. When he goes to fetch her a bottle of sherry one night, she passes away while he’s gone. He takes 17 pounds out of her purse and another 40 pounds from her personal stash. But he also throws her money ledger into the mighty Shannon, thereby erasing the debts of the poor and desperate.
I told Frank McCourt that my father was actually from that side of town…He got a good laugh out of that. I don’t actually know if she’s a relation of mine; she could well be. I might try and find out for sure some day but I think I prefer the bit of mystery.
So, in dedication to one of Limerick’s greatest sons, I think I should write a letter.
Dear Mr McCourt,
Inasmuch as you may well have done me out of some distant inheritance by relieving a possible ancestor of mine of a significant sum of money, I may be forced to resort to action. There’s you, parading off on a boat to America, to become a respected educator and Pulitzer Prize winning author while I eke out an existence as a lowly journalist. If Angela’s Ashes, as you said, was not looking “set to become something of a classic”, I would be extremely upset. As it stands, I am willing to forgive you because I have so much respect for you and your legacy. Ar dheis Dé go raibh d’anam.
I remain, yours in appreciative admiration
PS: I got a very nice email from a man called John Kwok, a former student of Frank McCourt, about my last post. “Dominic Taylor pointed out your great piece on the official debut of the Gaelic translation of Angela’s Ashes which I have shared with several other former students of Frank’s including the executive director of the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association and the current chairman of Stuyvesant’s English department, where the book is required reading for students (If my information is still correct). I can’t believe that it has taken this long for a Gaelic translation. Thanks for your well-written piece recounting its debut.”
Thanks to John for that. Teacher Man, Frank’s memoir of his years teaching at Stuyvesant High School, is a brilliant read. I got Frank to sign my own copy of that book after the interview.
I attended a book launch yesterday (October 10)of an Irish translation of Angela’s Ashes, Luaithreach Angela, which has been done at the behest of Limerick Writers’ Centre. Ironically, the Pulitzer Prize winner by Frank McCourt had been translated into 25 other languages but not the national language of its author.
The setting for the launch was very appropriately his childhood classroom in Leamy’s School, immortalised in the book and now a museum that bears his name. It was packed to the rafters! It was a very local project and even the cover art was done by artist/Director of the Frank McCourt Museum, Úna Heaton.
Padraic Breathnach, a well known Irish language author and former lecturer in Mary Immaculate College, did the translation. It was officially launched by Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht after Deputy City Mayor, Michael Hourigan and County Leas Cathaoirleach, Rose Brennan (among others) spoke.
Breathnach and pupils from Gaelcholáiste Luimní then read extracts from the book.
Dominic Taylor of Limerick Writers’ Centre thanked Limerick City and County arts officers, Shannon Development, O’Mahony’s Bookshop and Foras Na Gaeilge for their support.
“We wanted to honour one of Limerick’s greatest writers in some significant way. Angela’s Ashes has been translated into 25 languages but not Irish, until now. This launch is also on the 15th anniversary of the publication of the original novel in New York. We hope this translation will be an inspiring and uplifting read.”
Breathnach completed the translation in around nine months. He said that the book is a childhood memoir so he was anxious to get across the “youthfulness” inherent in it. It doesn’t sound like much was lost in translation.
“The book is very playful. Every page is dramatic and lively. It is a literal translation, not a literary or a creative translation. It’s in the Irish idiom but I didn’t change the sentence structure or length. I left the punctuation the same, even if I thought it was wrong. I left all technicalities as they were! I didn’t embroider or embellish anything. I wanted to get the rhythm, tone and the spirit of it right. I strove to achieve that and I think I did,” he said.
He added that while the book is a classic “misery memoir”, it also has hope.
“Frank McCourt, while he was very poor, he was happy and so were his brothers. His mother was a formidable lady in that she was able to get over so much adversity. The weakest character by far is the father, Malachy. He was a drunkard and hopeless for the family but he did love them all. He wasn’t violent but he was a very sad man.”
Minister Deenihan said that Frank and the McCourt family had made a tremendous contribution to the rich literary life of Limerick. He also commended the museum for “preserving the school for the future”.
“It’s only fitting that the book should be in our native tongue as well and I hope it will encourage more people to read it and to study Irish for that very reason. I think Luaithreach Angela is going to be very popular in schools and colleges. This book makes a major contribution to the revival of the language.”
The limited edition Luaithreach Angela is available in local bookshops and online at www.limerickwriterscentre.com.
Fair play to LWC for giving the book a new lease of life in Irish. Sár-mhaith all round!
I have a confession to make: My name is Rachael and I’m addicted to…reading. I’ve been an addict since I was a child and I’ve easily spent thousands on feeding my habit. Florence O’Connor, one of my lecturers in English in Mary Immaculate College, used to say to us: “You are reading your way to a degree!” It was no surprise to me; I’d been reading my way towards a degree since I was eight. I’ve accepted that I can’t quit and decided that there are worse vices to have.
I’ve been meaning to do a post on my favourite local book emporiums for ages. I was reminded by a lovely booklet that came with The Guardian newspaper last Saturday—the Independent Bookshops Directory. It focused on the UK but there were good articles and photos. I don’t discriminate when it comes to buying books, whether it’s a chain store, an independent bookshop, a second-hand bookshop or a charity shop. For want of a better way of explaining, I’m a ‘book-whore’. So sue me.
Eason and Sons, O’Connell Street, Limerick: It’s an Irish chain and celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. It’s bringing back its distinctive blue, green and white striped bags for the occasion. It was my firm favourite (for new books) for years because it’s compact, the main book section is on one level; the discount section is good and there’s always a multi-buy promotion.
Tesco: The supermarket chain has come under fire for selling books too cheaply and undercutting bookshops. Most of the books on sale are paperbacks and from the current bestseller list so if popular fiction is your poison, Tesco is often good value.
HMV: A lot of people don’t realise that the chain sells books as well as CDs, DVDs, games etc. Obviously, it has books about music and musicians you might not get elsewhere. It also sells classic and contemporary novels, humour, pop culture and non-fiction books—sometimes at a better than average price. You have to know what to look for!
Limerick City has only a few independent bookshops and I only visit one regularly.
O’Mahony’s, O’Connell Street, Limerick: This is a local landmark, founded in 1902. It’s still a family-run business and “is one of the largest independent bookshops in the country”, according to the website. O’Mahony’s has expanded to include smaller branches in UL, Ennis and Tralee. I like it because it doesn’t feel homogenised; you get a sense that a discerning book-lover would shop here. It has a massive variety and knowledgeable staff. It has several levels but it’s easy to find what you want because the sections are well organised and laid-out. There are also specialist sections i.e. large travel and art sections and a great local/Irish section.
No visit to Galway City is complete without checking out this bookshop.
Charlie Byrne’s, Cornstore Mall, Middle Street: I love this place. It stocks 50,000 new and used books on umpteen subjects. It has brilliant poetry, drama, art and contemporary fiction selections at competitive prices. It also stocks niche journals/magazines and champions local/Irish authors.
It’s not economical for me to buy new books all the time because I read a lot and I’m a fast reader so I don’t feel I get the mileage out of them. I also like finding something I never even knew I wanted to read among organised chaos. So I buy a lot of books secondhand. I like bookshops with character; where the shelves are mismatched or where you could be killed by tottering piles of books if you make the wrong move…
Little Catherine Street Bookshop and Art Gallery (which also goes off-site with a stall occasionally): This is a gem. The shop is upstairs but you get the measure of it while ascending because there are even piles of books in a space to the side of the stairs and at the top you’re met by walls of books and loads of little cubbies. Books spill out of cabinets and fill available floor space. It looks like a book factory exploded in there ha ha. It’s oddly homely with household furniture and the radio playing. The selection is very wide and eclectic. There are designated sections but browsing is more fun!
High Street Bookstore, across from the Round House Bar and near the Milk Market: Like the previous shop, this one has a large selection of every and any type of book and has them in every display position possible—in the window, on shelves, on tables, on the floor. I think the opening hours are mainly at the owner’s discretion but it’s normally open on Saturdays when the market is hopping. The owner used to have a small place on William Street years ago and that had a certain claustrophobic, musty charm too.
Some of the charity shops have a decent selection of books but it depends on the shop. At least you know the price of the book goes to a good cause. One that’s consistently good is Oxfam and it also has some branches selling just books. There’s a fantastic one of these bookshops on Parnell Street in Ennis.
Oxfam, William Street, Limerick: As far as I can tell a group of middle-aged and elderly women run this shop, and with great efficiency. There’s a big shelf unit at the front of the shop, always full, and they do book sales every now and again too.
The bookshop obsession goes global…
I’m proud to say I’ve been to two of the most well known bookshops in the world… sad but true!
The Strand Bookstore, New York: It boasts ‘18 miles of books’ within its confines. That’s a concept and a visual image I find fascinating. The shop is massive, spanning a few floors. Outside it on Fourth Avenue, it also has stalls of books in a throwback to what the street used to be nicknamed—Book Row. The Strand is the only bookshop left there now.
Shakespeare and Co, Rue De La Bucherie, Paris: This bookshop is very unique and has played host to famous authors like Henry Miller and William Burroughs. It has stacks and stacks of titles, used and new. There are multiple levels with books not just on the shopfloor but in little rooms and corridors. There a chairs and people are welcome to sit and read. The owner, George Whitman, has been running what he calls “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” for 50 years. There are also beds scattered around where people stay in return for helping out in the shop. Now that’s a recession-proof idea Irish bookshops haven’t hit on yet!
Printed books and bookshops are facing stiff opposition from technological advances i.e. electronic readers like the Kindle and e-books and online booksellers. These advances are new market opportunities and sometimes cheaper but they also take away a sensory and social experience too.
It was actually always a dream of mine to own a bookshop but there’s a risk I’d be too delighted to get any work done but if any of the aforementioned booksellers want to give me a job, I’d take it 😉 For now though, I’ll be content to seek out my next fix. I hear there’s a new stall in the Limerick Milk Market on Fridays (11am-5pm) and Saturday (11am-4pm) called Bazaar Tales run by two lifelong bibliophiles. To the book-mobile…