Sunday, March 20, 2011

Angela's Ashes

Angela's Ashes
by Frank McCourt

Look at me! I'm reading the most talked about book of 1996! Yes, I know my books aren't timely and most real readers have read what I read long ago, but please remember that I live in a place where access to English books is scarce and I am at the mercy of what I get from a variety of sources.

End of rant... on with the blog!

It's not that I didn't like Angela's Ashes. I did! I did! It's a searing yet heartbreaking memoir of childhood poverty in Ireland. Its themes of forgiveness and understanding and fragility are underscored by desperation and anger. It is a stark actualization of a specific period in Irish history and a brutal cross-section of life in the lanes. In short, it's a sublime piece of honesty.

But something troubled me about this book.

It's not that I didn't feel for little Frankie and his mother, Angela and all the kids (both living and dead). Every time Frankie's father didn't come home with the wages and the kids suffered from some class of hunger I would go to my own kitchen and marvel at my refrigerator and all the contents therein. Every time angela had to bury one of her kids i thought about how lucky my wife and I have been to have never experienced anything like that. Every time someone got sick with the consumption or typhoid I was thankful for my health benefits. I certainly wouldn't classify myself as a man living in the lap of luxury, but there is always food in the cabinets, money in the bank and time for the pint. Thank Jaysus!

It's not that I didn't enjoy the way Frank McCourt brought to life the abject poverty of Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s. His cast of characters from county Limerick are worth the price of admission from his hardened grandmother and Aunt Aggie to Uncle Pa, Theresa and his best friend Micky Malloy. I loved the way in which Frankie learns about the world by simply being in it and picking things up along the way. Felt bad about ll that Catholic guilt, though.

It's not that it wasn't well written. I enjoyed the childlike stream of conciousness and the way he wrote the entire memoir in the present tense so that we discovered his world along with him throughout.

I liked everything about this book. I thought it was one of the best books I've read this year and one of the best books (among many) that I have read about growing up poor in Ireland. There was just something off about the entire book. Something that, if left unresolved, was going to ruin any chance I would have of enjoying the book. So I sat down and thought hard until I figured it out: I've read this book before. No, not Angela's Ashes, specifically, but rather the story in general. Only the first time I read it it was called Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and it was written by a guy named Roddy Doyle.

It's a memoir. I'm not questioning McCourt's authenticity. Once I figured it out, I finished the book happily and enjoyed every page. It's a good book. But I found it strange that Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt's stories could be so similar despite Doyle's being older and a piece of fiction.

I know, I know... books about growing up poor in Ireland are a dime a dozen. James Joyce, Leon Uris and others have done that theme to death, but still... I am currently working on a theory that Roddy Doyle may be in possession of a time machine.


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