Friday, September 17, 2010

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Angela's AshesTitle: Angela's Ashes
Author: Frank McCourt
Pages: 426
Published: Flamingo 1997
My Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

I don't know how to reveiw this book.  It wasn't depressing for me to read, but after it is over and I find myself trying to write about it, I can't seem to do so without feeling melancholy.  Like being involved in an unfolding tragedy, the adrenaline and curiosity pull you through and help you function until the crisis passes.  And then: slowing down, reflecting, the depression hits.

I often felt as if I was discovering the truth of my own family's history--the truth that is often packed away and held inside rather than exposed and aired; the history suffered through shared circumstances and made a bit lighter by common experience.  My grandfather was born in New York City 10 years before Frank McCourt, and the snippets I know of his childhood and journey through life rang true with many parts of Angela's Ashes.  Except that my grandfather's family didn't travel back to Ireland--and Frank McCourt could only wish his hadn't.  The book opens with that desire: My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.

How would his life have been different if they had stayed?  It's impossible to know, though I can't help but wonder.  It certainly is easy to mix fantasy in with the reality when dreaming:
[...] if I were in America I could say, I love you, Dad, the way they do in films, but you can't say that in Limerick for fear you might be laughed at.  You're allowed to love God and babies and horses that win but anything else is a softness in the head.
Many parts of this book had me bursting into laughter, making it all the more fun to read.  It is well written, showing clearly how he perceived his world as he was growing, making normal things endearing.  This ebb and flow from heartache to humor made the pages fly by.  I love how he captured his internal life in addition to the societal patterns in Limerick.
In fine weather men sit outside smoking their cigarettes if they have them, looking at the world and watching us play.  Women stand with their arms folded, chatting.  They don't sit because all they do is stay at home, take care of the children, clean the house and cook a bit and the men need the chairs.  The men sit because they're worn out from walking to the Labour Exhange every morning to sign for the dole, discussing the world's problems and wondering what to do with the rest of the day.
Much of the book was so unbelievable that you knew it must be real: "stranger than fiction" exemplified.  Although many of the people in the book were less than stellar characters, I still find myself wanting to know more about them.  That, if anything, shows that the book was well written.  Lucky for me, there are plenty of books written by the McCourt brothers that will be easy enough to pick up when the mood strikes.

Have you read any of the McCourt's books other than Angela's Ashes?  Seen the film adaptation or documentary?  What did you think?


  1. I've read Angela's Ashes and 'Tis. I also heard McCourt lecture in NJ. My husband is from Ireland and most of his family is still there. We visit about once a year. My mother-in-law, who still lives in Ireland, hated this book. She seemed to think it shed a negative light on Ireland. She said she never had it that bad and that McCourt's story is depressing, but that's what sells.

    Most of my husband's family did not leave Ireland. Perhaps there's a difference between the stories of Irish-Americans and that of the Irish? I don't know.

  2. Hia I've read Algela's Ashes, 'tis and Teacher Man. I think it's good to read them all, although Angela's Ashes is the 'best'. 'tis is good if you want to know what happened next, and Teacher Man makes it seem less gloomy. In fact Teacher Man was a real feel good book after the others.

  3. Thank heavens for McCourt's sense of humor--without it this book would have been so depressing. I really loved this one!

  4. Trina--having an Irish grandfather who didn't speak of his past, I can well imagine how offensive it would be to have someone else lay it out there like that. Almost disloyal or something. Although I'd have to say that your mother-in-law is correct: the shocking and depressing is much more likely to sell!

    Lucybirdbooks--thanks for the opinion on his other books. This one did make me feel like I wanted to know what happened next, so maybe at some point I'll pick up 'Tis.

    Lisa--I agree, the humor really was necessary to balance everything else. I'm so glad I finally read this!

  5. Someone just brought up this author after reading my post on my favorite teachers. Honestly I have never heard of him but your review---your not being able to review the book rather---intrigues me! Thanks Melody for the insight. :)


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