Archive for April, 2013

Borstal Boy

“Part of the beauty of Borstal Boy… is the skill with which
it recaptures the contradictions that make up the ‘young
offender.’ Behan himself appears in the text as a riddle of
pride, fear, loneliness, and aggression. He is at once a
cynically knowing critic of the pieties of both Irish
nationalism and English imperialism and a homesick boy…”

– Peter Boxall, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die


 

This book took me longer to read than I thought it would. The beginning was interesting, but as it went on, everything seemed to be taking a long time. Some anecdotes were quite enjoyable to read, but I found myself wondering when he would finally have his trial and then when he would get to Borstal (which didn’t happen until Part 3). I think it could have kept my interest better if it had cut out some of the less interesting parts in order to pick up the pace, but perhaps that’s just me. I don’t always have a lot of patience with memoirs or nonfiction books.

I did like that this book was a memoir because it showed everything as absolutely true to life. While it didn’t talk about the IRA as much as I had hoped that it might, there’s really no way to duplicate the kind of insider point of view that Behan offers us. The reader can see what the English prisons of this time really look like from the eyes of a prisoner, and since Behan goes through three different places, from prison to an allocation center to Borstal, the reader can also compare, seeing which are strict and which are more lenient and in what ways.

One thing that can really be seen are the developing relationships between the characters, as Brendan makes friends and finds ways to keep back enemies. This book is also very good for learning slang. There is an index in the back, but I hardly ever used it, as much of it is explained by the narrator the first time a word is used and much of the rest can be easily understood from context. By the end, I was actually impressed with how much of it I had learned. In fact, I begin to think that it’s kind of weird that I know so much about 20th century English prisons now.

I would recommend that anyone who wants to read this book brush up on some Irish history beforehand, especially for the beginning, where Brendan and the police reference several historical figures and events that would have gone right over my head if it hadn’t been for my Irish Lit class. Especially understanding the IRA will help to explain the variety of attitudes towards Brendan presented by the characters upon first meeting him. Given that, I would recommend this book if you have an interest in Irish history or want an insider’s view of prison life in this time period. I probably would have found it boring if I hadn’t gone in wanting to learn something. As it was, I enjoyed it, but probably a bit less than average.

Two and a Half Stars

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April 19, 2013 at 3:01 pm Leave a comment

On Writing a Review of Borstal Boy

What can I say about this one? I finished it over a month ago and am only just getting around to writing the review. That’s a failure on my part that has nothing to do with the book itself and everything to do with the fact that sometimes, life just wears you down.

But that’s ok. It happens. I really see my reading of this list not as some task to be completed or a push towards some arbitrary number, but as a lifetime journey. And that means, well, it’s going to be affected by life.

The reading experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum, completely removed from the context of your life and experiences and emotions, and, for me, that is exactly what makes it so meaningful. When you read a good book, you don’t put it down and walk away completely unaffected. If it’s really done its job, something about it will stick with you: a feeling, a thought, a new perspective. And I believe that if you really connect with it, it will store away something of you as well. In the same way that a song can whisk a couple back to their first date or a lullaby can conjure the warmth of a mother’s arms, I find that books become connected to the time when I first read them, like a bridge into the past. Reading The Scarlet Letter will always remind me of AP English 3. Bridge to Terrabithia will always pull me pack to the sound of my third grade teacher reading it out loud as we sat in silence at our little wooden desks. When I reread Lord of the Rings, perhaps years from now, I’m willing to bet that it will still remind me of lying in bed in my freshman dorm room, fighting off a terrible cold. And maybe someday I’ll pick up Borstal Boy and find that it brings me right back here, to the stress and hard work, to all those things that got in the way once upon a semester.

So I don’t mind writing my review a month too late. That’s life.

April 18, 2013 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

I’m Still Alive! Want to Hear About Ireland?

It may amaze you to find out that I did, in fact, make it back from my trip to Ireland. I realize that I haven’t posted all month and that I’ve been promising a review of Borstal Boy for weeks. If you really want to hear my excuses, they involve the fact that I didn’t do any homework while in Ireland, a nasty cold that lasted for several days, and college midterms.

I had originally planned to do several posts about my trip, but I’m not sure that’s really feasible. Especially since I don’t want to get too far off the track of the point of this site, which is supposed to be about reading books. On that note, though, I haven’t read a book since finishing A Star Called Henry on the plane ride back. (Darn! I just realized I should probably write a review of that, too!)

I’ll get back to reading soon (I hope!), but for now I’m going to pause to discuss a few of the highlights of the trip. We started off in Dublin, where we toured around the city, stopping off at various places like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College, the Kilmainham Gaol, and the General Post Office.

Trinity College houses the Book of Kells, which is very old and very cool, but, personally, I was more drawn to the sites that directly tied in to what we’ve been reading in my Irish Literature class. In A Star Called Henry, the main character (Henry) takes part in the Easter 1916 uprising, camped out in the General Post Office. Of course Henry isn’t real, but the historical events were all too real. When visiting the post office, we could actually reach out and put our fingers inside bullet holes in the columns. Looking up and down the street, our teacher pointed out several stores that Henry is supposed to have shot the windows out of, many of them still operating under the same names. Later on in the book, Henry is captured and held in the Kilmainham Gaol, which is also where the leaders of the 1916 rebellion were executed.

The inside of a cell in Kilmainham Gaol

The inside of a cell in Kilmainham Gaol

It was amazing to be able to step into a place with so much history, especially one that we’d heard and read so much about. Having physically stepped into places like this added so much more to my reading experience as I finished the novel. Learning about the prison’s history also reminded me a great deal of Borstal Boy although that memoir speaks about prisons in England during a later time period. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the two, especially in the systems themselves.

I was able to draw fewer connections to literature when we arrived in Galway, but it was still a great experience. We walked all over the city, took pictures by the Spanish Arch, visited the museum… And one day we took a trip out to the Cliffs of Moher, which were beautiful. I took so many pictures of the rock of the cliffs and the ocean below and how far out they stretched along the coast.

The cliffs!

The cliffs!

And on our final night, back in Dublin once more, we went to the Abbey Theatre to see a production of King Lear. It was my first time seeing a Shakespeare play performed live, and we had amazingly good seats. Our teacher said that it was the best performance of King Lear that she’d ever seen, and I agree that it was really well done. I particularly enjoyed the feeling of suspense I had since I hadn’t previously read the play. I knew it must end tragically, but I didn’t know how, and that made it very exciting.

It was a great experience overall, and I hope to bring it up again as I review A Star Called Henry and other Irish books that I still hope to read in the months ahead. When I finally get the time.

[[A quick note. I could have sworn I published this post weeks ago, only to find today that it’s still marked as a draft. I blame my laptop.]]

April 18, 2013 at 12:38 pm Leave a comment


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