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May 24, 2014

#36:  ROSEMARY MAHONEY.  “It seemed a delightful thing to be sitting in a kitchen at the dead center of a house with nothing buts bats and stars for a ceiling and a lizard shrieking and chattering behind the refrigerator.”   What with bloggers and journal keepers and personal websites and the viral welter of personalia, writers like Rosemary Mahoney are both an example and a caution.  She does what the introspecting young dream of:  writing, not novels or poems or short stories but non-fiction books based on her personal experiences.  The trick is, she does it awfully, awfully well.  The Early Arrival of Dreams: A Year in China (Fawcett) and Whoredom in Kimmage: The World of Irish Women (Anchor) are accounts of residencies abroad; A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman (Anchor) is a reminiscence of when in late adolescence she worked as a housegirl for the devastatingly irascible playwright; her most recent, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff (Little, Brown) is about an Egyptian voyage, with wonderful word-portraits and a comic, horrible, self-terrifying passage about crocodiles; perhaps my favorite, The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground m:(Mariner), brings us to Walsingham, Lourdes, Santiago, Varanasi, the Holy Land and Lough Derg in Ireland.  They are all terrifically readable and the least narcissistic, most sharply observed books you could imagine.  They are full of people, to whom Mahoney reacts with intelligence, kindness, fury and respect.  The writing is lively and vivid and when there is introspection we come to enjoy it, because of its honesty and depth, as much as we enjoy her snapshot-perfect eye for detail and her memory for things said.  She captures how in the midst of observation the past can stick its insisting nose into the present; she is infinitely curious and adventurous; and when she says, in The Singular Pilgrim, “Humor seemed to me the height of wisdom,” we believe her.  She’s done her reading and knows where she is, and then sees where the place will take her.  Pilgrim addresses the problem of religious belief and in its personal, sidewise tack says as much, and as honestly, as anything I’ve read on the subject.   There’s been a huge boom of memoir and personal reportage in the last decades—in Mahoney’s books we find out how well it can be done.

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