Saturday, November 16, 2013

Angela's Ashes

Before I headed out on my recent road trip, I stopped by the library.  They sell used books for 50 cents, and I am always buying.  I got two classics, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt.

The English Patient started off beautifully and I was enthralled.  I had loved the movie years prior.  But strangely, by the time I finished the book I had decided that the movie was actually better.  I don't think I have ever had a case like this.  I love the show and book of Game of Thrones equally and in different ways.  Actually I love the book more, but the show gives me better imagery for the characters.  But The English Patient was a rare case where I thought the story was told better in the movie than the book.  Unexpected sentiments, given the powerful beginning of the novel.

As for Angela's Ashes, I am almost done and this is my favorite passage to date.  Probably because it hits on public diplomacy, and the role of international broadcasting in telling of the world to listeners.

"Grandma's next-door neighbor, Mrs. Purcell, has the only wireless in her lane. The government gave it to her because she's old and blind. I want a radio. My grandmother is old but she's not blind and what's the use of having a grandmother who won't go blind and get a government radio?

Sunday nights I sit outside on the pavement under Mrs. Purcell's window listening to plays on the BBC and Radio Eireann, the Irish station You can hear plays by O'Casey, Shaw, Ibsen and Shakespeare himself, the best of all, even if he is English .... And you can hear strange plays about Greeks plucking out their eyes because they married their mothers by mistake.

One night I am sitting under Mrs. Purcell's window listening to 'Macbeth.' Her daughter, Kathleen, sticks her head out the door. Come in, Frankie. My mother says you'll catch the consumption sitting on the ground in this weather.

Ah no Kathleen. It's all right.
No. Come in.

They give me tea and a grand cut of bread slathered with blackberry jam. Mrs. Purcell says, Do you like the Shakespeare, Frankie?
I love the Shakespeare, Mrs. Purcell.
Oh, he's music, Frankie, and he has the best stories in the world. I don't know what I'd do with meself of a Sunday night if I didn't have the Shakespeare.

When the play finished she lets me fiddle with the knob on the radio and I roam the dial for distant sounds on the shortwave band, strange whispering and hissing, the whoosh of the ocean coming and going and Morse Code dit dit dit dot. I hear mandolins, guitars, Spanish bagpipes, the drums of Africa ... here is the great boom of Big Ben, this is the BBC Overseas Service and here is the news. Mrs. Purcell says, Leave that on, Frankie, so we'll know the state of the world.

After the news there is the American Armed Forces Network and it's lovely to hear the American voices easy and cool and here is the music, oh man, the music of Duke Ellington himself telling me take the A train to where Billie Holiday sings only to me,

I can't give you anything but love, baby. 
That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby.

Oh, Billie, Billie, I want to be in America with you and all that music, where no one has bad teeth, people leave food on their plates, every family has a lavatory, and everyone lives happily ever after.
And Mrs. Purcell's says, Do you know what, Frankie?

What, Mrs. Purcell?

That Shakespeare is that good he must have been an Irishman."

-Frank McCourt, "Angela's Ashes"

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