BOOK REVIEW: DID YE HEAR MAMMY DIED? by SÉAMAS O’REILLY


Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is–maybe surprisingly, given its title–a lovely book, funny and poignant in equal measure. And it’s exactly that combination of the two, the balancing act between gravity and levity, that makes it work so well as a memoir. Right from the get-go, the opening chapter of the book tells you all that you need to know about the kind of tone you’re getting here,

“One thing they don’t tell you about mammies is that when they die you get new trousers. On my first full day as a half-orphan, I remember fiddling with unfamiliar cords as Margaret held my cheek and told me Mammy was a flower . . . ‘Sometimes,’ croaked Margaret, ‘when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden’ . . . As Margaret reassured me that God was an avaricious gardener intent on murdering my loved ones any time he pleased, I concentrated once more on my new corduroy slacks, summoned from the aether as if issued by whichever government department administers to the needs of all the brave little boys with dead, flowery mams – an infant grief action pack stuffed with trousers, sensible underpants, cod liver oil tablets and a solar-powered calculator.”

And to be sure, it’s not an easy tone to strike. This is, in many ways, a sad book: O’Reilly confronts the loss of his mother head on, a loss that is made all the more tragic because he was so young when it happened. It’s also a loss that follows him throughout his life, as he tries to recover his early memories of his mother, the very little that he had of her before she passed away.

And yet, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is never a sad book, per se. O’Reilly takes many things seriously–bereavement, grief–but he also knows when not to take things seriously, and that’s what makes this book so charming in the end. That’s not to say that sad books about grief are somehow lesser–that O’Reilly’s book is “better” as a memoir because it’s not just sad–but rather that this particular book accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to combine the serious with the funny, and look at the ways in which the two can and do intersect.

“I was simply too young to grasp that the only thing sadder than a five-year-old crying because his mammy died is a five-year-old wandering around with a smile on his face because he hasn’t yet understood what that means. We laugh about it now, but it really is hard for me to imagine the effect I must have had, skipping sunnily through the throng, appalling each person upon their entry to the room by thrusting my beaming, three-foot frame in front of them like a chipper little maître d’, with the cheerful inquiry:
‘Did ye hear Mammy died?'”

Something else I loved about this book’s tone is O’Reilly’s earnestness. It’s a memoir about his mother, yes, but also about the rest of his family: his dad, who features prominently in many of the chapters, and his ten siblings. There are lots of fun and funny dynamics at play here, and I think O’Reilly does a great job at teasing out some of the notable and illustrative anecdotes that speak to these family members. His dad especially is quite the character (in the best of ways): I love the way he gently pokes fun at his little quirks and mannerisms. Regardless of who or what O’Reilly is talking about, though, that earnestness is always there: you can really tell how much he loves and cares for his family, and that shines through in the writing without it ever being sentimental or saccharine. It’s just a simple fact for him, and he treats it as such.

I just really enjoyed Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?–and especially because I listened to Séamas O’Reilly himself narrate the audiobook. His literal voice and narrative voice compliment each other perfectly, and the humour of his writing very much comes through in the way that he narrates the audiobook.

Altogether, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? really is such a charming memoir, one that I frankly can’t imagine anyone not liking.

Thanks so much to Hachette Audio for providing me with an audiobook ARC of this in exchange for an honest review!


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BOOK REVIEW: SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS by TAJJA ISEN


Some of My Best Friends is a collection of lucid, accessible essays on the many contexts in which the concept of “lip service”–talk that’s not backed up by action–manifests. The contexts Isen looks at here are wide-ranging, and a lot of them are, to varying to degrees, inspired by her own personal experiences. The first essay, “Hearing Voices,” for example, draws on her time working as a child voice actor in order to explore how recent discourses around race and representation have stymied (or overlooked) the kind of creative potential that voice acting has an art. Another particularly personal essay is “Barely Legal,” where Isen talks about how law school changed her relationship to the written word and the ways in which it could (or was expected to) enact change.

More broadly, Some of My Best Friends explores a lot of topics with clarity and sensitivity. That said, what you get out of these essays is really going to depend on your level of familiarity with their respective topics of focus. As someone who spends a lot of time in bookish circles, for example, I found that the ideas in Isen’s essay on representation in the publishing industry weren’t particularly new to me. The essays that I was more drawn to, then, were the ones that were more unfamiliar to me–namely, “Barely Legal,” which was the one on law school; “Some of My Best Friends,” which is about white feminism (not a topic that’s new to me, necessarily, but which I think Isen really deftly explored); and “This Time It’s Personal,” which looks at the role that the personal essay plays in today’s digital publishing (and political) landscape.

Isen has worn a lot of hats–child voice actor, law school student, author, editor–and I think this is reflected in the kind of flexible, multifaceted approach that she brings to all her topics, regardless of subject matter. Her writing is also more conversational than academic or formal in tone, which makes these essays very digestible and easy to get into. And though I appreciated this, I think I also wanted a bit more from these essays–specifically, more critical analysis. I enjoyed reading these essays, and I found a lot of them really interesting, but on the whole I can’t say that any of them really delivered any insights that I personally found especially memorable or striking. That’s not to say that I am super well-versed in these topics or anything, but more that the nature of Isen’s essays–short, survey chapters that tend to take a broader, more top-down approach to their topics–meant that they couldn’t go into as much detail as I perhaps wanted them to.

That being said, I still think Some of My Best Friends is an engaging and well written collection of essays, great if you’re looking for something that’s quick but still analytical; conversational, but with a critical bent.

Thanks so much to Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!


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MY FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2021: NONFICTION


Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

I feel like Patrick Radden Keefe needs no introduction at this point. Say Nothing was incredible, and surprise surprise, so is Empire of Pain. I cannot tell you how VORACIOUSLY I read this book. Keefe’s writing is ridiculously propulsive as always, and the way that he weaves the strands of this narrative together is so impressive.


The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

The Anthropocene Reviewed

This was such a lovely, big-hearted book. John Green writes with real sympathy and compassion about a lot of things: grocery store chains and birds and sunsets and grass. It all seems random and I started many of the essays thinking I couldn’t possibly be interested in some of these topics, and then by the end I was like ok, this is actually very moving and I am very possibly on the verge of tears. A gorgeous book, and an even more gorgeous one on audiobook, which John Green narrates himself.


Ace by Angela Chen

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex

Ace is the most eye-opening book I’ve read this year. It’s one of the few nonfiction books that’s genuinely changed the way I think about so many things, in this case about sex and romance. Chen covers a lot of aspects of asexuality, here, but she also interrogates so much of what undergirds our society when it comes to relationships and companionship. A very, very compelling read.


The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

(my review)

I’ve found myself thinking about this book all the time ever since I finished it. I think I cited it in like 3 different assignments this last semester, so clearly it’s been on my mind lol. Amia Srinivasan’s writing is sharp as a blade: she writes so incisively about feminist topics, and brings real insight and clarity to each of the topics she covers.


Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger

Negative Space

I was pretty much on the verge of crying for the entirety of this book. I read it on Hannah’s recommendation, and she was absolutely right: this is such a powerful, well-written book. Dancyger writes poignantly about her father: his art, his struggle with addiction, his relationships. And through it all you can just so keenly feel how much he loved her, and how she loved him. Oof, this was a very emotional read. (Also very underrated!!!!)


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