Sunday, October 18, 2009

Angela's Ashes: Funniest Sad Book Ever

10877927Have you read Angela’s Ashes?  You’re probably nodding with a bit of a wistful look on your face right now. Until last night, when I finished the book, I felt like I was the only one in the world who hadn’t read it. It’s one of those books that’s been on my shelf for years, and I always promised myself I’d get to it “soon.” When Frank McCourt died this summer at the age of 78, I almost felt guilty for never having read it while he was still in the world.

You ask anyone about the book and inevitably you get the same response: “Wow, what a great book, and so, so sad.” And they’re right, the family’s poverty, sibling deaths and the father’s alcoholism and utter disregard for the welfare of his family make for, on the whole, a rather melancholy 360 pages. But what I didn’t expect is how absolutely hysterical the book is at times. In fact, the scenes I’ll almost certainly remember the most from the books are the funny ones.

mccourt_frank2My favorite scene in the book is the First Communion episode. Young Frank has just received his First Communion and is excited about going on The Collection – a tradition whereby he gets to go around to the neighbors and receive gifts, after which he can afford the rare treat of going to the cinema. But before he can go, his grandmother insists on serving him a rich breakfast, which he promptly vomits all over his grandmother’s backyard. His grandmother is horrified, screaming “I have God in me backyard.” She makes him skip The Collection and go immediately to confession. Even the priest is doing all he can not to crack up when Frank tells him “I threw up my First Communion Breakfast and now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.” The priest tells her to wash God with a little water, but when Frank relays this advice to his grandmother she sends him back in to the confessional to ask “Holy water or ordinary water?”  If you don’t think that’s funny, well, you may not have a soul…

The other thing that stands out about this book is McCourt’s lyrical childlike voice. The dialogue is wonderfully Irish and seemingly pitch perfect, and his portrayal of his childhood version of an almost superstitious Catholicism and the accompanying guilt is practically gut-wrenching (i.e., he is stricken with guilt that he sent the girl of his first sexual encounter to hell because she never had a chance to confess before she died).

I loved this book, for its humor, its pathos, its general “funness.” The only thing that made this book sad for me is the knowledge that its author is no longer with us. RIP, Mr. McCourt!

(PS. Yes, I’m still chugging along on The Pillars of the Earth, too, but I had some flights the last two weeks and didn’t want to lug that 1,000-page behemoth in my carry-on bag. Hence, Angela’s Ashes.)



  1. LOL I remember the communion part of Angela's Ashes and it did make me giggle when I was reading it. That's such a great book. It's probably been ten years since I read it. I don't re-read very often, but this might be one to pick up again sometime soon.

  2. I have not read this book, but I heard it is very sad. I will read it someday, I just need to be in the right mood.

    I just started following your blog. Come by and check mine out.

  3. I've heard good things about this but probably too heavy with me. Nice review!

  4. I loved this book! Some try to put it into the category of a misery memoir, I guess in some respects it is...but with the humor laced in I found it a wonderful read. Have you read his other books, "Tis" and "Teacher Man" ? I loved them all. He was a good writer IMHO.

    Sidenote: having an e-Reader would have let you continue to read your 1000 page book with no weight issue :) What a convenience. If I traveled more I think I'd like one of those things.

    Nice blog!

  5. You weren't the only one until you stinkin' read it. :) I really need to get to this one too. My mom's been telling me to for years.


  6. I read this many many years ago and it's been in a tie for my all time favorite book along with Zoya.

  7. What a great review. Like you I've had this one sitting on my bookshelf for years, maybe 2010 is the year :-)

  8. What a great review...interesting how humor can be laced into such sad stories isn't it? Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  9. I avoided this book for two reasons. The hype. More often than not I am disappointed by highly-hyped books and movies. And, I thought it would depress and exhaust me. But as with Betty Smith's A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, you become so engrossed with the characters that you aren't weighed down by the crushing poverty. It almost seems an afterthought, a tiny detail, yet it is what forms the characters. Both of these books, while written 60 years apart, are written beautifully and skillfully.

  10. Frank McCourt is by far my favorite author. The story tells of the nonstop struggles he had while growing up in extreme poverty. A sad but well written book. I have read it 3 times now.

  11. Reading some passages almost made me feel guilty of having not experienced such depths of penury; but suddenly, you find yourself laughing out loud.
    Nice review of a well written book.