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Book Club with Peter Cunningham - Dear Sebastian by Christine Horgan

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Today we will chat about the book with the writer and Irish Times books reviewer Peter Cunningham and 3 members of one of those book clubs - Claire O'Brien, Paul Corr and Shirley Callanan, all from Mountmellick, Co Laois.

The book launched on September 14th and is a very touching story of a dying father's legacy of love to his 9year old son Sebastian. Any child or even adult who has lost their father or mother could not fail but to be moved and inspired by the letters written by well known Irish people in this book.

The book was chosen by viewers as October's book of the month.

Who Is The Guest?
Peter Cunningham

'The Sea and the Silence' is published by New Island

Born in Waterford in 1947, Peter Cunningham is best known as a regular books reviewer for The Irish Times and as the author of the Monument novels. Set in the fictional landscape of Cunningham's native city and surrounding countryside, these stories, beginning with Tapes of the River Delta, are about Irish people and their lives and loves from the late 19th century to the present day. The novels have been widely acclaimed, in Ireland, the UK and US, and in translation.

Consequences of the Heart was short-listed for the Listowel writers prize. "A masterful, funny and moving story steeped in Irish and European tradition," the Observer said in its Book of the Week review. "It is a triumph," said the Irish Times.

Of Love in One Edition, the third in the series, the London Times said, "Beautifully written with moments of calm insight."

Booker prize winner Roddy Doyle said of The Sea and the Silence, published in 2008: "It is a truly terrific novel - moving and hugely entertaining."

Cunningham's best selling novel, The Taoiseach, laid bare the corruption and dishonesty at the heart of contemporary Irish politics and was greeted in Ireland with both acclaim and controversy.

Peter Cunningham has judged the Glen Dimplex New Writers Awards. He is a member of Aosdana and lives in County Kildare.

3 Book Club members:
Claire O'Brien
- a DJ in Midlands radio FM103 and a former English teacher, lives in Mountmellick, Co. Laois. The club moves from house to house, each month.
There are 10 people in their club; 7 women, 3 men. It's not a library gathering but a group of friends and friends of friends. First of all Claire invited her friends then they invited theirs and it's 2 years going now. They rotate their book choice; each person gets a chance to tell the group what to read. They also rotate the hosting. The host does all the cooking. They don't drink much.

Each club lasts a couple of hours. It depends on the book how much of a discussion is involved, if it's really good then there is a full on discussion. They move onto general chat if it's a poor choice or if there is nothing or no one to defend.

Her favourite book choice so far is: The Gathering by Anne Enright. People argued over it a lot. Nearly always fiction. The Dark Heart of Italy - a modern political history, but it wasn't a popular. Something that has a strong social message works well usually, like Jodie Pickles, social issues, non-fiction, focusing on the moral dilemma. They meet every 1st Wednesday of each month.

Claire knows Shirley Callanan since she was 4, they were in Jnr infants together and have been into books ever since. Women keep the discussion going more than men. They had rows over Colm Toibín's Brooklyn, and are currently reading Love in Summer. They are looking forward to Dear Sebastian.

Paul Corr - now living in Mountmellick, originally from Co Tyrone, home of all the All Ireland champions!
Liked Shadow of the Wind, My Sister's Keeper, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo best. Didn't like The Dark Heart of Italy, Myles chose that. Found it dreadful as didn't connect with it at all, no interest in it. He writes a bit of poetry, loves imagery and the words that some people use.

Shirley Callanan - Mountmellick, Co Laois -Look forward to the club each month, a wonderful group of people. There's always one who tries to take over, but not in this club. Everyone is there to read. Have it read 1 or 2 books a month. The Book Thief is her favourite book. Least favourite: The Dark Heart of Italy. Pat's choice, but he enjoyed it.
Book Club

Peter Cunningham:

Based on the wish of Jordan, a terminally ill 35-year-old father to convey important wishes and advice to Sebastian, his 9-y-old son, over 80 of Ireland's best known names in politics, sport, the arts, the Church and the media have written to Sebastian to convey to the fatherless child what it is they hold most important in life. Jordan's dad in a car crash too, strange that coincidence.

Despite the poignant provenance of this book, we learn very little about the character of Jordan and nothing about that of Sebastian - the actual material that deals with Jordan's sudden diagnosis and death, although sad, is extremely brief, (a dozen pages).

What this book really is, then, is a glimpse into the lives and minds of Ireland's fittest and finest, not to mention richest people. Whereas there is sometimes a tone that suggests that the writers have more than a wary eye on the book in which they will appear, it is nonetheless interesting to dip in and out of a collection of letters on a difficult subject from Ireland's household names.

This then is not a book about Jordan or Sebastian, but a collection of letters and emails from Brian Cowen, Gloria Hunniford, Christy Moore, Gay Byrne, and scores of others. The letter shed light then on those characters rather than on Sebastian and Jordan anymore.

A number of constants are evident from reading these letters and emails.
. A number of the writers also lost a father or mother at an early or relatively young age (John O'Donoghue TD, John Magnier, Simon Coveney TD, Patrick Kielty, Fr Brian d'Arcy, Shay Given, Sean Quinn)
. The advice "not to hold grudges" is repeated constantly (Gay Byrne, Robin Eames et al)
. The advice to be yourself, to do your best and to think positively is widespread (Brian Cody, Brian O'Driscoll, Conor Doyle et al)
. Unusual and thought provoking:A seemingly hard nosed businessman Dermot Desmond said, "kindness is more important than wisdom", p144
. Joe O'Connor, touching that he said "have courage"
. Funny then that Norris said, you're a damn fool if you let anyone control your life
. Love your friends and family is a given
Little inspiring gems emerge - such as when John Magnier, 1 of Ireland's richest men, confesses that he never understood the Dotcom bubble; and the treatise on fly-fishing from Peter O'Reilly, one of the few truly lyrical moments in the book.

A book for dipping into - and for the occasional glimpse into the hearts and minds of the great.


The style of it struck her the most. Some people write by hand, by type, get a lot of the personality of the writers. Darina Allen was like a recipe. Fly fishing guy write a long letter, this is what you need to know, some people write as they speak, works well in some of them. Writing is more formal than conversation normally. Brian Cowen's letter was interesting, verging on personal, almost went there. Would say he wrote it himself. Joseph O'Connor's was very nice just morew of the same. Tony O'Reilly's letter was hilarious, he and some businessmen were so formal. Very short and very formal. Nell McCafferty's letter was very short but then she is like that, she hit a certain nail on the head. Unless you were confident with what you were dealing with you wouldn't have written a letter. A lot of clichés were striking, too easy. Christy Moore's letter was nice, the little guitar at the end of the letter. Pauline Bewick's drawing was absolutely gorgeous.

Claire was skeptical of this book at the start. Who would I buy it for? It would not have initially appealed to her. A lot of people were not thinking about the fact that they were writing to a child at all. The experience of reading the book was better than she expected. She's not sure she would buy it for someone. Not a book for advice on life. Will Sebastian get much from it? The fact that all these busy people took time to think of him. May take one or 2 nuggets from it.

Paul Corr:

He found Dear Sebastian difficult at the start as his dad died when he was 2. He felt almost jealous of Sebastian having his dad for 9 years. Brought back all those memories. Suddenly realized he didn't have a father growing up, don't have one and he was different from other kids, no harm in that. Surprised at how this book affected him, at this age. You'd think it was a normal thing in life, but he was amazed at how the emotions came flooding back. It changed his view on some of the contributors at how they had written, like Daniel O'Donnell, wishy-washy but he wrote a really caring letter. Nell McCafferty's letter showed she wasn't really bothered, just move on. Others were written well for a 9 year old boy, too out there like John Waters, even Paul didn't understand it. Emily O'Reilly's was wonderful, really written for a child. Those letters will be there for Sebastian forever. It's like Paul's work is also to help people to work things out for themselves and this book is like that. Has it changed things for his own 3 children? The kids may not be conscious of it, but he is now a little more conscious of his relationship with his children. He asked his son when I get really old will you look after me? He said why what will Francesca be doing? Made him reflect on what will his kids think of him when he's gone and in a good way it helps you to do that when you can physically change things and an opportunity to do all that when you're still in good

Shirley Callanan:

More than half way through. Need to read a few letters a night and pick it up again. Can get repetitive, be a good person, can't get your teeth into it as with a novel. Christy Moore, Fr Brian Darcy, Brian Cowen's and Mary Harney's letters are the most impressive.
Nell McCafferty's letter, she didn't get it, 2 or 3 lines. Daniel O'Donnell's letter didn't appeal either, as he said it's a big ask, it's an honour not a trial. Joseph O'Connor's was beautiful and Emil O'Reilly really thought about put a lot heart into it.

Prices/Stockists/Relevant Information
Title: Dear Sebastian, A Father's Last Wish, A Legacy of Inspiration by Christine Horgan
Publisher: Hachette Ireland
Cost: €13.99 - paperback - the hardcover is about €22