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A Personal Tour of Modern Irish History

Fintan O’Toole was born in Dublin in 1958, the same year that T.K. Whitaker, a member of the Irish government, published an influential report suggesting that Ireland open its doors economically and culturally to the rest of the world. O’Toole’s new book, “We Don’t Know Ourselves,” weaves memoir with history to tell the story of modern Ireland.

“There’s a lot of dark stuff in the book,” he says, “there’s a lot of violence and repression and hypocrisy and abuse. But there’s also the story of a people coming to terms with itself. One of the reasons why we’re still dealing with darkness is at least we’re dealing with it. There’s a kind of confrontation with the past going on in Ireland which I think is very healthy. It’s not easy.” He continues: “One of the hopeful things about the Irish story is that it shows you that you can transform a nation — you can make it in many ways an awful lot better than it was, you can open it up to the world, you can develop much more complex, ambivalent, nonbinary senses of who you are — and yet you can still feel very much attached to a place and an identity.”

Julie Otsuka visits the podcast to discuss her third novel, “The Swimmers,” which begins with a large group of characters at a public pool before becoming the powerful story of one particular woman, Alice, who is suffering from dementia.

Alice is “actually there from the very beginning,” Otsuka says. “She’s there at the end of the very first paragraph. But I did not want the reader to be too aware of her. I want her to be there very peripherally, just as one of many. I want the reader to realize, as the story is going on, that it is Alice’s story, but I don’t want that to be so apparent in the beginning. I really wanted to paint the world that she had thrived in before she enters the second half of the book.”

Also on this week’s episode, Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Gregory Cowles and Dave Kim talk about what people are reading. John Williams is the host.

Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:

We would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to books@nytimes.com.

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