Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, March 26, 2022

"The Passions of Sophie Bryant - A Short Story by Shauna Gilligan, author of Happiness Comes from Nowhere (2017)

I have been reading Shauna Gilligan since March 31, 2012.  I have posted upon several of her wonderful short stories (my posts contain links to the stories) and her highly 
regarded debut novel, Happiness Comes From Nowhere.  Additionally she very kindly contributed an illuminating overview on the work of Desmond Hogan.  In her Q and A session on The Reading Life we dealt with a broad range of matters, many, but not all, Irish literature related.  In all there are eight posts devoted to or by Shauna Gilligan on the blog.  Obviously I would not follow a writer for so long and so closely if I did not hold them in quite high regard.

The just recently published short story "The Passion of Sophie Bryant" is a very intriguing work.  In just a few beautiful pages Gilligan brings to live for us the famous Irish mathematician, educator and a feminist, Sophie Bryant.  (I suggest nonIrish readers take a look at the article from the Irish Times linked to above to expand your understanding of her importance in Irish history.  My guess is most Irish readers will be aware of her importance but others, including myself, will have no prior knowledge about her. I believe Gilligan is assuming some knowledge.  

Sophie Bryant was born in Dublin in 1850, her father was a Trinity Fellow and a famous mathematician.  Bryant was educated at home, learning to speak French and German from governesses.  She moved to London at age 13 when her father was offered a position as Chairman of the Geometry Department of the University of London.  At sixteen she started college, focusing on science.  At nineteen she married a well known mathematician, ten years her senior, he died a year later.  She never remarried.  She continued her education, herself becoming a highly regarded mathematician and head mistress at the North London College school as well as a leading advocate of more legal rights for women, including the right to vote.  She loved outdoor activities and died while hiking in France while on holiday.  

Gilligan does a wonderful job in just a few page taking us into the interior life of Bryant, from her childhood, her brief marriage and her death.  On first scrutiny Bryant will seem the epitome of rationality, dedicated to geometry and science and moral philosophy.  I find I'm really liking the episodic narrative method. Gilligan skillfully takes us below that, to a seer with a vision for a unified view of science and morality.  She was raised in a culture that largely suppressed passion in women, Bryant may not have understood how to deal with this aspect of her life and Gilligan helps us feel her pain and loneliness.  

I really liked this story, I read it five times.

I look forward to following Shauna Gilligan's work for many years 

Shauna Gilligan lives in Kildare with her family and a black and white cat called Lucky. She writes short and long stories and is interested in the depiction of historical events in fiction, and creative processes. She is currently working on her second novel set in Mexico.

Mel u

Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck - 2014 - A Novel - 386 Pages

Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck - 2014 - A Novel

Earlier this month I read Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck.  Set largely in Europe during World War Two, it centers on the resitance activities of young English woman in recruited into The Special Operations Executive to fight The Nazis in France and an American woman with a French husband who helps downed fliers escape.  They both end up in Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck - 2022 - A WW Two Novel - 2022

Based upon the experiences of renowned WWII SOE agents Violette Szabo and Virginia d’Albert, Sisters of the Night and Fog is set mostly in London, France and Germany during World War Two.  Virginia is an American, from Florida, who against her family’s wishes elects to stay in Nazi occupied France.  Events draw her into the resistance, she helps downed fliers get out of France, at great risk to herself and her husband.  She loses her comfortable life as rationing gets worse. The search for food becomes never ending.

Violette is a 19 year old English woman, a crack shot and desperate to fight the Nazis any way she can.  She ends up being recruited into the Special Operations Executive and trained for clandestine attacks on the Germans in France.  The training is very tough but Viollétte ends up being dropped by parachute into Occupied France.

The two women are both captured and sent to the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

There are lots of minor characters ranging 

from Nazis, downed Fliers, fellow resistance fighters and  family members of the women.  All are marvelously done.  The descriptions of Europe are very well done.

I was very glad when i was able to acquire her novel Fallen Beauty on sale as a Kindle.  Set in a small town in upstate New York, it centers on the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edna Saint Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 Rockland Maine to 

October 19, 1950 Austerlitz, NY. 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) and a woman who becomes her seamstress and close friend.  The novel begins in 1928.

Laura Kelly is an unwed mother in a time and place where this is a terrible scandal.  Millay, living on a nearby fabulous estate maintains a live of sensual and sexual indulgence, married to a completely devoted man, who seeks new partners to inspire 

the passions she needs to write.  She is on a constant emotional roller coaster.  Laura runs a seamstress shop, mostly just barely getting by, taking care of her beloved daughter Gabriel. In the minds of those in her town, she is a “Fallen Beauty”.

Through an intricate  series of happenstances Lilly is engaged to make the gowns Millay will wear on her nationwide tours.  They become close in a strange way. Gabriel calls Millay “The Witch Lady”. There are dramatic connections of all sorts complicating relationships.

Millay is potrayed very much as a demanding diva, taking as her near divine right to be worshipped. I concede at times she seemed overwrought.  

For Lilly I enjoyed and was emotionally gratified by her close of narrative life.

I enjoyed Fallen Beauties a lot.  The Kindle edition contains a bibliography on Millay, a list of Robuck’s favorite of her poems and an interview.

Robuck has five other works of historical fiction.  I hope to read them all.

Mel Ulm 


Friday, March 25, 2022

The Scattering -A Collection of Short Stories by Jaki McCarrick - A Post in Observation of Irish Short Story Month

The Scattering - A Collection of Short Stories by Jaki McCarrick (2013, 235 pages)

March 1 to March 31

Jaki McCarrick

Posting on a collection of short stories presents more of a challenge, to me at least, than posting on a novel.    For me I find the best way to write about a collection of short stories, both in terms of assisting  possible readers or buyers of the collection and respecting the writer, is by  posting in some detail on a representative number of the stories and then make some general observations on the collection and offer my thoughts to prospective readers.

  For those in a hurry, I will say The Scattering - A Collection of Short Stories by Jaki McCarrick is an amazing body of work, withing shimmering and incredibly entertaining stories that go deep into the heart of many of the issues facing contemporary Ireland.  This book deserves tremendous success and a very wide readership.  It both confirms and rises above the common elements of the Irish short story I have spoken about this month;; the weak or missing father, the presence of the stage Irishmen, the uneasiness of the relationships of men and women,  the heavy reliance on alcohol, the temptation toward arrogance as a way of dealing with the humiliating consequences of colonialism, the obsession with death, and the false rebellions of posers of all sorts.  

"By The Black Field"

"There were times when Angel thought that the land
communicated with him. He knew that this was irrational, and
probably due to overwork, and to the fact that he had not yet lost
his city-born infatuation with green fields (and also, possibly,
because he’d spent his childhood summers in this place and had
fond and lively memories of it). He imagined that after a few
more years on the farm he’d be as hard nosed towards the land
as every other farmer he knew. Still, he could not dispel the sense
he had that wherever he went on his six acres he was not alone."

"By The Black Field", the lead story, gets this collection of to a marvelous start.  It is set on a six acre farm in Ireland, up near the border with Northern Ireland.  Angel not to long ago inherited the farm and he and his wife not to long ago moved back there from London. Angel loves working the farm but he misses the excitement of London and his wife misses it more than he does.    As the story opens he is building a fence on some wet land and he is thinking maybe he should have built a stone wall.  He and his wife live in an old cottage but all their neighbors live in modern houses.  This is a story, in an oblique way of how a returning exile feels a deeper connection with Ireland than those who never left.  (You can see this some of the better short stories of George Moore also.)  Like any short story  master McCarrick gets us interested in the people in the story (there is something different about them and I loved how this was slipped into the story so subtly), we learn a bit about their life history, a sort of conflict with a neighbor the man does not like, she reminds him of the things he does not like about London, then something big happens. We are left with a mystery as to exactly what did occur but that just makes the story all the better.  "By The Black Field" is a wonderful story, it also give you a kind of feel for what can be the darker side of Ireland, never far from the surface.  Death has been my constant companion this month as I read Irish Short Stories and he is with me today.  I do not mind him so much as I once did.  

"The Badminton Court"

"She says little at breakfast. The evening before she had been
on fire. Rapid, erratic thoughts, unfinished sentences, sentences
that unravelled, ending in lacunae, gibberish. She had been
rude, her inhibitors obstructed by that thing, growing,
multiplying inside her. Tumour talk, Frances calls it."

"The Badminton Court" is a very moving story about a debt repaid through service to seventeen year old Miranda, dying of a brain tumor. It is a story of the memories of twenty two years ago when the narrator never dreamed these would be her happiest times.  Her father is rich and always away on business trips an her mother is simply gone and no one ever speaks of her.  There are two people taking care of Miranda.  One is Francis, a household servant of long standing and the other is the daughter of a man who was in debt to Miranda's father for some dubious business deals and somehow the debt is being paid by his adult daughter being Miranda's final companion.  This is a tale which can only end one way or another in death.  It is also about how happiness comes often from small seized moments of joy as shown in these wonderful lines spoken twenty years after an amazing act of kindness and cruelty is committed.  We never quite know why but that works perfectly.

"Once he asked if I was happy. Before I had the chance to
reply, he said his own life had been good and prosperous, but
hardly happy. Mine was the same, I said. What is happiness? he
asked, as if I knew any better than he. I pondered on this. For
me, I said, happiness is two girls playing badminton under an
azure sky with clouds that are bird-shaped. Those summers
were best, he replied, when I used to watch you play. It occurred
to me then, that for nearly a quarter of a century we had both
been sustained by a few intoxicating memories squirrelled from
our youth. I told him it was high time we lived a little. He agreed
and told me then of his plans to flatten the court."

"The Scattering" 

"Further along the beach he saw a car parked above the dunes.
A woman was standing by the edge of the dunes looking at the
sea. She was holding a blue plastic bag tensely against her
cream coat. He thought of turning back as he was now alone
on this stretch and did not want to alarm the woman, who had
begun her descent to the beach. Suddenly a dog came
bounding towards him. He had seen the exuberant three-legged
collie on the beach many times, always alone, absurdly oblivious
to its missing limb."

"The Scattering", the title story of the collection, like the two prior stories I have posted on have death at its core.  The "plot action", not a phrase I am crazy for, is fairly simple. A man has died and following his wishes his ashes have been scattered in the ocean.  A quick look at images of the Ireland seacoast in Google will reveal lots of dramatic sea shore cliffs that would make an excellent venue from which to scatter ashes in the water.  I suspect this is what often leads to the request.  Maybe it also the fulfillment of a wish while living, to throw oneself in the water.  It is the story of contrasts of two scatterings, one with a large respectable number of people and one with just a woman with a blue plastic jug and a three legged dog for her company.  There is a great deal in this work and I hope you will be able to read it for yourself.  

"The Burning Woman"

"Despite his name, Quigley claimed
no Irish heritage, and John’s Irishness was meaningless to him
as he had left Limerick at fourteen and had never returned. To
find as neighbours two young Irish ‘artists’, was, John told me
later, an enormous relief to him. We gave him hope, he said, that
a gay man with no interest in hurling, in Leinster vs Munster, or
the Irish language, might be able to go home one day without
fear of being strung up. On the basis of our mutual disregard for
any particular nationalism, we four formed a strong friendship,
avoiding Irish haunts in London like the plague despite his name."

I really liked this story.  It begins with an invitation to a funeral.   Sometimes people say they going to someone's funeral means you won and they lost.   The deceased is an artist, from Ireland who moved to London in a time when he had no way to make a living in Ireland.  He made it big time as a painter, living out the dream of the crazy artist, his description makes it seem he looked a bit like Aleister Crowley.  There is just so much to like in this story.  In the figure of the man, who they have not seen or heard from in decades, John, we have the crusty embittered writer raging at the world for its failure to see his genius.  We also have occult elements, pentagrams, paintings of burning women and such.  I do not have a way to talk about what happens in this story without trivializing it so I won't.  It is about exile, about wanting to forget your are Irish, about why Jack Kerouac still matters, about what London means to the Irish, about failure of nerve.  In this  story I came to see the full power of McCarrick, it is deeper, danker and darker than the first three works I spoke about. 


"What are you researching, Lara?’ he asked.
‘Oh. Settlers to this area in the fifteenth century.’
‘From Britain?’
‘No,’ Lara replied, scanning the huge ivory pages. As she did
not elaborate, and as he was afraid to enquire further, Fred
turned to his wastepaper basket and began to sharpen his
pencils. The room seemed to fill with small, intrusive noises:
the trembling chalky sound of the ivory pages being turned, the
pencil shavings hitting the screwed-up balls of paper like rain,
the swish of Lara’s dress each time she moved, her assured slow

Like "The Burning Woman", "Blood is in part about an Irish writer.   I have come to see this as kind of a license for eccentric behavior sometimes accompanied by the arrogance mentioned above, almost as if it were on loan from W. B. Yeats and James Joyce to name but a few exemplars.  

One of the characteristics of a society in which the old certainties are dying is a preoccupation with non-standard accounts of history,  occult systems.   One saw this in Ireland when for a time leading figures flirted with the theories of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Waite Tarot and such.  Knowledge of arcane systems brought with it a feeling of superiority a smugness made all the more annoying as it was parasitic upon the backs, the blood of others for whom they claimed to speak but for whom they had contempt.  There are two on stage characters in "Blood" a simply marvelous, very smart, very funny story that helps explain why vampires are central to Irish culture and why they always seem to be so elitist acting (Carmilla this means you.)  We have Fred, he is a 30 year old who has never done anything but go to school.  His aunt is a world famous researcher into middle Eastern culture  and is often away at international conferences.  She has an incontinent cat and in exchange for taking care of the cat, he gets to live in her mansion.   The mansion contains a library of rare books and manuscripts and Lara has a letter authorizing her to use the library.  She is also female, something Fred has had no personal knowledge of for six years and sees as way to complicated a topic.   He will stick with academia.   Besides the cat, they are the only ones in the mansion so of course they talk.   I want you to read this story (and the whole collection) without it being spoiled for you.   I will just say it is flat out hilarious and you will marvel at the close.  

"Trumpet City"

"There was a danger to what he could smell in the
music, and he liked that. He liked that a lot."

I have recently started reading, after hearing it was chosen as the One City One Book selection for April James Plunket's classic novel set in Ireland in 1913, Strumpet City and I am betting this title is a play on that account of the mean streets of old Dublin.

The crazy musician seeing more in the world than the mundane people of the world do is a standard character in lots if novels and short stories.   This story does a great job with that idea.   The trumpet player dreams of playing in New York City or New Orleans, the holy cities for jazz music.  I believed in his love of music.  The story is also about the changing times in Ireland, the hard times where it is not easy for an aging musician to make a living.   A very good story.   

"The Hemingway  Papers"

"She felt it would be
like reminding him of his enormous failure as a father. That
he’d neither seen to the removal of their furniture from London
to Ireland – nor to the transportation of his own things, that
he’d hung back in London while her mother had reared her and
her siblings alone and that he’d only holed up with them years
later when he’d run out of money. That was the truth of it and
Clare knew that somewhere inside her father, he knew it. But
there was no point in going through all of that again. They had
rowed about it for too many years – about his drinking"

"The Hemingway Papers" is a very good story and almost a text book illustration of the extreme importance of the weak or missing father to Irish literature.  It also is about a man who hid behind drinking and his ability to be a good friend to other men, if not a good husband or father.  Story telling, whether real stories or made up lies also is a big factor in the Irish short story.  Another one is the complications involved in the relationships of adult children to their parents.  In this story the father is in a hospital ward.  For thirty years now he has been claiming he had an extensive correspondence with Ernest Hemingway.  He  had sent Hemingway a number of short stories to read and he had told the father to submit them to his publisher and he will try to help him.  Of course the man never followed up on it and he always told the family he left the letters and stories in a box in an apartment he illegally sublet to somebody when he lived in London.   The daughter somehow tracks down the man who now has the box and she brings it back (spoiler alert) and yes the father was actually telling the truth all those years.  The big story of his life was true. The ending is very suspenseful and I will let you have the pleasure of reading it yourself.

I totally endorse this very Irish collection of short stories with themes that are universal and people that those far from Ireland can see as totally real.

There are eleven  other marvelous stories in this collection, each one a delight to read.   

I want to share the description of the book from Seren Books, the publisher of this and lots of other great books.

The Scattering is a collection of 18 stories, many set on the Irish border, where this London-born author currently lives. These stories explore states of liminality: life on the Irish border, dual identities, emigration, being between states - certainty and doubt, codependency and freedom. Some explore themes of catastrophe and constraint. All explore what it means to be alive in a fraught and ever-changing world. This first collection from prizewinning author and playwright, Jaki McCarrick explores the dark side of human nature, often with a postmodern ‘Ulster gothic’ twist.
One of the stories ‘The Visit’ won the Wasafiri Prize for new fiction, and many have been published to much acclaim in literary magazines.
Author Bio

Jaki McCarrick

Jaki McCarrick lives in Dundalk and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, gaining a Master of Philosophy Degree, Creative Writing – Distinction. Before this Jaki gained a BA Performing Arts, First Class Honours Degree at Middlesex University. She has also completed an RNT Directors Course, 2001.
Jaki is a playwright and short story writer who is also working on a novel. She has won many awards for her work including: Winner of the 2005 SCDA National Playwriting Competition for The Mushroom Pickers; Shortlisted for the Sphinx Playwriting Award 2006, Bruntwood Prize 2006, Kings Cross Award 2007 for The Moth-Hour; Shortlisted for the 2009 Adrienne Benham Award for Leopoldville and the 2009 Asham Award for short fiction for The Congo – in this collection. Most recently her short story The Visit, included in the Badlands collection, won the Wasafiri Prize for New Writing in October 2010 and Jaki was declared the first ever winner of the Liverpool Lennon Paper Poetry competition, which she was awarded by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Another story from the collection, Hellbores, was recently shortlisted for both the Fish Short Story award and Bridge House Publishing's World Stopping Event writing prize. Bridge House want to publish that story in a new anthology and it has also appeared in the Irish Pages journal.
Jaki McCarrick's blog

I hope to read and post on more of her work in the future.  She has kindly agreed to participate in a Q and A Session for Irish Short Story Month so please look for that.

Mel u

Thursday, March 24, 2022

“Don’t Start Reading This Story” - A Short Story by Pat O’Connor - from his collection People in My Brain - 2019


“Don’t Start Reading This Story” - A Short Story by Pat O’Connor - from his collection People in My Brain - 2019

A post in observation of Irish Short Story Month 2022

“Don’t Start Reading This Story” - A Short Story by Pat O’Connor - from his collection People in My Brain - 2019

During Irish Short Story Month in March 2021 I read  a very entertaining Short Story by Pat O’Connor”Advise and Sandwiches” from his highly regarded debut collection People in My Brain.

“Metafiction is a form of fiction which emphasizes its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the audience to be aware they are reading or viewing a fictional work..” Wikipedia 

“Din’t Start Reading this Story” announces it self as a work of metafiction in the in which the purported author speaks to the reader. He tells us that it is to late for you to stop reading.   The survival of a character is at stake.  If you stop Reading, they disappear.  Here stated by our slighly bellicose narrator is creed of post modern literary theory

“Now get this. This story is specifically for you. Yeah, you. If a story is properly written, everyone gets a different meaning from it, and what you’re reading here cannot be understood in the same way by anyone else.”

In a way this is saying if a story can mean anything then it means nothing.   The creed is either absurd or trivial.

The narrator then attacks The reader.  This story would be a very good choice for an advanced Class. I greatly enjoyed it.

“see you are still here. But you don’t like this involved writing, do you? You prefer that domesticated stuff – which is exactly why I have taken this action. How the hell is a writer ever to get a real live story read when people lap-up that safe crap that lies face-down on the page? It doesn’t involve real characters, let alone the reader. I mean involve, not interest.”

As the story goes on the narrator picks up his attack on the reader to personal insults.

As a work of metafiction my Reading of the story is to see it as a reductio 

ad absurdum of rhe notion literature  that art has no intrinsic meanings

My further take is to see the narrator as representing resentful writers who feel readers are not willing to put in the effort their work requires.

There are 13 more stories in People in my Brain. 


From The author’s website. -

Pat O’Connor lives in Limerick in the southwest of Ireland. He was a joint winner of the 2009 Best Start Short Story Competition in Glimmertrain, and in 2010  he was shortlisted for the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Prize. In 2011, he was shortlisted for the RTE Francis MacManus Award for radio stories, and won the Sean O’Faolain Prize. In 2012 he was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and the Fish Short Story prize.  In 2013 he was longlisted for Over the Edge New Writer of the Year.

His stories have been published in Southword, Revival, Crannóg, The Penny Dreadful, the Irish Independent, the Irish Times, anthologized by the Munster Literary Centre, and broadcast on RTE.

His radio play This Time it’s Different, was broadcast on 95fm as part of the Limerick City of Culture program in 2014.

In autumn 2014, he was one of eight International Writers in Residence in Tianjin, China.

His story Advice and Sandwiches was included in the Hennessy Anthology of New Irish Writing 2005-2015, published by New Island.

Mel Ulm

The Reading Life 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek - A Novel by Kim Michele Richardson - 2019

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek - A 

Novel by Kim Michele Richardson - 2019

Along with so many others I love this wonderful book.


Set in the 1930s up to 1941 in the very impoverished Appalachian region of Kentucky, the novel follows Cussy Mary, a packhorse librarian bringing books, newspapers and magazines to the often struggling to feed their families people of Troublesome Creek.  Through the WPA President Roosevelt the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project brought books and employment to mostly women riding often long difficult routes, Cussy rides a mule you will grow to love.  People were just so thrilled to see “The Book-woman” arrive.  We learn a lot about the lives of those on her route.  Some are kind and gentle, others cruel and dangerous.  

Cussy has a genetic disease which gives her skin a blue tone.  

Many in the very bigoted community reject her as either a witch or a “colored person”.  Her father wants her married before he dies, he is a widower.  She is 18. He bribes a man 30 years older than her who she hates to marry her by a dowry of ten acres.  He dies raping her.  

There is so much in this wonderful book, narrated by Cussy in the dialect of the time.  We see how the greedy coal mine owners are destroying the land, enslaving the people in debts.  Union organizers disappear.  Cussy’s brave father tries to help the miners get more pay and safer conditions. He has the black lung disease.

Cussy loves her work.  It is far more than just a $28.00 a month job. I found it fascinating to learn about the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project.  The minor characters are vividly realized.

The ending is very exciting

I give The Book Woman of Troublesome creek my very highest recommendation.  

“The NEW YORK TIMES, LOS ANGELES TIMES and USA TODAY bestselling author, Kim Michele Richardson has written five works of historical fiction, and a bestselling memoir, The Unbreakable Child. 

Her latest critically acclaimed novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek  was recommended by Dolly Parton in People’s Magazine and has earned a 2020 PBS Readers Choice, 2019 LibraryReads Best Book, Indie Next, SIBA, Forbes Best Historical Novel, Book-A-Million Best Fiction, and is an Oprah's Buzziest Books pick and a Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads selection. It was inspired by the real life, remarkable "blue people" of Kentucky, and the fierce, brave Packhorse Librarians who used the power of literacy to overcome bigotry and fear during the Great Depression.  The novel is taught widely in high schools and college classrooms.

Her forthcoming fifth novel, The Book Woman’s Daughter is both a stand-alone and sequel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and will be published May 3, 2022. Kim Michele lives with her family in Kentucky and is the founder of Shy Rabbit.”  From

I look forward very much to reading The Book Woman’s Daughter 

Mel Ulm


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A post in observation of Irish Short Story Month - March 2022- The Visitor by Brian Kirk


 A post in observation of Irish Short Story Month - March 2022- The Visitor by Brian Kirk

 “The Visitor” by Brian Kirk

An Interesting Q and A with Brian Kirk

The Very Well Done Information rich website of Brian Kirk

I first became acquainted with the work of Brian Kirk when I read his very well done short story, "The Shawl" in Long Story Short.  Brian Kirk's story "The Shawl" represents to me one of the most basic  reasons I have continued Irish Short Story Month for eight years and hope to continue it many more.   It is a great feeling to me to read a story by a new to me writer who seems just at the start of his writing career and hope I will be able to watch her or him develop into a major writer.  I have learned enough about the life and business world of Irish writers to know that it takes more than just talent.  You have to find people willing to read your work and at some point pay you for it.   This is far from easy, I know.  (My post on "The Shawl" is here-it contains a link to the story.)

From my post of March 2013

I am very pleased to include a story by Brian Kirk in Irish Short Story Month VIII. (You can read the story at the link above, reading time is a very well spent ten minutes or so).  “The Visitor” is the third story by Kirk upon which I have posted.  

The story is set on Aran, an island of the coast from Galway.  The narrator, a woman writer has come there to escape from the distractions of the city which blocked her writing, she feels.  Aran is not named but she does, in a morning amble she thinks of Antoine Artaud, a French theater of cruelty writer, who in 1937 came to Aran to find peace, six weeks later, he was deported.  I sense she  tries to understand herself almost as a daughter of Artaud, trying to find a peace he never did.

The narrator came to Aran to be alone, but she finds this too painful.  She has invited a formed college boyfriend to stay with her.  He has brought with him thr city she longer to escape from but she is not yet ready to be alone.  She cannot escape her involuntary memories, try as she might.

I find the prose of Kirk exquiste, he brings out hidden truthes

“I try to imagine living in the city again, dragging myself from fretful rooms to busy workplaces day in day out, suffering the passive cruelty of the commute and the ritual inanity of office talk. My heart sinks and my pulse races as I pause before the door and turn my face once more to the sky, feeling the early morning September sun—what little there is of it—wash over my face. I open the door at last to find him sleeping on the battered sofa in the open kitchen. For a moment I imagine he is dead, but his nasal breathing sets me straight. And then I see an opportunity. If I bludgeoned him with one of his dumbbells he might never wake at all. What would that mean for him? Would his senses have time to register the final shut down or would a sudden curtain fall on his flickering dreamscape, never to be raised.”

I can relate to a fear or hatred of the return to the city, I think many will.

She wants the man to leave but she fears being alone.  She smells whiskey in his empty battle.  Whiskey means something in west of Ireland it might not mean elsewhere.  Maybe she wants the man with her as a kind of affirmation of her sexuality, her ability to hold a man, one who has had many women.  But she hates her weakness and she knows she lacks the depth of self knowledge to rid herself of her dependency. She knows the man will leave her and is probably already unfaithful.

There is much more in “The Visitor”.  It is a very Irish story but the characters are universal.  I did feel I was back in west of Ireland.

I endorse this story to all lovers of Short Stories.  I also urge the Reading of My Q and A with Brian for his insights into a very interesting set of topics. Be sure to visit his very well done webpage.

Brian Kirk is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist from Dublin, Ireland. His work has appeared in the Sunday Tribune, Crannog, The Stony Thursday Book, Revival, Boyne Berries, Wordlegs and various anthologies.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Sisters of Fog and Night-A Novel by Erica Robuck - 2022

Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck - 2022 - A WW Two Novel - 2022

Based upon the experiences of renowned WWII SOE agents Violette Szabo and Virginia d’Albert, Sisters of the Night and Fog is set mostly in London, France and Germany during World War Two.  Virginia is an American, from Florida, who against her family’s wishes elects to stay in Nazi occupied France.  Events draw her into the resistance, she helps downed fliers get out of France, at great risk to herself and her husband.  She loses her comfortable life as rationing gets worse. The search for food becomes never ending.

Violette is a 19 year old English woman, a crack shot and desperate to fight the Nazis any way she can.  She ends up being recruited into the Special Operations Executive and trained for clandestine attacks on the Germans in France.  The training is very tough but Viollétte ends up being dropped by parachute into Occupied France.

The two women are both captured and sent to the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

There are lots of minor characters ranging 

from Nazis, downed Fliers, fellow resistance fighters and  family members of the women.  All are marvelously done.  The descriptions of Europe are very powerful.

I highly recommend Sisters of Night and Fog to all interested in novels set during World War Two.  There is a return to Ravensbrück set in 1975 that adds depth to the story.

“Erika Robuck is the national bestselling author of The Invisible Woman, Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda, Fallen Beauty, The House of Hawthorne, and Receive Me Falling. She is also a contributor to the anthology Grand Central: Postwar Stories of Love and Reunion, and to the Writer’s Digest essay collection Author in Progress. Her forthcoming novel, Sisters of Night and Fog (March 2022), is about real-life superwomen of WWII, Virginia d'Albert-Lake and Violette Szabo. In 2014, Robuck was named Annapolis’ Author of the Year, and she resides there with her husband and three sons.”

I hope to read her novel Fallen Beauty, historical novel set in 1928 in a fictional town in Upstate New York near Steepletop, the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Mel Ulm


Friday, March 18, 2022

“To the Trade” - A Short Story by Aiden O'Reilly - in Observation of Irish Short Story Month


March is once again be Irish Short Story Month on The Reading Life.

The Michael McLaverty Short Story Prize, named for one of Ulster's great writers and administrated by the Linen Hall Library, was won in 2008 by Aiden O'Reilly from Dublin, for his short story centering on a father and son doing construction work on the house of an upper class Dublin family.

As the story opens the father and his son are on a scaffold on the house.  The father is doing the skilled work, the son basically is his helper, handing him needed items.  "To the Trade" is a very subtle story.  One of the several evoked topics are Irish class markers.  We see that when the son peers into one of the rooms and is impacted by the obvious femininity of the contents, elements of softness and comfort not found in his life.  We learn, without being over instructed, that his mother is gone.  

One of the characteristics of the Irish short story is the portrayal of deep but unshown on the surface feelings.   You can feel both a love and a tension between father and son.  The work is very hard and the weather is brutal.  The lady of the house tells them to come down for lunch but the father does not want to rush down as if he is a starving tradesman being fed by the lady of the manor in the back kitchen.  I felt a lot of real emotion when the father told his son to go eat while the food is hot.

While they eat the father and the woman conversing about lamb.  The woman notices the roughness of the man's hands.  The lines below from the story shows to me how O'Reilly uses his hands for a. kind of near symphonic bringing to life of the struggles of the working class people of Ireland:

"The father reached out for another cut of bread. His thin hands were appallingly abused. The thread remains of a bandage clung to the middle finger. The skin on the sides of the knuckles was cracked in a radial pattern. Dark grey concrete stains lined the ancient cracks; one of them seeped blood, but as though welling up from a great depth. Veins and tendons interplayed on the back of his hand. The fingernails looked like worn saw teeth, or a cracked trowel. They were alive, but had the appearance of things, of abandoned tools. One nail was like a hoof — flesh and keratin intertwined to close over old wounds. Another was split in two from the quick to the fingertip, and a hard growth filled the space between. A bulbous texture like the organic growth of a tree bark over a rusty nail"

One can feel the depth of pain in these lines.  The woman offers to put a plaster on his hands but he says no need but we know it has been a very long time since anyone has shown him any tenderness.

We see in the boy a trapped young man, he hates school and his only way he sees out is to do work on the homes of the rich.  He and his father's relationship is both simple and complex.

I will leave the emotionally devasting close of this story untold.  "To the Trade", which I read three times is very much an award worthy story I commend to all lovers of the form.  I have read some of the novels and short stories of Michael McLaverty and I think he would be honored by the awarding of a prize in his name for this story about working class Irish.  It is a very Irish story but the truths it contains are universal and it counters the claims some, including me, have made about modern Irish literature centering on the weak or missing father.  There is much more that could be said about this story I just hope it gets a large readership.

You can read this story HERE

Be sure and visit Aiden's very interesting webpage

Bio From his publisher's webpage,

 Aiden O’Reilly was interested in puzzles from an early age and published papers on a QM dynamical system before abandoning a PhD in mathematics. He has worked variously as a translator, building-site worker, property magazine editor, and IT teacher. He lived in Eastern Europe for a time, but only met his wife after six years there. He is a 6-kyu go player, enjoys reading Karl Jaspers, and lives in Stoneybatter.

Mel Ulm