Thursday, March 22, 2012

Short Stories on Wednesday: Irish Short Stories

First things first, Short Stories on Wednesday now has a new home over at Simple Clockwork. I’m relieved that the meme will keep going and although Risa will be sorely missed, I’m glad Nancy will be taking this forward.

As you all probably know by now, it’s Irish Short Stories Week over at The Reading Life so this week I have for you, 2 Irish stories. Both authors are new to me but after this I’m keen to look up more of their works.

    The story is narrated by an Irishwoman who works at a rehab clinic. She takes us through her seemingly humdrum life and frequently refers to Louis, her ‘companion’. However, you are made aware from the very beginning that there is something very strange about this relationship.
I thought I knew where this was going but I was way off. The premise is an interesting one and O’Donnell draws it out pretty well too.
    Mary O’ Donnell’s first novel ‘The Light-Makers’ was named the Sunday Tribune’s Best New Irish Novel in 1992. Since then, her published fiction includes the novels ‘Virgin and the Boy’, ‘The Elysium Testament’, and more recently a collection of stories, ‘Storm over Belfast’. 

Sightseeing in Louth by Bernadette M. Smyth
    Cousin John from America is visiting Roisin’s family to do some sightseeing and explore his Irish roots. The whole family is determined to help John in every way. Roisin, the black sheep of the family, does her bit by teaching John some revolutionary songs and introducing him to Irish whiskey. A simple sightseeing trip becomes a life-changing event for everyone concerned. This was a very well developed story written in a very simple and original voice.
   This is the second story Bernadette has had published in The Fish Anthology - in 2009 she won the Fish One-Page Prize with 'In The Car'. She was also a runner up in the People's College short story competition 2009.

Both these stories are available online here.

Besides these two I also read dozens of other short stories that were recommended by Mel u and other participants of Irish Short Story Week. Some of my favourite among these were:
2.    The Kith of the Elf Folk by Lord Dunsday
Thanks to Mel u and Free Listens for suggesting these.
I really wanted to read Beer Trip to Llandudno by Kevin Barry. I’ve read great things about it; most recently from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Unfortunately I haven’t found it online. Hopefully, I find it at my library.
Irish Short Story week is on till the 31st  March so plenty of time to join in if you’d like to. I look forward to reading more great Irish stories in the days to come.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Classics Challenge March Prompt: Setting

Here's my 2nd entry for A Classics Challenge hosted by November's Autumn.This month's prompt focuses on the setting of novel. This month I'm reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I've only just started on the book so I'm just picking the questions I can answer from each level.

How has the author introduced the setting ?
The book opens in Warwick Castle but the action really begins in Camelot so I'm going with the author's description of what Camelot was like. "It was a soft, reposeful summer landscape, as lovely as a dream,and as lonesome as Sunday. The air was full of the smell of birds,flowers, and the buzzing of insects, and the twittering and there were no people, no wagons, there was no stir of life,nothing going on. The road was mainly a winding path with hoof-prints in it, and now and then a faint trace of wheels on either side"

What does it tell you about the character? about the time period?
Rarely does the very name of a place tell you so much about the time period of the story and even the characters you are bound to encounter. Mention Camelot and you are instantly transported to medieval times and King Arthur's legend.

How do you envision it? Find a few images or describe it. 

I imagine Camelot to be something like this although, really, its greatest attraction to fiction writers and romantics everywhere is that it can be anything you want. It defies any particular imagery since we don't know where exactly it was supposed to be located but I think you'll agree that it's impossible to imagine Camelot without an imposing medieval castle.

If this particular setting was changed how would it affect the course of the story? 
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is, as the title very clearly states, about a Yankee who is  mysteriously transported back in time to Camelot during King Arthur's reign. As you can imagine, this makes the setting crucial and the story cannot possibly be set anywhere else if it is to remain what it is.

I'm quite enjoying this book although I haven't made much progress. I've spent most of my reading time immersed in Irish Short Stories. Fortunately this is a short book so I'm hoping to finish it in a week or two and have a review up. Anybody else read this? 


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Irish Short Story Week: Four Tales and a Poem

   It’s Irish Short Story Week at The Reading Life and I’m excited to be joining in. Last year, during this event, I read a lot of amazing reviews and Irish short stories. Many of them were real eye-openers for me. Ireland has a very rich tradition of folklore and fairy stories but its literature is by no means limited to this. I’ve read the works of some of Ireland’s most widely known authors like Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. However, during the next week I hope to read more new-to-me Irish authors. So far I’ve read four short stories by four different authors.
Janey Mary by James Plunkett
   Remember Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Little Match Girl? Janey Mary reminds me of that a little. It’s the story of a poor, fatherless girl called Janey Mary who has been sent out into the cold by her mother, with strict instructions to not return without bread. But bread is nowhere to be had and the world outside is frosty and harsh, in more ways than one.
   It’s a poignant story but it wasn’t my favourite of the lot. It felt just a little sappy in places and the characters were clich├ęd. It was not the best start to my read-a-thon but happily, it got much better from here on.
The Confirmation Suit by Brendan Behan

   The narrator, a 12 year old boy, is readying for his Communion. Unfortunately, his special suit for the day, stitched by his beloved Miss McCann, is embarrassing. It has too-large buttons and too-tiny lapels. There is no way out of it, especially since he wouldn’t dream of hurting Miss McCann. So he resorts to a little subterfuge.
   This is a lovely story. Not just the main story itself but also the little anecdotes and memories that the boy narrates. Like the time he and his grandmother were forced to cook a sheep’s head. There are so many little snippets that will make you smile. There’s a lot packed in here although the story is no more than a few pages long. This was a definite hit.
The First Confession by Frank O’Connor
   Jackie is about to go for his first ever confession but he is terrified that his sins may be too horrifying for redemption. His sins include wanting to kill his coarse grandmother and trying to stick a bread-knife into his irritating sister.
   This is an amusing and entertaining story.  It has such well done characters and very witty writing. It treads the same territory as the earlier story but this one is funnier. If you read only one story from this list, make it this one.
The Reaping Race by Liam O’Flaherty
   There’s a strange sort of race going on where 3 couples are competing to see who can reap a patch of a rye field first. The winner gets a princely sum of 5 pounds. From here on it goes into standard tortoise-and-the-hare territory. It is predictable and written to a template but the writer does manage to make the race exciting and engaging. This one is all about the narration rather than the story itself.
   The first 3 stories have a lot in common. They all have a child at the centre of the action, the Church plays a very prominent part in each story and there is an underlying theme of innocence and the fear that comes from being a child in a grown-up world. Yet, these stories play out very differently and are obviously written by very different kind of writers. You can read all four stories here.
   I've had fun exploring these stories and I hope to contribute to Irish Short Story week again before the 22nd of March (which is the end date). Join in if you can. The more the merrier I’m sure.  If you want to play along, but like me, don’t know much about Irish Literature, then head over to The Reading Life and read Mel U’s excellent posts on the subject. He also has recommendations and resources to help you along. If you can’t join in, just lurk and check out what all the participants are reading. Fun either way.
   I know this is Irish Short Story week but I couldn’t do an Irish anything without featuring my favourite Irishman, W. B. Yeats. Here’s a snippet from one of his poems about Ireland. It’s called To Ireland in the Coming Times.
KNOW, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland's wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan,
Trails all about the written page.
When Time began to rant and rage
The measure of her flying feet
Made Ireland's heart begin to beat;
And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Wasps: A Greek Comedy by Aristophanes

I know it’s been ages since I showed up anywhere in blogland, but things have been much busier than usual with a house move and bank troubles and a toddler who is finding it a little hard to adjust to the new surroundings. A dodgy internet connection didn’t help any. Anyhow, things are beginning to settle, so I look forward to visiting my favorite blogs again and getting back on track with my challenges. Starting off with the Greek Classics Challenge hosted by Howling Frog Books.

When you think ancient Greek theater, you almost always think of long, sweeping tragedies where everyone involved, hero or villain dies a horribly gruesome death. At least, this is what I always thought, based on the bits of Sophocles and Plato that I’d read.  I’d certainly never suspected that the Greeks had such a rich store of comic theatre. Wasps is a proper, no holds barred comedy. In fact it is a mash-up of every kind of comedy. It has political satire, slapstick, dirty jokes, double entendre, clever puns and absurd but hilarious situations.

The play revolves around Philocleon who suffers from a strange disease; he is addicted to the law courts. More specifically, he is addicted to jury duty. So great is his affliction that his well-meaning and harassed son Bdelycleon has to keep the old man under guard. But Philocleon is wily and determined and keeps thinking up ways to escape his son and the guards. He is aided and encouraged by the Chorus, which in this case is made up of incurable jurors like Philocleon. They are the ‘wasps’, buzzing and stinging their victims with obvious relish. With great effort and eloquence, Bdelycleon manages to convince his father and the chorus that a juror’s job is a thankless and unprofitable one. To entertain his dejected father, he sets up a mock courtroom in the house and stages a trial with one of the household dogs standing in the dock, accused of stealing cheese. When this is all played out, Bdelycleon attempts to teach his father sophisticated manners and graces so he can take the old man out to all the fashionable parties. However, he soon learns that some people are just incapable of change.

The thing that amazed me the most about this play was that it seemed so modern. Granted, the translation is partly responsible since the language is very simple and not a bit archaic. But it’s more than that. The politics, the social commentary and even the characterizations feel like something we would watch or read today. If you discount the Greek names and customs, you could easily take this for a contemporary play.

The character of Philocleon is what this whole play hinges on. He is crafty yet charming. One minute he is a dejected and lost soul and the very next minute he is causing mayhem all around him. I imagine that the way an actor played Philocleon, would absolutely make or break this play for the audience.

Wasps, though it is a comedy, has all the elements of a classic Greek play i.e the Chorus which sometimes plays narrator and sometimes instigates the characters into action.  There are bits where the playwright directly addresses the audience and also alludes to his earlier plays. If you watched any Woody Allen movies, you know how this plays out. It is funny enough to read but I’m guessing it would be a lot funnier if you saw it performed.

My only difficulty with this play was that so much of the dialogues and humour was topical and socio-political, full of allusions to current affairs of Aristophanes time.  All of these were explained in the Notes section and admittedly it did give me a real peek into that time and place, but it meant a lot of shuffling back and forth and multiple bookmarks. Still, this didn't really dampen the pleasure of reading this excellent play.