St Patrick’s Day Gift: interviews with three great Irish writers


Irish countryside – 2014


Happy St. Patrick’s Day, y’all! I do have a bit of genuine Irish in me, but the bulk of my heritage is English, Scottish and Dutch. What Irish I do have I magnify on March 17th, as one does.

My daughter and I toured Ireland together back in 2014. She was finishing up a semester in Swansea, Wales, so I made the sacrifice and flew into Dublin at the tail end of her time there. I ferried her over for a week or so in Ireland, then we popped back to Wales. I proceeded to take her on a trip around the perimeter, to areas in the north she hadn’t seen during her semester. After dropping her back in Swansea, I took the ferry back to Ireland, spending three more days wandering lovely Dublin.


Trinity College Library


In Ireland I bought a claddagh ring I haven’t taken off to this day. I fell in love with the country. It’s as magical as you’d think, and then some.

My appreciation for the staggering literary tradition of Ireland is boundless. I’ve read a good deal of writing by Irish authors, though not yet the great Ulysses. I’m going to give that a stab over the summer, starting in June, natch, as Bloomsday is the 16th of June. I’ve tried stabbing it a couple times before.

It’s never ended well.

But hope springs.

To celebrate St. Patrick’s day – on which I’ll be sober as a judge, thanks for asking, because old and no longer interested in alcohol – I’m posting three interviews from the Bluestalking Archives, with three huge Irish writers kind enough to indulge me:


An Interview with Colm Tóibín

We had no symphonies, no great paintings, but slowly writing began to matter. Paper was cheap; literacy was the only way out of poverty; London was close and London publishers were interested in stories about strange places. The traditional music survived mainly in the west, and partly because of poverty. The language – Irish – did not survive as well because parents became aware that you would need English to go to England or America, as so many did.



An Interview with Sebastian Barry

The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence.



An Interview with Frank Delaney


Writing drives me. Writing ignites my passion. The challenge of telling a good story clearly and, I hope, in excellent and vivacious language, across a cultural arc that is as wide as I can make it – that gets me out of bed with delight every morning of my life. Just think of it – the very notion of providing a reader with a book that they find enriching and rewarding is a privilege that I try to service every day.


Enjoy the interviews and the day. Have a stout for me.

sláinte mhaith


2017 Reads: A Recap of best reads



I didn’t keep very good track of what I read this year. I can’t imagine why, can you? It’s not like I was busy leaving one life and starting another, traveling and seeing the world – coming back to the States and starting everything all over again. Just no good excuse at all for my lack of record-keeping. It should have been right up there at the top of my list.

What was I thinking?

I am proud of myself for getting around to wrapping up my year in reading before Christmas has even passed, for having the wherewithal to assemble my thoughts and put together a blog post, no less. Last year I didn’t manage to sum things up until after the New Year; I’m so far ahead of the game right now I’m impressing even myself.

(Leave me my self-aggrandizing fantasies. At least I’m impressed with me.)

Busy as things are with the holidays and such, I don’t expect I’ll read any books better than my favorites of 2017. I reviewed a few books and covered some on Bluestalking, but unlike the old days when I kept track of everything from titles and authors to number of pages read – even breaking it down by gender and nationality of authors, and genres of the books – this year’s reading is a scattered mess. I ought to be ashamed of myself.

I’m not, but I ought.

Despite all the craziness and wonder, I managed to come up with this list (in no particular order):



Sebastian Barry – Days Without End 

Read for the Sir Walter Scott Prize shortlist – as I predicted, it was the winner. I hate to say I told you so…

That’s a lie. I’m more than happy to say I did.

This was a very un-Sebastian Barry novel. Set in the U.S. South, for the first third it lacked his trademark lyricism. It tackled issues of homosexuality as an  acknowledgement of his son’s real life coming out, simultaneously presenting a very different, more playful Barry. If you’ve read The Sisters Brothers or True Grit, it had a similar feel. Not as openly funny perhaps, but his characters wound up in oddly humorous and very American situations.

I could understand if readers who’ve loved his Irish novels didn’t like this one bit. You don’t have to be an American to appreciate what he’s done here, but I believe it helps.

Eventually he shifted back to the style that defines him, the book as a whole a strange and uneven display I wasn’t sure I liked at first. I started it, put it aside dissatisfied, picked it up to try again, and only then realized this was a truly great book.











Ever Dundas – Goblin (my interview with the lovely Ever is here)

Oh, Ever Dundas. Such a heartbreaking novel you’ve written. So gorgeous, so rich and full. Addressing issues such as gender fluidity, Goblin is about a young girl on her own during the London Blitz, what she saw and a terrible secret she kept which came back on her in a way she could never have imagined.

Flashing back to the war in London and forward to contemporary Edinburgh, Goblin is a miracle of a book.

May 2017; Freight Books









Roxane Gay – Hunger

The only Best of 2017 book I read outside the UK, I’m realizing now this one non-fiction title is also the only book by an American that made my list. Roxane Gay is a black woman well-known in the states for her brutally honest stories about vicious childhood rape and the impact it’s had on the rest of her life.

In Hunger, Gay talks about how her obesity was a shield protecting her from unwanted attention from men. In wrenching detail, she outlines the reasons for her over-eating as well as the strain it put on her emotionally and physically. This is a hard book to read, emotionally speaking, but the message is important.









Graham Swift – Mothering Sunday

Also read for the Sir Walter Scott Prize, this was my choice as runner up.

I refer to what I wrote in my previous review in regard to Swift’s novel (follow Mr Linky, above). It’s not as vivid in my memory, though I know I loved it. As with Barry’s novel, it took two tries connecting with it, but once I did it was a marvelous read.

Having a solid book journal to back up my reading would come in very handy here.











Rose Tremain – Gustav Sonata

Again, read for the Sir Walter Scott Prize. I’m seeing a pattern here.

As with Mothering Sunday, please refer to what I wrote previously via the link. I remember the young boy in the tale, how his story broke my heart. I remember its beauty, precious little more than that.










I know I read more than the 15 I can come up with, and I’m frustrated I didn’t keep better track. All things considered, good enough.

For next year, I’m reverting to my old system. I’ve ordered a book specially designed for keeping track of books read that’s far more detailed and formal than my efforts in years past, when I kept religious track of every, single book read. I bought standard journals, noted titles and authors and general impressions so that, by year’s end, I could sit down and write proper “best of” lists.

I loved it, revelled in it. There’s a lot to be said for writing with pen and paper.



I had quite a collection of book journals, all of which I threw out when I left for Scotland, it saddens me to say. I’ll be starting fresh in 2018. Everything shiny and new.

Yes, it’s sad I don’t have the physical journals, but I do have Bluestalking and Goodreads, not to mention dozens of reviews peppered all over the place. I would say I have my memories of books read, but my recall is nowhere near what it used to be.

I can re-read old favorites and it’ll be almost like I’m reading them again for the first time. Indeed, every time you read a book you’ve read before the experience is different. Just as every time you think back to times past it comes with new perspective. You change and evolve; that’s life.

Let go of the expectation anything ever stays the same. I can’t express how much easier life becomes when you follow that bit of advice.

That’s my reading year, 2017. Not all of it, but enough to feel a sense of satisfaction, a closure of sorts.

You don’t always have the luxury of closure. Some things will never have an explanation. At least in this case, I’ve  managed to pull together enough I feel a sense of accomplishment. Controlling what you can is the very best you can do.

Next time I’ll reveal the books I’ve bought myself for Christmas. I’m not one hundred percent positive Santa’s finished shopping, but he’s made a very good dent in his list. A very good dent, indeed.

Until then, happy reading.

Walter Scott Prize goes to…. and a John Cleese event


After all the build up, an exciting evening was had at the Walter Scott Prize event.

Having read all the shortlist candidates save one, determining Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End the rightful winner, he did, indeed, come away with the award.


It was an unseasonably warm day last Saturday. Temperatures were in the 20s C, equating to the 70s F. My native Chicago’s much warmer this time of year, still I was uncomfortably hot with the sun beating down all day. I burnt to a crisp, my fair northern European skin no match, ironically, for the Scottish sun.

Lovely Melrose Abbey was right next door.

Earlier in the day we saw Crichton Castle, along the way

By evening it had begun cooling off, a welcome light breeze gently ruffling our hair. We stood in line anticipating an evening’s entertainment listening to the incomparable Barry. If you’ve never heard him speak, you’ve not experienced how moving an author can be.

The crowd from the previous event streaming out, we planned the best place to sit. Underneath the tent it would be a few degrees warmer, and we could lose the breeze. On the left side of the tent there was an opening nearly as big as the main entrance. We’d make a beeline.

A stranger asked someone nearby, “Is this the Rory Stewart event?” I thought to myself, “Why no, it isn’t. Poor, confused man!” Though I had read and reviewed Rory Stewart’s excellent autobiographical and historical account of walking the Scottish Borders – titled The Borders, read it if you’re excited by the history of Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall – but this, most definitely, was not his signing.

Or was it.


With joyous heart, I looked down at the tickets I’d been clutching, tickets that had sat in my wallet at least two weeks.

Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: check!

Friday 16 June …!

Che …


Friday. The sixteenth of June.

It was Saturday the 17th.

It was, in fact, Rory Stewart’s signing. My happy face slid like an avalanche, my sunburn fading to white from shock. We’d missed the ceremony because I didn’t catch the error sooner. I’d bought tickets for the wrong event. The previous evening had been the author’s panel, a discussion of historical fiction. This day was the main event. Sebastian Barry won the award, but I wasn’t there to see it. He made his glorious speech, but I wasn’t there to hear it.

Instead, I could be found weeping copiously into the pizza we had for dinner, sitting across from poor Chris and feeling like an idiot.

This was the event I’d actually bought tickets for – not just the wrong event to start with, but – insult to injury – I’d managed to miss it, as well:


As for Barry’s speech, when it goes up on the Walter Scott Prize page I’ll post that RIGHT HERE. At least there’s that; I’ll be able to hear and share it.

Upside: I didn’t feck up buying tickets to the John Cleese livestream. I wasn’t fast enough to get us into the tent with him, but they’d set up an overflow.

He was charming, hilarious, a joy. One thing he wasn’t: Sebastian Barry.

Hey ho!

Cleese is a very good sport, indeed

I met him face to face after the event, asking him to sign something utterly ridiculous for a dear friend who’d be over the moon to receive it. What better present to bookend the signed Michael Palin book I’d given her a few years back. With a light signing line, he very graciously took his time with each one of us.

Wonderful man, John Cleese.

Turned out to be a lovely day on the Scottish Borders.

Beauty makes all things better

Before we left, the sun was setting on beautiful Melrose Abbey. How could a day go wrong ending with such a stirring sight.

Answer: It can’t.

Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Jo Baker & Francis Spufford, plus a recap

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 Shortlist


As time draws to a close before the prize winner is announced tomorrow in Melrose, Scotland, it’s time to opine on the last two novels from the shortlist which I’d planned to read and talk about. Namely: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill.









Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is set in the WW II era. Baker takes her story to occupied France, where she fictionalizes Irish ex-pat writer Samuel Beckett’s war years. Its depiction of the misery and deprivation of war is sharp and focused, its immediacy palpable. The prose is absolutely stellar, evoking the senses so the reader can smell the fear, imagining the hunger of innocents forced to live on scarce, rationed food.

Beckett expresses his weariness with his native Ireland, his complete rejection of the country. He cannot live there, cannot work there, would return if the lives of himself and his girlfriend Suzanne depended on it, but only as a last resort.

He despises the place.

Leaving off work on a translation, Beckett risks his life in order to help crack the German’s code, until one by one the other people involved in the project begin disappearing, captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Out of necessity, he flees Paris with his girlfriend just previous to the German occupation, the misery and hardship he endures brilliantly described by Baker.

A Country Road features other authors, as well, including James and Nora Joyce. For the reader, it’s a virtual literary feast.

I had less time to work on Golden Hill, Francis Spufford’s tale of the 18th century. To my deep disappointment, I’ve quite literally run out of time. From what I have read, Spufford’s done a brilliant job writing in a modern take on 18th century prose. Several years ago I was deeply enamored of the literature of that period, reading loads by Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s bio of Johnson and London Journals, as well as several lesser-known novels by female writers of the age. Golden Hill takes the spirit of that century, mimicking the style but with a modern enough take the contemporary reader should find it less challenging to read smoothly than genuine 18th century literature.

Oh, how I wish I’d had the luxury of time to fit it in. It has a sneaky wit to it, a more quiet voice that needs to be teased out. It takes a bit longer getting into the story, but it’s one of those that once you catch up, you’re off and running.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to run along with it.

So, there it is. My read of the shortlisted Walter Scott Prize 2017 novels, complete as far as I’m able to take them before tomorrow’s ceremony. I’ve been yammering on and on about Barry’s assured win, and despite a couple brilliant efforts by Baker and Swift, I still haven’t changed my mind.

If I had to choose a second runner up, I’d need to stay with Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, though I’m teetering on the brink since reading Jo Baker. She writes beautifully fluid prose, though no one can touch Sebastian Barry, let’s be honest. He is far and away the best of the best Irish novelists. Still, she does a lovely job, and I give her full credit.

I’ve so enjoyed reading these novels, my first foray into the Walter Scott shortlist. Stumbling onto the Borders Book Festival headliners, when I saw Barry’s name among the finalists I made a quick decision to give it a shot. I’m thrilled to be attending the actual awarding of the prize, and looking forward to seeing the nominated writers discuss the genre at a literary roundtable.

Good luck to all the writers, though I’ll be miffed if Barry doesn’t come away with the win. And maybe I’ll have time to get back to Francis Spufford. You never know. If he wins, or his part on the panel entices me, I’ll either find myself determined to see what all the fuss was about or so annoyed I immediately sell or donate the book. I can never predict my behavior.

I’ll report back after the awards, give a summary, post photos and maybe a bit of video. Meantime, go ye forth and read Days Without End, which will surely have a new sticker on the cover come Sunday.

Because it deserves it.






Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End’

Sir Walter Scott Prize Shortlist read # 2 – Days Without End

My distraction throughout the reading of Barry’s book is no reflection on it, nor its quality. The same happened when I read Graham Swift’s Walter Scott-nominated Mothering Sunday, though in reading back through a second time I was moved by its beauty.

The inability to fully fall into Days Without End is about my current life situation. There’s not even the slightest correlation with the book itself.

Sebastian Barry has been one of my favorite writers for years. If you search through my posts you’ll find many a review, an interview, and accounts of author events during which I met and heard him speak. I own a few Barry novels personally inscribed to me, with my usual odd inscription requests. Sebastian Barry is a very good sport. He’s also, in my opinion, the finest Irish novelist alive today. Biased, but true. Biased because it’s true.

DISCLAIMER:  a few years ago I exchanged a few emails with Sebastian Barry about the heavy Irish influence on the literature of the American South, even sent him a book on that specific topic as well as my favorite book by William Faulkner. While I don’t consider this review compromised as a result – because I’m a reviewer who strives to avoid bias – I must disclose my potential relationship, however tenuous, with this novel.

We’re stopped in our charge and kneel and load and fire. We kneel and load and fire at the side-on millipede of the enemy. Our batteries belch forth their bombs again and the Confederates balk like a huge herd of wild horses and run back ten yards and then ten yards reversed again … A frantic weariness infects our bones. We load and fire, load and fire … Then with a great bloom like a sudden infection of spring flowers the meadow becomes a strange carpet of flames. The grass has caught fire and is generously burning and adding burning to burning. So dry it cannot flame fast enough, so high that the blades combust in great tufts and wash the legs of the fleeing soldiers not with soft grasses but dark flames full of roaring strength … The quiet are in their black folds of death.

  • Days Without End

Barry’s latest novel is an anomaly. Rather than an Irish setting, he’s chosen the American South during the period of the Civil War. His main characters are two cross-dressing men (initially forced into the situation for reasons of survival, when they were paid to act as females hired to dance with miners in the American West) whose relationship hints at homosexuality (see video below re: Barry’s youngest son, whose coming out inspired this novel’s main characters). The two are drafted young, become brave fighters, and are humane and kind men who adopt a young Indian girl to save her.

The style of the book is, trite as it sounds – and I hate using this term – Faulkner-esque. Native to the great American writer’s “postage stamp of soil,” an admirer of his works, I can say that from the standpoint of, if not expertise, at least familiarity. His characters are huge, larger than life. The prose, after a not quite typically lyrical Barry beginning, takes off and soars toward the middle and does not relent through to the end. It flows into a gentle stream of consciousness at times, particularly in the battle scenes. Like Faulkner, Barry does not shy away from issues of grave injustice and inhumanity inflicted by whites on the indigenous and black races.


We taste in our mouths the terror of this place like it were bread of a kind … You got to stop your hands gripping your musket so tight you strangling it. Try to breathe easy and pray the moon won’t show. All the black night we think our private thoughts and then at dawn light touches everything in its kingdom. Tips against leaves and strokes the faces of men.

  • Days Without End


Unlike Swift’s Mothering Sunday, Days Without End depends heavily on the time period in which it’s written. Using the largely Scots-Irish settled American South, it explores the richness of its immigrant heritage, as well as the period of expansion just prior to, and then during, the Civil War itself.

Days Without End won the Costa Book Award. It fully deserves the Walter Scott, as well.

Walter Scott Prize 2017 Shortlist: Graham Swift’s ‘Mothering Sunday’

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 Shortlist


This year’s Shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize consists of seven novels: four by female authors, and three by men. There’s Sebastian Barry, who’s Irish, Hannah Kent from Australia, and the rest are English. Interesting no Scots made the Shortlist – not that there must be.

I am, as I said earlier, hoping to speed through the seven longlisted novels before attending the awards ceremony on the 17th of June. So far, I’ve read the shortest, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and am in the midst of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End.

And I’d better speed it up a little if I’m planning to fit in all seven, now, hadn’t I.

Mothering Sunday was a read I almost aborted. I’m surprised I didn’t engage with it the first time, but distractions happen. I don’t even want to think about all the books I may have loved if I’d started them over. We’ll skip that.

Graham Swift’s book pinpoints some of the key themes I love in novels. First, its main character is a woman who begins the story on the outskirts of society, as a maid working for a wealthy English family. Second, it’s a tale of doomed love that’s sweetly poignant, with a dark twist; third, a meditation on grief; and fourth, a book whose main character is not just a voracious reader granted use of her employer’s huge – and unread – library, but later becomes a successfully published novelist, pulling herself up the ladder from servant to celebrity.


“So what was it then exactly, this truth-telling? … It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life —of so many more than we think—can never be explained at all.”

  • Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday


I’ve read other Graham Swift books and loved them. He’s first tier, just brilliant. The only thing against the book is precious little hinges on the time period of its setting. Is it beautifully written? Of course! It’s Graham Swift! But historical in any representative sense? Not really. It could be lifted and plopped back down in any historical period with no appreciable changes necessary. It doesn’t belong on this Shortlist. Something like the Bookers, yes. But not the Walter Scott.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is set in the US of the 1850s. Yes, the US, a huge departure for the iconic Irish novelist. I’m roughly halfway, hoping to finish in the next day or two. As a huge fan of Barry’s, my early impression is the lack of soaring lyrical prose is a bitter blow. But I’ll reserve that for later.

After Barry, it’s Rose Tremain. I’ve dipped into the first couple of chapters and, I’ll tell you now, it’s promising. Definitely the first true contender I’ve encountered so far, and no surprise if you know the writer.

Now, back to the books.

Sebastian Barry Event: May 12, 2014

Following is part of Mr. Barry’s reading during his event at Highland Park, IL. I had to cut it short because YouTube won’t upload such a large video (about seven minutes)  from an iPhone. If I can figure it out I’ll post Part II, otherwise, here’s Part I, up ’til the point someone’s cell phone started ringing and he paused, then took up again as if nothing had happened once the idiot shut up the damn phone.

That’s professionalism, the ability to stay in character and ignore such a rude interruption.

Hope you’ll enjoy.


[Update: Looks like the entire video DID upload to YouTube, after all. Alright. I’ll take it.]

travel bits from a tramp abroad: the meet-up



By the time Allison arrived in Dublin she had to chip the ice off me. She’s been studying abroad in Swansea, Wales since January; this was a much more mature young woman.

As the trip went along she became mother figure and I her child. She was the Expert of All Things. She said this was how things would be someday, anyway.

Not if I can help it. Desperate times, desperate measures, softly into that good night.

We developed new personas. She became “ma,” calling me “little Timmy” or “little Jimmy.” She kept forgetting my name.

Allison: “Come on, little Timmy! You can do it!”

Me: “Shut up, ma! And it’s JIMMY!”

Like the blow up sex doll in Connolly station, no one thought this unusual. Or they were afraid to make eye contact.

I was lagging from seven and a half hours in hell next to an Irishman in polyester and she was tired from the ferry crossing, five hour layover in Rosslare (the core of all hell) and train ride up to Dublin. We still walked around. You can’t not. We oriented ourselves, tramping up and down the Liffey.

We found Christ Church Cathedral. Underneath is a huge vault area made into a museum of sparkly things, taking away dark corners I could sneak into, jumping out to scare the living crap out of Allison. I felt sad.

For a cathedral, Christ Church is okay. It didn’t have any really cool dead people I cared about. I thought Jonathan Swift was under marble there. I went from tomb to tomb, knocking. He never answered.

The floor was lovely and the vaulted ceiling majestic. The stained glass was pretty. The outside’s better.

Inside the choir was practicing. Prickles on the back of the neck.

We had tickets to the Dublin Literary Festival. Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright and Hugo Hamilton discussing “translating Irish literature.” Allison was so thrilled she could barely keep her eyes open.

I had the idea the event was in Dublin Castle, probably because I read somewhere that it was in Dublin Castle. We wasted time searching nooks and crannies, ma stopping to take photos.


I pulled out the tickets and read them. Magical fairy dust transported us to the venue.

Allison calls Sebastian Barry “your boyfriend,” which I would like to clarify is TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE. I’ve become branded “she who doth protest too much” and am TRAUMATIZED. No one cares.

Where is my redemption? Lost. Dead. Good night.

We settled far enough back not to be seen. The lights went down. The strip of lights directly above us shone on. Great.

It was mostly Hugo Hamilton, brought up by Anne Enright, with a dash of Sebastian Barry. Irish literature has nuances difficult to translate into foreign languages or American English. Now you don’t have to google it.

Ma fell asleep on my shoulder. I nudged her that we can just go.

“Aren’t you staying to talk to your boyfriend?”

I wasn’t smelling fresh and my hair. Dear god, my hair.

We slept like the dead under marble.





Sebastian Barry event – Highland Park Public Library



If I’m too busy to report on a Sebastian Barry event I am very busy, indeed. I have seven minutes’ worth of his reading but was too transfixed to take even one photo. You heard me correctly and I’m equally boggled. Fortunately, I had with me a friend since my college years and she had a camera. Starstruck as she was, her mind didn’t short circuit as did my own. I believe she has photos for me, thank the gods above.

Lest I allow the event to pass unrecorded, here’s at least a brief recap.

Reader, he is an amazing man. A gentleman and a scholar. With one hell of an Irish brogue. Two library employees said the same thing to me, “OH GOD, HIS VOICE!”

Tell me about it.

The gentleman librarian’s eyes sparkled more than the woman who worked with the bookstore to facilitate the event. I thought his head would explode. I had to laugh. Sounded like he had just won the lottery or snagged a supermodel. Before he met Mr. Barry he was sort of ho hum, another program. Must do sound check. After, I thought he’d changed his sexual preference. Easy, man!  He doesn’t go that way and he’s pretty well taken care of, from what I can tell. He was going to call his wife, to have her come to the event. I’m thinking, okay, if you want her to never look at you the same way again, go for it.  If you are secure enough in your masculinity, who am I to judge?

Silly man.

Sebastian Barry read the first chapter of his latest book, The Temporary Gentleman, which I couldn’t properly review after I read it, being too partial a fan. I could barely form cogent thoughts (shut up, you) and what I produced reads more like a drunken ramble.  More a drunk dial: “I love you, man!”! “You’re my best friend!” Sad, really.

Actually, pathetic.

The thing is, aside from the brogue his delivery can take your breath away. May as well pack up your writing tools, m’dear, and take down your shingle. You are far, far too late and lacking. Though, I have to hand it to him, he is rather generous as far as those who struggle and toil at the trade, thinking what’s the use, it’s been done before. And it has. That’s the thing. But he stated something to the effect that the individuality of voice renders that point moot. If it weren’t so, literature would have stopped a very long time ago. How many plots are there? Some small number I don’t feel like looking up.

Last Monday’s reading was different than the first time I saw him, in Oak Brook. Different in a good way. The delivery was, again, heavenly but I don’t recall him being quite so funny. Something definitely boosted his mood, judging from the content and his thought process. Really, it was wonderful to see him looking so well and happy. Warms the heart.

Unfortunately, I have to go. I know, I know. Breaks your heart. But this weekend my middle child – at 18, he’s legally an adult – is graduating from high school and in under two weeks I’ll be flying to Dublin. If I decide to bring my laptop (surely I or my daughter will) I’ll do my best to post a play by play of the disaster we wreak. Poor Ireland has no idea what’s coming. Wales, either. If I wind up in the American consulate don’t be surprised. I haven’t been out of the country in a long, long time and have lots to make up for.

In advance, I am so so sorry.



fancyline7Sebastian Barry writerfancyline7


The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry




There’s a line in The Temporary Gentleman, near the end of the book, that slapped me right across the face. It was electric, a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky. Sitting outside on my patio, enjoying the surprisingly warm and pleasant day, it nearly tossed me out of my chair from the force of it. Not because it was upsetting. Rather, it sums up in one very short line all the novels he’s written. If he were close enough to me I could pick up the phone and call him I would have, yelling in his ear THIS IS IT. This is why you write! Did you realize it when you put it down? Was the decision conscious? Did you expect observant readers to pick up on it?

In my mind’s eye I grabbed him by the lapels, so anxious to tell him I knew and understood, because it’s a question I’ve struggled with my whole life as well. It’s life experience coupled with an eerily similar family history I share with him – Sebastian Barry the writer. In my excitement I wished I had someone to tell, someone who’d read and related to his work the way I have. But there’s no such person in my life, alas, save him, who isn’t so much really there in the sense I can freely interact. Complex, a bit.

I was going to quote the line here, then decided against it. Before I do so – if I ever do – I want to show it to him. He’ll be in the Chicago area next month. He’ll get it, I know he will. And to me it’s now so blatantly obvious he may wonder at the strength of my reaction, as in didn’t you already know that?

But strong it was, like the percussive blast of a bomb.


The core of The Temporary Gentleman addresses love and why we disappoint, often destroy those we care most about. Jack McNulty is Barry’s grandfather, Jack’s ethereally beautiful wife Mai his grandmother. Jack loves Mai immediately upon setting eyes on her, on the university campus. Her hair is jet black, she’s tall, thin and animated. And he, believing he had nothing particular to recommend himself, feels cowed yet drawn to her by an irrepressible force greater than himself. It doesn’t happen instantly that she falls for him, or perhaps indulges him out of what reason who can say. But eventually she does and they marry.

The wedding scene is among the most powerful in the novel. Indeed, ranking among the most powerful I’ve ever read. That which follows the exchanging of vows, I mean. Mai runs from Jack out into the rain, ripping off her veil, giving her wedding ring to a poor child in the street, leaving a trail suggesting she wants and expects him to follow while a part of her cannot bear it. The rain is torrential. He can barely see her to follow. And in the end he’s holding her, standing in the water. She knows, senses what their union means. On what level I don’t believe she realizes it: I love you and I hate you, with equal violence. And he? Oh, I believe he knows it, as well. Yet he longs for her, tells himself he can protect her and love her and make her forget. All is delusion we convince ourselves to believe.


“… As soon as I moved away, she was gone, moving at speed to the garden wall, and was over it swiftly, and splashed down into the flooded field. She waded twenty feet out towards God knew what limit of the ground, where surely she would imminently plunge underwater and be lost. I cleared the wall myself and sloshed along in the murky floodwaters, trying to catch up with her, alarmed by the darkness of everything, the indistinctness. Then she stopped and I came up behind her. I saw her shoulders fall. I could hear her crying, a sound I don’t think I had ever heard from her before. Her crying was oddly deep, and I was horribly affrighted by it.

‘I want to go back,’ she said.

‘You want to go back where?’

‘I want to go back, I want to go back,’ she said.

‘I don’t understand,’ I said.

I stepped closer to her and put my two hands on her hips either side, and then when she made no obvious objection, put my arms around her, and stood as close to her as I could. I was fearful of knocking her over, on the rough ground beneath us. It was very surprising that, soaked as she was, coatless and hatless, in the vicious storm, her body under the silk was as warm as a running engine.

‘I have my wedding ring to a little beggar girl.’

‘I got it back,’ I said, ‘I gave her a shilling for it.’

‘Poor mite of a thing she was.'”


Mai has surrendered. And Jack accepted her price.


Two children follow, both girls (the older Barry’s mother). To all outward appearances Mai loves her children. Her firstborn, at least. Not long after the birth of her second daughter, Ursula, Jack learns his wife never wanted the child, attempting to abort her in the bathtub. But we bury things, don’t we, in our great capacity for denial? Mai is lovely, his heart beats for her or he believes it does, the same thing virtually. She adores Maggie, spoils her with love and attention, takes her to market every week and gently combs out her hair checking for nits. Surely she loves Ursula, as well? Loving your children is natural, thus she must. Mustn’t she?

On a later furlough from the army, unexpected by Mai, he shows up at his door and is struck with horror. Mai is in a righteous fury, beating Ursula, who kneels in the snow in her nightgown. Mai is a woman possessed; her hatred driving her mad. This is not the beginning of their rift but certainly the shift is palpable. His defenseless child at the hands of his furious wife. Is it any wonder part of his heart turns to stone, seeing hers has long since?

The girls grow up in a war zone, as real and violent as Jack’s service in the army. The screaming and the drunkenness, the violence and fearfulness. The girls shake in bed hearing it. But no matter the peaceful interludes, Jack and Mai beat each other to death, carrying the girls along with them. No, not a literal death but it may as well have been.

Why do we destroy each other, manifest our disappointment and self-hatred outward? Why has Mai turned into a virago and why has Jack let her virtually destroy their older child?

What force impelled Mai to swallow her certainty her marriage would mean the death of her soul, yet never stop loving Jack?

And why does this cycle never end, not breed out of the species.

Why do we let it. lineplain

The Temporary Gentleman follows in the steps of its predecessors. It rips the heart to shreds in its insistence the reader listen, feel the reality of the twin passions love and hate, ending with the humming of a note vibrating through humanity: inevitable remorse that dared not rise before it’s forced.

Why so bleak? Why so depressing? Indeed, why.

And it’s beautiful and it’s lyrical. Not Sebastian Barry’s most soaring but even on a bad day the man can write rings around everyone else.

Impartial? No. Resonating as deeply as literature can? Yes.


Like, dislike, should you read the book? You have my thoughts and know yourselves. What do you think, not me. How much raw emotion can you endure, how deep a study of humanity would you like? And how much “terrible beauty” can you see before it blinds you.

Because all of this is Sebastian Barry. And so this is why, for me: the huge, unanswerable why.