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‘Belle’ subverts comedic narrative with surprises

POSTED ON June 4th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

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Kate Lydic and Arielle Hoffman in a scene from “The Belle of Belfast.”
PHOTO: CAROL ROSEGG

Review by Sean Williams

The Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Belle of Belfast” has been extended for an additional week, and for good reason. Nate Rufus Edelman’s play is a fast-paced work with comedic charisma and a riveting setting. Working against the backdrop of Belfast in 1985, the show examines the inexorable pull that desire—whether it is escape from Northern Ireland, lust, or Jameson—has on the main characters.

The cast is led by protagonist Anne Malloy, (played by Kate Lydic) a 17-year-old wayward orphan whose interest in priest Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley) might be more than mere infatuation. Lydic does a great job of nailing the expressions and tone of a seemingly overconfident adolescent who is desperately trying to make sense of growing up without a family in a war-torn city. Anne’s interactions with Father Reilly and her best friend Ciara Murphy (Arielle Hoffman) establish a carefree exposition of the story, filled with bawdy jokes and observations about Catholic/Protestant rivalries in the time of the Troubles. But Edelman and director Claudia Weill turn what seems to be a conventional comedic narrative on its head as the story progresses and we learn more about each of the characters.

The stage is small but there’s plenty to look at, with a set that creates the dichotomy of a chaste rectory compared to the seedy and graffiti-riddled streets of Belfast. A projector flashes pictures taken during the Troubles on a wall to begin the play, and there is a consistently ominous background that pervades through the duration of the show.

Each scene in the play incorporates two cast members in a dialogue, and as such the story takes a while to unfold. Edelman succeeds wonderfully at using a funny introduction between a gossiping old woman (Patricia Conolly) and an impatient Father Reilly in confession to establish a setting and flesh out the characters. By the time the play hits its raucous midpoint, we think we have a good idea of what’s coming next. However, “The Belle of Belfast” again breaks from a typical narrative and offers up surprise after surprise, sometimes coming seconds apart.

Billy Meleady and Conolly fill out the remaining cast members as Father Dermott Behan and Emma Malloy, Anne’s great-aunt, respectively. Meleady in particular delivers a show-stealing performance as an alcoholic, nationalist priest who is capable of conjuring up hilarious quips and horrifying fury. His one-liners are what really get the show moving, and his brief time on stage is consistently riveting while Emma’s scenes in the confessional cement her irritating yet lovable persona.

Each of the actors does well when it comes to addressing his or her character’s insecurities. Hoffman’s performance as Ciara, an overweight, self-conscious girl who timidly daydreams about boys, is one of the most personal in the show. Father Reilly, while a relatively bland character compared to his colorful counterparts, also must struggle with his doubts about religion and his devotedness to God. Though the cast is small at just five, each actor seems very comfortable with his or her character, and that confidence shows on stage during any of the dialogue. Part of this is due to Edelman’s rapid interactive sequences, but the performers must also be commended on a good job of tackling the difficult Belfast accent while transitioning through an enormous range of emotions.

Overall the play succeeds at subverting expectations and constantly keeping the audience on its toes. There are several laugh-out-loud moments and a healthy dosage of pathos, while the small theatre offers intimate closeness to the stage. The Irish Rep’s production of “The Belle of Belfast” is an earnest interpretation of a dynamic and exciting play.

“The Belle of Belfast” can be seen at the DR2 Theatre in Manhattan through June 14.

An undertaker hits, then runs

POSTED ON June 3rd  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

Jeremy Massey (c) Benn Jae

Jeremy Massey.

PHOTO: BENN JAE

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott 

“More Brendan Behan than Dennis Lehane.”

That’s what the reviewer at the National Public Radio website the other week said about Jeremy Massey’s “The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley,” though he added that it is, at its heart, a crime novel.

“Highly readable and entertaining, “said Kirkus Reviews, striking a similar tone, “the novel benefits especially from Massey’s mostly restrained, deadpan Irish sense of humor.”

And it benefits, too, from some inside professional knowledge. Massey is a third-generation undertaker who worked for years in the family business in Dublin and Paddy Buckley was taught the trade by his father and is employed by Gallagher’s, a much respected funeral home.

Paddy, a grieving widower, is going through a tough time generally and things are about to get worse. The author told us:Having knocked down and killed the brother of Vincent Cullen (Dublin’s crime boss), fuelled by fear, Paddy flees the scene of the accident in the dead of night. The following morning, having gone in to work to appear as normal as possible, Paddy ends up being given the task of making the funeral arrangements with Vincent Cullen. And Cullen doesn’t miss a trick.”

Jason Sheehan, that npr.org reviewer, said: “Massey has an eye for black humor and the details of a life fully inhabited. I know stuff about autopsies, embalming and cremation that I didn’t before reading this book. And maybe a little something new about grief, too, which is impressive.”

He continued: “I love the way Massey writes. For a first-time novelist, his confidence is remarkable. He’s got the natural voice of a storyteller (working in the first-person helps a lot), and feels no need to show off or lard his paragraphs with hyperbole or unnecessary linguistic fireworks. His writing is by no means spare, it’s just lush in a way that feels completely unforced.”

book cover PADDY BUCKLEY

Jeremy Massey

Date of birth: March 31, 1970

Place of birth: Dublin.

Spouse: Holli.

Children: Lughnasa, Finnegan, Coco.

Residence: Melbourne.

Published works: “The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley”

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

When I started out writing 20 years ago, I loved finding crusty cafes in Dublin to write in. The sounds of the city and its people lulled me into a creative trance enabling the story to trickle down. But today, it’s more of a hermitic activity. I have a little writing hut at the back of my garden where I can crank the music and go a little mad, fully immersed in the world of the story. In terms of routine, I do the lion’s share of my writing when my kids are at school or after they’ve gone to bed, but there’s no escape from a story once I’ve started one. After I’ve gone to bed myself, I often pick my phone up and write in it if the story continues to crackle, sometimes at three in the morning.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

When you find a writer whose work is like magic to you, get under the skin of their narrative and find the secrets to their style. And get into the habit of writing your dreams down. This really helps in finding your own style because it’s not something you can take your time with – you have to record the dream before you forget it, so you literally don’t have time to be self-conscious about your writing. It also sharpens the mind and memory, because the more you do it, the better you get at remembering them. After just a few weeks, huge segments of dreams can be recalled.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

“When the Nines Roll Over” by David Benioff; “South of No North” by Charles Bukowski; “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes.

What book are you currently reading?

“The Magus” by John Fowles. I’m not finished it yet but already I know it’s a masterpiece.

Is there a book you wish you had written?

I remember reading “Jig” by Campbell Armstrong in 1989, and at the time it stopped traffic for me. I thought it was ingenious in its crafting, and its two principal characters were as rich and charismatic as Brando is on the screen. I don’t wish I’d written it, but for the duration of my reading it I could think of little else.

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

“The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse.” In terms of story smarts, Hesse is right up there with Oscar Wilde.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

It would have to be Brendan Behan. For seven years, I lived around the corner from his house in Crumlin, and one of the drivers in the yard I worked in was his next-door neighbor and knew him well. I haven’t had a drink in 15 years, but seeing as we’re supposing here, I’d love to go on a week-long bender with him, spending half the time in Dublin, the other half in New York.

What book changed your life?

“Post Office” by Charles Bukowski changed the way I looked at literature. After reading that, I got my hands on everything he’d ever published – novels, stories, poems – and devoured them. His voice was intoxicating. It became a lifeline of hope, of friendship, of understanding. And his maxims blew me away. “Endurance is more important than truth” was one that became unforgettable. And his one-line poem, Art. As the spirit wanes, the form appears.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

Tourmakeady.  It’s a tiny village on the west shores of Lough Mask in County Mayo, and it’s where my heart beats for.

 

Salon goes to bat for libraries

POSTED ON June 2nd  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

mark butler

Mark Butler.

 

Text by Karen Daly

Photos by Cat Dwyer

The stars came out for IAW&A’s first fundraising Salon, The Amazing Library Variety Show on Tuesday, May 19, at The Cell Theatre. Mark Butler, the show’s producer and host, corralled members to donate their time and talent to support the work of the NYC-based grassroots advocacy group, Urban Librarians Unite. The Show was a testament to the generosity and breadth of talent in IAW&A and to Mark’s artistic, organizational and hosting skills.

ULU Founder and Executive Director Christian Zabriskie described their work. ULU has organized 24-hour read-ins, story times for children, mini-library mobilizations, a “book seeding” campaign.

Actor/director Richard Butler, playing library lover “Mr. Dewey Decimal,” warmed up the SRO crowd with the jazzy “Librarians Really ‘Dew’ It for Me.” Pianist Ryan Shirar was the night’s accompanist.

Best-selling author of “The Westies” T.J. English read a selection from his book about Whitey Bulger that will be published in September. Then “fiercely talented” (in the view of New York Times) Maxine Linehan performed two original songs. John Kearns chose an excerpt from his novel-in-progress, “Worlds,” in which the protagonist goes to the library to discover his Irish identity.

cathy maguire

Cathy Maguire.

Marni Rice, a chanteuse-accordionist, sang in French. Stand-up comedienne, actor Sarah Fearon brought the laughs with her routine. One of the top “trad” musicians in the country, Tony DeMarco played two reels that had our collective feet tapping.

Internationally known Irish tenor Karl Scully delighted us with his rendition of Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in The Park.”

IAW&A President Larry Kirwan described the night Black 47 back-up one of Shane MacGowan’s first post-Pogue gigs. ULU’s Lauren Comito charmed the crowd with her song about the trials of a librarian. Honor Molloy read “Backwards Library,” a piece about summers, libraries and time.

Singer/songwriter guitarist John Paul Skocik performed two original tunes. World-renowned saxophonist Jon Gordon played a soulful solo of “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Cathy Maguire sang two beautiful songs, one country-inflected, one Irish.

tony de marco

Tony DeMarco.

The night ended with a McCourt tour de force. Malachy McCourt talked about how two poor boys in County Limerick, he and his brother Frank, devoured library books. Then he riffed about labels, about snakes and God, Adam and Eve, St. Patrick chasing the snakes from Ireland.

Frequent Salon contributor Tom Mahon perfectly summed up the event as “a rousing, rollicking night of fund-raising, hell-raising with hilarious songs and stories about libraries and librarians and books.”

The next Salon is tonight at Bar Thalia (Broadway & 95th Street), beginning at 6 p.m. The next Cell Theatre edition of the Salon is scheduled for Tuesday, June 16, at 7 p.m.

 

 

 

CD projects mystery, sense of displacement

POSTED ON June 1st  - POSTED IN Arts & Leisure

Patrick Mangan - Departures Cover Art

By Daniel Neely

Sometimes you have to search far and wide to find the best out there, but sometimes you only need to look in your own backyard. Hailing from Brooklyn (one of this country’s great homes of Irish music), Pat Mangan is one of the finest players around and has recently released “Departures,” an intense, expressive album of original instrumental tracks that isn’t simply the reflection of his accrued experience in music, but an album that tells a story of his experience as someone living in the world.

And what a story it is. Mangan picked up the fiddle when he was 5 and became a student of the great Brian Conway, a gifted teacher and the standard bearer of the New York–Sligo style of fiddle playing, when he was 8. Mangan’s music developed quickly under Conway’s tutelage, as did his understanding of the nuances of Irish traditional music not only through his lessons but through his exposure to legendary players like Paddy Reynolds and Andy McGann, who proved important formative influences.

There was a great deal of energy in Mangan’s talent early on. As he grew older, he not only competed in but found great success in competing in the All-Ireland. He earned his first first-place finish in 1996 in the under 12 competition and indeed, that year there was a delightful picture of a very young Mangan on the cover of Comhaltas’s “Treoir” magazine, holding his first place cup high above his head. A couple years later he took first in the 15-18 category. For the peer group, this must have seemed inevitable.

In the late 1990s/early 2000s, Mangan became a member of John Whelan’s band (incidentally, Whelan is now a member of the great new group “Gailfean”; www.gailfean.com) and later toured with the likes of Cathie Ryan and Moya Brennan (Clannad). He released his debut solo album “Farewell To Ireland” to critical favor in 2003.

However, Mangan’s proverbial big break came in 2001 when, at 16 years old, he made his debut with Riverdance on Broadway. He wasn’t just the youngest player in the show’s history, he was its first male fiddle lead and a continual part of the Broadway show for several years until fate intervened in 2006, when a slot in Riverdance’s touring show opened. He seized the opportunity and as its fiddle soloist and later, its musical director, he went on to become an integral part of the Riverdance family, traveling the world over, experiencing its dizzying array of cultural difference and absorbing its musical influences at every turn.

This constellation of cultural influences is precisely what gives “Departures” its distinctive sound. The album starts with “Road to Shatili,” a track named after a highland village in country of Georgia, which juxtaposes Mangan’s brilliant “traddy” lead work with a crack ensemble that includes Avirodh Sharma (tabla), Greg Anderson (guitar), Cillian Vallely (low whistle), Steve Holloway (drums), and Jason Sypher (bass). While the players are successful in imparting a strong sense of otherness, there’s nothing musically speaking that ties what they’re doing to a particular location or culture and in that sense the whole projects a cool sense of mystery and displacement. The same might be said for “Queen Tamar’s Court” (which features Cormac de Barra on harp) and “The Eastern Set,” two tracks that seem to have a similar sensibility.

Then there are the tracks that sound with a kind of familiar exoticism. “Gypsy Affair” and “Crossroads Tango” are both very expressive in approach and unfold with a sense of the dramatic. They are lovely, especially the latter of the two which features John Whelan, who adds some impressive accordion work.

Finally, there are the tracks that sound refreshingly familiar to an ear attuned to traditional Irish music. There is something very comforting in “St Marks Place Reels” and “The Sunday Session.” Both project a strong sense of New York-ness and the good nature and bondedness of its trad scene. Lovely tracks.

Mangan (who in addition to Riverdance also occasionally performs with the dance group Hammerstep; www.hammerstep.com) has put together an excellent, richly variegated album that looks beyond the parochial boundaries of traditional music. “Departures” will appeal to many fans of Irish music, but I expect it’s broader, very cosmopolitan outlook will also attract the interest of world music fans who perhaps more often delight in the exploration of cross cultural influence. There is a lot to hear in this album, and it is definitely worth a listen – pick it up! For more information about Mangan and this CD, visit www.patrickmangan.com.

Daniel Neely’s traditional music column appears each week in the Irish Echo.

Young stars paved way for ‘Yes’ vote

POSTED ON May 29th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

hozier

 Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” is not a typical pop song.

 

By Colleen Taylor

The continued, international elation inspired by Ireland’s passing of the Referendum last week calls for some musical reflection. It’s both exciting and moving to recall the various musical responses to the issues of gay rights in Ireland—music that has become increasingly public within the past couple years. In particular, I want to revisit the incredibly lyric, powerful music made by young Irish artists Hozier and SOAK, who not only helped to make marriage equality a more present concern in the popular Irish mindset, but also gave the politics a gorgeous, profound soundtrack.

It’s astounding to think “Take Me to Church,” which was self-produced by Wicklow-native Hozier in Ireland just last year, is now one of Ryan Seacrest’s most played tracks and one of America’s most recognizable Top 40 hits. “Take Me to Church” is not the typical run-of-the-mill pop song you hear on most radio stations. Rather, it’s a poetic, soulful, haunting song displaying emotional depth and artistic creativity. The music video that accompanies this single is equally provocative, explicitly tackling the issues of sexual repression and gay rights. The music video has been cited as one of the year’s most popular internationally, and it boasts over 40 million views. The low notes and powerful vocals that blend in “Take Me to Church” give sardonic sound to heartache of frustrated love, all the while maintaining a hypnotic and inspired rhythm.

Hozier has been very vocal about his song’s subject matter, explaining in an interview for New York Magazine that “Take Me to Church” is about reclaiming humanity and sexuality, especially in an Irish context, where he himself felt the effects of a “cultural hangover” of “shame about sexual orientation.” His music video references homophobia in Russia particularly and recent attacks on LGBTQ youth. Hozier explains on behalf of his song that it’s not just about gay rights, but that his music is about “human rights” issues. No doubt the song and video will experience an epilogue-like resurgence in popularity now that marriage equality has been officially legislated in Ireland. On the 23rd, when the news hit the presses, Hozier tweeted: “The pure joy of it. I’m so proud of Ireland today.”

Bridie Monds-Watson, the young singer from Derry, catapulted onto the music scene at age 16. She has accomplished her growing success in an admirable “do-it-yourself” way, with her mother doubling as her manager. Monds-Watson, or “SOAK” as she entitles her artistic persona, is the real deal. While her music is impressive in its own right, it’s her young age that makes the sophistication and maturity of her work all the more outstanding.

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SOAK is the real deal.

This quick musical success is likely tied to the fact that, with regard to her personal life, Monds-Watson had to grow up fast. She came out to her parents at age 14. It seems adolescent hardship accelerated her maturation into her current edgy, androgynous style, and most importantly, her maturation into an emotionally intelligent and expressive artist.

While SOAK’s 2012 EP, “Sea Creatures” is folksy and quiet, her more recent “Blud” (2015) is more alternative, daring, brooding, and arguably more personal for the young gay singer. It is this understanding of musical refinement and youthful challenges that makes SOAK a phenomenal musician as well as a perceptive young spokesperson for Irish teens, particularly LGBTQ youth. Still, Monds-Watson doesn’t like being quizzed by the press about her sexuality; she’d rather have her music do the talking. Nevertheless, when SOAK heard the Referendum news, she proudly re-tweeted her “Yes Equality” photo and wrote, “There are tears in my eyes.”

Ireland and SOAK will be celebrating together these next few weeks. The artist’s timing seems fortuitous: with the passing of the Referendum comes the Irish release of SOAK’s new album, “Before We Forgot How to Dream” (out on June 1). There will be more in “Music Notes” about SOAK’s latest record in the coming weeks, so keep your eyes peeled for my review of the young artist’s latest work.

In the meantime, enjoy currently available releases and music videos from Hozier and SOAK. Finally, if you happen to be in Dublin and in the mood for celebration, pop by one of the city’s most exciting new music halls and gay clubs, “Mother” off of Dame Street. Each weekend at Mother means a vibrant night of dance and the country’s latest in electro music and DJ’ing.

In Ireland, political history and music have always had a strong bond, and in 2015, this momentous event in global history is no exception. Ireland’s contemporary music can be heard as the Referendum’s pre-cursor and no doubt the legislation will inspire even more poignant musical replies.

Colleen Taylor is the “Music Notes” columnist for the Irish Echo.

 

Array of talent at 6th annual NYNB

POSTED ON May 28th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

brona crehan

Playwright Brona Crehan

 

By Peter McDermott

pmcdermott@irishecho.com

Although business, trade and investment will get plenty of air time at the 6th annual New York-New Belfast Conference next week, the arts won’t be neglected. Far from it. An array of actors, directors and authors will lead and participate in several panel discussions at the Fordham University, Lincoln Center Campus, on June 3, 4 and 5.

The Irish Echo’s own Michael Gray will speak on “Belfast and Irish America: Getting to Know You?” Gray, the author of “Stills, Reels and Rushes: Ireland and the Irish in Twentieth Century Cinema,” will be joined by fellow Echo columnist Terry Golway, Charlotte Moore, artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre, and Sammy Douglas, who is a Member of the Legislative Assembly. The session will be chaired by Lorraine Turner, head of the New York office of the Northern Ireland Bureau, at 7:50 p.m. on Thursday evening.

On the same evening, actor and poet Michael O’Keefe will speak on “The Healing Power of Art.” O’Keefe got an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award for his second film, “The Great Santini” (1979), and followed up in the role of Danny Noonan in “Caddyshack.” In more recent times, he has featured in “Michael Clayton” and “American Violet” and the TV series “Homeland.”

Fellow panelists are Patricia Corbett, CEO Hillsborough Castle, artist and documentarian Marcus Robinson (“Rebuilding the World Trade Center”) and Brona Crehan, who produced and directed her play “Pillow on the Stairs” in Manhattan this past spring. John Lee, of the Irish American Writers & Artists, will chair the session at 6:45 p.m.

Aidan Connolly, Irish Arts Center

The Irish Arts Center’s Aidan Connolly.

On the same evening at 8:30, Anita Daly will be at the helm for the session entitled “Making Belfast and New York Partners in Arts and Culture,” featuring Linda Martin, Ciarán O’Reilly, Peter Quinn, John Kearns, Darrah Carr, Kevin Gamble, Daniel McCabe, Tara O’Grady and George Heslin.

Among those also scheduled to speak at the Fordham conference are Aidan Connolly of the Irish Arts Center, balladeer Anthony Toner, poet Christopher Cahill, actress Geraldine Hughes, academic and author Michael Sorkin, artist Mac Premo and Molloy College Irish-language tutor Jerry Kelly.

For the full schedule and other conference details, go to www.aisling-events.com.

 

 

 

 

 

A shout-out for the arts

POSTED ON May 27th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure, News & Views

 

o'connell layton creedon

Actor Jack O’Connell, center, actor-playwright Erin Layton and actor-playwright Don Creedon were in the audience last night for this month’s Artists Without Walls Showcase. PHOTO: PETER MCDERMOTT

By Peter McDermott

Einstein played the violin.

So Polly Toynbee reminded us a recent piece in the Guardian, making the case for more arts in education rather than less.

And referring to an institution founded in London in 1660, she said: “Recent research found science Nobel laureates are 25 times more likely to sing, dance, act and paint than other Royal Society members, and 12 times more likely to write poetry and novels.”

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)

Albert Einstein.

The veteran columnist was on strong ground, then, in arguing that the “arts enhance other talents.”

Toynbee took to task a recent British Conservative education minister Michael Gove and his successor, Nicky Morgan, for their biases against the arts.

She also had something to say, in this regard, about a contest being held in the main opposition party.

“In the lineup of Labour leadership potentials, how to choose between these able, good-looking and experienced Oxbridge graduates?” (One of the four announced candidates, incidentally, is a daughter of the diaspora. Mary Creagh’s mother, originally from Northern Ireland, was a primary-school teacher and her father, from the Republic, a car-factory worker.)

“The list of qualities required [for the leadership job] is probably impossible to combine within one human frame,” Toynbee said. But the candidates would certainly be a lot more interesting, she felt, if they revealed a passion for something outside of political life, and what could be better than arts performance? She cited the example of the pol who took piano exams and another who played Mendelssohn, which helped make them “plain talkers in a world of ear-aching politics-speak.”

There were plenty of suggestions on display last night at the monthly Artists Without Walls Showcase at the Cell Theater in Manhattan. Wouldn’t you like to see your — or indeed any — public representative try to meld hip hop and Irish dance like the guys from Hammerstep? Or get up there with a guitar, as Cavan’s John Munnelly did, and amuse a crowd with a song about Julius Caesar? Or, as Noel Lawlor does sometimes, though not last night, recite a soliloquy or some other type of piece from Shakespeare?

In her piece, Toynbee made the more general case for performance. “No one forgets any school play they were in,” she said. “No discipline is tougher than acting in front of an audience, learning a part, speaking up to be heard. All those are skills vital to jobs in later life, as employers complain of young people mumbling and slouching in interviews. But fewer schools employ drama teachers.”

As for the Bard himself, Toynbee added: “The Royal Shakespeare Company’s work with schools, training teachers to teach Shakespeare performance, showed remarkable results: performing a play transformed attitudes to both Shakespeare and to school.”

800px-Shakespeare

William Shakespeare in the Chandos portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.

The confinement and the comfort

POSTED ON May 26th  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

Juska_Blessings(TP)_Cover

When Elise Juska’s most recent novel was published in hard cover last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer said that the “moving, multifaceted portrait of the Blessing family gleams like a jewel.”

This wasn’t just a matter of hometown pride, either, for the reviews were enthusiastic nationally.

Entertainment Weekly, for instance, said: “There’s no shortage of novels about the quirks and tragedies of large families, but ‘The Blessings’ is a uniquely poignant, prismatic look at an Irish-Catholic clan as it rallies after losing one of its own.”

Describing the novel as “wonderfully readable,” the Library Journal’s reviewer said: “She is a shrewd observer of human nature and has an outstanding ability to bring her characters to life on the page.”

And fellow writers agreed. One, the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, commented: “Elise Juska is so good at describing people, places, and moments that you not only picture them, you feel them.”

Now that it is out this week in paperback, the Echo asked the author herself to describe it.

“‘The Blessings’ chronicles the life of a large, close Irish Catholic family, the Blessing family of Philadelphia, over two decades,” Juska said. “I grew up in such a family and its particular dynamics—the rhythms and rituals, the constant togetherness—are something I’ve been drawn to write about for years.

“In the novel, the central event is the premature death of a young uncle and its ripple effect on the family, with each chapter told through a different family member’s point of view,” she added. “Through these changing lenses, the reader sees unfold the shared story of the family, but also glimpses what’s going on with individual characters internally, privately, outside the family sphere—an uncle coming to terms with his daughter’s eating disorder, for example, or a nephew going down a dangerous road. Always, though, and despite whatever else, the family remains a constant.

“The book is ultimately about those contradictions that exist in big families: the separate-but-togetherness, the confinement and the comfort, the life-altering alongside the everyday,” said Juska, who is the director of the undergraduate Creative Writing program at the University of the Arts.

Elise Juska

Date of birth: May 17, 1973

Place of birth: Philadelphia

Spouse: Jake

Children: Theo, 8 months old

Residence: Philadelphia during the school year, Maine in the summers

Published works: Most recently, the novels “The Blessings” and “One for Sorrow, Two For Joy,” both of which are about Irish-American families.

 

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

My perfect writing conditions are quiet, solitary, foggy mornings. I’ve spent most of the last 10 summers up in Maine, writing, so I’ve had plenty of those. But since having a baby this fall, I’ve become much more flexible. When I can grab time at my desk, day or night, I make the most of it.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I wasn’t too focused on publishing when I first started writing, and I’m grateful for it. I wrote because it was what I most loved doing. I’d tell aspiring writers to do the same: focus on writing the best book you can write. Read widely. Remember that drafts that ultimately don’t work, pages that are cut, aren’t wasted; they’re part of the process of getting to the next thing, the better thing.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” I’ve read and reread at least a dozen times. The lightness of touch, the human insight—it’s the book I turn to when I want to feel inspired. For the beauty and immersiveness of the sentences, the fat volume of Andre Dubus’s “Selected Stories.” And “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, for its inventiveness, intelligence, generosity of spirit.

What book are you currently reading?

I just finished devouring “The Green Road” by Anne Enright. Next on the pile are “Our Souls At Night” by Kent Haruf and Helen MacDonald’s memoir “H is for Hawk.”

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

“101 Things to Do with a Slow Cooker.” I managed to make a few of these recipes without any casualties.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

Grace Paley—she fascinates me as a writer and a person.

What book changed your life?

I remember being a teenager, reading Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and having this jolt of recognition: these are people I know, feelings I’ve felt. The kinds of moments we all read for. I remember being amazed at her ability to capture so accurately what life is like. I wanted to write books that felt like that.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

I lived in Galway for a semester during college, so my favorite spots are all steeped in nostalgia for being 21 years old: Eyre Square, the banks of the Corrib River, the King’s Head pub where I celebrated my birthday with a gaggle of good Irish friends.

JuskaTHEBLESSINGSElise

PHOTO BY DAN BERNSTEIN

Unapologetically contemporary

POSTED ON May 22nd  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

GroundsforInvasion

Willow Sea and Tracy Friel are Grounds for Invasion.

 

By Colleen Taylor

I’m feeling very cool this week. Walking about the streets with my headphones in, there’s a hip sound guiding the pep in my steps.  It’s all thanks to two new additions to my playlist: “Let Go” by Galway band Grounds for Invasion and “Hold Ya” by Dublin-based Rocstrong.  Although I wouldn’t group these two tracks in the same genre setting, they deserve mention together for their parallel ultra-modernism.  “Let Go” is electro-pop/rock and slightly techno while “Hold Ya” is funky and soulful. What connects them is this audible demonstration of how unapologetically contemporary the Irish music scene has become.  These Galway and Dublin representatives illustrate current Irish arts scene’s freshness and its curiosity.  These songs don’t rely on the crutch of past influences: they are very much the fashionable sounds of Ireland now.

Grounds for Invasion is a musical partnership out of Galway forged between Willow Sea (or Will O’Connor) and Tracy Friel.  The two met at college, and Sea, moved by Friel’s rendition of a Bo Diddley song, conceived of an electro collaborative project, which planted the seeds for “Grounds for Invasion.”  The duo released their debut album, “Dying Stars,” in February of this year to considerable acclaim among some amateur critics in Ireland.  They drummed up some more fans at the Body & Soul Festival, where they’re also playing this summer in 2015.  The Irish Times named Grounds for Invasion one of the bands to watch in 2015, and their debut “Dying Stars”–still a very recent release–continues to garner interest in Ireland.

Electro-pop music oftentimes turns me off.  I find it too “out there,” sometimes too reliant on the sound board than the voice and instruments.  But when I stumbled upon “Let Go” off the new album “Dying Stars,” I had the opposite response.  This song is about the voice.  The lyrics and echo-y vocals intersect with the cool, mellow electronic beats in seamless, natural correlation.   The song is hypnotic: it pulls you in and induces a bobbing head or tapping foot in immediate response.  Grounds for Invasion aren’t trying to over-play or over-sync their sounds.  They competently navigate the common ground of the electronic world and the artistic world, and the resultant sound is authentic–not to mention, very cool.

Rocstrong

Rocstrong

Rocstrong is Andre J. P. Bangala.  Born in the Congo and raised in Ireland, Rocstrong’s cultural background is, like his musical influence, interesting and pluralistic.  He is a man taken with rock and funk sounds and looks to a diverse range of artists for his inspiration, from the likes of Elvis to Pharrell Williams.  His sound is ultimately his own, though; Rocstrong writes and produces all his music.

“Hold Yah” is upbeat, fun, funky and musically fascinating.  Released online just a few weeks ago, this song is only Rocstrong’s third official release, but it sounds like the accomplished track of a musician with three times that amount of output.  “Hold Yah” asserts Rocstrong’s individuality, particularly in the Irish musical context.  His voice manages to sound both as if from an earlier era and decidedly modern simultaneously.  The song both belongs in 1970s New York and the top of the Irish charts today, timely and timeless at the same time.  This song not only reinvigorates funk rock with electronic keynotes, it also brings a bit of Dublin’s urban feel into styles that otherwise live elsewhere in the globe.  The singer must be commended for avoiding the electro-genre rabbit hole that traps many young artists today.  Instead, Rocstrong wisely chooses to resurrect sounds and styles that shouldn’t have gone away in the first place.  But Rocstrong is doing far more than great tributes to earlier musical eras–he writes his own musical instinct into the Irish music scene, bringing things back to the lively space of right here, right now.

If you’re feeling like you could do with some cool new tunes, join me by adding “Let Go” and “Hold Yah” to your playlists.  They’re both available on SoundCloud.  In particular, keep an eye out for Rocstrong.  He’s doing something special and completely jovial for the Irish music scene.

Colleen Taylor writes the Irish Echo’s “Music Notes” column.

 

New Irish-American Writing

POSTED ON May 21st  - POSTED IN Arts, Arts & Leisure

kevin_Mc

“Brownstone Dreams” – an extract

By Kevin R. McPartland

Staggering slightly and mumbling, Bobby Dutton made his way across the schoolyard of P.S. 124 and then stopped. He stared at a large wall that separated the Catholic school from the public school. At the bottom of the wall was a small hole. A full moon was high in the sky and he could see quite clearly the dark indentation in the brick.

Bobby was here at one-thirty in the morning on a dare. It was Hanky who had pushed it—saying he didn’t have the balls to take the gun from its hiding place in the hole in the wall. Earlier in the evening Bobby’s crew, the Schoolyard Boys (as they called themselves), had gathered down by the banks of the Gowanus Canal—an odorous, oil-slicked, narrow waterway that filtered in from lower New York Bay. They’d drunk two six-packs of Rheingold beer and had sniffed several tubes of airplane glue.

As he stood staring at the wall, Bobby suddenly thought of rats; rats were known to scurry around the schoolyard at night. He wondered if maybe there was a rat in the hole — but then succeeded in pushing the fear out of his intoxicated mind as he stooped and pushed his hand gently into the 4-by-4-inch hole, and felt the grainy handgrip of Vincent Casseo’s .357 Magnum. He slowly pulled the gun from the hole and then raised it to a firing position. He closed one eye tightly and aimed the gun at nothing in particular. He noticed how the moonlight danced off the gun’s barrel as he turned in a wide arc and then returned to his original position. He felt the weight of the gun and thought about how these small mechanical devices brought such power to people. He was about to pull the trigger but caught himself—that would be stupid, he thought. He didn’t need every cop in the neighborhood responding to a shots fired in the schoolyard call, so instead, he raised the barrel to his temple and gripped the trigger lightly, ever so lightly, just enough to feel what the last seconds before committing suicide would be like.

Bobby’s senses were heightened in some strange way by it all, as he caressed the cool metal of the trigger with his finger and pushed the gun’s barrel flush against his temple. It was as if he was rehearsing something that was inevitable, or maybe it was all the airplane glue he’d sniffed and the beer. Whatever it was, it was starting to spook him. He slowly took the gun away from his head and tucked it into his waistband. He knew at that moment there was no turning back. He was taking the gun. It would shut Hanky’s mouth once and for all, and besides, the gun felt good to him. He’d make sure to get it back long before Vincent ever knew it was missing, proving to himself and the rest of the Schoolyard Boys he had balls—great big ones.

Bobby started out of the schoolyard, heading toward the Thirteenth Street exit. As he walked, a new sense of confidence flooded his intoxicated mind. He liked the way the gun felt pressed into his belly—held in place by his belt. He felt like a bad-ass, a gangster, a cop, someone who was empowered. He made his way up the eight steps to street level and began to walk up Thirteenth Street. He noticed his shadow in the moonlight and the fact the street was empty except for a woman walking a dog. He noticed a lot of things he wouldn’t have ordinarily noticed. He was different now—he was packing. His street sense told him to be extra vigilant—but in spite of that fact, he hadn’t noticed the heavyset figure that had very slowly opened one of P.S. 124’s large brown doors and was taking particular interest in who it was that was exiting the schoolyard so late at night, and then, as Bobby disappeared up the street in the darkness, had slammed the door shut and turned off the floodlight.

 Kevin R. McPartland is a native Brooklynite, novelist and short-story writer. He is the author of the novel, “Brownstone Dreams,” of which this extract is the opening chapter. The novel published by Boann Books and Media and is available from boannbooksandmedia.com or amazon.com. His work has appeared in such publications as AIM Magazine, Chicago, and Grit Magazine, Williamsport, Pa., as well as in the anthology of short stories by Vietnam War veterans entitled “Adventures in Hell,” Ritz Publishing, 1990. He has been a regular reader at the Irish American Writers & Artists’ salon since its inception.

 

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