Good Behavior by Molly Keane

Thoughts On A Novel

I read this book with great discomfort all the way through. I have a sense of having being conned. It was mentioned more than once in an Irish Times article Laugh in the time of Corona: Favourite funny books. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, Hilary Mantel calls it an ‘overlooked classic’.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was also mentioned and I agree, there were many laugh out moments for me there and great compassion too, some recompense for the underlying sadness of a woman spending the end of her days in a hotel with strangers who become almost friends and the unexpected gift of a complicit friendship with a young man who makes up for an absent grandson.

In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, not only were there no laugh out loud moments, I may have grimaced all the way through. So utterly did I dislike the story and the characters, I questioned my understanding of the word behaviour, there wasn’t any good behaviour, even when the characters denied their true thoughts and said things to cover them, the behaviour remained appalling. The only exception being the maid Rose who kept the household going, working and caring her way through the narrative, shifting her alliances towards whichever household member required her attention.

The Anglo-Irish & Big Houses

Although Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright, it felt like I was reading an old English novel and I saw many refer to her as Anglo-Irish, so I had to fill myself in on what that influence I could feel in the text was about. So for those like me who didn’t grow up in either of those countries, a quick explanation on what it meant to be Anglo-Irish.

Coolbawn House, County Wexford burned in 1923 By Mike Searle, CC BY-SA

The Anglo-Irish social class made up most of the professional and landed class from the 17th century up to Irish Independence around 1920, they were until that time the ruling aristocracy. They identified as Irish but retained English habits in business, politics, culture and society. They participated in English sports, they loved horse sports, racing, fox hunting, would send their children to boarding schools in England if possible and often intermarried with the ruling classes in Great Britain.

Many constructed large country houses in the first half of the 18th century, ranging from palatial mansions to more modest ‘large’ houses known as Big Houses, a symbol of their class dominance in Irish society. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 is one of the original Big House novels. Elizabeth Bowen chronicled the decline of the Big House in The Last September.

275 were destroyed, deliberately burned by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Irish revolutionary period (1919-1921) including Molly Keane’s family’s own estate, her father ignoring warnings to leave and take his family to England, refusing to leave the place even when he saw them coming to burn it down.

Book Review

The protagonist of Good Behaviour is Iris Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, who grows up with her brother Hubert in ‘Temple Alice’ one of the ‘Big Houses’, built by an ancestor as his temporary residence until inheriting his titles and estates.

Now the title extinct and estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house (a house intended as the residence of a widow), came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property.

While the novel opens with a chapter when she is fifty-seven-years old at her mother’s death-bed, the remainder of the novel focuses on their life under the tutelage of a governess Mrs Brock up until her sudden departure through to her twenties when she is an unhappy, overweight, unmarried daughter without prospect, living a life of gross deception and delusion. Seeds of her discontent are sown early on, with a mother lacking in maternal feeling.

She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.

Animals, food and her brother are her consolation, her mother rarely responds even when Aroon reports that she thinks her baby brother is dead, she enquires where the staff are. Her father responds and inspires hope. She seeks out his company, a kind word, favour, he seeks comfort elsewhere.

We adored Papa, and his hopeless disapproval paralysed any scrap of confidence or pleasure we had ever had in ourselves or our ponies.

When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head.

In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice, even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered;  their courage was fitting and credible. A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society. It appeared to Papa that Mrs Brock has rescued our honour and his credit.

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An awkward teen she revels in her brother’s company and his friend Richard. The time the three spend together is the height of her happiness, little realising they too are indulging in ‘good behaviour’ masking an ulterior motive, using her as an alibi. Her self-deception knows no bounds.

Here, to my delight , Hubert and Richard danced with me in turn. I almost preferred dancing with Hubert because I loved showing off to Richard…I was fulfilled by them. I felt complete. There was no more to ask.

Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it. She lacks empathy and is unaware of her own bitterness, so we have little sympathy for her predicament.

The family live in denial of their escalating debt, living beyond their means and incapable of doing anything for themselves. When her father returns from war injured, Aroon tries to get close to him and is thwarted once again. Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed.

And then a final twist.

And yet. The thirty years in-between the beginning and the end leave a lot more unsaid.

Selina Guiness in the Irish Times says Keane writes the most spectacularly “nasty” black comedies in Irish Big House fiction and Keane herself request her daughter to make the biography she wrote about her more like a novel adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”

Perhaps it is this that so disturbs, I like a book in which a character can in some way redeem themself, can change or transform, ‘nasty, black comedies’ and characters that take pleasure in using their wounds as weapons against another isn’t entertaining for me, I am unable to wear a mask and pretend otherwise.

I know I’m in the minority as this is a popular English novel, but I’m wondering if anyone else read this with a similar feeling of discomfort?

On Molly Keane

She was full of uncertainties, anxieties, even fears, capable of striking out in anger and of little streaks of prejudice and snobbery, but in spite of all of this, Molly’s essence was in the generosity, kindness and wisdom which won her so many instant friends. It was almost as though there were two of her, one shaped by class and family circumstances, against which she often rebelled but from which she would never quite escape, and the other which stirred into life whenever she worked her way through to writing level, and this Molly became able to see through her first self with calm amusement.  Diana Athill

Further Reading

An excellent review by a reader who loved (5 star) the book – I do know how to behave – believe me, because I know. I have always known. Dear Molly, by Juliana Brina

Diana Athill on editing and befriending Molly Keane 

Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish life: ‘Courage, glamour and fantasy’

Far Away and Long Ago by William H Hudson

Nature Writing, Argentina & Serendipitous Connections

Following my Top Five Nature-Inspired Reads, in the comments, Julia Hones recommended the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). She grew up close to his childhood home in the Pampas (fertile South American lowlands), which have their own climate, wildlife and vegetation.

Julia mentioned enjoying Far Away and Long Ago, a mix of childhood escapades, keen observations of nature, wildlife and neighbours, set against a somewhat turbulent history, as various war skirmishes were waged not far away.

Curious, because of the unique Argentinian setting, I looked it up, and because it was published in 1918, over 100 years ago, I was able to download it from Project Gutenburg (a library of free ebooks).

International Booker Prize 2020

I hadn’t planned to read it straight away, but when the International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 was announced, I had read two of the books and had a third on the shelf, The Adventures of China Iron by Argentinian author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.

I began to read it becoming completely hooked, then part through I skipped to the translator’s note where they mentioned the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández and the influence of William Henry Hudson. I read a couple of chapters of Far Away and Long Ago, to get a flavour of what that meant and immediately sensed the connection.

Review

At the opening of each chapter are a series of mini titles or references to everything that will be covered, Cámara sticks to using one of these in her chapter titles, while Hudson lists about 12 for each chapter.

Chapter 1 EARLIEST MEMORIES – Preamble – The house where I was born -The singular ombu tree – A tree without a name – The plain – The ghost of a murdered slave – Our playmate, the old sheepdog – A first riding lesson – The cattle: an evening scene, My mother – Captain Scott – The hermit and his awful penance.

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William Hudson wrote this book during a period of illness and six weeks of confinement, while living in London.  His fever brought back many of his childhood memories in startling clarity, providing a clear vision of the past.

Though he is often referred to as British, his parents were American, he was born in Argentina and lived there until the age of 33 and is proudly known locally as Guillermo Enrique Hudson.

The house where he was born was named Los Viente-cinco Ombues, (the twenty-five Ombu Trees), an indigenous tree that grew in a long row near the house and was a gigantic landmark to any travellers on the great plains, there being little else of tree-vegetation natural to the area. Today his home is part of a 133-acre ecological reserve and park, with a small museum.

Being on the main route south of the capital Buenos Aires, there were often itinerant beggars, weary travellers or gauchos (cowboys) passing by, looking for rest or a meal, some of these characters making an impression on him, that he shares. A succession of teachers, who often don’t last, the family not being well enough off to send the children away to school.

He is one of six children, though he has very little to say about his siblings and even less about his parents, apart from a brief mention of his father and a beautiful lament for his mother in the final chapter.

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He has much to say about their neighbours and their devotions and passions. Most of the estancieros were cattle breeders but some had passionate side interests, of interest to a young boy. The English neighbour Mr George Royd, whom he refers to as being different to other neighbours, being an educated man who loved to meet with others of like mind, was a sheep farmer with ambitious dreams, another had a tame ostrich, or rhea that followed them around.

One of his pet notions was that cheeses made with sheep’s milk would be worth any price he liked to put on them, and he accordingly began to make them under very great difficulties, since the sheep had to be broken to it and they yielded but a  small quantity compared with the sheep of certain districts in France where they have been milked for many generations and have enlarged their udders.

There was Gandara, completely obsessed with breeding piebald horses and Don Anastacio, devoted to a wild-pig descended from a breed introduced by Spanish colonists that had adapted after three centuries of feral life. He makes excuses for one patriarch Don Evaristo, indicating he was esteemed and beloved above most other men.

It may be added that Don Evaristo, like Henry VIII, who also had six wives, was a strictly virtuous man. The only difference was that when he desired a fresh wife he did not barbarously execute or put away the one, or the others, he already possessed.

It is a unique childhood, inevitably though, despite an appreciation of nature and the wild, there is the clear presence of prejudice and assumed superiority. If it is possible to see past that fact, it provides a unique glimpse into life in another era, living in a naturalists paradise on the path of many migrating birds, a freedom that came from the remove of a strict education, an entire childhood spent outside the constraints of any kind of institutional environment or influence.

The final chapter is a beautiful lament to his mother and makes me wish he was able to write more about his family and how they came to be living out there in the first place, perhaps it was childish adoration, but they seemed unsuited to the harshness of that environment and there is no sense of actual farming in his recollections, perhaps because they employed people to do the actual work, as was often the way.

Ultimately Hudson comes across as a boy who never grows out of his love of nature and eventually develops a kind of mystical relationship to it, despite indulging in many of the cruel things young boys do growing up in rural isolation with older brothers.

An enjoyable read.

Further Reading

Smithsonian Magazine – The Naturalist Who Inspired Ernest Hemingway and Many Others to Love the Wilderness

Courageous Dreaming by Alberto Villoldo

How Shamans Dream the World Into Being

I have read a few books by Alberto Villoldo, my favourite and the best to begin with if new to his work is The Four Insights: Wisdom, Power, and Grace of the Earthkeepers.

It introduces the philosophical, spiritual and medicinal wisdom of the medicine men and women of the Americas, the concepts of serpent, jaguar, hummingbird and eagle consciousness and thinking, and is helpful in understanding the further learning his wisdom offers.

The Earthkeepers believe the world is real, but only because we’ve dreamed it into being. But dreaming requires an act of courage, for when we lack it, we have to settle for the world that’s being created by our culture or by our genes – we feel we have to settle for the nightmare. To dream courageously, we must be willing to use our hearts.

I’d had this book a while by my bedside and immediately turned to it to become my daily morning read at the beginning of this period of confinement we are currently in and what a Godsend. I loved it and wish it had been twice as long. I read a chapter a day and would recommend it as the equivalent to doing half an hour of meditation, the effect for me was very similar.

Not only is it filled with resonating wisdom, each chapter begins with the words of another great teacher, a collection of inspiring quotes that I’ve been playing with by putting images to them from my daily walk, to create a kind of story. Infinite possibilities as Alberto and Albert would no doubt agree.

Logic will get you from A to B.

Imagination will take you everywhere. Albert Einstein

Alberto Villoldo

Alberto Villoldo is a psychologist, medical anthropologist and renowned shamanic healer, who has studied the ancient spiritual practices of the Amazon and the Andes and now runs The Four Winds Society, an education facility for practitioners of shamanic healing and energy medicine and courses for individuals interested in cellular detoxification to grow a new body.

Once familiar with the four levels of perceiving reality, this book beautifully expands the concept further into ways of dreaming, levels of consciousness, of courage and of beauty or appreciation.

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare”. Mark Twain

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It shows us how we are all living within our own stories, that they can either stay stuck in the past and put on repeat, or we can rewrite them and courageously imagine or dream a better version of ourselves and of our future.

Our situation may be a difficult one, but it’s only a nightmare if we choose to make that our reality. By taking the facts and writing a new story with them, we can script a different experience of reality.

To help illustrate courage at the level of eagle consciousness – the highest level of perception, where we’re able to see the big picture and the details all at the same time, where we are aware of that we are part of the all-seeing and all-knowing divine force of the universe, conceiving a world where we are in harmony and our lives are fulfilling, abundant and sustainable – Alberto uses the example of Prometheus’s Gift.

Prometheus

Prometheus was the Greek God of inspiration, craft and creativity, who held great sympathy for humans because he’d co-created them with Zeus. He saw them freezing and wanted to gift them fire for warmth, security and to alleviate hunger. Symbolically fire represents creativity and inspiration, it transforms and illuminates. He stole fire and gave it to humans, angering the Gods, who punished him for it.

Prometheus brought humanity another great gift – the courage to defy the gods, the ability to think original thoughts and to create – and this brash act was what really caused him to be so severely punished…But this act of defiance launched humans into our true journey, forcing us to mature and develop discernment.

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He reminds us of the power of creativity and warns of the threats against it, citing many examples of genius that are now revered, who were shunned in their moment of innovation and inspiration such as Einstein and Van Gogh.

Being creative requires letting go of that big bucket of cold water you throw on yourself and your ideas when things start to become really interesting. You need to stop asking yourself , ‘Will anyone be offended?’  and ‘Who am I to ask questions?’ and instead inquire ‘What if?’

Holding on to old stories creates imprints in our energetic body or LEF (luminous energy field) even after the facts and circumstances change, those resentments and bad feelings create energetic cords that tie us to the players in the drama, which is why we then get triggered so easily and again when we observe those patterns in others.

We don’t see things as they are;

We see them as we are. Anaïs Nin

Symbols & Metaphors

Alberto Villoldo uses illuminating metaphors to help us see our situations from a different perspective and provides suggestions for how to change. Understanding our own tendencies is the first step, rewriting a better narrative of our lives follows. Learning to sever unwelcome ties and clear karmic baggage, all the better.

Seeing our lives as river with an accumulation of silt and imagining clearing it is liberating; decoding the symbols and metaphors of our dreams, where our subconscious solutions lie, tips us off to what our conscious mind resists recognising and provides us possible resolution.

We fight the current, yet we never clean the river.

Especially now, we are all being forced to confront what lies within us, the build up of silt that requires clearing, so the crystalline waters of our lives can flow more easily.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When you start pouring beauty into your river, you’ll find that the waters are becoming clearer every day. To practice beauty, you must give up the ugly stories in which someone is a victim and someone else is the perpetrator. Practicing beauty means recognising what is pure and of value in every situation and in every person.

We are not in control of where the river flows, only of how clean we keep its waters.

I may go back to chapter one and read it again, to allow the wisdom to sink in deeper and help the river to continue to flow clean.

“Curing is the elimination of symptoms. Healing is a journey on which you discover the cause of your ailment and make fundamental life changes from diet to belief systems that will create health.”

Further Reading

Interview with Alberto Villoldo: Gaia.com

My Reviews

The Four Insights: Wisdom, Power, and Grace of the Earthkeepers

Shaman Healer Sage

The Heart of the Shaman: Stories and Practices of the Luminous Warrior

One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness (not reviewed)

 

 

 

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A New York Times Bestseller, Pachinko is a work of historical fiction set in Korea and Japan that follows the lives of one family and how their circumstances and choices continue to reverberate through the generations.

It demonstrates how discrimination towards ‘perceived outsiders’ and their descendants becomes so deeply ingrained within a culture it distorts the way people live, even when from the outside there is no visible difference.

I won this book from the publisher after answering the question, “What do you think Min Jin Lee wanted to express with her first line of the book?” I hadn’t read the book then, but I liked how thought-provoking the first line (below) was. I’ll share my response at the end of the review.

History has failed us, but no matter.

Review

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When we meet the family it is 1910, an ageing fisherman and his wife live in Yeongdo, a coastal village near Busan in Korea. They decide to take in lodgers for extra money. They’ve had three sons, but only Hoonie, (27) the eldest and weakest survived.

Hoonie was born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; he was however, endowed with hefty shoulders, a squat build, and a golden complexion. Even as a young man, he retained the mild, thoughtful temperament he’d had as a child.

1910 was the year Japan annexed Korea. After years of war, intimidation and political upheaval; the country would be considered a part of Japan until 1945.

Hoonie went to school long enough to learn to read and write Korean and Japanese well enough to manage the boarding house ledger and do sums so he wouldn’t be cheated in the market. They raised him to be clever and capable ensuring he’d manage when they weren’t around. One day a matchmaker paid them a visit.

We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.

Marriage in that era was like a business transaction, a person’s chances were attributable partly due to physical attributes and mostly by their family’s potential for a dowry and gifts. Hoonie was fortunate, he married Yangjin who after losing her first three, gave birth to Sunja, her fourth child and only girl. When she was 13 her father died of tuberculosis.

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Sunja and her mother work hard running the boarding house; her life is turned around when at 16, she is cornered by a group of boys on her way home from the market. Husan, a man twice her age, intervenes and forms a friendship with her, eventually seducing her; she believing he will marry her.

When she learns of his wife and family in Osaka, she severs contact and accepts an offer of marriage from a Isak, a gentle, young man recovering from illness in their boarding house, soon to depart for Osaka to be with his brother and take up a role as assistant minister in the church.

Isak noticed that when Sunja worried,  she furrowed her brow like she was trying to see better. He liked being with her;  she was capable and level-headed.  She was not helpless, and that was appealing because, although he wasn’t helpless himself, Isak knew that he was not always sensible. Her competence would be good for what his father had once termed Isak’s “impractical nature”.

The couple move to Osaka and live with Yoseb and his wife and discover life is more difficult than Isak realised. Survival is already a challenge, but being outside their native country they encounter for the first time that they are foreigners, perceived differently.

Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.

After giving birth to her son Noa, they have a son together and the boys are raised as if Isak is father to them both. Sunja’s affinity for hard work and her ability to negotiate and stand up to situations, leads her and her sister-in-law into working to support the family despite resistance from her brother-in-law.

Isak knew how to talk with people, to ask questions, and to hear the concerns in a person’s voice; she seemed to understand how to survive, and this was something he did not always know to do. He needed her; a man needed a wife.

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The women in this lengthy saga are stalwarts, it is their story, their trials and tribulations that carry the narrative and make it unique. This could easily have been a story about the underworld inhabited by men who survive and thrive on the other side of the law; instead the author ventures into the lives of women, showing how they support and strengthen families.

It is a story of their endurance and survival and how perceptions change as one generation segues into the next and yet shame and stigma continue to exert their undermining influence.

I loved the book and the immersive experience it offered due to the combination of carefully drawn characters, the attention to the detail of their lives and the expectations under which they lived.

It is clearly a work of great dedication and love, the author originally wrote a version called ‘Motherland‘ which was completely rewritten after living in Tokyo for five years, meeting and interviewing many Korean-Japanese people, discovering how much more complex their lives, identities and connections to both countries were. It necessitated a complete rewrite, taking the story back to 1910, resulting in this extraordinary, all-encompassing, immersion into a rich cultural and familial history.

The Title

It is not until page 142 that we come across ‘pachinko’, the Japanese name for pinball, a huge industry in Japan at the entry into the workforce of Sunja’s son Mozasu.

We discover the difficulty Korean-Japanese citizens have in the workforce, unable to work in ordinary professions, pushed out to the margins of society where they become street traders or involved in ‘less than ideal’ industries such as pachinko parlours. Many  Korean-Japanese person she met had a historical or social connection to pachinko.

It is a metaphor for the predicament of Koreans in Japan, caught in the aftermath of historical conflicts as they win, lose, struggle to survive, sometimes thrive and sustain their gains.

I did not know until I lived in Japan that it was a business dominated by the Korean Japanese. It’s also seen as very second class and kind of vulgar and dirty and dangerous business,” said Lee, adding that these sorts of words and attitudes are still commonly associated with Korean Japanese, even those who have lived in Japan for decades.

My Response to That Question

On the opening line of the novel: History has failed us, but no matter.

History refers to the past and it seems that there are situations or circumstances that have been lived through before, whose lessons have not filtered through to future generations. Tragedy, destruction, suffering and corruption continue. Certain people of every generation encounter inequality and discrimination, no matter what they do to blend in.

However, we should not lose hope, as somewhere in our subconscious we carry the will to survive and thrive no matter what the circumstance. The future belongs to all of us, as yet unknown, to be ventured forth into without preconception.

Further Reading

YouTube – What is Pachinko? Japan’s Strangest Obsession

Business Insider Article – Japan’s pinball gambling industry rakes in 30 times more cash than Las Vegas casinos

Buy a copy of Pachinko via Book Depository

 

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a popular English novelist who wrote 12 novels, was compared by Anne Tyler to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, she described them as “soul sisters all”.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was named by the Guardian as one of ‘the 100 best novels,‘ and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It is a humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man at a time in her life when she has little to look forward to.

We meet Mrs Palfrey as she is checking in for a long stay at the hotel, after having visited her only daughter in Scotland. A widow who is not ready for a nursing home, she joins an eccentric group of fellow residents, doing their best to maintain their dignity and cope with boredom while competing with each other over the calibre of their visitors.

‘And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?’ Mrs Arbuthmot asked, probing.

Mrs Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it. ‘I doubt if I could stand that climate,’ she replied.

Regrettably, she mentions the existence of her grandson Desmond, who works at the British museum and for whom she is knitting a sweater. It comes to their notice that he hasn’t visited.

‘If we don’t see him soon, we shall begin to think he doesn’t exist.’

‘Oh, he will come’ Mrs Palfrey said, and she smiled. She really believed that he soon would.

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He doesn’t come and it causes her to participate in her age old habit of ‘saving face’ which also involved small lies and having to keep track of what she’d said, which became a strain.

One day on her return from the library she falls and is helped by a young man named Ludo, whom she learns is a struggling but determined writer. She misunderstands when he says he works in Harrods.

‘Oh no, I don’t work for Harrods. I work at Harrods. In the Banking Hall. I take my writing and few sandwiches there. It’s nice and warm and they’re such comfortable chairs. And I save lighting this gas-fire, which eats up money.’

To thank him, she invites him to dine with her at the hotel and when letting the waiter know she would be expecting a guest on Saturday, declines to correct one of the residents. It is a fortuitous meeting and the beginning of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship.

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last’, Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason she searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word.

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And so the comedy begins, Ludo relishing his role as Desmond and the opportunity to observe them all, seeing it all as research for his novel, which he renames after one of Mrs Palfrey’s comments at dinner.

‘Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’

‘It has entered her soul.’

”But we aren’t allowed to die here.’

He threw back his head and laughed….He thought, I mayn’t write it down, but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here by Ludovic Myers.

It’s like watching an old style, witty English television series, you read the lines and can imagine the way they speak, with air of pompous superiority, which has become even more elevated in the bourgeois elderly.

I loved the little lie Mrs Palfrey tells and the consequence it brings her, it’s perhaps the most interesting thing that happens to her and that she really looks forward to in her time at the Claremont, a random connection with a stranger, a budding new relationship, the envy of others and for him, a character study, a kind of mother figure of a different kind, and the title of his novel.

It was interesting how in this era people lived in inexpensive hotels as an alternative to independent living, not having to cook or clean or take care of any of the infrastructural requirements of a house or apartment. I’ve just read another novel about a woman who lived in a hotel in France, Colette’s The Shackle, only her protagonist was close to 40 years old, so she and her “hotel companions” got out and about more and their escapades were of a different nature.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels?

Further Reading

Guardian: The 100 best novels: No 87 – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Buy a Copy of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont via Book Depository

Dodging Energy Vampires by Christiane Northrup

An Empath’s Guide

Christiane Northrup, M.D., draws on the latest research in this field, along with stories from her global community and her life, to explore the phenomenon of energy vampires, showing us how we can spot them, dodge their tactics, and take back our own energy.

A while ago I read and enjoyed Christiane Northrup’s book Making Life Easy, A Simple Guide to a Divinely Inspired Life. I’ve had this title on my kindle for a few months and I have been dipping in and out of it in-between other books. For the past few weeks, as I mentioned in my Sunday Morning Haiku post, I’ve been reading a chapter a day of Alberto Villoldo’s Courageous Dreaming, which I have now finished and will be sharing soon, so I went back to this book and finished it too. It’s a time of completion.

I listen to her on Hay House Radio sometimes, she is an advocate for women (and men) taking control of their own health, well-known for her books on women’s health including Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing; The Wisdom of Menopause; Goddesses Never Age and more.

Now she turns her focus and offers more great wisdom for highly sensitive empaths, detailing what that means, giving examples of their tendencies, how they respond and adapt to the world right from childhood, which then explains why they act the way do as adults.

Empaths often take extreme measures to contort their true identities into something less painful. They become very good at blending in and figuring out how to be loved and accepted not for who they really are but instead for how they can serve others.

She describes it as a survival mechanism.

Because they are so attuned to other people’s energy, they suffer when other’s suffer, so they work harder not to make anyone suffer.

You can stop trying to explain why you don’t want to see that award-winning war film.

They also avoid scary or violent movies or television shows because they are too painful to watch.

Due to that ability to sense energy around them, they are often drawn to animals and nature because of their calming, pure and innocent energy. Fortunately, highly sensitive people also tend to experience the simple joys of the world more fully.

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Evading Relationships That Drain You

She cuts through what others give terms like narcissism and sociopathic behaviours and refers to people exhibiting these behaviours as ‘energy vampires’, a way of relating to the effect they have, rather than spending too much time on describing the way are. She’s here for the empaths after all.

There are tips and examples of how to recognise these behaviours and why empaths in particular are susceptible to attracting them.

Restoring Your Health and Power

She gives practical advice on how to first recognise and then deal with people and situations that drain your energy. Tips, techniques, practices and tactics that increase your awareness and better equip you to navigate your life and your relationships in an empowering way. The kinds of things you may already know but that we benefit in being reminded of regularly. Recognising the important qualities in a relationship and starting with the one you have with yourself.

Dr. Mario Martinez notes that for each of the archetypal wounds – abandonment, betrayal, shame – there is a corresponding healing field that will ameliorate suffering. These healing fields are energies that oppose the energy of the wound.

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Much of the book is then given over generally to how to stay in the light, protect yourself from the dark elements in the world but also in ourselves.

Her suggestions promote well-being, actions that don’t require waiting for something to get worse before being proactive, because problems present themselves in the energetic body long before they are detected by traditional medicine. They can be addressed before manifesting in the physical body, allowing us to maintain equilibrium, well-being. Listening to and acting on our intuitive sense, taking care of ourselves.

Generally speaking, highly sensitive people do far better with healing approaches based on quantum energy, not chemical and surgical intervention. Homeopathy, flower essences, acupuncture, massage, herbs, prayer, yoga, Pilates, chiropractic, medical intuition, and Divine love healings – I consider all of these to be actual health care because of these things interact with the energy field of the body.

Reading this is like listening to her speak, a lifetime of experiences and now she shares the wisdom of it all, holding nothing back, refreshingly courageous in stepping outside the conventional norm.

Ideal slow-reading during a global pandemic. (I’ve been reading this over the past three or four months.)

Benediction by Kent Haruf

And finally, the third book in the Plainsong trilogy, Kent Haruf’s penultimate of his writing career, Benediction.

A man named Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store in Holt,  nears the end of his life. The stress of caring for him put his wife in hospital, so their daughter Lorraine returns home to help.

Next door Berta-May lives with her grand-daughter Alice whose mother died some years earlier. Lorraine takes an interest in Alice as do the Johnson’s, Willa and her 60 year-old unmarried daughter Alene.

The Reverend Lyle visits, new to Holt, sent from Denver after what happened there. His wife and son are having difficulty getting used to the place.

I doubt if he’s accustomed to small towns.
He better start getting accustomed to them, Dad said.
The women turned and looked at him. They’d thought he was asleep. Hi head was turned toward the window and he wasn’t looking at them when he talked.
Nothing goes on without people noticing, he said.

Haruf plants small seeds of intrigue in his books, one line that isn’t explained further, that suggests something that occurred in the past, we know eventually it will come out, just not yet. For all his plain talking and minimalist use of literary devices, he successfully hooks the reader early on.

He had some trouble in Denver, I heard. I believe that’s why he was sent here.

A young couple come to see him, all dressed up, asking if he could marry them, immediately. First they have a little talk about what love means to them, the girl gives her version, then the boy. The reverend is satisfied they understand and adds his thoughts to theirs.

Love is the most important part of life isn’t it. If you have love, you can live in this world in a true way and if you love each other you can see past everything and accept what you don’t understand and forgive what you don’t know or don’t like. Love is all. Love is patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering.

Moved by the day he shares a little of his delight with his wife and teenage son that evening at dinner. Later, before bed, the boy comes to his mother. Others in the community will also be upset by the things the Reverend has to say, unable to understand his intent.

Why does he have to talk like that? It makes me sick.
Don’t talk about him that way.
He’s not preaching here. At the table with us. But he still sounds like he’s preaching or pointing up some moral.
He means well, you know that. He was trying to tell us about something that was important to him.
He’s full of shit Mom.
Don’t talk like that. It’s not true.
It is. I can’t stand it when he talks like that.

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There are the humorous dialogues I’ve come to expect, the laugh out loud moments, that catch you unawares and you just want to reread them because they’re so good.  It’s a novel that observes ageing from different angles, through different minds.

Willa asks her daughter if she’s not too lonely, she says she tries not to think about it and her mother tells her, oh but you will dear, but it’ll get better.

How will I get better?
It’s gets better. Everything gets better.
How?

And then you get your laugh out moment, which I won’t spoil by telling you what she says! When the women characters Willa, Alene, Lorraine and Alice come together, they’re bridging the deficit each of them has in their lives, opening up and allowing their personal stories to move forward.

Dad Lewis comes to the realisation that in order to let ago, he needs to make amends for some things in his life he realises he regrets. Where he is unable to, he makes certain spontaneous redemptive acts, paying it forward.

It wasn’t until I read this third book that I began to wonder about the titles and I realised I didn’t even know what plainsong meant. The titles seem symbolic despite the fact that Haruf avoids literary devices in his narrative. Haruf said of his prose in an interview, it includes “almost no metaphors or figurative language” because he was “trying to get at the thing itself without comparing it with something else.”

I learn that plainsong refers to ‘words that are sung, without any instrumental accompaniment’ which describes his style, a continuous melodic narrative, a work of austere realism, free of literary ornamentation.

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Eventide refers to evening, or the end of the day, the period of decreasing daylight from late afternoon until nightfall, the continuation of the story that started with Plainsong. These books are more connected to each other than Benediction, like the day and night of one story, whereas the third book could be standalone, with only the briefest mentions of past characters if at all.

Benediction is the double act, to give a blessing and ask for divine guidance, to both be thankful and to ask for guidance in the days to come. The book’s epigraph says ‘the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness’. Appropriate to the living and to the dying.

Haruf’s preferred aesthetic strategy is simply to present his characters from the outside, as we follow what they do, what they say, and how they interact with others. To an extent, the inner lives of these characters remain something of a mystery to us, but this also seems to be an intentional effect — we must infer motive from a character’s actions and at times allow emotion to remain implicit. Daniel Green, Full-Stop

The real draw to his stories then are the characters and their situations, their understated way of being with each other, the little that is said, the importance that something must be said, the situations that force that to occur.

Everyone has their underlying wounds, but rather than excavate their thoughts, Haruf creates examples of how people move on (literally) from their situations, often in small ways, to heal and find faith in humanity again. And suffer again, in that never-ending cycle of growth.

Overall, an excellent and thought provoking trilogy to have read during this quite time of confinement.

Further Reading

My review of Book 1 Plainsong

My Review of Book 2 Eventide

Eventide by Kent Haruf

In Eventide, the second book in the Plainsong trilogy, we meet some of the same characters and a few more from the community of Holt, Colarado. There are again the quiet observations of the lives of people in this town, seeing them from the inside, the different challenges they each face and how they cope (or not) with them.

There’s that trademark humour that creates a number of laugh out loud moments, for which we are grateful. Because some of it is sad, realistic and may bring tears.

There’s a small boy named DJ who lives with his elderly grandfather Walter Kephart, DJ makes supper for his grandfather every evening and befriends two girls who live next door, in particular Dena. He cleans the yard and works on the vege garden for their mother Mary Wells. Their father is working in Alaska and returns rarely. And then not at all.

We again meet the McPheron brothers Raymond and Harold and the girl Victoria who has been living with them since she became pregnant. Now she has a little girl Katie and is about to move into an apartment and resume college studies.

It is a challenging transition for all of them, as they have become used to each other and the brothers have become much more perceptive about themselves and their “like a daughter” Victoria. She calls one night, for no particular reason and they discuss afterwards the things she didn’t say.

The way she sounded. The way her voice was.
No, it wasn’t money that made her voice sound that way. It was the rest of it too.
Well, I reckon she’s kind of lonesome, Raymond said. I’m going to say she kind of misses being here.
I guess maybe she does, said Harold.

Rose Tyler is a social worker and through her, we meet a loving but vulnerable family, a couple with special needs, struggling to raise two children, while finding several aspects of their lives difficult to manage. Their story is painful to read as they become prey to a predatory relative whom they are unable to eject from their lives and will be judged for.

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And though each family has it’s struggles and hardships, somehow people’s paths cross and sometimes good wins over bad, a closed heart opens, someone is in a position to be there for another just at the right moment, even when they don’t have the words.

Beside her Guthrie stood watching the old man. He wanted to think of words that would make some difference but there were none in any language he knew that were sufficient to the moment or that would change a single thing. They stayed quite for some time.

And an old man who has never done it before, learns to dance and find joy once again.

She moved backward and he followed her. She backed again and he stayed with her, moving slowly. Can you hear the beat? she said.
No ma’am. I can’t think about that and not step on you at the same time.

I recognised that feeling about halfway into Eventide of becoming completely enamoured and invested in the characters, wanting the best for them, feeling afraid for them. In their own small worlds they struggled separately, not knowing, but discovering that part of the solution to their moving out of one state and towards an improved one was about making that connection with others, being open to the kindness of people, finding those who were genuine in that offering, being prepared to take that risk.

Beautifully written, incredibly moving, a wonderful book.

Further Reading

My review of Book One Plainsong

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Plainsong is a what I’d call rural town domestic fiction, it reminds me of reading Anne Tyler, they’re like the yin and yang of small town America storytelling.

The language is plain speaking and goes beyond what is said, sharing those unspoken moments that come from people who spend more time in proximity to the land and with animals and nature than humans.

We are introduced to a few members of the Holt, Denver community, each chapter headed with a name starting with the school teacher Tom Guthrie and his sons Ike and Bobby. Tom takes care of his nine, ten-year-old boys because their mother is upstairs in her darkened room, disinclined to come out.

They visit cattle ranchers, the McPheron brothers Raymond and Harold, to help out with the cows when they need an extra pair of hands. The brothers have never married, live alone in the house they grew up in, left suddenly when both parents were killed in a car accident. After helping out they pay the boys ten dollars each, against the wishes of their father.

That’s too much, their father said.
Should we give it back?
No, he said. He took his hat off and scratched the back of his head and put his hat back on. I guess not. That would be an insult. They want you to keep it. They enjoyed having you out there.
But Dad, Ike said.
Yes?
Why didn’t they ever get married? And have a family like everyone else?
I don’t know, Guthrie said. People don’t sometimes.

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Victoria is a pregnant teenager whose mother locked the door on her. She finds refuge first with Maggie, then with the McPheron brothers. Maggie  envisages the ideal solution, that could help each other out, something that would never have happened without her intervention. Victoria doesn’t tell anyone who the father is, but she tells Maggie that he was nice to her.

He told me things.
Like what for instance?
Like once he said I had beautiful eyes. He said my eyes were like black diamonds lit up on a starry night.
They are, honey.
But nobody ever told me.
No, Maggie said, they never do.

There are the innumerable kindnesses by some in the community and many cases of abandonment by others. Those who are quick to judge and those who care enough to help find solutions.

Haruf quietly explores the intricate ways of his diverse set of characters, whose lives traverse through quiet, mundane moments and dramatic turning points, showing how necessary a community is to all the individuals within it.

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Victoria asks Maggie again for help, to navigate the silence in the McPheron household.

It’s so quiet out there, the girl said. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. We eat supper. They read the paper. I go into my room and study. And that’s about it. Every day it’s like that.
Is everything else all right?
Oh, they’re kind to me. If that’s what you mean. They’re nice enough.
But they don’t talk, Maggie said.
I don’t know if they even want me out there, the girl said. I can’t tell what they’re thinking.

There is humor in the simplicity of it all, of people coming out of their shells, of the learning and there is pain, the suffering inflicted by those who need to act out on how bad they feel inside.

You’re not talking to her, Maggie Jones said. You and Raymond don’t talk like you should to that girl. Women want to hear some conversation in the evening. We don’t think that’s too much to ask. We’re willing to put up with a lot from you men, but in the evening we want to hear some talking. We want to have a little conversation in the house.

And then there are those moments of renewal, of something new that awakens, when the good that comes from making the change begins to bear fruit, to make a difference in someone’s life, knowing they are not alone, that they are loved, that humanity can shine through.

It’s a quiet comfort read, perfect for this extended period of confinement and it is the first novel of a trilogy, so next up  is Eventide, then Benediction.

Top Five Memoirs

Non Fiction Memoir

Continuing with reading lists, next are my Top Five Memoirs.

It was hard to whittle this list down to five, I could easily have included many others I’ve read and reviewed such as Jeanette Winterson’s gut-punching, exploration of an ill-fitted adoption Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Helen MacDonald’s grief-laden obsession to train a goshawk H is for Hawk, Jacqueline Woodson’s charming, free verse of childhood and old family stories Brown Girl Dreaming, and Tove Jansson’s Finnish island tales and escapades The Summer Book & A Winter Book.

I’ve chosen five lesser known, equally brilliant memoirs, all books that when I look at the titles and covers, take me straight back to the remembered joy of their individual reading experience.

In pondering what it is that elevates some memoirs to that level of something universally understood, I recall one of Vivian Gornick’s insights from The Situation and The Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Top Five Memoir

1.Tales From the Heart, True Stories of My Childhood by Marsye Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Memoirs that succeed record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self, “a flash of insight illuminating the idea grows out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience” and I can think of no better place to start than with Maryse Condé, one of my favourite authors.

The youngest of eight children, by the time she was born her mother was 43, her father 63, thus there were many family stories and life experiences she wasn’t present for, tales she would rely on oral retellings of her siblings and extended family to fill in. In these stories are planted the seeds of her future works, the lack of knowledge of her cultural history and her subsequent research into it, will manifest in her future historical masterpiece Segu, her desire to understand her mother and know her deceased grandmother will inspire Victoire, My Mother’s Mother, her first visit to Africa leads to her debut novel Heremakhonon about a young West Indian woman’s quest for roots.

This short collection of short tales is a beautiful introduction to the life and inspiration of an extraordinary woman and author who has given us so much through her stories and her persistent research and desire to understand what lies behind the lives we lead.

2. Brother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

After reading her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory I became aware of this memoir and I was particularly intrigued because of it’s focus on the author’s father and Uncle. I have an affinity for books written by women born in or having a strong connection to the Caribbean, I love their storytelling tradition, their connection to a sometimes magical matriarchal force and nature.

This book was unique because it was the first time I’d read something that delved into the masculine. It straddles both a traditional life in Haiti and a new life in America, a unique story of a family trying to improve the lives of their loved ones, narrated by a woman who successfully straddles both, witness to a love between brothers. As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

3. Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay is a wonderful Scottish poet and has written a heart-warming story of her connection to her adoptive Scottish family and to her slow-burning desire to uncover the mystery behind her existence. That journey begins at the University in Aberdeen, taking her to a suburb in Milton Keynes and a village in Nigeria, a place she has dreamed of and imagined but had no connection with until she arrives there and walks the red, dust road that will awaken something deep inside her.

It’s a unique cross cultural story, exciting in its revelations and profound in it’s understanding as she learns what family and belonging really mean to her, expressed with the beautiful incantation of a poet.

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal

Remember this? What an incredible family memoir the artist, ceramic potter Edmund De Waal put together here, telling part of the story of his extended family though the voyage of a stunning collection of netsuke (miniature Japanese sculptures) and a family history that begins in Odessa, grows and is almost destroyed in Vienna, takes side journeys to Tokyo via that netsuke collection, now sitting in London.

It’s hard to describe the experience of reading this book, except that it’s a lot more interesting to read the history through the eyes of a hare with amber eyes than one man looking only at himself. In this way we learn something about the art, culture and society of the places these sculptures have inhabited as well as the family history over a tumultuous century. Truly unique, engaging, educational, and a deserving winner of a number of literature prizes.

5. Unbowed One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai

I finish with the story of a remarkable woman who I wish had stayed around longer and become more well-known, though reading her story shows us how much of a difference she did make to other woman’s lives in her native country Kenya. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and passed away in 2011.

Wangari Maathai was one of a group of young people from East Africa given scholarships and brought to the US in the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ of 1950 & 1960, who gained a degree in the US then returned to Kenya for her PhD. A scientist, initially she worked a veterinarian but her desire to do something practical and far-reaching moved her to found The Green Belt Movement and become involved in sustainable development. She would empower many women to create sustainable enterprises and won many battles to preserve public parks from being given over to urban development. An amazing, inspiring woman and a role model for our times.

Have you read any inspiring memoirs recently?

Further Reading

Top 5 on the TBR (To Be Read)

Top 5 Nature-Inspired Reads

Top 5 Spiritual Well-being Reads

Top 5 Translated Fiction

Top 5 Uplifting Fiction