Foster by Claire Keegan

Foster‘Early on a Sunday, after first Mass at Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from.’

She wears light, worn clothing and brings nothing with her. The girl is left with the Kinsella family, the father returns to her mother, soon to give birth again. There is no goodbye or word of when he might return. This is Ireland. Remember Nora Webster and all that is unspoken?

So begins Claire Keegan’s long, short story Foster, a vivid telling of the period following a girl being fostered into a family in rural Ireland. In the stranger’s home she finds an atmosphere unlike that which she is used to, one she enjoys and becomes used to, though always there is the presence of that feeling that it might soon all be taken from her.

‘When I follow the woman back inside, I want her to say something, to put my mind at ease. Instead, she clears the table, picks up the sharp knife and stands in the light under the window, washing the blade under the running tap.’

Seen and heard from the perspective of the girl, we learn the circumstances of both families that led to this situation. They fall into a regular routine, life settles in this new family and nothing appears to happen to destroy the ease with which the girl has come to know.

There is a strange atmosphere throughout the book, it is the anticipation of something, we, like the girl, are wondering and waiting for it to happen. For she seems like the pawn on the chess board, her parents on one side having handed her over, the foster parents on the other having received her. Each move, every event that is outside the daily routine, ignites in the girl heightened powers of observation, developing an acute awareness of even the most subtle changes in those around her.

‘Kinsella looks at me and smiles a hard kind of a smile then looks over to the window ledge where a sparrow has come down to perch and readjust her wings. The little bird seems uneasy – as though she can scent the cat, who sometimes sits there. Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind. He toes the leg of a chair and looks over at me.’

Author, Claire Keegan

Author, Claire Keegan

A touching and yet eerie telling of a story that begs to be read and reread, the writing is exquisite in its depiction and ability to create a taut atmosphere without significant plot, it showcases an author with an immense talent for the short story and makes the reader want more.

Claire Keegan is an Irish writer highly regarded for her award-winning short stories, she has published two collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007) which I have read excellent reviews of.

Have you read any of Claire Keegan’s work?

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Women in Translation #WITMonth

During August many I will be reading novels by women that have been translated from a language other than English. It’s an initiative created by Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio, Life in Letters and can be followed on twitter using the hashtag #WITMonth.

WITMonth15

Literature in translation represents less than 5% of published works in the English language, compared to nearly 50% for example in France and of works translated, approximately 30% is attributed to women.

I have gathered together a stack of books I already own that are works of translation and it is from this pile that I will be reading this month. It coincides with my interest in reading what I call cross cultural fiction, or literature from another perspective than that which we have grown up and/or been educated around, which in my case was very Anglo-focused.

WIT Month

If you have a favourite book by a woman, that has been translated, please tell us about it in the comments below so I can add it to my list for next year.

So far in 2015, I have read and reviewed the following books by women that have been translated: (click on the title to read the review)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Spain) translated Laura McGloughlin, Paul Mitchell (Catalan)

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (France) translated Adriana Hunter (French)

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood, by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated Richard Philcox (French)

Ru by Kim Thuy (Vietnamese-Canadian) (read in French, available in English)

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (Austria) translated Shaun Whiteside (German)

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) translated by Richard Philcox (French)

Happy Reading All.

Art in Nature, Tove Jansson #TOVE100

Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.

Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.

It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.

Art in NatureArt in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.

The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.

“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”

The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.

“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”

Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.

Tove Jansson's Atelier © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s Atelier
© Moomin Characters™

The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.

A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.

The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.

Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.

“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”

In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.

“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”

Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.

Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.

Absolutely gripping!

Check out her books and events at TOVE100.com

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

 

Scattered Dreams by Karin Crilly

On March 4th I sent an email to Karin Crilly about a competition being run on The Good Life France. I saw this competition mentioned on twitter  @lifefrance and thought of Karin as I knew she was writing a memoir about her year in Aix-en-Provence and I thought it would be a good idea for her to send something out into the world.

The Good Life France is an independent online magazine that celebrates life in France and attracts a number of writers and contributors who write on a wide range of subjects, keeping visitors and residents informed about France and all things French. The competition was to celebrate the 2nd anniversary since their inception and they invited contributions of work up to 1000 words on France or French related.

Good Life

Karin replied and said she would be very interested in entering the competition and asked if I would like to read the extract she had chosen, from the first chapter of her book.

Unbeknown to us both at the time, it was the beginning of the two of us working together. I read her work, made some suggestions and she polished her already excellent prose into a shape resembling 1000 words of an evocative experience in Paris that did indeed wow the judges, moving some of them to tears yet uplifting them at the same time.

Earlier this week, to our great joy, we learned that Karin had won the competition, ahead of more than 100 other entries and her story Scattered Dreams in Paris has now been published on The Good Life France.

You can read the story here by clicking on the title. Watch this space for news of the book when it comes out:

Winner of 2014 Writing Competition The Good Life France!

Scattered Dreams in Paris by Karin Crilly

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Congratulations Karin and  Bonne Continuation!

Daphne’s Dilemma – Part II

Click here To Read Daphne’s Dilemma – Part I first

Annie was my first horse. No thoroughbred, she was what some might call an ‘old nag’, not tall enough to be called a horse, just an unexceptional, somewhat lazy pony.

Chocolate brown and rotund, she liked to spend her days grazing in the paddock getting fatter and fatter. She was slow and patient and a good pony for my sister and I to ride on, though she did have a couple of stubborn habits. Sometimes she would turn her head when we put our foot in the stirrup and try to nip us on the backside.

She also had a habit of pulling her head down quickly to eat grass if we paused for a few seconds. Knowing this, we kept a firm grip on the reins to prevent her from eating, to which she would retaliate by throwing her head forward with a sudden jerk, flinging the reins out of our hands. Sliding down her neck to rest behind her ears, the reins then became impossible to reach without dismounting. We had to climb off, lead her alongside a log to give us extra height so our feet could reach the stirrup, or find a sheep track on a steep part of the hillside so we could jump back on, hoping she didn’t move while we attempted such daredevil tactics.

Annie had been pregnant and due to give birth. We had stopped riding her and Dad had put her in a different paddock from where she was usually kept. Every day she would come up to the fence so she could see the other horses in the adjoining paddocks, until that day she stopped coming.

“That’s strange” Dad had said, “I haven’t seen Annie. Perhaps she has had her foal and moved away from the fence-line to be nearer water.” Steep limestone cliffs lay beyond the trees where the soil was damp from underground water springs. It is a dangerous area, my father later agreed, but animals have good instincts he’d said.

Limestone CliffsImages of water, slippery rock and a pregnant horse left me with a sick feeling in my stomach and that racing heart. A heavy black cloud descended as we waited for Dad to return from his search, one we were forbidden to participate in. He returned alone. He had found Annie lying bloated and very dead at the foot of one of the cliffs. She had been about to give birth, he said.

I wished I had gone searching for her the day before, I wished we could have anticipated the risk, I wished so hard that we could rewind those days and she would be back up at the fence-line neighing to the other horses. I did not mind that she was bad-tempered, ate too much and tried to bite us, I just wanted her back and to remove forever that terrible helpless feeling in the pit of my stomach.

*

I walk up to the cottage when I see the distant figures of cow, man and dog disappear out of sight behind the trees between the airstrip and the shepherd’s cottage. When I arrive, there is Daphne, fat as ever but no calf. Dad leads her to the steel gate that opens into the main paddock in front of the house. Opening the gate right back on its hinges, he sandwiches her into the space between the gate and the fence. There is no chance of her bolting.

Now that she is standing still, I can see a tiny pair of hooves emerging from the much swollen, pink, fleshy area beneath her tail. I am told she is having difficulty and seems to have given up pushing. Dad rolls up his sleeves just like he would on a lambing beat, to lend a helping hand. Literally. He puts his hand inside that swollen, pink, fleshy area and tries to get a grip further up the protruding legs to assist the calf to come out. The legs emerge a little further but nothing more.

“It’s a big calf alright” he says as he tries again, “but she doesn’t wanna budge.” I walk to the corner where the gate meets the fence to check out Daphne’s face. She has an angry look, I struggle to find any glimmer of recognition in those big frowning, brown eyes.

She is flicking her tail down the other end, back and forth like a fly swat. It is easy to see she is not impressed with her captivity or the interference with her private cow parts. She will get used to it though, this is to become a familiar setting, to be locked in a tight holding area while my father sits on his small wooden stool in front of her hind leg to commence with the ritual morning teat pulling,  ‘milking the house-cow’ as we say.

After a few more attempts at hand assisted birth, Dad comes up with the idea to tie a rope around the calf’s ankles and pull it out. He knows he must be careful not to pull too quickly, as this could endanger Daphne’s reproductive equipment. He must be careful in case those contracting muscles suddenly give way, that could land him and the calf on the ground with a heavy thump, another scenario he wishes to avoid. He pulls as carefully and as strongly as he dares, but still nothing more than the front legs emerge. Daphne is beginning to protest. She starts to bellow loudly and tries to sit down. She has had enough.

“Get up you old bitch” Dad bellows back, thumping his hand on her rump. I cast him my own angry look but keep silent. I know she has to stay standing and the calf has to get out, we could lose them both if she gives up.

“Come on Daphne, you can do it” I say under my breath, just like I did two years ago while leading her around the obstacle course at the agricultural calf club day at school.

Finally Dad announces that he is going to get the tractor. The tractor! What is he going to do with the tractor?

He comes back with his old Massey Ferguson tractor and parks it in front of Daphne’s rear end. He ties the rope to the tractor, puts it in its lowest gear and very slowly inches it forward until the head of the calf emerges, followed by a loud bellow from Daphne.

Leaving the tractor running in neutral, he pulls on the hand brake, jumps out of the seat and returns to the calf just in time to catch it as it makes its first tumble into the outside world.

The calf is covered in a light, greasy film and as Dad moves the tractor away, I close the gate to let Daphne move from her confined position. She immediately turns around, puts her head down, sniffs her new-born calf and begins licking it.

The calf puts its front legs forward and tries to lift itself off the ground. The first attempt is unsuccessful; he is a little unsteady on his feet. But with the second attempt he manages to stand and begins to butt at his mother, searching for that universal elixir of life, ‘mother’s milk’.

The End

Daphne's Calf

Daphne’s Calf

Daphne’s Dilemma – Part I

Daphne is pregnant.

She is no longer my teat sucking, sun frolicking pet calf, she has matured into a fully grown cow. She doesn’t even look like my Daphne anymore – but I know it is her because I recognize the familiar black and white patchwork pelt she wears and she still walks up to me in the paddock, something no other cow will do.

I no longer feed her milk from a bottle, nor offer my hand to her once willing, hungry mouth; the welcome teat substitute she liked to suckle in a noisy rhythmic motion, her rough sand-paper like tongue producing sticky foam milk bubbles from the sides of her mouth. She is almost ready for milking now. We will be digesting the warm, nutritious contents of her udder with our Weet-Bix very soon.

CowWhen I say she doesn’t look like my Daphne anymore, it is her face that I am referring to. When she was a calf she had an eager, yearning sort of facial expression, a hungry face, hungry for her next feed and starving for my affection. Now she has a mature cow’s face – I’ve noticed that with all the calves, when they grow up they stop smiling. Something happens as their facial features mature that makes their grown up expression more like a frown than a smile, they no longer exhibit the contentedness of frolicking calves, high on powdered milk and the scent of fresh spring pastures.

So Daphne has a mature grown up look now, but despite this I know she remembers me, even though those baby calf memories of less than two years ago for me, are the equivalent of nine cow years ago for her.

Sweet scented Daphne is both my mother’s favorite fragrant, flowering shrub and the name of her mother, our Nana. I have always loved this name and thought that everyone would understand and appreciate the gesture, to name my pet calf after my very dear grandmother and something sweet-smelling and adored by my mother. Unfortunately my parents didn’t agree, though they allowed me to keep the name, they just made sure that Nana was never to learn of the esteemed honor I had gifted her.

Daphne is really fat now, she has a baby calf inside her and this morning at breakfast Dad announced she is ready to drop. At lunch there is a call from a neighbor to say he has seen a cow in distress down by the airstrip gate. Although I don’t hear the words myself, I can tell from what Dad is saying that it is my Daphne. I know because I feel this terrible pain in my chest and stomach, my heart is beating way too fast, there is a dry lump in my throat and I can’t even finish my favourite cold roast lamb and home-made chutney sandwich. I haven’t experienced a feeling like this since Annie died.

“Better go take a look” Dad says, placing the receiver of the party line telephone back on its cradle and ringing off one short to let callers know the line is free. There are few secrets in this neighborhood when four families share one telephone line and bored operators sit with nothing better to do than listen in. I imagine by tonight everyone will have heard about Daphne.

“I’m coming too” I say, pushing back my chair and getting up from the table.

“No, you stay put for now, finish your lunch and help your mother clean up first. I’ll bring ‘er up to the yards next to the shepherd’s cottage. You can meet us up there. It’s best not to have too many people around, you know they’re warrant to get a bit spooked and we don’t want ‘er taking fright and bolting off down by that big hole.”

“Alright” I mutter, slumping back in my chair, arms crossed, appetite ruined. I know what he says makes sense, though I don’t believe she will be scared off because of me. More likely those yapping dogs that never listen when you shout ‘Shut Up!’ or ‘Get in behind!’ I’d like to say, but don’t.

Animals’ giving birth is a common and natural event in the spring, although here it is more common to see thousands of sheep giving birth, not so many cows and a very large pet giving birth is a new experience for us. Pet lambs always go back into the main flock before they became adult sheep, so we never know whether they give birth or not, but despite the familiarity with animals giving birth, I am worried about Daphne.

I too have matured in these past two years, I am about to go off to boarding school in the city away from my family; I know I am old enough not to become attached to farm animals, but somewhere in a dark chamber of my mind, a closed-door of slumbering memories has drifted open and I cannot stop the rush of disturbing flashbacks which enter my mind and begin to replay that terrible thing that happened to Annie.

Daphne’s Dilemma – Part II 

The Hidden Lamp edited by Florence Caplow

Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp is a rich source of feminine wisdom, a compilation of one hundred stories, some a mere paragraph long, each one chosen by one woman and commented on, sharing a contemporary perception of how that text speaks to her.

We as readers have the opportunity to receive the wisdom of the original text, reflect on it ourselves, observe the comments of the woman who has chosen to share it with us, often with a personal anecdote in this unique collection of twenty-five centuries of awakened women – those who in Buddhist terms have gained enlightenment.

Most well-known Zen stories or koans (according to American Zen Master, poet and author Zoketsu Norman Fischer) come from three collections Blue Cliff Record (12th C), The Book of Serenity (12th C), and The Gateless Barrier (13th C) and are an almost exclusively male domain.

In this collection, we find the long missing stories of women, shared in a unique collaborative style between its editors and commentators. Many of those interpreting the texts are Zen teachers and many others come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and lineages, lending the collection an open-minded virtue, accessible to all, whether male or female, and regardless of knowledge of Buddhism philosophy and practice.

“Koans are powerful and succinct stories, most often about encounters between Zen teachers and students. They can be playful and humorous, mysterious, opaque or even combative.”

It is an invitation to consider what has been said, to ponder it and respond ourselves.

Reading the stories make fables seem like children’s stories. These excerpts often require an extraordinary stretch of the imagination to understand and there will be some we are simply not ready to interpret.  For those who have studied them, their revelations have often taken months or even years to realise.  Thanks to the commentaries, we can at least read of another’s insight although this does not in all cases necessarily bring clarity. We must accept that we are not yet ready for their learning.

Joko Beck

Charlotte Joko Beck

One of the first stories came from Peg Syverson’s reflection after listening to Joko Beck* give a talk. A young man raised his hand and bluntly asked “Are you enlightened?” to which she replied “I hope I should never have such a thought!”

Peg Syverson shared that she had thought of this exchange many times since she first heard it, that many of the things this teacher of hers said, surprised her. She likened it to another story of a Japanese master Nan-in, serving tea to a professor, pouring the tea until the cup filled and then overflowed, and still he continued to pour until the professor said, “It is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup”, said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The responses are often unexpected and penetrating. Their meaning isn’t obvious on first reading, they require us to look at the question, and at what those who ask are bringing along with the question. Syverson recounts her own audience with Joko, the question she was required to ponder and respond to, then despite several weeks of contemplating an answer, when she gave it, would receive another insightful, thought-provoking response, which upon reflection, changed the nature of her relationship with her son, the subject of her initial question. The clarity of the teacher’s mind in responding so succinctly is astonishing.

The answers seem nearly always to require that you go away and reconsider the exchange, eventually revealing the answer that perhaps was always within you. It is a kind of active learning, rather than the passive receipt of an interpretation and response, which can easily be set aside or forgotten.

The Hidden Lamp is not a book to read in one sitting, it is a reference to draw on now and then and a rich source of ancient feminine wisdom and modern thought, whose content is valid for one and all. Some of the names of the women in the book will be well-known and others less so, however their contributions might as well be nameless, as it is the story that brings the richness to the reader, the reputation of all the contributions having already been established.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Personally I always have at least one text of Buddhist thought/philosophy on the bedside table, I find them a quiet source of intellectual wisdom that easily resonates with my own world view.

Whether it’s a collection like this or one of the many excellent works of the Dalai Lama, or the pocket books of Pema Chodron, they all share a wisdom that comes from the practice of kindness, empathy and altruism while providing a prism of compassion through which to observe our everyday thoughts and encounters. A kind of preventative medicine for the mind, these awakened beings have spent years pondering the nature of suffering and both their practices and their words are a thoughtful guide and nurturing remedy to all negative emotion or thought.

* Joko Beck (American, 1917 – 2011) was a pianist and mother of four, who began Zen practice in her 40’s, founded two schools and wrote two books Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.