The Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly #memoir

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver, Poet

Outdoor MassageA few years ago a lady who had recently moved here to Aix-en-Provence contacted me in relation to Flairesse, my aromatherapy therapeutic massage business. She became a regular client and over time I got to know her well, discovering a mutual interest in culture, books and writing. She had a strong passion for travel, the lives of others and the excitement of discovery, which was the name of a blog she’d set up to keep a record of her adventures while living in France.

I learned that she was writing a book, which had initially been planned to be a collection of a dozen or so stories she had related to her clients over the years, (she had been a Marriage and Family Counsellor for 30 years in Southern California) these stories had been her way to illustrate a particular teaching, something she had found that people absorbed more easily through storytelling than being given the lesson directly.

However, and given her adventurous spirit, it came as no surprise to me, once she sat down to write it, she realised that looking back and recounting the past, the stories she had spent 30 years narrating, no longer excited her, so she decided to change direction and push her focus forward, towards the unknown lifescape before her and share this grand adventure she had embarked on, three years after her retirement, at the unstoppable age of seventy-eight.

Every month, I would hear how the book was progressing and I’d also hear about Karin’s latest travels, culinary adventures, her move to a quieter apartment, her daily five Tibetans rites of rejuvenation ritual, and always that infectious laugh and sense of fun she had about life. I lent her a few writing books and then suggested she might like to enter The Good Life France writing competition, 1,000 words about France – about memories, a favourite place, or something you love about France.

good lifeExcited about the opportunity to put her writing skills to the test, Karin took the first chapter of her book, moulded it as much as she could to meet the criteria, sent it to me to look over and to make recommendations on how to whittle it down further without losing any of the content and then sent it off! We came up with the title ‘Scattered Dreams’ and a few weeks later heard the fantastic news, a confirmation if ever any was needed of how realistic this dream was in coming to fruition, that she had won first prize! She was now published and on her way to fulfilling that goal of becoming an inspirational author.

And so, today I am delighted to be able to introduce you now to published author Karin Crilly, and the book that made its first chapter appearance in The Good Life France where it was so fabulously awarded the recognition it deserved – The Blue Satin Nightgown, My French Makeover at Age 78.

I had to share this photo which Karin sent me one night as I was scribbling notes over one of her chapters in the book, (after that first success, I read all her manuscript and tried to concentrate on making notes for feedback, which was difficult, as her stories were so entertaining and often had me open-mouthed in surprise).

She’d told me she was going to an Elton John concert earlier in the evening and then later this picture arrived, showing her accepting a lift home from Xavier – the husband of her friend Marie-Paule, a couple who became like family to her –  it so depicts the excitement and sense of adventure Karin was always up for and no wonder her book is so full of laughs and the pure delight of living life to the full.

The Blue Satin Nightgown is an enchanting, easy reading memoir of Karin’s two years based here in the small town of Aix-en-Provence, taking us through both the trials and delights of her attempt to integrate into French culture, finding an apartment, discovering the markets, learning French cuisine – though she is already an excellent cook, and shares some new and favourite recipes throughout the book.

She attracts men without trying and there are many entertaining chapters of close encounters and demonstrations of what we might refer to as, the French culture’s ‘art of seduction‘, a term that doesn’t have the same meaning in English, more of a natural charm that often surpasses the boundaries of the Anglo-American experience and is practised by young and old.

One of the endearing aspects of Karin’s writing and of her character is her ability to look at herself and see how she reacts in certain situations, to talk to herself as if she were one of her own clients. She brings a natural and gracious wisdom to the page and often thought back to wonder how her late husband Bill, to whom she dedicated the book, would have responded to what she had experienced and often asked herself what lesson she needed to learn. She finds wisdom not just in her own encounters, but by maintaining a strong and positive link to her loved one, a memory that never held her back, one she found a way to help push her forward and kept at her side, without ever succumbing to grief or self-pity.

Karin is not just an inspiration to those in their seventies or those who have lost a life partner, she is an inspiration to all of us, who have ever thought about doing something a little adventurous or extraordinary.

When my husband died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, I wondered if I could still be extraordinary. I had expended so much energy being his caregiver for eighteen years, the last five years of which demanded my entire being. After grieving for several years, I retired from thirty years of counselling. I needed to reinvent my life. I believed what I have always known: that the true self is presented  with ideas that it is capable of fulfilling.

When I received the call at age seventy-eight, I remembered my clients and my advice to them.  And I said YES!

Karin Crilly, Introduction, The Blue Satin Nightgown

Buy a copy of Karin’s The Blue Satin Nightgown via Book Depository here (affiliate link)

or Buy a Kindle E- book version here

*****

Aix

Halloween, The Day of the Dead & The Secret Recipe Book of Frida Kahlo

Ironically, today marks the first day of the Mexican celebration The Day of the Dead, three days in which family and friends gather in many parts of the world, but especially traditional in Mexico, to acknowledge those that have died. Traditions include building an altar or shrine using sugar skulls, marigolds and the favourite foods and beverages of those who have passed, but are still remembered.

Frida KahloThe Day of the Dead has a special significance in the Mexican writer Francisco Haghenbeck’s novel The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo. Upon learning that several notebooks were found among Kahlo’s belongings, he imagines that one of them was given to Frida by her friend Tina Modotti and in it will capture recipes, memories and ideas that are inspired and connected to some of the noted people she spends time with.

“Among Frida Kahlo’s personal effects, there was a black book called “The Hierba Santa Book”. It contained a recipe collection for offerings on the Day of the Dead. According to tradition, on November 2 the departed have divine permission to return to earth, and they must be received with altars filled with Aztec marigolds, sweet pastries, photographs from long ago, religious postcards, mystically scented incense, playful sugar skulls and votive candles to illuminate their path to the next life.”

Frida Kahlo’s life story, her tomboyish, rebellious youth, her not so blind and yet all-embracing obsession with Diego Rivera, her accident, her art, her circle of friends both at home in Coyoacán, Mexico and those she fraternised with in the US and Europe are fascinating from almost any point of view, whether it’s the film Frida with Salma Hayek’s convincing role or Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional account of her in The Lacuna or this latest account with its superstitious bent.

The book started slowly, covering familiar ground and read a little like a summary of her early life, each chapter culminating in a recipe, like a tribute to the character who inhabited that episode. What makes it engaging and unique are Frida’s encounters with Death, who manifests as a man riding a horse and who visits her in the first few pages, before we even know who he is.

Kahlo Rivera Day of the Dead sculpture by Miguel Linares Source: Wikipedia

Kahlo Rivera Day of the Dead sculpture by Miguel Linares
Source: Wikipedia

As well as this apparition of the carrier of death, it’s warning manifests through the presence of a woman she refers to as the Godmother, Empress of the Dead, one with whom Kahlo makes a pact, after the trolley-bus accident that almost kills her. She will live, but with a constant reminder of that which she has circumvented – death. She will extend her life and avoid death but must embrace pain. And thus she becomes even more superstitious than she might have been, carefully marking the annual Day of the Dead with her shrine and offerings, keeping that man on the horse from her door until she is ready for his presence.

“The pact she had with her Godmother had given her the courage to tell stories. She liked to joke about Death. She dared it, taunted it, knowing that somewhere, Death was listening.”

She possessed a fearless personality, though susceptible to pain and expressed it in her artwork with an intensity that some would find disturbing.

Pain is the recurring metaphor in Kahlo’s life, sometimes it was so physically present it disabled her for periods of time when painting was her only release. When it wasn’t physical pain she experienced, it was emotional, for even her husband Diego, the love of her life was a manifestation of pain, one she tried to eliminate, briefly divorcing him for a year, despairing of his continuous infidelities and then just as she accepted physical pain, she accepted her flawed husband and remarried him, deciding it was better to live with than without him.

Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Kahlo  Source : Wikipedia

Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Kahlo
Source : Wikipedia

Channelling her experiences onto canvas, she developed a unique style and following. She became as well-known and sought after as Diego, from New York to the surrealists in Paris, meeting people such as Georgie O’Keefe, Salvador Dali and back home in Mexico, she and Diego would become hosts to the exiled Leon Trotsky and his wife.

Each encounter in the book leads to a favourite dish she might have made for or shared with her friends and it is as if each dish is also a sacrifice to the Godmother, constantly fulfilling her pact to keep Death from her door.

An excellent addition to the collection of work that exists, with its unique focus on local tradition, superstition and Frida Kahlo’s pact with Death, remembered every year when she and Diego come visiting, as they will perhaps this November 2nd.

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

The Honey Thief Stories and Recipes by Najaf Mazari, Robert Hillman

I requested The Honey Thief to read because it appeared to offer a unique insight into a culture we know little about and about which we see and read far too much negative press.

The Honey ThiefThe book promised an alternative perspective, not because the author had lived an extra-ordinary life, but because as part of his upbringing he and others like him listened to these stories passed down and sometimes relived from one generation to the next. They are not about war, oppression, the Taliban, terrorists or western women living in a foreign culture, they are about sharing the wisdom and perspective of a people who have only experiences to share, wisdom to offer and guidance as their intent.

Sometimes stories are all that is left to be passed on to the younger generation and we are fortunate to be given this glimpse into these gifts of an ancient culture and tradition.

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Najaf Mazari was born in Afghanistan, though he only refers to his homeland as that since he left it, because before anything he is Hazara, one of the many peoples of that vast and mountainous tract of land surrounded by six countries, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and inhabited by more than 14 ethnic groups, separated socially and geographically.

Rather than an affinity with what we casually call Afghanistan, his loyalties are to his people and the area they have inhabited for at least 800 years, Hazarajat, although due to its’ long history of domination, they have often fled their spiritual home for the sanctuary of the mountains or other lands. But loyalty remains deep within them all, no matter where they find themselves.

Living as a refugee in Australia, Mazari with the aid of his friend Robert Hillman, shares these stories that are part of the fabric of Hazara life, stories of an oral tradition, keeping their bonds and culture alive, giving them courage and hope to continue to endure the many challenges that will face them, from family expectations to foreign visitors, to facing an enemy and offering forgiveness.

snow leopardThey know the mountains and rocks are loyal and must be respected, they read the wind and interpret the moon and understand that wars can last 100 years. We see their relationship to the mountains in the poignant story The Snow Leopard, where a visiting English photographer wishes to track and photograph the elusive creature. His first visit is unsuccessful, no one will guide him to those dangerous parts of the mountain where it is believed the snow leopard resides, as there is more than just the mountain to fear. On his second visit, he finds a guide and though unsuccessful, their journey is filled with insight, learning and a renewed respect for the mountain.

The stories share something of the way the Hazara see the world and the story The Honey Thief  brilliantly encapsulates their relationship with nature, animal life and shows how good can sometimes come from bad. The narrator shares with a boy how he became a beekeeper, caught red-handed stealing the honey, his captor observing that he wasn’t stung – thus finding his future apprentice.

Similarly this boy, whose grandfather is a wise man whom the villagers consult daily, discovers that even wise men have something to learn from young boys who like to ask lots of questions in The Wolf is the Most Intelligent of Creatures and learns that what might appear to be ill advice may in fact be the correct advice to give. This story, the very first, is sure to immediately challenge your own perceptions, something I adore in travel and delight in finding in a great tale.

Almost like fables and yet not, because all of these stories, while offering the seduction of a fable, are rooted in a realism that convinces the reader they tell of lives actually lived and not conjured up or given magical powers, a device that the common fable sometimes utilises.

The author Najaf Mazari

The narrator Najaf Mazari

And when the stories finish, we discover perhaps the greatest gift of all, one that can be referred back to and shared at home ourselves, a small collection of mouth-watering recipes with names and ingredients like Lamb Qorma, Sabzi Gosht, (lamb with spinach), Kofta Nakhod (beef & chickpeas), Boulanee (like Cornish pasties) and Chelo Nakhod (chicken & chickpea stew); surely living proof of the richness and diversity of their culinary culture and the trade that has passed between these boundaries of peoples for hundreds of years.

If you are interested in learning more, or considering reading the book, I highly recommend checking out these two excellent reviews:

  • Richard Marcus at BlogCritics – a beautiful, sensitive and concise review, how he packs so much into so few words, I’m still trying to figure out.
  • Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes – check out this short but flavoursome review and the recipe with pictures, she not only read the book, but cooked that first recipe with astounding success!

Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, a member of the Penguin Group US, in return for an honest review.