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Maggie O’Farrell and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Maggie O’Farrel’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is also a book club pick, but oh, what a pick! I remember somewhere reading a review; I might never have picked this book up if I hadn’t needed to read it for the club. And oh, what I might have missed!


It’s like the scariest book ever written, scary in a Margaret Atwood kind of way, a reminder that women have not had rights for very long, and that those rights are still very fragile. When economies go bottoms-up, when unemployment begins rising, women are often the first to suffer, and women’s rights the first to go. In hard times, men will be preferred hirings, because they have families to support, laws to “protect” women are passed, especially laws which “protect” her finances, meaning gives the power of the money management to some man to do for her, or “protect” her person by requiring that some man accompany her to keep her from dangers. Protection = control. It keeps some smart, thinking women submissive to men who are in every way their inferior.

In Vanishing, Maggie O’Farrel writes of such a woman, Esme Lennox, who is a fey spirit, born in India, with the eyes of an artist. While her “good” sister Kitty obeys the rules, walks the straight and narrow path, Esme is messier. As she grows to adolescence, her eccentricity and her rebellion against the constricts of the life in turn-of-the-century Scotland chafe, she yearns for more room to breathe, intellectually, socially, as her family, her community and her society continues to pressure her to conform.

One of the key events in the book is the death of Esme’s baby brother, of typhoid fever. Abandoned, Esme sits holding her dead brother’s body for three days until her family returns (the baby-keeper also died and the other employees deserted while Esme’s family was away). Esme is devastated, but the focus is on her mother, who is wrought with guilt and isolates herself, and Esme, only a little girl, is forbidden to even say her beloved baby brother’s name. Part of what plays a huge role in this book is society, expectations, and all that is hidden and unspoken – as Esme becomes, a family secret, locked away for sixty years.

Their grandmother swept into the room ‘Kitty,’ there was an unaccustomed smile on her face, ‘stir yourself. You have a visitor.’

Kitty put down her needle. ‘Who?’

Their mother appeared behind the grandmother. ‘Kitty,’ she said ‘quickly put that away. He’s here, he’s downstairs . . . ‘

. . . .

Esme watched from the window-seat as her mother started fiddling with Kitty’s hari, tucking it behind her ears, then releasing it. . . . . Ishbel turned and, catching sight of Esme at the window, said ‘You, too. Quickly now.’

Esme took the stairs slowly. She had no desire to meet one of Kitty’s suitors. They all seemed the same to her – nervous men with over-combed hair, scrubbed hands and pressed shirts. They came and drank tea, and she and Kitty were expected to talk to them while their mother sat like an umpire in a chair across the room. The whole thing made Esme want to burst into honesty, to say, let’s forget this charade, do you want to marry her or not?

She dawdled on the landing, looking at a grim, grey-skied watercolour of the Fife coast. But her grandmother appeared in the hall below. ‘Esme!’ she hissed, and Esme clattered down the stairs.

In the drawing room, she plumped down in a chair with high arms in the corner. She wound her ankles round its polished legs and eyed the suitor. The same as ever. Perhaps a little more good-looking than some of the others. Blond hair, an arrogant forehead, fastidious cuffs. He was asking Ishbel something about the roses in a bowl on the table. Esme had to repress the urge to roll her eyes. Kitty was sitting bolt upright on the sofa, pouring tea into a cup, a blush creeping up her neck.

Esme began playing the game she often played with herself at times like this, looking over the room and working out how she might get round it without touching the floor. She could climb from the sofa to the low table and, from there, to the fender stool. Along that, and then –

She realized her mother was loooking at her, saying something.

‘What was that?” Esme said.

‘James was addressing you.’ her mother said, and the slight flare of her nostrils meant, Esme knew, that she’d better behave or there would be trouble later.

As with many inconvenient women, Esme ends up committed at a loony-bin, and sixty years later, is released into the custody of a grand-niece who never even knew Esme existed.

The thoughts, trials and escapades of three women, Esme, her sister Kitty, and Iris, the grand-niece, intertwine through out the book, and the picture is cloudy at first, blurry, shifting, fragmented The pattern becomes more and more clear as the three threads of thought are woven – ever more tightly – together.

I could not put this book down. Finding out how the picture came together became more important than checking my messages, my blog, or fixing dinner. It was compelling, and resulted in a quick and unforgettable read.

August 20, 2009 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Character, Civility, Community, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Generational, India, Interconnected, Living Conditions, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Relationships, Social Issues, Women's Issues | Leave a comment

Obama and Dreams From My Father

It took me 20 days, but I finished Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father. I didn’t read it because he is President of the United States, although that would be a good reason, but I read it because our book club is reading it, and I know how busy the next few months are going to be, so I read ahead during the slower times of summer.

And the trick to finishing it was not allowing myself to read anything else until I had finished – I had a stack of really intriguing books to urge me on. “As soon as I finish, I can read . . . ” Even with all that incentive, Obama’s book is a slog.


He is a gifted orator. He is a plodding writer. There is also a problem I find with autobiographies by anyone – we all fool ourselves, we all position ourselves in a better light, and we have no idea how transparent we are when we do so. Fellow bloggers, do you ever read anything you have written a couple years ago and squirm with embarrassment, or even delete? To be an author is a very very brave thing, when you have a book published, there is no going back, your transgressions are all right out there, and the public can be cruelly critical.

What I liked about the book is Obama-as-Third-Culture-Kid, a man of mixed identity. Most kids who have grown up moving or grown up in different countries from their own, or who have immigrated, can tell you, being an alien is no fun. Obama learns how to adapt, how to look for clues to fitting in, how to pass. It’s a common theme in Third-Culture-Kids.

My favorite part of the book was his return to Kenya, his openness to his African roots, the open-armed love with which his Kenyan half-brothers and sisters welcome him and his response. He had some truly extraordinary adventures, working out just who his father had been as a person. He was blessed to recognize the richness of his inheritance.

The book plods along, but it was worth the time. For all it’s flaws, I find I like that man, and I understand more about where he is coming from. (for grammarians, I understand more about from where the man is coming.) 🙂

August 20, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Biography, Blogging, Character, Civility, Community, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Interconnected, Kenya, Living Conditions, NonFiction, Political Issues, Social Issues | 3 Comments

Economic Turnaround Slow

Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in America, and one of the humblest, has written an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times (you can read the entire piece by clicking here) on the tiny signs of economic upturn and what they might forecast for the near and medium future. It makes fascinating reading – solutions come at a cost, and he spells out the costs.

One blogger jumps from this to forecast a turnaround in the real estate market. Not so fast, I think. There is a huge demographic factor, a huge bulge of the population stepping out of the productive work-force and into retirement, a population which has largely lived large – for today – with little thought to the retirement years.

Those who planned, and squirreled away their monies into investments, into businesses – have also been hit hard. Turnarounds take time, and even so, there is a cost. Not all will recover what they have lost.

Many of this aging bulge will be paring down their expectations and paring down their lifestyles. They will be paring down their spending, except for health care. I don’t think we have a clue what that is going to look like.

The Greenback Effect

Published: August 18, 2009

IN nature, every action has consequences, a phenomenon called the butterfly effect. These consequences, moreover, are not necessarily proportional. For example, doubling the carbon dioxide we belch into the atmosphere may far more than double the subsequent problems for society. Realizing this, the world properly worries about greenhouse emissions.

The butterfly effect reaches into the financial world as well. Here, the United States is spewing a potentially damaging substance into our economy — greenback emissions.

To be sure, we’ve been doing this for a reason I resoundingly applaud. Last fall, our financial system stood on the brink of a collapse that threatened a depression. The crisis required our government to display wisdom, courage and decisiveness. Fortunately, the Federal Reserve and key economic officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations responded more than ably to the need.

They made mistakes, of course. How could it have been otherwise when supposedly indestructible pillars of our economic structure were tumbling all around them? A meltdown, though, was avoided, with a gusher of federal money playing an essential role in the rescue.

The United States economy is now out of the emergency room and appears to be on a slow path to recovery. But enormous dosages of monetary medicine continue to be administered and, before long, we will need to deal with their side effects. For now, most of those effects are invisible and could indeed remain latent for a long time. Still, their threat may be as ominous as that posed by the financial crisis itself.

To understand this threat, we need to look at where we stand historically. If we leave aside the war-impacted years of 1942 to 1946, the largest annual deficit the United States has incurred since 1920 was 6 percent of gross domestic product. This fiscal year, though, the deficit will rise to about 13 percent of G.D.P., more than twice the non-wartime record. In dollars, that equates to a staggering $1.8 trillion. Fiscally, we are in uncharted territory.

Because of this gigantic deficit, our country’s “net debt” (that is, the amount held publicly) is mushrooming. During this fiscal year, it will increase more than one percentage point per month, climbing to about 56 percent of G.D.P. from 41 percent. Admittedly, other countries, like Japan and Italy, have far higher ratios and no one can know the precise level of net debt to G.D.P. at which the United States will lose its reputation for financial integrity. But a few more years like this one and we will find out.

An increase in federal debt can be financed in three ways: borrowing from foreigners, borrowing from our own citizens or, through a roundabout process, printing money. Let’s look at the prospects for each individually — and in combination.

You can read the rest HERE

August 20, 2009 Posted by | Community, Family Issues, Financial Issues, Generational, Living Conditions, Statistics | 1 Comment