Thursday, June 28, 2018

Winter Sisters by Robin Olveira

Though this historical suspense novel is set in 1879, in many ways it seems relevant to today’s #Me Too movement. I was dumbfounded to learn that the age of consent for females in New York State was ten years old at that time. Also eye-opening was how poorly the medical establishment treated Dr. Mary Stipp—a female surgeon and one of the novel’s main characters—by taking away her hospital privileges. Her “crime”? She dared to treat prostitutes.

Set in Albany, New York, WINTER SISTERS (Viking, 2018) opens with a colossal blizzard that brings the city to its knees. Right before the snow begins to fall, Claire and Emma O’Donnell, ages seven and ten, are delivered to school by their loving parents as usual. But days later, it seems the two sisters have disappeared. And their parents have died in the blizzard.

Dr. Stipp and her husband, close family friends of the O’Donnells, begin their search for the orphaned girls. Checking hospitals, morgues, churches and orphanages to no avail, finally one of Dr. Stipp’s patients suggests she check the brothels. No, that’s not the exact answer, but the idea that many men, even those among Albany’s wealthiest, have an appetite for young girls becomes central to the story.

Sensational headlines in the local papers label the missing girls as the “Winter Sisters.” Robin Oliveira does a fine job of bringing Claire and Emily to life, as well as a bevy of Stipp family household members who care deeply for the girls. Weather continues to be a factor when melting snows bring flooding to Albany.

And that’s about all I want to say about the plot, for it would be too easy get into spoiler territory. Figuring out what exactly happened to the girls is a long process, taking readers into the lives of the city’s finest and worst citizens.

For some reason, books about missing children always grab my interest. The author’s flair for historical detail and local color deepened my involvement with that basic plot premise. I dare anyone to read Winter Sisters and not want to discuss women’s rights with others—both how far we’ve come and yet, how much further we still have to go.

The text of this review first appeared on

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Curious Words and Phrases: Botchagaloop, Farrago, the Primrose Path, etc.

One of the best things about the Internet Age, as far as I am concerned, is quick access to word definitions. I am much more apt to look up words than in the days of old when all we had were dictionaries. I do love bound dictionaries and still turn to them at times, especially if one is nearby, but both alone whilst reading or when talking to friends, there is nothing like instantaneous clarification via smart phone or tablet.

Here are a few words and phrases I've looked up lately:

Botchagaloop -- I heard this word when I was growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and 60s. It came to mind recently, don't ask me why, and wondered if my memory of it as kind of a put-down was correct. According to the Urban Dictionary, the basic meaning is: a dufus. Other sites commented on a Golden Girls connection: the Italian American character, Sophia, used it often in dialogue. There was also a Mr. Bacciagalupe character played by Joe Kirk on the Abbott and Costello show.

Whippersnapper -- Yes, I do know what this colorful word means, but when I heard someone use it lately, I wondered about its history. According to, during the 17th Century or so, it referred to "young layabouts hanging around snapping whips to pass the time." Makes sense, eh? There would have been plenty of whips in daily use back then.

Farrago -- meaning a confused mixture, a hodgepodge or medley.  On, I learned that the word stems from a mix of grains, as for animal feed. Far equals grain in Latin.

Primrose path -- (Growing up in Floral Park, NY, our telephone exchange was PR for Primrose!) I knew that a primrose path implies a life of pleasure and ease, but not its origins. Simple enough: informs us it came from Shakespeare's Hamlet (1602), wherein Ophelia is warning her brother "not to reject the difficult and arduous path of righteousness that leads to Heaven in favour of the easy path of sin."

Biophilia -- This is a great word that the world needs more of. Simply put, it means that human beings have a instinctive bond with nature. cites it as originating via the work of Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), where he described biophilia as "the passionnte love of life and all that is alive."

For Pete's sake -- We've all said this, I'm sure, but I wondered why Pete was singled out this way. As it turns out, the Grammarphobia blog, quoting the OED, indicates that the name "Pete" as used this way is a "euphemistic replacement" for God, and thus, "for Pete's sake" or "for the love of Pete" are mild oaths, and possibly, there may be a connection to St. Peter.

Ambivert -- Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Or perhaps you are an ambivert, meaning you have qualities of both an introvert and an extrovert. The term was coined by Kimball Young in his Source Book for Social Psychology (1927), as explained on I wonder what Carl Jung, the person who popularized the introvert/extrovert concept, would have to say about this middle ground terminology. I am an introvert, but am want to say that being a public librarian made me a more extroverted introvert (though not an ambivert).

OK, that's enough linguistic curiosity from me for today! But I would like to add that I enjoyed listening to author Elizabeth Gilbert's interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR On Being show last Sunday (first broadcast in 2016), where she stressed the importance of curiosity as related to creativity and life (instead of fear, which, of course, tends to block our vitality).

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." 
- Albert Einstein

(illustration - Collage, "Reset, Return, Shift" by Keddy Ann Outlaw, 2016)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Collage Squares"

I just returned from a North Carolina beach retreat of sorts. I mailed ahead a group art project, a simple collage exercise I call "Collage Squares." My three friends enjoyed the experience. Their smiles were great to see! I have done this type of collage with many groups, including friends, various women's circles, and one time, with a group of homeless teens. 

In a way, Collage Squares are similar to mosaics. I use a square scrapbook punch to harvest the squares. I have square punches in various sizes, but the one I use most often cuts out 1 1/4" squares. I find imagery in magazines, catalogs and old books. When I work with a group, the little squares are laid out on trays on box lids and passed around. The process is very intuitive. People instinctively choose ones they like. Then they are glued to pieces of cardstock. It is also fun to make them into cards. When I did this with the teens in 2014, I also made available inspirational quotes to go on the back of their postcard-sized creations. Then we laminated them so the art would survive at least a little while in their backpacks. 

Here are some I've made since I started making collages this way in 2012.

I think I was aiming for a sense of history here, repeating elements of curving shapes, birds and the red, brown and tan colors.

I went through a stage where I was making very sweet collages using Victorian era elements. Using nine squares to create a composition, as my friends did in NC with me, is the simplest way to get started, and resembles the nine patch squares in quilting.

Eventually, I went beyond just combining squares and started bringing in other shapes. My love of the sea is apparent here.

These rich colors (still) excite me and at the time I made this one, I was very into cutting up copyright-free fruit label art.

You can barely see the squares in this beachy collage, but certainly they helped get me started. I think probably I wanted to do something using the glamorous dame in the upper left hand corner, as well as map pieces.

And finally for "show and tell" here today, here is a postcard with a vintage feel I made last year. My favorite part of the composition hardly shows in this upload: the words "Strike Silent" on the clock face in the top row. I sent this to a friend in Maryland, and she commented that those words struck her almost as a koan. Lovely! 

See also my 2012 post on "Quiltesque Collage" and another collage post presenting some of my art seen in local shows during the summer of 2016. When I started getting into mono-printing, I also punched out squares of my own printed papers to create collages (some of those appear on my Saatchi online gallery page).

I shared this technique with a friend from Idaho when she visited last year. She could not wait to buy a punch and get started collaging. Every time I hear from here, she tells me she is enjoying punching out her own stash of squares. The Collage Squares method is a great way to try one's hand at collage and here is a warning: it can be very addictive. Try it and see!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Spring Fever 2018

Today I worked in the yard until I was ready to drop. But then I went back with my camera and felt a sense of appreciation for what is growing and flourishing there.
Here are Indian Blanket flowers coming back, even after our season of ice this winter.

This clothes basket serves as a cold frame for zinnia and marigold seeds. Most of the time I leave its Saran Wrap roof on top. I have learned not to leave seedlings uncovered until they are a few weeks old or else they tend to get eaten by yard critters.

A favorite shady corner of the yard where potted plants are out of the direct sunlight and therefore can make it through our long summers.

New flagstones laid near the back of our house. Now there is less grass for the lawn service guys to mow! I put down these flagstones myself a couple of weeks ago. As for the yard service, this is a new development. The lawn mower broke and we decided to give up mowing ourselves. I am amazed at how quickly the yard guys mow, trim and remove leaves. Lovely to cross that chore off our to-do list!

We lost our rather stunted lemon tree in the big freeze of 2018. It did not produce lemons last year and I was tired of pruning its thorny branches. In its place we planted a redbud tree, just a stick when we bought it but now it is blooming and putting out a few baby leaves. Hopefully it will provide shade and look especially pink and pretty every Spring.

Another shady corner of our yard, where the crepe myrtle tree is putting out new leaves.

A small succulent happily thriving on the patio. I love adding pebbles to succulent pots as they help to stop weeds from growing and keep the soil weighed down during rainfall.

And that is just about it for my annual Spring Fever post...

We did get away for a few days last week and enjoyed staying at Mowdy Ranch near Coalgate, Oklahoma. The ranch is an eco-sanctuary for wild mustangs. Owner Clay Mowdy took us for a rousing utv tour of his land and we got to see many of the horses. Pets are welcomed there, so we brought along our dog Riley. There was such peace and quiet there under the big open skies. The stars were bright and the sunsets fantastic. I heartily recommend it for horse lovers and nature enthusiasts!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In My Alternate World of Digital Collage

I am about 140 collages into my 500 digital collage experiment. When I first started learning GIMP, I gave myself that 500 image goal to encourage myself to keep experimenting. I have trashed some of the initial tries. The ones seen here today are among my recent favorites. 

The small astronomical circle in the upper left hand corner is a realia scan -- I picked up the painted metal disc in an Austin junk shop years ago. I love being able to flip my images, as I did with the female figure. I also used the posterize application at certain points in this collage.

This collage combines two of my favorite "symbols" -- that of horses and ferris wheels, both rather magical to me. The horses were found on an old postcard and reminded me of Belmont Racetrack, which was practically in my backyard as I grew up on Long Island. Some of my monoprinted papers which I scanned into my picture library also came into use here.

 Guess I could call this one "the Butterfly Effect"..... Most of the imagery came from my collection of Dover clip art.

Both the mushroom and Hello Kitty erasers were photographed with collage in mind. Our world has gotten so divided and conflicted lately, the kitties are hearing the call of "Beam me up" (and that's about as close to political commentary I ever get).

I get so busy at times that I don't sit down to do the digital collage often enough. Life has a habit of interfering with art... I feel a bit frustrated at the learning curve in that I seem to be using the same few applications over and over. I need to go online more often and see how other GIMPers do things. 

Collage is like a hall of mirrors. Every direction you look, you see something different and visually stimulating. - Nita Leland, artist and author

Monday, January 29, 2018

Playing Around with Black and White Photography

Perhaps you heard of the Black and White Photography Challenge? It was going around Facebook and I enjoyed seeing people's daily photos. Then a dear friend asked me to do it and I was elated. The shot above was my favorite, showing the shadow of a potted plant on our patio. You were not supposed to say anything about your photos on Facebook, something I did not realize until I was almost done with the Challenge -- oh well. I found that taking photos with an eye to black and white and choosing seven to share was an enriching experience.

Yes, doing the Challenge made me re-appreciate black and white photography, even though today no film is used and we all have an array of apps and effects we can play around with on our phones and elsewhere. For me, looking at black and white images is calming, meditative, rich and soothing. I took many more shots than I could use for the Challenge. This one is a favorite, taken years ago, showing rain drops on the inlaid stone surface of the Labyrinth at the University of St. Thomas.

I took this shot of cowboy hats for sale at the Fiesta grocery store and it struck me as a very Texan image. I did use it for one of my Challenge uploads.

 Here are some collage scraps in my desk drawer. My art room is full of scrap boxes. I have to stay organized or I'd go crazy. I should do a whole series of Collage scrap photos! Though perhaps color photos would be more interesting...

I have quite the collection of black and white rocks. My love for them goes back to my upstate NY college days, when I began finding them on the shore of Lake Champlain. I knew I had to shoot my rocks for the Black and White Challenge!

Here is a shot I could not use for the Challenge, as there was a stipulation you could not photograph people. It shows my shadow with our Havanese dog Dylan early one morning this past fall. Sadly, we lost the dog at the end of November. He was quite rambunctious and managed to get away from my husband one Sunday and ran into traffic. He was immediately struck and killed. We only had him 6 months. He was a joy and loved everyone he met. He was a very happy dog. I am glad he did not suffer a lingering death. Bless his sweet soul. This photo now looks to me like the closing image to a chapter in the book of our lives with Dylan. And because of the time of day, it truly was a black and white photo. This month we adopted a rescue dog we are calling Riley. I will post his photo another time...

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Favorite Reads, 2017

As I looked back at Goodreads and my reviews on to choose which books to list here, I noticed that my reading year was very much about fiction and to be more specific, about character-based fiction. The plots didn't matter much if the human beings appeared real to me. I hardly read any nonfiction worth mentioning. Could it be that the crazy world of 2017 (particularly in Washington, DC) was just too unreal and I fled to fiction even more than usual? Maybe so. I've always had a predilection for character-based fiction. I have to care about the characters to get into a novel. And so, here is my roundup of fictional favorites...

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2017). For those who enjoyed My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), here she is again: younger, vulnerable, easily affected and disaffected by her family and the folks surrounding her in small town Illinois. Strout's pared-down writing delves into the deepest soul of human matters.

Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Harper, 2017). We follow private investigator Naomi around the Oregon woods as she looks for young Madison Culver, missing now for three years. Soon we know Madison is alive but held captive. And here's the clencher: Naomi was a missing child herself and has not yet resolved the missing pieces of her past. A taut and rather literary suspense novel.

Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan (Crown, 2017). WWII is raging and most of the men are gone. In a British village, a group of women band together to form a choir, a shocking move for the times. Chin up! Get ready to giggle and cry reading this cozy, engaging tale.

A Fugitive in Walden Woods by Norman Lock (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017). When Ralph Waldo Emerson gets involved in the Underground Railroad, he places runaway slave Samuel Long in a cabin near that of Henry Thoreau's on Walden Pond. Thrown into the company of the erudite, high-minded Transcendentalists, Samuel is in for quite the education. I was humbled by his point of view and learned a lot about the history of those times.

Gifted by John Daniel (Counterpoint, 2017). Henry Fielder is orphaned by the age of 16. Violence has come into his life and often he runs away to the woods. Animals come to him and they "share spirit." This is a rich, dark read (probably not for everyone) about a boy who seemed to me to be an old soul.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2017). When an offbeat artist and her daughter rent an apartment in a cookie cutter suburban town in Ohio, their landlord's large family is in for trouble. The title is both literal and metaphorical. I raced from character to character and worried about them all.

My Mrs. Brown by William Norwich (Simon & Schuster, 2017). Mrs. Brown, a quiet woman of a certain age, gets it into her head that she must own an Oscar de la Renta dress. Her unlikely quest is such a hoot! Read this novel if you are in the mood to feel that good manners still exist and that the human race is a decent one.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Atria Books, 2013).  Though the string of murders that occurred in the summer of 1961 in small town Minnesota seemed a bit unlikely, it mattered not for I was swept into the world of two brothers whose sleuthing, bungling and lying were well swept into the plot. 
This book had the feel of a beloved classic.

Saints for All Occasions by Courtney Sullivan (Knopf, 2017). Two sisters from Ireland make their way in America, but end up not speaking to each other for decades. One becomes a wife and mother, the other a nun. Between them lies a whopping secret. I always fall for stories of Irish America and this one was a doozy.

Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (St. Martin's Press, 2016). In 1947, two friends marry very different Jewish brothers who own a box factory. The two couples share a two family house in Brooklyn. If this living arrangement sounds like trouble, you are right. Read it to share in their joys and sorrows.