Saturday, July 26, 2014

Read Any Good Books Lately? Here Are a Few I Enjoyed....

The Blessings (Grand Central, 2014) by Elise Juska is beautifully written novel about a sprawling family from Philly. The tone here is delicate, emotionally rich and somewhat elegiac, reminding me of Alice McDermott. The Blessings are a closeknit Catholic family and those that marry in must get with the program. All holidays and family anniversaries will call for a gathering of the clan. In the first chapter we meet Abby, the youngest daughter, a college freshman who is home for Christmas. She has pined for her family. Yet being home them makes Abby realizes how much college has changed her. She suffers "an unsolvable ache. When she is away, she'll miss her family; when she's with her family, she'll miss herself."

Every chapter drops readers deeply into one or another family member's life: a young widow whose husband dies young, a troubled teen, a pre-med student. I had to get used to that ever-changing character rhythm, but the end result is a richly nuanced family portrait. Abby's older brother John dies when his two children are young. This tragedy marks every family member in a different way. The Blessings will gather together every year on the anniversary of his death. In times of sickness and death, the family shows up with casseroles, babies to rock and hands to hold. Maybe that sounds like a Hallmark movie, but this novel is much more richly complicated than any tv movie could ever be. I did at times feel a shade too sad reading about various Blessing family struggles, no matter how soulful some of the resulting epiphanies were. Then the last chapter brought me full circle. I felt uplifted, and that I could say goodbye to the Blessings with a full heart, trusting they would thrive and persevere. In fact, I would love to red another novel about the Blessings! May it be so....     
Life behind the scenes of a rather staid Manhattan literary agency emerges colorfully in My Salinger Year (Knopf, 2014), well-told by English major Joanna Rakoff. Her starry-eyed innocence about her employment at the agency does not last long. Her boss is a dragon from hell, and although this is the 90s, there are no computers in sight. One of her boss's writers is none other than J. D. Salinger, "Jerry", whose fan mail and phone calls Joanna often fields. Eventually she gets to meet the man, and even further on into the memoir, she finally reads all his books while her no-good boyfriend has gone off to a wedding without her. She is amazed at how much she loves his books and becomes a die-hard fan. I so enjoyed this literary bildungsroman; it really hit the spot. One read-alike comes to mind: Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, 2010) by Marjorie Hart. The last memoir I read and enjoyed that had anything to do with Salinger was At Home in the World (Picador, 1998) by Joyce Maynard.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, 2014), the eighth novel by Gabrielle Zevin seems to be on everyone's 2014 must-read list. What's not to love when a somewhat curmudgeonly widower/bookstore owner adopts a toddler named Maya who is left in his store and subsequently reaps the healing powers of love? I enjoyed every moment of this quirky tale, its Alice Island, Massachusetts setting and sometimes whimsical characters. The bookstore ambiance is irresistible and short book reviews/book talks (actually letters to his daughter) written by A. J. at the start of every chapter enhance the verisimilitude. Truly a must read novel for bookaholics.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Learning to Paint is Torture....

I took a 4 week Acrylic Painting class at Leisure Learning last month. We painted some color charts and then by the end of the second week, it was time to start on our 16 x 20" canvas (a bigger size than I might have expected). I spent way too many hours fooling with mine. I learned a lot, but am so very tired of the whole thing. I am walking around feeling quite tortured because I spent so many hours on it and it is still not finished, but I have learned a few things.
What exactly have I learned?
1. A little about mixing colors, especially that often the complimentary color is the one you should use to make new shades of a color. Example: add a little blue to orange to deepen it.
2. Pick the right brush for the task at hand. Unfortunately I suckered myself into a design that required the teeniest, tiniest brush I could find. I liked getting a blob of paint onto the end of that brush and then kind of pulling it along to make wandering lines to outline my shapes, but I also had to get acquainted with bigger brushes. I learned I really don't know much about the proper use of brushes yet....
3. Acrylic paints dry quickly. So at first, I tackled that problem by using a retarder medium, but when I learned there was something called a wet palette, I tried that. Basically, it is a tray with a sponge soaked in water over which you lay a special sheet of palette paper. Then you throw some paints on there and they stay wet. Unfortunately, they also tend to get a little thin, so I am still finding my way with that technique.
4. The quality of your paint matters. I already had a hodgepodge collection of different brand acrylics. If I am going to keep painting, I will buy some top quality paints. The cheaper ones are not as thick or richly pigmented.
5. Paint your background first. At first I laid down the wrong shade of blue, which meant I had a lot of corrections to make later on.
6. Think carefully about your design. Sketch it out or find a simple photo to start from. I should have picked an easier design for my first go-round. 
I really don't know what compels me to share the painting here (see below) because I do not consider it finished (especially the orange shapes; they still need more definition). But I think it is time to give it a rest and move on to some other projects. My intent was/is to learn more about how to combine paint with collage. Maybe in time that will happen. I never took painting in college (SUNY Plattsburgh), probably because I felt I couldn't afford the paint supplies, but also because my head was turned by ceramics and jewelry-making, not that I've continued to do either of those..... I have used a little paint in the backgrounds of my collages and painted plenty of walls and furniture, including one Art Chair for charity.
I may ultimately throw this painting away. Painting on canvas for the first time taught me a lot and I would be satisfied just keeping a photo of the thing. It started with a photograph of a cracked tile floor in a semi-demolished building I took years ago in downtown Houston and evolved into a strange design that is vaguely topographic.
A section from Peter Heller's novel, The Painter (Knopf, 2014) comes to mind:
Nobody, not even artists, understand art. What speed has to do with it. How much work it takes, year after year, building the skills, the trust in the process, more work than probably any Olympic athlete ever puts in because it is twenty-four hours a day, even in dreams, and then when the skills and the trust are in place, the best work usually takes the least effort. Usually. It comes fast, it comes without thought, it comes like a horse running you over at night. But. Even if people understand this, they don't understand that sometimes it is not like that at all.

To see my thoughts about The Painter, click on over to my Goodreads review. If you want to walk in the shoes of an extremely tortured artist, that is the book for you!

PS (07-14-2014) I did end up tearing this canvas off the frame... Since then, I have reapplied myself to collage and felt a huge measure of relief. One of my collages got into the Sixth Annual Juried Exhibition at Archway Gallery and two others are currently on view at the annual Students and Teacher's Show at the Jung Center. I am also taking a collage class at the Art League with artist Kelly Alison. Learning some new techniques! Once an art student, always an art student......

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy

Dear Maeve Binchy's books have always tickled me. Maybe it's my Irish blood, but I feel so at home in her fictional universe. Binchy's characters are often resilient. They find help from unexpected quarters or find a new ways of looking at a problem that makes everything better. Yet once in awhile, they stay stuck even when given opportunities to move on. So all in all, though her point of view tends towards the rosy, there is enough realism for me to believe in her plots.

Chestnut Street is a collection of short stories portraying people who live on said street in Dublin. Even though there is not much overlap between the stories, Binchy's compassionate way with her characters kept me eagerly turning the pages. There was no disconnect between the stories, not an easy trick to pull off. Some might find her work overly idealistic or simplistic, but not me. Heartwarming, this posthumous work does her proud. Nice to see a forward note from Gordon Snell, her husband. He tells us that these stories were written over many decades, making their easy fit with each other even more amazing to me. Bless her heart, Maeve Binchy is a writer to treasure.         

Thursday, May 15, 2014

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

Julia Glass always writes novels of substance. And the Dark Sacred Night (Pantheon, 2014) is her fifth novel. This time around, she offers a tangled tale of family secrets that succeeds tremendously at illuminating the inner lives of its characters. What might be hackneyed plot elements in other writers' hands struck me as sensitively handled, number one being Kit Noonan's midlife quest to finally find out who his father was. His mother, Daphne, was a single Mom who would only tell him that his father had died. Now Kit, an unemployed, depressed art historian and the father of a pair of twins, flees to the home of his stepfather Jasper's home in Vermont at the urging of his wife. She hopes Jasper can help Kit uncover the specifics of his parentage.

I won't try and detail all the other many characters and plot points involved, except to say that one of the storylines takes us back to a Berkshires music camp where Daphne, a cellist falls in love with flutist Malachy Burns (a character some of us remember from Three Junes, Glass' first novel). Their love burns with a luminescent intensity so typical of first loves. Back and forth between the past and present, the novel's riches unfold. Ultimately, yes, there are family reunions and tender developments between those who are reunited. Malachy's ghost haunts the novel. But my favorite character was Jasper, the gruff stepfather who helps Kit reconcile the past. Jasper's part in the tale is eclipsed by later developments, but I was glad to find him again by novel's end.

Some reviewers have fussed at Glass for packing too many ruminative details into the novel, and I did feel a touch of that towards the end when a family reunion finds many of the characters gathered in a borrowed summer house in Provincetown, but I plowed through, persisting and ultimately believing that Glass had good reasons for every development, every heart turned inside out. Kudos also on the title, drawn from "What a Wonderful World", the Louis Armstrong song whose bittersweet affect seems perfect for this brooding novel.

P.S. Today is the fifth anniversary of my retirement from Harris County Public Library. Last year I had lots to say about the state of retirement but don't feel like I have much to add this year. I get so busy, I forget that for 29 years, a large part of my time was devoted to library service! Life is good, full of art, writing, family, freinds and church groups, not to mention book club, charity crochet projects, lectures at the Jung Center, travel, yoga, cooking and gardening, etc. More of my friends are retiring now and most seem to be adapting to it just fine. On that note, I will end with a quote from Madeleine L'Engle: "The great thing about growing older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Only Connect: Ah, the Thrills of Collage...

I've been making postcard-sized collages for the annual National Collage Society Postcard Show. I love working small! I find I can use tiny bits that I've been saving. The show is a an annual non-juried event, to be held online this year for the first time. Members submit one 4 x 6 " collage and all will be shown. I look forward to seeing the postcards. The three shown here were among the contenders, but obviously I can not/should not publish the collage I am submitting beforehand. The one shown above is called 1, 8, 15, 22, 29.

I named this one High Tide, Low Tide. I love using maps in my collages.

And this one is: Tiger Lily. As you can see, I limited my colors to warm browns, reds, yellow and a little, green and black.
Making collages, I often think of the E. M. Forester quote found at the end of his novel, Howard's End, which I read in college: "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."
To be exact, there are two parts of this quote I especially relate to: "Only connect."  And "Live in fragments no longer." Someone recently asked me "Why collage?" My immediate response was that in collage, I find deep integration. Combining fragments into a new whole is deeply satisfying. It is a bit like quilting, which I also enjoy. But I find cut and paste work with various papers and some mixed media provides a faster form of satisfaction than sewing.
When I've gone too long without making collages, what a joy it is to sit down and rediscover its thrills: connecting images that were formerly disconnected. Working with color and shape as well as the inherent subject matter feels a bit like making picture poems. There are joyful times that lines, shapes or textures inter-connect as I play with the pieces. And though here I am praising the points of connection, I believe most collages have inherent disconnected elements as well, and that makes for a certain built-in paradoxical or (hopefully) eye-catching appeal. Collage exists in sort of an alternative universe or dreamtime. I have observed that often people do not take the art form of collage seriously. That is why I am glad for the existence of the National Collage Society. When the show goes live later this year, I will link to it here.
Happy Easter weekend!
PS: Here is the 2014 NCS Postcard Show
And here is my entry, titled Parts Unknown:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

There's always plenty to love about a new novel by Anna Quindlen! I felt immediate sympathy for Rebecca Winter, the photographer who at age 60, considers herself at an impasse in her life. Once famous as a groundbreaking (some say feminist artist), her fame has peaked and her finances are precarious. The only way she can pay her bills, including her mother's nursing home tab, is to rent out the Manhattan apartment she owns and move upstate and become a renter herself. Clearly she is lonely and running scared.

When the rundown cabin she moves into proves to have a raccoon inhabitant in the attic, she gets help from a roofer/Wildlife worker named Jim Bates. Eventually, he helps Rebecca find work as a nature photographer. She also finds herself becoming a hiker and begins photographing a series of mysterious white cross shrines she finds in the woods. She begins to think these may be the best photos she's ever taken. Reluctantly, then more enthusiastically, she accepts the company of a stray dog and also photographs him. Supporting characters in the small town take a shine to Rebecca, though she tends to shrug off her former fame. Connections between Jim and Rebecca provide complications and mysteries. Taken all together, these characters exemplify small town life and really paint a picture of the world Rebecca has dropped into.

If I was to pick at anything about this book, it would be the predictable nature of the somewhat timeworn plot arc where a big city girl morphs into a country mouse, etc. But I forgive Quindlen this structure for it afforded me communion with the soul of the artist Rebecca Winter. I found her to be so unique and interesting, she truly seemed real to me. Thus I read the book quickly and felt quite bereft when the novel ended, not that it ended sadly, but just because my time with everyone between its book covers was over.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Spring Fever (Not Quite...) 2014

Here are a few herbs that have survived the colder-than-usual winter. Today when I woke it was in the high 30s, unusual for Houston in March. We had three hard freezes this winter. I  know that is nothing compared to so much of the country, but freezes here do require a lot of fuss-budgeting -- dragging pots into the house or garage, wrapping shrubs in blankets and every old sheet you can find, building freeze barricades out of cardboard boxes, etc. Enough already!

Agaves are becoming my favorite succulent. This one looks like it may need a bigger pot soon, but generally they are content to be pot-bound.

Here's another agave. Easy to care for, and they don't need much water.

I love to plant nasturtiums after the new year and watch them arrive as the first blooms of late winter.

Buddha guarding the flowering salvia.

I planted five tomato plants yesterday and to tell you the truth, I should have waited, given the weather forecast. This plant looks OK since it is somewhat protected from the cold because of the fence nearby. Two of the tomato plants looked a little wilted this AM, so I may have to replace them. Other years I've planted tomatoes as early as mid February and not had any problems. My favorite places to buy tomato plants: Buchanan's and Joshua's, both independent nurseries thriving in the Heights neighborhood of Houston. I especially recommend the Juliet tomato variety (sort of a plum tomato), great for salads; it stands up to the Houston heat and thus lasts longer than any other variety I have tried.

I love gazing balls. There I am trying to get a good shot. Everything is springing up clover this time of year. Later on, it will be too hot for weedy clover and they will disappear.
I have decided not to try and grow many vegetables this year. It just takes too much water and time, plus we have only sporadic success depending on the weather. We will make do with tomatoes, lemons, figs, and herbs. In fact, I am really striving to simplify my yard for a more Zen look. Using more much, gravel, stone pathways, etc., should hopefully make things easier to care for. The problem is plants that spread like wildfire -- ferns, wedlia, ruella, plants that do grow well here but persist in trying to take over! This year I do not really feel spring-feverish. I am concentrating on the less-is-more concept and hopefully that will result in more time to appreciate and enjoy the yard. I will, however, continue to indulge in flowers -- just can't resist their beauty. Note to self: plant sunflower seed as soon as this cold patch is over....