Monday, October 10, 2016

Acorn Popping and Other Cheap Thrills

It escaped my notice until today that the oak trees are starting to drop their acorns. I realized this as I took a bike ride in my neighborhood, celebrating the return of what we in Houston call "tolerable" weather -- lower humidity than usual and tempertures below 90 degrees -- wow!

Did you know it is fun to pop acorns underneath bicycle tires as you ride along ? A very satisfying pop is your reward. Sometimes there are a series of pops when you hit an especially nutty patch of pavement. This small joyous experience reminded me of playing with perforated (red) paper rolls of caps when I was a kid. On my block in Floral Park, Long Island, NY, we would sit on the pavement and pound each little dot with a rock or other blunt instrument. Plenty of pops there. The smell of the gun powder came back to me as an aromatic memory today as I popped acorns with my bicycle tires. I don't particularly remember playing with the cap guns, but I suppose we did. I do remember playing with water guns purchased from the 5 and 10 cent store.
Growing up in the 1950s, children had  much relative freedom. As long as I stayed on our block, I was free to roam. I don't remember any grownups trying to stop us from playing with the cap rolls although now it strikes me such play might have been dangerous. Yes, I feel a bit nostalgic recalling all the fun we had. We played jump rope, potsie/hopscotch, all kinds of ball games, rode our bikes everywhere and ran in and out of our friends' houses. Come dinner time, you would hear the mothers shouting our names from their front steps for kids to come home. And if it was summer, we went right back out after the evening meal. We caught lightning bugs in jars and played Simon Says as our parents drank gin and tonics in the backyard with neighbors, everyone sitting on lawn chairs, just about ignoring their kids playing nearby. Ah, the sweet innocence of those times...
I have to confess to another cheap thrill, or perhaps you could call it my new hobby in retirement -- ha-ha. I love to return grocery carts to their metal aisles in parking lots. There is such a satisfyingly loud noise when it arrives at the end of the aisle joining other carts parked there. Maybe I have agression issues, I don't know, but returning those carts never fails to please me! Also, I have to mention I love fireworks: not only the visual effects, but the loud noises and if you are close enough, the gunpowder smell (perhaps kicking me back to my memories of playing with caps). 
And so it goes... It is my particular pleasure to gather with girlfriends from my childhood at least once a year. Those reunions are precious, and help me to hold onto and enlarge memories we share. Since both my parents are gone, I can not ask them for recollections. I  find myself thinking of them more and more as the years go on past their deaths.  Perhaps it is time to get out the photo albums. Most of all, I am thankful for their love which sustains me past their time on this plant Earth.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Interview with Molly Lundquist, Founder of

Recently I was delighted to be invited to review books for, a wonderful bookcentric site that specializes in Readers' Advisory for book clubs. In the past I have reviewed books for Library Journal and other book-related periodicals, but lately only wrote reviews here on my blog. Well, to make a long story short, Molly Lundquist is married to a fellow who I went to school with in Floral Park, NY, grades kindergarten through high school. Via Facebook, Molly read a few of my book review blog posts and found them worthy of presenting on her site. We have shared some delightful emails and I invited her to do a quick interview.

* How did LitLovers come into being? Was there a light bulb moment?

Yeah, there really was a "light bulb" moment. It came while teaching an online lit course. A couple of the students volunteered that it was the most "fun" online course they'd ever taken. So that flipped the switch. A few years back, I'd been a member of a book club and realized how tough it was to get to the meat of a book. We spent a fair amount of time talking about whether characters were nice, wondering why he was so mean to her, or why she lied to him. Not a whole lot of depth. So...after my students' comments, I thought WHY NOT create a website for book clubs---a quick introductory course to literature---a sort of a "how to read like a professor."

* Did you have technical help or did you have to figure out website wizardry on your own?
A little of both. First, I figured out how to build a prototype---I'm really lucky to have a resident computer-geek in the form of a husband. But then I hired a local marketing and webdesign firm, who took my clunky prototype to a whole new level. They were smart and creative, and we worked for months to figure out the bells and whistles. Over the past years, there's been some major restructuring, but at this point, I'm pretty much my own webmaster, inputting the content. It's a ton or work but fun---what's better than working around books? (Okay, maybe cat videos.)

* What has been the most satisfying and/or surprising aspect of creating LitLovers?

First, watching the site grow: we're up to over 3 million visitors a year---not in the stratosphere, but pretty darn respectable according to most measurements. That's been a surprise. Second, connecting with devoted readers: they email questions, suggest books, find typos (actually making the time & effort to let me know), send in their own Discussion Questions---and often just say "thanks" for being here. Third, LitLovers Featured Book Clubs: groups from all over the U.S, and the world, send in their stories and photos. Their creativity and vitality (and sometimes hilarity) is a thrill. The book club movement is thriving.

* What lies ahead for your site? How would you like to see it grow?
For starters, we have a new & improved Book Review Section.  An Indie Author Section is on the horizon....But we need more User input:  Comment Sections and Reader Reviews. I'd also love a Kids' Section... a LitShop for cool products... and ideas for videos... And like everyone else, I've got a book in my desk drawer---a collection of cartoons about a book-club-know-it-all (she's my alter ego).
It's all do-able...but it just takes more than a single set of hands. The good news is that we've hooked up with a marketing group who's filled with great ideas---so there'll be a lot more hands to screw in the light bulb.
Molly -- you certainly have a lot going on! Thank you for taking time to do this interview.
I look forward to finding, reading and reviewing books for your site.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Ever since I was a young girl, I have loved books and tv shows about settlers, pioneers, cowboys, etc. -- especially if girls or women are involved. Give me a wagon train or a soddy hut and I am there. (For example, see my 01-13-2009 post about On Sarpy Creek by Ira Stephens Nelson.) Perhaps I am inevitably a lover of westerns because my last name is Outlaw...

This character-strong novel, News of the World, by Paulette Jiles won my respect immediately. Within its first few pages, we meet Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and the 10 year-old Indian captive, Johanna, whom Kidd has reluctantly agreed (for the price of one fifty-dollar gold piece) to accompany back "home" to her relatives in the Texas Hill country. The time period is post-Civil War, but in Texas the war in some ways is hardly over. There are factions of folks still killing each other over Confederate versus Union allegiances. Traveling together in a gaudy wagon over rough trails, Kidd and his initially silent and much distraught companion encounter much danger in the form of lowdown people of all stripes and colors.

Captain Kidd is age 71, a former newspaper publisher who now makes his living as an entertainer of sorts. Who knew that reading newspapers aloud to audience-packed rooms was a form of show business in the 1870s? Anyway, Kidd is no dummy. He has been a military man. His tall and honorable bearing, manner of dress and intelligence put him a cut above most folks, though he is no snob. The captain is a widower and father of two grown daughters, so he knows something about women-folk.

Blonde-haired Johanna often steals the page from Kidd. She was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians when she was six years old after seeing them slaughter her parents and younger sister. Yet, inexplicably, as history has often puzzled over in cases of Indian abduction, Johanna for all practical purposes has become Kiowa. She walks barefoot and has just about all but forgotten the English and German languages she once knew. She is very much a warrior, ready to kill either man or beast as might be needed to survive. At one point when she and Kidd are being attacked by three thieves, she figures out how to load dimes into a shotgun, and their trajectory proves fatal. Kidd slowly indoctrinates Johanna back to speaking rough English, and as time goes on, we see how fond the fierce girl becomes of Captain Kidd.

Stripped down to its bare bones, News of the World is the tale of a hero and heroine's journey. The bond that forms between Kidd and Johanna is visceral, no matter how many times Kidd near kicks himself for taking on responsibility for the wild child. "Unfolding in gorgeous prose," as is stated in the forward to this fine novel, highlighting the book as "a vivid portrait that captures a beautiful and hostile land, and a masterful exploration of the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor and trust." The last few pages gave me quite a sigh of relief, and that's all I'll say about how the journey of a wise old man and a wise-beyond-her-years young child turns out. I will be passing this fine book on to as many friends as possible and also think it would be a marvelous book club read.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Hot Time Artwise: Summer in the City

Summer is a great time to enter art shows here in Houston. Compared to the rest of the year, there are more opportunities for non-established artists such as myself to see their art up on gallery walls.
 I am proud to say this collage, "Alchemic" made it into the Eight Annual Juried show at Archway Gallery (July 9 - August 3). This year's competition was judged by the founder of Mother Dog Studios, John Runnels. In his comments during the Opening, he said he tended to choose art that looked like nothing he'd ever seen before, a validating concept for me. This collage was made using my monoprinted collage papers.

Also included in the Archway show, another monoprint-based collage: "Earth, Sky, Wind & Water #15". It combines paint effects with pencil scribbles.

I have started to enter Visual Arts Alliance shows. "Dream Waltzer", a small collage on a reclaimed wood panel, made it into the 33rd Juried Membership Exhibiton at BLUEorange Gallery. Juror was D. M. Allison.

The Jung Center has a (non-juried) member show every summer which I have entered almost every summer since I retired. I had this collage entitled "Dreamscape 137" nicely matted, framed and ready to go so I chose to place it in the Jung Center show. This year it was especially fun to go to the opening reception because two of my girlfriends were also represented.
I am now free to think less about deadlines and so I am enjoying artistic liberty. Thinking less about product than process, I am playing with relief printing, origami, drawing, etc. Since it is too hot here in Houston to do much outdoors, art is the perfect pastime!
"I do not want to go until I have faithfully made the most of my talent and cultivated the seed that was placed in me." - Kathe Kollwitz, German visual artist

Monday, June 27, 2016

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

The name LaRose is inscribed many times across the cover of this fine novel by Louise Erdrich. And we do meet a boy named LaRose shortly after the book begins. He is but five years old. He is an Ojibwa boy that walks between two worlds, just beginning to sense the spirit world. There have been other LaRoses in his family and their stories are deftly woven into the novel. The young LaRose we meet has amazing resilience. When his father Landreaux Iron, hunting for deer, accidentally shoots a boy named Dusty Ravich (LaRose's best friend), an inconceivable arrangement is made. Or perhaps you could call it an act of karmic justice: Landreaux and his wife Emmaline give LaRose to Dusty's family. Yes, LaRose is sad and misses his family, but eventually a compromise is made. His time, his love and preciousness, is divided between both families.

The Ravich family consists of Pete and Nora and their daughter Maggie. All come to love LaRose, but of course they still deeply grieve the loss of Dusty. Nora, who is actually a half sister to Emmaline, tries to hide the depth of her depression over the loss of her son. Although coming to love and cherish LaRose helps, she flirts with suicide. Pete and Landreaux used to be best buddies, and now of course, there is a tremendous riff. To get back to the Irons family, let me say that they have four other children, two girls and two boys (actually one is sort of a longtime foster child). These kids added much fresh air to what could have been a relentlessly dark novel. Two sisters play volleyball and do well in school, and they become closer to their cousin Maggie Ravich because both families share LaRose. The sons of the make their way in the world with confidence, all of the children giving considerable testament to the power of family love.

Many other characters that add depth and nuance to the novel, especially the short sketches of LaRose's ancestors, but most of all, at least for me -- the reservation priest, Father Travis, really comes alive. He hears everyone's sins and struggles with his own faith. And then there is a pivotal, heavily diabolical character named Romeo. Self-described scumbag and drug fiend Romeo holds more than one grudge against Landreaux. When Landreaux is not sent to jail for killing Dusty, Romeo plots against him.

I have barely sketched the complicated web of this rich novel. The book was full of tragedies and miracles, truly a wonder to me. I found myself thinking of a pressure cooker as the plot thickened. Would things blow sky high or would the pressure be released safely? The cook (if you will) of this story knows all. Her omniscience works well. Let me just say we are the hands of a master chef of literature, Louise Erdrich. May she live long and prosper, continuing to so adroitly chronicle the lives of native Americans.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Playing (Not) In the Mud

Although I did a lot of gardening in upstate NY following my college years, after I moved to Houston, I did not stick a shovel into the (so-called) soil until I had lived here about 15 years. Total shock. The shovel would barely go in, and lifting it was quite the feat because there was no dirt as I knew it, only clay. Now I have been here some 36 years and I am still grumbling about such digs.
Here is some sticky clay I dug up yesterday. We are re-landscaping the yard around our brand new garage. The builders were here January through March. Since then, we have had the building painted and bit by bit, are fixing up the yard.
First of all, we had to remove a lot of construction rubble. Trying to flatten the dirt is torture. There are bits of concrete and occasional chunks of sandy clay, as well as the dark brown oh-so-sticky clay. I find myself wondering if anyone has ever processed the Houston clay into the real thing one could use to make pottery. Don't know.... In college I learned how to throw pots and have a vague memory of my Ceramics teacher, William Klock,  taking us on a clay dig field trip. I have never returned to ceramic-making, but oh, how I loved working on the potter's wheel. Perhaps one day I'll get back to it, but I have been saying that for way too many decades.... 

I finally planted some azaleas in one area alongside the garage. I dug two of the biggest holes I have ever dug and supplemented the soil with sand, mushroom compost and bagged soil. Honestly, what with the heat and the intermittent heavy rains, it felt like that small project took a few weeks. There is lots more work to do around the hose area and I need to redo some flagstones. I can only take the heat for an hour or two at a time, plus there is always a massive cleanup of shoes and tools. Grumble, grumble....

Here is another shot of the garage. We put in a border of egg stones around two sides of the building out to the drip line, hopefully thus avoiding nicking the paint with the lawn trimmer. Before putting down the rocks, there was lots more digging in the clay. As you can see, some of the garage is painted white, the rest a shade of aquamarine. Weird, I know, but we love that color and those three bright walls are only visible from the yard. (We also have the back of the house painted aquamarine, so there is some continuity there. Flowers growing behind the house look great against the vibrant paint color.)
And meanwhile, in the far eastern corner of the yard, the figs thrive! Hopefully we will get at least a few before the birds attack them. When the remaining landscape work is done, I plan never to dig into the clay again. From now on, container gardening is the way to go!

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

I was up, down and all around reading The Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin. Milo Andret is the genius mathematician/topologist at the heart of the novel. He is a man who hurts, ignores and confuses most everyone, including his wife, son and daughter. Milo's greatest achievement, as far as I was concerned, was carving a large chain out of a single piece of wood when he was a boy most at home in his native Michigan woods. Later he wins a prestigious mathematics prize, but it does not bring him happiness. Professor Milo becomes very much an alcoholic and is thrown out of Princeton. To me, it seemed he presented many characteristics of what is now called Asperger's Syndrome. Also, his forays with LSD during college seem to have lifelong hallucinatory effects.

Thank goodness about halfway through the book, the point of view changes to that of Milo's son, Hans Andret. Hans has much mathematical ability as well, and I had high hopes he would not crash and burn like his father. Let me just say he eventually does better. But as a teenager and during some part of his adulthood, he becomes very much a drug abuser , though he eventually seeks rehabilitation. Hans is a much better father than Milo ever was, and the scenes with his children really come alive.

I appreciated the wives of these two men, but found I wanted to know them better than Canin allowed. Their inborn kindness and nurturing ways often save the day. Least developed is Paulie, Milo's daughter. By book's end, I did see a bit more into Milo's soul. And ultimately Hans won my respect. At times the book was a bit repetitive, especially concerning Milo's brutish patterns exacerbated by alcoholism. I am amazed I was able to stay with a novel concerning so much higher math, since I am totally lacking in aptitude or interest in the subject, but Canin's writing is so accomplished, I could not give up on the Andret geniuses despite their mathematical follies and fancies. Genius in any form is always fascinating to me. Yes, I wanted to ditch the book some of the time, but I persevered and found my way to its last scene, a moving one that brought the story to its natural end.