Sunday, January 22, 2017

Whim-wham and other Delightful Words



Perhaps I have written of this before, but one of my favorite childhood memories took place in the second grade when I was given my very first dictionary. Our parents had to pay extra for them. The book was red and at the time, seemed hefty though it was but a junior dictionary. Miss Palmer, our Floral Park Bellrose (Long Island, NY) Elementary School second grade teacher, was BIG into reading and vocabulary. She had us competing to learn new words and look them up. She gave us stars and other stickers in reward for our lists of books we'd read. Wonderful!

So my love of words may have started then and was fostered all along by my parents, who were both big readers. Dad and I played Scrabble together until I got to be a sullen teenager. Getting my first library card was a true thrill. I enjoyed the company and attentions of various librarians and after a prolonged adolescence, became one myself. I still own the dictionary my parents bought me right before I headed off to college, the American College Dictionary (pictured above in its battered state). It seems incredible to me now that my little library in West University Place, Texas actually carried the multivolume set of the Oxford English Dictionary. It took up plenty of shelf space in the Reference section, and to tell you the truth, was really not used that often. But it was delightful to have on hand when etymological questions came in. Now we have Google but I still reach for dictionaries in book form because it seems quicker than wading through various web pages.

Only about a year ago, I signed up for the Merriam Webster Word of the Day emails. Just a few days ago, the word was "whimsical" and in the explanation of its origins, I found the word "whim-wham" which really made me smile. Whim-wham is a noun from the early 16th century that originally referred to an ornamental object or trinket. I've got plenty of whim-whams and I didn't even know it! And so I added that word to a small notebook I keep of favorite words. Often the words are odd or just beautiful to me in in any number of ways, including the way they sound or what they mean. Here are a few of them with brief definitions that are not in any way to be considered complete.

Alembic - anything that transforms, purifies or refines.

Bonhomie - cheerful friendliness; an atmosphere of good cheer.

Farrago - a confused mixture, hodgepodge or medley.

Glory - resplendent beauty.

Inscape - the deep meandering landscape of our interior life, as defined by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Jubilee - any occasion of rejoicing and/or festivity. Also the natural oceanic (Gulf Coast) phenomenon of an abundance of fish, crabs, shrimp swimming towards shore wherein people are able to scoop them up.

Lunation - period of time from one new moon to the next. Also the partial circles or cogs on the outer ring of an 11 circuit labyrinth.

Mazurka - a lively Polish dance in moderately quick triple rhythm (think Chopin...).

Rhapsody - an exalted expression of feeling or enthusiasm.

Yantra - a mystical or astromical design.

Perhaps no one said it better than James Michener, as seen on this dangling piece of art I used to keep in my library office: "I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions." Now this "Muse of Writing" (truly a whim-wham) resides in my art room/study. She reminds me to keep this blog going, even though I often feel the months go by so quickly and updating this blog seems like just another chore. Yet there comes a time when my fingers demand to type out some review or feature. Perhaps the blog is really an outscape from my inscape, to use one of my favorite words! And so it goes, meandering on long past the days when writing it weekly was part of my job requirements. More than seven years later, here I am and do consider blogging to be a privilege in many ways. Long live the freedom and democracy of the internet!













Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Favorite Reads 2016

 
 
During 2016, I read more new books than last year. Though my shelves spill over with older books I mean to read, I am also always looking for the latest and greatest books. Some of my favorite sources for keeping up with publishing now that I am a retired librarian include Book Page and the New York Times Book Review, not to mention browsing in Barnes & Noble and other local bookstores. There is only one older title in my list below, Cutting For Stone, which I was so very happy to (finally) read along with other members of the West University Library Book Group. Gosh, how we loved that book!
 
 Four of the books on this year's list are nonfiction. Eight of the books were penned by female authors. Two publishers are represented twice: Knopf and Algonquin. I love this exercise of gathering up my favorite reads at the end of every year. Here they are: 
 
Cutting for Stone (Knopf, 2009) by Abraham Verghese. All I needed to know to whet my interest herein was that a nun gives birth to pair of boy twins in an African Missionary hospital. Then she dies. How does that grab you? Larger than life, brimming with themes such as forgiveness, compassion, loyalty, love, loss, devotion and fortitude, the writing style of this novel reminded me of both D. H. Lawrence and John Irving.

Dimestore: A Writer's Life (Algonquin, 2016) by Lee Smith. Well, since I adore Lee Smith's novels (especially Fair and Tender Ladies, Putnam, 1988 ), this memoir felt like manna from heaven.  "I write because I want more than one life," Smith tells us, echoing Anne Tyler. Such a wonderful truism, one that can also pertain to readers. We read fiction because we want more than one life, don't we? We want to know what being human feels like to others! And now I thankfully know a bit more about Smith's life and writerly inspirations.

Dinner With Edward: A Story Of An Unexpected Friendship (Algonquin, 2016) by Isabel Vincent. I was charmed and enchanted by this tiny book gigantic in its scope, simply telling its tale of a rare friendship between a young woman reporter near divorce and a sweet, elegant nonagenarian widower. Truly they become a balm for each other's soul. And for mine. Read it if you feel the need to be uplifted!

Everybody's Fool (Knopf, 2016) by Richard Russo. Perhaps you remember the dark, sardonic tone of Nobody's Fool (1993) and its main character, Sully, such a lovable loser. Now Sully is older and perhaps a bit wiser. He steps back a bit to share page time with a colorful bunch of depressed and/or neurotic characters. There are comic moments amongst all the doom and gloom, and it was great to be back in upstate New York with Sully.

LaRose (Harper, 2016) by Louise Erdrich. Tragedies and miracles abound in this novel of native America. One child is accidentally killed. Oh my goodness, then the killer gives his own son to the family of the boy he accidentally shot. I found myself thinking of a pressure cooker as the plot thickened. Would things blow sky high or would the pressure be released safely? Erdrich weaves a complicated web and the result is a novel ultimately attesting to the power of familial love.

Modern Lovers (Riverhead, 2016) by Emma Straub. Bandmates in college decades later are still good friends, living near each other in super-hip Brooklyn. Now their teen-aged children are starting to date each other. And most of the parents seem to be going through midlife crises. Straub has a way of bringing even the trendiest characters alive, far beyond any level of caricature. Instead she seems to peer into their hearts in the most believable way.

My Name Is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016) by Elizabeth Strout. Laid up in a hospital bed, Manhattanite Lucy Barton is surprised when her mother visits from small town Illinois. Lucy has never felt very nurtured by her mother. Perhaps now the past with all its deprivations can be re-examined. Somehow we get to know both of these women more through their ruminations than their conversations. Spare and eloquent, this character-driven novel was for me nothing short of a true gem.

News of the World (William Morrow, 2016) by Paulette Jiles. When 71 year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reluctantly agrees to accompany a 10 year-old Indian captive, Johanna, back "home" to her relatives in the Texas Hill country, many adventures ensue. The time period is post-Civil War and in Texas the war is hardly over, so conflicts still arise. At least once, Johanna saves the Captain's life. The bond that forms between Kidd and Johanna is visceral, no matter how many times Kidd near kicks himself for taking on the responsibility for the wild child. Fantastic historical fiction!

The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir (Flatiron, 2016) by Ruth Wariner. This is  tale of polygamy is set in Mexico. Ruth Wariner's childhood is chaotic, impoverished and confusing. She loves her mother but hates her stepfather, he with the 4 wives and a proclivity to sexually abusing his stepchildren. Ruth has some 41 siblings and step-siblings; can you imagine??? I don't know why exactly, but Surviving a Terrible, Horrible or Extremely Eccentric Childhood is very much a favorite memoir sub-genre of mine. I know this book is not for everyone, but I for one certainly have a lot of respect for the author's ability to present her story to us with such clear-eyed hindsight.

Upstream:Selected Essays (Penguin, 2016) by Mary Oliver. In these assorted essays, poet Mary Oliver makes her loving attention to the natural world seem as simple as breathing. What a privilege it is to be right there with her as she rescues a seagull or spend hours observing spiders. There are also chapters on Walt Whitman, Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We come away from this collection feeling we have walked through the woods and Provincetown wetlands with Mary. "For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple,” she explains. I am humbled by her gift and grateful for the way she opens the door to her temple for all of us. Enter and rejoice! (See also my longer review of Upstream on LitLovers.com)

I could never keep up with my reader self if it were not for Goodreads. I reviewed most of these books in full there, so please go to my Goodreads feed if you'd like to read more about any of the titles. Happy New Year ahead and may it be full of many good books!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Collage Leftovers

 
In collage, as in dining, there are times I savor using leftovers and other times not. Post-Thanksgiving leftovers are fantastic. We are almost a week out from Turkey Day and I for one am not tired of eating those leftovers.
 
The collage process also produces leftovers. There are many times that I cut out images I think I am going to use that do not end up in the composition at hand. Well, I would not dream of throwing those pieces away. Into my various bins and boxes they go, often sorted by size or theme. These past few days, just for fun, I have challenged myself to make use of as many of those leftovers as possible. I was in the mood to work small and fast, so the compositions are tiny. I was also in the mood to work with mixed text elements and a limited color palette. Here are a few of my finished pieces...

 
Honeycomb
 
 
Reset, Return, Shift
 

 
Sing
 
 
The winter holiday season has started! Where has the year gone? I have two arts and crafts sales coming up. So I am a busy bee and could barely find time to post here... Often, the easiset thing for me to do is post a few new artworks. So thanks for looking!
 
PS - What I am reading:
 
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend: a Novel by Katarina Bivald
and
Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
 
next up: American Gods by Neil Gaiman,
 the West University Library Book Club's December 2016 read

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 LitLovers.com

 
 
Recently I was delighted to be invited to review books for LitLovers.com, 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