Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Green Road by Anne Enright

I just finished reading The Green Road by Anne Enright. She always delivers a literary punch. So let me tell you a little bit about the book.

Irish matriarch Rosaleen Madigan is rarely happy. She married beneath her station in life. So maybe that is why she carries such deep discontent. She is at times a hypochondriac, a drama queen and narcissist. Her discontent is passed on to her four children in various ways. They have trouble finding love or work or the meaning of life. Anne Enright writes beautifully. Her chapters devoted one by one to each Madigan create psychological portraits with considerable nuance.

However, I found this method jarring at times, especially in the second chapter when we leave Ireland and find ourselves with Don Madigan who as far as we know from the first chapter, longs to become a priest (to his mother's horror). Instead we find him in New York City, dabbling in gay relationships, watching his friends die of AIDS. He has a longtime girlfriend, but as the novel evolves, Don becomes decidedly gay. Constance Madigan is the one child who remains within driving distance of her mother. She marries well and has a brood of children, but battles her weight and hates her body. Hanna Madigan drinks. Emmet Madigan travels the world fighting malaria and other third world issues, never quite committing to any love relationships.

So there is a world of sadness herein, culminating in a family Christmas gathering where all four children return home when Rosaleen, in her 70s, decides to sell the family manse. On said holiday, Rosaleen creates a drama just as she always has, and during this drama, we the readers, become more intimately acquainted with what makes her tick. This catharsis at novel's end feels just right. There are no happily-ever-afters, but everyone evolves a step or two towards a better understanding of themselves. I am of Irish descent and very much enjoyed suffering and sightseeing with these less than perfect, so very human Irish characters.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hausfrau: a Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum

"Is there a difference between shame and guilt?"

"What's the difference between a need and a want?"

Early on in Hausfrau: a Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum, these are questions Anna Benz asks of Doktor Messerli, her Jungian psychoanalyst. Anna is an American living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband, Bruno. They have three children. Anna speaks little German. Anna does not drive (but instead rides trains, and those trains are a major motif of this novel). Anna is bored. With Bruno's encouragement, she is seeing the psychoanalyst and taking a German language class. Anna has many secrets. Readers learn of the first secret within the first few pages of the novel: that Anna is having a sexual affair with a classmate, Archie. Nor is the affair with Archie her first dalliance.

SPOILER ALERT: Another secret haunts Anna every day: her youngest child was not fathered by Bruno, but by an American man named Stephen who has gone back to America. Anna thinks she truly loved Stephen. The affairs since then seem to mean less.

"How did I become so unprincipled?" Anna asks herself. And that is but one of many such interior monologues the readers of Hausfrau are given. Anna's interior self is in turmoil. I was scared for Anna. I had hopes for Anna. At times it seemed as if Anna was on the brink of setting herself free from her troubles. But the web of secrets she has created is gossamer thin and ultimately breaks.

I can well imagine this book being included in reading lists at women's study degree programs, alongside Erica Jung's Fear of Flying, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Chopin's The Awakening. For some, the novel will be controversial simply because of the explicit sexual content. Hausfrau will not be forgotten. I believe it is a literary masterpiece, a grand tragedy, a perfectly Jungian shadow tale. Anna's self awareness grows due to analysis and I loved the way Essbaum showed how the threads of wisdom from therapy do have some effect on this troubled woman's behavior. I have always been a character-based reader. This novel took me deep into an unforgettable character's sins and solitude. But to say this book is character-based does not mean there is no plot. There is much movement and energy to the plot, no matter that Anna's housewifely ennui is ever strong.

The very last line of Hausfrau is so accomplished, so fait accompli... And right before that denouement, what is the last thought of Anna's we are privy to? "Let this not become me." Achingly human, hopelessly headlong, as inevitable as the regularity of the Swiss train system timetables, Anna's foretelling of her own fate can not save her. A stunning ending, a stunning novel.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

All I Want to Do is Sew

All I want to do lately is sew! Feeling like that is rare, so I am going with the flow. My mother used to say that she didn't much like to sew, but liked to have sewn -- and often I feel like that too. Sewing takes patience, and sometimes that is a quality I am short on. I think what got me started was working on a mixed media piece involving both cloth and paper which was accepted as a possible finalist in a Cloth Paper Scissors magazine Challenge. I won't share that image here just yet; hopefully there will be good news about that piece yet to come.  I have been working on some small patchwork pieces that I will eventually turn into mats or pillows, unfinished still, but at least squared off and ready for further projects.

My biggest project to date is the zippered purse shown above. I don't really know how to put zippers in, but found a way to fake it by sewing the zipper in while the sides were still open.  Working without a pattern, I learned a lot. Making the purse took many hours and while I was working on it I thought -- never again. But then when it was done, I found myself thinking of what I might do differently next time to improve the design, including some shortcuts I learned the hard way (like sewing the inside pockets on before adding the zipper and making the bottom a bit wider). But no more purse projects right now.

After going to "the Hidden Quilt Shop" in Old Spring, TX with a couple of girlfriends last month, I made the two pillows above. My favorite find there was some fabric printed with a map of Manhattan Island. And so I made a long skinny pillow out of that fabric. (They had lots of different map-themed fabric among their 18,000 bolts!) The batik strips that had been hiding in my fabric stash were also put to use for a pillow. Theoretically, I am always working to use up my stash, but invariably along comes some project or another that demands the purchase of more fabric.
And don't get me started on yarn consumption. In that area too, I have the goal of using up my stash. I attend the "Common Threads" group at my UU church. We  knit, crochet and sew together twice a month and also choose an annual charitable project. Last year we donated quite a stack of blankets to Texas Children's Hospital and will do so again this year. The staff at TCH told us that ever child admitted to the hospital is given a special blanket to keep. I love having a reason like that to crochet! We have been having a lot of rainy days lately, perfect weather to hunker down and sew or crochet.  Back to my projects now and thanks for reading!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday the 13th, Telomeres and Collage Feathers

I have always loved Fridays that fall on the 13th. I turned 13 on a Friday and was given a surprise party by a dear friend. I remember walking down the stairs to her basement and getting the full vocal surprise treatment and being ,well -- utterly surprised! I wonder what percentage of people turn 13 on 13th Fridays? But math has never been my forte, so I will leave that to the statisticians. Triskaidekaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th) is foreign to me.
This Friday the 13th finds me on the mend in the frozen shoulders department. I do my PT exercises regularly and get massages as needed. My official land and water PT is over, so it's all on me now. I believe this malady is a stress reaction as it started last fall when I took on a big volunteer art project for my church. The adrenaline was thrilling but too much for me, and I spent too many hours hunched over my work.  So I was fascinated to learn about the connection between telomeres and stress.
What are telomeres? Simply put, they are compound structures at the end of our chromosomes. They shorten as we age. They are very much affected by stress. Having done just a bit of reading on the subject, I can not claim to understand it the way a geneticist would, but my takeaway was that I needed to lessen the stress in my life whenever possible. And so that has become more a part of my operating system. When faced with any choice in life (even what route to take if driving across town), I ask myself which choice is less stressful. No one can totally control the stress in their lives, but often we forget that there are plenty of alternatives in any given situation. The knowledge that stress affects my health is nothing new, but this telomere stuff really spoke to me for some reason. One study referred to in a National Institute of Aging article found that "telomeres of healthy centenarians were significantly longer than those of unhealthy centenarians".
On the collage front, I have been trying my hand at feathers made of paper, cloth and wire. Here are a few photos of my efforts so far. I very much consider these a work in progress and have given away the few I've made to friends on special occasions.
And so it goes! I can not believe we are almost halfway through March. It has been cold and rainy here in Houston. There is lots to do in the yard, so I am looking forward to "spring-ier" weather. But I am not going to overdo the digging, planting or raking, etc. My telomeres might not like that... Here's wishing you much "telomeric" longevity and spring sunshine!
P.S. Another reason life feels good today: I just started Anne Tyler's latest book, A Spool of Blue Thread. Anne Tyler is one of my all time favorite authors....

Sunday, February 15, 2015

African Daisies

African daisies (also known as Gazania) stole my gardener's heart last spring and summer. They took a short nap for a few months and here they are popping up again already! Said to be annuals, they do tend more towards perennial growth in warm climates. We had no true freezes in southwest Houston this winter, so both of these plants were content in their containers, growing bushier than ever. For a long time I thought of the leaves as striped, but when I took these photos today, I saw that the front of the long bladelike leaf is green, while the back of the leaf is white, not that it shows very well in my photos.
I planted some African daisies from seed last year and also impulsively purchased a few at Joshua's Nursery.  I believe the two shown above are from the nursery plants. Looking at my seed packet, I remember now that the ones grown from seed were of the "Stars & Stripe" Gazania variety, even more beautiful to me (see below). I am glad I did not use all the seeds last year and intend to grow some more. They have so much personality! The seeds came from Seedville USA.
In general, I am holding back in the yard. We decided not to grow tomatoes this year. The water bill runs high when the rains don't come. The time and care necessary to achieve success just seems too daunting. Maybe it's an age-related preference. Every summer for more than 20 years, I have grown tomatoes with mixed results. We did best with the Juliet variety, but so many other varieties were not worth the effort. I continue to strive for a less-is-more look in the yard. I am always fighting the invasion of ferns and ruella which tend to run rampant, though we appreciate them as part of the yardscape. I am even considering removing my Belinda rose and replacing it with something easier. Rose care in a humid climate is daunting; often I can barely keep up with black spot disease. Growing herbs is easy enough, so we will continue to cultivate basil, rosemary and mint, etc.
Later in 2015 we will be tearing down our old garage and rebuilding a bigger one with a larger footprint so my husband can have a man cave when he retires. His wing of the garage will have air conditioning and a workbench we can both use. A few months ago we hired an architect to design the building. Now we have those plans in hand  so the next step is to seek approval from our subdivision's Architectural committee. We don't want to build in the heat of summer, so hopefully all of this will take place next fall and/or winter. Here we are in mid-February, technically winter, but it sure feels more like Spring. And so it goes on the Gulf Coast of Texas.....

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Live Your Life as a Work of Art" and Other Inspiring Quotations

Back in 2012, a dear friend in Idaho sent me a copy of Artists Speak: a Sketchbook edited by Eric Maisel (Harper Collins, 1993). It was a timely gift, for I needed a new commonplace book. I like to jot down quotations as I read and visit the internet, and this journal is perfect for that purpose. To the sides of every page are short quotations related to creativity, leaving plenty of room for me to add more. I enjoyed going through it today. Here are some of the gems I've collected:
"Live your life as a work of art."
- Rabbi Joseph Abraham Heschel
  at age 100, from an interview at the Shalom Center
"Fictions, fantasies, dreams -- these are, to the humanistic imagination, a kind of sacred preserve. They are the last bastion of magic."
- Jonathan Gottschall
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Mariner Books, 2013)
"Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we can get at the real meaning of things."
- Georgia O'Keeffe
"How do I work? I grope."
- Albert Einstein
"The creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present. With food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, a wine glass or torch. We are not craftsmen only during studio hours. Anymore than man is wise only in his library. Or devout only in church.. The material is not only the sign of the creative feeling for life: of the warmth and reverence which foster being, techniques are not the sign. The sign is the light that dwells within the act, whatever its nature or medium."
- M.C. Richards
Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person, (Wesleyan, 1989)
"If to live is to progress, if you are lucky, from foolishness to wisdom, then to write novels is to broadcast the various stages of your foolishness.
- Jane Smiley
13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf, 2005)
"If I  knew where the good songs come from, I'd go there more often. It's a mysterious condition. It's much like the life of a Catholic nun. You're married to the mystery."
- Leonard Cohen
Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo (Da Capo Press, 2003)
"Much of the beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages
with his limited medium.”
- Henri Matisse
"Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.
- Jasper Johns
Artists Speak: a Sketchbook edited by Eric Maisel (Harper Collins, 1993)
"The creative force flows over the terrain of our psyches looking for the natural hollows, the arroyos, the channels that exist in us. We become its tributaries, its basins; we are its pools, ponds, streams and sanctuaries. The wild creative force flows into whatever beds we have, those we are born with, as well as those we dig with our own hands. We don't have to fill them, we only have to build them."
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stereotypes of the Wild Woman Archetype (Ballantine, 1992)
Funny I should be drawn to quotes about creativity today, as lately my creativity is somewhat challenged. I am not finding a lot of time for collage, except for a few small retail orders. I am involved in reorganizing and backing up all my computer files, including both images and documents, a boring task but the results are worth it. The need for this occurred to me after my Yahoo mail was hacked in December. Yahoo gave me no help. My account was frozen. I switched to Gmail. I had to completely rebuild my Contacts. On the home front, we are doing some remodeling involving both professional help and our own crafty hands. And then, of course, there were the holidays. They were fun, but as always, I found myself grateful for the new year and the return to the "ordinary," which for me can be divine.
Healthwise, I have entered a period of physical therapy for frozen shoulders and arthritis in my knees. I have to laugh, repeatedly filling out medical forms that ask me to describe my various pains because said pains change often and can be challenging to describe. Sometimes there are multiple choices such as stabbing, burning, piercing, numbness, etc. There is no little box to check for "feels like someone is pressing two frozen silver dollars into my knees" or "bands of electricity encircling my arm." And so it goes. Oh, and did I mention I tried acupuncture? Yes, I had six sessions with (small world) an acupuncturist who used to be a library customer. Helpful, enlightening and I may repeat such treatment in the future. 
Anyway, I do get blue when life interferes with art! Here's hoping that in the near future, I will deepen my relationship with both art and writing. I find myself dreaming of new ways to merge those two lifetime interests.
Belated Happy New Year 2015! 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Favorite Books, 2014


It has been awhile since I have written a book-related post, yet all along of course I have been reading. In fact it is unthinkable for me to be without a book and has been since childhood! So here are ten books that were among the best I read during 2014:
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass. Pantheon, 2014. One man's midlife quest to find out who his father is becomes a tangled tale of family secrets that succeeds tremendously at illuminating the inner lives of all its characters.
The Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga. Bloomsbury, 2014. Retired Latin teacher Frances Godwin gets herself into a heap of trouble. End result: a fictional"spiritual autobiography" unlike anything I have ever read before. Because of its Catholic themes and characters, it reminded me of the works of Jon Hassler.
The House at the End of Hope Street by Meena van Praag. Pamela Dorman Books, 2013. Very odd things happen in this enchanting literary genre-bender set in Cambridge, England. And yet every dispirited woman who takes refuge at Hope House somehow magically finds just exactly what she needs to get on with her life.
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills. Penguin, 2014. As a portrait not only of the elusive Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and her sister Alice, as well as their beloved hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, surely this down-to-earth memoir is a must-read for all Harper Lee fans.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. Scribner, 2014.  Plucky and extremely private Nora Webster finds widowhood in her small Irish town to be challenging. One turn-around comes when she begins to indulge in her love of music. Beautifully written.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Viking, 2013.  A good old-fashioned novel about a spinster botanist named Alma Whittaker, her love life and ambitions. For me this was a truly quirky read, full of fascinating glimpses into history and the botanical sciences. I was glad to see Gilbert more than prove her mettle as a literary novelist.
Small Blessings by Martha Woodruff. St. Martin's Press, 2014. When Shakespeare professor Tom Putnam suddenly becomes a widower, he finds a soulmate in Rose, a gypsy of sorts and new manager of the college bookstore. Complications ensue, including the appearance of a small boy named Henry who may or may not be Tom's son from the one dalliance he allowed himself during the long martyrdom of his former marriage.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley. Knopf, 2014. Smiley's novel, the first in an intended series of three, introduces a  sprawling Iowan farm family, the Langdons. What an all-American family saga, chock full of fascinating stories, unusual points-of-view and colorful characters. I can hardly wait for the next installment.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Algonquin, 2014. What's not to love when a somewhat curmudgeonly widower/bookstore owner adopts a toddler named Maya who is left in his store and reaps the healing powers of love? I enjoyed every moment of this quirky tale, its Alice Island, Massachusetts setting and sometimes whimsical characters.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. Ballantine, 2014. What little I knew of Robert Louis Stevenson before this novel, never mind his wife Fanny, but now I stand corrected and much entertained. This novel succeeds as a love story, an adventure story and top notch historical fiction.
For longer reviews of these titles, check out my Goodreads page. It has been a pleasure to look back on my year in books. Happy holidays and all the best in books and life come 2015!