Monday, June 29, 2020

This is Happiness by Niall Williams

This Is Happiness (Bloomsbury, 2019) by Niall Williams seems to capture the very love of storytelling the Irish carry in their souls. For some readers, it may be on the slow side, but I sunk right into it.

The novel takes place in the remote Irish town of Faha which is not yet electrified though the twentieth century is several decades old. A man named Christy comes to town to get the electrification process started. Later, we learn he has another reason for being there. In any case, he boards with an old couple whose seventeen year-old grandson, Noe, is also visiting for a spell. Noe has left the "thorny austerity" of a seminary, not sure he wants to be a priest. His "wings had failed to open." Noe is ripe for change.

Faha has always been a very rainy place. But during this particular spring, it stops raining. People are almost blinded by all the unfamiliar sunlight.

Christy and Noe become fast friends. Christy has pretty much been around the world, yet he is a humble man. And I found him to be wise, as does Noe. Yet, he carries a secret that has in some ways has broken his spirit. He needs to right an old wrong. He confides in Noe, and soon Noe is also involved in hopefully orchestrating a resolution for Christy. (I am being a bit vague here because I don't want to create a spoiler.)

More than just these two characters and their shenanigans (Christy takes Noe to pubs, etc.), the novel is a richly detailed portrait of life in Faha. You come to appreciate the way folks talk, tell their stories and interact. Everyone knows everyone else's business and history. Noe's grandparents are in the minority as far as electricity goes, deciding not to go though with the wiring of their house. What a phenomenal period of time it is in Faha. The whole town is stirring, changing and we wonder if it will be for the better.

Another development involves Noe's first taste of love and romance when he comes down with a fierce crush on the snooty town doctor's daughter, and eventually also wonders if he isn't a bit also in love with her two sisters.

I have forgotten to say the book is told from the point of view of Noe looking back several decades at his this period of his life. He appreciates that poignant time of his own coming of age, as well as Christy's wise ways. Christy had a way of living in the moment. "This is happiness" is something Christy says, meaning simply being alive as he and Noe are cycling over the hills, winded, on their way to a pub one night. As they listen to some plaintive music at the pub, Noe mentions how looking at Christy, he could see not only his happiness, but also his sorrow. Hanging out with Christy greatly enlarges Noe's world.

I liked this book so much, I almost wanted to read it again as soon as I finished it. I have always been impressed with the tenderness of Niall Williams' writing. He has never let me down. I've only physically been to Ireland once (with my 100% Irish mother), but reading Niall Williams' books means I feel like I been there many times, privileged to go way deep into the heart of many Irish matters. And so I am grateful to the author. And impressed by his literary talents! Thank you, thank you. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Paper, paper, paper!

When I used to babysit in my early teens, one family sometimes paid me in paper! I was over the moon for I liked to draw and do crafts. The husband in that family was a paper company executive. I grew up in Floral Park, Long Island, NY.

 And of course, as a future librarian, I loved going to the local public library's book sale. I would save my allowance or babysitting money and come away with a large paper bag full of books. 

So paper in many forms has been a constant in my life.

(papers printed and stamped for use in collage)

For this post, I decided to do some reading and research about paper. I wanted to see what I didn't know, and of course, there was plenty. For a timeline, I visited the History of Paper website. Papyrus was used in ancient Egypt, but technically is not paper. People also wrote on bone, shells, bamboo, wood and silk. Most of the credit for the invention of paper goes to the Chinese. Cai Lun is considered the father of modern paper, having created the first stable recipe for paper circa 105 AD. He was a court eunuch and worked with mulberry bark, improving methods of paper production, pressing and drying. Unfortunately, he committed suicide due to court politics, sad for such an amazing inventor.

(an assortment of scraps from my paper stash)

Before paper was made from wood pulp, it was made from cotton and linen rags, and some believe such rags were to blame for plagues. 

I am not going to go into an extensive history of paper production as it already feels like I am trying to write a term paper, ha!

There are so many stages to making the paper made from wood pulp we use today: logging, stripping, chipping, boiling the pulp, drying, pressing, treating, etc. Stop and think about all the uses of paper in various formats: money, checks, security papers for items such as passports, paper towels, wax paper, personal hygiene papers, packaging, newspapers, books, magazines, wallpaper, filters, litmus and sandpapers, and last but not least in my world -- art papers (including what many artists consider the finest -- cotton papers).

I have a large baker's shelving unit that has simplified my storage of the papers I use in collage and printmaking. Sometimes I repurpose old books for use in my art. It is fun to use Gesso as a somewhat transparent layer on book pages to use for printmaking and in collage.

But reading about the environmental impact of papermaking, I began to realize my addiction to paper has a down side. Air pollution from paper mills contributes to acid rain and greenhouse gas problems. Deforestation, hazardous wastes and water pollution are also ugly aspects to the production of paper. There have been some improvements in packaging, such as the use of paper foam which is similar to plastic but biodegradeable.

 And of course, we can recycle paper, thank goodness. I use old phone books and magazines as scrap paper when I am using glue sticks, etc. My research for this post leaves me wondering what more I might do to lessen the impact of my paper consumption. During this time of the corona virus, we all saw how people went nuts buying toilet paper and paper towels, etc. We are all dependent on paper, and can not take it for granted as much as we used to.

I've never read a book that wasn't made of paper. However, I am considering buying a Kindle, having almost run out of books to read while Harris County Public Library was closed (still is...). I look forward to the curbside pickup service which may be provided next month. I have reserved plenty of books. I like to read the latest and greatest, but could never afford to buy all the books I read. Let's hope public libraries everywhere can get back in business soon.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Sowing Seeds of Spring

"Spring Fever" is often the post title I've used during March or April in years past. But that hardly seemed appropriate given these COVID-19 times. None of us want a fever of any kind right now. Such strange and scary times...

While we have been under stay-at-home orders, I've been grateful to have a yard to putter around in. Shades of green are soothing! I love growing plants from seed and so have started some flowers and herbs in flats and pots. If you ask me, this spring in Houston has been cooler than most, so nothing I've grown from seed has flowered yet.

This is about as high as any of my seedlings have gotten. I believe these are going to be zinnias; sometimes I loose track of which seedlings are which once they leave their growing mediums.

We have not had much rain, but the other day we got 2 or 3 inches, and out popped the first passionflowers! While I was taking this photo, a big fat bumblebee kept visiting the flowers. I was so glad to see these appear. I'd been afraid I pruned the vine back too much.

The heart-shaped leaves above belong to our redbud tree, a relatively new one for the yard. The pink flowers which precede the leaves came and went quickly, but I denjoy the leaves just as much.

Here is a jumble of flowers on their way out. The nasturtiums were resplendent all winter long. Again, I prize the leaves (round!) as much as the flowers.

I made this collage a few years ago in homage to the the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds company. A friend had given me one of their old catalogs and I was inspired by the wonderful photographs. On a whim, I sent the collage to them. I received a nice card back from them telling me that the collage had been hung somewhere in their front offices. If I ever get to Mansfield, MO, I'd love to visit their store. They cultivate some 1200 varieties of plants for seed, among them many heirloom seeds from the 19th century. 

I've always wanted a greenhouse, but living here in hot, humid and steamy Houston these last 4 decades, there is hardly a need for one. I improvise small cold frames to start seeds. I probably only get about a 50% return on seeds sown, but no matter. Such efforts are an experiment, and I feel a sense of pride as well as thrift in attempting this method of cultivation. Come summer, I sometimes regret my spring enthusiasms when the water bill comes. But this year, anything that can put a smile on my face is much needed. Staying sane and safe at home has been a top priority. May the same be true for you...

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Recent Collages

This my favorite from Februllage, a collage challenge of sorts on Instagram. Every day of the month had a word to riff on; this one was: Rabbit. I did not pick up on Februllage until the month was starting to wane. It was obsessive and it was fun. My Instagram has never been so lively!

Another Februllage collage. The theme was: Flying.

I've been continuing a series of Book Page collages, sometimes with cut-out words. I love allowing just some of the text to show through, and usually I combine my printed papers with mark making and found imagery.

Another book page collage, using an image and background text from an old edition of Gray's Anatomy.

This one combines Gelli-printed papers, a bit of suminagashi printing, mark making and found text. The background framing the piece is a topographical map.

All of the work above was done in February. March has been much different, with my attention turning to gardening and helping my husband shut down his cabinetmaking shop. And of course, just recently, all of our lives have changed because of the Covid-19 Corona virus. My church group will not be able to meet in person, events planned for March have been cancelled, etc. What will our lives look like a month or so from now? We really don't know and have to do the best we can to stay healthy and sane. May it be so...

Monday, February 17, 2020

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

Before I wrote this post, I purposely did not not read reviews of In the Distance (Coffee House Press, 2017) by Hernan Diaz. I was sure there were already many eloquent tributes, but I needed to have my own say too. This first novel, which took the author 6 years to write, was the winner of the Saroyan International Prize, the Cabell Award, the Prix Page America and the New American Voices Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, among other honors. I don't know what took me so long to find it.

First, some adjectives: bleak, astonishing, melancholy, brilliant. Those will do, but what really interested me is how Diaz put so many twists into the classic hero's journey. Let's just say it doesn't result in any Hollywood-type ending. Also there is a real outsider theme of the poor immigrant struggling to find his way in a foreign land, and though set in the 19th century, seemed so relevant to today's immigration woes. One more "also" -- this fits into the western genre as well.

Hakan arrives in the USA from Sweden, planning to catch up with his older brother who has probably made it to New York (there was such heartbreak when they got separated right before their boat was leaving). Hakan muddles around the West for a long time (not getting anywhere near New York), amongst some very weird, outrageous and/or mean people, as well as one very kind one who ends up teaching him how to identify plants, skin animals and suture humans. Oh, and there is another kind man who feeds Hakan well for a short period of time. But all of these folks are but chapters in his heroic journey. He escapes by the skin of his teeth from some very bad scenes indeed. (I am trying not to create spoilers here.)

Hakan grows quite tall, and is rather fearsome when seen riding a horse. In one of his adventures, he has to bear arms against intruders who show up to slaughter some humble people traveling West in a wagon train. (Minor spoiler ahead...) He is able to staunch the violence, but not before some kind people in one family, including a girl he is sweet on, are killed. Anyway, the story of Hakan's bravery gets twisted into a myth that spreads like wildfire, both admiring and damning. The poor guy is amazed when he learns he has become such a legend. Posters proliferate pronouncing him as "Wanted" and so his existence becomes challenging.  During long periods of hermetic solitude, Hakan lives by his wits out in the wilderness. I have always loved survival stories, so that was an appeal factor for me.

Will he succeed in finding his brother or making a life for himself? Will he live or die? That's what kept me reading, amazed by Diaz's ability to show such rugged individualism so eloquently. So much sadness... Let me quote from page 228:

Immense as they were, those territories (the plains, the mountains, etc.) had never held him or embraced him -- not even when he dug into the ground and found shelter in the earth's bosom. Anyone he met, including children, had, in his eyes, more right to be in that land than he did. Nothing was his; nothing claimed him.

So in my own way, I pronounce Hernan Diaz as a genius. Dare I say so? Why not? I found this book to be a literary spellbinder. Sometimes the writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy. Diaz out does Larry McMurtry, for sure, though I very much enjoyed many of McMurtry's novels. There is a certain rawness here, down to the bone. Elegiac, haunting. Though only a century and a half or so ago, life was so very uncivilized out on the American frontiers, and that is one of my fascinations with reading fiction set back then.

I guess I've run out of words now, but certainly hope Diaz has not. Whatever he writes next, I will be there ASAP.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Little Women New and Old

A friend and I went to see the new Little Women film directed by Great Gerwig earlier this week. During the course of my life, I believe I have seen all the movie versions, and as both a child and adult, read the novel many times. Who knows how I got my hands on it in second grade, but I did. I read it and loved it. Maybe a few years later, I was over the moon to discover Little Men and Jo's Boys by Louisa Alcott also existed, and that my beloved story continued. Like many other readers, Jo was always my favorite character. She is so very feisty in this new adaptation!

When you approach a movie based on a book you love, you are hoping for the best. But often you don't get the best, you know? Perhaps you have seen t-shirts with the slogan "Never Judge a Book by its Movie" and other variations on that idea. Anyway, overall, I was pleasantly surprised at this new take on Alcott's novel, though at first glance, I had to adjust to the casting. I always think of Jo as having dark hair and she (as played by Saoirse Ronan) didn't. Meg had the dark hair. Sisters Amy and Beth looked much like the characters I have in my head. Laura Dern did not look like Marmee, their mother. But the acting was so on point, I got used to these new versions of the characters. Meryl Streep aced it as Aunt March.

What I loved: how in the first scene, the camera makes sure we see the ink stains on Jo's fingers. Also: the love, rivalry and scrappiness of the sisters and how they tumbled together, hugging and resting together in heaps or fighting each other tooth and nail. So many scenes matched my memories of the book: how Jo accidentally burned Meg's hair and also how she had her own hair chopped off to sell so she could take Beth to the convalesce at the seashore. I adored the scene where Beth finally plays Mr. Laurence's fine piano, the one his deceased daughter used to play; he steals down the stairs to hide and listen. He starts out as a gruff fellow, but as the movie goes on, he softens before our eyes. A final scene where Jo and Professor Bhaer embrace under his big umbrella in the rain and the train station: perfect!

Other casting that took me a bit of time to accept: Professor Bhaer should have been roly-poly instead of slender, but oh, what eyes he had for Jo! Teddy/Laurie seemed a bit undernourished, but his acting was up to the task, especially during the scene where he tells Jo how he has always loved her (and yet, of course -- she turns him down, as she is so fiercely independent a gal).

The costuming was gorgeous, both the plain spun kind and the fancier outfits, especially those that Amy wore during her sojourn in Europe. But in my mind, the sisters' everyday clothing was too fine. They did not look much impoverished.

Towards the very end of the movie is a scene for lovers of the art of book printing. Shown was the type being set, the cover being covered in leather and embossed, the pages sewn together by hand, etc. Wow!

I've had a realization that reading Little Women at such a young age set me on a lifelong path of reaching out for historical fiction, not that I really thought of it as a separate genre back then. Such titles as Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Strawberry Girl and Houseboat Girl by Lois Lenski were early favorites. As a teenager, I read all the Pearl S. Buck books. Although these days, I do read a lot of contemporary fiction, I also continue to reach for plenty of historical fiction. In a way, historical fiction is a form of Social Studies for me. I like learning and dreaming about how people lived during other times. As it was in childhood, so it is now. Voila!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Favorite Reads, 2019

Ask Again, Yes (Scribner, 2019) by Mary Beth Keane. Two NYC cops raise families right next door to each other in the suburbs. What began as a simple friendship becomes more complex as children are born, marriages change their tenor and one unbearable tragedy affects everybody and everything. Multiple points of view enhance both characterization and empathy. Literary -- yes, but not pretentious in any way.

God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Long Star State (Knopf, 2018) by Lawrence WrightThis is the best book I ever read about my adopted state. Texas with all its eccentricities comes alive. Notable Texans such as Molly Ivins, Willy Nelson, John Graves and Donald Judd jump right off the page. Regional highlights, awful politics, and funny tales galore! Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wright succeeds as as master storyteller and true Texan.

The Gown (William Morrow, 2018) by Jennifer RobsonGive me a book about commoners rather than the rich and/or royal any day. I loved going behind the scenes with Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. The period following WWII in England has always fascinated me. The pluck and can-do spirit of the Brits is well portrayed here.

The Library of Lost and Found (Park Row, 2019) by Phaedra Patrick. Library volunteer Martha pours her heart and soul into helping others, but is not much appreciated. After a book of fairy tales inscribed to her by the grandmother she thought had died comes into her life, Martha starts to chase down their family history. Root for underdog Martha to come into her own and you will be rewarded.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) by Lori Gottlieb. This is an insider's look at what goes on in the sacred space of a therapist's office. After a breakup, Gottlieb goes into therapy herself. And we get to know a few of her clients in depth. Riveting! If you have any fascination with psychology, this book is a must read.

The Most Fun We Ever Had (Doubleday, 2019) by Claire Lombardo. Wow, this was a big fat family drama that I did not want to end. A family physician and his wife adore each other. They have four daughters whose happiness in love and life is not as easily achieved. Plus, there is the inevitable sibling rivalry. The Sorenson family is messy, haphazard and delightful.

Olive Again (Random House, 2019) by Elizabeth Strout. For all who loved Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), ooh-la-la, here she is again. She has aged, her husband has died and Olive is a bit less of a curmudgeon than in the first novel (at least I thought so). Sometimes she is even kind! The townsfolk of Crosby, Maine are also center stage at times, as this is a novel told in stories. Nice to meet our old friend Olive again, no matter how prickly she is.

The Spies of Shilling Lane (Crown, 2019 by Jennifer Ryan. Mrs. Braithwaite runs away from small town life once her husband has divorced her. WWII is on, and her daughter has gone missing. Thus Mrs. B. hightails it to London and undertakes an extensive investigation. A light-hearted and entertaining historical mystery.

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say. (Random House, 2018) by Kelly Corrigan. Corrigan, at age 50 is slammed with realizations she spins into wisdom right before our eyes. The simplest words or phrases we use with family and friends are examined. Phrases such as "tell me more" or "good enough" are the take off points for short chapters. For me, one of the most profound chapters related to the times when it is important not to speak, instead sharing the intimacy of silence.

To the Bright Edge of the World (Little Brown, 2016) by Eowyn Ivey. In 1885, an Army colonel is sent to explore the Wolverine River valley in Alaska. Newly married, he keeps a journal so that should he die, hopefully his wife will have it as a keepsake. Back in Washington Territory, his wife keeps a diary and takes up the new art of photography. A suspenseful, top notch historical novel.

9 out of 10 of my favorites here were written by authors who happen to be female. Hmmm, I think that's more than usual, though I do love so-called "women's fiction". Two nonfiction and eight novels this year, about an average ratio. Sometimes nonfiction books seem long winded to me; there are many subjects I would rather read and essay or article about than a book. Fiction gives me parallel worlds I can escape to. Both fiction and nonfiction can be thought-provoking. I am grateful to Harris County Public Library for providing access to so many of my choices in books.

Happy holidays!