Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Moving In or Moving On: Basic Plot Premises

I've heard that most novels are variations on two themes: someone new comes to town, or someone leaves town. Broadening that concept to include birth and death, gain and loss, and all kinds of arrivals and departures, I can see where these might be the most basic of plot patterns. So I thought it would be fun to test this premise by looking at a handful of novels I am familiar with.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith opens in 1912. We meet sensitive, imaginative Francie Nolan at age 11 and stay with her till age 16. She never leaves her Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood. But her father does. He dies. Chapter by chapter, Francie comes of age, melding the disparate parts of herself towards wholeness. She is partly practical like her mother, partly romantic like her Dad. Perhaps the journey to adulthood also falls under the umbrella of someone leaving and someone new arriving. For Francie is no longer the little girl we first met sitting on a fire escape dreaming over her library books. She is stronger and wiser. And so are we.

Fictional stories of newly arrived immigrants to the USA have a natural arc of action. How will these characters make out in their newly adopted land? Will the fates be kind or cruel to them? In A Free Life, Chinese newcomer Nan Wu pursues the American dream by buying a home and opening a restaurant. But is he happy? No, he'd rather be a poet, and this gives the novel a melancholy tone. In The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the story moves from recently arrived Bengalis, the Gangulis, to their child. The gap between those two generations is enormous. This makes for some further sense of "arrival". How can such an American child (and later, adult) have arrived in their lives?

I'm thinking of the dark and powerful post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. A man and his son are heading across a devastated land in search of the sea. They have "left town", and so have all signs of civilization. Anything goes in such a setting, and it usually goes wrong. There is so much lost, how can there be hope? There is, there is --mainly because of the fierce instinct of love still alive between father and son, not that their love makes anything much prettier. No one who reads The Road can forget it.

A perfect example of someone new coming to town takes place in The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Readers meet a Montana widower with three sons, circa 1910. They need a housekeeper, and manage to find one through a newspaper ad. When Rose Llewellyn arrives from Minneapolis, she has her brother in tow. Something doesn't seem quite right about the pair of them, and so the story unfolds. The expected arrival of Halley's comet also gives the story some punch.

In Keeping the House by Ellen Baker, Dolly Magnuson is a new arrival to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin. It is 1950. She executes a variety of carefully-planned meals for her husband and cleans their bungalow. Not really having enough to do while her husband is at work (and when he is home, finding his company a bit of a bore), her curiosity gets the best of her and she breaks into a a deserted mansion that once housed the prosperous Mikelson family. Rather compulsively, she begins to clean and fix up the old place. Then a member of the Mikelson family appears, and the plot thickens. The operative words for this book: spunky and fun.

One of the most unusual books I ever read was The Inhabited World by David Long. The protagonist is named Evan Molloy. He is what I'd have to call a ghost. He committed suicide and now haunts the house where it happened. He is trying to make sense of not only his own story, but that of the house's present tenants. This book is not as depressing as it sounds! There is even some measure of joy and peace on these pages. And it fits my parameters of arrivals and departures, all wrapped up in one character: first he leaves, then he comes back.

Conclusion: that going and coming, and losing and gaining in myriad forms are indeed basic plot premises. Novels about what men and women have lost and gained usually involve significant character development. Under this rubric, there is always some new premise, some new variation for a novel. Case in point: the rich variety of novels portraying lives touched by the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. But that's another post entirely, perhaps yet to come.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Maps #34: Geocoding and Geocaching

During this segment of the Next Generation training, I have learned there is sort of a strange (to me, at least) treasure hunt game going on all over the world. People hide things in containers/capsules and bury or otherwise hide them. Seekers look up their exact locations using Geocache websites. There are usually cute or clever clues on the websites. Lots of people find this to be very entertaining. In the words of an excited geocacher on YouTube, he uses "multi-billion dollar government satellites to look for Tupperware in the woods!"

1. Tell us the name of the location you chose to find and list the GPS coordinates for that location. I used the GPS Visualizer to find the coordinates for the West University Branch Library at 6108 Auden Street, Houston, Texas, 77005. They are: Longitude 29.716778, Latitude -95.437384, N29°43.00668, and W095°26.24304.

2. Find a geocache that you would be interested in finding. Copy and paste the url of the geocache into your blog: Copy the GPS Coordinates onto your blog: N 29° 42' 54.4212" W 95° 26' . This cache is the one listed as being closest to the Library. It is across the street, somewhere near the Dugout concession stand on the Little League/Elementary School baseball field. Among the clues: the treasure is NOT under the bleachers.

3. Write about your thoughts on geocaching. Is this something you would like to do for fun? What potential dangers you might want to be aware of? I am not very enamored of geocaching. "If you hide it, they will come" is NOT a mantra that will not fall from my lips. Personally, if I am going to have to dig, I'd just as leave use that energy in my garden. As for the dangers, I think I would be nervous about whose property I was digging up, etc. Apparently most caches also have logs where you sign in, and often it sems to be the custom to leave some swag or new treasure behind. I don't need any more junk in my life, so I am not motivated to join in the fun. But I am glad to have had this opportunity to learn about it!

photo: Yard Flowers by KAO

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Intricate and Difficult/Wonderful Character: Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout did herself proud when she invented Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a retired mathematics teacher who lives in coastal Maine. She is married to a mild-mannered pharmacist. She is the mother of one grown son, a podiatrist. She is tall and hulking. Olive is about the grumpiest, most judgemental, most tyrannical, difficult character you'd ever want to meet. She is a real pain. Many people walk the other way when they see her coming. But you won't be able to stop reading about her.

Odd, how in a novel named after her, Olive Kitteridge is not directly introduced, as one might expect. Instead, in successive chapters we meet her husband, next a former student of Olive's, then a local cocktail lounge piano player, and so on. Each chapter is a jewel unto itself, being perceptive and deeply intimate portraits of Olive's fellow citizens. These other characters dwell in Olive's world and relate to her (or not) in their different ways. In this sophisticated way, Elizabeth Strout goes about building a picture of Olive. We see her through other's eyes until somewhere past the midpoint of the novel, the scale tips and we are more often with Olive, who is by now in deep existential angst.

Her husband is in a nursing home, barely communicative after a stroke. Her beloved son has moved away from Maine and married a second time, each marriage like a slap in the face to Olive. There was a moment in the eleventh of thirteen chapters when my somewhat disconnected feelings for Olive began to churn over. Olive is on an airplane, flying to see her son and meet his second wife and two stepchildren. She looks out the window of the plane and sees the beauty of the world below: earth and water, green and blue, the shining whitecaps on the ocean, and oh -- as depressed and down as she has been -- she dares to feel something she has not felt for a long time: "a sudden surging greediness for life".

Later, during this visit with her son, Olive has another epiphany. She begins to understand "just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed." As such revelations continue, how wonderfully their momentum tips Olive over more into the land of the living! She is no longer such a conundrum. When we see her loneliness, we see our own. We stop judging her. We root for her. We care.

I couldn't ask for more from any novel. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is truly a revelation.

Maps Again: the Art of Relocating, Exercise 33

In this exercise, we were required to shop around on different real estate sites. We made believe we were renters or buyers. The last time I relocated, the Internet was not the tool it is today. In most cases, you can really get a good look at places before you even drive by.

On the Houston Association of Realtors (HAR) site, there are many search criteria available. What school district do you want to live in? How many bedrooms or bathrooms? Do you want to live in a one story house? It was interesting to see how much the cheapest house was: $89,000.00, a fixer-upper, of course. And houses in the suburbs of Houston can be found in the mid-100s. I am now much more knowledgeable about shopping for a home online.

Google maps also has a Real Estate Search function, with very nice bulleted maps of all the homes in a certain zip code, etc. Clicking on each address took you out to the real estate site selling the home; some of the sites required registration, so although I liked the map feature, shopping for a home on Google maps was not as easy as the HAR site.

Another resource examined:, apparently a gateway site for people relocating. It presents categories such as real estate, entertainment, recreation, etc. Exercise 33 also asked us to look at the Walk Score website again. It would be worth checking out any potential address for its "walk Score" on this site. (I wrote about this site in my April 9th posting.)

Photo: Galveston cupola by KAO

Friday, April 11, 2008

Anne of Green Gables and Other Beloved Child Characters

Yes, it's been awhile since I read the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery. But my curiosity was piqued when I learned there was a new prequel to the series called Before Green Gables. Written by Halifax author Budge Wilson, the release of this book is timed to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the first Anne of Green Gables, a classic coming of age story and series.

I picked up the prequel with suspended hopes for a good read. Prequels written by other than the original author can be disappointing. But within a few chapters, I knew I had a book to savor. The original Anne was eleven years old. The prequel begins with her birth. She is much adored by her parents Bertha and Walter Shirley, two newly married school teachers. By the time Anne is 3 months old, both her parents have died. She is handed off from pillar to post, treated like a servant, not much loved, and often deprived of school. Her red hair and freckles attract jeering. But oh, how she thrives. She finds wonder in every small thing, and has a huge amount of imagination and curiosity. Yes, eventually she finds herself in an orphanage. How she ends up going to a good home on Prince Edward Island (where the original series begins), is a splendid read if you, like me, have a soft spot for orphans.

My mother was orphaned at age 12. We both like books about orphans. In fact, Mom wants me to write a good book someday "and be sure and put an orphan it it"...

There is a special quality to novels written for adults which feature children. The good ones put us squarely back into that closer-to-the-ground point of view. I'm thinking of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, which so acutely portrayed the sorrows and joys of young Francie Nolan at the turn of the century. Her Irish father was a drinker and a dreamer, her mother bore many burdens, and Francie herself was quite a worrier. There was not much money in the Nolan household, yet there was plenty of love. Francie, like Anne Shirley, loved to read and did well at school. She persevered, she reached for more. Perhaps it is this uphill battle kind of plot that pulls me in, along with a deep sense of caring for such children who face tough times.

Another favorite girl child appears in Cape Ann by Faith Sullivan; her name is Lark Ann Erhardt. Set in Harvester, Minnesota during the Great Depression, Cape Ann is a good old fashioned read full of smiles and tears. Lark Ann is only age 6 and has many imaginative misconceptions about the Catholic Church, her parent's wobbly marriage and life in general. It reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (high praise, indeed).

Other beloved child-centered novels: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (combining thriller elements with loss of innocence), Boy's Life by Robert McCammon, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, and Lemon Jelly Cake by Madeline B. Smith. I wouldn't want to read them all one after another, but picking one up in between other more adult-centric fiction is pure refreshment. Such touches of magical thinking and childlike wonder work like a prescription for world weariness. Take one and see how you feel in the morning!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

More Maps: Exercise 32

There is a wonderful list of map mashups available from the Google Maps Mania Blog. Included are all kinds of sites that use maps in new and innovative ways. Calculate cab fares, see cloud maps, find a job, a U.S. mailbox, create a running route, etc. Wow!

But the one that really intrigued me is called Walk On this site, you can put in an address and it tells you exactly how far that place is from coffee shops, grocery stores, libraries, bookstores, etc. (Maybe the world is becoming a greener place. The higher gas prices get, people are really thinking more about how to get around more efficiently.) Real estate sites are using these maps to help people find neighborhoods they might want to live in, and actually walk or bike around in. Walk Score told me exactly how far it is from my home to several libraries, including one I never heard of before -- the American Brahman Breeders Association Library(?!). If you live in a neighborhood with a high walk score, you can get to lots of places easily on foot. My home address only got a score of 51 out of 100. The library address received a score of 68(for Houston, it's in a fairly walkable neighborhood). Very interesting.

Another fun map site: Terra Server. Lots of aerial photos, including scenic landmarks, skyscrapers, sports venues, etc. We also looked at the Global Incident Map site, which is enough to make anyone crawl into a cave and stay there. Best of all in a very dreamy way: the EarthNow Landsat Image Viewer, which continually updates aerial photographs taken from various satellites monitoring our Earth. Terrific!

Image: Luniverse collage by KAO

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Archiving Lifetime Faves/Recommended Reading List

This post is nothing new. Instead, I am moving the Lifetime Favorites/Recommended Reading list to a blog post. The blog sidebar was getting way too long and cluttered. I did not want to simply erase this reading list. Moving it here means it will stay on the site and always be accessible.

Like many librarians, I keep lists of good books I have read. Doing so helps me do readers' advisory work. This list is mostly fiction, but there are a few memoirs and nonfiction titles mixed in.

- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
- Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
- House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
- The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong
- The Dollmaker by Harriet Arnow
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
- In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
- Keeping the House by Ellen Baker
- The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank
- Dream When You’re Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg
- Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg
- Copper Beech by Maeve Binchy
- Mystery Ride by Robert Boswell
- World’s End by T. C. Boyle
- Palm Latitudes by Kate Braverman
- Sara Will by Sue Ellen Bridgers
- Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Burns
- My Antonia by Willa Cather
- Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories by Raymond Carver
- Twenty Questions by Alison Clement
- Mr. Bridge by Evan Connell
- Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell
- Body and Soul by Frank Conroy
- Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
- Some People, Some Other Place by J. California Cooper
- New Mercies by Sandra Dallas
- Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos
- Fortunate Lives by Robb Forman Dew
- The Widows’ Adventure by Charles Dickinson
- Eva by Peter Dickinson
- The Living by Annie Dillard
- Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
- Shake Down the Stars by Frances Donnelly
- A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris
- The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble
- Ten Seconds by Louis Edwards
- Bride Island by Alexandra Enders
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
- Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg
- Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg
- Standing in the Rainbow by Fannie Flagg
- Her Mother’s Daughters by Marilyn French
- 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Net of Jewels by Ellen Gilchrist
- The Whole World Over by Julia Glass
- Woman Wanted by Joanna M. Glass
- Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin
- She Drove Without Stopping by Jaimy Gordon
- The Other Side by Mary Gordon
- Pearl by Mary Gordon
- White People by Alan Gurganus
- Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh
- Home Free by Elizabeth Hailey
- Without a Map: a Memoir by Meredith Hall
- Jacob’s Well by Stephen Harrigan
- Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison
- Eventide by Kent Haruf
- Windbreak by Linda Hasselstrom
- The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien by Oscar Hijuelos
- Barefoot: a Novel by Elin Hildebrand
- Among the Birches by Rebecca Hill
- Blue Rise by Rebecca Hill
- Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman
- Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman
- The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood
- Cowboys are My Weakness: Stories by Pam Houston
- Fireman’s Fair by Josephine Humphreys
- Rich in Love by Josphine Humphreys
- What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
- Cider House Rules by John Irving
- The World According to Garp by John Irving
- The Room-Mating Season by Rona Jaffe
- In the Heart of the Valley of Love by Cynthia Kadohata
- Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos
- The Ha-ha by Dave King
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
- Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
- The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
- Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
- Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
- The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
- Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
- On the Night Plain by J. Robert Lennon
- The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
- Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing
- What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
- The Inhabited World by David Long
- In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
- Field of Stars by Alice Mattison
- The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard
- Number One Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
- Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- The Group by Mary McCarthy
- Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle
- Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough
- After This by Alice McDermott
- At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott
- Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney
- Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry
- Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson
- Family Pictures by Sue Miller
- Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller
- The Tender Bar: a Memoir by J. R. Moehringer
- Breakable You by Brian Morton
- A Window Across the River by Brian Morton
- Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
- Looking for Leo by Gloria Nagy
- Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still by Kent Nelson
- The Wizard of Loneliness by John Nichols
- Cities of the Interior by Anais Nin
- Benediction at the Savoia by Christine O’Hagan
- Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
- The Tea House on Mulberry Street by Sharon Owens
- The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer
- Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
- Truck: a Love Story by Michael Perry
- Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
- The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy
- Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price
- Songs of the Gorilla Nation by Dawn Prince-Hughes
- Postcards by L. Annie Proulx
- The Shipping News by L. Annie Proulx
- Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen
- Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen
- Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
- The First Desire by Nancy Reisman
- 13 Steps Down by Ruth Rendell
- What Matters Most by Luanne Rice
- Louisa Elliott by Ann Roberts
- Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo
- Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue by Barbara Samuel
- Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas by Barbara Samuel
- The Writing on the Wall by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
- Opal on Dry Ground by Sandra Scofield
- The Real Minerva by Mary Sharratt
- Where or When by Anita Shreve
- Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson
- Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld
- A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
- Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
- On Agate Hill by Lee Smith
- A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer
- Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
- Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
- Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
- I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots by Susan Straight
- Learning Joy From Dogs Without Collars: A Memoir by Lauralee Summer
- The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
- Season of Open Water by Dawn Tripp
- Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
- Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
- Digging to America by Anne Tyler
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
- Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
- Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman
- Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker
- The Rock Orchard by Paula Wall
- Elements of Style by Wendy Wasserstein
- The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon
- An Alphabetical Life: Living it Up in the World of Books by Wendy Werris
- Harnessing Peacocks by Mary Wesley
- Housewrights by Lily Willard
- A Gift Upon the Shore by M. K. Wren

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Maps: Exercise 31; the Austin Connection

We were asked to embed a map onto our blog and to write about our experiences creating a map with Google Maps, Yahoo Maps or Live Maps.

Look on the sidebar for my Google map of Austin, with a few favorite places marked with pointer inserts, including Barton Springs Swimming Pool in Zilker Park, the Austin Museum of Art and Amy's Ice Cream shoppe. Everyone complains that Austin has become too large or that it's not what it used to be in the 1970s, etc., but for me it is the quintessential Texas city. I'm not particularly into politics or government, but when I look down Congress Avenue and catch sight of the State Capitol building with its beautiful dome, I experience something I can only call a flush of pride to call myself Texan. There is even a state law which prohibits obstruction of that wonderful view.

I also marked the Elizabet Ney Museum in the Hyde Park section of Austin. An old friend of mine and one of Austin's most beloved poets, Albert Huffstickler, used to live in Hyde Park. Often he could be found drinking coffee and holding court on a park bench in front of Quack's Bakery on 43rd St. Huff, as we called him, left this world in 2002, but his legend is still strong. Let's take a poetry break with this poem from Huff:


Some days I just let
everything go
and sink into the neighborhood,
sit on the bench
in front of the bakery,
talk to anyone that passes
and don't think about
anything at all.
I think they call that

Albert Huffstickler, from Hindsight, Or How I Survived the Depression, Liquid Paper Press, 1997.

As for comparing the different mapping sites, I was most impressed with the Google maps. Their database of Austin places was more diverse than Live Maps or Yahoo. Google maps also has an interesting feature to their driving directions, where you can use the mouse to change the highlighted route and compare mileage. I will be playing with that soon because we are planning a road trip to Tennesee, Georgia and New York.

Image: Retablo for Huff, by KAO