Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Favorite Books, 2009

The holidays feel less rushed this year due to my retirement. There is more time for family, friends, baking and decorating. But in one area of my life, there is still a lack of time. I can't seem to catch up on my reading! Serving on the TLA Lariat Book Award committee means that I am always knee deep in novels. Because I had to stay away from memoirs, this year's list of favorites features only fiction, and since I've written posts about most of these titles during the year, I'll keep my comments short.

Sworn to Silence (Minotaur Books) by Linda Castillo. A whodunit starring a female, formerly Amish police chief. Hard to put down.

Prayers for Sale (St. Martins Press) by Sandra Dallas. The friendship between two women in a Colorado mountain town during the Great Depression. Homespun appeal.

A Reliable Wife ( Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) by Robert Goolrick. A mail order bride is not what she appears to be. Suspenseful, passionate historical fiction.

The Walking People (Houghton Mifflin) by Mary Beth Keane. Three Irish folk make their way in America, hiding a common secret between them. In my eyes, a literary masterpiece.

Border Songs (Knopf) by Jim Lynch. When an ungainly bird watcher/outsider named Brandon Vanderkool becomes a Border Policeman on the Canadian/U.S. border, no one expects him to succeed, but indeed he does. Quirky, zany, funny.

The Forgotten Garden (Atria) by Kate Morton. An orphan and her surprising history, set in Australia and England. A rewarding maze of family secrets, full of stories within stories.

Short Girls (Viking Press) by Bich Minh Nguyen. Two Vietnamese-American sisters finally get to know each other as adults returned home for their father's U.S. citizenship party. This first novel has both humor and heart.

Baking Cakes in Kigali (Delacorte Press) by Gaile Parkin. A Tanzania grandmother, her cake baking business and nurturing ways with customers and neighbors. A delightful read comparable to the Number One Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith.

Half Broke Horses: a True-Life Novel (Scribner) by Jeanette Walls. Featuring the unforgettable Lily Casey Smith, a teacher, rancher, bootlegger and horse wrangler. Based on the life of the author's grandmother, this book has true spunk.

A Happy Marriage (Scribner) by Rafael Yglesias. A husband looks back at his less than perfect married life as his wife lays dying of cancer. Profound, challenging, disturbing, and at times neurotic, but clearly a masterpiece.

Until next year, then -- best wishes and happy reading!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lunations: a Labyrinth poem

Scallops of stone
known as lunations:
something extra,
these 113 teeth
of the Labyrinth
frilling the sacred circle,
a mandala of stone
where I walk
to mark one more solstice.

Their nomenclature pleases me.
Lunations, regular as footsteps,
echo a chant of inhalation
and exhalation, and
although their hypnotic markings
are forgotten in the stillness
of the center, always a place of bliss,
later as I wind out, their
sacred geometry again
comes into view, holding
sure this ritual space.

My journeys here
are never done.

- Keddy Ann Outlaw

For information on the spiritual practice of walking Labyrinths, see the Veriditas website.

photos: Labyrinth at the Prayer Garden adjacent to the Chapel of St. Basil, University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Maybe it's my somewhat Catholic childhood showing, but I was fascinated by Sarah Dunant's third novel in her Italian Renaissance trilogy, Sacred Hearts. More specifically, it's the portrayal of Benedictine convent life in Ferrara, Italy during the year of 1570 that kept me reading. Get thee to a nunnery, indeed! Many young women who were not married off (being too ugly or too smart, for example) were instead sent to the convent and confined for the rest of their lives.

The convent of Santa Caterina pictured here is a bustling world unto itself. The talents of the sisters are put to good use: they illuminate manuscripts, compose choral music and write and perform religious plays. Suora Zuana, one of the main characters, acts as the convent's healer. Her father was a doctor, and her knowledge of medicine is considerable. She grows herbs and makes all the concoctions that keep the sisters healthy. Reading the novel, I began to see the advantages of living behind thick convent walls. You didn't die in childbirth. You were not bullied or beaten by a husband or father. Yet the convent was a complicated place; both safe and claustrophobic, rewarding and stifling.

Surely there were many unhappy novices who rebelled against their sudden internment. And that is where this well crafted novel begins, with the raging howls of a sixteen year-old novice named Serafina. Her noble family found out she was in love with her low-born music teacher and plunked her into the convent. She has the voice of an angel, and will be a welcome addition to the choir. Serafina spends time in the dispensary learning about herbs from Suora Zuana and plotting ways to escape. Before the novel's end, she takes the art of fasting to a near-anorexic state, explores religious ecstasy, and receives both kind and cruel treatment from the nuns.

Listening to Sarah Dunant talk about Sacred Hearts on a British Interview Online site, I learned as many as half of high-born women in Renaissance Italy were sent to convents. Females were in surplus and marriage dowries were greatly inflated. The fictional nuns of Santa Caterina were able to live rather lavishly behind their cell doors. They were allowed to own pet dogs. They kept the silk sheets, thick carpets, books and trinkets they brought with them. Church reform would change such freedoms shortly after the time period pictured in the novel.

What great characters nuns make. They struggle with so many issues of obedience. And like the rest of humankind, their lives are full of passion and sorrow. The depth of soulful examination Dunant achieves with her characters is spellbinding. In her hands the spiritual life is a sensuous life, keen with pleasure and sharp with pain. Behind the convent walls in Renaissance Italy, no matter that they were married to the Catholic Church, each nun had a voice and a vote. Is it just me or does this seem radical? Sacred Hearts took me to places both heretical and sacrosanct. Thank you, Sarah Dunant.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Breaking Away, Hiding Away, Running Away: Three Good Reads

I spent much of the week house and pet-sitting for my sister-in-law in the Montgomery County "horse country" north of Houston. Although feeding and playing doorperson to three dogs, two cats and two miniature horses took a fair amount of energy, being away from my own home and ongoing art projects meant I had more time to read. Here are three titles I am glad to recommend.

The Calligrapher's Daughter (Henry Holt, 2009), is an impressive first novel by Eugenia Kim, set in Korea during the time of Japanese occupation through World War II, 1915 - 1945. Readers settle in for the long haul with one Confucian family whose lives greatly change shape during those thirty years, most especially for Najin Han, the eponymous calligrapher's daughter. Her father sees her only as a marriageable female, choosing her future husband when she is only 14. But Najin fights for her chances to get a good education and thus breaks away from her father's subjugation, serving as a tutor and companion to a princess, then principal at a rural school and also a midwife. She falls in love and marries a future minister, but when he travels to America, she is denied a passport. How she and her family survive decades of hardship makes for engrossing, tour de force reading. There is not a whole lot of fiction out there about Korea, so this novel fills a void. Eugenia's style and substance reminded me of the writing of Pearl S. Buck, whose books I read over and over as a teen.

Here is a plot premise that always grabs me: when children are left alone to cope, and try to hide their predicament from the world at large. Remember The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Warner? That's where it all started for me. Now Kathleen George has written The Odds; A Mystery (St. Martins, 2009) featuring four children ages seven to thirteen, whose only parent, their stepmother, Alison Philips, has packed up and left them unprovided for. School is almost over for the year and they don't want to alert their teachers or Social Services as to their plight. Luckily, they are all good, smart kids with plenty of pluck. They look for odd jobs and hunt for thrown-away food and goods. They manage to hide themselves from the authorities for a short time, but when they take in gunshot-wounded man who was once kind to them, they unknowingly involve themselves with drugs, murder and the Pittsburgh mob. In steps Narcotics police officer Colleen Greer and her partner Patocki, trying to solve several crimes. Will the kids be caught out? Will they be separated and sent to foster care? Or worse, will they be accused of a crime themselves? Such was the suspense that kept me reading and caring.

I met an unforgettable character in Follow Me (Little, Brown, 2009) by Joanna Scott. Her name is Sally Werner. In 1946, when she is only 16, she was seduced by a cousin, then shamed by her fundamentalist family when she turns up pregnant. She runs away from both her newborn son and her parents, following the Tuskee River north to a series of Pennsylvania towns. What an escape artist Sally becomes. When she continues to make rash decisions, she learns that the problems left behind have a way of reappearing. Eventually she finds happiness as a mother, a singer and legal secretary. Narrated in part by her granddaughter, Follow Me beautifully tails Sally's stumbling path towards the future. I invested some care and anguish in the impetuous Sally Werner, but I was well-rewarded by this melancholy yet redemptive read.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Collage Mind

Whatever "Collage Mind" is, right now I have it. I go to my study after breakfast, sit down at my work table and get to work. For every finished composition I find pleasing, there are others which somehow don't have enough life or tension in them; those I set aside for later revision. Often the impetus for a collage starts with one image. Lately I need a human element. When I don't have that element, often my collages become merely decorative.

I am under the influence of SoulCollage: An Intuitive Collage Process for Individuals and Groups (Hanford Mead, 2001; new edition due out next year) by Seena B. Frost. I've had the book for awhile but because when I first glanced through it, there seemed to be a lot of rules about how to make a personalized deck of collage cards for self-exploration, I set it aside. I am into collage more as an art form, not to deny the personal element. Now Soul Collage is being offered as a course at one of my favorite agencies for continuing education: the Jung Center of Houston, Texas. I am currently taking the course with a friend and we are loving it. The instructor is a therapist named Glenda Rice. I still have some issues with "the rules" of SoulCollage and when the six week course is over, I feel the biggest gain for me will be applying the process into my artwork. In other words, it has been a kick in the pants.

Collage Mind calls. Back to my scissors and paste!

artwork by KAO: Wonder of Womanhood; The Barbie Within

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mr. Horton Foote of Wharton, Texas

Though I've lived but 50 miles from Wharton for many years, today was the first time I made a pilgrimage there. Starting from Houston, Highway 59 whittles down from five lanes to two by the time you get to Wharton, the hometown of treasured playwright Horton Foote who died earlier this year at the age of 92. He kept writing until the end. I've seen many of his Orphans Home Cycle plays, and enjoyed the movies he wrote the scripts for, especially The Trip to Bountiful and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sometime in the early or mid 1990s, I heard Mr. Foote speak at the Alley Theatre. There was an informal reading of one of his plays, but I don't recall the reading as much as his words. He was so warm and dignified, he made his audience feel as if we were all old friends. He encouraged those of us who were writers to keep trying to get into words whatever it was that mattered to us. He believed in the perseverance of the human spirit so deeply. He believed that creativity was mysterious and sacred. He believed in belonging to a place, and for him that place was Wharton. His small town roots always showed in his work. I'd love to see or read his first play, Texas Town, which was set in a drugstore.

He told us one story about his youth that I've never forgotten. I picture him being about age 7 or 8, so this would have been about 1923 (but he may have been older or younger). Horton was walking down a country road on the outskirts of Wharton one summer day when he met an elderly black man who addressed him by name. "Do I know you?" Horton asked. "No you don't," the man said, "but your grand-daddy used to own me." What an impression that left on the boy, and also on me.

Present-day Wharton is lovely, with lots of pecan trees and front porches, a Victorian courthouse, historical museum and plenty of antique shops. The nonprofit Plaza Theater honors Mr. Foote by calling themselves the "Footeliters", and the local community college has named their theater for him. About 10,000 people call Wharton home, and it's a friendly place. Do I sound like a shill for the Chamber of Commerce? I did enjoy the small town atmosphere. I was delighted to spot an over sized recipe for pecan pie painted on the metal walls of the pecan mill. Wharton is also known for its Brahman cattle ranches. I don't know about you, but I always enjoy seeing cows grazing, even if eating beef has become rather politically incorrect. The Tee-Pee Motel on the outskirts of town features large over sized arrows sunk in the ground, small concrete tipis and an RV park, a sight that brings to mind the bygone era of Route 66.

For more information about Horton Foote (whose actual full name was Albert Horton Foote, Jr.), see Wikipedia. And here's the link to their entry for Wharton. Now that I am retired, I look forward to taking more day trips related to literature and art. And as always, I am grateful to have this blog as an outlet for my obsessions!

photo by KAO: the Brooks-Foote House, Wharton Texas.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Gwen Cooper

Remember Dewey Readmore, last year's suddenly famous library cat? Librarian Vicki Myron hit the best seller lists with her feline tale, and even Hollywood paid attention. Meryl Streep will be playing Vicki in a movie based on the book.

This year cat lovers have another chance to experience both tears and laughter reading Homer's Odyssey: a Fearless Feline Tale, Or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper. I couldn't stop telling people about the book once I started it. The cat lost his eyes to an infection when he was only two weeks old, and his eyes were sewn shut. Along comes Gwen Cooper, already the owner of two cats, a twenty-something Miamian who can't even afford her own apartment after a romantic break-up. Yet she felt called to adopt this kitten, a plucky all-black furry ball of joy. She named him Homer. Soon she felt like Mary with her little lamb, for Homer followed Gwen wherever she would go.

Happy-go-lucky Homer knows no bounds, except for the prudent boundaries Gwen carefully arranges wherever they end up living. For instance, he is not allowed out on high rise patios. But Homer scales draperies, bookshelves, blue jeans and counters as easily as a born mountain climber. He unerringly finds his food, water and litter, etc. He is also something of a opera star, revealing a wide repertoire of trilling meows. He loves to both communicate and cuddle. He is cheerful and brave, never needy. He charms most everyone he meets, much like Dewey Readmore. And he serves in many roles: gamekeeper, rubber band guitarist and even security guard. One night Homer attacked and scared away an intruder in their apartment, waking Gwen up in the process before any harm was done.

Gwen Cooper reinvents herself as the chapters fly by. Her jobs in marketing and publicity come and go, until the dot com boom goes bust and she leaves Miami for Manhattan. Homer and his two step-sister cats, Scarlet and Vashti, handle the transition fairly well. Then comes 9/11. Gwen lives very near the World Trade Center district and following the terrorist attacks, days go by before she can get back to her apartment and the cats. Her first hand reports of life in the city at that time are vivid. Thank goodness her three cats and apartment were okay.

Gwen was single and looking. I don't want to give away all the book's outcomes, but suffice it to say that reading about her love life is part of the memoir's appeal. This is also an extended coming of age tale. Gwen becomes more confident and independent. Like young Homer, she takes blind leaps into the unknown and lives to tell the tale.

Another thing that really impressed me: how the author used relevant quotes from The Odyssey by Homer at the beginning of each chapter. I've had very little exposure or patience for ancient classics, but reading these quotes made me want to go back to the original Homer, the blind poet. What an uncanny, inspired name for this cat. Homer's perpetual journey continues, and we the readers are lucky to follow along.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bookmarks, Not the Electronic Kind

Enter the word "bookmark" into a search engine and you will get lots of links to the noun and verb as related to computers, meaning: a list of favorite website addresses and the act of saving this list. Well, I'm all for such lists, but what about the other kind of bookmark, the original bookmark, the lovely paper or card stock gizmo that marks a reader's place in a book? I'm still not over loosing the book card pockets in library books since that is where I used to park my bookmark when I was reading the book, thank you very much. But book card pockets were phased out of book processing at most libraries when date due cards became obsolete due to the use of computerized receipts.

I have a small collection of bookmarks stashed here and there all over the house, wherever I might need one, next to reading hangouts and in my nightstand. Some are quite worn but I hold onto them as if they were old friends. They have been with me on many journeys through the world of words. I gathered some favorite bookmarks for the photo above. On the left in screaming neon orange and lime green, the Queen of Hearts shouts "READ ... or off with your head!", an American Library Association bookmark. How about the Garfield bookmark with this caption" Does your mother know you're reading this stuff?" I have some Paul Goble bookmarks perfectly preserved since the late 1970s, little slices of his Caldecott Award winning artwork depicting Native American legends. Longfellow gets quoted on a sweet Mary Engelbreit bookmark: "The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books."

I researched the history of bookmarks and learned they first came into use during the medieval period. Queen Elizabeth I was known to be a bookmark user. Bookmarkers, as they were also called, began to be mass produced in the 1860s, usually made of silk, ribbon or leather. The Victorians loved giving and getting bookmarks. Paper and card stock bookmarks became widely used by the end of the nineteenth century as book ownership became more commonplace. A Bookmark Collectors Virtual Convention is planned for February 2010. There is also a Flickr group for vintage bookmarks. I am encouraged that interest in bookmarks runs high.

Librarians love bookmarks for the opportunity they pose to plug books, reading lists or their library services. They are an inexpensive giveaway. Kids love making bookmarks. It's fun to design them yourself and there are lots of templates available online. Long live bookmarks and the books they dwell in!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Baking Cakes in Kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin (Delacorte, 2009) : does the title catch your attention? For me it did, not even though I have to admit I was not familiar with Kigali, which come to find out, is the capitol city of Rwanda (central Africa). I'm always agog for books which have even the slightest tie-in to food, restaurants and/or bakeries. The cakes being baked in this gentle novel are lovingly created by a Tanzanian woman named Angel Tugaraza. She also has a few other things to do, as she and her husband, a university professor/consultant, are raising their five orphaned grandchildren. She grieves for the recent loss of her two adult children. But most often, whenever a cake customer knocks on her apartment door, Angel is delighted to stop whatever it is she is doing, put the kettle on for tea, and discuss the particulars of the event the cake is to be designed around.

These are no ordinary cakes. Each one is a well-frosted masterpiece, made to look like an aeroplane, microphone or flag. Drinking tea, listening and sometimes gently counseling her customers, Angel also juggles languages. Her Cake Order Form is available in four languages: Swahili, English, French and Kinyarwanda, of which Angel speaks only the first two. But the problems that lie beneath the surface of even this most innocent act of commerce are many. The Rwandan genocides, the AIDs epidemic, even the practice of female circumcision are gently interwoven into the narrative.

Angel Tugaraza could easily be mistaken as a sister of Precious Ramotswe of Botswana, the starring character of Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series. Angel drinks her tea with cardamon added, whereas Precious drinks bush tea, but I'm sure they'd find much to talk about over their mugs of tea. Both are compassionate women of a certain age who have found they need thier waistbands to be more expansive. Both find self esteem through what some might call minor entrepreneurship, but readers know better. We see how even their smallest acts of kindness and compassion lend civility to modern madness. Cake crumbs, delighted giggles and chuckles likely to follow. Big women, big hearts, the milk of human kindness personified.

Authoress Gaile Parkin knows of what she writes; born in Zambia, she has worked in many African countries and counseled women and girls who survived genocide. Their stories are the inspirational basis for Baking Cakes in Kigali, her first novel. Here's hoping there are many more to come.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Books I Couldn't Put Down

Here are the best novels I've read lately: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo, Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen, The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton and The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane.

Sworn to Silence (Minotaur, 2009) by Linda Castillo instantly intrigued me because its main character, Kate Burkholder is a Police Chief who was raised Amish, a great premise that made me want to know more about how she got from there to here. Kate still speaks Pennsylvania Dutch, but does not live by their credos. Two years ago she came back to her small hometown of Painters Mill, Ohio to accept the chief position. Now someone is torturing and killing young women, and there may be a connection to a criminal who figures darkly in Kate's own past. I'm currently reading this one so don't yet know how it turns out, but just give me every spare moment I can find today to get to that last page and hopefully I'll see justice for all. Castillo has had a number of suspense paperbacks published, but this hardback looks like her breakout title. I was glad to learn she is working on her next Kate Burkholder thriller.

I love books about hyphenated-American immigrant experiences. In Short Girls (Viking, 2009) by Bich Minh Nguyen, the focus is on the relationships between two Vietnamese-American sisters and their eccentric father. Van Luong is the studious older sister who became a lawyer, married a Chinese-American and moved into a McMansion, except the mansion is empty because her husband has left her, and her job is far from perfect. Yet she finds herself unable to tell anyone in her family that her world is falling apart. Her sister Linny, a caterer, is in a relationship with a married man. Yes, they are the "short girls" of the title, always measuring themselves against much taller Americans. When their father, a tiler and inventor of products for short people, summons them home to Grand Rapids, Michigan for his citizenship party, the sisters are forced to reconnect and reevaluate their lives as well as the myths their family has been raised on. Nguyen's first book was the well-received memoir, Buddha's Dinner (Viking, 2007).

If you enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale (Atria, 2006) by Diane Setterfield, try The Forgotten Garden (Atria, 2009) by Kate Morton. Both are door stopper whoppers with gothic elements, perfect for fall reading. We meet one of The Forgotten Garden's main characters on its first pages, a four year-old girl abandoned on a dock in Queensland, Australia. How did she get there? She doesn't even know her name. She carries a small white suitcase containing an exquisitely illustrated book of fairy tales. Much later in life, she begins to investigate the mystery of her origins. But not until after her death when her grand-daughter travels to England to take ownership of the cottage with an overgrown garden her grandmother has left her, does the whole story really begin to unfold. Long lasting fat novels of this sort give me a particular satisfaction; often they are enchanting and more substantial than most standard modern fare.

The Walking People (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) by Mary Beth Keane starts in 1963, when teenagers Greta and Johanna Cahill leave their home in remote west Ireland, bound for America. With them is Michael Ward, a boy who walked away from his nomadic clan, the travelers or walking people. These characters do the usual things once they get to New York: they work, love, marry and raise families. They struggle and survive. Yet there is a secret buried deep within their lives that both divides and unites them. I found myself caring deeply for all who populate the pages of The Walking People. Keane's writing style is deceptively simple, straightforward and well-crafted, especially for a first novel.

All of these titles came to my by way of the Texas Library Association (TLA) Lariat Award task force assignment I accepted upon retirement. I can't believe this commitment started only four or five months ago. I feel like I've been reading much faster and more critically since I started on this journey. The novels above are only a handful of the 2009 titles being considered for the final Lariat Reading list. It will be very interesting to duke it out and vote for favorite titles when our group sits down for a marathon discussion and voting session at the 2010 TLA conference. Until then, back to reading!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

State Fair of Texas, 2009

Big Tex sends his regards!

Best Fried Food eaten: Fried Peaches and Cream (scrumptious!)

Fried Foods seen, believed but not eaten: Fried Butter, Deep Fried Latte, Fried PB & J.

Best Animal Show: Spirit of the Horse, featuring a demonstration of horse whispering.

Best way to relax during a long day at the fair: trying out the expensive massage chairs for sale.

For further info, see the official State Fair of Texas website.

Reason for my short post this week: I sprained my ankle when we got back to town and need to take it easy. Hopefully I'll feel up to writing a more substantial post next week.

photos: Texas Star Ferris Wheel, Big Tex 2009, Braggy Fried Food Sign - by KAO 9-29-09

Monday, September 28, 2009

Georgia O'Keeffe's Mountain

I enjoyed taking a look at a young college woman's new blog, A Bit of Rain, after she left a comment about one of my posts. When I saw that she was a fan of Georgia O'Keeffe, it made me remember my joy of discovering that artist decades ago. It looks like the Bit of Rain blogger was introduced to the artist via the new Lifetime biopic, "Georgia O'Keeffe" starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my Elderhostel trip to New Mexico, a six day course fashioned on all things O'Keeffe. I recently found my notes from that trip in 2006, page after page of tidbits and trivia about the artist, her art and her life and having also watched the Lifetime movie, I fell back into my fascination with her.

O'Keeffe particularly loved one flat-topped mesa, Cerro Pedernal. She called it "my private mountain", which she could see from the front yard of her home at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It is featured in 28 of her paintings. She paired it with flowers and with bones. She painted it up close and from faraway, under blue skies and moonlight. During my six day stay at Ghost Ranch, I too grew very fond of the Pedernal, which you could not help but recognize from her paintings. It is also the place where O'Keeffe's ashes were dispersed.

Another interesting aspect of Cerro Pedernal is its connection to the Navajo myth of Changing Woman, who also holds a place of power for the Apache. Changing Woman represents the turnings of the wheel of time, as well as eternal timelessness. She is the beneficent female deity of all the seasons of life: birth, growth, life, aging, death and rebirth. Symbolizing balance, beauty and harmony, Changing Woman came to life on Cerro Pedernal, a child born of sky and mountain. I wonder if O'Keeffe felt a connection to Changing Woman's timeless wisdom.

In future posts I will explore further topics related to O'Keeffe. I'd like to go back to Ghost Ranch in the fall, when I'm told the cottonwoods turn yellow as liquid butter. But for this year's fall field trips, my husband and I are bound for the State Fair in Dallas and then on to Missouri to visit family there. I am really excited about finally visiting the State Fair. I've lived in the state of Texas more than half of my life now, so clearly it was time to pay my respects to Big Tex, the super tall iconic State Fair Cowboy, he the wearer of a 75 gallon hat and size 70 boots!

photo: KAO at Ghost Ranch. Cerro Pedernal in the background, Spring 2006.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cocobolo, Purpleheart & Other Exotic Woods

After a visit to Clark's Hardwood Lumber Company here in Houston, during which I scribbled down names of woods I'd never heard of before, I just had to do some research on their exotic origins and qualities. Their names were pure poetry: cocobolo, purpleheart, bubinga, zebrawood and lignum vitae.

The Cocobolo wood really caught my eye. It looked like slabs of marble halvah, having broad contrasting bands of dark brown and cream. Rare and expensive, it is used for making such things as musical instruments and cue sticks.

Purpleheart (species Peltogyne), also known as violetwood, has to be seen to be believed. It looks as if it has been soaked in a vat of purple tint or stain, but indeed the color is natural. There are some twenty-odd species of Peltogyne, grown in tropical Central and South America. It is very dense, easily takes on a high natural polish, and is well suited for inlay work. I found myself wanting to buy a small piece of it but decided to wait until I have some idea of what I might do with it.

Bubinga, bubinga - now there's a word that makes me smile. Luthiers use this African wood to make harps, and it is also used for making drums and archery bows. Applied as veneer, it can have a wild swirly pattern something like curly maple, but with colors in the orange or red-brown spectrum.

As you might expect from its name, Zebrawood, also known as zebrano, has dark stripes on a lighter background. It comes from Central Africa, and much like the endangered animals it is named for, is considered a threatened species. Its use is mainly for fine inlay or marquetry woodwork involving such items as guitars and handgun stocks. In order to manifest the unique stripes, it is usually quarter-sawn.

Lignum Vitae, from the Latin for "wood of life", also known as greenheart or palo santo, is said to be the absolute hardest wood; it even sinks in water. It is used to make cricket balls, croquet mallets and mortars and pestles, among other things. I was interested to see that it is considered an ironwood. Back in the 1970s, I made a mirror frame from an ironwood slab I harvested in upstate New York, but now I realize that ironwood is not one wood but a group of very dense woods. Another threatened species, lignum vitae has seen a fall in demand due to alternate use of alloys, polymers and various composite materials.

Well I hope reading this has not been too much like scanning a child's school report. I get excited by Mother Nature's beautiful raw materials, and never knew I had such access to them so close by. My cabinetmaker husband has a workshop full of less exotic woods such as oak and pine. We have enough scraps from leftover projects to build a small barn, so I don't think we'll be buying any great amount of exotic woods soon, but visiting Clark's Lumber Company is a fun, hands-on field trip I highly recommend for artists, craftsmen and all other curiosity-seekers.

photo: Ironwood and Crochet Mirror by KAO

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I tried to find a way to place these book covers as a group on the sidebar, but had no luck. So I decided to write a short post about my days of being published. At one time or another I contributed to the books above. Each time, it was a thrill. There was a period of about ten years where I spent most of my leisure time pursuing creative writing. I attended writing classes, gathered in writing groups and went to conferences. It was a great deal of fun and hard work. I confess I even had the novel bug for awhile and thus am the owner of two unpublished novel manuscripts. And I have a stack of moldering periodicals my poems and stories appeared in.

I might try writing a novel again some day. But in this age of electronic multitasking, I wonder if I have the attention span or the chutzpah. Blogging and book reviewing currently satisfy my writing desires. One thing I learned I did not much like about being a writer was the need to promote and market oneself. Although there were times I enjoyed reading my work in public, it became less of a thrill as time went on. If you're an introvert, as many writers are, performing your work can be a real stretch. And often the compensation is not commensurate with time spent. For a few years, I did get handsome royalty checks from Papier Mache Press (thank you, Sandra Martz, a wonderful editor and mother hen to hundreds of women writers). Who am I kidding, if someone had paid me big bucks to croak out my poems and stories, I would have found a way to comply! But the impetus to compete and network towards increased fame was lacking.

I also felt that I was spending too much time writing instead of living. In that period of time known as midlife, I wanted something else. Taking a hiatus from creative writing activities felt right. A few years passed and I went back to writing book reviews for Library Journal. Then I was required to learn how to blog at work (thank you, Harris County Public Library). This "cybertunity" became my new thrill. My first post on this blog went up on September 22, 2007, labeled "Grateful". What a democratic art form, so free and easy. My gratefulness continues today. Thank you, readers and thanks also to the many powers that be which result in a thriving Internet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

The Prince of Tides (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986) by Pat Conroy is one of those books I remember as a real litmus test. People became soul mates on the basis of loving that book. People were just mad for it. The World According to Garp (Dutton, 1978) by John Irving was another title I felt had a similar intensity and effect. Well, Pat Conroy is back with a new novel, South of Broad (Nan A. Talese, 2009), which I couldn't wait to read. The Prince of Tides and his memoir, My Losing Season (Nan A. Talese, 2002) are my two absolute favorites by him. The memoir really helped me to know Conroy as a young man.

In South of Broad, the narrator named Leo King is also known as Toad because he was "born ugly in a city that prizes beauty." His self-effacing, understated, good-hearted manner reminded me very much of the Pat Conroy I met in the memoir. Two bandied about phrases about the new novel I've heard or read most often are these: that the book is a "love letter to Charleston" and that it is full of "saints and sinners." Both are true. The book is also a little too full of horrible psychopaths, abusers, madwomen and nymphomaniacs, not to mention way over the top plot developments. But he is Pat Conroy, so I forgive him for it. I'll put up with those flaws anytime to fall under his baroque, multi-sensory Southern spell.

As always, Conroy makes the warm, sweet tidal waters of South Carolina come alive. Conroy's Charlestonians are connoisseurs of tides. Leo, who is senior in high school, takes some new friends swimming at "the exact hour that the moon had issued recall papers to all the waters of the marsh." He is also a paper boy, and readers are introduced to the social strata of Charleston via Leo's daily bicycle route tours at dawn. Leo is "a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache...). Conroy paints with words, and I quote him to show how his way with sentences truly dazzles me.

Leo is one of those characters we have to care about. Leo lost his only brother to suicide and then had a period of nervous breakdowns. He knows his mother (who was once a nun and is now the principal of Leo's high school) loved the brother more, and that he is ugly in comparison to that golden boy everyone loved. Leo finally makes some good friends of both sexes during his senior year (1969), and basically the book concentrates on that one year, interlaced with flash forwards to twenty years hence. These kids become friends for life. Some of them are on the football team, where racial integration has finally taken place. Some of them are orphans, others are blue bloods and socialites; one of them is gay, and some are African American; this variety allows for plenty of high contrast and drama.

One of my favorite characters is Leo's father, a very loving man. Late one night his father takes him down to the Battery, a place where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet and form the "beautiful immensity" of the Charleston Harbor. Leo has just gotten off probation for a very dumb crime (he was a fall guy and got stuck holding drugs for someone else). Leo's life is looking up. His father takes out two silver cups and a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He wants to share his son's first drink with him. He salutes Leo, and asks him to be a fine man, to be the best man he is capable of being. The scene cuts deep. And there are many other such fine, rich and satisfying moments in South of Broad.

There are always wounded souls in Conroy's fiction, along with the beautiful sentences. Despite some of the unlikely events and resolutions, I count myself lucky to have visited Conroy's Charleston via the pages of this novel. Its people, architecture and tidal waters clearly continue to feed his ever-loving, ever-writing soul.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Joyce Maynard is one of those authors I almost forget about since she does not crank out books as often as many more commercial writers. Perhaps most famous for her precocious New York Times Magazine article "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life" published in 1972, as well as her romantic relationship with J. D. Salinger detailed in her memoir At Home in the World (Picador, 1998), I've always admired her work and think of her as a spunky, eccentric spokeswoman for those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 70s. She has mellowed with age, divorce and parenthood. Reading her latest novel, Labor Day (William Morrow, 2009), I felt she really hit her stride. This is a book I want to press into most every one's hands.

The suspense begins early, which surprised me since Maynard does not usually deal in suspense. On the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, thirteen year-old Henry and his divorced, solitary mother Adele meet a man named Frank at the PriceMart. They give him a ride in their car. Something about him isn't quite right. In fact, he is bleeding. In fact, he is an escaped convict. He goes home with Henry and Adele and holds them hostage.

But the funny thing is, they (and we the readers) begin to like Frank. He's not such a bad guy after all. He bakes a mean pie. He teaches Henry a few baseball tricks. His delight in the small things of life beyond prison is contagious. Soon Frank and Adele are making eyes at each other. Both she and Henry are ripe for allowing a man into their lives. Within a few short days, the three become family. Unlikely, I know, but irresistible. There are close calls and dangerous moments, as well as plenty of character development. Read it to see how it all turns out. Labor Day is a quick, compelling read.

For a read-alike, I recall reading and enjoying The Toothache Tree (St. Martins, 1989) by Jack Galloway, about a 15 year-old boy who is kidnapped and held hostage in East Texas by a man who turns out to be a much-needed father figure and friend.

Among other connotations, Labor Day signals the end of summer if you live someplace where there are actually four seasons. Here in Houston, we make do with Summer and Not-Summer. We are still in Not-Summer, and will be for weeks. But for all who have labored and deserve a holiday, whether in temperate or tropical zones, may your Labor Day be restfull and filled with plenty of good books to read.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Bring me the Sunflower"

Is it me or have sunflowers grown more popular in the last few years? Their bright, cheery bold faces are everywhere. I learned that the sunflowers sold as cut flowers are specially grown hybrids. Instead of having both male and female characteristics, they have only female. This means they have no pollen and are not allergenic. Yet such hybrids still produce nectar and remain attractive to bees and butterflies. We lost some of our backyard crop of sunflowers due to a freak wind storm that came through a week or too ago. Right now there is one nine foot stalk of orange Mexican sunflowers left, propped up with a bamboo pole. The Monarch butterflies are stopping by because there are so many tall blooms. In general, butterflies love sunflowers because of their large landing area.

Russia and the Ukraine produce the most sunflowers, followed by Argentina and the United States. Kansas, where the sunflower is their state flower, then Minnesota and North Dakota are the three biggest producing states, according to the National Sunflower Association. I'd love to drive through an area of blooming sunflower farms sometime in my life. I've only seen photos.

Sunflowers have many unusual characteristics. First of all, they are heliotropic, which means that while they are budding, they turn along with the sun. Then when the flowers open, they stiffen and remain stationary. When the seeds come in, and there can be as many as 2,000 in a head, they grow in a spiral pattern. The interconnected left and right spirals patterns can be described using Fibonacci numbers, similar to the golden ratio or Fermat's spiral. Thus, the sunflower has a very efficient seed packing design. Another fascinating aspect of this tall king of plants is its ability to extract toxins. Sunflowers were planted on the Chernobyl disaster site, thus removing uranium and other toxic remains from the soil. Their bristled stems discourage plant-eating animals and also help to conserve water.

Nutrition-wise, you can't go wrong with sunflower seeds. They are a source of protein, Vitamin E, selenium, iron, zinc, antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber and good fats. I learned all this casually reading about sunflowers for this post and found myself running out to the store to buy some. No cholesterol either! I've heard of sun butter made from the seeds but have never tried any. Most commercial sunflowers are grown for their oil. Byproducts can be fed to livestock.

There are some 70 to 80 species and 2,000 varieties of sunflowers, in many shades of yellow, gold and orange. They can be invasive. When you see weedy sunflowers in the wild, they may be Jerusalem artichokes. The Helianthus or sunflower (hellos = sun/Helios was the sun god; anthos = flower) is part of the aster family. The tubers of Jerusalem artichokes (helianthus tuberosus) are edible, tasting sweet, crunchy and nutty. I tried them once in the 1970s in upstate New York, in those days when Euell Gibbons had all of us stalking wild foods.

The Aztecs used the sunflower as a symbol of their sun god. Sunflowers have also become a symbol for the concept of a world free of nuclear weapons, as per the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. But no one is more associated with sunflowers than Vincent Van Gogh. His paintings depict the flower both fresh and dried, and are surely among the most widely recognized works of art in the world. Van Gogh's friend Paul Gauguin, for whom some of the sunflower series were painted, himself created a wonderful Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, Arles, 1888. Other artists who paintings of sunflowers I admire include Georgia O'Keeffe, Gustav Klimt and Joan Mitchell.

"Bring me the sunflower crazed with the love of light." - Eugenio Montale, Italian poet and Nobel Prize winner.

Photo: Yard Sunflower, 2007 - by KAO

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sewing Through the Dog Days of Summer

It doesn't happen often, but it's happening now. I really feel like sewing. So that's what I've been doing. Being newly retired, there's finally time. It all began with a new sewing machine (our old machine died). And then I dug out the rotary cutter, mat and ruler I bought ages ago but never really got around to using. The rotary cutter cuts like a dream. The last time I fooled with quilting, most folks were still using scissors. I started cutting up fabric into little squares, It didn't even matter that I had no idea what I might make with all the squares, I just wanted to keep cutting. That led to an inventory of fabric stashed here and there around the house, and a massive reorganization of all supplies related to sewing. Productive fun!

At this stage of things, I'm flipping through a lot of books about quilting, both borrowing from the library and buying as needed. No matter what new crafty obsession I get interested in, I seem to learn best by seeking out a variety of sources for beginners. What I don't pick up from one book I may better understand in another, especially when the illustrations are good. I tend to go overboard collecting ideas. And then eventually I improvise on my own. I have a hard time following any one set of directions exactly.

This all reminds me of my spring fever over gardening which I wrote about in an earlier post. In any case, it always feels good to fall into a new obsession. I've got quite a learning curve ahead of me. It was satisfying to sew some of the squares into blocks, but when I finally got around to actually doing the hand quilting on top, I could see my skills need sharpening. Yet I love the handwork stage of quilting because the work is so portable. Small projects are all I want to undertake right now. I used to crochet like crazy when I lived up north, and that was certainly a portable hobby. In the past few decades, I completed three large quilting projects but they always took forever since I had a full time job. Now I feel more relaxed and should be able to enjoy the whole process a lot more.

I turned to the NoveList Plus database available through Harris County Public Library to refresh my memory of good novels with themes or plots related to quilting. Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas, the Elm Creek Quilts series by Jennifer Chiaverini, Stand the Storm by Breena Clarke are books I've read and enjoyed. I also came across a nonfiction title that sounds promising, about how quilting helped an art historian overcame her case of writer's block: Quilting Lessons: Notes from the Scrap Bag of a Writer and Quilter, by Janet Berlo.

During these dog days of summer on the Gulf coast, sewing is a good diversion. In some ways, quilting has always seemed a little crazy to me, in that quilters cut up cloth into little pieces and then sew them back together. In centuries past, quilting was more of a necessity or survival skill. Scraps of cloth were precious and recycling them into quilts made good sense. Now we pursue it more for the love of color, craft and design. But the satisfaction is surely much the same, and at times I've felt a sense of timeless connection to all those long ago quilters. I look forward to the fall, not just because the weather will change but because Houston always holds the International Quilt Festival. This year it runs October 15 - 18.

Quilt Exhibit Alert: "Hearts, Hands & Heritage: The Patchwork Soul of Houston" @ Rice Media Center Visual and Dramatic Arts Gallery, October 8 - November 6, 2009. This ties in with the Quilt Festival and sounds quite interesting, aspiring to illuminate the inportance of quilting on many levels, including the spiritual. See for more info.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Great Women "Rulers" of Art

A friend gave me a wooden ruler printed with a list of "Great Women Rulers of Art". Glancing at it recently I realized there were many names new or only vaguely familiar to me, especially those from pre-1800. Suddenly I had a research project ahead of me. The first few artists were hard to find; no easy answers on Wikipedia, just occasional fragments from Google Books results.

Ende was a manuscript illuminator in northern Spain during the 10th century. Probably a nun, she working alongside a monk named Emeterius. Ende's name is inscribed in manuscripts as a painter and "helper of God".

Ma Shouzhen (China, 1548 - 1604) was a courtesan, a poet and painter. From what I can tell, she is known for her paintings of orchids and bamboo, often on fans, and her work can be found in the Shanghai Museum. Someone should write a novel about her; she sounds like a colorful character!

Artemisia Gentileschi (Italy, 1593 - 1652) was one of the first women to paint historical and religious paintings. She studied technique with her father, a painter in the style of Caravaggio. Often people did not believe that she as a woman had actually painted anything. After a difficult adolescence including a rape trial, the young painter married and left her home city of Rome to live in Florence, where she became accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing. Her style is characterized as dramatic realism, with accomplished use of chiaroscuro. Ultimately the city of Naples became her home, the place where she found the most success and acceptance. Her paintings of women are praised for their exuberance and strength. Publication of historical fiction such as The Passion of Artemisia (Viking, 2002) by Susan Vreeland and Artemisia: a Novel (Grove Press, 2000) by Alexandra LaPierre shows that the painter's fame and celebrity have grown. There is also an Agnes Merlet film, "Artemisia", released in 1997.

Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609 - 1660) had a six year period of painterly productivity before she married and had as many as five children. Her canvases capture domestic subjects and thus are considered genre paintings because they depict everyday life. This Dutch domestic genre would become more popular a few decades later with the work of Vermeer. Often Leyster's work was misattributed to Frans Hals, who was probably her teacher. A slide show of her work on the New York Times website shows her subjects were often making merry in the form of playing music or drinking in taverns.

Louise Moillon (France, 1610 - 1696) was another painter who did the majority of her work before she married, turning out exquisitely detailed still lives of fruit and vegetables. I didn't think I knew the name, but when I saw the paintings, they looked familiar (and good enough to eat).

A few years back, I enjoyed writing an reader's advisory article for Library Journal, "With Brush in Hand: Women Painters in Print". I find women artists of all kinds fascinating, perhaps especially because they have often been in the minority. More "Women Rulers of Art" to come in future posts.....

Photo: Postcards and Ruler by KAO

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Border Songs by Jim Lynch

Border Songs (Knopf, 2009) by Jim Lynch makes one unholy ruckus: a cacophony lulled and softened by frequent bird song melodies. How further to describe this brilliant black comedy of a novel? It's something like Confederacy of Dunces meets "Fargo" (the 1996 Coen Brothers film). It also calls to mind "Northern Exposure", the television series. Quirky for sure.

The character who gets the whole thing off to a grand start is one Brandon Vanderkool, who at six foot eight inches, is a bumbling newbee on the U. S. Border Patrol between British Columbia and Washington state. Brandon grew up on a dairy farm and was largely home schooled due to his dyslexia and somewhat antisocial tendencies. He has always been more interested in birds than people, and due to this hobby, and to his love of art and painting, has developed very fine visual abilities. Thus he is able to spot drug smugglers, terrorists and illegal aliens like nobody's business. Townspeople who have always scorned and misunderstood him start to look at him differently. I felt protective of Brandon and proud of his new era of success. Brandon also endeared himself to me with his Andy Goldsworthy-like art creations of stitched leaves and piled rocks, etc. He plays with nature like a born innocent. I saw the genius in him, and hope you will too.

Brandon's father barely manages to keep the family farm going, and would rather be working on his impossible dream: a large boat he is building in the barn. Brandon's mother rallies against the onset of early Alzheimer's by memorizing and reciting odd groups of trivia. Then there is the character of Madeline, the one girl from Brandon's childhood whom he can't forget and tries to date, not knowing she is in league with the local drug cartel. Indeed, she is a cannabis cultivator, in charge of all kinds of things that go on in many hidden-in-plain-view grow-houses.

The complications are many, and though there were more details about the drug trade than I wanted to indulge in, the comic twists and turns all add up to a satisfying end. Much is made of the interplay and antagonism between Canada and America, the border itself being an amorphous, often invisible character sashaying its way throughout the novel. Honestly, I haven't laughed so much at a novel in a long time (not that it's all laughs...). Border Songs goes straight to the top of my 2009 Best Books list, and when I have more time, I'd like to go back and pick up Lynch's first novel, The Highest Tide.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Books Transformed

Within the last few years, I've become more aware of artists who work with books as a medium. Some people point to this as yet another sign of the waning era of books and reading. In fact, I believe such artists actually comment on and deepen our connection to the world of books.

British artist Su Blackwell cuts into books and makes them rise up into amazing sculptures. In a 2008 interview for the blog known as My Love for You is a Stampede of Horses, Ms Blackwell tells how she started as an artist working with textiles and embroidery, and then moved toward the medium of paper and old books. Many of her sculptures have fairy tale connections and are quite ethereal.

Austin artist Lance Letscher uses book covers, ledgers, old journals and other paper ephemera to make large collage compositions that are often quilt or mosaic-like. The University of Texas honored his work with a book published this year, Lance Letscher: Collages. Despite his growing fame, he is often presented as an outsider artist, working as he does with found materials. A 2004 Austin Chronicle interview remains the best websource for a peek at the reclusive artist.

Another book-related artist whose work I admire is that of the Canadian "librarian painter" Cliff Eyland. He has used small book file sized 3 x 5 card illustrations to explore his fascination with books and art. He hid many of these small painted cards in library books at the Nova Scotia College of Art and design, and more recently has painted canvases which are depictions of books and bookshelves.

Altered books
have become a wildly popular mixed media craze, perhaps spurred by or tied into the popular hobby of scrapbooking. There is even an International Society of Altered Book Artists, ISABA.

Postscript: Having retired recently, I've enjoyed having the time to sort through my bookshelves at home. Through much of my library and book reviewing career, I've been so busy reading library books and galleys, it seemed like the books I read the least were the ones I owned. Many of them were set aside for "later on" (or they are favorites I want to read again). Well, "later on" should be now, but I'm still not quite ready to indulge in most of them due to my commitment to serve on the TLA Lariat Book Award task force, which finds me plowing though many 2009 fiction titles. Still, the sight of their multi-colored spines on shelves is truly soulful, bringing to mind one of my favorite Anna Quindlen quotes: "I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

Images above:
Three People, 2004. Collage by Lance Letscher.
The Girl in the Wood by Su Blackwell.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

West to Bisbee

My old friend, poet Albert Huffstickler (Huff), used to say that his body's home was in Austin, but his soul's home was in Santa Fe. Having just returned from a trip to West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, I too am starry-eyed about the southwest. It happens every time I travel west. The mountains, clouds, and sunsets, the long horizons, gems and minerals, the artwork everywhere, the desert and its freaky cacti, yucca and palms! I don't think I'll ever live out west, but my soul surely vibrates to its beauty.

In Bisbee, Arizona, we visited the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, where I learned that Americans on average use or consume 25 pounds of copper per year. Chocolate contains copper, for one thing, so mark me down for doing my share of copper consumption that way. In college, I learned how to etch and engrave copper and would love to fool around with that method of printmaking again some day. Turquoise gets its beautiful blue and green colors from copper. The Statue of Liberty is made of Norwegian-mined copper. One of the ways we count on copper is for its conductive properties, as in electrical wiring. My husband had to drag me into the Mining Museum, but once we got there, I enjoyed browsing through the exhibits. Later we drove to the Lavender Pit, a huge inactive copper pit mine in Bisbee.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to review Going Back to Bisbee (University of Arizona Press, 1992) by Richard Shelton in a bibliographic essay for the now defunct Wilson Library Bulletin. I was delighted to see the book prominently displayed in the museum bookstore, where the employee there told me it is still considered the best book on Bisbee. Shelton structured the book's chapters to parallel a one day journey from Tucson to Bisbee, the Shangri-la of his youth.

The town might have died a slow death once copper mining shut down in 1975, but an influx of artists and counter-cultural young people helped revive the place. The commercial neighborhoods of Bisbee are testament to the now thriving cultural scene, full of interesting galleries and coffee shops, etc. If you are headed that way, be sure and eat at the Bisbee Breakfast Club, one of those wonderful restaurants where breakfast is served all day.

As for desert plant life, for some reason I found myself most enthralled with the yucca plants. They look so punkish (see photo above), with their spiky leaves and impromptu seed stalks sprouting wildly. They beg to be painted, and I took photographic notes for future artwork. We also saw plenty of prickly pear cacti abundantly blooming, and bought some jelly made from their fruit, also known as nopalitos. Then today I heard a story on NPR about nopalitos which compared their taste to okra, not a good comparison in my book... To pick the nopalitos, tongs are recommended!

As I have mentioned in previous posts, traveling is fine, but I'm a homebody at heart so it's great to return with a camera full of photos and plenty of new experiences behind me. I'm told that part of aging healthfully involves trying new things. Our brains need challenges and new input. Travelling does that for me. I've been stirred now and I'm ready to simmer away on it all for months to come. The Houston landscape can't compare to the great Southwest, but I believe in blooming where you're planted. I'm firmly planted here. And in Houston, one thing we've got is greenery year round! And... not far to the west, plenty of interesting terrain.

photo by KAO: Soaptree Yucca, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Sudden Appearance of Colorful Crosswalks

Driving to church a few weeks ago, I noticed some colorful crosswalks near the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and thought they were probably the work of art students, perhaps intended to call attention to the Museum district. In any case I thought they were lively and fantastic. I've always enjoyed art in public places, especially on sidewalks or buses, or in the form of murals, art you can't help but see, art for everyone.

I found out a bit more about the new crosswalks when I went to the MFAH last week to see the North Looks South exhibit, a show that highlights the museum's growing Latin American art collection. The crosswalks were the designed by Carlos Cruz-Diaz, a Venezuelan kinetic and op artist. The museum guard told me the sidewalks were painted by people from the Cruz-Diaz foundation. Subsequently, I began to recognize his vibrant visual style in various paintings in the exhibit.

His installation known as "Chromosaturation" (first unveiled in Paris, 1965) involves 3 inter-connected chambers, each room saturated with red, green or blue fluorescent light. As you stepped through these spaces wearing the soft protective booties supplied by the museum, the color hues, tones and relationships changed every inch along the way. I enjoyed my experience of so-called chromatic ambience. And the museum guard clearly enjoyed leading the way. I've always wondered if museum guards don't get terribly bored on the job, but at least for this show, I bet they enjoy taking turns leading viewers through the Cruz-Diaz chambers.

The show was also introduced me to to Gyula Kosice, an artist who plays with hydrokinetic forces and Martha Boto, a luminist. All in all, an exciting, impressive show I'd like to walk through a second time. It made me realize how little I knew of Latin American art beyond Frida Kahlo and David Siqueiros, who are also represented. North Looks South remains on view through September 27, 2009.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Homespun Appeal of Prayers for Sale

In her eighth novel, Prayers for Sale (St. Martin's Press, 2009), Sandra Dallas takes readers to the high country of Colorado during the Great Depression. Middle Swan is a rough and tumble mining town and at age eighty-six, Hennie Comfort is its oldest resident. Her daughter wants her to move to Iowa, but Hennie prefers living life "on the earth's backbone" of the Rocky Mountains.

As the book opens, Hennie meets a newcomer named Nit Spindle, a young woman of only seventeen years. As it turns out, they are like "slices from the same loaf" of bread, sharing not only a love of quilting and storytelling, but also a similar share of life's sorrows. Both are mothers who have lost babies. Their friendship becomes a sweet and healing force, powerfully felt. Among the many stories that Hennie tells is one related to the book's title. She recalls telling her second husband she was so happy she had nothing left to pray for. "Why I've got prayers to sell," she said, and as a joke, he made a sign that said "Prayers for Sale" and hung it on their fence.

I was most impressed by the near seamless way Sandra Dallas incorporated Hennie's stories from the past into the present time of the novel. There were no separate chapters or jolting flashbacks, just well-told tales enjoyed while the two woman sat together quilting, or hiking in search of berries to pick. And the language has just enough colloquial color to come alive without seeming overly folksy-cutsie. Someone is described as being "lonely as the devil at a revival meeting." A miner's coffin is called "a wooden suit." When Hennie gets depressed, she takes action to beat the "blue devils."

There is a homespun appeal to this book, a characteristic I have written about before (see my post from December, 2007). A read-alike that comes to mind is Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith, another novel featuring a strong mountain woman. I love books which take a dab of history and plunk down some "ordinary" salt-of-the-earth characters in its path. For instance, Hennie tells of the days of Prohibition in Middle Swan. Where once there had been eighteen saloons in town, there were instead sixteen soda parlors or candy stores. Passing as sweet shops, they could buy plenty of sugar and turn it into moonshine. History comes alive for me in the smallest details, such as Hennie's recollection of the pioneer days when she first came to Colorado and went visiting for supper, how everyone brought along their own forks because nobody had any extra. That's an image I won't soon forget.

"Your story heals me," Nit says to Hennie. Their friendship is mutually healing, and readers will also experience that healing, however vicariously via bibliotherapy. In the final chapters, Hennie faces a troubling matter she's been brewing over for years. All the colorful scraps of stories come together much like one of the quilts Nit and Hennie and the other women of Middle Swan assemble.

You've heard the old cliche about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. How about this one: "When it's raining pudding, hold up your bowl." So says Hennie on page 56. There's plenty of pudding, not to mention meat and potatoes, here between the covers of Prayers for Sale, and for that I am one grateful reader.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Once a Librarian, Now a Customer

I've got a new point of view on public libraries, that of the customer. The only other times I've been a library customer in the last 30 years were when I travelled and needed to access my email or print a boarding pass. And one time our staff was encouraged to do a role reversal and visit an unfamiliar public library as part of a training exercise. The point there was that we might look at our own libraries differently if we knew what it felt like to be a customer. We were given some survey questions and asked to judge the ambiance, staff, signage, collection, etc.

I've only spent 5 or 10 minutes at my former library once or twice a week since I've retired. It is strange being there as a customer. Unless I keep my sunglasses on, people stop and ask me how retirement is going, etc. We Texans are known to be a friendly bunch! It's great to see everyone, especially the staff. But it's challenging to just browse and blend into the background, having once been the big frog in that little pond. In Houston/Harris County, we have plenty of libraries to chose from, so I may decide to diversify my library visits. One customer asked me a question today as if I were still a staff member!

One thing I've noticed being a customer is that it can be a little tricky juggling everything I'm carrying while I'm in the library: books to check out, holds and their special envelopes, AV items, lists, library card, copier card if making copies, change for the booksale, etc. This is where shopping carts come in handy (there is just one available at my branch). Or book baskets (plenty of those available). Carrying a book tote helps. Maybe I'm still a little disoriented not having my office and desk as a point of operation when I'm in the library. But people who run libraries should make sure their customers have carts or baskets; they really help maximize the library experience (and increase circulation, no doubt).

An advantage of working in a library is the daily access to materials. Serendipity brought lots of great DVDs, books and magazines across my path. Now I have to order things or develop better browsing habits (I left the library today without looking for a movie, darn). We are trying to decide whether to join Netflix. I'm all for getting movies for free from the library, but the waiting lists for newly released films are quite long. Now that I do not have the opportunity to browse through DVDs daily, we seem to be running short of viewing materials.

After some more time has passed, I'm sure I will be an old hand at being a library customer. It still feels great to be retired. My list of projects and plans and things to do just keeps getting longer. Time for that old cliche: how did I find time to work? As for reading, my involvement with the TLA Lariat reading list task force means that boxes of brand new books are arriving at an alarming rate. I need to read several hours a day or I'll get behind. I am being forced to read books I would never have picked up before. More about that in future posts!

Photo: staff of West University Branch Library, HCPL, Spring 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Reliable Wife

Yesterday I finished reading A Reliable Wife (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009) by Robert Goolrick, an author new to me. The cover, charming as it is, seems a mismatch, being somewhat old-fashioned and quaint looking. The only hint at the heat between the novel's covers is the red bird in flight. Yes, this book sizzles. Set in Wisconsin circa 1907, it takes that hackneyed plot premise of the mail order bride meeting her husband-to-be, and stands it on its ear. The prose at times rings with shades of Garcia-Marquez or Alice Hoffman: touches of magical realism. Also there is a darkness here not unlike Edgar Allan Poe. And for its eroticism, hints of Anais Nin or Henry Miller.

To say that the characters are obsessed is putting it mildly. One after another, they fall prey to sexual obsession, to grand passions and secret longings. How the author does this without turning to purple prose is amazing. For me, the writing showed bold strength and originality. The prose was so sharp, I felt pin-prickly. I felt the characters were walking on ice. Reading it was pure torture, and I mean that as a compliment. Was it just me? I made the mistake of looking at a few online reviews not long after I started the book, and ran right into a plot spoiler. I hate when that happens.

Other than reading blurbs or brief reviews to help me find books I want to read, I prefer reading substantial reviews after I've read a title. I don't want to be overly prepared or hyped. Yet sometimes certain books have such a buzz, you can't avoid knowing a lot about it before you crack it open. After my tortuous, oddly pleasurable, slightly uncomfortable journey through A Reliable Wife, I turned to Amazon for their customer reviews, an indulgence not unlike an online book discussion group. Let the people speak! And they always do on

People either loved it or hated it. Most readers appreciated the ride and found it hard to put down. But some found it to be pulp fiction or quite over the top. Here is the annotation I wrote for the book when I logged onto the Harris County Public Library's adult summer reading site, ReaderNation:

Wisconsin, 1907. A wealthy, broken-hearted man named Ralph Truitt stands in the bitter cold awaiting the arrival of a train. Having advertised for “a reliable wife”, he dares to hope that two decades of loneliness are over. Catherine Land rides the train towards him, at one point changing from flamboyant clothes to plainer ones. Also she sews her jewels into the hem of her simple dress. She is not who she advertised herself to be. The pages that follow stitch their two lives together into a sensuous tapestry of obsession, jealousy, passion, fear and love. Brilliantly crafted, a page-turning romantically tragic literary thriller. Not for the tame of heart.

I hope some of you will leave comments here when you read the book. I'm looking forward to hearing what my fellow Lariat list librarians have to say about it when we get together later in the summer at TLA's Annual Assembly.