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.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Elderhostel Reimagined

I've enjoyed two Elderhostel trips and look forward to more. Their programs address both educational and recreational impulses, nicely balancing both.

My first and favorite junket with the Elderhostel crowd took me to New Mexico, where we spend three days at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu and three in Santa Fe. The entire six days were focused on the life and art of Georgia O'Keeffe. We visited the grounds of Rancho de los Burros on Ghost Ranch, O'Keeffe's summer home. Even better, we took a complete tour of her more permanent home in the village of Abiquiu. I loved seeing her piles of rocks on the window sills, her gardens, books and furniture. I was thrilled to see a jar of tea in her kitchen hand-labeled by the artist as "very good tea". We hiked in and around Ghost Ranch (today a Presbyterian-owned retreat center) and were able to identify many landscapes from O'Keeffe's paintings. One evening a local man named Tio Manzanarez spoke about his memories of "Driving Miss Georgia". In Santa Fe, we visited the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. The tour guides and lecturers were all excellent and I learned tons about O'Keeffe. For me she is a beloved individualist who uniquely personified the American West. Her sense of what was beautiful and paint-worthy changed the way we see the world.

The second trip, called "Discover Maine Through Arts and Nature" took me to Portland. Being my first-ever trip to Maine, I was enchanted. There was so much to see and do. We took architectural tours, visited a lighthouse, took a harbor cruise, visited the Portland Art Museum and the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow home, and of course, ate a classic lobsterbake dinner. I would love to take another trip to beautiful Maine.

Now Elderhostel is looking to rename their programs. They are having a contest for a new catch phrase for what they do so well. The very name "Elderhostel" is a turn-off to some people age 55+, for whom the concepts of elderliness and/or hostels are not beguiling. Among the suggestions: Curiosity U., Edulife, Edutopia, Global U., Pathways, WorldQuest. This is the kind of challenge I like to let simmer on the back stove of my mind. We'll see if I can come up with something. Personally, I don't have a problem with the moniker of Elderhostel. I am more tired of being called a boomer than an elder! Hopefully elder equals wiser. I think being an elder is a wonderful stage of life.

photo by KAO: "the most photographed spot on the Eastern seaboard", Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, ME.