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.