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.