Thursday, April 23, 2009

Under Her (Neurotic) Spell: Lisa Lutz

How I love it when I discover an author far enough along into their career that I can go back and find more of their books. This past weekend I became acquainted with Lisa Lutz, whose third novel, The Revenge of the Spellmans, kept me laughing. I needed something light as a counterpoint to all things related to the Big Read we are doing here in Houston: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, as well as Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields. I will be facilitating a book discussion of the biography on May 13th. (See for further details)

Ms. Lutz has a droll sense of humor and her characters are offbeat. San Francisco, where the author now lives, is the perfect city for the shenanigans of her imaginary Spellman family, all of them neurotic in one way or another. When the family business is private detection, there is lots of possible drama, especially when family members start investigating each other. (I wouldn't want to be a Spellman because there would be absolutely no privacy, even after you grow up and leave home.) The main character is middle daughter, Izzy Spellman, who in this book is (barely) participating in court-ordered therapy. I guess she is thirty-something, and in a bit of a funk. She got over-involved in a previous case to the point where her subject filed a restraining order against her. She has been avoiding detective work and getting by tending bar. Her younger sister keeps stealing her car and her brother has done a disappearing act.

I am one of those readers for whom plot is secondary, so I'm not going to get into too may plot details. There are some small mysteries due to minor cases Izzy takes on, so there is just enough suspense to keep the book ticking. Surveillance of suspects can actually be rather boring, but Lutz keeps things lively by concentrating on Izzy's relationships with her friends and family. Because the solving of mysteries is not really the main point, the book did remind me a bit of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. There is also a similarity to Janet Evanovich and Carl Hiassen as far as sense of humor goes.

Humorous footnotes, "transcripts" of Izzy's therapy sessions, as well as an appendix of characters all add their quirky spice. I am looking forward to getting retroactive with the first and second titles in this series, The Spellman Files and Curse of the Spellmans. "If my book gets someone through a dreadful plane ride, then I've done my job," Lutz reflects in an interview on her website. Perfect airplane reading, except perhaps for the tremendous urge to laugh out loud!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Circling Home

Circling Home

Dear Ferris Wheel
I saw you in a sudden holy blaze
across a weedy field
on South Main Street

Ferris Wheel all lit up
good as Las Vegas
Ferris Wheel you are to me
all of Coney Island
all of Time turning
in crazy kaleidoscope
Flowers opening
cat eyes the sun

Ferris Wheel you are
riding within me
driving my car
yet taking
the familiar sweet sad road
back home circling home

Ferris Wheel
circling the midway
clenching small children
up to the stars
Clenching regret
I leave you behind
and roll along
alone in the dark

- Keddy Ann Outlaw
as published in Blue Violin: a Journal of Free-Verse Poetry, 2001

photo: Midway at Houston Rodeo, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Real Toads in Imaginary Gardens: Poetry

For a long time now, Marianne Moore's poem, simply titled Poetry, has seemed to sum up my love/hate feelings about poetry, the first lines being: "I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine."

There was time when writing poetry was my main game. I participated in poetry groups, poetry competitions, classes, etc., and submitted a lot of poems different places. Some of them got published. For a few years I even got handsome royalties from Papier-Mache Press! I edited a small poetry magazine, and perhaps that was the beginning of the end of my love affair with poetry. Reading through hundreds of envelopes full of poetry, looking for a poem I liked enough to publish, about did me in. Also, I became aware of the political nature of the whole poetry scene ("po-biz") and did not have the stomach for it. For a few years, I did enjoy facilitating a small poetry circle for seniors here at the Library.

In cleaning out my office files, getting ready to retire, I found some poems I'd saved from the West University Library Seniors' Poetry Circle. Fay Ann Powers, a senior who was losing her sight to macular degeneration, wrote all kinds of poetry, most of it rhymed, often for members of her family. We had a lovely poetry luncheon one year, with a decent audience, and Fay stood up to read. Except her vision problems had gotten so bad, she could no longer read from paper. She brought along her niece who sat quietly a few feet from where Fay faced the audience. The niece had the poems on various pieces of paper, so she could whisper Fay's lines to her should she forget. She did not forget a single line. She knew them by heart and recited them beautifully. I have to say that was one of the most moving moments of my life as a librarian. See below one of her more playful poems.

To a Can of Vienna Sausages

Do you wonder what became of me
As you sit there on that mute TV,
Abandoned in that motel room,
Lonely in the silent gloom,

Pondering why I left you there,
Thinking that I didn't care
Enough to tuck you in somewhere
Beneath my sox and underwear?

You saw that I was really rushed
And everything I had was crushed.
My bag was bursting at the seam;
I closed it up and left the scene.

I had no feeling of remorse
I deserted you, it's true -- of course.
My viewpoint changed when I got home,
Hungry and Weary to the bone.

And I had nothing good to eat,
Some crackers but no potted meat.
No Vienna Sausage could I find;
Too bad I left you there behind.

© Fay Ann Powers, 1999

Happy Poetry Month!

photo: Frogs at the Rodeo (with oil painting application) by KAO

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Brooklyn Bridge

The Walker Evans photo above, entitled Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1929, is part of the Picturing America series of posters we have been displaying at the Library. The series uses forty significant art images to illustrate and illuminate the diverse American story. Two of those forty images are of the Brooklyn Bridge (the second one being a painting by Joseph Stella). I found myself wondering what makes this bridge so iconic.

One out of every five people in the United States can trace their roots back to Brooklyn. My mother grew up there. I was born there. My youngest brother was not born there. By then, we had moved to the suburbs. I think of Brooklyn as a place a lot of people start from. Of course, there are plenty of families who stay for generations. Brooklyn gives you great access to New York City on Manhattan Island. Perhaps the bridge has become a monumental symbol of that New York connection. There are two other bridges between Brooklyn and New York City: the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, but they do not seem as memorable for some reason. Having recently taken the complete Circle tour around Manhattan Island, I saw so many bridges it made my head spin; the only one I easily recognized by name was the Brooklyn Bridge.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world. When rumors that the bridge might collapse caused a stampede one week after it opened, P. T. Barnum proved otherwise by arranging for a parade of 22 elephants across the bridge. Actually it is a very strong bridge, with wide pedestrian lanes which multitudes of people love to use as strolling grounds, in addition to lanes for vehicular traffic.

As the Picturing America materials point out, by 1929 the bridge had lost some of its glory and become commonplace. Walker Evans took his photos of the bridge using a simple camera he carried in his pocket. His vantage point for the shot eliminated any sight of buildings, boats, or the East River. Instead we are given the pleasing geometry of its piers and arches. I wouldn't have thought of this, but its pattern of steel cables could be said to point towards some "untried, futuristic technology". To me, this photo of the bridge has both calmness and strength. Perhaps I associate the medieval arches with cathedrals.

A short time ago, we traveled to the Rockport/Fulton area of Texas on the Gulf coast for our wedding anniversary. One of the touristy things we enjoyed doing was visiting the Fulton Mansion State Historic site. And how is this related to the Brooklyn Bridge? The docent who gave us a tour of this well-fortified Victorian villa told us that George Fulton had worked on the Brooklyn Bridge in some capacity as an engineer. We admired the engineering of his house, built like a fortress with very thick walls; indeed the home has withstood all the hurricanes that have come in since 1874.

Ken Burns made his first major documentary film about the Brooklyn Bridge. Hollywood comes to the bridge quite often; most recently in Sex and the City (2008), when Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Steve (David Eigenberg) undergo marital therapy. They are separated. They agree to meet in the middle of the bridge at a certain time if they can both decide to put their past behind them and start over. Much suspense as Miranda walks onto the bridge looking for Steve. There he is! The movie theater I attended shortly after the movie opened was elbow-to-elbow with female fans. We all sighed a collective sigh of romantic relief and passed the tissues around. I'll never forget that scene on the bridge.

Marianne Moore's poem Granite and Steel lauds the bridge as a "romantic passageway"; "a climactic ornament, a double rainbow." In Getting Hitched, poet Stephen Beal proclaims "I would like to marry the bridge, ....I would like to have that spiritual force always in my life." His joy and exuberance for the bridge makes for a very fine poem, and makes me want to walk across the bridge myself one day. May it be so.