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.