Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Best Reads Lately....

I have a small backlog of books to tell you about! The first being The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostava, a big brooding book with ties to art and psychology, two of my prime obsessions. Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow is a mild-mannered psychiatrist whose hobby is oil painting. His life gets a whole lot more interesting when he tries to solve the mysteries surrounding one of his patients, artist Robert Oliver. An esteemed painter and college professor, Oliver attacked a painting in the National Gallery and since then stopped speaking. Marlow learns a whole lot more about the Oliver by spending time with the women who have loved him. There is also a second storyline set in the nineteenth century involving a woman painter. I am not always fond of parallel plotting, but in this case as the book marched on, I became caught up in the interconnections between both stories. Further appeal was watching Marlow move beyond his comfort zone, challenging his own issues and lack of deep relationships.

On a much lighter note, I enjoyed The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes. Set in Dublin, largely at some flats at 66 Star Street, where the love lives of its tenants are in constant flux and turmoil, the novel has a caring, fond tone. If this is chick lit, I'm a convert. There is an unusual element herein that makes the book hard to describe. A spirit enters the building at times, seeming to influence lives with a karmic hand. I know, I know -- sounds flaky, but it works, and is never overbearing. I love books where some colorful cast of characters all living in the same building are brought to life; see also the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith. A similar device is used by Maeve Binchy when she examines the lives of a bunch of fellow bus riders in The Lilac Bus.

Darkest fiction I've read in a long time, difficult to recommend, but a real heart-stopper is: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. Exploring love/hate and the fine line dividing them in a marriage between a Native American artist, Gil, and his wife, Irene America, who he obsessively paints, this novel reminded me of the play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Their stormy relationship is detailed in two diaries written by the wife, one for her eyes only and one for her husband to put his hands on. Their three children strongly sense and react to the marital chaos. Alcohol heightens deep dysfunction. Although the madness and emotional turmoil are clearly not for everyone, Erdrich's provocative literary prowess kept me reading.

As always, happy reading!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

One Year Later: Life Post-retirement

May 15 was my one year "Retireversary" from librarianship. Where has the time gone? I remain humbled by this opportunity to "do my own thing". Although life as a public servant may not have been the most remunerative path during the actual years of work, putting in the time towards a secure retirement made it all worth while. I often hesitate to speak of my joy in retirement. So many friends and family do not have their retirement plans in place, and I don't want to rub anyone the wrong way. Sometimes I still can't believe I am really retired.

More than anything, I've returned to my art roots. My study overflows with projects, materials, tools, etc. The weeks fly by, and much like in my work days, I have to keep a detailed schedule to keep up with myself. Staying fit takes a high priority so I try to fit two exercise periods into every day. There's more time for gardening and cooking. Some travel is good, but that gets expensive. One of the pitfalls of retirement is that there is more time for spending. So I try and channel some of those spending urges towards resale and bargain shopping. Probably my biggest weakness has been spending on art materials.

I'm trying to turn into a money-making artist and craftperson again. All through college and my pre-librarian days, I sold things I made to help get by: pottery, silver or beaded jewelry, crocheted goods, etc. Back then, it seemed like there were always casual opportunities to sell at farmer's markets, craft fairs, etc. I am only beginning to ferret out the best ways to sell stuff. On the high end are my so-called "Dollscapes", the collage series I have been entering into art shows with good response but no sales so far. There are plenty of shows to consider; most of them have an entry fee, so you can't do them all. I had three of my collages printed on giclee canvases to enter in an upcoming member show at the Jung Center. If even one of them sells, it will be encouraging. On the crafty side, last summer I was obsessed with small quilting projects, and donated some to my church for a fundraiser, but otherwise have mostly given these creations to friends and family. A few months ago I started making Sculpey faces I then embellish and sew onto little wall hangings, but no sales to report there either. Soon, I may get started selling on Etsy. I have many original greeting cards for sale on my Zazzle site, but so do about a million other people, so no rewards there either. Maybe it's the economy, right? Oh well, I'm not into art for the money, but as I keep explaining to my husband, it sure would be nice to feel that what I make has value to other people.

Because of my TLA Lariat List involvement, I spend a lot of time reading book reviews online and elsewhere, plus I also still write occasional reviews for Library Journal. My Bloglines account has gotten more diverse; I've gotten addicted to a number of cooking, craft and decorating blogs, among them: Feasting on Art, Karla's Cottage, The Pioneer Woman, Posie Gets Cozy, Unconsumption, Colour Lovers and Cuteable.

But what is life if not a search for meaning? For me, the community places to explore that include Exploritas, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston and the Jung Center. I just finished a wonderful Jung Center lecture series on the Hero Journey with J. Pittman McGeehee last night. His definition of the hero's journey is the individual's search for meaning. What kind of human are we? We are an accumulation of all of life's stages, including that cliched being, the child within. (Good to know as my retirement is indeed a second childhood...) Permission to play: such "regression" is natural and healthy as we spiral through the paths of individuation. Perseverance is key; we are always going home and home is a metaphor for wholeness. I have a small notebook full of these and other wonderful bon mots a la Pittman. Later this summer I plan to attend a Jung Center lecture series about the poetry of T.S. Eliot to be given by the distinguished author and Jungian analyst James Hollis. Real adventure follows via the inner journey. Kicking and screaming, the soul is built. We all have dragons to slay, even in retirement.... One last link: Mythic Imagination, a site I hope to spend more time on, exploring experiences of life's mystery and metaphor.
Blessings to all - KAO.

photo by KAO: my study, 5-19-2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sunbonnet Swoon: All Things Little House

I wasn't much of a tv watcher in the 1970s, so I did not get into the Little House on the Prairie series until much later on when it became available on DVD. As a child, I read and reread the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and they helped form my lifetime appreciation for historical fiction. I've always especially enjoyed American pioneer/sodbuster fiction. The minute I learned that the new "Little House on the Prairie" musical was coming to Houston, I was online ordering tickets.

My husband Tom and I attended the musical at Hobby Center on Saturday, May 8. He was not much familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder, but became a convert. We loved the show. Sure, it condensed the books into quick song bites, but what songs they were! The music, choreography and acting were bright and lively. The backdrop lighting included beautiful, evocative prairie sky abstractions. The sets were the kind that the actors take apart and cleverly rearrange, sliding walls, wagons and fences around the stage.

Melissa Gilbert, the original Laura Ingalls from the tv series, gets top billing for her part as Ma/Carolyn Ingalls, but as is fitting for the story, it is Laura, played by Kara Lindsay who carries the show. Her tomboy spunk evolves into womanhood before the eyes of the audience, as she steps up to the plate to become a wage-earner in a one room schoolhouse so the family can afford to send eldest sister Mary to a School for the Blind. Laura's romance with Almonzo is beautifully rendered, especially brought to life in the song "Go Like the Wind". Next to that song, another one that really did it for me was "Wild Child", where Ma ponders the mystery of how her tomboy daughter grew up so fast. For me, that song, right near the end of the play, was a get-out-your-handkerchief moment or two or three....

Sychronistically, I've been running into Little House tie-ins everywhere lately. There was a Pete Wells NY Times Magazine "Cooking with Dexter" column on March 29, 2010 called "Little House in the Hood" that pointed out the wonderful frontier foodie element of the book series, their well detailed renderings of hog butchering, baking, churning butter, etc. Another Little House sighting: Our book group at the West University branch of HCPL read Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen this month, and in researching the author, I learned that she found the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to be important in her process of assimilating into American life and foodways.

And by the way, honestly, I think sunbonnets are cool! They might be just the thing for Houston in the summer time: plenty of room to gather your hair up in a bun in one of those bonnets. I'll be looking for a pattern. And someday I hope to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, where the books were written. The musical has finished its run here in Houston, but if you happen to live in Dallas, Sioux Falls, Fort Worth, Atlanta or Kansas City, it's coming your way so if you have any degree of sunbonnet fever, don't miss it!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Holey Rocks, Banded Rocks!

One of the delights of living in Plattsburgh, NY during my college years was wandering along a small section of Lake Champlain where the riprap along the shore yielded all sorts of geological treasures. Across the lake in Vermont there were marble quarries and somehow some of the huge marble slabs transported down the lake ended up on the lake's shoreline. There I began to indulge in a penchant for picking up black and white rocks, and have continued collecting them ever since. I especially love black rocks with single bands of white.

According to Jamie Sams, Seneca/Cherokee author of many books about Native American spirituality, any stone with a different-colored line running through it is called a Sacred Path stone. My connection to rocks is emotional, visual, and yes, spiritual. I seem incapable of retaining much in the way of scientific knowledge about Mother Earth's geological treasures. I have a friend who is a fantastic, knowledgeable geologist/earth science teacher and she helps me identify rocks from time to time, but unless I write it down and consciously memorize the facts, they go in one ear and out the other.

That said, I was fascinated by rocks spotted with holes I found on the Oregon coast last month. My geologist friend confirmed that the holes in these (often shale) rocks are made by clams. They bore into the rocks, dissolving them with acid to drill their burrows. A small bunch of these curious rocks made their way into my checked luggage turned in at the Portland Airport, where I'm sure the baggage inspectors are used to seeing such treasures tossed in amongst other souvenirs and dirty laundry.

Pondering this post about my attachment to rocks, I remembered a short story I wrote in 1997 for a fiction contest sponsored by The Raintown Review Anthology Series, Short Shots: Tidbits O' Double-Digit Fiction At Its Tiny Finest (no story longer than 99 words), a publication of HarMona Press in Roswell, New Mexico. I was pleased and amazed to win their First Prize of $20.00 and publication therein. I reproduce it here for a second airing:

The Crackup

She collected rocks everywhere they stopped, all the way from Ohio through Wyoming, sneaking them into bags and boxes, poking them under the car jack and spare tire in the trunk of their Chevrolet. Finally the car was so heavy, it wouldn't go over the mountains.

"What have you done?" her husband asked. He thought witchcraft was to blame.

"We can't go on," she agreed.

He said she could keep the sluggish car, but not his favorite history books. He walked toward Idaho, wheeling his favorite suitcase behind him.

She stayed on, and built a house of stone.

- Keddy Ann Outlaw

photo 1 by KAO: Lincoln City, Oregon shore rocks
photo 2 by KAO: black and white rocks