Thursday, December 22, 2011

Quilting for Christmas

Just in the nick of time, I am done with this little quilt I made for my niece. Now it is wrapped and ready to go under the Christmas tree. Tomorrow I get to spend the day with said niece, making Christmas cards and delighting in her company.

Thanks to all who read this blog. Life as a retired lady has gotten so busy I am blogging a little less frequently. But sharing my thoughts and images here is still a pleasure. Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Favorite Books, 2011

I'm such a book nerd, I write down my impressions of the best books I've read on index cards to keep in an alphabetized file, giving me plenty of access for writing projects, etc. This practice goes back to second grade, where Mrs. Palmer, one of my favorite teachers at Floral Park Bellerose Elementary School, rewarded us with stickers for our index card lists of books we had read. I also found this useful for readers' advisory work in public libraries. I also keep electronic files of all the books I've reviewed for Library Journal. Without further ado, here is my list of favorite novels read during the year 2011, (some published in 2010):

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson. A British woman wakes up every day not recognizing her husband or home until a doctor suggests she start keeping a daily journal which she keeps hidden from her husband. Amnesia done well –- full of suspense.

Happy Now? by Katherine Shonk. Claire Kessler, artist and home stager, recovers after her husband’s Valentine’s Day suicide. A believable portrait of grief and healing.

Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan. A widow’s solitary life, full of small epiphanies and hard-won wisdom. A literary delight.

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee. Three women bond in a new friendship based on a pass-along Amish bread dough starter shared with their Illinois town. Feel good fiction, recipes included.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Victoria Jones, freshly emancipated from the foster care system, sleeps in a public park and grows a small garden. Her love of flowers becomes her career path, but she faces many demons along the way. An intense first novel.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. When her father dies, Margo Crane quits school and learns how to survive living alongside a river in rural Michigan. She becomes a sharpshooter, but is much less on target with interpersonal relationships. A tour de force novel of gritty self determination.

Remember Ben Clayton by Stephen Harrigan. After losing his son in World War I, Texas rancher Lamar Clayton decides to commission an artist to make a memorial sculpture of his son. Sculptor Francis Gilheany and his daughter Maureen start the commission, but run into many complications and emotional minefields. A literary masterpiece with much gravitas.

South of Superior by Ellen Airgood. Waitress/artist Madeline Stone moves from Chicago to Upper Peninsula Michigan, the place where the mother who abandoned her grew up. A quirky book full of wonderfully drawn, idiosyncratic characters.

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal. Film editor Judith Whitman tosses aside her hectic, stale life for periods of contemplation that eventually send her on the road back to Nebraska, in search of Willy Blunt, her first love. Their unfinished business runs deep, resulting in a haunting, elegiac novel. One reader on Amazon compared this book to The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, and I thought that was an apt comparison.

The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass. When Percy Darling, a retired librarian/Luddite curmudgeon living outside of Boston, rents his barn to a group who want to start a private school and starts a new romantic relationship, his life gets a lot more complicated. Add in one daughter who is a workaholic doctor, her clueless, always floundering sister and a beloved grandson flirting with eco-terrorism, and you’ve got a compelling novel full of complicated relationships.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Art for a Cause: Labyrinths

Last month I donated two collages to an auction for Veriditas offered on the Bidding for Good website. For a description of Veriditas, here is some copy from their website:

The vision of Veriditas is to activate and facilitate the transformation of the human spirit. The work of Veriditas centers around the Labyrinth Experience as a personal practice for healing and growth, a tool for community building, an agent for global peace and a metaphor for life.

I am a strong believer in all things-labyrinth related, which has led to much use of labyrinth imagery in my artwork. Some of those labyrinth pieces are for sale at Lucia's Garden in Houston.

Anyway, the auction took a few weeks and whenever I checked, the bids on my collages kept rising. When the event wrapped up, they sold for nice sums, all profits going to Veriditas. My personal gain is knowing they went to people who strongly connect with my art. And so it goes....

Collages by Keddy Ann Outlaw:
Altarpiece 08: Femina Mundi
Altarpiece 41: Path to the Labyrinth

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater by Tom Mc Neal

Judith Whitman, a film editor living in Los Angeles comes home from work one day to find that her husband has bought their daughter a new set of bedroom furniture. The old birds-eye maple bedroom set sits marooned in their backyard out by the pool. Thus begins To Be Sung Underwater (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) by Tom McNeal. Some twenty-five years ago, Judith helped her father refurbish the maple furniture for her basement bedroom. Their living arrangement was improvisational, taking place in Rufus Sage, Nebraska where her father, a college professor, had fled following a separation from Judith's mother. The relationship between father in daughter evolves into one of shared respect.

During Judith's last summer in Nebraska before heading out to California for college, she falls in love with a blue-eyed carpenter named Willy Blunt. This was one sweet, true man. Now she can no longer forget him. She still carries a picture of him hidden in her wallet. The maple furniture set represents that vividly recalled summer and when her husband discards it, Judith takes the protective stance of renting a storage unit. Nothing unusual there. But then she feels compelled to recreate her bedroom within the unit. She retreats there often, falling into reveries of memory and reexamination. Ultimately this leads to her hiring a detective to find Willy Blunt.

One more complication: it seems Judith's husband Malcolm may be having an affair with a bank coworker. Some of these plot devices sound hackneyed, but in McNeal's hands, they ring true. He skillfully interweaves Judith's present with the past. And the past starts to win to the point that Judith risks her job and marriage seeking resolution. Readers feel the same compelling pull of tenderness Judith experiences recalling the past she shared with Willy. Sounds sentimental, I know, but somehow this novel was anything but. I found it to be a powerfully compelling read. At times it was surprising, emotional and bittersweet. I could keep slewing forth more adjectives, but none could quite encompass the depth so well explored below the surface of ordinary lives in this novel. Thank you, Tom McNeal.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

I slipped into Emily Maxwells' world seamlessly, into her home on a quiet street in Pittsburgh, and into her mind where past and present circle and meander, intertwining effortlessly with the classical music she often listens to in solitude. Emily Alone (Viking, 2011) by Stewart O'Nan is not for everybody. I am sure many readers would find the bulk of this novel rather mundane. Other readers will savor every small epiphany in Emily's often orderly days. I know I did.

Emily is a widow of a certain age. She rarely sees her adult children or grandchildren, who live in faraway cities. Her most constant companion is her sister-in-law Arlene, who also lives alone nearby. Together, with one or the other of them cautiously driving, they adventure out to breakfast buffets, funerals, art and garden shows. Intimations of mortality abound, not only when Arlene enters the hospital after a fainting episode, but also when Emily's aging dog Rufus rapidly starts gaining weight. Rufus also ably serves as Emily's familiar; some of my favorite passages involved her comments and near-conversations with the dog.

O'Nan does a wonderful job of portraying Emily's mindset via a third person point of view. I had been reading a few too many novels with multiple points of view, and it was such a welcome change to thoroughly settle down with just one character. To some extent, I identified with her thought processes. She second guesses herself, analyzes things, judges others and herself, and beats herself up for much of it, all very believably. Driving to her old hometown of Kersey, she ruminates on how badly she had needed to distance herself from the place and who she had been there, "where everyone knew her as a teacher's pet and a crybaby." She used to throw tantrums and could not get along with her mother. But now she demonstrates greater wisdom, coming "to think of everyone close to her with a helpless tenderness, accepting that life was hard and people did their best."

Yes, this book blew me away with its quiet accretion of wisdom and wonder. I had only ever read one other book by O'Nan, Last Night at the Lobster (Viking, 2007), which did not really rock my world. Now I have an earlier book about Emily Maxwell and her family to look forward to, Wish You Were Here (Grove Press, 2002). Although it might have been nice to have read it first, I don't think it much matters. Spending more time with Emily Maxwell, alone or otherwise, sounds just heavenly.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Collage Fun on Flickr

A few weeks ago, I made my first altered postcard pictured above, entitled "The Family Cactus", an exercise I might never have done were it not for my membership in the Flickr special interest group called Post Collage. One comment on this collage really gave me a laugh, noting all the "prickly" relatives.

It's been fun meeting other collage geeks on Flickr. Some of the Flickr collage groups I've joined are Vintage Collage Art, Waste Cut & Paste, SoulCollage and Collage Crazy, among others.

Another feature I've come to enjoy on Flickr is the ability to "curate" galleries. You can assemble small shows based on Flickr images. I was in New York visiting my mother and found I had the time to create a few galleries, mostly collage, but also including abstract art and word-related photos. I combed Flickr to find images that really appealed to me. What fun! Often people are flattered when you include their work in a gallery, and make contact to tell you so. To take a look at my galleries, click here.

"Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them." - Max Ernst

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Addition by Toni Jordan

Addition (William Morrow, 2008) by Toni Jordan takes the reader deep into the mind and soul of Grace Lisa Vandenburg, places very full of numbers, formulas and theories. No, she is not a mathematician. She has an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and although she had been a working member of society, she lost her teaching job after a playground breakdown. Her carefully ordered world involves a strict schedule. Grace shops, eats, and sleeps by the clock and calendar. She calms herself by counting bristles on toothbrushes, seeds on cake and letters in names. She graphs the weather in her Melbourne, Australia locale. Her favorite numbers involve sets of 10. Other than weekly phone calls with her mother, her sister and favorite niece, Grace has little connection to people. She keeps a photo of inventor Nikola Tesla on her bedside table; indeed her mind is a catalog of facts about him. Her adoration for him is safe and sustaining.

Talk about a quirky character! Grace is funny and self-deprecating. It was unnerving at first to spend time in her world. I knew something would come along to challenge her. She was obviously bright, and she had settled into an existence that seemed way too careful and dull. She hasn't had a date in more than two years when she meets an Irish fellow named Seamus Joseph O'Reilly in her favorite cafe. She manages to fall into his arms, and thus her careful world takes on some new dimensions. With the addition of a boyfriend, will Grace become more whole and/or "normal" (whatever that is...)? When Seamus begins to untangle the story of her childhood, trying to get at the root of her obsessive counting, Grace tells a half-truth. Then she tries mightily to rehabilitate herself to please him. Of course, the arc of their relationship has it ups and downs. So I'll say no more about how the plot develops. Grace is one character I'll not soon forget. Addition is a touching, unconventional romantic comedy I'm glad I spent a few hours reading.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Memoir: an Interview with Bonnie L. Casey

In 2010, I read and blogged about Growing in Circles: My Struggle to Make Peace with God, Myself, and Just About Everything (Two Harbors Press, 2009) by Bonnie L. Casey. We connected online at Here Women Talk, where I facilitate a discussion group called Creative Intentions. We also met for lunch in the DC area one fine day last fall. Bonnie is a medical and scientific editor at the National Institutes of Health, and also writes blog posts, articles, stories and music. To my delight, she has become a big fan of my collages. It has been great to fall into a friendship with Bonnie, and I am most pleased to present this interview with her.

What galvanized you to the point that you knew you HAD to write your memoir?

I “had” to write my memoir in the same way that I “had” to give birth to my son after nine months of gestation. With my legs up in stirrups, I realized that childbirth wasn’t really an act of volition—it was happening because its time had come and I was merely the vessel of emergence. Melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s really how I experienced the process of writing Growing in Circles. By 2008, with determination and an army of helpers sought and unsought, I was finally recovering from the serial trauma of parental, spousal, and cultural abuse that had bound me to cycles of depression and self-hatred for as long as I could remember. I was coming to terms with recent losses and old wounds and finding a new spiritual grounding. But I knew intuitively that I couldn’t complete my recovery and learn to accept joy and inner peace until I found a way to let go of my past. The urge to write my story finally became overwhelming, like the urge to push after 19 hours of labor. All I needed was a matrix for combining accounts of my personal and spiritual journeys—a way to organically connect my history with the story of the creation of the Sacred Circle that had become central to my spiritual growth. As soon as I found that matrix, Growing in Circles virtually wrote itself in three months. When friends who know me as fiercely private and introverted ask what moved me to reveal such intimate details of my life, I tell them the simple truth: that whether or not anyone else ever read or understood my story, I had to write it down so I could get past it and move on.

Your blog “My Write Mind" is one of my favorite online subscriptions. Tell us what being a blogger means to you, and comment on where your inspiration for topics comes from.

After I wrote my memoir, I realized how central writing had become to my emotional and spiritual well-being. So, as an extension of the practice of mindfulness, I started to write short literary essays about finding grace, wisdom, and humor in the ordinary events that propel us through the seasons. I wrote sporadically while searching the Internet for someplace to park these quirky little pieces—a site, perhaps, with the title “Occasional Forum for Earth-Loving, Moon-Worshiping Crones with an Itch to Write Short Essays on No Particular Theme.” When this search proved fruitless, I filed my half dozen essays on a flash drive and went back to journaling. As my memoir attests, it can take a while for circumstances to drop-kick me toward the obvious, but the light eventually flickers to life. In this case, one morning I awoke to one of those “Duh!” moments and thought, “Well, if I can’t find the right website for my writing, I’ll just have to create one.”

Besides imposing much-needed discipline on my writing process, the blog’s greatest gift to me has been the opportunity to see my experience through a new lens. After I was divorced, my son was grown, and I had severed a lifelong connection to a church community, I fell into the habit of defining myself in terms of what I’d lost. I became somewhat reclusive, not entirely by choice, as my universe shrank to the rounds of maintaining my job, property, and person. But setting myself the task of writing and posting a monthly essay forced me to find inspiration from within what I had come to think of as “my small life.” The blog graces me with the insight that, at least once a month, something happens that opens me to love and wisdom, or absurdity and humor. And if I’m tempted to give in to the urge to hunker down and close my door to the outside world, the thought that I’ll need something to write about next month will often be the impetus to accept an invitation or seek out a new experience.

When I taught college writing courses, I’d exhort my students to write about “the leaf, not the tree,” to craft a vivid word picture of a single oak leaf rather than a blurry image of an entire forest of oak trees. Now that my days have become a collage of small leaves, I have a chance to put that theory into practice, to find meaning in the act of living an ordinary life and, in so doing, turn it into a work of art.

Tell us a bit about your connection to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. (I must add here that hearing of Bonnie's love for the book, I reread this beloved childhood classic and found it absolutely endearing once again. Honestly, there's no such thing as being too old for The Wind in the Willows. If you'd like to read it too, be sure and find an edition with the Ernest H. Shephard illustrations.)

The small town where I grew up had one drab public library and one tiny, poorly stocked bookstore. My mother, an avid reader and bibliophile, was eager to acquaint me with as many of the classics of children’s literature as possible, so when she couldn't find a title in the library, as was often the case, she would cajole the bookstore’s proprietor into ordering a single copy for her. One day she proudly presented me with a small Avon paperback edition of The Wind in the Willows, on whose flyleaf she had glued a bookplate and written my name in her elegant script. The corners of the little book were rounded instead of squared, and the heavy card-stock cover showed Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr. Toad enjoying an outing in the idyllic English countryside. The story itself was enchanting and hilarious and planted one of the first seeds of my deep, mystical connection to Britain and all things British. In my teens, as I became disillusioned with the religious culture I was raised in, I realized that Grahame’s four animal friends embodied an ethos both simpler and more profound than the dogmas of conservative Christianity: reverence for nature and its seasonal rhythms, the joys and obligations of friendship, patient acceptance of one another’s differences, appropriate awe in the presence of the supernatural, and recognition of the sanctity of afternoon tea. When my Avon paperback started to get shabby I graduated to a hardbound edition illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. This probably explains why, as most of my generation were identifying with The Catcher in the Rye, I was dreaming of “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (chapter 7 of The Wind in the Willows).

Thank you, Bonnie!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Putting a Price on Art

What price art? That is a thorny question. Yes, I want to to sell my collage art. Coming up with a price is tricky.... Cynics look at collage and see a few pieces of paper glued down. Those who have tried their hand at collage, quilting, mosaics, etc. know that a lot goes into assembling all those small pieces together. It begins with the hunt for materials, then more time is spent assembling and cutting various pieces for the composition. Some will be used, some not. I use archival matboard as a substrata. It is sold in big sheets and must be cut up into usable sizes.

Also needed: a sense of color, balance, design, and some sort of theme. The theme may be clear cut from the get-go, or evolve during the process. And let's not forget tools: various scissors, a paper cutter, glue, rulers. If you get into adding more media, the list is endless. I use Copic markers (the most expensive kind), colored pencils, paint. Sometimes I use stencils. For my assemblage projects, the ingredients list grows much longer and esoteric.

Perhaps the hardest thing to factor is time. Some collages come together magically with little or no fuss or agony. You sail right through and it feels like heaven. Others start easily enough, but may take hours to finish. The last few pieces are usually the trickiest for me. Knowing when to stop is a part of any creative process. And how do you measure the time that you have spent developing your craft?

Anyway, all this comes to mind as we come up into the fall and winter holiday season. Yesterday I placed a bunch of small assemblages with the Texas Art Asylum here in Houston. They have had four other larger works for months. None have sold, so it was certainly hospitable of them to take a bunch more. I checked on my labyrinth-themed art on consignment with Lucia's Garden. None have sold. Yes, the economy is much challenged right now. But I am determined to push my particular boulder uphill. I have signed up for the AIGA Annual Art Festival taking place at the Heights Theater on November 5th. My art is also for sale through and Saatchi Online. Caladan Gallery also still provides access to fifteen works from my Summer of 2011 solo show. Recently, I have also donated art to charity auctions. After the new year, depending how things go, I may try selling through Etsy.

It's not that I would starve unless I sell my art, it's that I'd love to get it into the hands of people that would appreciate it. I'd like to think my art matters to more people than just me. I know my life is much enriched by the art I surround myself with, and by the art I view in museums, books, etc. I find a parallel in what Adrienne Rich said of poetry, that it is: "News in verse that men and women require as much as their daily bread." Visual art, too, provides longed-for sustenance.

collage by Keddy Ann Outlaw: "Citrus 3", in homage to Jeff McKissack, creator of the Orange Show

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Michigan Gals

When I think of Michigan fiction writers, Jim Harrison is the first one to come to mind. Now I've got two more talented writers from the Wolverine State to keep up with: Ellen Airgood and Bonnie Jo Campbell. They are both Michigan residents who have written fine novels about gutsy young women.

South of Superior (Riverhead, 2011) by Ellen Airgood stole my heart. Although her mother's family was rooted in McAllestar, a small town in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), Madeline Stone was raised in Chicago. When she was very young, Madeline's mother abandoned her and she was adopted by a kind-hearted woman who recently died of cancer. Soon Madeline packs up her life in Chicago and moves north to the U.P. She stays with two sisters (one sweet and one rather sour) well into their senior years, one of whom (the sour one, Gladys) used to live with her grandfather. She begins to meet many colorful, cantankerous, but good and generous townspeople, folks who have survived many hard times and long winters. Madeline loses her heart to a young boy whose mother is incarcerated. She works for, but then loses the trust of a man who seemingly works 24/7 trying to make a living as as a prison guard and pizza maker. Before too long, Madeline harbors dreams of renovating the rundown and quaint hotel owned by Gladys' family. She begins to paint pictures of Lake Superior as seen from the attic window of the hotel. Will Madeline make peace with the tangled bits of family history she uncovers? Will she and the town take to each other? McAllestar in winter is not for sissies. Will she make it there, and will her dreams flourish? Read it and see! I promise you it is worth it. Ellen Airgood knows the U.P. well, and it shows. She and her husband run a diner in the Lake Superior town of Grand Marias, Michigan, perfect credentials for writing this cozy yet unsentimental, homespun type of fiction.

Once Upon a River (Norton, 2011) by Bonnie Jo Campbell is not for the faint of heart, as the novel involves plenty of guns, guts and blood spill. Sixteen year-old Margo Crane emulates Annie Oakley, and becomes quite the sharpshooter herself. Usually she hunts deer and other four-legged protein sources. But if the people she loves are in danger, Margo is quick to draw a weapon. When her father dies following a real mixed-up, messed-up family feud, Margo quits school and starts living by her wits alongside the Stark River in rural Michigan. Sometimes she lives in boats, at other times she takes shelter with men of all ages. She becomes a skilled manipulator of men, not that she's always wise in the men she chooses. Readers quickly learn that Margo is bound for trouble at every turn. What kept me from finding Margo's sometimes violent odyssey unbearable was her deep connection with nature. Margo loves the silence of the woods, the rise of the river, birds in flight. Attuned to the wilderness, she manages to evolve and survive. Once Upon A River is a novel of endurance I won't easily forget.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Recent Collages


Of the Earth #1

Ferris 13

The Empty Vase

Cartographia #3

2011, Keddy Ann Outlaw

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Three Good Novels

I just finished A Good Hard Look (Penguin, 2011) by Ann Napolitano. Perhaps you've heard of it, since there has been a lot of buzz about a book daring to introduce writer Flannery O'Connor as a fictional character. But actually she is not on stage in this novel very much, crippled by lupus, homebound at her mother's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, writing her novels and stories, sitting out on the front porch surrounded by her raucous brood of peacocks and other birds. Instead, the main characters are mostly townspeople, some who have regular contact with Flannery, some none at all. Yet their lives very much resemble one of her short stories, full of tragedy and rare moments of grace. Although I couldn't totally buy some of the goings-on pertaining to these characters, I very much admired Napolitano's portrait of Flannery. Her stubbornness, bluntness and lack of sentimentality are a few of the characteristics that really rang true for me. Although I have found reading O'Connor to be something like a daunting, scream-filled roller coaster ride, years ago I went through a stage of literary curiosity where I dipped into The Habit of Being, O'Connor's collected letters, so I know enough to say that Napolitano truly called forth the writer's essence. Never mind the other characters -- my favorite scenes involved Flannery and her peacocks. "The birds soothed her; their bright colors and disdainful expressions were precisely what she wished to see." (p. 288)

Solomon's Oak (Bloomsbury, 2010) by Jo-Ann Mapson is the kind of domestic fiction I think of as my bread-and-butter reading. Recently widowed Glory Solomon lives on a farm in California where an two hundred year-old large white oak tree reigns supreme. Photographers and seekers from around the world often stop by asking for permission to hang out under the tree's branches. Glory's husband built a small chapel near the tree, and she has started offering catered weddings there. Her finances are so tight she also holds down a job at the local Target store. She is also a dog trainer. Against her better judgement, she takes in a pierced and tattooed foster child, Juniper McGuire. Their rocky relationship is bettered when photographer Joseph Vigil, a former cop recovering from a painful gunshot wound, becomes a regular visitor to the farm. All three characters are suffering. And I found I very much cared what happened to them, which for me is the essence of a good read.

I've been meaning to catch up with Sarah Addison Allen ever since I listed Garden Spells as one of my favorite books of 2008. I picked up The Girl Who Chased the Moon (Bantam, 2010) in an airport a few months ago, and by the end of a long day of travel, that book was fully consumed. Emily Benedict is seventeen years old when she meets her (eight foot tall) maternal grandfather for the first time. She moves into his home in Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to learn more about her deceased mother. Instead she has stepped into a fairytale; the wallpaper in her room changes much as a mood ring might, and ghost lights appear in the yard. She becomes friends with Julia Winterson, a baker whose cakes represent all her hopes in the world, having aromas so powerful they seem to rise up off the pages. For more sweetness, there are romantic elements. And of course, secrets bubbling under the surface of the town. Add it all up and you've got a frothy, offbeat fun read. If you like Alice Hoffman, you'll enjoy Sarah Addison Allen.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Those Loveable Waltons

I am deep into Season Six of The Waltons. At the end of Season Five, John-Boy had his first novel published and moved to New York City. He was moved to tears at leaving Walton's Mountain and I admit it, my eyes were not dry either. My IRS tax refund gift to myself this year was a complete set of The Waltons tv series. My husband keeps asking me what I'll do when I finish the series, which runs to nine seasons. I truly don't know, for I find an hour or two of Waltons daily to be most satisfying.

I've written before about my enjoyment of books that have homespun appeal. Much of Earl Hamner's oeuvre, including books, film and tv, has that Depression-era, down to earth, homespun quality. But did you know he also wrote for The Twilight Zone and Falcon Crest? Not to mention the screenplay for Charlotte's Web (1973). Somewhere in my Hamner research and reading, I came across an anecdote where Earl Hamner answered the phone from his desk where he was finishing up his Charlotte's Web script. The caller asked why he sounded choked-up. His answer: "A spider just died."

But back to The Waltons. One of the things I appreciate is the religious differences between Oliva (Michael Learned) and John Walton (Ralph Waite). She is a Baptist and he is unchurched, although he does go along to church every once in awhile to keep the peace or see his children perform. At various times in the series he is called to explain that life is a great mystery, and that we are all a part of it. He walks his own walk, which matches his talk, and he is an archetypal good father. Not that Olivia doesn't keep hoping and trying to convert him to her faith! I also love the way the family has its squabbles but always manages to come together. Yes, that might be a little idealistic, but there is also a great deal of realism involved in depicting the whole 1930s and 40s era rural Virginia way of life. Butter gets churned, pennies pinched and treasured, wood chopped, hand-me-downs worn and made over into quilts.

For me, the Waltons are salt of the earth type folks, exemplifying common decency and compassion for others, be they human or animal. Grandpa Zeb Walton (Will Geer) is a walking encyclopedia of mountain ecology, folklore and family history. His wife, Esther (Ellen Corby) is one of tv's most delightfully vinegary characters. The entire clan is based on Hamner' own family, including a preponderance of red hair amongst the children. Richard Thomas is brilliant as John-Boy. I admit it, I have trouble believing these characters are not real. I care deeply what happens to them. And so I treasure watching each episode, down home on their mountain, no matter that most of the filming took place on some Hollywood lot. The wonderful voice-overs introducing each show are read by Mr. Hamner himself.

In 2002, Earl Hamner and Ralph Giffin came out with the book Goodnight John-Boy: A Celebration of an American Family and the Values That Have Sustained Us Through Good Times and Bad (Cumberland House), which I have enjoyed consulting as I work my way through the series. Some day I would like to visit the Walton's Mountain Museum in Schuyler, Virginia. I'm all ears for any view-alike type recommendations of what to watch when the last goodnight sounds from that cozy Walton's homestead. To close, here is an exemplary quote from the series.

Olivia Walton: [after John Boy has read her a poem for her birthday] "John Boy, those words were just like listenin' to music. I don't really understand what the poem meant, but I think those were just about the most beautiful words I ever heard."
John Boy: "Well, I think the poem has a meaning, um, to me; it means that some things which may seem too simple, or unimportant, or even just downright plain, those things are really every bit as important and every bit as beautiful as the most magnificent things in the whole world." - from Season 2, episode 13, The Air-Mail Man.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason

I sometimes have to be talked into reading World War II fiction. It is perhaps too easy to dismiss the topic, thinking we've heard it all before. But when one of my favorite authors, Bobbie Ann Mason, came out with The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, 2011), I stepped up to the challenge, and am here to report it was well worth the effort. I felt the same way last year when I read The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Knopf, 2010), a title included on Texas Library Association's 2011 Lariat List. Both seduced me with their Parisian atmosphere and brooding, troubled characters.

Come to think of it, I've probably learned more about World War II from fiction than from reading history. Maybe some of that knowledge is a little less than factual, but I'd like to think I've gone deep into the whole worrisome gestalt of the time period and gained both compassion and insight. One of my library customers, a World War II vet, read nothing but World War II books for the twenty-something years I was privileged to be his librarian, and sometimes he shared small remembrances of the war with me. Also I will never forget a Holocaust Museum Houston program we hosted at the library where a Holocaust survivor came to tell us his story of concentration camp survival and release.

Mason's The Girl in the Blue Beret was inspired by the wartime experience of her father-in-law, Barney Rawlings. The novel closes with a selected bibliography as well as acknowledgements to the many experts and survivors she interviewed and corresponded with during the course of writing the novel. Although I'm no authority, the novel felt extremely authentic and well researched. It took me awhile to warm to retired jumbo jet pilot Marshall Stone, the novel's main character, but I felt interested in his quest to return to France and bind up the loose ends left hanging for decades since the wartime when his B-17 was shot down and crash-landed in Belgium near Nazi-occupied France.

Stone and his surviving crew members were hidden and helped by members of the French Resistance. He especially recalls a teen-aged school girl named Annette, who wore a blue beret and led him around Paris. Her family hid and helped many such Americans, forging false identification papers for them, making sure they were guided across the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. When Marshall finds Annette, now a widow, the whole tone of the novel deepens and finds sure ground. The back story of what happened to Annette's family and other brave members of the Resistance who helped Marshall and others, brings all the barbarity of the war into sharp focus. Marshall will be forever changed by what he learns from Annette and others. He realizes how little he really knew back then when he was just another cocky flyboy. "He had been ignorant. Maybe he had never learned anything truly important until these last few days."

Reading The Girl in the Blue Beret, we are witness to all that was horrible and all that was heroic from that time in occupied Europe. Annette shrugs it off, but I for one, was immensely moved by both her story and unforgettable spirit. Bobbie Ann Mason blew me away back in 1985 with her Vietnam War-related novel, In Country, and she's done it again with The Girl in the Blue Beret, and for that I am thankful.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Costa Rica!

Eight days in Costa Rica gave my camera a real workout! I wish Blogger would let me write about each photo directly underneath it, but no luck there...(if anyone knows a way to get around this limitation, I'd love to hear about it). Although most of my photos were family snapshots, here are a few others in homage to a beautiful country. My favorite things about Costa Rica were: the incredible tropical foliage, the wildlife, the people, the food and art. One by one from the top, here are the photo descriptions:

1. A Pacific Ocean sunset as seen from the deck of El Avion restaurant, Manual Antonio.

2. My camera batteries gave up on me right after this shot of a monkey climbing onto our tour boat during a mangrove swamp tour. They were white-faced capuchin monkeys, and they scampered back and forth from our boat to the shore when the tour guide offered them coconut meat. One even scampered over my head!

3. A ubiquitous Coca-Cola sign.

4. Rather dreamy foliage as seen through a van window during light rain. (This is the rainy season in Costa Rica. How I wish we could divert some of that rain here to Houston.)

5. My encounter with a toucan at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

6. Sarongs for sale at market in Manual Antonio. My sisters-in-law and I bought plenty of those!

7. Heliconia plants in the rainforest.

8. Tree canopy -- so lacy and green. Someone told me this is called the monkey tail tree, but I'm not 100% sure of that.

Eco-tourism is certainly a big part of the Costa Rican economy. At times I felt there were a few too many tourists everywhere we went, even though the rainy season is said to be the slow season. Being a tourist is always a little uncomfortable for me, but all the Costa Rican people (known as Ticos) were so warm and welcoming, I had to get over that. Going green is a natural for Costa Rica. They have plenty of beauty to preserve. So much of their food is locally grown: bananas, pineapple, coconut, coffee, etc. As a librarian, I was impressed to learn they had a 96% literacy rate. Many people speak both Spanish and English. Their national brand is "Pura Vida", the pure life, and is also used colloquially meaning full of life, the good life, going great, etc. Heres to la pura vida!

photos by KAO

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dance: an Interview with Liesa Bassoi Pedersen

Lisa Bassoi Pedersen is the founder of Masouda Dance Ensemble in Plattsburgh , New York. She and I were close friends in college, where we shared our love of books, art, crocheting and life in general. Liesa was the first person I knew who had a green thumb, and to this day I picture her pinching her coleus house plants in just the right manner to make them thrive. Liesa became a dancer after I left Plattsburgh, and although I have yet to attend one of her dance events due to the long distance between us, I have kept up with her ensemble via emails and youtube.

How did you get into belly dancing?
I come from a mixed ethnic heritage from NYC - my favorite family functions were weddings on the Turkish side complete with mesmerizing music and Belly dancers! In the 60's, my beatnik older sister took me to the 8th Avenue clubs in Greenwich Village & I was hooked! I took folk dance & modern dance classes as a teen; and Turkish dance at the local coffee shop & art gallery where I went to high school. I started serious study Middle Eastern Dance with Amira (Joanne Ives) in Plattsburgh NY in the 80's.

Tell us about the evolution of your Masouda Dance Ensemble.
I loved being in my teacher's dance troupe "Hayetti" (my heart, my life - Arabic). When she retired I took up the torch and formed my own group. Masouda means happy, lucky, fortunate in Arabic. I consider us fortunate to spread the joy of dance! I formed it in 1993 as a collection of students to perform at local functions. As time went on, the ones that stayed pursued studies in dance and our tone evolved into a finely honed professional group. Some of my troupe members have studied in Egypt. At this point the core group has been with me over 15 years; and all the members have had extensive dance training in various areas of dance and movement. The newest member joined a few months ago. I am very proud of the hard work, energy, and creativity that they put into troupe.

Tell us a bit about what's involved in belly dance choreography and costuming.
Music drives the choreography - Arabic music has an emotional quality produced by quatertones; and the percussive TEKs of the doumbek drum make it impossible to sit still! I start with a piece a music that calls to me; or with an idea that calls to me. Then I work out the nuts and bolts of the choreography according to basic movement principles. I make notes with how many beats are in a certain section; draw pictures of the sounds of the music; write a story about the music - I have a lot of tools in my box. It is like any other endeavor to me: inspiration + sweat = result. I am constantly dreaming of dances, movement, body placement.
Costuming: same as above but more challenging due to money and time constraints! I design most of the costumes for troupe, classes, and my solo work. Then it's a matter or how to make, what parts to purchase, what's affordable, who can sew, etc. I cull ideas from everywhere and am constantly dreaming of colors, fabrics, shapes...I research traditional Middle Eastern Dance costumes, current styles, and theatrical treatments as well.

How does teaching dance inspire you?
I love to share the growth of my students as dance leads them to a place of freedom, self acceptance, and a joy in music and movement. It's been over 20 yrs and I never tire of the process.

How does dance inspire and/or change the lives of your students?
Most of them say things along the lines of "It has opened up a whole new world for me"; "I always loved to dance; now I have somewhere to channel that"; "I had no body confidence or awareness, now I have gained some" and my favorite "I've become addicted to Belly Dance - there's just something about the music and the movements!!"

What's next for you? To keep the next generation of dancers growing so I can pass the torch on when the time comes!

Thank you, Liesa!

Photos by Ron Nolland:
Liesa on stage.
Masouda Dance Ensemble, 2011,bottom L to R: Ali, Ilana; middle: Treza, Samian, Erika; top, Caitie, Liesa, Paul Pedersen, drummer for the Ensemble.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Despite the Near Drought

Despite this summer's near-drought conditions, some of the foliage in our yard continues to flourish. And yes, our water bill has been larger than our electric bill for a couple of months, even though we take certain water conservation measures. Houston is a difficult summer gardening locale and I am always looking for plants that thrive in spite of our heat and humidity. Here are some photos of the happiest plants that produced the large water bills. Not shown -- brown grass and the bare spots where the tomatoes used to be.....

1. Last of the sunflowers, in front of a jicama vine growing towards the roof.

2. Unknown hanging plant that grows strangely embryonic looking flower heads.

3. Coneflowers (Echinacea) -- largely dependable, and the flowers last a long time.

4. Blanketflowers (Gaillardia).

5. Two tiny Meyer lemons (hope you can see them) on a miniature tree the Friends of West University Library gave me a couple of years ago.

6. Hibiscus growing in a planter on the patio -- they come and go in the space of one day.

Photos by KAO

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux

I borrowed The Journal Keeper: a Memoir (Atlantic Monthly, 2010) by Phyllis Theroux from the library, but halfway through it I knew I better order my own copy; there were just too many passages worth keeping. In other words, this is a book of uncommon substance, rich and thought-provoking. The author is very much a reader and thinker, peppering her memoir with brief excerpts from a wide range of writers. Theroux skillfully relates their wisdom to whatever is going on in her life. She dips into Ralph Waldo Emerson, Karen Armstrong, Lao-Tzu, Eckhart Tolle and Gary Zukav, to name a few.

Theroux is a journalist, novelist and creative writing teacher based in Ashland, Virginia. To hear her tell it, Ashland is a small town laced with colorful characters and charmed views. But it doesn't much matter where Theroux lives because wherever she goes, her writer's eye for detail paints a vibrant picture. During the course of the five years presented here, Theroux loses her mother, who she had been lovingly sharing her house with. Suddenly, the writer is alone. Her three children are grown and gone. Matters of mortality, aging, independence, home maintenance, faith, finance, love and family are given careful consideration.

In Theroux's contemplative search for what matters most, her journal is the perfect stomping ground. As per Ralph Waldo Emerson, "There is guidance for each of us and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word." Such "lowly listening" is presented as her own inner voice, the one she searches out so carefully. And here is her angle on the process of keeping journal that I most loved: that journals are a place "to collect the light" and can function as a personal cheering section. Journals can also be a ragbag of impressions, later laid out into a beautifully embellished quilt, and that indeed, is what I found in Theroux's insightful book.

Here is one passage that exemplifies her substantial way with words:
Yesterday was a perfect summer day. All the earth was perfectly moist, the weeds came up easily, the grass glistened, and I spent nearly all day outside planting flowers, pulling up lamb's-quarter, and reclaiming the garden. It is beginning to have a luxuriant cared-for look. And even though, at various times during the day, I realized I was alone and should perhaps be uneasy over this, I dismissed the thought as unworthy of the day itself.

Perhaps this book can be most enjoyed by those in midlife or beyond. Enlightenment and wonder sure to follow!