Thursday, April 28, 2011

Remember Ben Clayton by Stephen Harrigan

Texas novelist Stephen Harrigan only gets better. Remember Ben Clayton (Knopf, 2011) is his latest masterpiece, and because of its accomplished literary gravitas, I was very much reminded of Wallace Stegner. This is a novel of substance! I was lucky to pick up an advanced reader's copy at the TLA conference; the official publication date is May 24, 2011.

Who is Ben Clayton? He is a young soldier who died in France during World War I. His father, Texas rancher Lamar Clayton, wishes to immortalize his son by commissioning a sculpture in his honor. He hires Francis "Gil" Gilheaney to design the piece. Gilheaney is a sculptor who fears his best days may be past, yet when he visits the remote ranch setting where Clayton envisions placing the sculpture, his deepest artistic ambitions are stirred. Ben had a horse he loved, and the horse too will be created in bronze. At this point, readers too are bound to start envisioning the sculpture; I know I did...

These two characters are satisfyingly complex, as are others I will tell you about in a minute. Lamar Clayton has an interesting back story. As a child he was kidnapped by Comanche Indians, and grew up learning their fierce warrior ways. Both men are widowers. Gilheaney hid the very existence of his marriage to a non-Catholic from his very Catholic mother, a holy card painter. This secret grew to include the existence of his only child, a daughter, Maureen, who is very much her father's artistic helpmate and an aspiring sculptor herself. Maureen's somewhat late coming of age is also an intriguing part of the plot. The fourth character of substance is a young soldier named Arthur Fry, Ben's GI buddy who was with him when he died in battle. Arthur's face is so torn up, he decides to stay on in France after the war rather than face going back to the States. During the course of the novel, he and Maureen become pen pals, and eventually Arthur meets both Maureen and her father when they travel to France. These characters' stories are deftly interwoven and deeply compelling. The sculpture commission has its setbacks, and there are many personal crises revealed and resolved as this beautiful novel plays out. I've been travelling these last few weeks, doing plenty of reading along the way, but this is the novel that stuck with me.

At the TLA conference a few weeks ago, I heard a fellow librarian comment that World War I stories are almost becoming a genre themselves. Others fast agreed, thinking of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, as well as novels by Anne Perry, Jeff Shaara and Ken Follett, to mention a few.

Stephen Harrigan's books always have strong Texas settings, but this time around, elements of France and New York City also add to the success of the novel. When I read Jacob's Well (set in and around Austin) by Harrigan shortly after it was published in 1985, I knew I wanted to read more of his writing. From then on, I mostly came across his nonfiction pieces in Texas Monthly magazine. Many of those fine writings are available in his essay collections. But it is his novels that bring me the most joy. He won the Spur Award for the Best Novel of the West from the Western Writers of America for The Gates of the Alamo (Knopf, 2000). Also a screenwriter, Harrigan is a University of Texas faculty member at the James A. Michener Center for Writers. While researching his life for this blog post, I learned he is involved with Capital Area Statues, Inc., a nonprofit group that raises funds for public monuments celebrating the history of Texas. (Now I know how the wonderful Philosopher's Rock sculpture at Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park, Austin came to be!)

For a short video of Stephen Harrigan discussing the genesis of Remember Ben Clayton and other matters, click here to visit the Texas Monthly website.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hot Off the Press: the 2011 Lariat List

I have just returned from Austin, where I attended the Texas Library Association conference largely to finish out my second year as a member of the Lariat List task force. Twelve librarians from around the state met to craft the second annual Lariat List of Recommended Adult Fiction. And so it is my pleasure to present it below. Happy reading!

Belfer, Lauren. Fierce Radiance (HarperCollins.) On the eve of World War II, when Life photojournalist Claire Shipley files a story about the development of penicillin, she stumbles upon corporate espionage and murder. An enlightening look at life before antibiotics.

Billingsley, ReShonda Tate. Holy Rollers (Gallery/Simon and Schuster). Frustrated in their searches for Mr. Right, three women turn to the pulpit looking for love. Self reflection follows as the women realize that loving and living is serious business. Readers ride through the highs and lows of rejection, respect and relationships.

Bognanni, Peter. House of Tomorrow (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam/Penguin). Teenager Sebastian Prendergast is thrown from the sheltered world of his eccentric, Buckminster-Fuller-worshiping Nana into the life of a family struggling with monumental issues. An off-beat, humorous read.

Borodale, Jane. Book of Fires (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking/Penguin). London, 1752. Seventeen year-old Agnes Trussel becomes an assistant to a master fireworks maker. What will happen when her pregnancy becomes known? Captivating and colorful historical fiction.

Burke, James Lee. Glass Rainbow (Simon and Schuster). Detective Dave Robicheaux is on the hunt for a serial killer in his own backyard of southern Louisiana. His daughter’s boyfriend might be one of the suspects. Strong, colorful characters drive this hard boiled thriller.

Cisneros, Carlos. The Name Partner (Arte Publico Press). Ambitious South Texas attorney Guillermo “Billy” Bravo struggles with ethics when a complex pharmaceutical case becomes personal. Fast-paced suspense with lots of twists and turns.

Cowell, Stephanie. Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet (Crown/Random House). Step into the world of French Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his wife/muse Camille. Amidst the colorful stories of their circle of struggling artists, their unruly love story unfolds. A deeply felt, vividly told tale of art history.

Donoghue, Emma. Room (Little, Brown and Co./Hachette). Five-year-old Jack and his mother live as resourceful prisoners in the small room that is their universe. Will they escape? A harrowing emotional drama you will never forget.

Ferraris, Zoe. City of Veils (Little, Brown and Co./Hachette). Saudi desert guide Nayir and forensic technician Katya link disparate events leading to kidnapping and murder. A thought provoking mystery revealing women’s lives beneath the veil. A fascinating read.

Fortier, Anne. Juliet (Ballantine/Random House). American Julie Jacobs is shocked to learn she is a descendant of Guiletta Tolomei immortalized by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. As she traces her ancestry she begins to fear that old curse, “A plague on both your houses!” is still at work – and she is the next target. An unusual premise in a beautiful setting.

Franklin, Tom. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (William Morrow/HarperCollins). Small town Mississippi Constable Silas Jones investigates the disappearance of a local girl. His former childhood friend Larry Ott is the main suspect. Racial tensions and family secrets abound in this tight psychological thriller.

Gardner, Lisa. Live To Tell (Bantam/ Random House). Detective D. D. Warren’s investigation of a family annihilation leads her to a juvenile psychiatric ward where personal demons come back to haunt her. An intense and fast-paced thriller.

Hornung, Eva. Dog Boy (Viking/Penguin). Abandoned and alone, 4 year old Romochka, finds both home and family with feral dogs in post- apocalyptic Moscow. Gritty, not for the faint of heart.

Hurwitz, Gregg Andrew. They’re Watching (St. Martin’s Press/ Macmillan). Patrick Davis is failing in his career and marriage; who would want to stalk him? But incoming mysterious DVDs and phone calls show someone is doing just that. Plot twists keep the reader guessing until the very end.

Koryta, Michael. So Cold the River. (Little, Brown and Co./Hachette). Washed-up filmmaker, Eric Shaw arrives in West Baden, Indiana to research the life of a reclusive billionaire. After sampling the town’s famous “Pluto Water” his nightmares begin. A gothic chiller.

Larson, Leslie. Breaking Out of Bedlam (Shaye Areheart/Random House). After her children put her in assisted living, feisty octogenarian Cora Sledge records her life story in a journal and plots her escape. Hilarious and heartwarming.

Mosley, Walter. Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Riverhead/Penguin). During a reprieve from his dementia, Ptolemy Grey puts his life in order and darn near adopts a homeless girl. Great realistic dialog drives this novel about an unexpected relationship and the power of memory.

Orringer, Julie. Invisible Bridge (Knopf/Random House). A young Hungarian man moves to Paris to study architecture and falls in love with a ballet teacher nine years older. Both Jewish, their lives as well as their families are torn apart by World War II. A top-notch historical epic.

Pickard, Nancy. Scent of Rain and Lightning (Ballantine/Random House). The man who went to prison for killing her father 23 years ago is back on the streets. Should Jody Linder believe new rumors of his innocence? Surprise and suspense electrify a small town in Kansas.

Simonson, Helen. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Random House). Major Pettigrew, a widower in a small English village, faces racism and resistance to change when he falls in love with a Pakistani shopkeeper. A sweet, leisurely paced comedy of manners.

Stevens, Chevy. Still Missing (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan. Realtor Annie Sullivan is kidnapped and held captive in a secluded mountain cabin. Will she survive? A suspenseful debut novel with unpredictable elements.

Stuart, Julia. The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise (Doubleday/Random House). Living in the Tower of London with The Royal Menagerie and a cast of eccentric characters, Beefeater Balthazar Jones finds his life at a crossroads as he deals with the death of his son, his crumbling marriage and his 180-year-old runaway tortoise. Funny, touching and quirky.

Vantrease, Brenda Rickman. Heretic’s Wife (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan). Kate Gough smuggles Lutheran bibles into Henry VIII’s England. To be caught by Thomas More would mean death at the stake. Tense and compelling historical fiction.

Verdon, John. Think of a Number. (Crown/Random House). A retired detective is drawn into a complex puzzle laid out by a killer who asks his victims to “think of a number.” This cunning perpetrator knows when your number is up. A brainy thriller.

Zepeda, Gwendolyn. Lone Star Legend. (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). When Austin journalist Sandy Saavedra is reluctantly transformed into a successful gossip blogger, the resultant celebrity spillover into her real life leads to surprising outcomes. Laugh your way through a novel well seasoned with blog posts, emails and the advice column “Just ask the Chupacabra."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Photography: an Interview with Ron Nolland

Photographer Ron Nolland lives in Plattsburgh, New York, a place very dear to my heart. He and I are old friends, and when my husband and I visited Plattsburgh this past fall, we much enjoyed seeing some of his photography not only at his home, but also in the hotel where we stayed. To see more of Ron's photos, visit zenfolio.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography. After not having a camera for many years, my wife urged me to get one as we were expecting our first grandchild, and she thought photography would satisfy my artistic side. I play music, and enjoyed writing, but had not been active in anything creative in quite a while. I bought a point-and-shoot, and took lots of family snapshots. I enjoyed taking pictures of nature when I walked my dog along the river, starting to see images all around me I needed to capture. I bought a better camera, and used it for almost five years before moving up to a digital SLR. I entered my work in member shows at the local cultural center, and it was well received. The director asked me to exhibit at an off-site gallery (a doctor's office), and urged me to get a grant to help pay framing expenses. That led to exhibits other places, joining an Artist's Co-op Gallery, and eventually getting another grant. Once the creative flow started, it was impossible to stop. I work full-time, so the photography is truly for art's sake, although it is supporting itself through sales of my work.

For you, what is success in photography? I have had several solo exhibits, and have had my work chosen for all the juried shows I entered. These would normally be considered as "success", but I actually think of the real success as being when someone looks at one of my photos and sees what I saw and explains my work to me; then I know they got it! People will often say "what a beautiful photograph", or how nice an image of something generally accepted as pleasing is (such as a sunset or landscape), and that is satisfying to some degree. But the real success is when they look at an image that is not your standard pretty picture, and see the subtle, hidden qualities that made the image speak to me and to them.

How would you describe your style? I shoot most of my images outdoors, where I like to find patterns in nature that often go unnoticed. The abstract lines, curves, and relationships between shapes of the mundane take on a quality reflective of the world around us, yet usually not glorified. Tiny wildflowers and weeds can be as gorgeous as the orchids and roses we usually see photographed. Subtle patterns in flowing water or ice, reflections of sunsets rendered as abstract patterns all interest me. Close-up photographs of tiny pieces of nature show us that everything is a part of the larger fabric of life, and I try to show both the the threads and the cloth. I try to be, and my work is often described as "painterly".

Tell us more about your subjects and themes. Do you chose them or do they chose you? I live in a beautiful area, the Adirondacks, which means there are great mountains, Lake Champlain, and several rivers nearby. Photography of plants at all stages of growth, from sprouting to their return to the ground interests me. As I look around, the images say "pick me, pick me" and I try to bring them back with me to show others. It is very difficult to take what you see and have others see it too. Sometimes I don't chose images that have presented themselves because I fear they will not translate. I am learning that I should not fear that and should let images have a chance to reach others and not to worry about viewers "getting it". Otherwise, I would only have the safe, commercially viable images, and my photography would be the less for it.

What is your favorite camera and photography software? I am presently using a Canon T2i digital SLR with kit lenses (18-55 and 55-250 mm). I used a Konica Minolta A200 for five years and kept is because it is still a great camera. The Canon is a step up, but requires more work for the finished product, including more post-processing of the image with software. I shoot in RAW, which is an uncompressed file format that allows much more control of the image. I was using Photoshop CS2 for post-processing, but have since been doing most of my work in Lightroom 3, which handles RAW files better.

Name some of your favorite photographers. Of course it is easy to say we all like Adams, Liebovitz, Cartier-Bresson and all the other greats that have been around. National Geographic has many people whose names you wouldn't know who do great work, but my favorite photographers are my fellow enthusiasts. When photographers with big travel budgets go to exotic places with expensive equipment and a staff to help, you expect some pretty good photos will be produced. When we enthusiasts do this, our kits cost less than one lens for a pro, yet it is amazing what we find. A large online community has developed, and it is inspirational for me to see the quality there. I enjoy looking at this work as much as that of the famous photographers, if not more.

What's next for you? I have started to do custom photography. I was hired to take shots of a property with beaver ponds and forests during all four seasons. I hope to expand this concept for people that want fine art photos of a particular place. I recently did a series involving people and their tattoos as part of an exhibit, and my work was well received. I want to learn more about portrait photography and will offer my services at various tattoo shops in the area so people can get artistic photos of themselves and their tattoos. My camera shoots High Definition video, and I hope to start that learning curve and carry the same interest in patterns to moving pictures.

Thank you, Ron!

photos by Ron Nolland: Saranac Sunset, Fiddlehead, Submersive.

photo of Ron by Ernie Lamberti