Thursday, March 31, 2011

Five Good Reads

My two year involvement with the Texas Library Association Lariat Adult Reading List task force comes to an end in about two weeks. We will meet at the annual TLA conference and vote on our favorite 2010 fiction titles. Many are nominated; only 25 can be chosen. Our criteria: that they be "a pleasure to read"... Today I thought I would feature a handful of titles I thought were good reads.

Joyce Maynard is one of my all-time favorite authors, so I knew I would like The Good Daughters (William Morrow, 2010). Two girls born on the same day in a small New Hampshire hospital are as different as can be. One grows up to be a farmer, the other an artist. Neither feels at home in their family. Why? Maynard slowly reveals family secrets that redefine both women's lives.

The Confession (Doubleday, 2010) by John Grisham presents a bleak panorama of the Texas criminal justice system, but as usual this super-popular author uses his top notch storytelling skills to bring a death penalty case into sharp focus. A recently released rapist confesses to murder just as the young black man imprisoned for the murder faces execution. The sweeping cast of characters includes parents of the victim, the wrongly accused prisoner and his family, lawyers, state officials and one minister caught in the middle of it all. A classic legal thriller.

Lauren Belfer's novel, A Fierce Radiance (Harper, 2010) is a fascinating look at the history of penicillin. During the World War II era, Life photojournalist Claire Shipley files a story about the development of the new penicillin drug, a story which becomes so political and sensitive, it is killed. But this isn't the end of her involvement with the new wonder drug, and thus the plot thickens. Set in New York City, this historical thriller was unexpectedly eye-opening. I now have a much greater appreciation for antibiotics.

City of Veils (Little, Brown and Company, 2010) by Zoe Ferraris combines two mystery plots: that of a missing husband and the murder of a female filmmaker. Time frame and place: modern day Saudi Arabia. Katya, a Muslim woman working in the medical examiner's office, steps up to an investigative role. She has to pretend to be married in order to keep her job, and there are some romantic developments stirred into the book's mix. For me the most fascinating part of the novel was learning more about Saudi Arabian women's roles, restrictions and conundrums.

I don't think I ever read anything by Lily King before, but after reading Father of the Rain (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010), I plan to hunt down her earlier books. Told over some forty years, it is one daughter's story of how her allegiance to her alcoholic father both weakens and strengthens her life. Set in an east coast WASP shore town, this novel's time, place and characters rang true for me. If you like your fiction rich, moody and insightful, this is one book you shouldn't miss.

I have about 5 or 6 novels left to read before we vote. Hopefully I will get through them! Although it has surely been a privilege to work on the Lariat list, I must admit I look forward to regaining absolute reading freedom.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dance: an Interview with Sandra Organ

Sandra Organ is the founder and Artistic Director of Earthen Vessels/Sandra Organ Dance Company here in Houston. A former soloist with the Houston Ballet, Sandra was their first African-American ballerina. I am most pleased to start an ongoing series of interviews with creative friends by sharing Sandra's answers to my questions about her career in dance.

What does dance mean to you? Dance is such a part of the fabric of my life; I am not sure who I am without it. Dance is the expression of who I am at my best and worst. It has kept me looking young, but feeling older than my age at times! I think it is everywhere choreographed in the creation surrounding us, the natural forces of life, flight and has been a passion for me, prayer and performance, meditation and movement, a lifestyle and livelihood. It is a privilege, but is a common practice in the cultures of whether upgraded as art or downgraded as exercise, it is inexplicably bound to the universe, a celebration or reflection of the human spirit.

What is your proudest accomplishment as a dancer? Getting to dance the great canons of the classical ballet world -- all the story ballets ("Nutcracker" "Swan Lake", "Sleeping Beauty") -- plus a wonderful stew of works that are more rooted in the modern experience ("There is a Time"/Jose Limon, "Ghost Dances"/Christopher Bruce, "Company B"/Paul Taylor). But even to get into a classical ballet company, be paid union wages to do the thing I loved...and as a black ballerina! There are still too few of us, however.

And as a choreographer? To have one of my works, "to the thawing wind" (entitled from a Robert Frost poem) performed before a national audience brought to Houston by the dance community. To have made over 80 works in 15 years, many about the experience, contributions and inspiring creations of African Americans in celebration of Black History month.

What are you major sources of inspiration? Other works of art and poetry, architecture and form, stories of people and eras of history...recently, add to that: comedians, games of chance, speeches and moods of a nation. I love it that my inspiration points shift and are seemingly inexhaustible.

What can dance do for young people, whether as participants or audience members? Whether dance is an activity used as exercise, entertainment, in competition or social, I think dance is as good as any form of sports in keeping one fit life long. But one must be exposed to or given opportunities to participate in dance by those who value it. I love it that through Earthen Vessels performances, young audiences can see a dance about Harriet Tubman, maybe even before reading about her in American history! Or getting to know the artwork of John Biggers or the music of Scott Joplin from a ballet, which may peak their interest in someone they may not have been familiar with before they stepped into a theater. Dance can be used as a tool to educate, inspire and move one to a different perspective.

What's next for you? For me to continue presenting new works based on the stories and contributions of people of color is my immediate future. I anticipate utilizing new ways to take dance to the public, so organizing some flash mobs and audience participation opportunities will bring more people to see and do dance, one hopes! Lastly, by using movement as meditation, transformation and healing to those broken by life circumstances. That is something I would very much like to pursue, especially as our society begins to face the human tragedies of trafficking and rescuing it victims from the objectification and abuse of their bodies. I think dance can help transfigure, transport and transition those captive into liberation.

Thank you, Sandra!

photos of Sandra Organ by Andis Applewhite

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Collage in Honor of Spring

In honor of the Vernal Equinox tomorrow, here is a recent collage from my new Altarpiece series. "Green Gestures" has been shipped to a friend in North Carolina labeled simply as Altarpiece 15. She took a liking to this particular collage and may wish to chose a title herself.

Spring energies have been active in Houston for the past few weeks. The weather continues to be warm and tolerable. My tomato plants are getting to be knee high, and the cone flowers I transplanted from a neighbor's yard are blooming nicely. We did our annual tear-out of the poison oak vines growing through the fence into our yard from the yard next door. My husband Tom can handle poison oak without getting a rash, but not me -- I break out in blisters just passing anywhere near it. Construction workers are tearing down the ranch house on that lot to rebuild a two-story home. So it's going to be a long noisy summer. But that's life -- ever changing, and in the meantime, I'm happy creating imaginary worlds via collage and mixed media.

"Every spring is the only spring -- a perpetual astonishment." - Ellis Peters

photo: Altarpiece 15: Green Gestures, collage by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Great Grandmother Peg Stanton's Irish Soda Bread

3 cups white flour
1 cup oats (quick or old-fashioned)
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 - 2 Tbsp. caraway seeds (optional)
2 cups raisins
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
additional flour for kneading
1 egg yolk (optional)

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Mix flour, sugar, salt and baking powder together in a large bowl. Stir in caraway seeds.
- Cut in small pieces of butter.
- Add raisins and stir to distribute well.
- In a separate container, combine buttermilk, egg and baking soda. Stir into the flour mixture until just moistened.
- Begin to knead mixture into a large ball, adding more flour as needed. (I have found that doing this right in the bowl is the easiest way. It takes a bit of scraping together to make the dough whole unto itself and ready to knead.) Knead lightly until smooth and shape into a large round loaf.
- Place into a greased cast iron skillet or 2 quart casserole. Cut a large cross on top (to keep the leprechauns away - otherwise they may steal your children, or so I've been told).
- If desired, brush top of loaf with an egg yolk to make it glossy.
- Bake for approximately one hour.
- Cool before cutting. Serve at breakfast (soda bread goes great with scrambled eggs) or at teatime. The soda bread can be eaten plain or buttered.

My mother (who is 100% Irish) remembers growing up surrounded by a tribe of Gaelic-speaking family and friends in Brooklyn during the 1920s. On the way home from school on cold winter days, she loved to stop in at her grandmother Peg Stanton's house to warm her hands in front of the coal stove in the kitchen. If Mom was hungry, she helped herself to a piece of her grandmother's Irish soda bread that was always ready and waiting, wrapped in a clean tea towel in the middle of the table. "No sooner were you cutting into it than she was at the stove baking another," Mom recalls. She taught me how to make it, and I like to send her a loaf every now and then. Mom is age 92 and has stopped baking.

I did make one change to the recipe when I substituted a cup of oatmeal for some of the flour, to make the bread a bit healthier. You can also use some wheat flour if you like. When I went to Ireland years ago, I sampled many types of soda bread and they were all different. At Christmas time, I sometimes use dried cherries or cranberries instead of raisins. Also, you can make two round loaves or shape the dough into scone shapes, in which case the baking time may be shorter.

Erin Go Bragh!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Playing the Tourist in My Own City, Houston

Shadows in office windows, downtown Houston.

March of the stumps near the pond in Heritage Park.

Azaleas in bloom, Heritage Park.

Fence ends, Heritage Park.

In the shadow of skyscrapers, the "Old Place" (1823) @ Heritage Park.

Mural, downtown Houston.

Wonderful new Tolerance Sculpture by Jaume Plensa, Allen Parkway, Houston.

Another Tolerance Sculpture (one of seven) by Jaume Plensa, Allen Parkway, Houston.

As you can see, I got carried away taking photos today, allowing myself a few hours walking around downtown and riding the bus through the Allen Parkway area. I needed to go to the downtown City Library and elected to ride a Metro bus, something I do rarely. The ride there was fine, but I had to wait an hour for the bus back. Apparently the bus I thought I would catch in 10 or 15 minutes suffered a breakdown. Thank goodness the weather was what we call "tolerable" here - yes a bit humid, but not too hot yet. I don't know how I might have stood that hour wait in the true heat of summer.

I always feel like a stranger when I walk around downtown, even though it is just a few miles from our house. Often when my husband and I go down there, it is for a theater performance or jury duty, etc. Rarely do I wander around taking in all the ambiance. At mid-day the streets are full of well-dressed office workers who look very savvy and accustomed to the downtown scene. I actually feel much more at home on the streets of Manhattan; maybe it's hard-wired into me since I grew up there. And the public transportation in New York is pretty reliable. Not that I don't love Houston, but New York City it is not. I feel much more at home in the Museum district here, or in my neighborhood near the Medical Center. But I love exploring new corners of my adopted city. Downtown is growing by leaps and bounds, and there is plenty to see and do.

I love the new Allen Parkway Tolerance sculptures of kneeling human figures made of enmeshed multilingual metal letters. They have a very ephemeral, spiritual quality. I could only take a few quick snapshots through the bus window, but want to go back and see them up close, along with the new Harmony Walk and Rosemont Bridge. My minor road trip today was long overdue. I've been working on getting our house ready to be painted, messing with the garden and making art. I hope to get back downtown again real soon!