Monday, December 9, 2013

Favorite Books, 2013


 
Here are ten really good novels I read this year, a totally personal list, my seventh annual "Best Books" list since beginning this blog in 2007 when I was working for Harris County Public Library. Longer reviews of these books can be found on my Goodreads page or in earlier blog posts.

Benediction by Kent Haruf. Knopf, 2013.
Dad Lewis had what can only be called a good death. His pain was attended to with loving hands. He was not alone. He was deeply loved.The plainspoken, decent people of Haruf's Colorado-based novels always enchant me. For all their high plains starkness, they exemplify much that is mysterious about the human condition.
 
Flora by GailGodwin. Bloomsbury, 2013.
During World War II, ten year-old Helen loses the grandmother that has been her maternal mainstay. Her father is away doing mysterious war work, and Helen sets her mind against spending a summer under the care of her fawning, sentimental cousin, Flora. Strong characterization and much emotional depth.
 
Guests on Earth by Lee Smith. Shannon Ravenel, 2013.
Evalina Toussaint spends her adolescence at an insane asylum in Asheville, North Carolina during the 30s and 40s, though she does not seem very mentally ill. One of her hospital chums is none other than Zelda Fitzgerald. Evalina plays the piano and Zelda choreographs dances for hospital recitals. A coming of age tale, one of real substance, strong on regional and historical color.
 
 
Love Saves the Day by Gwen Cooper. Bantam, 2013.
Major meow-wow! Within a few pages, I knew Gwen Cooper had done the impossible -- made me believe I was hearing the authentic interior monologue of Prudence, the rescued cat who is the major star of this novel. But not to worry, Prudence doesn't have to carry the whole book. Readers will also lap up chapters by Sarah, the woman who originally rescues Prudence, as well as her somewhat estranged daughter, a lawyer named Laura. When Sarah dies, Laura inherits Prudence and thus the trouble begins. A humorous and heart-warming read.
 
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Michael Joseph, 2012.
During the first weeks of caring for Will Traynor, a wealthy wheelchair-bound British quadriplegic, Louisa Clark doubts everything about her new job. Yet somehow they form a mutual admiration society. But Will is not sure he wants to continue his earthly life.... A wrenching, thoughtful and quirky read.
 
 
 
Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth. Atria, 2012. During her midnight shift on the radio in Naples, Florida, a DJ dubbed Miss Dreamsville plays the music of Patsy Cline, Elvis and Nat King Cole. It is 1962 and there has never been a woman on the air at WNOG before. She also starts a book club which includes an African American woman and a gay man. At first glance, this book is hilarious, but also manages to cover serious ground on matters or race, gender and human nature.
 
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood. W.W. Norton, 2013.
Vivien Lowe did not realize what wisdom there was in grief after losing her lover, David, to the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. When fate brings grieving people needing sympathy and a listening ear to her door, she becomes a gifted obituary writer. A surprisingly lively novel with well developed characters.
 
Someone by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013. 
Marie Commeford is an unprepossessing Irish Brooklyn girl through and through. Of all things, she ends up working in a local funeral home, where she matures into the role of comforting angel for the bereaved. Will she ever find someone to love? I found this slim novel to be rich in both the sacred and profane.

 A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee. Random House, 2013.
 Helen Armstead and her husband Ben have been sleepwalking through their marriage for some years. Even their mutual love of their adopted Chinese daughter does not really give them shared ground. Then Ben, a lawyer, gets arrested for a DWI and faces a sexual assault accusation. Within a few months newly divorced Helen becomes a surprisingly gifted PR agent. Lots of twists to this multi-layered tale.
 
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy. Orion, 2012.
Chicky Starr sinks her life's savings into renovating an old mansion and turning it into a restful small hotel by the sea on the western coast of Ireland. An ensemble cast of needy characters show up during the first week the hotel opens. This endearing read is the last novel from the beloved Irish author (1940 - 2012).

 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Collage: "Reconstituted"


The National Collage Society holds an annual online juried show, and when I first entered the competition in 2010, I felt quite lucky to have a collage accepted. Next two years, not so lucky. But this year my luck changed. "Reconstituted" appears in this year's show! It is one in series I think of as my "panoramic" collages, long and narrow.

When you enter a show, you just never really know if the judges will find your work favorable. It's really a matter of each judge's individual taste. They might favor realistic, abstract or minimal compositions, etc. Achieving my goal of placing in the show feels like such a blessing, especially coming on the heels of my mother's death in May. It took quite a while to get back to my collage practice. But then, along came this new series, and I was able to hit my stride again.

The printed catalog for the 2013 29th Annual Juried Exhibit is available for $19.00, digital version for $10.

Thank you for looking at my art and/or the online show!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Someone:a Novel by Alice McDermott


Brooklyn is in my blood. Yes, I was born there, but shortly thereafter my parents moved to the suburbs. Especially on my 100% Irish Catholic mother's side, our family has a long history there. So it was natural I would reach for Someone by Alice McDermott. Within a few pages, I knew not only that this was a book I would enjoy, but also that I would want to read it more than once. The book felt near-sacramental. Someone seemed to recreate my mother's milieu during the World War II years. Every detail of neighborhood life rings true and thus I was swept away into that time and place. Both Mom and I were big fans of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and Someone bears comparison to that beloved classic.

Marie Commeford, Brooklyn stoop-sitter, is unprepossessing young girl who often lacks confidence. In many ways, she balks at growing up. She does not want to learn how to bake the Irish soda bread her mother has always made on Saturday mornings (a much-loved and often-baked bread in our house too). When Marie graduates from high school, she rules out working in Manhattan. She is a Brooklyn girl through and through. Of all things, she ends up working in a local funeral home, where she matures into the role of comforting angel for the bereaved. Her brother, Gabe, becomes a priest, though after his first year, he backs out of the profession. Marie's loving but alcoholic father dies young, and her mother stays on in their longtime apartment while the old neighborhood crumbles apart around her.

Marie has her heart broken at the age of seventeen. "Who's going to love me?" she asks her brother. Herein lies the book's title. "Someone," her brother answers, such a simple but profound reply. And without giving too much away, yes, Marie does find a man who very much loves her. It takes awhile.... The book is not a straightforward chronologically, an arrangement I sometimes find jarring, but not in McDermott's sure hands. Very impressionistic and yet also realistically detailed, the effect is rather like opening a jumbled box of personal treasures. In sorting through them, I felt very much inside of Marie's roving memory, looking back through her life. There are times for all of us when yesterday seems close at hand and of course other times when the reverse is true. This is a slim novel, rich in both the sacred and profane.

Many of the reviews I skimmed before reading this book made much of the fact that Marie is very ordinary. I take some umbrage with that. There are time Marie shines. There are times she fails. She is an Everywoman for me, wonderfully familiar. She loves, loses love, loves again and again, especially when her children are born. And all of this calls to mind a Raymond Carver poem, one which is inscribed on his tombstone in Port Angeles, Washington:

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What I Did and Didn't Say in my Speech on the Occasion of West University Library's 50th Anniversary

 
Mind you, giving speeches is not my thing. But when asked to plan a short speech on the occasion of an event planned to celebrate West University Branch Library's 50th Anniversary, of course I agreed. After all, I worked there from 1981 - 2009. As I told the people in the audience, I came to librarianship as an introvert, but became, if not an extrovert, at least an extroverted introvert. I learned plenty about management, customer service and leadership due to HCPL's commitment to continuing education and training. In the branch, day by day, I learned so much about both books and people.
 
When public librarians gather amongst themselves, they are likely to comment that at times, they feel like bartenders. Instead of booze, we pour out information and resources in many formats. We listen to our customers' stories. This is a sacred, confidential privilege. We are asked about bankruptcy, divorce, addictions, health issues, just all sorts of problems. Often we are among the first to know that a woman is pregnant when she checks out a stack of books on pregnancy. So in some ways, in addition to feeling like bartenders, we feel like social workers. Librarians like to help out however we can. We are also extremely subject to school assignments that hit like tidal waves. Texas wildflowers, famous Canadians, animal skeletons, you name it, we hustle to find materials for the kids. In so many ways, librarians become woven into the fabric of their communities. From the customers' point of view, I'd like to think the public library is a Great American Watering Hole. Of course, having been a librarian, I am library-centric, but surely the public library is among the finest if not THE finest feature of our democracy. I know it was an Army slogan, but it also suits libraries: "Be all you can be." Libraries hold plenty of potential for all of us.
 
Okay, that was the first part of my speech. Then I offered some anecdotes of library interactions. I will share some of them here.
 
One day I was in the Children's area of our library. I observed a mother with two children as she parked her about three-year-old daughter in the picture book section and then led her older school-aged child to the nonfiction area, where the preceded to hunt down some books for a homework assignment. When the Mom returned to the picture book area, she saw that her daughter had accumulated quite a tall pile of picture books. "Honey, you've got too many books," she said. The little girl answered, "But Mommy, I want too many books!" (Precious, and this story got a big laugh.)
 
The West University Fire Station just two short blocks from the Library. One day Fireman Steve ran in and said "Keddy, please -- I need a book on diamonds. I am about to buy a ring and propose to my girlfriend." Sure enough, we had something and he went away a happy customer. Within time, I met his wife and then, along came two daughters. Sometimes I got to help them with school assignments. That is an example of  how wonderful it is to stay put in one community and see many of life's cycles unfolding.
 
West University Library is cheek by jowl next to a the city's Senior Services building. So we had lots of interactions with older adults. One retired teacher often came in asking for "good clean murder books". As time went on, she was no longer able to drive to the Library. We collaborated with Senior Services to offer a service named "Words on Wheels" wherein books could be delivered to the homebound. Thus, our retired teacher could still keep reading her mystery books. Later, when she went into assisted living in another state, she wrote to me, bless her heart -- and told me if I ever came to visit her, she could procure a cot if I wanted to sleep over!
 
For a couple of years, I facilitated a Senior poetry group at the library. We enjoyed reading and writing poetry. Senior Services planned a lovely Poetry Reading Luncheon for us. This was an exciting occasion! But by this time, one of the most prolific senior poets had lost most of her vision to macular degeneration. She told me she would try and memorize some of her poems but bring along her niece to sit nearby and cue her should she forget her words. Well, no cues were necessary. She spoke her poems clear and true, and they were marvel to hear. I will never forget that day or the white-haired poet with so much gumption.
 
Looking back, I see how very rich my library career was. I have hundreds of library stories tucked away in my memory. I concluded my speech by telling the audience it was a real privilege to be a librarian at West University Library, and I meant that.
 
Now, what about all the not so warm and fuzzy memories? These are the things I did not speak of, for it was not the time or place. To name just a few: times of short staffed-ness, AC malfunctions, hurricanes, floods, technology meltdowns, budget woes, incidents of vandalism, afterschool problems with mischievous kids, etc. Enough said. Big exhalation -- none of those really matter if you consider the Big Picture. Libraries matter. Libraries are essential. Libraries are not just about books, databases, newspapers or movies. Libraries are about people! May it always be so......
 
photo: READ poster featuring West University Library customers, the Borrecas

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Flora by Gail Godwin



The subject of loss is so prevalent in literary fiction, yet Gail Godwin makes it seem fresh and new in Flora: a Novel (Bloomsbury, 2013). We first meet ten year-old Helen in the summer days following the loss of her much beloved paternal grandmother, known as Nonie. World War II is on. Helen's father, a high school principal, will be gone for the summer to do important war work at Oak Ridge. Helen's mother died when she was three, so Nonie has been the girl's maternal mainstay. In comes Flora, a cousin who grew up with Helen's mother. Helen sets her mind and heart against Flora, a sentimental, gullible country girl. Flora is in her early twenties, looking forward to a career in teaching.

Their summer together seems to take place in a bell jar, largely due to an outbreak of polio. Helen's father instructs them to stay home all the time. They even have their groceries delivered. And so, they meet Finn when he makes his way up a rutted road on his motorcycle to their rundown house at the top of a steep hill. Finn had been a soldier, but is awaiting discharge following medical and psychiatric problems. Soon Finn becomes their lifeline, a frequent dinner guest, fixer of drains and voila -- an artist as well. Helen immediately starts having fantasies that Finn will move in with she and her Dad once the summer is over and Flora is well gone. Since Nonie's old house has a history of being a place where those with TB and other problems can recover, Helen feels sure such an arrangement will be perfect.

Flora is the soul of kindness, but Helen only resents her. Helen moves into her grandmother's room and hears her voice in her head, uncannily calling up her grandmother's wisdom as needed. Helen absolutely hates the fact that Flora and Nonie had a long history of correspondence by mail. She sneaks into Flora's room and reads their letters. Flora is also full of tales about Helen's mother. Helen feels so overshadowed by Flora, but does have moments when she gives the woman credit for her bumbling acts of kindness. They even play school together so Flora can practice being a teacher.

Godwin gives us just a hint or two that something will go wrong by summer's end. Something will happen to Flora. And so the author admirably builds an atmosphere of dread and forthcoming doom.  Poor Helen looks forward to her 11th birthday, hoping her father will come home for a visit. And that is the point in this enormously affecting novel where I will leave off describing plot details. Truly a masterpiece of characterization, Flora: a Novel will haunt you. Each major and minor character is sharply drawn. Helen has control issues; of course she does. She is trying to reorder her world and make sense of all she has lost. Your heart will ache for her, but you will also want to give her a good talking to. I would go so far as to compare it favorably with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it and see if you agree with my comparison!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Okra Takes the Heat

 
I as amazed by this, my first okra flower! I grew the plant from some seeds a friend gave me after seeing how ornamental an okra plant looked in her yard last summer.
 
You can see how lovely the leaves are, large and almost umbrella-like.
Here are some of the first okra pods. I later learned I'd left them on the plant too long. They got too woody and now I am drying them for ornamental use. You should pick the pods when they are only 2 inches long.
 
I have yet to eat any of the okra from the 4 or 5 plants in the yard. For one thing, I have never been a fan of okra. But my husband loves it, so when we get enough pods, I will trying roasting them with olive oil in the oven. One of my yoga pals told me okra looses its slime when roasted. Or we may just boil some okra slices with stewed tomatoes.
 
I learned that okra is a member of the mallow family and is related to cocoa, cotton and hibiscus. Very few edibles can take the heat like okra does; in fact it seems to thrive during these humid dog days of summer in Houston. Apparently there is great debate about whether okra originated in West Africa or South Asia. It is said to be drought-tolerant, but if I didn't water my plants every day, they started to droop. Having a sky-high water bill during the last three rain-starved summers has been the price I pay for being a hobby gardener. In fact, for me, it doesn't matter if I ever eat the okra, since I enjoy growing it simply as a tropical curiosity.
 
 
Last but not least, who knew there was a town called Okra in Texas? In Eastland County, near Abilene, it is said to have a dwindling population of twenty or less. Not many other details available, even from the Handbook of Texas.... 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Every Art Room Needs a Cat Dreaming Nearby & Other Photos


Napping cat Ms. Abigail doesn't even wink when the paper cutter slams down!

 
My desk neatened up after a collage session.

 
Some art supplies and tools to the right of my desk.

 
Boxes of pre-cut scraps, usually kept in drawers and on shelves. If I have them all out and about, I get too distracted. I pull out certain boxes depending what I think I might need.

 
After my mother's illness, death and memorial service and a time of travel, I was slow to return to collage. As an ice-breaker, I made a few collage cards. I am back to more complicated projects now and feel like I am hitting my stride, aiming for a couple of masterpieces to submit to the upcoming annual National Collage Society show.
 

 
Some of my rulers. You can't have enough rulers! I use the little Coca-Cola polar bear ruler all the time.

 
A few of my favorite scissors.

 
Inspirational "pretties" and keepsakes!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

 


Yes, the characters in this chunky novel, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, were well -- interesting! For some of the gang of kids who meet at a summer camp for the arts when they are teenagers, those summers define them. Relationships are formed, alliances made, secrets shared. The character we come to know best is Jules Jacobson, an awkward girl with a bad perm who feels she is talentless until her new friends find her funny. And so for many years Jules aspires towards becoming a comic actress. Feeling her own family background is banal, she is much impressed by the moneyed cultural Manhattan milieu of the Wolf family, who invite her in as if she was one of their own after that first summer of meeting Ash and Goodman Wolf. Also in the inner circle: Ethan, a toadlike boy whose talent for animation will eventually make him very rich, Jonah, the son of a famous folksinger with a crippling secret from his past, and Cathy, a beautiful, bountifully curvy girl who very much wants to be a dancer.
The story is expertly laid out in that wherever we land on the lifelong fabric of these friendships, we know what we need to know in order to understand what's going on. The flashbacks are never distracting. Success, or the lack of success affects each character, as does love. Jules becomes a therapist and Ash, a feminist theater director. They become best friends for life. Unlikely as it is, beautiful Ash and ugly Ethan marry and have children. That first summer, Ethan fell in love with Jules. They became more like soulmates than young lovers, and their friendship never dies, although it is very much impacted by Ethan's financial success. Jules often feels like a church mouse compared to wealthy Ethan and Ash. But Jules finds a good husband and has a child too. As for Ash's brother, Goodman -- therein lies a tragedy I won't try and explain, one that gives the book much ethical gravitas. And on and on it goes, the fascinating lifelong stories of a scraggly bunch of talented kids who all land on their feet in New York City, strengthened and challenged by their sometimes unlikely connections to each other. 
Here is one excerpt from page 21 of the novel that I will also be copying into my one of my Quote collection notebooks: (Ash speaking to Jules that first summer they meet) "I've always sort of felt that you prepare yourself for over the course of your whole life for the big moments, you know? But when they happen, you sometimes feel totally unready for them, or even that they're not what you thought. And that's what makes them strange. The reality is different from the fantasy."

Out of the mouths of teens, but entirely believable in the context of Wolitzer's wonderful novel. That's what I loved about this novel: these characters were so real to me. I cried near the book's end, and loved every minute of time I spent amongst "the Interestings" -- they became MY gang of best, best friends, and I'm sure there's a world of readers out there that will feel much the same. Bravo, Meg Wolitzer!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I Promise Not To Suffer: A Fool For Love Hikes The Pacific Trail by Gail D. Storey

 
If you enjoyed Wild by Cheryl Strayed or Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, I've got another memoir to recommend: I Promise Not To Suffer: A Fool For Love Hikes The Pacific Crest Trail (Mountaineers Books, 2013) by Gail D. Storey. For many years the author was a customer at the West University Branch of Harris County Public Library where I worked. Gail, once a librarian herself, wrote two hilarious novels set in Houston featuring a fictional librarian: The Lord's Motel and God's Country Club, originally published in the 1990s, were both reissued in paperback by Persea in 2011.We always carried multiple copies of her novels at my library. I remember when Gail was the featured cover girl on an issue of Library Journal. Gail was known for showing up at her readings and other events wearing a wedding dress or other fun costumes. I often spotted Gail and her tall, handsome husband Porter Storey, MD riding around town on their tandem bicycle before they moved to Colorado. I was glad to learn she had a memoir coming out, and then that the book won the Barbara Savage Miles From Nowhere Memorial Award (for compelling accounts of personal journeys and outdoor adventures).
 
Gail and her husband, who is at an impasse in his life as a hospice doc, decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Although Gail has survived two cross-country bicycle rides with Porter, she does not consider herself a hiker or even a nature lover. Gail adores her husband. They have been married seventeen years. Porter's son has left the nest. Porter becomes obsessed with buying or creating the best lightweight gear for their hike. Gail has many pangs about committing to the hike. Her mother's life is winding down and she knows they have unfinished business. But she can not imagine being separated from her husband/soulmate.
 
"Who am I?" is a question both she and Porter feel compelled to examine. As explained by Gail, "The older we grew, the deeper the question plunged." And so they take off. With the sure feet of a gifted writer, Gail moves expertly between her back story (including spiritual and philosophical segues) and life on the trail. As for her actual feet as well as the rest of her body, forget about it -- the hike is pure torture. Extreme temperatures, snakes, tumbles onto hard ground, drought are just some of the trials they will face. The hike is 2,543 miles long and they plan on covering 20 miles a day. A friend in Houston mails their food and medical supplies to their designated stops, often primitive campgrounds or makeshift trailers bustling with much younger hikers. Will they make it? I'm not going to tell you... Will they survive the hike? That I will tell you -- YES and YES, with much wisdom and kismet. You have to read it. This is such an intimate portrait of marriage, perhaps even more so than the story of a hike. Gail shares heart, soul, spirit and body. Thus, my heart, soul, spirit and body ached and danced alongside the rocky way.
 
I also have to add, that like Gail, I just recently lost my mother. Insights into death and dying from both Gail and Porter's lives made this an especially timely read. Namaste, Gail -- thank you for forging this trail of words and wonder.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Four Year Retire-versary


Do I now qualify for a college degree in retirement? It has been four years since I left my post at Harris County Public Library. Here are some thoughts on the state of retirement.

1. Call it re-engagement, not retirement. There is much to do and learn and try!

2. Carry on with at least a few professional activites or disciplines from Before Retirement. In my case, I still write reviews for Library Journal, not to mention this blog (though much less often than I used to), and attend the book club I started as a librarian. And for two years I served on a very time-consuming, yet wonderful Texas Library Lariat Reading List committee.

3. Temptations abound. If you like to shop, you may find yourself shopping a bit too much. If you like to eat, watch out. So apply some discipline in these areas. Slow down and enjoy these tempting activities, but don't go overboard. I was able to lose weight after I retired since I became more physically active and used the Lose It app to monitor my food intake. Some of those pounds are creeping back, so I need to rein myself in again.

4. Volunteer opportunities abound, so choose wisely or all your so-called free time will disappear. I like to leave a couple of days a week unscheduled so I can pursue my favorite art, gardening and writing activities. Of course, the tipping point here depends on where you fall on the introvert-extrovert scale. I am an introvert, so retirement offers much more time for beloved solitary pursuits.

5. Exercise is key. I know some people who work out at the gym 5 or 6 days a week. I prefer to go to yoga twice a week and add in a swim session whenever I can. Yard work, walking and cycling also round out the mix. I feel a little off if I don't get daily exercise.

6. Family obligations tend to multiply in midlife. I see this in the lives of many of my friends right now. If I had not been retired these last few years, I don't know how my family would have handled my mother's care. She is 94 and living with my brother and his wife. There have been plenty of health and lifestyle crises. I have worn a beaten path with Southwest Airlines flying so often to New York. It has also been nice to be able to attend a nephew's high school graduation or house-sit for my sister-in-law. A few months ago when my husband had cardiac surgery, thank goodness I was no longer working. He is much better now, and the doctors tell us he has added twenty years to his potential life span.

7. Take advantage of discounts and savings. Change your car insurance to reflect your retired status. Pick and choose through the grocery ads to find bargains, but don't make it into an all-encompassing mission. For sure I spend a lot less on clothing (especially pantyhose!), makeup (hardly wear any now) and gas since leaving the library worklife behind. Of course, in my case, I am spending much more on art supplies than I used to. I do earn some money making art, but I've got a long way to go before it might pay for itself. Therefore, I treasure my Hobby Lobby and Michaels coupons!

8. Some routine is good, but also allow yourself to be spontaneous. I like a mixture of the tried and true along with making it up as I go along. The freedom factor of retirement is magnificent!

Okay, that is about the sum total of my retirement wisdom at this point. It hasn't all been roses. In fact, a couple of weeks ago a freak hailstorm came through Houston and really wrecked my yard. I am still catching up with the damage. It was especially hard to see my eight tomato plants pulverized. A few green tomatoes were sent straight to the frying pan. The storm also fried the AC and affected our Internet and cable tv service. The electric panel of our gas stove was zapped. And so it goes.... "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." Cliched but oh so true; what's interesting about this cliche is that it fell from the mouth of John Lennon! And before that, in 1957, it was seen as a quote in Reader's Digest. Go to the Quote Investigator website to read more about it!

collage: Boom Bloom, 2012, by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg

Oh boy, does Rick Bragg have a colloquial and Whitmanesque way with words! The Most They Ever Had (MacAdam/Cage, 2009) is an oral history/meditation on the lives of those who worked in the Alabama cotton mills, a way of life fast disappearing due to the vagaries of our global economy. Bragg does a real service by capturing the stories of these proud workers, so many dying early due to the lung diseases so common among "lintheads." A few generations ago when cotton began to be harvested by machines, former cotton pickers marched into the cotton mills where they worked their fingers to the bone for pennies. Often they owed money to the company store for food. People did what they had to do to get by, picking up coal from the railroad tracks, eating frogs and weeds. I found myself thinking that this book should be mandatory reading for all Americans, perhaps most especially politicians.
The Most They Ever Had (not much) sings of red dirt and Johnson grass, front porches, baseball, hunger, want and pure despair. Taking the music analogy a little further, this literary treasure of a book is bluegrass, the blues and country music all rolled into one big elegiac hymn. The loud machines that ruled the mill workers' lives are silent now, the buildings in ruins. Bragg captures a lost era just in time; most of the people profiled are near the end of their lives. He worried that no one would want to read this. A friend told him not to worry, saying "Well, it ain't a damn barn dance, is it? It's an American tragedy." I am so deeply touched and humbled by what I read here. Thank you, Rick Bragg. Come to think of it, I feel the same way about every book he has written.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Garden Shots, Spring 2013

That teeny tiny green dot is a newborn lemon! Last year this tree was attacked by leaf miners and lost all its blossoms, so we are overjoyed to get off to a better start this year.

This telephone pole in the corner of the yard used to be covered by an overgrown bush. When we tore out the bush, I felt called to decorate the pole. Now our eyes take in the metal flowers more than the pole.

Herbs including parsley, basil, sage and sorrel.

Belinda's Dream, a rose I prize for its fragrance.

Mostly succulents, in one corner of the patio.

Potted plants everywhere! I have more plants than sense. Every year I say I am going to cut back, but inevitably buy, receive, repot or propogate more.

This spring has been cool for Houston. I had to replant my zinnia seeds in the front yard after a run of cold days because I think the temperature change zapped their germination process. My sunflowers are tiny sprouts. I have trouble with critters eating the young sunflowers, and so have begun planting them in peat pots for a better start. We have about 4 varieties of tomatoes started, among them, as usual the dependable Juliet variety. I wish I had room for more vegetables, but my experiments with flowers tend to fill up most of the space, not to mention the weeds, especially clover. And everyday I find new acorn sprouots to pull up since the oaks produced a bumper crop in reaction to the drought of 2011. They were even sprouting on our roof in tiny amounts of fallen leaves and blown pollen gathered in gables, etc. I love climbing up on the roof, not so much for the required maintenance, but for the views. I imagine one of these years I am going to have to stop doing that and hire help. But for the time being, yard work of all kinds is part of my exercise routine and I am happy to putter away in the everchanging landscapes there.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston by Sarah Cortez, including a brief interview with the author


Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston (Texas Review Press, 2012) by Sarah Cortez is a slim book composed of prose and poetry; thus the back cover tells us it is a mixed-genre memoir. The short prose chapters come first, where the author sorts her memories by colors related to a beautiful stained glass window. Nothing is chronological here. Stepping into her mother’s wish for babies yet to be born, her father’s vivid hopes for a son or her grandmother prayers, Cortez skillfully evokes the family she loves. She imagines their inner lives. Yes, this is a memoir, but in these prose chapters, rarely does Cortez use the first person to tell her story. Instead we plunge deeply into both the myths and inherited memories of her past. Brief as some of these memories are, they have a rich, soulful quality. As for genres, besides memoir and poetry, I was reminded of theater and can well imagine certain chapters morphed into a play consisting of dramatic monologues.

In the second section, the air feels lighter, full of childish delight, awe or disgust. We are in the sure hands of a poet who has successfully strung together a collection of miniatures into a masterpiece. Often the subjects are deceptively simple: costume jewelry, a donut shack, fishing with her father at Hermann Park; yet much is revealed about life and its beauty, its illusions. A few of the poems takes us further into the poet’s young adulthood. And the last poem is one I found hard to close the cover on. “Walking Home” is both intensely personal and achingly collective. This poem softly, wisely reminds us to remember each detail of the past, to “walk yourself home, then back here again.” That is indeed the journey Cortez has made, one I felt privileged to share.

Years ago, I took a writing class with Sarah Cortez at the Houston Jung Center. Then a couple of weeks ago, I attended a lecture she gave and reconnected with her. Later we did a short interview by email:

1. When you wrote these poems and stories, did you know you wanted to use them as a group in one book? Or did you go back and collect them together from a larger body of writing? I was lucky enough to be awarded a position as a visiting scholar in order to both teach creative writing at UH and to write this book. So, I knew the time period I was aiming for in the memoir and wrote poems to accomplish the project.

2. As a teacher of memoir writing, what would you say is the most empowering concept you try to transmit to your students? Yes, I've been teaching memoir for about a decade or more. It's a writing form I adore -- teaching, writing, listening to, and pondering. As a teacher, I love introducing or furthering the student's process of going deep inside his/her own life and finding meaning, then writing that meaning.

3. Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? Almost "always." My mother was an ardent elementary school teacher who began teaching me to read at a very early age. I fell in love with words early on. That love continues.

4. Who are your favorite memoir writers? Patricia Hampl is my hands-down favorite in both the writing of memoir and in the writing about writing memoir. This past year I found Kathleen Norris' work. I admire the memoir writing of Vivian Gornick, Scott Momaday, Donna M. Johnson.

5. What's next for you? Gosh, I don't know. I have several book proposals that are out. Whichever is under contract first will be the next book.  I hope you and your readers will stay tuned to my website for the upcoming book launches of my next two books. One is an anthology of essays about U.S.-Mexico border violence, a timely topic if there ever was one. The title is The Lost Border: Life Amid the Narco-Violence. The second is a book of poetry that is about the work of police officers and firefighters. Its title is Cold Blue Steel, and the publisher is Texas Review Press.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes


Me Before You (Pamela Dorman Books, 2012) by Jojo Moyes is a heart-wrenching, thoughtful and quirky read. Like much of British fiction, there is an emphasis on class differences. Coming from the blue collar world is Louisa Clark, a former cafe waitress with an eccentric fashion sense. Literature, classical music and travel are foreign to her. Then she takes a caretaker's job with a family on the posh side of town, near the local tourist attraction, an ancient castle. Thus the culture clash begins.

During the first weeks of caring for Will Traynor, a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, she doubts everything about the job. Will is a moody soul who formerly climbed mountains and made a fortune in high finance. Now he is living in the annex of his parent's house. A medical attendant comes in every day. Louisa takes care of everything else. As Louisa slowly makes inroads with Will's defenses, he begins to take a liking to her. A bit of "My Fair Lady" develops here, wherein Will mentors Louisa, exposing her to many of the finer things about life.

SPOILER ALERT: When Louisa finds out that Will's parents plan to allow him to commit assisted suicide in Switzerland in 6 months, she is aghast. Soon she is plotting ways to inspire Will to choose life instead. This means she must get up to snuff technology-wise, actually go to the library to research all things quadriplegic. Louisa's boring boyfriend does not understand her attachment to Will. Her parents and family meet Will and very much like him. Here the plot begins to thicken. As the chapters fly, Will and Louisa grow closer than ever. You could say they have a mutual inspiration society, each encouraging the other to try new things. Perhaps you can guess where this is going. Will there be a happily-ever-after? I won't tell. These characters became quite real to me. There are also some sub-plots involving Louisa's family, not to mention developments with the Traynor family. Me Before You is quite captivating and unique, sure to make readers ponder some big questions.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I'm Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

I just spent a whole week with Leonard Cohen -- in book form, that is. I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Harper Collins, 2012) by music journalist Sylvie Simmons is not some cut and paste celebrity bio. She must have spent years amassing all the information for this wonderful book, interviewing not only Leonard but hundreds of his fellow musicians, poets, lovers and friends.

I first became hypnotized by Leonard Cohen in 1968 as a lowly college freshman. Leonard lived in his native city of Montreal, just over the Canadian border from my college town of Plattsburgh, NY, and somehow that geographical nearness made him seem like a compatriot. I pictured him suffering through blizzards and gray rainy days in his famous Burberry raincoat, the very same moody weather systems I endured. How to explain his elegiac hold on me? I played his first record, Songs of Leonard Cohen, over and over on the portable turquoise leatherette record player in my dorm room in a daily rite of initiation into the mysteries of adulthood. Leonard was not just some rock idol. He'd been a poet first! Cohen is a master of metaphysical mystique and has continued to keep me intrigued and attuned all these years.

I learned so much about Leonard from reading Simmons' book, including that fact that he played many gratis concerts at mental hospitals. Self-deprecating, modest, gentlemanly, almost universally liked and loved, even by his dozens of ex-girlfriends, Cohen suffered debilitating rounds of depression and self-doubt. The things he loved about turning words into poetry and song seemed to dissolve under the pressures of celebrity. He needed his hideaways, be they on the island of Hydra in Greece or in some small metropolitan hotel room. Cohen is a born escape artist. Dozens of times he left women, the music business, even the material world when he entered a Zen monastery, until finally in his elder years, serenity erased at least some of his flight instincts. Influenced not only by Judaism and Buddhism, but also Hinduism, Cohen is both holy man and antihero. His songs speak of pain, euphoria, alienation, love, loneliness and betrayal.

Inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, Adreienne Clarkson, former Governor General, had this to say of Leonard: "He gets inside your brain, your heart, your lungs. You remember him, you feel him, you breathe him. He is our connection to the meaning of ecstasy, our access to another world we suspected existed but which he puts into song."

You'd think I might have had enough of Leonard having completed this long book, but now I want to take my fascination further with extensive browsing through the Leonard Cohen Files website. I'd also like to take a look at some of the many documentaries now available. A couple of years ago I did an assemblage in a Valentine's candy box honor of Cohen. It seems fitting to post it today.

                                               L'chaim, long live Leonard!


Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

 - Leonard Cohen, from the song, Anthem

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Anatomy of a Collage

Here are the first four pieces of a collage glued together but not glued down. Later I will use the green cardstock as part of the background. At this point I have a certain inkling of where I am going, using images from fruit crate labels and old advertising. A theme of peek-a-boo faces is evolving. I have also chosen to cut the pieces in a way that highlights two text fragments. For this collage, I am gluing the foreground together off the final substrata. I will work on the background later.

So this is what the back of the collage foreground looks like. In some places I use little pieces of tissue paper to help the joinery. You can see the purple glue under a piece of tissue paper on the lower left.

Here I have added two more faces and a fragment of a red veiled hat.

And then a much larger face on the lower left.

Time to work on the background. Note the bottom of a face on the lower right. I love the way it will line up with another face on the foreground (see below).

The more-or-less finished collage with a few more embellishments. Gluing the big foreground down to the background is always tricky. I use a brayer to get it glued down flat. It is all attached to the thin green cardstock. I leave it pressed between waxed paper in a thick book for a day or two, just to be sure it has dried flat. Later I may move it on to wood or canvas. For now, I am calling the piece "Have Me".

I just had a long break from my collage practice during the holidays and my husband's heart surgery. He is doing much better now! Whenever possible, I like to get my hands on collage work daily. Sometimes I can complete more than one a day, but often, work on a single collage is spread out over a few days. I usually have two or three going at once, and a small stable of slightly unfinished or problematic collages sitting around that I need to get back to. Starting a collage is the easiest part. Usually I have a few fragments I know I want to get started with. Then as the piece develops, it often takes a little longer to find just the right components to tie it all together into a (hopefully) unified whole. I have collage files sorted by shape, color, subject, etc. I also have boxes of unsorted scraps I am always pawing through, looking for I don't know what, until suddenly I find it. And that's the joy of collage. For me, it is full of surprises, similar in some ways to the art of poetry.

Collage: "Have Me" by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2013: May it Be a Year of Better Organization and More Binders!


Many of you know that my husband Tom had to have triple bypass surgery recently, much changing the landscape of our winter holidays. We did have a lovely family Christmas as usual, but two or three days later, much of the family gathered again at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital to visit  us there. Within eight days he was home, beginning a predicted 6 - 8 week recovery period. We are hoping for the best and from all we hear, hopefully he will feel like a new man soon. I am home with him most of the time, except when I nip out for yoga classes or shopping. I managed to buy a new file cabinet one day while his daughter stayed with him at the hospital, and thus begun a fun period of home office reorganization. 

Some of my old files were overstuffed, and I was able to weed out a lot of unnecessary paper. We'll get plenty of recycling points from the City of Houston this month! But the most fun was had going through photocopied poems, short stories and articles on writing I had collected over the last three decades. I reselected favorites and moved them into notebook binders, making them much more browseable than when they languished in files. Now I might even reread them from time to time, exactly my goal in saving them in the first place. And when I am a little old lady and it is time to trot off to assisted living, I'll have my handy notebooks to take along! I even alphabetized the stories and poems by author (like a good librarian), and in the process reconfirmed just who some of my favorite writers are: poets Billy Collins, Raymond Carver and Jane Kenyon, as well as several small press poet friends, especially Albert Huffstickler; short story writers Edna O'Brien, Julie Hecht, John Sayles and Barbara Kingsolver to mention a few. And there is room to add more.  Of course, I also have entire books by some of these writers. And yes, I have electronic files of favorite literary treasures too, largely due to the daily Writer's Almanac email I receive, but there's nothing like an actual binder you can pick up and browse through, especially when the "anthology" is hand-selected.

Other findings included old cards I made for my father as a child, my elementary school report cards, a poem a friend wrote about her father that she no longer had a copy of, and hand-written letters (imagine that; I miss exchanging real letters, something I now only do with a very few friends)! Now it is time to move along into the kitchen, where I intend to move more recipes into binders there. My recipe binders have been multiplying for years. It is very hard to stop collecting recipes, even when you know you will probably never really cook a third of them. But because only you know what you and your family really likes, there's nothing like a personalized collection, especially when notes and comments are added. I love being an armchair cookbook reader, browsing around for the perfect recipe for some special occasion. When I borrow cookbooks from the library I often take photocopies, plus there are so many good recipes online to print from. Cooking from a laptop screen doesn't work for me, but maybe someday I will do better with an iPad.

Best wishes for good health and prosperity in this new year of 2013!