Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favorite Books of 2011

It’s January 31st, and time to finally make my list of favorite books read for 2011.  This year I read twenty fewer books than last year, and I imagine I can chalk it up to more time spent watching movies, more time painting, and yes, more time spent playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. 

Many of the books I read in 2011 were art related, and I eliminated them from this list, since books on the qualities of watercolor paint, or the history of the Fauves probably aren’t very interesting to most of my other reader friends.  I also eliminated books I read for a second or third time, even though both Ann Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces and Johanna’s Spyri’s Heidi gave me hours of delight.  Ditto with the excellent Travels of Jaimie McPheeters

All book lists are personal, and I will resist the urge justify my choices.  These were simply books those rose like cream to the top of my annual list of books completed, titles that I thought about after I closed the covers of the book, or popped the last disc out of the CD player in the car. These were titles I found myself talking about to my husband, recommending to friends, and going to the internet to learn more about.

In alphabetical order, there are my top ten favorites for this year.

1.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Fiction. I found this book in the young adult section of the library, and while the main character is a high school freshman, I found the story to be funny, touching, and altogether enjoyable.  The main character is Junior, a want-to-be cartoonist, who leaves the Spokane reservation to attend mostly white high school.  I loved his determination to make something of himself.

2.  American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Fiction. I discovered Gaiman through listening to Coraline in audio format, and the going on and also listening to Anansi Boys and Stardust. I read and adored his young adult novel The Graveyard book last year. This year was the 10th anniversary of the publication of American Gods so I dove in.  It’s hard to write a short summary, the the idea for it is, what if gods from all sorts of religions around the world came to the New World with immigrants, and had to do battle with the things people worship today - like commerce?  A young man, Shadow, gets out of prison, and soon after his wife is killed.  Then strange people come and Shadow is involved in an epic battle between old gods and new.  There is a great scene set at my all-time weird favorite local roadside attraction, the House on the Rock.

3.  Hideous Kinky, by Esther Freud. Fiction.  Hideous Kinky is an awful title for a charming and interesting book,  The story follows two young English girls and their rather Hippie-like mother on her travels through Morocco.  The  author is the daughter of artist Lucian Freud, and the story is a fictionalized version of events that happened to her and her sister.  We rented the movie afterward, and liked that too.

4.  Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. Fiction.  While I have mostly dropped out of organized book groups, I read this title with a discussion group that meets at our library.  This luminous book is about the intertwined lives of a Nigerian refugee and an English magazine editor. The title character differs hideous cruelty in her homeland, but her determination and optimism shine.  The ending was the only thing I disliked, but it was probably realistic.

5.  My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy. Nonfiction. I listened to Conroy read his memoir about growing up in the deep South, and of the people and books who shaped him as a reader and as a writer.  I found myself driving around, sitting in parking lots with the CD running, just so I could listen to that man talk.  I even ended up reading a whole book of challenging poetry by James Dickey as a result of having spent time with this memoir.

6.  Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Fiction. My husband had started and abandoned this novel, and it does start slowly.  It takes a long time to come to understand that the young people in the English boarding school are being raised to be organ donors in a future time.  They will gradually sacrifice their lives so that others may live.  In a time when people do donate organs, and genetic research does make cloning possible, Ishiguro creates a story that is haunting, about everyone’s need to be loved and to feel important, and about the implications of certain lines of scientific inquiry.  I’m glad I read it before I watched the film version. It was also interesting to read just before I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that also looks at scientific ethics, though it is nonfiction, and was less compelling for me.

7.  Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, by J. Maarten Troost.  Nonfiction. I actually listened to two of Troost’s autobiographical travel stories on CD.  Both were informative, sometimes a bit shocking, and always very very funny.  Troost went to Tarawa , a South Pacific island with his girlfriend and later wife.  He reports on the tremendous heat, some horrific critters, incompetent government officials and all sorts of colorful locals.  Remind me not to book a cruise to this place.

8.  The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Fiction. I find myself being attracted to Westerns in my dotage, something I would never have predicted as a younger woman.  Maybe it’s all the family history work I’ve been doing, or maybe its just having enjoyed the Deadwood series.  I don’t know.  This story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns for hire, has everything I like, interesting characters, entertaining dialog, action, history, and humor. 

9.  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Fiction. I read this one after hearing it recommended on an NPR podcast (I listen to these items while I play games online).  This is another book with with unusual characters, entertaining dialog, and a little magical realism.  It probably isn’t for every reader.  The story centers on a family in Florida who run a roadside attraction, an alligator wrestling place, and who are losing the enterprise to a bigger amusement park - World of Darkness.  I couldn’t help thinking of Noahs Ark, at the Wisconsin Dells.  Anyway, this one kept me happily turning pages and sometimes scratching my head, right up to the end.

10.   The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. Fiction.  This was another library book discussion title that I ended up liking.  Apparently it is the second book in a trilogy, with the third book still to come.  Oryx and Crake is the first title in the trilogy, though I have not read it. Atwood is back writing literary quality speculative fiction, this time imagining that most of the world has been killed off by a waterless flood, some sort of virus.  The world is run by giant multinational corporations. The survivors of the “flood”, young women Ren and Toby, must use their survival skills to get along in a very frightening imagined future.  I loved the way Atwood played with language in this book, and the way she takes current trends in science, pop culture and even music and spins them out into what they could some day become.  I also enjoyed the dystopian future novel The Hunger Games, but it could not compare to this book in scope or quality of writing.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Painted Turtles Monotype

4x6 inches, monotype with added watercolor

Yesterday I turned 61, and it turned out to be an excellent day.  We went to Madison Wednesday evening, went out to hear some music, stayed at a nice hotel, and Thursday ate out some more, saw a movie in a theater - something we rarely do any more - and saw the Harlem Globetrotters.  I had fun, but I kept thinking about how I wanted to get into the studio.

Today I did get into the studio, and ended up not painting this pair of painted turtles the way I thought I would.  I had an urge to get out my Createx paints and try a monoprint.  I usually put the base coat and paint on a plate made from a piece of plexiglass, but I couldn't find it anywhere.  So I improvised and used a ratty piece of Yupo that I saved after I washed off an an unsuccessful watercolor.  Yupo is just a smooth piece of plastic, and it ended up working really well for the plate.  I just drew on the Yupo with a Sharpie so I would have the basic design, added a base coat and a layer of black monotype paint and manipulated that until I was satisfied.  After that dried I took a wet sheet of rice paper and lay it on the plate, turned the two sheets over and rubbed the back of the Yupo with an old wooden doorknob I use as a bale, and voila!  After the paper dried I went back in with some watercolor and a bit of white gouache. 

I'd like to try more prints of this pair, perhaps adding some collage elements, and also painting them more traditionally.  I'm not sure why I have always been attracted to painted turtles, but I find myself looking at them, photographing them, and now painting them.  Maybe it was that chapter in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the one where the turtle struggles to get across a road, is flipped over on its back, but keeps struggling until it rights itself, and carries on to the other side.  Or maybe it was those tiny painted turtles Mom bought from the dime store for us kids as pets, who lived in a little plastic swimming pool, until they finally expired.  Anyway, I like them.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Old Team

farm horses  - between 1925 - 1935?

My husband and I drove to my brother's house for Christmas Eve.  Our family doesn't get together often, but since Mother died a few years ago we've agreed to meet on that day.  This year I gave my brother a CD copy of the extended family tree, a project I've been working on about five years.  It has photographs, stories, and a cast of several thousand characters going back to pre Revolution days.  Brother wanted to know who all these people were, and that, of course, is what I have been trying to discover since I started the project.  Who are these people, and how do their lives inform us who we are today?  Why bother with events and people long past and often forgotten?

Sometimes there are clues, as with these photos that Mother had kept from our paternal grandparents. There are others of farm animals, horses, and many of chickens and geese.  I suspect my grandmother was the photographer, since she is rarely in the photographs, and she was the one who kept hens for their eggs.  I recognize the corn crib in the background, so I know this picture was taken on our farm.  Perhaps the sleigh was stored in the center, the place where Dad kept a tractor when I was small.  But there is much I don't know.  When did Grandpa finally stop using horses?  Did he keep them out of affection until they finally died, or did he sell them out of economic necessity?  There is nobody to ask any more, so I find myself inventing stories, which is what I sometimes do for people who are distantly related on the family tree.  I gather clues were I can, and make up stories for myself when that is the only thing I can do.

Inventing a Horse
By Meghan O'Rourke

Inventing a horse is not easy.
One must not only think of the horse.
One must dig fence posts around him.
One must include a place where horses like to live;

or do when they live with humans like you.
Slowly, you must walk him in the cold;
feed him bran mash, apples;
accustom him to the harness;

holding in mind even when you are tired
harnesses and tack cloths and saddle oil
to keep the saddle clean as a face in the sun;
one must imagine teaching him to run

among the knuckles of tree roots,
not to be skittish at first sight of timber wolves,
and not to grow thin in the city,
where at some point you will have to live;

and one must imagine the absence of money.
Most of all, though: the living weight,
the sound of his feet on the needles,
and, since he is heavy, and real,

and sometimes tired after a run
down the river with a light whip at his side,
one must imagine love
in the mind that does not know love,

an animal mind, a love that does not depend
on your image of it,
your understanding of it;
indifferent to all that it lacks:

a muzzle and two black eyes
looking the day away, a field empty
of everything but witchgrass, fluent trees,
and some piles of hay.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Longest Night, and Lights

Winter Solstice Chant
By Annie Finch

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
now you are uncurled and cover our eyes
with the edge of winter sky
leaning over us in icy stars.
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bucky Cat

6x6 inches, acrylic on paper

I've been thinking about painting our cat, Bucky.  She is a charming black and white female, rescued from the Humane Society about five years ago, and better than an electric blanket in the winter.  I love 
her sweet nature, plush fur, and the two freckles on her pink nose.  The challenge here was to choose colors that are interesting, not just black, white and gray.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Yupo Pose

11x14 inches, watercolor on Yupo synthetic paper

I had to laugh this week when a friend at our weekly art play date shared his reservations about painting on Yupo, which is a slick synthetic "paper" made of plastic.  He compared it to pushing around snot.  I guess you like non-absorbent surfaces, or you don't!  Certainly working on a surface that puddles if you are used to having paint soak in, can be disconcerting.  I like the challenge and the aspects of working this way that Yupo allows.  It automatically demands that you work a little looser, and it makes lifting out highlights wonderfully easy. 

I wish I could say I painted this from direct observation at the figure studio, but I worked from a reference photo our mode let me take last summer.  She always poses in yoga outfits, and obviously enjoys working with artists.  This makes for a very relaxed painting session, and I have lots of sketches of her done directly.  But these days I'm not going out on winter roads in the evening very much, so the pictures I took in July are coming in handy.  I also would never try to work on Yupo in the figure studio because I need to let layers dry as I alternately add darker passages and lift out whites.  This process works best for me at home.

I'm not unhappy with the results here, but I think I may use a clear acrylic spray to fig the image the way it is, and then go back and play with adding some acrylic glazes, just to see how it works. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Another Snow Scene

10x10 inches, acrylic on paper

I've been wanting to paint a series of acrylic landscapes that were fairly loose and bordering on abstract, and then I just kept adding details.  Still, I did something I had been wanting to try.  I liked a reference photo I took of a road in the Palouse of eastern Washington, so I dug it out.  I took the picture in May, so the hills were a brilliant emerald, but here I decided to see if I could imagine the setting in winter.  I heard from a distant cousin there last week that there hasn't been much snow, but that didn't stop me. I spent way longer on it than I planned this morning, but I'm glad I gave the scene a try at last. Scenes like this are what I remember from growing up on my family farm - lots of brilliant sky morning and evening.

My plan is to mount the painting on a cradled board that I've painted a dark charcoal color.  After it dried, I'll varnish the whole thing, and wire it. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Snow, and Lack Of

6x6 inches, acrylic on paper

The other night I sat with a large group of retired friends for Friday night fish fry, listening to the hardiest of the group bemoan our lack of snow so far this year.  I had to bite my tongue, having already declared my lack of enthusiasm for football, about my similar lack of enthusiasm for snow. I didn't want to be ejected from the table.  Despite my northern European genetic background, and despite having lived almost sixty-one years in Wisconsin, I don't like snow.  I don't like being stiff and cold, don't enjoy being afraid to drive on icy country roads or nervous that I may slip and break one a bone.  When one long-time friend and happy grandmother said she was thinking of organizing a sledding party - once snow actually falls - I just chewed my potato pancake and smiled.  For me, sledding is only a memory.  As a child I dragged my little sled up the small hills on the farm, and once, wanting more of a thrill, hauled an aluminum saucer onto the roof of the chicken coop and slip off the snowy incline onto a pile of plowed snow near the driveway, but that was when I was more resilient.  I also slid down hills at UW Whitewater on fiberglass trays from the cafeteria, but that was when I was dumber.

Anyway, I decided to attempt a painting based on a small 1935 black and white photo I found of my mother and her older sister.  They are standing outside in a dim and snowy landscape, bits of snow falling past the camera lens.  It was interesting, mostly fun, and frustrating.  The little girl in red is my mother, and the painting actually resembles her.  The older girl is  OK in a general way,  maybe a little old looking, but she in no way resembles my dear aunt.  I wish I could have tweaked her features more, but I feared overworking the painting even more than I had already.  At least the girls call to mind a time a place, and painting them gave me time to imagine their life between the two world wars, on a cold day in Wisconsin.

The Snow Man    
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Small Landscape, and Some Good Advice

6x6 inches, acrylic on paper

I took a photo of our family farm across some late summer fields back in about 1998, and have tried several times to paint the scene.  This little landscape is loose and imprecise. I concentrated more on having strong contrast at the focal point and good color choices than I did on reproducing reality.  Oddly, it has more of the feel of the place than paintings I worked much harder on. 

I've been working through an anthology of poems assembled and introduced by Caroline Kennedy entitled She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems.  This one called From a Letter to His Daughter, by Ralph Waldo Emerson,  gave me some things to consider about the sensibility of looking forward, rather than backward. Of course his daughter was much younger than I am.

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities
no doubt have crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely
and with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with
your old nonsense.

This day is all that is
good and fair:
It is too dear
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on yesterdays.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Red Steps - Another Miniature Acrylic Painting

5x5 inches, acrylic on paper

I seem to be back in a miniature mode.  I've had a small vintage black and white photograph that I got from our local consignment place, and it has been calling out to me lately.  I liked the child with his or her jaunty cap and casual posture.  I also like the way the siding, railing and steps all led the eye right to the figure.  This little painting has more intense color than some of my other miniatures painted from vintage photos.  It occurred to me that just because we cannot see bright color in these images, that doesn't mean it wasn't there.  I also liked the bright sun that makes the child squint.  In the original picture the parent's shadow is clearly visible, but I eliminated that as a distraction here.  That shadow is there often in old photos, because the cameras people had at home for snapshots typically did not have flash attachments.  They needed the sun to get a good clear shot, and they often ended up as a shadowy part of the photo.