Friday, February 26, 2010

Future Directions for Susan's Blog

Now that I am writing articles about beads and beaded jewelry for Handmade Spark, I am wondering if I should continue including jewelry and etsy-related posts in Susan's Blog. What do you think, dear readers? I could focus more on posts about books, gardening, cats, and general thoughts in this forum and then direct those of you who are interested in crafts, beading, and etsy to the articles I publish on Handmade Spark each time. Or I could continue to include those kinds of posts (not the same as the longer articles) on here. PLEASE add a comment and let me know your preference.

Fiction Corner

After my long monologue about my short story criteria, I thought I should at least include a quick mention of a short story collection that I read recently and thoroughly enjoyed: Wild Child by T.C. Boyle. I'm most familiar with Boyle's novels, all well written, all fascinating, about a wide range of topics (the love life of Frank Lloyd Wright, The Women; the issues raised by identity theft, Talk Talk; the commune idea of the sixties, Drop City; the story behind The Kinsey Report, The Inner Circle).

But he is also a master of the short story. All of the stories in this collection were good, but one in particular was outstanding in my opinion. It's a story called "La Conchita," about a cynical delivery guy who's taking a fresh organ transplant up the highway spine of California when a mudslide occurs. It's funny, it's suspenseful and harrowing, it's sad and true, and it's totally uplifting as it culminates in the healing redemption of discovering one's own humanity. It made me cry and convinced me to read it out loud to my two best friends.

I just finished a wonderful novel by British writer Clare Morrall called Natural Flights of the Human Mind. Her previous (and first) novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was so good that I looked for this one as soon as it came out but just got around to reading it last week. Maybe I am a sucker for stories of redemption. (If you are too, also read Elizabeth's Rosner's The Speed of Light and Joan Barfoot's Critical Injuries.) In this one, a man's life has been totally controlled by traumatic guilt for 25 years; he lives alone in a remote uncommissioned lighthouse on the coast of Devon, England, tormented constantly by the thoughts of 78 people killed in an accident for which he was responsible but has no real memory of the details. He meets a woman whose life has also been derailed by a dysfunctional childhood, a sibling suicide, and an early marriage ended by an unexplained abandonment. How they meet and come together is an amazing story, full of humor, compassion, coincidence, and tragedy, not to mention fascinating details about World War I aviation.

I'm about half way through Norman LeBrecht's The Game of Opposites and finding it amazingly intelligent, engaging, and complex. The protagonist is a survivor of a concentration camp who, during the postwar occupation, becomes mayor of the village in which the camp was situated. The book treats diverse themes such as identity, love, death, evil, hypocrisy, cruelty, corruption, and others in a completely nonsimplistic fashion. And the prose is wonderfully written, by this author of books about music and BBC commentator.

Fiction Corner

Today I want to talk about short stories. I've been thinking about what my own personal criteria are for a "good short story." First, the opening two or three sentences have to engage my interest, grab me, make me want to read on. With a novel, I can hang on for a chapter or more before I'm either hooked or ready to put it back into the bag to return to the library. But with a short story, the author has to make me feel involved or intrigued right off the bat.

Then there has to be character development and enough tension in the plot to make me care what happens to the main character(s). I don't have to like them, but I have to be drawn into their story. Of course, it's a big plus for me if the prose itself flows smoothly, and especially if it is exceptionally well done. I admire and appreciate that.

I want to be able to picture what's going on. And I want a strong sense of the setting to come across, and the setting needs to be more than just a background filler that isn't essential to the story.

I prefer stories that treat the kind of universal themes--love, grief, death, redemption, etc.--of literature with a capital "L" in a complex and intelligent way. I don't want to read stories that are, per se, basically limited to gossip about romantic notions, sports or combat depictions, or crime scene investigations, for example. Those elements could be present as part of a larger tale with broader meaning.

I like metaphor and layers of meaning, but I no longer have the patience for "experimental" styles. In particular, I can't stand "postmodern" writing, full of funky characters doing far-fetched things in chaotic situations that are supposed to be witty and humorous. On the other hand, a sense of humor and of humanity are qualities that I appreciate in a short story, or any writing for that matter.

Finally, I want a satisfying ending to the story. Please note that I didn't say "a happy ending." Happy endings, in and of themselves, are fine if they make sense for the story as a whole. What I object to is a story that just trails off, so that when I reach the end, I find myself looking  for another page. I also don't like stories whose ending leaves me scratching my head and saying to myself, "Huh? What was that all about?" I do want a story (or novel or movie) that stays with me, however, one that causes me to think about various questions long after the book has been closed or the movie is over.

What are your criteria for a good short story, dear readers? What are some examples of story writers who come to mind for you? I rarely get comments on these posts, but I would be very interested to know what you think.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New article on Handmade Spark

As a writer for the new blog Handmade Spark, I've just added a follow-up piece to my discussion of organizing and storing a bead collection. This time, I talk about the kinds of beads and other equipment that are not standard sized items and how to store them in various drawers, bags, tubes, canisters, and so on.

I hope you have a chance to read both articles (those of you, dear readers, who are interested in beading, that is) and leave comments here and on the Handmade Spark site.

Armchair Philosophy: The Right Context for Beauty

Have you heard of Joshua Bell? If not, I highly recommend that you listen to one of his albums. He's a virtuoso's virtuso on the violin. He's also a real hunk.

Famous, rich, amazingly talented, he's played to packed concert halls all over the world, literally. So ... can you imagine a thousand people, middle and upper class residents of Washington DC, totally ignoring him while he plays incredible music by Bach on a three and a half million dollar violin?

Yup, stopping long enough to smell the roses is a real problem in modern society, and, evidently, there also has to be the right context for beauty. Move the priceless painting to the wall of a modest coffee bar and nobody recognizes a masterpiece any more. Put a boring title or a glossy soft-core cover on a literary jewel and it ceases to shine enough for a second printing. Stage a musical performance that filled the concert hall down the block to the bursting (at a hundred bucks for the modest seats) in the middle of a subway station in the morning rush and ... what do you get?

Read this intriguing article from the Washington Post and consider the many implications for the way many people lead their modern lives: Pearls before Breakfast.

So tell me, dear readers, what are your thoughts on this? Have you seen, heard, or experienced similar examples?

Spring is just around the corner?

Although there is still snow on the ground (and piled high in parking lots) here in Champaign-Urbana, there are signs of hope. We had a big rain that washed away a lot of snow, and the recently fallen is really just a light dusting (today, anyway). Remember the photo of the beautiful yellow Adonis vernalis that I had included in a recent posting? It's usually the first perennial (not a bulb) to bloom around here. My friend Frank the Supergardener is the one who introduced me to that plant many years ago, and he has a lovely specimen as well. He sent me an e-mail photo yesterday of his adonis so far this year: LOL, it was a pic of a completely white square of snow! I e-mailed back my reply: "Looks just like ours!"

But there is hope, as I said, and here's the proof. We have several nice drifts of snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, in the bed under the ash tree on the west side of our property. They are usually in bloom, or at least showing sprouts, by now. But this year, everything is a couple of weeks behind, it seems. In Frank's yard, however, there's a clump in a warm and sunny spot. And here's how they look right now!

Isn't that a lovely little bulb? They are real charmers. I read somewhere a while back that people had been recording their emergence date, somewhere in Germany I think it was, for so many decades that the data were useful to scientists studying weather patterns.

And what about you, dear readers? Are you living in a temperate zone climate where four seasons occur? Is spring coming soon -- or already maybe -- to your home? Or is there a wet and dry season where you live? I'd love it if you'd comment and tell me what the weather's like and what's in bloom where you are!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Handmade Spark

A fellow Etsian, Tim Adam, has started a new blog called Handmade Spark. As he explains, "Handmade Spark delivers useful and innovative information to handmade buyers and sellers. Our key goal is to introduce buyers and sellers to each other. Additionally, we aim to inform people about the latest handmade trends, showcase the people and work that make up the handmade community, and educate sellers about promoting and buyers about finding great handmade goods all across the Internet."

One of the features of the site is the Writers section, and guess who has just become a regular writer!? Yours truly, dear readers. I am so excited about participating in this project. In fact, I've already published my first article: Organizing and Storing a Collection.

In this article, I talk about the evolution of my bead collection over the past twenty years and about what kinds of decisions I made in organizing and storing the many different kinds of beads. There are lots of photos, nifty and colorful closeups of compartments full of bead goodies, throughout the article.

If you are interested in beads or in the topic of how to organize other craft materials, you might enjoy reading this piece. If you are a buyer or a seller of handmade goods, you might want to check out the Handmade Spark directory and search options as well. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Upcoming Garden Treasures

Here in Illinois, we still have mounds of snow in the yards and streets and icicles on the eaves, but we're starting to think ahead about the possibility of winter being over. So here's a quick preview (photos from last year in our garden or my friend Frank Cooper's wonderful garden) of what might be expected in a few short weeks.

One of the very first perennials to bloom for us is the Adonis vernalis. It's cheery bright yellow flowers sometimes appear as early as the end of February or the beginning of March, even poking through some leftover snow. It's one of those plants that has a great day before there is much competition and then disappears completely when the show is over. So you have to be careful and keep track of where it is (we always remember because it's close by a much-loved lip fern clump) so you don't accidentally dig up the roots while it's dormant.

The perennial Corydalis solida (also called "fumewort") that are planted as small bulbuls are another group of bright and early bloomers. In addition to the well-known yellow one (Corydalis lutea), there are some lovely hybrids with purple, pink, and rose blossoms. Again, these start early and don't last long, leaving no trace behind, so enjoy them while you can and keep track of their location.

The corydalis prefer a more shady, humusy location compared to the adonis, which likes full sun and well-drained soil. There are some gorgeous blue ones that are grown out in the Pacific Northwest (and England, of course), but we have had no luck with those here because of heat and humidity.

Of course, early bulbs of all sorts are the essence of spring, beginning with the snowdrops in February, soon followed by the earliest snow crocus, like these "tommies" -- the beloved Crocus tommasinianus that grow in enormous naturalized drifts in England. There are a few hybrid varieties of tommies, and all are lovely and fairly easy to grow. It does takes a few years to get generous clumps, and it's important to wait on mowing until the foliage has had a chance to replenish the nourishment used by the bulb's blooming.

Crocus of all kinds are so very cheerful, in my opinion. Some years, they are ruined by late frosts and early spring rains, however, so don't forget to check for them before you leave for a day at work. The tiny early crocus bees do their job, buzzing into each brilliant orange center and out again. Later in the day, when the bees are finished, the blooms close up. That's a nice thing about being semi-retired and working at home -- I can check on the crocus and get a chance to see them while they're open -- even if they don't last very long into the spring before the next wave of later spring bulbs comes on. Everything has its season, and some are short (in both time and height) but appreciated greatly.

The snow crocuses come in pale yellow, pure white, butter yellow, purple, and variations of all those. The hybrid Dutch crocus come a little later or overlap, just beginning when the snow crocus are finishing. They are quite similar but a bit larger. There's a great striped purple and white one; it's called "Pickwick," I think.

Our crocus aren't really turning into the fantastic huge drifts we imagined (always shown that way in glossy gardening catalogues, of course) because it takes a long time, full sun (which we don't really have), great soil (like in our prior garden at the old house, where the topsoil hadn't all been removed when the house was built), and a more reliable climate than we usually have in Illinois.

These are just a few of the treasures to come. We just have to be patient and put up with a few more weeks of snow, cold, and frost. But what a relief when the winter is finally over, huh? Spring, as you can tell, is my very favorite season, a time of renewal and freshness and beauty that rejuvenates us all!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Where the Birds Are

In the middle of winter in Illinois, it isn't easy to do a lot of birdwatching. My husband and my friend Bob and I have been interested in birding for a long time and have seen a fair number of birds over the years in various places in Illinois and elsewhere, including some wonderful experiences at bird refuges on the Mississippi and out west in Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Since then, because it's gotten hard to me to walk on narrow or sloping trails where I can't take my four-wheeler walker, I have mostly watched birds on the suet feeder through my dining room window. Even when I could hike around, I have to admit that I lacked two essentials for becoming a real "birder": (1) being able (and willing) to get up in the dark in order to get to the woods at dawn and (2) being calm and quiet (without shouting, "Oh wow! I think I saw a warbler! Hey, you guys, look over three!") so the birds and beasts are not all frightened away.

Nevertheless, we do try each winter to take an hour's drive east into Indiana to Turkey Run State Park, where the Nature Center has a bird viewing room.

We left Urbana about 10 (yes, it was AFTER dawn) and went directly to the Original Pancake House for fortifications and coffee. Then we drove over to Indiana, taking the small roads and enjoying the scenery -- snow on cleared corn and soybean fields, the occasional woodframe farmhouse, small towns with their Caseys and Krispy Kremes, and a few hawks in the tops of bare trees.

Turkey Run State Park is a big place with an old but cozy lodge and lots of trails down steep ravines in the Indiana woods. There is Sugar Creek nearby and a few canoe rentals places. But this time of year, the scene was pretty deserted. We did see one family on a trail that passes behind the back of the nature center and is therefore visible from the bird viewing area. They were dressed warmly and moving right along.

The trip adventurers included myself, my husband David, and our friend Bob, who kindly drove.  When we arrived, no one was in the nature center, but it was open and the bird room was open as well.

Actually, the time of year and the fact of it being a weekday was perfect because there wasn't anyone around to scare away the birds. We have been there when a lot of restless youngsters in the bird room couldn't sit still or be quiet for very long while their parents tried to identify which woodpecker was feeding on the suet server. It could be a bit distracting. Also, even though there's a one-way glass, movement inside the room is still detectable and keeping still and quiet really helps in terms of not chasing the birds off the area. There's a microphone (one-way, thankfully) so you can hear the bird sounds too -- very cool.

There are a lot of different feeders and different kinds of food available for the birds there. First of all, there are several hanging feeders with sunflower seeds and perches, mainly in the shape of little houses.  These were very popular with a host of small, quick moving, thoroughly charming little birds: nuthatches, chicadees, finches, and tufted titmice.

There were also several posts with wired holders containing a rich fatty suet, loved by the nuthatches and by a variety of woodpeckers.

For example, in addition to a hanging feeder and a thermometer, one of the posts included a suet cage where you can see a small downy female woodpecker. You can tell it's a female because there is no red patch on the nape of her neck. It's a downy rather than a hairy woodpecker because it's quite small, more the size of a sparrow than of a robin.

Unfortunately, the zoom on my camera isn't very powerful, so the birds look small in some of these photos.

However, you get the idea anyway, I think. We had a wonderful time watching them and pointing out various birds to one another on the different feeding stations.

Some of the food was laid out on the ground on top of stones. This was attractive to the ground feeding birds like the English house sparrows (common in backyards, city streets, and fast-food restaurant patios -- but always welcome nonethess) and the little "snow birds" -- the juncos who arrive when the cold weather starts and stay until it's gone and then move north because they like it cool.
Another happy ground feeder is the red squirrel. There were a half dozen of them, hopping around the logs with corn or sunflower seeds on top. Munching away and looking quite fat and plump, sometimes coming close up to the windows.

Another visitor was a tiny little chipmunk with a short tail and a series of dark lines with a white line in between on both sides of his body and on his head. He refused to pose for a picture, preferring instead to pop down between the stones and disappear, appearing again later half way across the feeding area.

Although the feeders may look deserted in my photos (because I wasn't fast enough getting focused and actually shooting), there was a lot of bird activity on all of the feeders all afternoon long. There were a bunch of tiny yellow goldfinches in this area early in the afternoon. They weren't as bright yellow as they are in summer when the males are in breeding plumage, but they are charming, with their black-and-white wing markings and sweet songs.

There were also very bright red male cardinals and their brown-and-red ladies feeding and sitting in the snow-tipped branches looking cheerful. Early in the afternoon, several big noisy but glamorous blue jays showed up.

And we saw a lot of woodpeckers, both male and female, from several species: the small downy woodpecker; the larger hairy woodpecker, the red-bellied woodpecker (actually, more noticeably red on the head and neck than the belly, with a lovely herringbone-type black-and-white pattern for its whole back); and the very bright red-headed woodpecker with its black and white body. You can see one (tiny in the photo) on this flat platform feeder, getting pieces of cracked corn.

The hanging feeders don't seem to attract the woodpeckers the way the corn on the platform and the suet cages do. The tiny swift chickadees with their cute black "caps" love those feeders, however, and so does the tufted titmouse, a perky little guy with a top crest a bit like a cardinals, but soft blue-gray colors.

In the ground area with the stones, we spotted first one and then two opposums enjoying the sunflower seeds, seemingly oblivious of the comings and goings of the squirrels and birds.

We spent several hours watching and really enjoyed ourselves. As you can see, both David and Bob were concentrating on seeing as much as they could!

It was a pleasant and relaxing experience all around and we were fortunate to see quite a number of birds in just a few hours in the afternoon.

We stopped to eat on the way back and arrived long before the snow storm started. We'll be going back again when the weather clears up a little for another chance to see birds close up in viewing room.

I'm Dreaming of a White . . . February?