Monday, July 21, 2014

Landline

Landline by Rainbow Rowell (2014), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

In Rainbow Rowell's highly-anticipated new novel for adults, a woman mysteriously makes contact with a younger version of her husband through the old yellow telephone at her mother's house. Georgie McCool is supposed to be leaving for Omaha with her husband and kids to stay with his family for Christmas. But something has come up at work and she decides not to go at the last minute. She is a tv writer, so her schedule isn't a shock to Neal, but this seems like the last straw and he packs up the kids and goes without her. Later at her mother's house, her cell phone dead, Georgie uses the old phone in her room to try to call her husband, but instead reaches the 22-year-old version of him. It was another significant time in their relationship and Georgie wonders if she has been handed this strange opportunity for a reason: is she meant to fix their marriage? Or prevent it from ever happening?

The premise is strange and remains unexplained, but if you can just suspend your disbelief it actually works quite well. This isn't a story of action - it's mostly about Georgie and Neal's relationship from its earliest days. Not until late in the book is there any real action. It felt sort of like time stopped so that Georgie could figure everything out. It didn't actually stop, of course. Her coworker and best friend Seth tried to get her to come to work as she languished around her mother's house depressively in Neal's old Metallica t-shirt. She just resisted everything that was happening around her, continuing to wear her dirty clothing - or her mother's clothing - in her refusal to go back to her empty house.

Some major elements of the story were predictable, one thing in particular that I figured out really early on, and I am not the most astute of readers. I just waited for Georgie to also figure it out, which she did eventually. This didn't bother me. Landline isn't a suspense novel, after all; it's a novel about relationships, and they are often predictable.

As always, the best part of a Rainbow Rowell book is her language. George refers to Neal's lips as "a testament to cell division." When her younger sister Heather asks about whether she had fallen in love before Neal, she says "Maybe I came really close to falling in love, cumulatively, over two or three relationships." I also love the nostalgia she invokes with her references to Crayola Caddies and Mork.

I pre-ordered the audiobook when I learned that Rebecca Lowman would be narrating. Rainbow Rowell and Rebecca Lowman are becoming inextricably linked in my head, which is sort of a problem and the reason I haven't yet listened to Attachments. I guess I could read the print version, but that's not how I experience Rainbow Rowell. You can see my dilemma.

It's tough to compare to Rowell's other books that I've read because it's for adults and, therefore, inherently a bit different. I still love Eleanor & Park more, and maybe even Fangirl, but still....it's Rainbow Rowell and she has a magical way with words that just captivates me every time. I feel like she could write about the most boring non-fiction topic out there (the history of adhesives? how to clean upholstery? ocean bottom sediment?) and it would be a pleasure to read because she would say such unique things about it in a way that we could all relate to. Yes! I'd say. That is exactly what ocean bottom sediment is like, when you really think about it. Rainbow Rowell is magic, like a landline that connects you to fifteen years ago.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Welsh Girl

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (2007)

I am forever saying that I'm done with WWII fiction, only to go on and read something else that is very firmly set in that period. In this case I'm finally getting around to something that I've wanted to read since I came across it by chance on a library shelf soon after it came out in 2007.

A young German surrenders and is brought to a POW camp in the Welsh countryside. Nearby, a young woman named Esther lives with her father and a young evacuee named Jim. The novel alternates between their two stories, which eventually cross when they meet.

Some decisive events take place early on - Karsten is captured, Esther is raped - but then it all moves rather slowly for quite a while until late in the novel when the two finally meet. In these later pages the pace quickens as the action picks up. Not to say that it's boring until then: the story may be slow, but it's filled with lush descriptions and profound insights into both major characters.

Esther must deal with the aftermath of her rape, which she hesitates to even name as such. The man was a soldier who she thought cared for her, and she decides it was more of a misunderstanding. "He meant one thing, she meant another." Considering the idea of being forced, she wonders how this was different from any other experience in her confining life. Still, there are consequences, and Esther is not able to leave it behind her. I was often surprised by Esther, which made her all the more intriguing. She is much more than a simple country girl.

Karsten, meanwhile, is unable to escape the fact of his surrender. The other prisoners won't let him forget it, and he does not know what to write to his mother, how to explain his present circumstances. Some of the most vivid and atmospheric descriptions were part of Karsten's story, such as this detail early on: "The sand, when he touches it, still holds the silken warmth of the long summer day, but when he pushes his fingers below the surface, the grains are chill and coarse." I grew up near a beach and know that feeling very well, but had forgotten it until reading this passage.

There's a third important character as well, an interrogator named Rotheram who is investigating Rudolf Hess, a politician close to Adolf Hitler who is being held prisoner in Wales. I wasn't as drawn into his story as the rest, likely because I got so little of it - just a few chapters in the whole novel - and because it was more political than personal. But it served as a pretty strong reminder about what was going on at the time, far away from this rural countryside, and strengthened the connection between the other parts of the story.

I expected to be let down by this novel, not just because I've waited so long, but because it was compared to The English Patient, which I found tedious and only slogged about halfway through before giving up. But I'm very glad I finally gave this one a chance. It's a bit more literary than what I've been reading, and I think it would be great for a book group. There's a lot going on (I know I probably missed some things) and certain parts of the story were left open, inviting speculation. Luckily, a coworker happened to be reading it at the same time, so we did get to discuss it a bit together. All in all, The Welsh Girl was surprisingly satisfying.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

The Stepford Wives has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche, it really needs no introduction. Everybody knows that a Stepford wife is a perfect, bland example of a homemaker: keeping an immaculate house, smiling pleasantly, and having no real thoughts or opinions of her own. There's more to the story of course - it follows a particular couple, Joanna and Walter, who move to Stepford with their kids. Joanna notices something strange about the women and their lack of interest in socializing, much less in women's liberation issues. She becomes suspicious of the Men's Organization, and confides in her one "normal" friend, Bobbie. As the story progresses, Joanna begins to wonder if she's on to something, or if she's just crazy.

This subtlety is what makes the story so sinister. It's horror of a sort - you can't really read it without a sinking feeling of dread - but there are no monsters, no blood, no crazed killer chasing after the heroine. It's just a neighborhood that looks perfectly normal from the outside, but where something is very much not right.

It is significant that The Stepford Wives was published in 1972. The height of the women's liberation movement, and the inevitable backlash, are the perfect backdrop and in fact I don't think the novel would exist without them. Joanna's desire to start a NOW chapter in Stepford is almost quaint, but I couldn't help but admire her outspokenness. (And I miss this sort of pure, unadulterated feminism. It's just not like it used to be.)

Not having read The Stepford Wives since the 1980s, I had forgotten just how creepy it is. It's also very short, more of a novella than a novel, and I relished every bit of it this time through. Though it may seem a little dated, the quest for female perfection is still alive and well. It's not really about being a housewife anymore, of course, it's about being a career woman and housewife and mother and having additional fulfilling hobbies and interests. Instead of focusing entirely on keeping a perfect house, we talk about achieving "balance" which seems to be code for managing to do ALL THE THINGS. Elizabeth Gilbert posted a beautiful essay about balance here, and I strongly suggest you read it, especially if you feel like you are failing at achieving this balance everyone keeps talking about. Then go read The Stepford Wives. It will make you feel better about slacking on housework, I promise.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Knitting

I've been sitting on a finished project for a while here, waiting until I gave it to the expectant mother-to-be, which I finally did this week.



And by "finished" I mean that it was all finished about a month ago except for sewing a snap and decorative button on the cardigan. I am a little ashamed of how long it took me to do that part.


This is the Love the Earth Baby Cardi, which is free online from Lion Brand Yarn. I used Cascade Yarns Pacific, which is a merino/acrylic blend. Purple, of course.

I made a hat too, because I'm convinced the baby will outgrow the sweater in about 10 seconds and possibly never get to wear it.


This is the Umbilical Cord Hat from Stitch 'n Bitch, made with the same yarn. It took almost no time at all. I've made this hat at least once before, but apparently pre-Ravelry and pre-blog because I don't see it in my projects anywhere. I'll have to remember to make it more because it's really a very cute little hat.

I finished this project and my shawl on the very same day, and that leaves me with only my Feathernest Raglan on the needles. That, too, is coming to an end fairly quickly. So I've been spending a lot of time looking at knitting patterns - I've almost forgotten how much fun that is! I'll post soon with a new project!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Orphan Train

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013)

In the late 19th and early 20th century, trains full of orphans traveled west from the East Coast looking for adoptive families. This novel tells the story of one such orphan, a young Irish immigrant whose family perished in a fire. Niamh is all alone, sent away from New York to the Midwest where she lives with a series of families before becoming an adult and, ultimately, moving to Maine. In present-day Spruce Harbor, a 17-year-old foster kid named Molly takes a community service job to keep herself out of juvie. She is enlisted to help an elderly woman clean out her attic, but what she gets instead is a fascinating story of a youth that is even more troubled than her own.

Niamh's story was a sad one from the beginning. She was only around 7 when her family came to New York from Ireland, and learned that their kind weren't always welcome. There were echoes of every story I've read about the immigrant experience in the early 20th century, from prejudice and unemployment to hunger and crowded tenement buildings. Losing her family seemed like the worst thing that could happen, until she had to experience living with strange families for reasons that were less than charitable.

But despite the hardships, many details drew me into that time period in the very best way. When we meet one of Niamh's teachers, Miss Larsen, just the details of her wool skirts and the little schoolhouse and the boarding house where she lived with nice Mrs. Murphy made me want to climb into her life. I was less inclined to experience Niamh's dinners of squirrel stew and jobs sewing clothes, but it was all brought to life vividly.

Molly, a Penobscot Indian, has a school project about portaging. This is a concept from the Wabanaki tribes who traveled a lot and had to carry all of their possessions with them. This means they always had to think carefully about what to bring and what to discard. Much like anyone who is transient, such as, oh, I don't know, a foster kid. This theme came up in both Molly's and Niamh's stories and I thought it was really interesting to think about. When you stay in one place for a long time you can just accumulate more and more stuff (ask me how I know) but moving always forces you to reexamine what you are holding onto.

My only complaint about this novel is that Molly's foster mother was disappointingly two-dimensional. I get that foster parents can be awful, but she didn't even seem like a real person, just a collection of annoying and horrifying traits. She won't acknowledge that Molly is vegetarian and continues to feed her things like Hamburger Helper (and complains when Molly tries to cook for herself because vegetables are too expensive). She whines about her uncomfortable chair at work, threatening a lawsuit. She listens to conservative talk radio and attends a fundamentalist Christian church. AND. She is at the breaking point with Molly because Molly committed a horrible, terrible crime and Dina cannot bear to put up with this any longer: Molly tried to steal a cheap paperback copy of Jane Eyre from the library. OMG, she tried to steal a free book! And not even the nicest copy, but one that likely would have been thrown out soon anyhow. Also ridiculous was that library staff had her arrested, rather than just saying "Oh, it appears you didn't check that out. Here, let me do it now," which is what I would have done, and which would have saved everyone a lot of hassle.

So the current-day plotline wasn't the strongest, but overall was still fairly good. I loved the historical part of the story a whole lot though, and I can see why this book has been so popular. If you like popular or historical fiction (particularly based on real events) you may well enjoy this novel quite a bit.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Tragedy Paper

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan (2013)

It is Duncan's senior year at the prestigious Irving School, and there are two things looming over him as he arrives: what treasure will be left for him in his new room, and the upcoming senior project known as the Tragedy Paper. It turns out that the former occupant of his room was an albino named Tim MacBeth and the treasure he left behind was a series of CDs with the story of everything that happened the previous year, a series of events that culminated in something Duncan did not want to revisit, but which Tim promised would help Duncan with his Tragedy Paper. The novel moves back and forth between Tim and Duncan's related stories of both their senior years at Irving.

Unlike Duncan, Tim didn't arrive at Irving until mid-way through senior year when his parents moved out of their house and went to Italy. On his way to Irving, Tim gets stranded at an airport and has an eventful night with a girl named Vanessa who, it turns out, is also a student at Irving. She also has a very possessive boyfriend, who is nevertheless totally unthreatened by Tim because surely Vanessa is not interested in some weird albino kid.

For a while I thought that Tim made too much of a deal out of being albino, considering himself an outcast. To me, he's just pale, which isn't all that weird. But he does have some specific needs, like wearing sunglasses to protect his incredibly-sensitive eyes. His low self-confidence kept him on the sidelines until Vanessa's boyfriend Patrick reeled him into his social circle, somewhat against Tim's will. The rest, as they say, is history.

I was drawn into this story immediately by the voices of both Duncan and Tim, and the promise of tragedy it all seemed to be leading up to. Say what you will about the preponderance of boarding schools in YA literature - it sometimes feels impossible to escape - but this has got to be one of the very best. There is something reminiscent of Dead Poets Society here, especially in the English teacher Mr. Simon, assigner of the Tragedy Paper, who ends every class by saying "Go forth and spread beauty and light." All the characters were well-drawn, even the minor ones, and something about the way LaBan tells the story made it all feel very immediate. Much like Duncan's experience listening to Tim's CDs, it was an immersive experience.

I love books in which the teenage characters are really getting into an assignment and it sort of takes over their lives and they learn more than they ever expected to from it. There's a lot more going on here though, as we learn about Duncan's and Tim's romantic interests and how hearing Tim's story makes Duncan seize the day with his crush, Daisy. There's also the culmination of each story in the senior game, a dead-of-night activity organized secretly by someone in the senior class, who then passes the responsibility down to a junior for next year.

As much as I've never cared about private schools, I suddenly wanted nothing more than to go to the Irving School. This place is more posh than my expensive private college. Everyone has a single, the cafeteria serves locally produced foods, and traditions include a senior donut breakfast, where a local donut baker comes and help students make and decorate their own donuts and everyone sits around lazily all morning ingesting carbohydrates.

Speaking of baked goods, English teacher Mr. Simon is also fond of baking, sharing his wares with Duncan. You see, Duncan got the smallest room in the dorm (though let me reiterate: they are all singles) and Mr. Simon always shares his baked goods with the occupant of that room. Get stuck with small room, get free baked goods.

There was some hype surrounding The Tragedy Paper when it came out last year, but it sort of fell by the wayside of my TBR list until the Not-So-Young Adult book group at work voted to read it. I hope they all like it as much as I did!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sunday Knitting


The Fountain Pen Shawl that I've been working on for what seems like forever but has been actually less than two years is finally finished.

Here's the obligatory spread-out shot, though it's a bit dark.

As I may have mentioned when I started this project, I don't actually wear shawls. Or maybe that's because I never owned one. Perhaps I'll take this to work and if the air-conditioning is ever working properly I can use it to take the chill off.

Here it is blocking, spread out in all it's error-ridden glory:


I couldn't even get the whole thing in the shot, it is so big. As you can see, the blocking boards I recently bought from Knitpicks (pretty much with this project in mind) are not adequate and I had to supplement with random mismatched towels. I will likely buy another set of these blocking boards so they will be enough for any future project because they work really well. And because this is lace, it dried in about 10 seconds.

I wish I had taken photos while I was washing it, because the dye in that yarn ran like a motherf****er. I filled the dish pan probably ten times in hopes the water would eventually run clear and it never did. It lightened though and I was feeling guilty for using so much water so I stopped. I wasn't surprised that this happened because the dye also came off on my hands while I knit, which I think is one reason I worked on it so sporadically for the first year or so of the project. So despite the beautiful saturated color of this Silky Alpaca Lace, I will not use it again.

The thing about lace is that you can't see how the pattern is shaping up while you're working on it. Only when it is spread out blocking are your sins revealed. And I am surely going to shawl-knitting hell for this.

I posted an in-progress pic here, and I spread it out enough on a white surface that you can sort of see it shaping up. That's about the point where things somehow went wrong. I mean, what is going on here?



It's like the whole pattern shifted to the left. I assume that was one of those points where things weren't coming out quite right and I had to fudge it. Well, look where it got me.

It also looks in a couple of spots like the center stitch moved, which is not only inexplicable but impossible. I had stitch markers on either side of that stitch throughout the entire project and did not move them. The border is a big hot mess, and I swear to God there were errors in the pattern even though I can't find anyone else on the entire internet who had this problem. But I assure you I can do simple math, and simple math will tell you that when you start with, say, 12 stitches and increase by 3 stitches you do not end up with 13 stitches. That is the sort of thing I encountered all through the last part of this shawl.

Anyhow, none of these errors really matter because it won't be spread out like this again. It looks quite lovely draped around shoulders, and feels soft and silky, and that's really all that's important.