Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Knitting

It has been a loooong time since I've posted anything about knitting. It's actually been quite a long time since I've really done any knitting, but then I started watching tv again. I picked up my East Neuk Hoodie while watching season 1 of The Returned, though it was a bit tricky since that show is subtitled. But once I moved to the new season of Orange is the New Black, things have really got moving. I've even taken it on the bus a few times, though it's getting unwieldy.

Have I told you about the East Neuk Hoodie? I don't think I have. I mentioned it briefly at the end of my last knitting post, which was way back in February. It's from the Fall 2014 issue of Knitscene, which had a whole section on modern ganseys. I love a gansey, and the one of the cover kind of stole my heart. It's a hoodie with a front pocket, and I've just finished the pocket.

The one in the issue was made in purple, and you know I love purple, but I was determined to make this in mustard yellow from the first moment that I saw it. Finding just the right shade was not easy (especially since my go-to yarn store closed down a couple of years ago) but I went to the one remaining yarn store in my area and looked at all the yellows until I found just the right shade. Of course they didn't have enough of it for my sweater. So one of the employees tried to talk me into a lesser mustard yellow until I finally asked if they could just order me some more of this one. They did, and it was a good choice. 

Knitting sweaters seems very unpleasant for summer, but I have air conditioning and I really want to be able to wear this in the fall. Here's hoping I can keep up the pace! Once I finish OITNB I might need a new show to watch in order to keep up the knitting so please give me your recommendations!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Lois Duncan

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

You may have heard that Lois Duncan died last week. There wasn't a lot of fanfare, but for those of us who were teenagers in the 80s, she was an important part of our formative years. She wrote young adult books before that was even a thing. We mostly read adult books - for me it was Stephen King and Danielle Steel, a strange-sounding combination now, but that's what I read. At that time there were very few books that had been written with a teen audience in mind: those were mostly written by Lois Duncan, Caroline Cooney, and S.E. Hinton.

Duncan's most well-known book is probably I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was made into a movie in the 90s. Others that I remember are Summer of Fear and Stranger With My Face. But the one that has stuck with me the most is Killing Mr. Griffin, which was published in 1978. In this story, a group of high school students want to get back at their mean teacher by kidnapping him to scare him. But then he dies! Of course, rather than going to the police and telling them the truth, they decide to cover it up and it all gets way more complicated. I loved this book.

There's apparently an updated version of this book that includes references to Google and cell phones, but wasn't completely updated and apparently the modern-day details just seem incongruous with the rest of the book. So if you decide to read it, be sure to look for the original version!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Real Happiness

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: a 28-day Program by Sharon Salzberg (2010)

This is one of the four books that Dan Harris recommends in 10% Happier. This beginning guide to meditation defines what meditation is, describes its benefits, then lays out a 4-week plan to get you started. Each week begins with a preview which describes the general idea behind each sort of meditation. Then the meditation sections walk you through each variation of that kind of meditation. This is followed by a FAQ and with reflections and the takeaway. The themes of the four weeks are concentration, mindfulness and the body, mindfulness and emotions, and "lovingkindness."

The first week is all about concentration, and asks us to focus on our breath (the basic kind of meditation that I've been doing), the sounds around us, or by being aware of thoughts we are having (without getting distracted by them - that's the tricky part.) In the second week we are asked to be mindful about what is going on in our bodies and the sensations that we are experiencing, and it includes a walking meditation. The third week is all about being aware of your emotions and realizing that they are temporary. The final week focuses on what Salzberg calls "lovingkindness" which means that while meditating you consciously feel compassion towards others, which is basically like sending good vibes.

I didn't intended to use this as prescribed for 28 days, so I didn't focus on these different meditations from week to week. I just wanted to learn more about meditation in general, because I knew there had to be more to it than just counting breaths and trying not to get lost in thought. I tried listening to the CD for the first meditation, but it was basically the same as what was in the book and for me it was a bit distracting. My experience with guided meditations has been pretty mixed so far in general, but if it works well for you, this is probably helpful. Otherwise, you can just read the meditation bits in the book before meditating.

This hasn't really changed my beginning practice yet, but it has given me ideas about where to go from here. Some of it may never be useful to me, but there are several kinds of meditation new to me that I will probably use. This book would likely be useful for anyone starting out with meditation who needs some guidance. I found it pretty easy to read and understand.

Do you meditate? If so, are there any books, blogs, or other sources that you have found helpful? I'm taking suggestions!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Top Favorite 2016 Releases So Far This Year

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is the Top 10 favorite 2016 releases so far this year. So far I've read 14 books that were released in 2016, though I read 3 of those in late 2015. I guess they still count? Since I haven't read a ton of 2016 releases, and six of them stood out, I'm going with my top 6. These are roughly in order by how much I liked them, and the links go to my original posts about them.

1. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

2. The Crown by Kiera Cass

3. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

4. The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

5. Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

6. Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey

What are your favorite books published so far in 2016? Are any of mine on your list?

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Dollhouse

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis (2016)

The most famous resident of New York's Barbizon Hotel for Women was Sylvia Plath, who spent a month there in 1953. But in this forthcoming debut novel, Fiona Davis takes us back to the previous year when a young woman named Darby McLaughlin arrives for secretarial school and ends up involved in a tragedy. In 2016, a journalist named Rose is living in the same building, which has now mostly been converted to condos. But some of the same residents from the old days still live on the 4th floor, including Darby MaLaughlin. When Rose learns about Darby's past, she is determined to write a story about it, no matter how reclusive Darby is. The novel moves back and forth between these two different stories until we find out the truth of what happened on that fateful night.

I often pass over the galleys I receive because I have so many books I already know I want to read that I don't want to put them aside for a book I know nothing about. But I was drawn in by the setting of this novel. A couple of years ago I read Pain, Parties, Work, which was about Sylvia Plath's life in New York during the summer of 1953, during which she lived in the Barbizon, and I was eager to return to that world.

Unfortunately, this novel fell rather flat for me. Of the two stories, the 1950s one was the real meat of the novel, and the 2016 story felt like it was written as an afterthought. Nothing that happened in that part of the story felt realistic to me. Rose never felt like a real person, and her choices didn't always make sense. I didn't care at all about her stupid married boyfriend, who was also completely two-dimensional. The dialogue felt artificial and flat throughout the book and there was too much telling rather than showing. In Rose's obsessive search to find out the truth about what happened, she temporarily thought she discovered something that so quickly turned out to be a red herring that I have no idea why it was even included. This whole story felt contrived, and though I see the value of including this present-day story, it was poorly executed.

Also disappointing was the over-used technique of beginning the story with the major tragedy, which is an obvious ploy to keep readers interested. Although this works well in some books, it's turning into a cheap trick that is overused and in many cases I think it's because there's nothing else that will propel the reader through the story. That was definitely the case with this novel. My need to learn about Darby's involvement in the death of the hotel maid was basically the only thing that kept me going.

The 1950s story wasn't perfect, but it was far better than the 2016 one. I liked learning about the Darby's arrival at the hotel, her struggle to make friends, and her adventures at local nightclubs with the hotel maid, Esme. Esme was constantly convincing Darby to go out to the club when Darby knew she should be studying, and she was an incredibly pushover about it every time. This aspect of their friendship got a bit tedious, but I did like the rest of that story, especially when Darby developed an attraction to a talented cook at the nightclub, a guy named Sam who had traveled extensively and was very adventurous with spices (and that's not a euphemism.)

I was never able to become lost in this story, even the 1950s one, because none of it felt quite real enough. I mentioned many of my issues above, but also some of the sentence-level writing was troublesome and pulled me out of the story. For instance, a dog was described as having "quite the bitchy personality," which was rather colloquial phrasing that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, when present-day Darby was introduced to Rose's love interest/coworker, she responded, "Jason Wolf. Quite the name." It was similarly awkward phrasing that didn't quite fit, but also...what is supposed to be so unusual about the name Jason Wolf? I have no idea.

Since it's not out yet, there aren't a lot of reviews on Goodreads and mine is one of the few low ratings. I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads (which means "ok") because I thought the writing was so poor, but the whole idea was pretty good which made it extra upsetting that it wasn't executed well. Reading it wasn't all unpleasant, but at a certain point I did just push myself to finish so it would be over with. I didn't want to stop because I wanted to find out the truth of the story (see: "cheap trick" above.) I suspect I'll shy away from galleys I know nothing about for a while in favor of choosing books that I know I want to read.

The Dollhouse will be released in August. I received my copy courtesy of the publisher. I was not compensated for this review.

Friday, June 17, 2016

My Brother Sam is Dead

My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

Tim Meeker's older brother Sam runs away to join the Continental Army and fight against the British. His father is a Tory, loyal to the King, and is very upset about this. Tim doesn't know what to think - on the one hand, he admires his older brother but on the other hand he respects his father. Who should he believe? After Sam leaves, he doesn't have much time to think about it because he has to help around the tavern and take care of the livestock, doing Sam's share of the work as well as his own. But as the Revolutionary war comes closer and closer, it becomes impossible for Tim and and the rest of his family to stay out of it.

Since this is a classic, and the title tells you as much, it's not a spoiler to say that Sam dies. What's interesting though is that the way he dies isn't heroic. Plenty of soldiers died on the battlegrounds, but plenty also died of illness or were executed for crimes. We see several such deaths in this book, which definitely doesn't glamorize or romanticize war. In fact, there's an interview with Christopher Collier at the end of my edition in which he says that any book that is honest about war is anti-war because any book that glorifies war isn't telling the truth. (This interview was in 2005 and he also says that he wishes George Bush had read this book.)

Today we think of the Revolutionary War as something that was necessary, and it's a given that we should have separated from England and become our own independent country. But it wasn't clear at the time and not everyone in the American colonies agreed. The Revolutionary War was complicated and nuanced, like every war, and the authors did a great job of representing the issues. Another thing we might forget is how young people were who fought in the war. I think Sam was only 16 when he joined up.

At home, 12-year-old Tim took on a lot of responsibility. I actually thought he was older because I always forget that back then childhood didn't last as long as it does now. (In fact, many young people apparently now think that adulthood doesn't start until they're 30. Gawd help us.) Although people were responsible younger than they are now, the sphere of daily life was much smaller. Tim had never been to a colony outside of Connecticut until he goes on a trip with his father to sell oxen, and they stay with cousins he had never met before, though they're not far away by today's standards. This sort of thing fascinates me!

I hadn't read this book since fifth grade when my teacher, Mr. Furth, read it out loud to the class. It's the only thing I still remember from fifth grade, aside from the contra dancing. We're reading it for the Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at my library, because sometimes we like to mix it up and read classics. I didn't remember much about the book but was afraid I wouldn't like it. It was better than I expected and a quick read. It wasn't a total page-turner with characters that I could relate to - like contemporary teen books - but it was a very quick read that left me with a lot to think about.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2015), narrated by Euan Mortan

As you may know, Rainbow Rowell's book Fangirl contains excerpts from a work of fanfiction, and Rowell has developed the basic idea of that fanfiction into a novel. The star is Simon Snow, a magician who is supposed to be the Chosen One, but has a terrible time controlling his magic. He goes to a special boarding school for magicians where he rooms with a vampire named Baz. Simon and Baz have been enemies since they met and they're both convinced that one of them won't come out of this relationship alive. But in their final year, Baz doesn't show up in the fall and Simon is super jumpy, expecting him to turn up unexpectedly at any moment. He's already having problems with his girlfriend, he receives a strange ghostly visitor, and is now convinced that his missing roommate is surely up to something.

Part mystery and part romance, this fantasy story is a departure for Rowell and I was honestly a little hesitant to read it. I've read Fangirl twice and though I love it, my least favorite parts were the Simon Snow passages. But obviously that is a lot different when it's fully developed into a whole novel.

Simon and Baz are great characters and I loved every moment I spent with them. Especially Baz! He's the presumably evil vampire and, despite being his nemesis, is hopelessly in love with Simon Snow. I loved the way that Baz continued to insult Simon even as he was attracted to him. Like staring at Simon thinking about how much he wanted to kiss him, and noting that "his lips are hanging open (mouth breather.)" He is dark and surly and sarcastic and I love him more than any other character I've read about recently. Simon, who is lovable in a totally different way, sought stability in his future with his girlfriend Agatha, and when she broke up with him he felt quite lost. He had no family of his own, just Agatha and his best friend Penelope. He was awkward and easily flustered, and I imagined him in constant, charming disarray.

The plot revolves around Baz's mother who was killed when he was just a baby, by the same vampires who turned him into one. Simon learns new information about this event, which leads to he and Baz working on the mystery together, bringing them ever closer. This all happened in a magic world where many of the spells are based on nursery rhymes or common sayings. Spells have more power if they are based on something that lasts over time as opposed to, say, an advertising jingle. The big enemy here is called the Insidious Humdrum, which looks like Simon Snow when he was younger, and is stealing magic from all over Britain. (Did I mention this takes place in England? The British-isms make it even better!) Other characters include the troll-like numpties, a female goatherd named Ebenezer, and the powerful Mage who is also the closest thing Simon has to a guardian. It was all deliciously fun and I would not be at all upset if it was the beginning of a longer series.

Carry On was almost a 5-star read for me, but I was a little less enthusiastic about the end. It was good in many ways but there was one major thing that I expected to be resolved and I was a little disappointed that it was just left hanging there. And I wanted more of Simon and Baz together once everything else was done. But that is really just a minor criticism in what was otherwise just as wonderful as I should expect from Rainbow Rowell. The audio narrator, Euan Mortan, did a great job of making these characters come alive.

Like all of Rowell's books, Carry On made me super happy in a million ways. It's clever and witty and made me wish the characters were real. If you read it, just be aware that it starts out slow, but it is absolutely worth it to stay the course. I know that in a way it's a riff on Harry Potter (and it really made me want to read that series again!) but it really is its own world and characters. When I finished my first instinct was to start it all over again, but instead I'm just going to wait impatiently for Rainbow Rowell to publish another book.