Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Knitting

Here is my finished Huntress Shawl, with its little fox face.

But I'll probably wear it as a scarf, more like this.

This was an easy project that went quickly. You begin with the center panel, and use yarnovers to make the fox head. Then, stitches are picked up on each side and knit toward each end, decreasing until it tapers to just a few stitches before binding off. The Huntress Shawl pattern is from the Fall 2012 issue of Knitscene. The yarn, Cascade 200 Superwash, is just from my stash. I always like working with Cascade of any sort.

I don't recall why I bought this particular yarn, but I rarely buy any without specific plans in mind. Nevertheless, my stash has gotten a little out of hand, mostly just from project leftovers. So yesterday I went through and pulled out enough to fill two large bags and offered it up on Freecycle. What I have left is mostly sock yarn and it's far more manageable. I also found a few things I didn't realize I had, which was especially surprising since I keep a spreadsheet of all my yarn.

I'm still working on Pianissimo, but now I've also started a couple of socks as well. I'll share photos of those soon!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stay Awake

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon (2012)

Have you ever read a really good book and several days later when you try to tell someone about it, you can't even remember what it was about? That's how I feel about Dan Chaon's book of short stories, Stay Awake. Granted, collections are a little tougher anyhow because there are so many different plots and characters, but all that has really stuck with me are the feelings they evoked.

Some bits and pieces I remember: a guy who is haunted by his former family who he wronged, and whose new young son is having terrible nightmares; a couple whose newborn has an extra head; a guy who keeps finding mysterious notes everywhere that seem to be trying to tell him something; children murdered by their parents. Two of the stories feature men who each lost a finger by falling off a ladder.

They aren't horror exactly, but they are dark and unsettling. There's always a feeling that something is not quite right and you can't see what it is, but it's just out of the corner of your eye and you'll know the full, terrible truth in just a moment. They are all completely unnerving.

Chaon's writing is vivid and precise, and he neatly conveys all of the most unpleasant feelings that exist in humanity in one convenient volume. As with all great short stories, a lot is conveyed in few pages, and in these stories whole lifetimes of guilt and fear can be read in a half hour. At first, I read one story every day or so. But then I read the last four in a day, and that was a bit too much weirdness and discomfort to be enjoyable. So, pace yourself.

Am I exaggerating? You be the judge. After all, October is the perfect time to delve into the strange and creepy. You might not enjoy these stories exactly, but you won't soon forget them.

Friday, October 10, 2014

War and Peace: Progress report 1

I may have been a little too cocky going into this whole War and Peace thing. Sure, it's long and there are a ton of characters, but if I can read 400 pages I can read three times that many, right? It's just more pages, and I can refer to character list at the beginning if I forget who's who.

Except it takes exponentially longer to read than you'd think because of all the flipping back and forth that is required. In addition to the aforementioned character list, there are copious footnotes translating the French (and sometimes German) text, as well as extensive endnotes explaining the historical context.

War and Peace takes place during the Napoleonic Wars of 1805-1812 and follows several aristocratic families in Petersburg and Moscow, as well as some of the family members who are in the military in various locations. It opens with the death of Count Bezhukov and some intrigue surrounding his beneficiary, who ends up being his illegitimate son, Pierre. Among the families are the beginnings of various romantic entanglements. Then the story moves on to a military setting and it all became extremely unclear to me. There were cavalries and hussars and dragoons and the burning of bridges, along with a little gambling thrown in for good measure, and one of our main characters was injured.

History is not my strong subject, and military maneuvers are completely mystifying to me. The problem is that I often can't visualize what is happening, so it doesn't stick in my head from one moment to the next and the whole story becomes extremely difficult to follow. So I'm doing a lot better with the peace portions of this novel than the war. But luckily we're talking about it in class so I'll be sure to come away with the important bits one way or another.

Our instructor is not only well-versed in this novel, Tolstoy's life, and Russian history, she asks thought-provoking questions that go far beyond keeping all the characters straight. It makes me very glad I signed up because, as I predicted, I'm getting much more out of it than if I had just tried to plow through this novel on my own. So far she is emphasizing the characters, their philosophies, and asking us to consider how they change during the novel. Thankfully, she is less concerned with the historical events.

Still, it all makes me feel just a bit incompetent. As surprising as it may seem to anyone who knows how much I read and how much my life revolves around books, I wasn't an English major. I took a few classes on Russian literature in college, but I'm not really used to discussing books in this way. I'm unfamiliar with many of the themes and ways of looking at literature that come second-hand to those more versed in this sort of thinking. So it's a big challenge, but one that I think will be a good learning experience.

In the meantime, I'm still doing a bit of other reading, so expect a couple of reviews soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

TBR Pile Challenge Wrap-Up

The TBR Pile Challenge is technically not over until the end of the year, but I've completed mine so I thought I'd post a wrap-up now. I'm likely to forget by the end of December.

My original post is here, with titles and completion dates and everything, but in case you don't want to click through, here's what I read, in the order that I read them:

Home is a Roof Over a Pig by Aminta Arrington
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
Persuasion by Jane Austen
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
Keeping the Castle by Patricia Kindl
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (alternate)
Wildthorn by Jane England
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

I read 11 of the 12 books on my original list, and one of the alternates. In considering which books I liked the most and least, I can easily to point to Never Cry Wolf as my biggest disappointment. It wasn't terrible, and I didn't have a problem getting through it, but it was definitely only ok. It's a little tougher to pick a favorite. The biggest surprise was probably The Welsh Girl. I was a bit wary because of a cover blurb which compared it to The English Patient, a book I have tried in vain to read and found impenetrable. Two of the books I liked most are non-fiction: Home is a Roof Over a Pig and Lost in Shangri-La. I also really loved Agent 6, but that's no surprise and I've already read Smith's newest book, The Farm, as well.

The only drawback of this challenge is that now I don't want to remove anything from my To Read list (which really has to happen sometimes to keep things under control) because I'm convinced that all the books will surely be good and I don't want to miss them. Luckily, I've become more restrained about what I put on my To Read shelf in the first place.

I'd still like to read my final book on the original list (The Woman in White), but if I don't get to it before the end of 2014, that's ok. It's sort of long, and I'm currently reading War and Peace so I won't be too hard on myself if I only want to read short, easy books for the rest of this year.

Speaking of which, War and Peace is another book I've wanted to read for a good long while, but it's only ever been on the To Read list in my head. It was too daunting to actually add to any real list that I'd be held to. I'm also reading - because W&P is not enough, apparently - a book of short stories called Stay Awake by Dan Chaon, another long-time languisher on my list.

This challenge was just what I needed to spur myself to finally tackle many books that for one reason or another I keep passing over. I'm so glad I participated!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (2010)

As I think we all know by now, the show Orange is the New Black is based on this memoir about an educated white woman engaged to a nice guy who suddenly has to go to prison for something she did many years ago when she was at a very different point in her life. Piper Kerman was convicted on drug charges and had to serve a year at a federal women's prison in Danbury, CT. She describes what it was like in prison, but also provides insight into the system and and the other women caught in it.

I had a tough time keeping track of all her fellow inmates and other characters. There were just so many of them! I also found the prison rules confusing - she did too, so maybe that was intentional - but I felt like many things could have been explained more. For instance, she mentions the complexity of balancing her visitor lists, but I don't know what the challenges were. I know she could only have a certain number of people on the list, but beyond that it was a mystery. How many people could visit in one day? Could several friends come at once? She also mentioned a lot of seemingly-innocuous things being contraband, but then says her friend Rosemarie subscribed to bridal magazines. You can have magazine subscriptions in prison? Perhaps I'm just overly curious about the prison system and how life works there, but I'm left with a lot of questions.

The writing, while not exactly bad, could have been better. For instance, when Piper got a job doing electrical work she explains what it was like being so new to it. Later, she offhandedly mentions that she was shocked once, but doesn't share the story about that, which I thought would have been interesting and worth including.

However, these minor flaws didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book. I was really touched by how these women took care of each other. When Piper first arrived and had no money for commissary, several women gave her toiletries and other necessities. Later, she did the same for newcomers. They had parties for each other, making elaborate culinary concoctions though they had very little to work with and it seemed like a huge pain in the ass. And they got each other through their prison time the by being good, supportive friends.

I watch the show, so of course I couldn't help but compare them. The book is pretty different, and honestly not as good as the show, but there is still a lot that is the same. I couldn't help but look for familiar characters in the memoir, and many of the characters were clearly based on real people. Obviously lots of creative license was taken with the show to make it more dramatic, and there are a ton of story lines that aren't in the book. One part that did surprise me that wasn't part of the show was just how long Piper had to wait between the time she learned she'd be going to prison and when she actually began to serve her sentence. When someone related to her case was arrested on a warrant, her sentence was delayed while the US tried to extradite the guy because they wanted her to be able to testify before she began to serve. Consequently, she spent six years waiting for the situation to be resolved so she could go to prison and serve her time. Can you imagine knowing you're going to prison and not being able to just do it and get it over with, but having to just wait while it's looming over you? If that's not cruel and unusual punishment, I don't know what is.

Well, actually, a few other things in the book also fell into that category. I'm sure many people in prison must have mental health issues, but the 1400 women at Danbury had to share one psychiatrist and even he was only there for part of one day each week. They were also told that the only health issues that would be addressed were those that were life-threatening. Their food was frequently moldy and one of their bathrooms, nicknamed the Hell-mouth, was regularly infested by maggots. This doesn't seem an environment in which it is easy to stay healthy. Not to mention the inappropriate behavior of some of the guards, who weren't above fondling the women they were supposed to be just frisking. One of the guards would also scream invectives over the loudspeakers all evening, at a loud volume. This all seemed unnecessarily cruel, as though completely losing their freedom wasn't enough of a punishment.

But I was happy to see that the prison staff weren't all as horrible as on the show. Piper's counselor was pretty sympathetic to her situation, once even saying, "You drug people shouldn't even be here." Which I - and many of the prisoners - agree with. Kerman includes some statistics in the text, like the fact that 1 out of every 100 Americans is in prison, which is higher than for any other nation in the world. She also points out that this wasn't always the case, certainly not before the War on Drugs and its mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Helpfully, Kerman has included an appendix of resources on justice reform for those who are interested in learning more about prison issues.

There's obviously a lot to talk about here, and this would be a great book for discussion as there are just so many interesting things going on. Although it wasn't a prize-winning piece of literature, it was an enjoyable read that gave me a lot to think about.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Lost in Shangri-la

Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2011)

Near the end of WWII, a group of military personnel went for a sight-seeing flight that ended in tragedy when their plane crashed in a remote area of Dutch New Guinea (present-day Papua.) The three survivors then had to cope on their own among indigenous people who had never before encountered outsiders, while awaiting an uncertain rescue.

Most aboard the plane were WACs (Women's Army Corps), accompanied by just a few men. Of the survivors, two were badly injured. Ken Decker suffered a head injury and burns on his backside. Margaret Hastings had burns on both legs; her burns as well as Decker's soon turned gangrenous in the hot, damp jungle weather. Only John McCollom was in physically decent shape.

The area where they crashed was in a valley between steep cliffs with no place for planes to land, and the altitude made helicopter rescue impossible too. Hiking out would mean either going towards hostile natives, or toward Japanese troops, neither of which were feasible options. The two injured survivors were in no condition for a long hike anyhow. Luckily, the people they encountered weren't the head-hunters or cannibals they had heard stories about, because they were going to be stuck with them for a while.

This book has been on my To Read list for a couple of years now, and I just kept putting it off. It always sounded interesting and I definitely wanted to read it...but some other time. I had been afraid it would be long and dry, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Zuckoff's style was engaging and he told this exciting story well. There was just enough background without going off too far on tangents - a common pitfall of this type of book - and I felt like I got to know the major players in the story quite well.

The bravery of all three survivors was commendable, and I always especially like to hear stories of strong women in a time when women weren't appreciated for qualities unrelated to marriage and motherhood. Margaret Hastings was condescended to a bit (like when cargo drops included lipstick, of all things, when what she really needed was just some underwear), but she came across as strong and adventurous and quite admirable.

Because of language and cultural barriers, a number of misunderstandings occurred between the natives and the newcomers. One that stood out related to how the men dressed. The local men wore nothing but penis gourds, which are basically what they sound like. They kept touching the newcomers, and the white men grew irritated with this behavior and, thinking it was because they were wearing clothes, they stripped and just hung out naked for a couple hours. Turns out the natives were rather taken aback by their nudity (apparently they consider their gourds modest outfits) but had been touching the men because they had never seen clothes before and were intrigued by their second skins.

Zuckoff kept pointing out the prejudice of the white people towards the natives, but I actually thought they were pretty open to learning about these people who lived very different lives from them. The two groups did cultivate friendships of sorts, and seem well-intentioned. Learning about the Dani tribe through the eyes of their unexpected guests was fascinating, and the author helpfully added information learned later through interviews with members of the tribe. He also talked a little about how their ways changed after this visit from the outside world.

Lost in Shangri-La was a great adventure story. The aftermath of this crash was harrowing and exciting, but rather lost in time as it was overshadowed by the larger events of World War II. Zuckoff clearly did his research and made the story into a compelling page-turner. I'm so glad I finally picked up this book, and perhaps I wouldn't have if I hadn't chosen it for my TBR Pile Challenge. After putting it off for so long, I'll never understand why I chose the night before a vacation flight to suddenly begin reading this book about a plane crash, but I was captivated, even while up in the air.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Upcoming: War and Peace

Recently I made a list of classics I want to read, including War and Peace, which I've been vaguely wanting to read since college. It was only in the course of making this list that I found a fall class on it at a local adult ed program. It's nothing short of a miracle when there's a class I'm interested in that's not during the day or on an evening that I work. Clearly, this was a sign, so I took the plunge and signed up. And then I convinced two of my friends to also sign up! Because we are all nerds! The first class was originally scheduled for this week, when I'm out of town, but in another miraculous development, it has been delayed by a week so I won't miss a thing. Obviously it was meant to be.

As you may already know, War and Peace is quite lengthy and complicated. This is an 8-week class so I'll be reading it rather slowly and thoroughly, and I'm thinking of making it into a whole series of blog posts as other bloggers sometimes do. They usually do it as a read-along, so if any of you want to read War and Peace along with me, that would be most welcome.

Hopefully the blog won't get too boring for those of you less inclined towards Tolstoy. Giving the number of pages we'll likely be reading per week, I'm planning to read other books concurrently. Short, easy books. This may be a great time to catch up on young adult novels.