Friday, December 31, 2010

Lowboy : a review

Last book review of the year!

Lowboy by John Wray (2009)

Lowboy is Will Heller, a mentally ill teenager who is off his meds and wandering through the NY subway system in a conquest to stop global warming by finally having sex. His mother, an Austrian immigrant who he calls Violet, is working with police officer Ali Lateef to track him down before he causes harm. Though he is not especially violent, he once pushed his best friend Emily on the subway tracks in Union Station.

The chapters alternate between Will’s story and Ali’s. Though Will is schizophrenic and many of his thoughts are completely illogical, it was still easy enough to follow along in the story without confusion. But the scattered thoughts were disorienting enough to create a small taste of what Will may have been feeling. Wray gets inside Will’s head enough to make us understand why Will is doing what he’s doing and one can only have sympathy for this misguided, doomed character.

I found this in the Young Adult section of my library, but the writing is more like an adult book, and indeed many libraries have it in their adult collections. If you like well-written novels about teens in trouble, this may fit the bill. As an added point of interest, much of the book was written where it takes place – on the subway!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tweed Pullover

Now that Christmas has passed, I can show you what I’ve been knitting recently.


Let me tell you, knitting a sweater entirely in secret for someone you live with is extremely difficult and time-consuming. To have this done for Christmas, I started in August – August! And still barely finished. In fact, it still doesn’t have buttons (though I bought some on December 23rd) but I think we’ve agreed that it doesn’t need them. I'm relieved that it fits and that Eric seems to like it.

A few years ago when visiting the family in Maine, my mother pointed out that she made the sweater my sister was wearing. Eric commented that he liked it and wouldn’t mind having one so my mom gave me the pattern. I’m sure he forgot that conversation long ago, but I didn’t. When I decided back in August to knit him a sweater for Christmas I thought of this simple pattern – it's stockinette with a simple construction, and as a bonus someone I knew had already tested the pattern so there shouldn’t be any major errors or other surprises. Very different than the last sweater I knit for him, which took six months without having to work in secret.

When I began this project I set deadlines for when each part needed to be completed. The back by the end of September (which included an 8-day trip to Amsterdam without the project), the front by the end of October, the first sleeve before Thanksgiving. That left December to make the second sleeve, sew it all together, and make the button bands and collar.

I took the project to knitting group, to friend’s houses, to work. I kept it stashed in a drawer by the bed and even worked on it late at night before going to sleep. On mornings that I had off, I tried to rush Eric out of the house so I’d have more time to knit alone before I had to go to work. I encouraged him to spend more time with friends. Anything to gain knitting time. I finally finished on December 20th (except for the aforementioned buttons).

The pattern is from a Mary Maxim flyer which originally came as part of a kit. The only slight modification was that I picked up stitches along the neck for the button bands instead of knitting them separately and sewing on as directed. I did knit the collar separately and whip-stitched it onto the neck opening. I used Plymouth Encore Worsted yarn and needle sizes 7 and 5. I haven’t knit with straight needles in a while and, man, they stick out really far. They kept getting caught on things and I almost poked my cat’s eye out.

Thank goodness that’s over.

Monday, December 27, 2010

An Object of Beauty : a review

I have Christmas-related information to post, including pictures of a sweater I knitted, but cannot find the card reader that will enable me to share those photos with you. So stay tuned, and enjoy this book review in the meantime!

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (2010)

Martin’s latest novel takes us into the world of art collecting with all its accompanying competitiveness and intrigue. Lacey Yeager is the star of this show and we first meet her at Sotheby’s and then follow her career trajectory, and her love life, for several years. Lacey is smart, savvy, and calculating and uses everything she’s got to get ahead. The setting of this book was completely new to me as I know little about the art world, but Martin has woven in fascinating details about art auctions, theft – especially the Gardner heist – as well as economic and stylistic trends. His quirky characters added personality to the already interesting story.

As a reader, I felt more like I was following Lacey around rather than residing inside her head, similar to the narrative style I noticed in Shopgirl. Martin keeps the reader a bit distant from the main character, but somehow it also increases the feeling of loneliness that surrounds the character. In fact, I never really got a sense of what Lacey wanted in her life, aside from career success. Many men passed through and she seemed to not care at all about them except when she wanted sex but it’s difficult to imagine that she really had so little desire for any kind of relationship. But as I mentioned, we don’t really know what was going on in her head. Nevertheless, this wasn’t a book about relationships it was about one woman’s career in art and it was a fresh and unusual story, well written and very readable. As an added bonus, the novel includes color photos of art works – a fantastic touch!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Night Bookmobile : a review

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (2010)

Late one night, wandering the streets alone after a fight with her boyfriend, Alexandra stumbles upon a bookmobile. The librarian invites her inside, and she discovers that it houses a collection of everything she has ever read in her life. It closes at dawn, after which Alexandra spends countless nights looking for it again. She becomes obsessed with the bookmobile and even becomes a librarian in hopes of working on it.

A graphic novel from the author of the Time Traveler’s Wife, the Night Bookmobile is a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of how much one woman is willing to give up for her love of books. Alexandra’s life is lonely and empty. She is always a voracious reader but little else about her life is mentioned. She lost her boyfriend because of her frequent nights looking for the bookmobile, and her career success is glossed over because a career in a regular library has little meaning to her.

Audrey Niffenegger amazes me, and I found myself reading this dark tale a second time, and then a third time. As sad as it is, the story really speaks to me as a reader. How I wish there was a huge Winnebago out there full of everything I’ve ever read. If I should ever find it - what bliss!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sweethearts : a review

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr (2009)

When Jennifer Harris was a kid, her best friend was Cameron Quick. Jennifer was a compulsive eater, Cameron lived in an abusive home, and neither of them fit in at their school. One day Cameron just disappeared and Jennifer learned that he had moved. Her devastation was complete a few months later when she heard that he was dead.

Years later she is reinvented as Jenna Vaughn, and lives a seemingly perfect life with her mom and stepfather, lots of friends, and super hottie boyfriend Ethan. But when Cameron suddenly resurfaces, Jenna is forced to confront her past and reconcile Jenna Vaughn with Jennifer Harris.

Jenna and Cameron have one of the most intense relationships I’ve read in a long time. Not only were they exclusive BFFs who were misunderstood by everyone else around them, but they experienced a trauma together when they were kids. Although theirs was always a friendship and not a romantic relationship, when they were reunited there were definitely strong feelings and sexual tension. Zarr expertly creates a bond between the two characters based on their childhood friendship and shared trauma, and vividly recreates feelings of teenage lust and angst.

Cameron was completely swoonworthy - an attractive, yet tragic, loner from a broken home. Jenna was a great character too, because she had complicated problems but wasn’t portrayed as too self-aware for someone her age, as many teen characters are. She didn’t handle things especially well, but did it pretty much how I would have at her age. (Or possibly now.) Although I found her mother rather two-dimensional, I thought her stepfather was fantastic. They had a good relationship and he was just slightly dorky and standoff-ish and totally charming.

Sweethearts was one of the best YA books I read this year. Of course, I am always a sucker for a good unrequited romance.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Christmas Promise : a review

A Christmas Promise by Anne Perry (2009)

Thirteen-year-old Grace Phipps happened across a lost-looking 8-year-old a few days before Christmas in Victorian England. The young Minnie Maude is looking for Charlie, her donkey, who was missing, along with his cart, after Uncle Alf was killed. Despite her reservations Grace says she’ll help look for the donkey, but of course they end up investigating the murder of Uncle Alf.

This short novel by Anne Perry has a stronger Christmas theme than the other one that I read, as it took place in the days leading up to Christmas and there were frequent mentions of preparations for the holiday. Another major contrast is tht A Christmas Journey took place among the upper classes, while A Christmas Promise was set in a poor neighborhood and the main characters were children.

Just as quick to read, it was less cozy than A Christmas Journey because of the frequent mentions of cold and discomfort. It seems there was always a harsh biting wind, and the characters were constantly pulling their shawls more tightly about their bodies. Still, it was enjoyable in its own way, so I recommend it if you enjoy mysteries set in the Victorian period.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sorta Like a Rock Star : a review

Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick (2009)

Amber Appleton lives in a bus with her alcoholic mom and hangs out with a group of misfits who call themselves Franks Freak Force Federation. When she’s not with them, she teaches the Korean Divas for Christ to speak English by singing the Supremes’ hits, visits a local nursing home to entertain residents by trading insults with cantankerous Joan of Old, and hangs out with a Vietnam vet who writes haikus. She spends her spare time (ha ha) with her dog, Bobby Big Boy (aka BBB or B Thrice), and her substitute mother figure Donna. She is positive and hopeful, but her outlook is put to the test when tragedy strikes.

I heard a lot of buzz about this book. Despite my expectations, I had a hard time getting into it. About halfway through there is a game-changing moment that I thought would infuse more reality into the story. Amber is pretty much destroyed and then slowly recovers, I think a little too perfectly – I felt like she should have been changed more by her experience but she managed to return to exactly the optimistic, inspiring person she was before.

Amber didn’t ever feel real enough to me. I found it hard to believe that a girl her age would have so many extra-curricular activities, and that most of them involved hanging out with adults. Maybe if I lived on a bus, I’d fill my time that way too, but I still found her larger than life and pictured her more like a cartoon character than a real person. More realistic was her overuse of catch phrases. “True? True.” I know that is how teenagers talk (and adults, for that matter) but it’s annoying in real life too. Amber is pretty religious and I think that aspect of her character was written well – she isn’t preachy or sentimental, and doesn’t even attend church, but ascribes to her own form of casual energetic spirituality.

I wanted to love this book like so many other readers, and I’m disappointed that I only liked it. But it’s pretty fresh and unique and filled with fun characters, so I do recommend it if you like YA books. Maybe you will love it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Wild Sheep Chase : a review

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (1989)

In this early Murakami novel, the unnamed protagonist is a youngish divorced man who is called upon by a stranger to solve a mystery. The main character had published a photo of a sheep with unique markings and the mysterious stranger demands that the exact sheep be found. Our hero and his girlfriend embark on a strange adventure to Hokkaido and then to a remote village to learn more about the sheep they are seeking.

The novel is somewhat fantastical, but mostly I found it frustrating and confusing. Had I not been reading it for a book group, I would have stopped after 50 pages. In the first 100 pages nothing whatsoever happened. There were vague references to people and events without context so I promptly forgot them. Near the middle when our hero and his girlfriend start on their quest it got interesting and I started to enjoy it. But then the ending left me bewildered.

The writing is not formal exactly, but not conversational either. There is no warmth or humor anywhere in its pages. None of the characters are named - except the cat who is named about halfway through the book (Kipper, if you are interested) - though a couple of them have nicknames. I can only speculate that this to retain the cold impersonal feeling of the story. There’s also a great deal of abstraction and symbolism, which is pretty much always lost on me.

The only other Murakami I’ve read was non-fiction, so I don’t know how this compares to his other fiction. I’ve heard that some of his books, especially The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, are quite good. But after slogging through this unpleasant mess, I probably won’t ever find out for myself.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I'm done procrastinating

I’m officially throwing in the towel on the Practical Procrastination Pullover. I screwed it up again and realized it isn’t worth ripping back and redoing. Not because I don’t think I can get it right - I can - but because I’ve realized that I’m not going to wear the damn thing anyway.

A wise person once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Well, I’ve knit several short-sleeved sweaters, like this one and this one and this one, and I don’t wear any of them. I’ve said time and time again that short-sleeved sweaters are impractical – if it’s cold enough for a sweater, surely you want your arms covered. Yet I continue to knit them for reasons which are unclear even to me. Oh, in this case I tried to convince myself that because the yarn is DK weight it would be more useful than a short-sleeved bulky sweater and I’m sure that’s true to some extent, but it’s still wool. Despite this pattern’s name, I suspect this one would be just as impractical as the others, and like the others it would loll about in a drawer until the Apocalypse.

Do you know what I do need? Some hats, mittens, and scarves that actually match each other. I don't think I want to take on another scarf right now, but I’m ripping out this damn sweater and making myself a hat and mittens. Now that is practical.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Eleanor Rigby : a review

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland (2004)

Liz Dunn is a lonely woman leading a quiet life. One night while out renting videos to get through a convelescence after the next day’s oral surgery, she sees a comet streak through the sky. That is the moment in which she decides she would rather have peace in her life than certainty. Soon after, she receives a phone call from a hospital. A young man has been admitted after an overdose and his medic alert bracelet lists her contact information. She has never met this young man, Jeremy, but she knows who he is and his sudden presence changes her life.

Written in first person, we visit a few different time periods in Liz’s life. The novel opens in the scene described above, but the story also skips ahead several years to a trip to Austria, and there are flashbacks to a high school trip to Rome. Towards the end of the book, events start happening in real time. For instance, Liz will say that something is currently happening and mentions something she is expecting, and then updates after it has happened.

Liz is not a happy person, though meeting Jeremy is obviously a huge turning point in her life and enables her to make peace with her past. The only allusion to the title is when she gives out her email address which starts with “eleanorrigby@” but it’s clear that lonliness is a major theme in the book. But her self-deprecation is never tiring, in fact she is insightful and quite witty. For instance: “But when you’re alone, you know that money is the one thing that can keep you safe. Safe from what? Safe from being hauled away in the middle of the night and baked into protein wafer cookies to feed people who are in relationships.”

See? How can you not like this character? The novel is very easy and quick to read, but don’t be fooled – there are sad, serious themes here. They are just wrapped in packaging that makes them easier - and more fun - to digest.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Strangers at the Feast : a review

Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes (2010)

A family comes together on Thanksgiving and the day goes from bad to worse, beginning with a faulty oven and ending in bloodshed. The hostess is Ginny, an academic who has just adopted a 7-year-old mute Indian girl and bought her very first home. Her brother Douglas arrives with his wife Denise and their kids, and the family is rounded out by Douglas and Ginny’s parents, Eleanor and Gavin, a housewife and a Vietnam veteran.

The day begins at Ginny’s new house. Her recent settling-down is cause for surprise and doubt in her family. When it becomes clear that her oven isn’t working – and that much in her house isn’t up to code – the family decides to pack up and drive to Douglas and Denise’s home which not only has a working oven, but a tv so they can watch the football game. Though the home is large and extravagant, Douglas and Denise are struggling financially and it’s putting a strain on their marriage as well.

Meanwhile, a couple of young men are planning a break-in. Peppered throughout the book are chapters focusing on Kiko and his friend Spider, two young men from the projects. Kiko feels responsibility towards his grandmother and wants to help her leave their neighborhood. He doesn’t want to become involved with crime like so many of his peers, and today is a one-off for him. But it’s something he feels he needs to do, for reasos that become apparent as more background is slowly revealed.

Switching perspective between six different characters, the day is broken up with many flashbacks to flesh out the characters and give more substance to the story. Each chapter was named for the character whose perspective we were seeing, which eliminated the usual confusion of that storytelling technique. The present day story was strong enough that the flashbacks didn’t leave me feeling untethered as so frequently happens.

The characters were fairly well developed, especially considering how many of them there were, but I didn’t really identify with – or feel especially drawn to – any of them. Ginny’s story was probably the most interesting, though I also enjoyed Eleanor and Gavin’s back story of their early relationship.

Vanderbes used two techniques that I usually dislike, and this double whammy of heavy flashbacks and switching perspective could have gone badly, but she managed to pull it together pretty tightly. The novel was well orchestrated, the pieces of the story coming together smoothly for the final, climactic scenes. I liked the book a lot, but if the characters had resonated a bit more, I could have loved it. It sounds like Vanderbes’ first novel, Easter Island, is a bit more personal and character-focused, so I’m adding it to my list now.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Full Dark, No Stars : a review

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (2010)

Like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, this new collection from Stephen King consists of four long short stories. In the first story, “1922,” a farmer murders his wife, who has threatened to sell off part of their farm so she can move to the city. Though the crime is covered up from the authorities, the farmer - and his son who he enlisted to help with the crime - are subsequently haunted in different ways. “Big Driver” is a man who rapes a cozy mystery writer on her way home from a reading, but instead of reporting the crime to authorities, she chooses to wield her own justice. The third, and shortest, story is “Fair Extension,” in which a man dying of cancer makes a deal with the devil to save his own life, thus damning his best friend and his family. Finally, in “A Good Marriage” a woman learns that her husband has been committing horrific crimes for decades and she must decide what, if anything, to do with this new knowledge.

Though all the stories were good (I hesitate to use a word like “enjoyable” when describing horror), the first and last were the strongest. “1922” was the most like a traditional horror story in the amount of violence, gore and creepiness. What I liked the most about this story is that it was mostly realistic, with just a hint that maybe there is more going on. Is that corpse speaking to the farmer from beyond the grave? Are those sinister-looking rats planning something? Or is his imagination just playing tricks on him? That doubt is as close as it gets to supernatural, but it is enough. It’s a sad story too: the son’s loss of innocence, the destruction of a family, rendering the original plan to save the family’s farm completely pointless.

My favorite by far was “A Good Marriage.” King got the idea after the BTK murders, when the killer’s wife claimed she knew nothing about his crimes. Similarly, the wife in this story was happy in her life and satisfied with her marriage, until one day she stumbled across evidence of her husband’s secret life. Of course this changed everything, no matter how much she wanted to pretend it didn’t. The story was unpredictable and the ending clever. King does a good job of putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and it’s easy to imagine being this woman. There is nothing supernatural here, but it is a deft exploration of the dark side of human nature and the reader can’t help but wonder “What would I do in this situation?”

A longtime Stephen King fan, I have skipped his last couple of books because of their length and the mixed reviews, but Full Dark, No Stars is well worth reading. The entire book is only 368 pages, but of course you can just read an individual story or two. Though I bet if you start this book, you won’t stop after one story.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Room : a review

Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

Jack and his mother live in Room, and Room is all that Jack has ever known. But his mother hasn’t always lived there – she was taken by Old Nick who locked her away where nobody could find her.

The voice of Jack narrates the story, roughly half of which took place inside the room in which Jack has lived all of his five years, (and his mother even longer). The other half was their adjustment to the outside world, a world completely new and overwhelming to Jack, filled with loud noises and complicated rules.

Writing from the view of a small child is risky, and so rarely successful. I read an interview with the author in which she explained that she had a child Jack’s age when she was writing this, and she borrowed some of his speech patterns and even made him roll himself up in a rug to see if he could get out. Clearly it was well researched, and that paid off.

Room is a great book – not in a literary award sort of way, but in an unputdownable way, which in my opinion is what counts. I can’t do it justice here, or adequately explain why you should read it but trust me, you should.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

World Made By Hand : a review

World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler (2008)

Sometime in the unspecified future, the people of Union Grove in upstate New York live without law, electricity, oil, news of the outside world, or many other things we all take for granted today. Robert has lost his whole family, as so many others have, but still struggles on trying to create a life of normalcy. He and his peers remember the old days of computers, cars, and corporate jobs but for younger folks this is the only life they have known. When a young man from the town is shot over a misunderstanding, some members of the community decide that the lawlessness has gone on long enough. Their new sense of justice spurs clashes that result in minor tragedies, but Robert and his neighbors are determined to build a society run on order, not fear.

Religion unsurprisingly takes on a larger role in this broken society full of desperate people. One of the major plots involves Brother Jobe and his New Faith followers moving into Union Grove after fleeing the violence of the South. Though many in the town (including Robert) are wary of religion, it becomes clear that the New Faithers want to integrate into the peaceful community and by the end of the book they seem to be forging an alliance.

I didn’t quite understand what had happened to the world, and if it had happened everywhere or just to the US. There was mention of bomb attacks on a few different American cities, and I’m not sure if that’s why the US no longer had oil or if it’s because there was no oil left to be had (see: James Kunstler’s non-fiction work The Long Emergency). Illness was rampant, and had claimed many lives including Robert’s wife and daughter. But I couldn’t quite connect how these events led to the society described in the novel.

This wasn’t the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read, but it wasn’t terrible. I liked that this future isn’t a dystopia. It’s not an easy life, but many of the characters don’t miss the “old times” much at all. Unfortunately, none of the characters were developed well enough for me to care about them. I think this could have been a much better book than it was, (and the trailer makes it looks appealing) but it fell flat and left me a bit disappointed.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

One Day : a review

One Day by David Nicholls (2009)

Over the course of almost 20 years, we visit Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew on the same day, and only one day, of every year. We first meet them upon their college graduation when they have stayed up all night together, and from this day their friendship grows. It takes many turns over the years, stronger at times, frequently tinged with sexual tension, occasionally appearing to be over entirely. Though they live very different lives - Dexter a famous tv presenter with a glamorous lifestyle while Emma teaches and struggles as a writer – they still manage to retain a bond.

When I first heard the premise of the book I was skeptical, thinking it was just a gimmick. Rather, it is a clever storytelling technique. Visiting the two characters on the same date every year guaranteed that many of the important events of their lives happened in between and were referred to or remembered, rather than described directly to us. In this way Nicholls focused less on the facts of their lives and more on how each character has changed, which only strengthened the novel. I’ll admit there were times when I wondered how their friendship still survived – or, more to the point, what Emma saw in Dexter – but their relationship was so compelling I literally did not want to put this book down.

As with most books that span so many years, I became heavily invested in the characters, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that when I finished this book, I felt a profound sense of loss. It could have been PMS, but I’m pretty sure it was the mastery of David Nicholls’ writing. As painful as some parts were to read, I can’t imagine any other way the story could have gone. Nicholls really got it right.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Christmas Journey : a review

A Christmas Journey by Anne Perry (2003)

Anne Perry is my guilty pleasure. I secretly yearn to live in Victorian times and wear ornate dresses with constricting undergarments while attending balls and adhering to strict social standards. Ok, maybe not. But I really felt like slipping back in time and indulging in one of her historical novels, and this short Christmas-themed book was perfect.

Little festivity appeared in A Christmas Journey, however. It began at a country house where a group of friends gathered for a long weekend in early December. A budding romance between Gwendolyn and Bertie was cause for much speculation, but at least one person was unhappy with the situation. One evening Isobel made a cruel remark about Gwendolyn’s romantic motivations in front of everyone. Later, Gwendolyn’s body was found in the icy river, after having apparently thrown herself off a bridge.

Vespasia, our heroine, offered support to Isobel, now ostracized for her assumed role in Gwendolyn’s suicide. The two women set off on a journey to deliver Gwendolyn’s last letter to her mother along with news of her death. The journey is longer and more arduous than they had expected, and they learn a great deal about Gwendolyn’s shocking past.

Aside from brief mentions of Christmas at the beginning and end of the book, this was a normal murder mystery so it wouldn’t feel strange to read it at another time of year. It was a very short 180 pages, which I read in just over a day. A perfect quick cozy read! Anne Perry has written several short Christmas mysteries, and I’ll keep these in mind over the next several months - they’ll be perfect for snowy weekends.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A break

The Practical Procrastination Pullover may need to be renamed the Perpetually Perplexing Pullover. Recently I finished the waist increases only to find that I had the wrong number of stitches. It is like déjà vu all over again. Currently I can’t bring myself to sit down and figure out what went wrong this time. I think it may be cursed, just like the Madelinetosh sock yarn.

Upon discovering my unfortunate pullover situation, I did what anyone would do, and cast on for a new pair of socks.

These are the Glynis socks from Cookie A.’s first book, Sock Innovation. They are the very first pattern in the book. I did not waste time choosing a pattern, instead throwing caution to the wind and casting on for the first one that looked plausibly compatible with the yarn.

I purchased the Lorna’s Laces on my trip to Webs that was probably a year and a half ago now. It is my first time using Lorna’s Laces and I’m excited to finally try it out after hearing so many lovely things about it. The colors are beautiful and I’m happy that it’s so nicely variegated, and not pooling into big ugly globs of color like so many other sock yarns. I’m also happy that it contains nylon because I’ve gotta tell you, people, I am getting sick of darning the socks and I’m hoping the nylon will help prevent holes for forming so quickly in the first place.

I am loving them so far.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dreams From My Father : a review

Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (audio, 2005)

Barack Obama’s books have been on my “to read” list for a while but I kept putting them off because of my oft-mentioned difficulties with reading non-fiction. I also have difficulty with audiobooks, so what possessed me to try Dreams From My Father on audio I will never know.

I suspect it’s an interesting book. In fact, I really enjoyed the parts I paid attention to, such as Obama’s childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii. I think my favorite part was when, as a schoolboy in Hawaii, he bragged about his Kenyan father, exaggerating his position, claiming that he was practically a chief of his tribe and that once his father was gone he, too, could be a chief. And that is practically like being a king! But maybe he would decline being chief. He hadn’t decided yet. Soon after making these claims, Obama learned that his father was coming to visit and would be coming to school to give a talk to his class! Yikes!

In another interesting passage, the young Obama picks up an issue of Life magazine and finds a picture of a black person who has undergone treatments to make himself appear white. The photo, and the idea of someone being so unhappy with their race, haunted Obama for years to come.

Obama also tells (and by the way, the audiobook is read by the author) about his years as a community organizer, and his trip to Kenya to visit his father’s family before he begins law school. This visit sounds enjoyable in some ways and disorienting in others, such as learning that nobody knows for sure who he is actually related to since Dr. Obama was known to have had affairs with married women and claim that various children were his when in fact they may not have been.

I know I missed a lot because of the audio format, and much to my chagrin I learned partway through that the recording I was listening to was abridged. Consequently, I don’t feel qualified to review it, but I have committed to posting about every book I read. Just take this all with a grain of salt.

Politics aside, if you are interested in memoirs of people from interesting backgrounds, including journeys to foreign countries and discussions about race and family, I would recommend this book. The writing is good, the author has an interesting story to tell and, hell, he’s the President. He is worth learning about just for that reason.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Tower The Zoo and the Tortoise : a review

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart (2010)

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater at the Tower of London where he lives with his wife, Hebe, and a 178-year-old tortoise named Mrs. Cook. When the Queen decides to move her menagerie from the London Zoo to the Tower, Balthazar is put in charge of the numerous and varied animals. The logistics prove difficult, and not all residents are happy with the arrangement, especially the jealous Ravenmaster whose charges are subsequently overlooked in favor of the more exotic animals.

Meanwhile, various comical situations and ill-executed romances are brewing among other characters, including Valerie Jennings who works with Hebe in the London Underground’s Lost Property Office. Here the two women spend their days trying to find the owners of various amusing objects that have been left behind on the Underground, providing ample opportunity for the introduction of eccentric minor characters.

But not all is humor and fun at the Tower of London. At the heart of the story is the disintegration of Balthazar and Hebe’s marriage after the death of their only child, Milo, the details of which are revealed slowly throughout the course of the novel. Though Hebe has tried to talk to Balthazar about Milo, he is too overcome with guilt to do so, leaving Hebe frustrated and alone in her grief.

This book hooked me in from the very first paragraph. I enjoyed the colorful characters, the details of English history slipped in at every opportunity, and the way Stuart wrapped a rather sad story in such a light, humorous coating. Many of the characters – such as the Rev. Septimus Drew, or the landlady Ruby Dore – were so interesting that I’d be happy to read a whole book focusing on each of them as well. Quirky and delightful!

(P.S. This blogger hated it, and for some of the same reasons that I loved it. Interesting!)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hopeless Savages : a review

Hopeless Savages Greatest Hits 2000-2010 by Jen Van Meter

This graphic collection of comics follows 70s punk musicians Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage, who have married and moved to the suburbs to raise their 4 kids: Rat Bastard, Arsenal Fierce, Twitch Strummer, and Skank Zero. Usually referred to simply as Zero, the youngest of the family is the main character of the series.

In the first story, Dirk and Nikki are kidnapped and the kids must band together to save them. The second story is about the beginning of Zero’s relationship with Ginger. In the third story, Arsenal and Twitch travel to Hong Kong for a martial arts tournament but soon find themselves followed by local criminals. The final sections “B Sides” and “Bonus Tracks” contain shorter stories of earlier events such as the formation of Zero’s band, the Dusted Bunnies.

The family and their relationships take center stage – though they are unconventional, they are a strong family unit! There was a split at one point, when Rat rebelled and shed his punk exterior for that of a yuppie businessman, but in the first story he returns to the fold. I liked Van Meter's take on the alternative family, and her treatment of sibling relationships.

Mostly, I found the characters pretty likable. Zero has an odd proclivity to make up words, which was a little bit annoying, but as a character she is hard not to like and I found myself really rooting for her. There were a large enough number of characters that I didn't feel like I got to know enough of them, and I'd really like to. For a lot of the book I was just trying to keep track of who was who (I'm terrible at keeping characters straight!) but now that I have it figured it out, I'm ready for more.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Your Own North Star : a review

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck (2001)

I’m not really into self-helpy books, but I’ve been reading some career-related guides so I keep veering into this territory. This one was recommended by a career book I read recently and when I saw who the author was, I ordered it through the library. Martha Beck wrote really good memoir about having a son with Down’s syndrome and I was interested to read her writing again.

Finding Your Own North Star is a guide to figuring out what you want in life. Not just your career, though, it’s all about the way you live your life in general. Beck emphasizes differentiating what you actually want from what your family, friends or society focus on. She addresses emotional issues such as working through loss and change, and provides many questions to ask yourself to figure out what you want to do in your life.

Parts are a bit hokey and I found myself skimming occasionally and rolling my eyes once or twice. The jargon is a bit much for me, with her repeated references to one’s “north star” “essential self” and “social self,” though I’ll admit they are useful terms. The author has a chapter on intuition in which she talks a bit about psychic abilities. She also believes in the annoying yet pervasive idea that if you are passionate about something you will become wealthy from it (an idea discounted by the book that referred me to this one), though at least she acknowledges that passion and interest aren’t enough by themselves to lead you to wealth.

Despite the detractions, I found her writing humorous and many of her ideas useful. I thought she had some good questions to ask when trying to figure out your life and how to be happy. Not that I worked through any of these exercises, mind you.

I have a friend from an old book group who reads a lot of self help books but freely admits that she doesn’t actually follow their advice. That’s actually a pretty healthy way to approach these books, I think. Just take whatever little nuggets are interesting or useful to you and remember those, but don’t worry about the rest of it. Now, off to try and develop my psychic powers…

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Madelinetosh Socks

According to Ravelry, I began these socks in August. But it has really been a much longer road than that. August was when I finally settled on making them all stockinette stitch and started them for, I think, the fourth time.

But they are done, and that is what matters. Upon finishing the second sock and weaving in the ends, my first instinct was to burn them. That would have been a lot of work gone to waste though, and the fact is, they are rather pretty and extremely comfy.

So I'll keep them and just try to forget all the trauma associated with their creation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Main Street : a review

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (1920)

Young and idealistic, Carol Milford graduates from college and after working as a librarian for a while in St. Paul meets and marries Dr. Will Kennicott. They move to his hometown of Gopher Prairie, a small town that Carol is determined to remake into a cultural mecca. But the townspeople don’t see why they should change and after a few false starts, Carol gives up her efforts and subsides into a stifling and unhappy existence. The judgemental, moralistic, and gossipy nature of Gopher Prairie are oppressive to Carol, and she has many doubts about her marriage as well. Occasionally someone interesting will come to town and Carol will start up a friendship, but usually they are driven away by some overblown scandal. At a few different points it looked like she might escape to a better life, but each time I was disappointed when she remained in – or returned to – Gopher Prairie and her marriage.

Although I don’t think this book needed to be quite as long, I did enjoy it. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business and in a way I could relate to Carol’s predicament. My solution, of course, is not to live in such a town, but 100 years ago women didn’t necessarily feel like they had the same choice. I sympathized with her in terms of the townspeople being so judgemental, but I also thought she was a bit hard on them. She wanted to remake the town into St. Paul but not only is that not possible, I can understand why the townspeople liked their town the way it was. Perhaps it was a bit dingy and unexciting, but it’s their hometown and who is this outsider to say it isn’t good enough?

I found a lot of humorous passages in this book and actually dog-eared quite a few pages (a terrible habit I have picked up recently). One of my favorite quotes illustrates the dark humor in Carol’s character that I found appealing. During an unbearable dinner party:

“Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible.”

Another quote, from local Raymie Wutherspoon, is a good example of the general way of thinking in Gopher Prairie:

“One trouble with books is that they’re not so thoroughly safeguarded by intelligent censors as the movies are, and when you drop into the library and take out a book you never know what you’re wasting your time on.”

In summary, I enjoyed visiting Gopher Prairie but I’m quite certain I wouldn’t want to live there.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Birthday Socks

For Eric’s birthday, I knit him a pair of Hiking Socks from the Knitting Man(ual) by Kristen Spurkland. Ages ago when I bought the book he mentioned liking these socks, though I’m sure he’s forgotten ever even seeing them.

I wanted a project quick enough that I could complete it by his birthday while working in secret. Knit in worsted weight yarn, these socks worked up very quickly. I used Lamb's Pride worsted in Sandy Heather and Red Hot Passion. I began the project in August to ensure plenty of time.

The leg of the sock is knit in twisted rib, but I would have preferred the look of a traditional rib. However, when one is on a deadline it's not a good idea to restart mid-project if it's not necessary. It isn't very noticeable anyhow, just a slightly bumpier rib than normal. I think they turned out quite well!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NELA 2010

I have had a very busy week! I do have a knitting project to share but haven’t had a chance to take pictures, so for now I will regale you with tales of a library conference.

This past weekend I attended the NELA Annual Conference, which I always enjoy, but now I’m on the conference planning committee so it's a rather different experience. Happily, I still had a great time! Here are a few of the highlights:

Joe Raiola from Mad Magazine was the Sunday night banquet speaker. His talk, The Joy of Censorship, was hilarious, inspiring and full of swear words. Apparently a few people walked out, but most of the reviews seemed favorable. I thought he was a riot!

Reader’s Advisory 101:
Ok, I’ll admit that this program was my idea, but it was a damn good idea. Librarians hardly ever learn about this anymore, and I think it’s a good balance to all our programs on technology, marketing, and other non-book topics. The presenter was from the Wake County Public Library in NC where they do not purchase music or movies; their mission statement is to foster the love of reading and they take that seriously. They have an awesome Book-a-Day blog.

Paddling Her Own Canoe: Louisa May Alcott in Literary History. I love any program about books or authors, so this was right up my alley. The Alcott family was fascinating and eccentric! I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read Little Women, but I will now.

Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book is Overdue, spoke at a luncheon and was really fantastic. I haven’t read her book yet either, but I plan to. She’s a great speaker and an enthusiastic supporter of libraries. She’s passionate, funny, and kind of adorable.

There were also two programs that I was responsible for planning. One was a panel session on job interview strategies, which went very well and actually went overtime because there were so many questions. The other was a more general session on job hunting, presented by the instructors of an online class I took from Simmons GSLIS last fall. It was great to finally meet them in person, and they clearly put a lot of time and effort into their presentation. The turnout was low, probably because of the time slot, but I feel it was a success.

I also enjoyed programs on team-building, outreach to foster teens, marketing, and I got to play with some ebook readers which is resulting in some nook-related fantasies.

Being on the planning committee was a great way to influence the conference offerings and to meet other librarians. It was a great group to work with and because of the large size of the committee, each of our jobs was small enough to be quite manageable. I’ve signed on again for next year, which will be held in one of my favorite places, Burlington, VT!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Strategies for Successful Career Change : a review

Strategies for Successful Career Change: finding your very best next work life by Martha E. Mangelsdorf (2009)

This guide to finding a new career has 3 major sections:
  • Taking Stock: soul searching, what you want to do with your life, why you want to change careers, how you will handle money and health insurance during the transition
  • Charting a New Course: identifying growing markets, identifying your transferable skills, researching fields of interest, talking to people in those fields
  • Getting There From Here: the two-career approach, additional education, self-employment, pitfalls of career change.
This small book covers a lot of ground! I read some parts thoroughly and skimmed others that were less relevant to me. It was broken up into many short chapters and included some questions to ponder with a suggestion to write your answers in a career journal. It covers all stages of career transition, and I appreciated that it lacks the spiritual new-age vibe that some of these books have.

Here were my favorite aspects of this book:
  • The author acknowledged that you may be changing careers when you don’t want to (for financial reasons, lack of jobs in your field, etc).
  • No illusions like “do what you love and the money will come.” She talks about those kind of books and says it’s ridiculous to think that just because you love doing something, it will make you rich. Thank you! If that were the case, I could get rich by reading books and knitting sweaters while drinking wine on my couch, which clearly has not happened.
  • Along the same vein, she discusses career change within limitations (geographical, financial, etc) and talks about how this is useful and how it is not productive to ignore constraints. She says “look them in the eye and figure out how to work around them.”
  • She talks about “blended careers” – doing two different things part-time, either while making a career transition, or permanently – which I found very intriguing, and which she made sound quite feasible.
  • Many (but not an overwhelming number of) helpful references to other books and resources.
As long as there are still appealing library jobs being advertised and I continue to get interviews I won’t change careers, but it is comforting to know that I could if I want to. Even after reading this I don’t know what other career I would pursue, but I still found the questions very helpful in thinking about what direction to take, and also just ensuring that I’m in the right career now. But if you’re thinking of making a change, this book can help!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sock and a bit more sock

Sock season is in full force here in New England, and now that I've darned all my socks it's apparent that I still need more so I've tried to ramp up my efforts a bit.

Last weekend I traveled to New York and back by bus and I can't help but think I should have finished the second sock during that trip, or at least turned the heel. But mostly I just sat with my project in my lap and stared out the window. I'm tempted to start bringing it to work with me, but then it would just be competing with my lunchtime reading and I have a few hundred pages to read before book group next week, so that would just be trading one problem for another. Clearly, something needs to be done because this sock isn't going to knit itself.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I'd Know You Anywhere : a review

I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (2010)

Eliza Benedict is a wife and mother living a quiet life in the suburbs. But one day she receives a letter from someone who came across a picture of her in a magazine and recognized her instantly. Back when she was 15-year-old Elizabeth Lerner, this man kidnapped her for several weeks. Although he killed all his other victims, she was mysteriously spared. Now on death row, he wants to get back in touch with Eliza. Flashing back to the summer of the kidnapping, we learn more about the complicated relationship between Walter and Elizabeth, while in the present Eliza tries to finally resolve her unanswered questions about what happened so long ago.

In some ways Lippman tried to be a little too ambitious by bringing in Walter’s go-between Barbara Fortuny and washed-up journal Jared Garrett. They each certainly had a place in the story but I wasn’t interested enough for the chapters that were devoted to them. Or maybe I was just so engrossed by the main story and characters that I didn’t want to be sidelined.

Despite these minor shortcomings, I zipped through this book, enjoying both the present day story and the flashbacks to the kidnapping. It’s a complex story with equally complex characters. Based very loosely on a true story, it’s crafted with just the right level of creepiness to be believable.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My knitting life...

…is full of stockinette stitch right now. Talk about poor planning! Not only is it boring to knit but it isn’t even blog-worthy. The two major projects I’m working on are the pullover that I messed up and re-started, which you’ve already seen plenty of, and a pair of stockinette socks that you’ve also already seen. I finished the heel on the first sock, but that’s nothing to write home about.

Even the projects I’ve stalled on are kind of boring. The Whisper Cardigan too is stockinette. The shawl isn’t but it’s still a very simple pattern that, even had I made some progress, isn’t much to look at.

It’s almost enough to make me cast on for something cabled or fair isle. Almost. But I’m determined to finish at least one of my current projects before doing so.

One accomplishment is that I’ve finally darned all those holey socks that have been sitting around since spring waiting for repair. I’m getting pretty good at darning, if I do say so myself. It helps if you do it while the holes are still small.

Now, I need to finish up some of my current projects so I can start something more complicated and interesting!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

This Is Just Exactly Like You : a review

This Is Just Exactly Like You by Drew Perry (2010)

Jack Lang and his wife Beth live in the suburbs with their 6-year-old autistic son, Hendrick. On a whim, Jack buys the house across the street for no apparent reason. After years of household projects begun and never finished, this is the last straw for Beth, who leaves Jack and moves in with his best friend Terry. Somewhat shell-shocked, Jack carries on with his job at Patriot Tree & Mulch, bringing Hendrick to work with him, and eventually moving to the new house across the street and starting an affair with Terry’s ex-girlfriend Rena.

I found Jack an appealing, if flawed, protagonist. He is a guy to whom things happen, but who rarely takes the initiative himself. He has grandiose ideas, yet can’t ever quite get them off the ground. Hendrick, too, was a rather delightful character and together they were a colorful and eccentric duo. Though the reviews on this book were mixed, I rather liked it. It was quirky and humorous and Jack was so easy to sympathize with, even as you could see him getting himself in deeper and deeper into an already awkward situation.

My main quibble is with the cover. Though I chose this book based entirely on the title and cover art, after reading it I can’t figure out why the statue on the cover is a beaver. If it were a catfish it would make much more sense. Now isn’t that enough to make you want to read it?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Truth About Forever : a review

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen (2006)

Macy can’t forgive herself for showing up late to run with her father that day. Maybe if she had gone right away instead of sleeping those extra few minutes, she could have arrived in time to prevent his death. Now she is the girl who watched her father die, and is tired of everybody’s pitying looks and words of sympathy. She keeps her feelings inside and does what is expected of her, studying hard, working at a boring job in the library, and trying to be perfect. Her façade begins to crack a bit when her goody-goody boyfriend Jason suggests they take a break. Then she takes a second job at Wish catering. Thriving on the busy chaos and befriending her new co-workers, Macy begins to feel alive for the first time since her father’s death. She becomes close to Wes, opening up with him about her past as he shares stories of his mother’s death and his incarceration. But Macy’s mom, hiding her grief behind long hours of work, doesn’t see things the same way and Macy can’t bring herself to confront her mother about what she is going through.

I started off on the wrong foot with this book. Having a very similar experience as a teenager, I couldn’t buy the idea of Macy being “the girl who saw her dad die.” I absolutely understood the constant ongoing words of sympathy (so fake and polite and requiring some sort of awkward response), but to be labeled like an outcast because she happened to be there when he died? Shaky premise. Jason, her boyfriend, was also a little hard to picture with his bizarre language that was somehow a cross between a therapist and a businessman, but contained zero teenage boy. However, I warmed up to Macy and the book very quickly. I understood the torture of her boring job where she wasn’t actually allowed to do anything interesting, and found the characters vibrant and genuine.

Macy’s trajectory of grief was believable, as was her strained relationship with her mother and their inability to discuss her deceased father. I loved the details about her dad’s addiction to ordering products advertised on tv. Wes was also great, an artist with a somewhat dark past. Their game of Truth reminded me of so many conversations I had with friends as a teenager, and I rooted for them to finally make a romantic connection. Don’t let the stupid cover deter you – this is a satisfying novel that has nothing to do with feminine hygiene products.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Freedom to Read

It is Banned Books Week again, the yearly attempt by ALA to inspire outrage over book censorship in America. The only problem is, there IS no book censorship in America. If you start reading about it you will find that what we are actually outraging against are complaints by busybody parents of elementary school students out in the square states. More often than not, the books they complain about are ultimately not even pulled from the shelves. And if we're going to use such a liberal definition of "censorship," librarians, as I've said before, are the worst offenders.

Every year I roll my eyes and complain about how out of touch the ALA is, but this year I am actually offering a suggestion. Instead of focusing on such lame challenges (or "expressions of concern") of library materials, why not highlight our freedom to read by comparing it with actual, real censorship in other parts of the world? For instance, in India The God of Small Things was banned after publication in 1996, earning the author an obscenity trial, and more recently in 2007 a book on Islam was banned there as well. In 2008 a book called The Devil's Discus was banned in Thailand. In fact, here is a whole list of books banned in the authors' native countries. Not to mention the extensive and ongoing censorship of media in China and North Korea.

We could call it something like Freedom to Read Week, which is more relevant and accurate than Banned Books Week, and celebrate intellectual freedom in all its forms. Real censorship DOES happen, in many parts of the world, and that is what we should be learning about if we want to foster appreciation for the freedoms that we have here at home.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Pardon my blog silence of the last couple of weeks - I was on a long-awaited vacation! I wish I could show you everything, but we'll have to settle for just a sampling.

There are many wonderful and unique things about Amsterdam: the ubiquitous bicycles, the tall and beautiful inhabitants, the ample opportunities to drink beer outside along a canal, but I think what I loved most was just the way it looked.

Many of the canal bridges are lit up at night.

Amsterdam was surprisingly small and walkable. We walked everywhere! It was cold and rainy, but we did not let that deter us. Here I am standing in front of the National Museum.

It is undergoing extensive renovations and we only able to see a small part of it, but even that was huge and amazing.

The National Museum of Spectacles was also worth a visit. I love how the building looks, and the collection is fascinating and eccentric.

This little shop was cute as a button.

Here I am posing in front of the Poezenboot - the Cat Boat! It's a cat shelter on a houseboat.

One day we visited Delft, which is super cute and looks a lot like Amsterdam but is smaller and filled with expensive ceramics.

Another day we rented a car and drove north. Kudos to Eric for being willing to drive on those crazy roads with their confusing signs. We visited a couple of little towns but I really enjoyed just driving through the country.

Oh look - a windmill!

These old-timey windmills and few and far between at this point. These ones have taken over:

They are just everywhere!

There were also a lot of cows and sheep. I only got this one crappy photo, but you get the idea. Unlike in America, there are hardly any fences on the farms. Instead, there are canals.

As is usually the case with vacations, I spent a lot of time eating unhealthy things.

Mini pancakes from a street market. So cute and tasty!

A huge pancake from a strange round restaurant with a carousel inside of it. The pancake is topped with Grand Marnier, ice cream, and whipped cream. Nutritious lunch!

Most importantly, I discovered the wonderful goodness of the stroopwaffel.

All in all, a fantastic trip. I can't believe I waited this long to go there, but I'm so glad that I did!