Monday, March 29, 2010

Bound : a review

I hadn’t even heard of this book until the Cable Girl suggested it for book group, but it was right up my alley. A colonial girl grows up an indentured servant, but when her situation turns abusive she escapes. But her past catches up to her and she eventually ends up on trial for murder. Alice is the colonial equivalent of the high school student who won’t admit she’s pregnant until she ends up giving birth in a dumpster. She is na├»ve and makes some poor choices, but is still likeable.

There were many times in the story that it didn’t go the way I thought it would, and many times I really wasn’t sure what she’d do. Perhaps it’s a poorly developed character that can’t be predicted, but it kept my interest and added to the pleasure of reading this book.

Just as with the Laura Ingalls Wilder series and all the other historical writing I’ve enjoyed, it’s the domestic details that I really love. In this novel, there is much spinning, weaving, knitting, gathering of flax, applying of poultices – so many wonderful details of life in that time period. In this case it was also tied in with political issues because there was a boycott on imported fabric. Knitting and weaving as political activism, how perfect!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Normal People Don't Live Like This : a review

In this collection of interconnected short stories, we meet teenage Leah and her mother Helen, along with a small cast of supporting characters. Leah is first presented as obsessive-compulsive, an interesting mirror to her anorexic mother, and a victim of bullying. Both Leah and her mother are at awkward stages in their lives but as we leap forward, they have both become stronger, more sure of themselves.

At 181 pages, this book nevetheless packs a punch. There is a miscarriage. There is a rape. Dylan Landis not only describes unpleasantness in this book, she pokes at it like a finger to an open wound. But parts of it are much more subtle and almost poetic. Her writing is a treat, spare yet peppered with clever nuggets of description. All in all, it’s an impressive and original collection that you’ll devour quickly but still be thinking about weeks later.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Doctor Who Hat : the sequel (finally!)

For those of you who haven't been following along, way back in 2006 (I think) I knit the approximately 46 miles of garter stitch known as the Doctor Who Scarf. This was followed by the Doctor Who Fingerless Gloves in late 2007. (No, I never did make the mitten caps - sshhh!)

Then, to complete the set, all I had to do was make a simple striped ribbed hat. Easy peasy, right? Well. I made one, using the top-down hat guidelines from a book called The Knitting Man(ual). I had previously made some hats from this pattern that came out fine, but they were not made of sport weight yarn and I don't think the rate of increase was right for that gauge. It pulled together in a comically condom-like way at the top, pulling the hat right off his head.

I tried again, this time using the traditional bottom-up hat method. It came out with the same problem, albeit to a lesser extent. Still not good enough. Then I spent a good six months procrastinating, hemming, hawing, researching hat construction, and knitting other things. I swear, I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the proper rate of decrease for a ribbed hat knit in sport weight yarn, but I couldn’t find a similar pattern. All the advice on the matter that I could find was of the “just experiment!” variety. But I felt like I had spent enough time experimenting.

Earlier, I had come across this tutorial for knitting a flat top for a ribbed hat. It seemed like what I was looking for, though I didn't like the way the top of the hat looked - the flat stockinette portion seemed out of place in the ribbed hat. But I trust TECHknitter and knew that it would at least come out the way it was supposed to. If nothing else, at least I'd be able to cross this project off my list. So I ripped back the top of the hat and followed these instructions to finish it.

And you know what? It doesn't look bad at all! In fact, I would even say the hat is quite beautiful. I don't know why it was so incredibly difficult to knit it - but I am very happy that it is done. That's it - no more Doctor Who themed knits of any kind!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Braindead Megaphone : a review

This book has been on my “to read” list ever since I read George Saunders’ introduction to Nick Hornby’s book The Polysyllabic Spree (or was it Housekeeping vs the Dirt?) Either way, I rarely make it through introductions, much less enjoy them as much as the book they are introducing. But it was clear that Saunders was worth reading. I’m only sorry it took me so long to getting around to reading his book.

It’s hard to describe a book of essays, so I’ll just share some of my favorite passages.

In the title essay, Saunders begins by having us imagine a prehistoric person and thinking about how many voices that person would be exposed to. He then contrasts that with the present day when radio, tv, newspapers and the internet expose us to so many different voices from all over the world, which try (and many of which succeed) to shape our opinions.

He characterizes the direction of this trend by saying, “…the nightly news may soon consist entirely of tirades by men so angry and inarticulate that all they do is sputter while punching themselves in the face, punctuated by videos of dogs blowing up after eating firecrackers, and dog-explosion experts rating the funniness of the videos.”

From “A Brief Study of the British”:
“But I am an American, and a paucity of data does not stop me from making sweeping vague conceptual statement and, if necessary, following these statements up with troops.”

His essay “The United States of Huck” was of special interest to me as I just recently read, and disliked, the Twain classic he discusses. I couldn’t ever figure out why it was supposed to be so great, but Saunders explains:
“It is a great work of our national literature because, more than any book before or since, it locates itself squarely on our National Dilemma, which is: How can anyone be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours? The book still lives, because the question does.”

(I’m making it sound like he hates America, but keep in mind these are just the quotes I chose. Many of his essays have nothing to do with the current state of the US.)

His essay “Thank you, Esther Forbes” recounts his youthful discovery of the novel Johnny Tremain. He describes her writing with the lovely sentiment, “They were not merely sentences but compressed moments that burst when you read them.”

A couple other pieces in the book recount a trip to Dubai (which prompted me to do a Google image search on Dubai, which I highly recommend), and a trip to Asia to visit a young boy who had allegedly been in a state of meditation for 8 months. His spoof advice column “Ask the Optimist” was another humorous piece, bordering on the ridiculous.

I rarely read essays, but humor makes everything more palatable to me and I found this book very readable and enjoyable.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Surprise Knitting, Part 2

Months ago, I bought the pattern for the Coraline cardigan, but had difficult finding affordable yarn. DK weight Alpaca doesn't come cheap. Ultimately I bought KnitPicks Merino Style. I swatched, washed and blocked the swatches, didn't take any notes, and then lost both swatches. Earlier this week I swatched again and determined the yarn and pattern just weren't a good match. Knit loose enough to achieve the drape I wanted, the gauge was too far off. I should have gotten some alpaca.

But I had all this lovely purple yarn wanting to be a cardigan! So I search Ravelry for cardigans made with this yarn (really, what would I do without Ravelry?) and found Stefanie Japel's Puff-Sleeved Feminine Cardigan from her book Fitted Knits. I've already made 3 sweaters from this book but haven't picked it up in a while and had almost forgotten about this sweet little cardigan. It is short-sleeved too, so I may actually finish this during a time of year in which it will be appropriate to wear.

I've made great headway so far, despite spending hours knitting yesterday afternoon only to spend the entire evening undoing what I had done.

I do have some concerns. The gauge swatch changed after washing and blocking, but as we all know, swatches lie. Additionally, a stockinette swatch will stretch more than a sweater than is mostly stockinette but also has raglan increases. I have found through experience that raglan seams don’t stretch especially well.

This is related to my other concern, which is that the shoulder and arm fit will be too tight, as happens with most patterns. I will be doing some measuring and looking at instructions for a larger size – it may be a simple adjustment.

But what of Coraline? I still want to make that sweater as well, but may need to pony up for an actual Alpaca blend yarn. Since I only need so many purple cardigans, I am thinking of gray for Coraline which I believe was my original plan for that sweater.

Meanwhile, it's nice to have a sweater on the needles again! I suspect this sweater will go quickly, so if all goes according to plan I should have frequent updates.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Surprise Knitting, Part 1

I cast on for two projects in the last couple of days, neither of which I had planned on and neither of which even appeared in my extensive, 4-page Ravelry queue. I’m breaking them into 2 separate posts for reasons of length and sanity.

I’ve been in a bit of a knitting rut, every project stalled at a different spot and little enthusiasm or clarity to proceed on most of them. During the week I finished the third and final iteration of the Doctor Who Hat (pics coming soon!), and the feeling of completion made me so happy I just wanted to start something new.

First, I cast on for the Bramble Stitch Shawl from The Knitter’s Bible: Knitted Accessories by Claire Crompton. Ages ago, I bought some Farmhouse Yarns Bo Peep’s Not Just For Socks Yarn in a lovely colorway called Glacier Mist. When I cast on for some socks, however, I found that the yarn is much too thick to be called a sock yarn. I only have one skein, generous though it is, so I began thinking about some sort of shawl or wrap. Most shawl patterns I was able to eliminate as possibilities right away as they call for lace weight yarn and involve intricate lace patterns which this yarn, even if it was lace weight, would be unsuited for because of the variegated colorway. Also, I hate knitting lace. But in a Ravelry search for shawls using DK weight yarns, I was happy to find some appealing shawls made from this pattern I already own. More interesting than plain garter stitch but simple enough for this yarn, the pattern seems like a perfect fit.

This is the first pattern I’ve made from this book, which I received as a gift from the Cable Girl back in ’08, or possibly ’07. (These, by the way, are to be pronounced “aught eight” or “aught seven” a la Grandpa Simpson.) I’ve consulted the book many times as a reference on other projects such as the Dr Who fingerless gloves, and just to admire the pretty patterns, and now I’m happy to be making an actual project from it.

There are two things I especially like about the book:

1. For almost all of the patterns, it shows different versions of the projects made with different yarns. For example, the recommended yarn for this shawl is a light-weight solid colored mohair, but inset photos show swatches of the pattern knit with 4ply-cotton on smaller needles, and a version knit with a variegated wool yarn.

2. The book doesn’t pimp specific yarn brands. Sometimes I do like to know exactly what was used for a pattern, and there is a handy appendix in the back of the book that lists the brands used for the samples of each project. But the instructions very helpfully lists materials such as “light-weight tweed wool yarn” or “medium weight aran wool/cashmere mix” which makes substitutions far easier. When one is just given a brand name and wants to find a suitable substitute, it means having to research the weight and fiber contents of that specific yarn before trying to find a similar yarn. (Don't be tempted to use the pattern gauge as a guide either, because many patterns use yarns knit at a tighter- or looser-than-recommended gauge.)

This is the perfect weekend for new knitting projects because it is so rainy and disgusting that I don't want to go anywhere. I'll post about my other new project either later today or tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To : a review

Darren is a loner who lives with with his absentee-in-spirit father and troubled older brother. He has no real friends at school and spends most of his time drawing characters for a movie trilogy with novel tie-in that he is working on. Then he meets Eric, another social misfit who takes an interest in Darren’s project and together they begin working on what is sure to become a successful series of movies, books, and merchandising opportunities. Eric lets Darren in on his secret – he has never been able to sleep and never had to. The story was fresh and original and went somewhere that I didn’t expect.

Writers are really young now. There were things I barely understood in this book because of my age and distance from today’s youth culture. But I really enjoyed the book – the narrative voice was like a sophisticated Napolean Dynamite crossed with Bleaker from Juno. Also, there is a mixtape! How retro that must be for DC Pierson, who is surely too young to have ever made an actual mixtape on cassette.

Pierson also co-wrote the movie Mystery Team, which I also recommend. Two thumbs up for both the book and movie!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Soul Thief : a review

Graduate student Nathaniel Mason meets an eccentric character named Jerome Coolberg who takes an interest in Nathaniel and soon begins mysteriously appropriating items from Nathaniel’s apartment and stories from his past. This is pretty much all I understood from this book, and even that I’m not entirely sure of. Nathaniel may be an unreliable narrator, or maybe he is not the narrator at all. This is a book that I should have read in a quiet room by myself, but in fact I mostly read it in a staff kitchen full of noisy (and sometimes angry and shouting) librarians.

Parts of it reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, as well as Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight – both of which are among my favorite books, which this one is not. Jerome’s apparent obsession with Nathaniel reminded me of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, but in theme only. I may well read something else by Charles Baxter, because he seems to have a flair for putting words together in interesting ways. I liked his use of language, but I had no idea what he was saying. (I do love the cover art, though.)

Have you read this book? If so, I’d love to know what you thought about it.