Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The First Four Years : a review

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1971)

A chronicle of the early years of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage, this short volume was produced directly from Laura’s unrevised draft and is consequently very different from the other books in the series. Rather than being divided into short chapters based around a particular event, it contains just four long chapters, one for each year. In addition, it wasn’t edit to be child-friendly – sad or upsetting events were not glossed over, and many details remain that Laura probably would have edited out had she readied this for publication before she died, such as details of her pregnancy and boring financial information.

There is some overlap in the story, as this book begins with a slightly different retelling of Laura and Almanzo’s wedding than we got in the last book. The most noticeable difference was that when Almanzo (now known as Manly) asked Laura to marry him, she hesitated and explained that she did not want to be a farmer’s wife. But Manly made a deal with her: he would farm for 3 years, and if he wasn’t a success, he would give it up. This promise is revisited throughout the book, after each year of farming. They agreed to a fourth year, and then at the end of the book Laura concedes that no matter how mixed their success may be, they are farmers at heart and thus always will be.

There is much hardship along the way. Their crops failed year after year, Manly suffered a stroke during an illness that left him unable to do much physical labor, Laura struggled with household responsibilities and had a difficult pregnancy. The final year chronicled in the book culminated with enough trouble to dampen the most hearty pioneer spirit. They are still struggling with both of their claims, their crops, and now have added a herd of sheep (and a boy to help tend them) to their responsibilities. Then Laura has another baby who dies three weeks later. Soon afterward, their house burns down.

Had Laura revised the manuscript before her death, surely it would have fit in more with the rest of the series. She would have eliminated the details about the baby who died and probably all the details surrounding her pregnancy with Rose. She certainly would have left out the unnerving scene where their neighbors, the Boasts, beg them for Rose because they cannot have children of their own. We would have learned of the crop failures, as we learned of setbacks during her time with Ma and Pa, but the failures would have been surrounded by happy times, details of projects around the house, family get-togethers and other fun occasions.

The First Four Years was a rather startling glimpse of reality, and makes me wonder just how much was left out of the earlier books. Though I am interested in the sorts of hardships endured by pioneer families, the tone of this book is completely different from the rest of the series and the hopeful note on which it ends is rather frail. I’m glad to have re-read it as an adult, but I want to return to those happy times with Ma and Pa in the dugout on Plum Creek.

Friday, June 25, 2010

These Happy Golden Years : a review

These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1943)

This was always one of my favorite books in the series. When it begins Laura is 15 years old, teaching school, and being courted by Almanzo Wilder. She is boarding with the unpleasant Brewster family, and struggling with difficulties in her classroom, but she sticks it out so that she can earn money for Mary’s college tuition. Later, she teaches at a couple of other schools which are much more pleasant and do not involve having to live with crazy people. I was a bit confused about the school schedules though, because Laura would teach a full term and be done and then go to school herself.

Her relationship with Almanzo is more formal and impersonal than I remember. Perhaps my adult perspective has just made me more aware of this, but she comes across as being totally uninterested in Almanzo – and tells him outright – but continues to go riding with him every week. When he puts his arm on the back of her seat, she becomes uncomfortable and encourages the horses to take off on a run so he needs both hands to drive them. Then, suddenly, they are engaged. Maybe she wanted to leave her complex feelings out of a children’s book, but it was just odd to not know what Laura really thinks of Almanzo, and of getting married and leaving home.

During the 3-year span on this book, Mary comes home to visit a couple of times, the family moves permanently to the claim outside of town, and they even get a new-fangled sewing machine. This comes in handy when Laura and Almanzo’s wedding is suddenly moved up because his mother and sister want to come plan a big wedding. Laura and Almanzo want no part of such a thing, nor the expense, so they rush and get married right away. Who knew that such wedding-centered drama occurred back in pioneer days! Were there also bridezillas then? (I bet Nellie Oleson was one!) At any rate, while planning their hasty wedding they also mentioned not wanting Reverend Brown to use the word “obey” in their ceremony, which he had apparently stopped doing anyhow. How modern!

There was enough awkwardness in their relationship that the book wasn't quite as wonderful as I remembered, but I still enjoyed it. The next - and final - book I didn’t like much as a kid. It chronicles the early years of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage and I just remember them struggling and having lots of troubles (in particular, I remember that their house burns down.) But I look forward to reading it as an adult because I'm sure I'll see it in a different light.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cutting for Stone : a review

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)

Marion and Shiva Stone are born to an Indian nun and British surgeon in Ethiopia. Their mother, who nobody knew was even pregnant, dies during their birth; their father, stunned, flees the hospital for good. But the twins find parents in two other doctors at the hospital in Addis Ababa where they are born, and Marion narrates their journey, set against a backdrop of political upheaval, to discover and make peace with the truth of their past.

At 658 pages, this hefty novel spans a lifetime and Verghese doesn’t skimp on rich descriptions of surgery or the details of the political situation or the background of minor characters. These details made the story come alive for me. Slow-paced but never plodding, the characters provided ample interest for me to pick up the book at every spare moment.

I never quite understood the title – the phrase “cutting for stone” came up a few times in the text but the context wasn’t clear – and I had a hard time understanding Shiva’s character. He was described as “special” because of his unique perspective and how he read literal meaning into everything, but I had a hard time seeing him in my mind as I did the other characters.

A story within the novel provided an apt metaphor for the themes in the book: A miserly old man held onto a pair of battered slippers until he couldn’t stand them anymore. Every attempt to get rid of them only caused disaster and still he was stuck with them. Ghosh, a surgeon and father-figure to the twins, never knew his father and and thought he was irrelevant, while his sister felt their father’s absence so strongly it made her bitter. He says,“What I finally understood…is that neither my sister nor I realized that my father’s absence is our slippers. In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit they are yours, and if you do, then they will get rid of themselves.”

I loved the setting, the characters, and the thought-provoking themes. Don’t be daunted by the length of this book – it’s well worth the investment of time!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Puff-Sleeved Feminine Cardigan

Finally, it is done. Had I finished it a month ago I would probably have had a few opportunities to wear it right away, but now I will probably just pack it away until fall.

Puff-Sleeved Feminine Cardigan from Fitted Knits by Stefanie Japel
Size: 36
Yarn: KnitPicks Merino Style in Iris (bought 12 skeins, have 1 or 2 leftover)
Needles: size 4 and size 3
Started: March 13 and finished sometime in early June
This Ravelry link has a couple of different pictures (and you should be able to view it even if you're not a member.)

I added a lot to the length, because otherwise this would have been a very cropped sweater. Before the waist-shaping, I knit 35 rows instead of 17, and after the waist-shaping I knit 19 rows instead of 7. Because of the added length I made 11 buttonholes instead of 8. I used a stretchy bind-off for the sleeves.

Expensive. I bought the only buttons that Windsor Button had in this color. They were over $2 each because they had a textured pattern on them, which isn't even showing because I wanted the plain side facing out. I looked at non-purple buttons, but really I just wanted something to blend in with the color of the sweater, not stand out or detract from it. I love cardigans, but I could do without having to choose buttons (not to mention sew them on.)

I'm mostly happy with how it turned out, but it is disappointingly boxy. Normally, I choose a size that is a bit small on me and block slightly larger so it is nice and form-fitting, but this time I knit it exactly to my size because the next smallest size would have probably been too small. It fits well, but is just a bit baggy around the waist. Perhaps I should have modified the waist-shaping somehow, but it's so hard to tell how anything will look once it's finished. I even think that maybe I shouldn't have added quite as much length. You can't tell in some of the pictures, but there's one at the Ravelry link above that shows the boxiness, and you can sort of tell in this picture of the back.

I do like the slightly puffed sleeves, and I like how it looks with the neckline open. I meant to take pictures of it buttoned up to the top (which is how it is pictured in the book) but forgot. Oh, and I love the color.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Age of Innocence : a review

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

Young Newland Archer is freshly engaged to May Welland, when her cousin Ellen Olenska arrives in New York amidst a fair bit of scandal. She has left her brute of a husband and there is talk that she may have been involved with another man. She is even considering divorce (gasp!) Newland is quite taken with Ellen and promptly tries to convince May to move their wedding date up. You can see where this is going. Newland and May marry, but he continues to combat his deep affection for Ellen. Divorce in this place and time is so controversial it is almost unthinkable (see: Ellen Olenska), so Newland’s problems aren’t as easily solved as they would be today.

Wharton’s book was originally sold as a “problem novel” about divorce, and though cultural mores about marriage and divorce have changed enough for the novel to seem a bit dated (and certainly to lessen the dramatic impact), there is still much food for thought. Newland lives in a restrictive society and yearns to be free of certain rules and obligations, yet his life isn’t unhappy. Who’s to say that he would have been any better off had he pursued Ellen?

I’m a sucker for these period novels, and Wharton’s writing was a pleasure to read. At times I was frustrated by the choices the characters made, not to mention their apparent thickheadedness, but in retrospect I’m glad because the resulting complications gave me so much to think about. If you’re interested classic novels of missed opportunities and thwarted love, I’d recommend giving this novel a chance.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A miracle has occurred!

Somehow, while watching an hour-long webinar on copyright issues, I managed to weave in all 647 ends on my sweater, wash it, and block it. Behold!

I apologize for the crappy photos. It's in one of the darkest rooms of the house and the sun hasn't been cooperating at all recently.

Maybe it’s not technically blocking as I didn’t pin it out. But I think, based on the Yarn Harlot’s recent post and my own sneaking suspicions, that the first time you wash a knitted garment it is by definition being blocked.

Anyhow, I cannot wait to pack this stupid sweater away for the summer. But sometime before I do that, there will be action photos!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Little Town on the Prairie : a review

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1941)

I had forgotten how much I liked this book! So many things happened – Mary finally realized her dream of going away to college, the town expanded and everyone began having socials and literary nights and church, and Nellie Oleson is back and meaner than ever. The family also got a kitten, attended some fire and brimstone revival meetings that they didn't like but felt pressured to attend, and after lots of hard studying Laura finally got her teaching certificate and is offered a job in a nearby town. Now she will be able to help pay for Mary's seven years of college.

In this book Laura is truly becoming a young lady, concerning herself noticeably with dress and hairstyle. I vividly remembered the part where she cuts herself bangs, referred to by her parents as "lunatic fringe." There is still some kid in her though, as evidenced by her behavior in school. Her teacher is none other than Eliza Jane Wilder, who we met way back in Farmer Boy. Eliza is not a great teacher, coddling and cooing her students without any discipline whatsoever. When she finally decides to crack down on bad behavior, it is Laura and Carrie who she targets. (This is presumably because of her growing friendship with the girls' arch nemesis, Nellie.) The fact that Pa was on the school board only made things more difficult for Laura and poor frail Carrie, and one day when Laura sticks up for Carrie and goes a little overboard they are both expelled. Perhaps most importantly, it is during this time that Laura begins to be courted by Almanzo Wilder, though she doesn't recognize it yet, and is only confused by why this grown man keeps insisting on accompanying her home. Pa and Ma know what is going on though, and cautiously allow it.

I'm very much looking forward to the next book, in which Laura begins teaching and her romance with Almanzo blossoms.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sock One

I can’t believe it took me three months to knit one simple sock.

Recently my displaced knitting group finally settled on a new location, so at the first meeting I attended after our hiatus I spent a good solid hour and a half working on this sock, which was just the push I needed to get me going again and I finished just a couple of days later. I was so bolstered by my success that I immediately cast on for the second one.

Hopefully I am making the same size as the first one. Usually when I make something which will require a second (sock, mitten, sleeve) I make notes about the first one so I can replicate it. I am smart that way! For some reason I have no notes on this sock. It’s very simple, but I had hoped I made notes on the size, how many rounds I knit for the cuffs, etc. But I searched all over for the scrap of paper with this important information and couldn’t find it. I’m trying to train myself to record this sort of information on my Ravelry project page, but apparently I haven’t succeeded yet.