Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mockingjay! : a (lengthy) review

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (2010)

(Spoilers after the break, with plenty of warning.)

Hot off the press, Suzanne Collins’ long-awaited finale to the Hunger Games series is here! I’ve been antsy with anticipation since around May, but it reached a fever pitch once I started reading all of the buildup on my new favorite blog, Forever Young Adult. (Which in addition to awesome book reviews has drinking games based on such classics as Flowers in the Attic and the Sweet Valley High series. How awesome is that?)

Mockingjay opens in the aftermath of district 12’s decimation by the Capitol, which is now holding Peeta prisoner. Katniss is recovering in district 13, previously thought to have been destroyed long ago, where she struggles to get her bearings after the trauma of events from the last book. The rebels are mobilizing to fight against the Capitol and its oppressive powers which forced everyone in Panem to participate in the Hunger Games. Katniss is the Mockingjay, the face of the revolution. Her one goal: to kill President Snow herself.

As you might expect there is lots of action, romantic indecision (Gale or Peeta?), betrayals and – this is a war, after all – death, lots of death and sadness. There are some shocking developments in the story that will keep you riveted to the page until the very end.

I wish I had re-read the first two books just before this one, because it had been a year since I read Catching Fire and I started off a bit disoriented. I don’t completely understand all of the author’s decisions, and I found the epilogue a bit weak, but in general I really liked it a lot. I love the characters, I love the dystopian aspects, I love that nothing in their world is black and white, no matter how hard the players try to portray it that way. A satisfying conclusion, but a conclusion nonetheless. What a fantastic series – I am sad that it’s over!

Spoilers below!
I am warning you, don’t peek if you haven’t read the book!
You will regret it, I swear.
Ok, ready to discuss the surprises?
Prim! Wtf? This all started because Katniss volunteered to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games to save her life. And now she is killed off anyway! It has all been for naught! Ok, the rebels have won and President Snow is dead, and those ARE larger than one person’s life, but it still seems unfair. Also? It is Gale’s fault! I am glad that neither Gale nor Peeta were killed off, thus making Katniss’s decision for her, but I’m not so sure that I buy Gale’s hard-heartedness about Prim’s death. He always came across as being more caring about her family than that, though one of my co-workers says she could see Gale changing and becoming more devoted to the cause and wasn’t especially surprised. Maybe I was just stubbornly insisting on seeing him the way he used to be. I was absolutely not expecting Katniss to shoot President Coin, so that caught me completely off guard. I’m glad she did it, though.

Let’s talk about the epilogue. I am not sad that Katniss ended up with Peeta, as I could see her going either way in terms of her love interest (at least until Gale’s betrayal), but this epilogue was way too Harry Potter. And for the record, I hated the Harry Potter epilogue. Jumping forward 20 years and showing how normal everyone’s lives are is anti-climactic and boring, possibly even soul-crushing. I absolutely understand why Katniss would ultimately want to have a quiet life with Peeta and their children because although the events of the books were exciting and exhilarating, I don’t think it’s how anyone wants to live their lives. Katniss and Peeta are living the life they fought for – one in which they are safe, have enough to eat, and don’t have to worry about their children being killed off by the government.

BUT! Katniss didn’t actually want to have kids - Peeta had to convince her! And it took years! And why did Katniss only refer to the kids as “the boy” and “the girl” and not by name? This implies a distance to her own children that I find unsettling, and makes me question how satisfied she actually is with the life for which she fought so hard. It all made me sad and confused, just in the space of 2 pages.

Then again, maybe the beauty is that just as in real life, nothing in this series is black and white and there is no such thing as a happy ending.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Do you know the story of Sisyphus? In Greek mythology this king was punished by the gods by being forced to push a huge boulder up a hill, and then it rolls back to the bottom, and he must continue to push it up the hill over and over and over forever until the end of time.

As you might suspect, I bring this up for a reason. On my pullover there is a set of waist decreases, a bit of straight knitting, and then increases, all while simultaneously decreasing the neckline. Recently I completed the decreases and knit until it was time to start increasing, and set the project aside for several days. A couple of nights ago I picked it up again while watching some old episodes of Lost and knit the 12 rows that included all the increases, while continuing the decreases that shape the neckline.

When finished, I compared my stitch count to the pattern and was shocked to find that I was off. My first thought – because I am rather egotistical as a knitter – is that there must be an error in the pattern. But some simple math proved that to be untrue, and I finally had to accept the fact that when I picked up my knitting that evening I actually was not at the point where the increases were supposed to start. I hadn’t bothered to actually compare my stitch count before starting to knit; instead I relied on my faulty and aging memory and that never ever serves me well.

So I ripped out everything I had done, knit the few more rows that brought me to where I should be, and then started the waist increases in the proper place with the correct stitch count. I tried to stay up late enough to finish them for the second time, but finally had to call it quits with still a few rows to go.

What is so frustrating about this is that I haven’t learned from my mistakes. I can’t even count how many times I’ve spent what feels like a very productive evening knitting, only to end up ripping out everything I did and starting all over again. But although it can feel that way, unlike Sisyphus I am not on a futile quest. Though it may take longer than it should, I will at least end up with a new sweater for my efforts. Eventually.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest : a review

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (2007)

When we last left Lisbeth Salandar she had barely escaped death at the hands of those responsible for the murders she was accused of. Thus, the third and final installment in Stieg Larsson’s überpopular Millennium series begins with Lisbeth unconscious in a hospital, where she remains for much of the book. Awaiting her recovery are various people trying to gather information to prove her guilt or innocence, as the case may be. Much of the book centers around a secret organization within Säpo, the Swedish secret police, which was created to protect Soviet defector Alexander Zalachenko and was also responsible for institutionalizing Salandar when she was 12.

For me, this novel lacked the momentum of the first two in the series. It was tough getting into the details of Säpo, and I missed Lisbeth who spent much of the book completely out of commission. Even Mikael was pushed aside in favor of many new characters in whom I struggled to be interested. But Lisbeth recovered and she and Mikael returned to a prominent spot in the story eventually. Another interesting storyline centered on Erika Berger, who left Millennium to work for a newspaper and became the victim of harrassment. By the last 150 pages I was zooming along as I had been in the first two books and though the climax was less dramatic (and violent) than in the previous books, I found the ending quite satisfactory.

One thing I enjoyed about this series was how unconventional Larsson made the relationship stories. Erika Berger’s open marriage was unusual, and I thought he kept the romances realistic, without resolving into predictable fairy-tale endings. Of course this was a thriller, not a genre I usually read, so perhaps that is typical. Or maybe it’s a Swedish thing.

The characters were also a strong point. Though at times I had difficulty keeping track of the minor characters, the major players were well-developed, complex and imperfect. As much as I rooted for Lisbeth Salandar, she isn’t someone I’d ever befriend – indeed, she had few friends – but she was incredibly strong and a brilliant hacker. Mikael was practically impossible for his colleagues to keep track of, and was frustrating for the many women who were interested in him romantically, but a great journalist with a strong code of ethics and sense of justice.

Have any of you read the series? Or seen the movies? What did you think? I’m looking forward to watching the Swedish movie version as I suspect this series translates well to the screen.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

This Yarn Is Cursed

I have tried and tried to find a pattern that will work with my skein of Madelinetosh yarn in "Bearded Iris," but no matter what I do it pools into big gobs of purpliness and separate big gobs of yellowyness. I am shocked to look through my old posts and see that I haven’t written about this ongoing and apparently futile struggle. But I have been documenting it photographically so I will summarize for you now.

First I tried the Herringbone Rib pattern from Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarn. This pattern was one of the reasons I bought this book – it is so lovely, but not with this yarn.

Cleverly, I thought that with a different size needle it may not pool the same. I was right, it pooled in a slightly different way.

It was a bit less blotchy and more like a thick zigzagging stripe, but still not acceptable.

Determined not to give up, next I tried a simple rib pattern.

And you can see how well THAT turned out. I'm mystified about why I knit so far before admitting defeat. (I was probably watching Pride & Prejudice or some equally long and distracting movie.)

I shoved the sock in a bag for a while until several months later I was feeling masochistic again. I went back to Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarn and tried a pattern called Rib Fantastic, which allegedly "swirls the colors around." Surely that is what I need!

The colors were not sufficiently swirled. The other side of the sock, as you might expect, is primarily purple.

Finally, convinced that much more abuse would render the yarn completely unknittable, I ripped back to the cuff and continued in stockinette.

So bland, so boring, but these lopsided stripes are the most acceptable look I’ve gotten from this yarn so far.

What were the good people at Madelinetosh thinking when they designed this colorway? Do they not test knit their yarn? Or is the goal for it to simply look nice in the skein? Perhaps they don’t even think ahead to the possibility that someone may want to knit something out of it. I can’t think of another explanation as to why they would put such beautiful colors together in a way that looks so clumsy and unpleasant when you try to make it into something.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fly Away Home : a review

Fly Away Home by Jennifer Weiner (2010)

It happens all the time: a famous person’s affair is exposed, the media has a field day, and then the story fades into the background as the nation’s collective attention turns to the next scandal. Just such a story provides the backdrop for Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, a firm departure from the chick lit genre that she is almost always relegated to but of which she was arguably never really a part.

Senator Richard Woodruff owes much of his political success to his wife Sylvie who has sacrificed her own career, interests, and even style of dress to be part of his team. Nary a gram of fat has passed her lips in decades, ensuring that she continues to fit into the designer suits required of a senator’s wife. Their two grown daughters, Diana and Lizzie, were raised largely by a nanny, and developed an understanding that their parents were public figures and couldn’t be expected to deal with the minutiae of everyday family life. Now a successful doctor, Diana is nevertheless troubled in her marriage, whereas Lizzie has had the more public distinction of being a drug addict.

When the nightly news reveals that Richard had an affair with a much younger colleague, their - albeit imperfect - family is turned upside down. More vulnerable than ever, each women struggles to make sense of her own problems while the future of her family becomes increasingly uncertain.

More serious than Weiner’s previous novels, it retained traces of her humor while exploring the very private side of the kind of situations that are usually dwelled upon only long enough to be made the butt of jokes. Every character in this book was imperfect and complicated. I felt very invested in their problems and their futures, and wanted to spend more time with them.

Jennifer Weiner is like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to me. Each flavor is not only creative, but well executed and delicious. Weiner’s writing is impressively consistent, and that is unfortunately rare. With a debut like Good In Bed, Weiner had a lot to live up to, but she has risen to the occasion and proven herself again and again. I look forward to her every book with unguarded glee because I know it’s going to be good, and Fly Away Home is one of her best.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

New sweater project

It is short-sleeved and has such a low v-neck there is practically no front, but I say it still counts as a sweater.

Isn't that a lovely color? That's totally not the color it is. For some reason, the magic of photography - ok, the magic of setting my camera to automatic mode - can't seem to capture the true color of this yarn when in sunlight. It's much darker, the color more accurately represented by this crappy out-of-focus photo:

I found this free pattern through a Ravelry search. It's from someone's blog so it's pretty informal as patterns go, and only includes one size. Happily, it is my size! (But it's a simple pattern, which I'm sure could be easily resized.) It calls for DK yarn knit on relatively large needles to create an open fabric. So far I love knitting with the Debbie Bliss Cashmerino DK I purchased at Windsor Button. The fabric is delightfully soft and stretchy. As usual I'm concerned about my gauge, but I tried on the sweater-in-progress and it seems to fit.

As I mentioned, this garment will be short-sleeved with a very open front, and is rather fitted, a combination that makes me a bit nervous. Hopefully I won't look all hoochie-mama in it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Garlic and Sapphires : a review

Garlic and Sapphires: the secret life of a critic in disguise by Ruth Reichl (2005)

Food writer Ruth Reichl documents her experiences as a restaurant critic for the New York Times, taking the reader to New York’s finest – and not-so-fine – restaurants, describing her meals, sharing her reviews, and discussing the challenges she faced as a well-known critic trying to slip under the radar to find out how ordinary people would experience the restaurants she visits.

I will admit right now that I was skeptical when my book group chose this book. I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a hard time with non-fiction –as interesting as the subject of a book may sound, reading it can be another matter entirely. But I had forgotten something important, which is that I really like food. Reichl’s descriptions of food were more satisfying to me than some of the actual meals I have eaten in restaurants. Even her narratives about foods that I would never eat, like fois gras, were conveyed with so much pleasure that I enjoyed the meal vicariously through her descriptions.

Dressing in disguise added a fascinating dimension to her story. Reichl developed characters, complete with different personalities, and visited restaurants incognito to find out if the quality of food and service she received as Ruth Reichl, Food Critic was the same as when she dined there as a cranky old woman, a sophisticated lady who lunches, or a loud, brash lower-middle class woman. This sociological aspect was enlightening, as it never occurred to me that the service or table one receives in a restaurant could be based on appearance. But then again, I live in Boston where even the classy restaurants don’t appear to have dress codes.

As fascinating as the story was, mostly this book just made me want to eat. In New York, and preferably on someone’s else dime.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Smocked Dishcloth

Please try to contain your excitement over my completion of this ornate, difficult, and time-consuming project.

Pattern: Smocked Dishcloth
Yarn: Sugar 'n Cream in blue, leftover from my mom's striped rug
Needles: Size 7

There is not a lot to say about this dishcloth. I've been using it and it's very...washy. It's actually a little larger than I would have intentionally made it. Perhaps I should have gone down a needle size.

This little project was just a bit of a palate cleanser to transition between the Socks That Took Forever and the sweater I just started. Yes, I have begun a garment! And it is purple! (Surprise, right?) Progress shots are coming soon, I promise.