Thursday, December 29, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein: the Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (2011)

Journalist Josua Foer attended the 2005 U.S. Memory Championships for a story he was working on, and became so intrigued by the methods used by the contestants he not only embarked on a research project resulting in this book, but ended up participating in the Memory Championship himself. He interviews many of the big players on the memory circuit, as well as researching various aspects of memory including some unusual cases of superhuman memory and extreme memory impairment. Woven throughout the narrative are thoughts on the role of memory and how it has changed throughout history.

In many non-fiction books this tendency to visit related topics feels like tangential filler, but here Foer stays on track. The related topics really ARE related and they are fascinating. He explores the medical aspects of memory and the brain without going into too much biological detail, and interviews a man who can no longer form new memories as well as the man who was the inspiration for the movie "Rain Man" (and, by the way, was not autistic). He considers the importance of memory from days before the printed word, even observing that the writing that survives from that era (such as the works of Homer) uses repetitive phrases to make it easier to memorize, though that sort of repetition is frowned upon in literature today. He also discusses the decreased role of memorization in education, wondering if perhaps its complete elimination isn't such a great idea. And of course he reveals the methods used by the great memorizers in enough detail that the reader can try it out. 

As someone who can't remember a damn thing (and relies on an extensive system of post-it notes and emails to myself) I found everything about this book fascinating. Foer points out that it's a lot of work to remember what is essentially useless information (strings of random numbers, for instance) - and doesn't help with more important questions, like where he left his car keys - but the methods are valuable for a lot of everyday things like passwords and phone numbers, and even information about people's birthdays, hobbies, and other pertinent cocktail party/networking information. It's not a long book (around 270 pages) but he manages to pack in a ton of fascinating information and anecdotes, in a tightly woven narrative that is wonderfully readable.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Train to Lo Wu

The Train to Lo Wu: Stories by Jess Row (2005)

I came across this little gem while looking for books for a patron. I don't remember now where she was going, but I consulted Nancy Pearl's Book Lust To Go for suggestions of books that take place in a particular country. After the patron left, I looked up Hong Kong - my next destination - and found this suggestion. Jess Row spent a couple of years teaching English in Hong Kong just after it was handed back to China, and this unique time and perspective were captured beautifully in these seven stories.

Most of the stories were about people who were newcomers to Hong Kong, or there temporarily. I think my favorite of the collection is "The American Girl," in which an American graduate student visits a blind man regularly and reads to him. She is doing research on how people adapt to change after surviving trauma, and eventually gets the man to open up long-buried memories. The opening passage of the story was a striking description of his impressions of being on a moving train as a young boy.

The other stories were very good as well. In "Heaven Lake" a widower raising two daughters remembers his time at Columbia University when he worked part-time for a Chinese delivery service and was accidentally drawn into a violent crime. "For You" was about an American couple whose temporary move to Hong Kong began to seem more permanent, leaving the husband feeling as though his life is permanently on hold. In the title story, two people from opposite sides of the border - China and Hong Kong - try to navigate what appears to be a doomed relationship.

I don't frequently read short stories. Their compactness somehow implies that they are more significant and I can't help feeling that I'm missing what is important about them. I may be missing some importance in these stories, but I very much enjoyed reading them. The writing is simple and clean, giving the stories a quiet feel despite the turmoil experienced by many of the characters. Some of the imagery was quite powerful, and I suspect I'll think back on these stories a month from now when I am myself in Hong Kong.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sunday Knitting (slightly late)

It's a Christmas miracle!

I wasn't sure I was going to bounce back from the Argyle Sock Debacle of '09 but I gave it another go this year, and I'm happy to say the endeavor was a success this time. Given the classic nature of the argyle sock, it's surprising how few patterns exist for them. None were exactly what I wanted, but this one from Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Sock Book was good enough. The gauge is really too big for socks, but because I wasn't about to rewrite the color chart, I followed it for the legs. When I came to the heel, I switched to smaller needles and just didn't do as many decreases. I also held the yarn double for the heel in hopes that the reinforcement will prevent holes from forming anytime soon.

Pattern: Man's Classic Argyles by Shirley Paden
Needles: size 2.5 (3mm) and size 1.5 (2.5mm)
Yarn: Cascade Yarns Heritage in black, grey, and red

The colorwork was incredibly fiddly, what with all the tangled bobbins. And the single stripes are really a pain - it's difficult to keep an even tension for those parts and then you have to weave in the ends along that stripe so it won't show through, but that screws up the tension even more. Some people use duplicate stitch for those stripes, but that sounds even more aggravating. Suffice it to say, I probably won't be knitting a lot of argyle in the future!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2011)

Victoria is aging out of the foster care system, leaving her group home to fend for herself with no money, no job, and seemingly no ambition. Then she happens upon a florist shop and realizes her chance might be in the one area she knows something about: flowers. Her foster mother Elizabeth taught her all about the Victorian language of flowers, in which meanings were attached to different kinds of flowers in order to communicate messages via bouquet. The story moves back and forth between present day and her time living with Elizabeth as a child. The idea, of course, is to build up to whatever event ended Victoria's time living with Elizabeth and took her out of foster care and into group homes for good. (Is it just me, or is every other novel out there written in this back and forth timeline all of a sudden?)

The characters kept coming very close to happiness, then at the last moment would panic and flee. It was maddening. With Victoria it was at least consistent with her personality. She was a hard nut to crack, and didn't learn to love or trust overnight like some Lifetime movie. Her outlook was fatalistic, and she was convinced she was deeply flawed and couldn't redeem herself. I can see why, but at times her irresponsibility was frustrating.

Elizabeth was a bit more difficult to understand, as her background was so unclear at first. We see her as ten-year-old Victoria saw her, only learning slowly about her relationship (or lack thereof) with her sister. Elizabeth appeared completely competent and strict at first, gradually softening into a more loving and pain-filled character as we learn more about her.

I liked Grant a lot, Elizabeth's nephew who Victoria eventually befriends. He works his mother's flower farm, and seems steady, reliable, and compassionate. I don't feel like I know him as well as I'd like to. His relationship with Victoria is complicated and fraught with guilt on both sides. I won't spoil it with too much information, but it was a good example of Victoria's poor handling of relationships.  At the same time, it was understandable given their history. There is much more to say about it, but.....just read the book.

The flowers and their messages were such a clever way to frame the story, and the perfect means of communication between characters who isolated themselves and rather failed at human relationships. Despite the sadness in the story, this was a very satisfying piece of domestic fiction. It was a good story well told, with interesting characters, and the lush descriptions of flowers only made it more of a pleasure to read.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Just a little thing

Here is my little knitted ornament.

I used a pattern from Handknit Holidays by Melanie Falick, some sport weight yarn leftover from another project, and polyfill stuffing I had shoved in a closet. I really like when I can make something just with leftovers from other projects. It happens rarely.

And here it is on my tree.

Merry Christmas to those of you who will be celebrating this weekend!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

All Wound Up

All Wound Up: the Yarn Yarlot Writes for a Spin by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (2011)

 This collection of humorous essays about knitting is the latest from the Yarn Harlot, an expert knitter and ridiculously hilarious writer. (She's very funny in person too!) You'd think she would run out of fodder, but no, she has plenty to say on knitting-related subjects and this book is just as funny as her others.

As a knitter she makes me feel validated. She freely admits that gauge swatches lie, a truth most knitters won't admit to as we continue to insist on the importance of swatching. (And it is important, just not foolproof.) She acknowledges that we knit garments very different from what's in our regular wardrobe in hopes the "beauty of what we have made will be miraculously transferred to us." And when non-knitters question why we put so much time, money, and effort into things we could buy quickly and cheaply at a store, she compares knitting to great works of art, specifically the Sistine Chapel. It's not efficient, but it adds beauty and value to our lives.

It's not all light-hearted humor though. In her essay "Fair Trade" she talks about spending months crocheting a lace tablecloth and how difficult and time-consuming it was, and then seeing crocheted tablecloths in Chinatown for $60. Since it's not possible for crochet to be done by machine, they must all be crocheted with the workers paid very little for their monumental efforts. In another serious essay, "The Time of the Big Not Knitting" she talks about a difficult period she went through last year during which she was so upset she could not knit. This was the first time that had ever happened and she has been knitting since she was four. (Four!)

Not all the essays are even about knitting, exactly. One of my favorites was "Ode to a Washer: A Love Story in Three Parts." Parts of this story about her beloved Sir Washie appeared on her blog while it was happening and it was hilarious. It's even better now, polished into a complete essay.

This would have been best read in pieces, between other reading, so I could savor each essay before going on to the next. But I read it straight through anyhow, because it was just so easy to read, and damned funny.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Knitting

I'm suddenly in a mad frenzy of holiday knitting. I pulled out my copy of Handknit Holidays which I enjoy looking through each year but rarely make anything from, and suddenly I HAD to knit some ornaments for my tree.

That quickly turned into one partially completed ornament. Despite the time-sensitive nature of this project I have tossed it aside in favor of another project from the same book.

It seemed completely reasonable that I could knit an entire festive scarf in time for New Year's Eve, so yesterday I trotted off to Windsor Button where the proprietor - and two acquaintances I bumped into - all agreed that it was indeed a sensible plan. I bought some Debbie Bliss Party Angel, a silver, sparkly, expensive yarn, and cast on. So far so good.

Normally I'd feel guilty about the projects I'm not working on right now, but the other day I had an epiphany: I realized that knitting is not a competition. This is probably obvious to most people, but I've felt like it was necessary to stay on target and finish my projects as soon as possible. This especially applies to socks because, as I've previously mentioned, I hate darning. Since I began knitting socks I haven't bought any from the store and now that seems ridiculous. Although my handmade socks are superior, there's no need to force myself into sweatshop-like conditions just to keep my feet warm in the winter. And as much I look forward to wearing my pretty purple cardigan, I may allow myself to digress and knit up some legwarmers or maybe a new hat.

The result may be that by the time winter ends I won't have even one new completed garment, but maybe the actual knitting will be more enjoyable. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Did not finish, a summary

It has occurred to me that I'm blogging only about books I enjoy enough to actually finish, and therefore you are all missing a crucial part of my reading life. So I thought you might be interested in this short round-up of recently abandoned books along with the reasons why I chose not to finish them. If not, just skip the rest of this post. I won't be offended.

Haiti After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer (2011)

This is an excellent example of me starting a non-fiction book in an attempt to learn more about something in the world in which I am mildly interested, but apparently not enough to read an entire book. Ironically, I've read and enjoyed an entire book about the author, Paul Farmer, but apparently he is a more interesting person than writer. At the beginning he apologetically explained all the background that the book would contain in addition to the story about the earthquake and its aftermath, and that should have clued me in. There was a lot of information about the history of Haiti's infrastructure, and as much as I was interested in the post-earthquake parts I felt too daunted by the amount of less interesting stuff I had to slog through and the sheer number of pages left in the book. I'm actually interested in the topic of this book, but this is the sort of thing where I should just read an article about the topic or watch a documentary. Can anyone suggest a good novel or documentary about Haiti's post-earthquake recovery?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre (1974)

I wanted to like it, really I did. After all, it's a spy novel! I kept expecting it to get really exciting, and stuck it out for half the book before calling it quits. I had no idea what was going on and though a friend insisted that's part of the beauty of the novel, I wasn't able to see that particular beauty. I was bored and reading it began to feel like a chore. I think for a while I was reading this at the same time as the Haiti book which only compounded my frustration. I do want to see the movie though.

The Rogue: searching for the real Sarah Palin by Joe McGinness (2011)

I love to hate Sarah Palin, but even I can't stand to waste too many precious moments of my life reading about her. Also, I just thought it was all a bit much - the author was digging so far back in her life it was irrelevant and that made me rather bored and a little uncomfortable. Why must the world know who Sarah slept with in college and what she said about it afterward? Some college-related dramas should just stay in the dorm room. I only made it through a few chapters, too much of which related to the author's experiences living next to the Palin's while writing the book, which was a bit meta. Also, I'll admit the only Palin-related topic I'm interested in is the strangeness surrounding the birth of Trig.

So that's all the recent books I can think of. If you find it interesting I can post this sort of update regularly (though I hope there aren't a lot of books I start and can finish.) Do you think that's a good idea? Let me know in the comments!

Also! What books have you abandoned recently? And do you have strongly differing opinions from mine on the books above? I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Annabel by Kathleen Winter (2010)

In the late 60s a woman gives birth to an intersex baby in Labrador Canada. Aside from the parents, Jacinta and Treadway Blake, the only person who knows about the strange child is their neighbor and midwife, Thomasina. Both women doubt Treadway's decision to raise the baby as a boy, but realizing the impracticality of raising a child as both boy and girl, they go along with the idea. Soon after Wayne's birth, Thomasina's husband and daughter are drowned while canoeing, and ever afterward she secretly calls Wayne Annabel after her lost daughter. Wayne knows he has a medical condition requiring a great deal of medication, but doesn't understand the truth about himself until he is almost a teenager. Eventually he must decide whether to continue taking hormones and living as a man or discontinue them and allow his true self to emerge.

Treadway encourages all things masculine in Wayne, and tries to discourage his friendship with a neighborhood girl named Wally Michelin. Wayne and Wally built a hideaway on a bridge, decorating it ornately, and spend hours there, Wally with her music and Wayne reading and admiring the postcards Thomasina sends him from Europe. But Treadway wants Wayne to build forts like "normal" young boys and destroys the bridge and everything in it. When Wayne becomes obsessed with synchronized swimming, Treadway gets his friends to perform a synchronized routine with their backhoes. Wayne was not impressed, but I found it rather touching that Treadway arranged this for him.

Wayne seems such a beautiful and vulnerable person, who is only trying to understand himself. He is patient with his father and doesn't get angry even when he is mistreated. There is beauty in Treadway as well. A trapper, he spends much of the year out on his trapline in the wilderness and intimately understands the land of Labrador. As he spends more and more time on his trapline, it was as though he became almost like a wild animal himself. Not in a vicious way, but in a quiet connected-to-the-land way. Indeed, he is quiet by nature and does not tell his family how he feels, though he feels keenly. Jacinta is more talkative, and more inclined to nurture Wayne's feminine side, but usually defers to her husband. She is not from Labrador and frequently dreams of returning to St. John's but knows that too much has changed since her life was there.

I loved many things about this book and was completely engrossed in it until I finished. It's a great story with characters I became very invested in and cared about, and the setting was unusual and fascinating. Labrador seems like the area in Maine where I grew up, only more so. It's a harsh landscape full of rugged individuals who know how to take care of themselves. I loved all the details, especially the ones about food (they ate strange-sounding things like duck jelly and bottled rabbit!) Everything about this beautiful, unusual novel is pretty wonderful.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Knitting

Here's the heel I wanted to have done in time to show you last week.

Last night I started on the first sleeve for my Coraline sweater finally, but screwed it up so I have to consider it just a practice run. Hopefully I'll be able to share a successful sleeve beginning with you next week.

I'd like to be able to say that the reason these projects are going so slowly is that I'm doing lots of secret gift knitting, but that would be a big fat lie. I kind of feel like a slacker for not having a completed project every time I post like some knit bloggers. It seems like every time I read the Yarn Harlot's blog she's finished another sock or baby sweater. But then I remind myself that knitting is pretty much her job, whereas I have a full-time job in an area that unfortunately doesn't involve knitting whatsoever, and that makes me feel a bit better.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (2011)

When Rosa learns that her teenage daughter, Sulfia, is pregnant, she tries everything she can think of to end the pregnancy. But when baby Aminat is eventually born, Rosa is instantly smitten.  She thinks little of Sulfia, though, always complaining that she is stupid and not fit to be a mother. Now Rosa is scheming to get Sulfia married off and keep Aminat for herself, initiating a lifelong game of tug-of-war. As conditions in Russia deteriorate, Rosa becomes more and more determined that she and Aminat must live in the West, with or without Sulfia, and at any cost necessary. The cost is great indeed.

Rosa is one of the best characters I've come across in fiction in quite a while. She is self-centered, over-confident, and cruel. Some of her behavior is truly horrific - she does everything in her power to marry Sulfia off (several times) but at one point intentionally breaks up Sulfia's marriage for her own selfish reasons, with the result that Sulfia is not only divorced, but is living in a different country than her daughter Lena, and will never see her again. (And then is insensitive enough to say one day "Sulfia, you need a man.") Desperate to get them all out of Russia she practically sells Aminat to a German pedophile to get him to marry Sulfia.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. And that's the thing about this book - it's written with so much humor, you almost can't help but laugh at Rosa's antics and the bizarre lens through which she looks at the world. At her mildest, she is an eccentric middle-aged woman who is always bragging about her skills: "I had a way with puff pastry, as with so many other things" or "I was the perfect spouse." But when something terrible happened and she just picked up and kept going, her cold-heartedness became more apparent and even scary. This was her reaction when her husband left her: "Apparently there are women who break into tears at such news. Their legs buckle and they sink to the tiled floor of the kitchen, with its checkerboard pattern, and other people must step over them in order to get to the refrigerator. I wasn't one of those women." And so begins the parade of men in and out of her bedroom.

As awful as she was, she was one tough and resourceful lady, frequently taking the initiative to solve problems for those around her. When she became a cleaning lady, rather than feeling like it was a big step down in her career, she only remarked on how those families would never have gotten by without her to take care of them, because clearly they couldn't handle it themselves. She also takes it upon herself to learn to ride a bike, drive a car, and ski. Rosa harbors no fear or self-doubt whatsoever!

I read a review in which Rosa was described as an unreliable narrator. Although she doesn't fit the term as I usually think of it, the description is rather apt. Rosa has a narrow view on everything and in her mind is always working towards a specific goal that she feels is for the best, and insists that everything is fine if she says it is. Meanwhile, the reader can see her family's lives falling apart in her wake. She claims to always be acting in the best interests of Sulfia and Aminat, even as she destroys both of their lives bit by bit. But she's not completely blind to what is going on around her; a couple of times she comes out and says that she chooses not to understand certain things.

Although it made it onto several "Best of 2011" lists, this novel never achieved the popularity that it deserves. There's a lot to talk about, and many fantastic quotes (I've dog-eared the hell out of my library copy), but I've already gone on enough about it here. Just get a copy for yourself and read it as soon as possible. If you like Eastern European themed fiction, dark humor, or quirky characters then you're sure to enjoy it. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The first time I read The Great Gatsby was in high school, as part of a project on the Lost Generation for which I also read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. I always remember that project because it was so different from all my other work - the teacher assigned each student a book (or two) based on what he knew of our personalities and interests. It was a very fun assignment and I really enjoyed both books. Twenty years later, however, I remembered little of the content. Time for a refresher!

Jay Gatsby is an almost mythical man. He owns a large mansion in West Egg, on Long Island, and throws lavish parties. Nobody really knows where he came from or how he obtained such wealth. Some say he once killed a man. Nothing about him is certain, except that he once loved a woman named Daisy.

The narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway, has rented a house next door to Gatsby. Coincidentally, his cousin is Daisy Buchanan. Daisy and Tom live across the bay in the even more posh East Egg. They have a young child, though their marriage is strained as Tom has a mistress. She is Myrtle Wilson who lives with her husband George in an area called the Valley of Ashes. George is Tom's mechanic.

When Gatsby learns that Nick is acquainted with Daisy he implores Nick to help him try to get Daisy back. It's pretty much a setup for a mess, with Jay Gatsby is at the center, and of course it ends tragically.

The narrative is unusual, told from the perspective of someone who is not a main character, but that is one of its great strengths. Nick isn't exactly on anyone's side, nor does he really want to be involved in the complicated relationship issues at all. (At times I expect he deeply regretted his decision to go East that summer.) The other characters came off as pretty self-centered and materialistic for the most part, but still rather fascinating. It's a short novel, so it rather feels like a rowdy group of strangers has whooshed in with their fancy cars and bootlegged gin and just as you think you're getting to know them, they make some stupid mistakes, hearts are broken, bodies are left maimed in the street, and the rest of the group has flitted on to another neighborhood somewhere.

I wish I could remember my impressions of this book as a teenager, because I'm sure it's very different than those I had reading it as an adult. I suspect that back then I was more taken with the lifestyles of the characters - their wealth and the lavish parties - than anything else. What strikes me now is the superficiality of it all, the importance of status in the characters' identities - at the expense of things that would have actually made them happy or given their lives meaning- and most sadly, how none of it meant anything in the end when the guy who was the center of so much attention had only a handful of people show up to his funeral.

There is a lot to this short novel, and in fact I got a little sidetracked the other night reading reviews and literary criticism about it. Now that I've rediscovered it I'm sure I'll read it again more than once and I'm curious to see how different the experience is each time.

Have you read this classic? Do you love it? Hate it? And why?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Knitting

I was hoping to have a beautifully turned heel to show you, but all I've got is the boring first few rows of a heel flap.

The farther along I get on my orange Milo socks, the more I wonder when on earth I will wear them. They are pretty bright and, well, orange. My red socks that I finished back in June have yet to be worn this season. But I suppose it's still early and there are months of boot-wearing sock-covering weather ahead. By January my priority will be piling as much warmth on my body as possible, without caring if I look like a circus clown.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008)

In Prentisstown, there are no women. They were killed off by a virus which had less serious, but very strange, effects on men - their thoughts are all completely audible. They try to control their Noise, but it's still very difficult to keep secrets in this strange new world. Todd Hewitt is the last boy in this city of men, and in just one more month he, too, will be a man. For now he's alone with no friends, except for his dog Manchee, who is the only one who ever talks to him, but has little of importance to say. But one day as Todd and Manchee are exploring the swamp outside town they come across a very strange spot where there is a marked absence of Noise. Could it be a leftover Spackle, one of the aliens that were supposedly all killed off during the war? Or is it something even more surprising? In this first installment of the much-lauded Chaos Walking series, we follow Todd on an action-packed journey of discovery as he uncovers the truth about his world while trying to save his own life.

The world in this novel is strange and scary, as with any dystopia, but I especially liked the element of Noise, and the way people tried to control their thoughts so as not to give away their secrets. Having the animals talk made it very humorous and I think my favorite character in the book was Manchee. (He reminded me of the dog in the movie Up, who is hiding under your porch because he loves you.)

The story was very fast-paced and I flew through it. Something would happen very quickly --

Todd barely had time to --

And before he knew it --

Something came crashing down --

And Manchee started barking "Squirrel!!"

And then suddenly --

You get the idea. It makes for exciting reading and it's difficult to put down, but it kind of exhausted me.

Usually there is some sort of resolution at the end of a book, even if it's a series and you know the whole thing isn't actually over. Not here - there is no rest after this journey and although I did start on the second installment right away, I just can't keep up this pace. I'm not as young as I used to be.

If you like young adult dystopias, you really shouldn't miss this one. Grab all three volumes, turn your phone off, and immerse yourself in Patrick Ness's world for a weekend this winter.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Love Warps the Mind a Little

Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne (1997)

Lafayette Proulx is not only struggling as a writer, but he's also failing at his marriage. The day his wife tells him to leave he packs up and goes the only place he can think of, his girlfriend Judi's house. He feels torn, truly he does. He's invested many years with Martha but isn't sure he still loves her; he doesn't think he wants to commit to Judi either. But he has to be with one of them because after quitting his full-time teaching job to write, his recent job at a restaurant isn't enough to pay the bills. So he stays at Judi's house even after he begins marriage counseling with Martha, thinking maybe they can work things out. Then Judi is diagnosed with cancer and Laf pitches in to help and finds himself more permanently fixed in her household, and more invested in their relationship.

On the surface Laf is a freeloader, living first with one woman, then another, contributing nothing financially to either arrangement. But I couldn't help being sympathetic with him. For one thing he is a good writer, despite not being able to be published. He's very involved in his work and we learn a lot about the novel he's working on, which in many ways parallels his own life. He's obviously very smart and his writing apparently reflects his thoughtful and philosophical nature. So it's not ridiculous that he has given up so much to write; it's his life. He observes, "Nothing begins with so much excitement and hope and pleasure as love, except maybe writing a story. And nothing fails as often, except writing stories."

Aside from his merit as a writer, I found Laf to be an endearingly flawed character. He's honest (to us, if not to the women in his life) about his shortcomings and his attempts at self-preservation. But while he's fairly selfish on the surface, he shows incredible compassion as Judi becomes sicker and truly goes above and beyond what is required of someone at that stage of romantic attachment.

Judi's family members are over the top in their eccentricities, and combined with Martha's emotional neediness it's all wonderfully messy and complicated, and even a little poignant at times. Dufresne writes with the self-deprecation of Nick Hornby and the quirkiness of Douglas Coupland, making this funny and sad novel thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Knitting

I'm just back from my Thanksgiving trip to Maine, but managed to get a picture of my sock while I was there and it was daylight.

It looks a little misshapen here, but I swear it looks totally normal when I put it on my foot.

As planned, I used an extra strand on the heel flap on the bottom which I knit on the drive up (I wasn't driving at the time) and also on the heel turn, which I did at my mother's house after we arrived. I have an inconvenient problem with reading in the car, in that it makes me incredibly ill, so I can't do any knitting that involves closely following instructions. Anyhow, the double-stranded parts feel very tough, which makes me hopeful that they won't wear through immediately.

After the heel turn, I went back to the single strand and knit the back heel flap and gusset, which you can tell from the photo is very short. This is a new construction for me so I'm not sure if that's how it's supposed to be but I tried the sock on and it fits, so I'm happy with it.

On the drive back I knit most of the leg - I think maybe one more inch I'll be ready to start the second sock!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Knitter's Life List

The Knitter's Life List by Gwen W. Steege (2011)

Here's a book unlike any other knitting book I've seen before. It's essentially a huge compendium of things to try in your knitting life. The chapters are topical ("The Yarn Life List," "The Know-How Life List," "The Sweaters Life List") and each chapter begins with a full-page list of things to learn about, techniques or projects to try, and places to visit relating to the chapter's theme. The rest of the chapter tackles some of the items in-depth. It's not all one narrative flow, rather the chapter is chopped into small, digestible bits that can be read independently of the rest. This is the sort of book you can just pick up, turn to a random page, and learn something new or get a great idea for a project.

Topics include:

Knitting retreats, mobius knitting, knitting in books and movies, origins of the terms "cardigan" and "raglan," Andean hats, double knitting, kitchener stitch, felting, Norwegian mittens, afterthought thumb, Maritime "wet" mittens worn by fishermen, twined knitting, calculating a good fit, beading, craft-related tours, designing garments for babies, yarn-bombing, backward knitting, fiber arts in myths and legends, weaving, spinning, dyeing, charity knitting, classic knitting books, speed knitting, classic Aran sweaters, embroidering your knits, as well as profiling many well-known knitters.


This is a really awesome book. The lists are great, sure - I love lists - but the real treasure is all of the information and inspiration jam-packed into each chapter, peppered with luscious photos. I learned a lot of interesting things - there's a lot of knitting trivia, but also advice and tips and ideas for projects.

 My intention when I got this book from the library was just to skim through it, but I ended up reading almost every word. There were definitely topics that interested me more or less than other topics. I'm less interested say, in weaving or spinning than many knitters, but there is something (ok, many things!) for everyone in this book. If, like me, you borrow it from the library, I think you may end up buying yourself a copy so you can use it as a reference and turn to it when you need inspiration. I know I plan to.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wishful Drinking

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008)

There are several important things I didn't know about Carrie Fisher.

1. She was once married to Paul Simon
2. She wrote Postcards From the Edge
3. Her parents were Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

In summary, all I knew about her before listening to this audiobook was that she played Princess Leia in Star Wars, so this book was a good education for me.

Carrie Fisher is like your crazy aunt who gets too tipsy at family gatherings and tells inappropriate stories. (The aunt I will probably be someday, possibly later this week.) I don't normally like when people trot out their histories of drug abuse, childhood problems, and electroshock therapy, but she really is a very good storyteller and so clearly isn't asking for pity or trying to make excuses for her behavior. In the author's note at the end she talks a little about the stigma of mental illness and says that those who suffer from these problems shouldn't be ashamed; in fact, they should be proud that they are able to actually function and live their lives. And that's how she comes across in her narrative - she seems very happy that she is functional, but at the same time finds it all perfectly hilarious.

This audio version was read by Fisher, and of course no other narrator could do it justice. Rather than focusing on any one part of her life, it was a meandering sort of monologue that was quite conversational and lent itself well to an audio format. It was more of a performance than a memoir and, indeed, is based on a show that she's been doing for a while. Her voice sounds kind of rough, as though she's been smoking for 70 years or so, but I really enjoyed listening to her. It was pretty short, but very informative and enjoyable and funny.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Everybody Sees the Ants

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King (2011)

 Lucky Linderman doesn't feel very lucky. He has been relentlessly bullied by Nader McMillan, who began by peeing on Lucky's shoes at the tender age of seven. Last year as part of a social studies project Lucky created a survey asking other students what method they would use to commit suicide, and his intentions were completely misunderstood and resulted in an undue amount of aggravation. His parents are completely stressed out about how to handle him and argue about it all the time. His mother avoids coping by swimming in every spare moment and his father by working.

During the latest Nader episode Lucky's face became intimately acquainted with the cement ground at the public pool, leaving a scab shaped like the state of Ohio. As Lucky lay there trying to think of other things, he suddenly saw ants dancing around and cheering him on, ants who continued to show up every now and then afterwards, having little parties and dispensing advice. The sort of surreal occurrence barely phases Lucky, who regularly has dreams in which he rescues his MIA grandfather in Vietnam, and when he wakes up he's left with some little piece of physical evidence from the dream.

After this latest bullying episode, Lucky's mom becomes fed up with his dad's inaction and takes Lucky with her to her brother's house in Arizona. Aunt Jodi is a little strange, but Uncle Dave seems great, and Lucky enjoys hanging out with him, lifting weights in the garage. It's a relief to be away all the troubles at home, and he even meets an interesting girl. But Lucky knows his problems will still be waiting for him when he gets back home.

That is a very long summary, but there's a lot going on here! The main theme is about bullying and the lack of response by the adults, but there are a lot of other issues and, man, do these characters know how to avoid dealing with their problems! As Lucky gets to know more about Jodi and Dave, he starts to think his parents are pretty functional after all. Though he still wishes his parents would at least TALK about his missing grandfather, and the fact that his grandmother's life was so consumed in the POW/MIA movement, which has clearly affected his father. He also wishes the authorities weren't so preoccupied with why he conducted the suicide survey that they overlooked some of the upsetting responses he received.

There was so much to like about this novel. Lucky is such a good person, and has a healthy sense of humor, and I was so happy at the sort of young man he was becoming throughout the novel. His quiet observation of other people and their relationships was very endearing, as was his consideration for others. Plus he's a damn good cook. This story was so well told that I didn't even mind the tiny elements of magical realism; in fact, they were part of its charm.

That's two hits in a row by A.S. King, who also wrote the fabulous Please Ignore Vera Dietz and is proving herself a very strong new voice in young adult literature. I really look forward to seeing what she has for us next.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Knitting

I feel a little silly that it took me about 75 rows to realize something very basic about the construction of my sweater. I knew that it has an i-cold edging, and I was curious as to how to attach i-cord to the edge of something. I skimmed through the pattern to find that part and couldn't but figured I'd see it later when I got to that part.

At the same time, I thought it really strange that the instructions say to slip the first 3 stitches of each row. I mean, wouldn't that make the edge totally pull in and be all rounded?

Yeah. I am little slow.

Look at my pretty i-cord edging! I didn't even know I was making it!

Next I begin the sleeves, which I'm not looking forward to at all. (If only I were a vest girl!) Then the sleeves get knit together with the yoke, which is where the fun smocking pattern comes in. Lots to look forward to in this project, but mostly I'm getting antsy to wear it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Skellig by David Almond (1998)

On the advice of Nick Hornby I finally read this young adult novel that I've heard about for years.

Michael and his family have just moved into a new house, and one day as he is poking about in the garage (against his father's orders) Michael finds a strange and seemingly ill man sitting in the corner. He has strange protrusions coming out of his back, and he eats bugs but really loves Chinese food and brown ale. Despite the man's insistence on being left alone, Michael befriends him and confides to him that his new baby sister is gravely ill and may not survive. Michael knows the old garage will be torn down soon and is frantic to get his new friend to safety without revealing his presence to his parents. When he meets Mina, the unusual girl next door, he lets her in on the secret and together they try to help the mysterious man.

Skellig was 182 pages and I read it in one sitting. I don't remember the last time I read a book in one sitting. This was a super quick read - so you have no excuse not to read it - but it's an amazing, beautiful, touching story. The writing is very straightforward and I like that it doesn't attach all sorts of meaning to the character of Skellig. It doesn't say "he's an angel" and launch into various mythologies - it just says "here's this guy and what he looks like and what Michael observed" without making it into something bigger. Clearly it IS something bigger, but it's never explained. Who or what Skellig is remains a mystery, and I like it that way.

The book deals with heavy issues, certainly. Michael's still unnamed baby sister hovers between life and death and Michael feels her heart beating in his chest next to his own. He desperately wants her to get better and focuses on it intensely, convinced that his concentration will make a difference.

Mina is a pretty wonderful character. Obsessed with birds, she is home-schooled and very staunchly believes in the superiority of self-directed learning over a formal school system. Curious and creative, she opens up new ideas and perspectives to Michael, while becoming a close and loyal friend.

Beautiful in its simplicity, this is a story that people of all ages can appreciate.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (2006)

New high school graduate and child prodigy Colin Singleton has just been dumped by his 19th girlfriend named Katherine. Depressed into immobility, his best friend Hassan convinces him that a road trip is in order. Soon they end up in Gutshot, Tennessee, lured by a sign promising them the gravesite of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There they meet Lindsey Lee Wells and her mother Hollis, owner of a factory that make tampon strings. Colin and Hassan are hired by Hollis to interview the current and former employees of the factory for an oral history project. Meanwhile Colin is working on a theorem to predict the outcome of relationships and is testing his formula on all of his past relationships with Katherines.

The entire cast of characters was appealing, especially Colin, with his Jew-fro and his dorky love of anagramming and his desire to be not just a prodigy, but a genius. Quirky Muslim Hassan was hilarious as a sidekick, and I liked how he and Colin interacted. They sometimes spoke Arabic to each other - totally dorky! - but also made very boy-appropriate jokes involving words like "sphincter." You know, just to keep it real. I also like Lindsey a lot, and appreciated how torn she was between acting all bad-ass and popular and fearing that she was completely fake. All the people of Gutshot were colorful and endearing.

I listened to the audio version, which I thought was very well done. The narrator did a fantastic job with the voices and the accents, my favorite being an old guy who was missing part of his jaw from cancer. I know a lot of people don't like when audiobook narrators do the voices, but I find that it helps tremendously in signaling which character is speaking and when a narrator does as good job as this one, it can really add to my enjoyment of the story. The only thing I didn't like about the audio was that just as with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, they added the annoying sound effect for phone call conversations.

The story was very sweet and hopeful and a great deal of fun. John Green was co-author of Will Grayson, Will Grayson which was just fantastic. I've also heard great things about his first novel, Looking for Alaska, which I hope to read sometime soon!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Shakespeare Wrote for Money

Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby (2008)

My book group recently chose to read Nick Hornby's third and final collection of his monthly Stuff I've Been Reading column from The Believer magazine. I thoroughly enjoyed his first two and this third volume did not disappoint. For those who are unfamiliar, he begins each column with a list of the books he bought that month and a list of the books he read that month. Sometimes there is overlap. Then he discusses the books in an essay, and I add more titles than I can ever read in my lifetime to my Goodreads list.

Some of the books discussed in this volume include The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, and most memorably, Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Hornby urges his readers to go with their instincts on this last one - if you don't think you want to read it, don't. In describing just how difficult a book it is to read, he says  "Sometimes you feel like begging the man to use his last bullet on you, rather than the boy. The boy is a fictional creation, after all, but you're not. You're really suffering."

I love Nick Hornby for many reasons, but I think most of all for his unpretentiousness. In this volume he has discovered young adult literature, which of course endears him to me even more, but what he likes about it is that it's so incredibly readable. He also discovers the Alex Awards from YALSA, given to adult books with appeal to teens. As Hornby describes it, "a list of ten books that aren't boring." Hornby read and enjoyed Skellig by David Almond, Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, just to name a few of his young adult choices.

Another takeaway for me from this book was what he said about reading from a list. He came across some book to the effect of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and says "reading begets reading - that's sort of the point of it, surely? - and anybody who never deviates from a set list of books is intellectually dead anyway." I have a fairly lengthy list of books to read and too often I consider it more of an assignment that I need to get through than a list of interesting sounding titles I don't want to forget. Hornby's words were a good reminder to deviate from that list and read whatever I feel like at the moment. I certainly don't want to be among the intellectually dead.

And this book surely begets more reading - I've already read David Almond's Skellig (in one sitting, no less). I'll tell you all about it soon.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Knitting

After last weekend's musings on the difficulties of creating durable socks, I looked through some of my sock books for information and ideas about this. The problem is that the place where my socks wear is on the bottom of the heel and there is so little that is worked back and forth, thus enabling me to use an extra strand for reinforcement.

But I was looking through my favorite sock book, Sensational Knitted Socks, and Charlene Schurch does discuss reinforcement. Mostly it is what I've read in other places, but it was comforting to see that she acknowledged it numerous times. In looking through the chapter on sock construction, I saw something that might work for me: a toe-up sock with a heel flap. Socks made this way have a heel flap that starts mid-way through the bottom of the foot which means that there is a longer stretch of back and forth knitting, more opportunity for me to use reinforcing yarn. This is excellent news!

I immediately whipped out a skein of Cascade Heritage sock yarn I bought recently - which, helpfully, happens to be 25% nylon - and cast on a short-row toe.

Although I don't enjoy working short rows, primarily because I'm not great at it and have to really focus on the instructions, I do love the little cup it makes for my toes. I also really love this yarn so far. The color is a fantastic murky seawater color that reminds me of days on the lobster boat when I was a kid. Seriously. The photo above really brings out bright blues and greens that don't appear in real life. I'll try to get a more accurate photo later.

There isn't a real pattern here. I'm using the short row toe from one set of patterns in the Schurch book and the heel flap from another set of patterns. I'm working it in a nice classic 2 x 2 rib. I really want to get to a point where I can just pick up some yarn and needles and knit me some socks without a pattern. I think I'm getting close.

I'm knitting on size 0 needles to create a nice tight gauge, something that also helps to prevent holes, and in addition to the nylon content of the yarn and the extra strand I'll use on the heels I expect these socks to survive any upcoming apocalypse we may experience.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Final Thing - CPD 23 Things Overview

Now that I have tardily reached the end of the CPD 23 Things, it's time to reflect on the program. For Thing 23 we're supposed to do a SWOT analysis - but I suck at that sort of categorization - and a personal development plan - but I'm allergic to goals - so I'll just share some general thoughts.

Overall, I found it well-organized and thorough. It really did touch on many aspects of professional development. There were a few things that weren't relevant to me. Of course, as a free online program one doesn't have to do every single thing, nor are you paying for it and therefore feeling compelled to do everything. It seemed a little academically focused with the bits about citation resources, for instance, and was definitely British-centered. Although I do love the British with their charming accents and Jammy Dodgers, I still have no idea what CILIP or chartership are. I just felt free to ignore those parts.

Some of the Things I've focused on a lot recently anyhow because of my long-term job search, but I appreciated that they were included and I definitely learned about some new tools for presentations and whatnot. Although I may not need to use them, it's nice to know about them. The only thing covered in the program that I have totally jumped on board with is Evernote, which I find incredibly useful for creating drafts of blog posts, as well as to-do lists and lots of notes for work.

I think my only recommendations for improvement in the program would be to make some of the very specific Things more general. For instance, instead of focusing just on particular tools maybe have it more about, say, giving good presentations and then list Jing or whatever as a tool to achieve that goal. If you're going to touch on presentations I think there is a lot more to cover than just the technology aspect. There are a few Things in the program that could benefit from this more rounded-out approach I think.

I'm very grateful for the people who put together this kind of online learning and then offer it up for free. It's clear that they have put a ton of work into organizing this which must involved lots of time and effort and is really a valuable contribution to the profession. Thanks to the organizers for the opportunity!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (2011)

This much-lauded novel from young Croatian author Téa Obreht begins with the main character, Natalia, telling a story about visiting tigers in a zoo with her grandfather when she was a child. It then moves to the present time in which she is en route to an orphanage with her friend Zora to administer vaccinations, and learns through a phone call that her grandfather has died.

Throughout the trip she thinks back to stories of her grandfather's youth during which his village was frequented by a tiger. Most of the book consisted of these flashbacks, with just an occasional bit set in Natalia's present. These stories had a mythical quality to them, focusing as they did on a man who could not die and a mysterious woman referred to as the tiger's wife who everything in the village believed did, in fact, have some sort of relationship with the tiger.

The village tales were nicely composed, but not really my taste. I preferred the current story about Natalia and her experiences as a young doctor in a war-torn country. There was little of this aspect of the story however, which is disappointing because I found Natalia intriguing and wanted to learn more about her life.

This was the sort of novel through which you move very slowly, but enjoy taking in all the scenery along the way. Her writing is beautiful and even after the novel became tedious to me I was rewarded with some truly lovely passages at the end. Although it wasn't my cup of tea, I can see why the book received so much praise.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Girl Is Murder

The Girl Is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines (2011)

 After her father lost his leg at Pearl Harbor and her mother committed suicide, Iris Anderson found herself transplanted from her posh private school on the Upper East Side to a public school in her new neighborhood on the Lower East Side. Her father was struggling to perform his work as a private investigator with his new disability, so Iris took it upon herself to help him out, whether he wanted her to or not. (Hint: he didn't.) After a boy at her high school went missing and her father was hired to investigate, Iris decided to conduct her own investigation and found herself involved in a crowd with a bad reputation, opening up a whole new social world to her.

Iris's world is complicated, trapped as she is between her posh uptown life, and her new downtown life, not quite fitting in either place anymore. She also walks a fine line between childhood and adulthood, wanting to help her father with his work because they need the money, but meeting his resistance at every turn because she is "just a child." Trying to fit in at her new school isn't easy either. The first people she meets are Pearl and Paul, a brother and sister who try to befriend her. Pearl is an outcast, especially vilified by the Rainbows, the tough-talking group that Iris befriends to try and track down their missing friend. The group takes Iris out to Harlem with them for drinking and dancing to a new kind of music that Iris has never heard before, but instantly loves. She finds herself lying to both sets of friends about different aspects of her life. Meanwhile, she's ignoring her old friend Grace from the upper east side because she feels like Grace is taking perverse joy in Iris's social descent.

Although marketed towards fans of Veronica Mars, this book reminded me more of Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher. Set in the same era, The Girl Is Murder included nice period details including contemporary slang expressions, tasty treats like egg creams (whatever those are), and featured boys in zoot suits, with a slight nod to the Zoot Suit Riots (which I always thought was just a song but was, in fact, an actual series of riots.)

The audio narrator was really fantastic, what with her New York accent and convincing dialogue. This was one of the better audio performances I've listened to, and I'm so glad I opted for this format. But I'm sure the book is great too, so however you like it you should give it a try!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Knitting

I'll be posting about my knitting every Sunday in hopes that it won't fall by the wayside again. Now that there's so little daylight I usually have to wait for the weekend to take photos anyway, so it should work out.

Today I want to show you part of an orange sock.

This is the Milo sock from Sock Innovation by Cookie A. I really love the cables in this pattern and I think it will look smashing in orange. It's fun to knit and the Lorna's Laces sock yarn is quite lovely to work with.

But I'm a little worried.

I had to throw away a pair of hand-knit socks recently because the holes were, in my opinion, beyond darning. They were my clown barf socks, so I wasn't terribly sorry to see them go. But now I'm afraid I may also have to discard my Pomatomous socks as well, and that is a shame.

This has got me ruminating on ways to make my socks a little sturdier so as to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. You know, people have been knitting socks for centuries and many of them must have hated darning as much as I do, but I have yet to see a sock pattern written with any sort of reinforcement.

There are a few things that seem to help:

1. Use yarn with a decent amount of nylon in it. Pure wool is a disaster waiting to happen. It's unfortunate, because I love me some Smooshy sock yarn but I don't think I can knit socks with it anymore.

2. Knit at a tight gauge. At one point I decided to ALWAYS knit socks on size 0, but every time I start a fancy pattern (like the one above) I'm right back to using a larger size in the interest of having the socks come out the right size. Using multi-size patterns like those from Sensational Knitted Socks allows me to knit at any gauge, so I may try to fill in my sock wardrobe with more of these. But I still like the fancy ones.

3. Reinforce the heels by knitting a strand of reinforcement thread with the yarn. I don't have reinforcement thread but I'm thinking of just knitting double-stranded with the yarn when I do the heel. I will also make the gauge much tighter on those parts. I may research this a bit more.

What do you do to prevent wearing holes in your socks? And what about Fair Isle patterned socks? Does the extra yarn you carry along the back of the knitting help with the wear?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thing 22

Thing 22 is about volunteering to get library experience.

I have mixed feelings about this subject. Many libraries don't even accept volunteers, but if you are lucky enough to get a volunteer gig it's probably not going to be professional work. If you have no library experience whatsoever it will be great just to gain experience working in a library, even if you're just shelving books. I've never had to do this because fortunately I had a job in the library when I was an undergrad so I had experience under my belt long before I decided to become a librarian. I've done other volunteer work though, most notably as a board member and committee chair for East Somerville Main Streets. Some of the more library-relevant aspects of the job have included organizing a series of networking events for businesses and putting together a monthly newsletter.

From the hiring standpoint, you need to be careful about depending on volunteers. It's difficult enough to convince municipal governments that we're important, valued professionals in the community; we shouldn't have to also convince them that they need to pay us. Why pay MLS salaries when there are people willing to work for free? Sure, there are plenty of people who want to volunteer in the library because they think working in a library is "fun." That doesn't mean they are good at it, or will stick around to deal with the less "fun" parts of the job. There is training involved, and investing the time and energy into training a volunteer is totally worth it if they stay for a while, but if they get bored or find a full-time job or leave for whatever reason, then you may not have gotten payback on your investment.

If you're thinking of volunteering to gain library experience, you may find it difficult to find an opportunity. But keep your options open - perhaps you could create your own volunteer job. There are many venues where there is no library funding and free help would be the only option. Look at all libraries popping up at the Occupy locations, for instance. Offering to set up and maintain a library for a senior center or other non-profit organization would also be a great way to get some experience while helping to provide much-needed services in your community. You'd probably be performing a higher level of work than in a traditional setting where there are already paid librarians, and showing off your ingenuity and ability to plan and execute projects.

Have you done volunteer library work? What was your experience like?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (2011)

Since her dad died, Jill has isolated herself from her friends as she struggles through each day in a world that no longer seems like a good place. When her mom decides to adopt a baby, Jill can't help but feel like she is being replaced. She also thinks her mom is crazy to take on a baby at her age, and upset that the birth mother, Mandy, will be coming to stay with them for the last few weeks of her pregnancy. In alternating chapters, Jill and Mandy share their stories, their fears, and their hope for the future in a situation that is fast becoming increasingly complicated.

Neither Jill nor Mandy were especially likable at first, particularly because of the lies and deceit behind which they both hid. But as they got to know each other and built up a tiny bit of trust, they began to seem real to me and as they slowly got along better, I came to like both of them.

Mandy is naive, trusting, and socially inept. On the way to the MacSweeney's she chats with a man sitting next to her on the train and, after snagging an address label from the magazine he was reading, starts writing letters to him. It's probably very creepy from his viewpoint, but she's simply a very lonely person who doesn't know how to form friendships and participate in the world. Her mother's version of parenting was to deliver advice on dating and what men want, and to criticize and belittle Mandy at every opportunity. Living with her mom and her boyfriend was not even close to the loving family environment that Mandy wanted, and arriving at Jill and Robin's house was like entering another world. "As we drive into Robin's neighborhood...the houses get nicer and trees tower over them, stretching their branches to protect the families inside." It is this kind of orderly comfort and security that Mandy has never had and continues to long for.

Jill, on the other hand, grew up in that sort of comfort and was very social and involved in life at one time. But she can't deal with what she lost when her father died and rather than rely on her friends and boyfriend to help her cope she simply withdrew. She puts on a great act at work, where she is pleasant and friendly, but she's cold to her family and friends. She says, "I can be human to strangers and coworkers, just not to the people who actually care about me." She's disappointed in herself, and knows that her dad would be disappointed in her behavior as well, which only feeds her self-hate.

Putting these two young women together in one household is a recipe for conflict by itself. Adding Robin is another whole layer: she desperately wants to trust Mandy, but Jill tries to convince her not to. Given Jill's recent behavior it's difficult for Robin to listen to her, but she also wants to repair their relationship. The final outcome is predictable but satisfying.

Sara Zarr continues to excel at creating lifelike, complicated characters and putting them in difficult situations that force them to grow. I think Sweethearts is still my favorite, but if you like Sara Zarr at all (and who doesn't?) How to Save a Life is a must-read.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Socks, such as they are

Somewhere on the second sock I went a little off-kilter with the pattern so the top of the foot looks different for each one.

It's probably hard to tell from the picture which is, mercifully, a bit out of focus.

Here are the backs. I was a little upset to see how frayed my jeans are. They're my favorites.

What can I say? They're done. It took me around 6 months, and for no good reason that I can thing of. There are actually a number of mistakes (it was easy with this pattern) but most will be covered by shoes. This is what I love about making socks. As long as you're in the general neighborhood of following the instructions they'll probably be fine.

Pattern: Herringbone Socks from Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarn
Yarn: Zwergarn Opal Handpainted
Needles: Addi Turbos size 1, I think.

I've just begun Cookie A.'s Milo socks in orange. I have higher hopes for these, in terms of turnaround time if nothing else. I'll post about my new orange sock soon.

Friday, October 28, 2011

When She Woke

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011)

In a slightly different United States than we all know, Hannah Payne has been arrested for having an abortion. As her punishment, she has been injected with a virus that turns her skin bright red. She must live this way for the next 16 years. Her punishment would have been less had she named the man who got her pregnant, or the man who performed the abortion, but she refused. She is still in love with the married pastor with whom she had an affair, and didn't want to reveal his indiscretion, thus destroying the faith her family - and many others - have in him. Now she has been released and she's an outcast who can't return to anyone who cares for her, or at least used to care.

This world Hillary Jordan has created is not so far-fetched. After a breakout of what is euphemistically called "the great scourge" but is in fact a very powerful form of gonorrhea, many women have become barren and the birthrate plummeted. In response, the government passed Sanctity of Life laws which were designed to encourage more procreation by, among other things, outlawing abortion. Control was in the hands of religious zealots and religion became ingrained in every aspect of life. Prisons became so overcrowded that the conditions were widely considered inhumane and an alternative was found in melochroming, the process through which Hannah was turned red. Different colors were chosen for different levels of crime and thus, an entire class of untouchables was created.

This new feminist dystopia is much more than science fiction - it asks many questions about prejudice, loyalty, faith, courage and strength. Hannah began as a very sheltered young woman on a narrow path, but once she stepped off just a bit, the consequences change her whole life. There is a vast gulf between her former life, which is shown in flashback, and her new reality. She learns a lot about herself and she is tested over and over.

The only flaw is that Hannah mentions a few times that she was upset about the abortion and felt like she was a bad person for having done it (even though she stood by her decision), but I didn't really see that come through. She didn't frequently think about the abortion, or speculate on what life would have been like with a baby, or even express doubt about the decision. I think someone who actually regretted an abortion would think about these things a whole lot.

Hannah was an otherwise well developed character who took responsibility for her choices and went through a huge transformation throughout the novel. Not just through the experiences of her punishment, but also through the people she met who she never would have crossed paths with in her cloistered life, and their views and opinions which were very different from those in her narrow-minded community.

The society was fascinating, and just close enough to reality to be possible, and that makes it especially scary. But within this framework there's a great story arc as well, taking us from the solitary ward where Hannah woke up after her procedure, to a rigidly strict sort of recovery house, followed by a dangerous and complicated attempt to leave the country. Hillary Jordan has crafted a story that makes us want to keep reading, and want Hannah and her friends to survive. It kind of knocked my socks off.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Before I Fall

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (2010)
What would you do if you knew you were about to die? Would your entire life flash before your eyes, or just a "greatest hits" of your favorite moments? If you are Samantha Kingston you would apparently live your last day over and over until you got it right.

Samantha is living the life every teenager wants. She's friends with the most popular girls in school, she's dating her dream boyfriend, goes to lots of parties, even gets along well with her parents and little sister. But when she is involved in a fatal accident, she has the opportunity to learn just how much she had going for her and, hopefully, a chance to save her own life.

Lauren Oliver took a big risk with the Groundhog Day-like theme (and indeed referenced that movie early on), and she pulls it off amazingly well. It's not repetitive at all since Samantha is making changes every day; the focus is on those changes and how it affects the outcome and what Samantha learns from that.

Before I Fall contains one of the best examples of character development I've read in young adult lit. Usually a novel contains one major event or problem from which the character learns and grows, but here Samantha has the opportunity to go through SO many changes. One day she does all kinds of crazy things without regard for the consequences (like trying to seduce her math teacher), and other day she skips school entirely and hangs out with her little sister. She learns a great deal about herself and her friends each day, and watching the resulting metamorphosis is what this book is all about.

I liked the complexity of the supporting cast as well. Samantha, Lindsay, Ally, and Elody are popular girls, they pick on the less popular kids, they are pretty much bitches, but at the same time you can totally see why they are all friends - you see their good qualities, their loyalty, their humor and sense of fun. As the novel progresses, we learn more about Samantha's friends and realize that although it's tempting to think they're bad people, it's not that simple. They are plagued by fears and insecurities and practicing the only sort of self-preservation they know. (Ok, I still think Lindsay is a bitch, but she's a complicated bitch.)

Also, Kent! He is the dorky, but really adorable, boy who has had a crush on Sam for years but who she always thought was a loser until she got to know him a little more, and matured enough to stop being so judgmental. (And realized what a jerk her boyfriend was.) Their budding romance was very swoonworthy.

My only qualm at all was with the ending. Samantha relives the day over and over because there is a way that it is SUPPOSED to go, and she had to do everything right to get this day to stop repeating. But I don't understand why that way is the right away. I don't believe in fate or destiny at all though, so I'm probably the wrong person to complain about that.

Although it was 470 pages, this novel is fast-paced and easy to just sink into. Written in a very conversational tone, it feels light even though there's a great deal of personal change, self-discovery, and tragedy. Highly recommended!