Saturday, February 26, 2011

Little Women : a review

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

This was my first time reading Little Women, the classic novel of four sisters growing up poor in New England during the Civil War. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are typical teenage girls, and their many adventures and struggles make for entertaining stories. For instance, though the family can’t afford gifts at Christmas, the girls all pool their money to treat their mother to special gifts, and they performed a play and invited neighbors to watch. At Amy’s school, eating limes becomes all the rage, and the girls in her class bring them to school to share with their friends. Amy had to scrimp and save, and by the time she was able to bring limes to share, they had been banned because of the distraction. She tried to hide them in her desk, but the teacher found her out and made her dispose of them all. Ok, it’s not the stuff of current YA novels, but it’s all very dramatic and amusing, trust me.

This book is right up my alley, like Little House or Pride and Prejudice, and I have no idea why I waited so long to read it. After attending a conference session on the life of Louisa May Alcott last fall, I put it on my “to read” list for this year, so finding it preloaded on my new nook was kismet. I enjoyed it a lot, at least for the first half. Later I started losing my taste for it as the sisters all started getting married off or dying. There was also a really annoying chapter focused on Meg’s babies, who are portrayed as precious little cherubs who always speak in very syrupy fake-sounding baby talk. I have just learned that Little Women was originally published in two volumes, the first ending just after Meg got married. This would have been a great place to stop, and if I were to read it again I probably would only go to that point. I like it better when the girls are younger with all their hopes and dreams for the future open to them, not saddled down with husbands and babies and the sadness of one of the sisters dying so young.

Although the book was a bit long I did enjoy curling up with it every night, as much as one can curl up with an electronic device. Reading electronically is a different experience. I certainly like being able to carry an entire library of books on one small device, but I can’t just flip back and forth to find a passage, for instance, or skim through the chapter titles when I’m finished to refresh my memory in preparations to review the book. I keep forgetting to use the bookmark feature to mark pages I would normally dog-ear (I know, bad librarian, but I can’t help it), but I do like the screen and the small size and I’m hoping I’ll get used to the navigation.

Monday, February 21, 2011

If You Follow Me : a review

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)

After graduating from college, Marina is spending a year in Japan teaching English with her girlfriend Carolyn. Despite their hopes of experiencing Japanese city life, they have been assigned to the small town of Shika. Keeping their relationship a secret, the two attempt to fit in with local life, struggling with customs and complicated rules such as those governing trash disposal.

Throughout the academic year, Marina struggles to get past her father’s suicide and to hold together her floundering relationship with Carolyn. She befriends Hiroshi, her supervisor, who writes letters to her about topics he feels uncomfortable discussing out loud, and also tries to befriend Keiko, a woman unable to admit to her son’s autism. Marina is frequently taken aback by the Japanese social customs that prevent them from openly discussing certain aspects of their lives, but of course, much goes unsaid in her own life as well.

Watrous’s descriptions of small-town Japan and its inhabitants were delightful. Her insights into Japanese culture were not only enjoyable, but integral to the novel. The most obvious theme in this book was that of the stranger in a strange land, but no less important was the theme of impermanence. Marina was in a transitional point in her life, struggling with her father’s recent death, navigating a romantic relationship with another woman for the first (and possibly only) time, and spending a finite period in another country before, presumably, returning home. Indeed, Hiroshi repeatedly referred to Marina as a temporary person and he was right in so many ways.

Many of the situations in this book were taken directly from the author’s life and she writes about them so deftly, I suppose as only one with experience can. Despite mixed editorial reviews, reader reviews of this book are overwhelmingly positive. Though it’s difficult to articulate everything I feel about it, I have to agree – I loved this book and highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I'm kind of a dumbass

I just wrote an entire post on how terribly written the Whisper Cardigan pattern is, because there is no schematic and no measurements except the “x inches across back” in the size descriptions. This has made the project difficult because as I knit the first sleeve I had no idea how long it should be – the pattern instructions are all based on how many rows you are knitting with no helpful “sleeve should now be this long” instructions. So I guessed, bound off for the underarm and began knitting the back.

A few minutes ago, I pulled out the pattern again to check something, and a post-it note fell off the page revealing all the information that I had been missing. Not a schematic (which would be awesome) but several helpful measurements.

Since I now have nothing interesting to write about, I’ll just show you a progress shot.

Luckily, it turns out that my sleeve is the right length!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Story of a Girl : a review

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr (2007)

When she was 13, Deanna Lambert made a big mistake – she slept with her brother’s friend, 17-year-old Tommy Webber. Even worse, her dad caught her in action, and then Tommy spread the story around their high school like it was a big joke. Now, three years later, Deanna still suffers from her tarnished reputation. Kids at school either shun her or make her the butt of their jokes, except for her close friends Jason and Lee.

Things at home aren’t much better. Her dad will barely look at her, and her mom just fills the empty spaces with meaningless chatter. Her brother Darren has made mistakes as well, getting his girlfriend Stacy pregnant. Now they and their baby daughter April live in the basement. Darren and Stacy work opposite shifts at Safeway, and Deanna fantasizes that when she gets a job they can all move out of the house together.

Deanna is easy to sympathize with, and her story is realistic and painful. As her friend Lee says early in the book “We’ve all done things we wish we could change.” Deanna wishes everyone could be as understanding as Lee, but they all seem to have decided who she is based on this one stupid thing she did years ago. Deanna struggles to break free of her past and move on, but before she can convince anyone who she really is, she first needs to convince herself.

Story of a Girl is only 192 pages and is a super quick read – I read it in a day. Between the compelling story and characters and the small time investment, there is just no reason not to read this book. Plus, Zarr so deftly handled the sad and frustrating situation of being confined by your reputation. It’s very different from Sweethearts but just as good, proving that Sara Zarr is no one-trick pony.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Brattleboro Hat

Pattern: Brattleboro Hat from Interweave Knits Fall 2010 (and the book New England Knits) by Melissa LaBarre
Yarn : Malabrigo Worsted in Blue Graphite
Needles : 8 for the band, 7 for the main part of the hat

This was a quick fun project. I needed a hat that didn’t clash with the blue scarf that I wear all the time and after I saw The Cable Girl’s Brattleboro I wanted one too.

I knit the band but when I washed and blocked it, it grew a lot! I just ripped back an inch or so until it was the right size to fit around my head. But I had doubts about gauge and wanted to err on the side of smallness, so I went down a needle size when I started on the main part of the hat. After I bound off it sat around for a few days while I put off the finishing. Yesterday I already had plans to go yarn shopping so in the morning I quickly knit the little button flap and then picked out buttons at Windsor Button.

Hats that aren’t ribbed tend to stretch out with wear, so I’m glad this came out a little tight. I think it’s super cute. How I wish I had bought an extra skein of the yarn for matching mittens!

Friday, February 11, 2011

In the land of believers : a review

In the Land of Believers: an outsider's extraordinary journey into the heart of the evangelical church by Gina Welch (2009)

Gina Welch is a secular Jew, raised atheist, who wanted to understand Evangelical Christians beyond the sound bites and generalizations she heard from the media. In 2005 she went undercover and joined Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. She was saved, baptised, and even went on a mission trip to Alaska. All told she spent about two years as part of the church before leaving.

Welch talked about the feeling of community and support provide by her fellow church-goers, and how quickly and warmly they welcomed her. She liked the regular self-inquiry and admired how the Evangelicals would strive to live by their beliefs (even if she did not share them). She also spoke about forgiveness and tolerance, even pointing out that despite Falwell’s bigoted talk, many in the church are soft on issues such as gay marriage. Ultimately, she changed through her experience, becoming less judmental of others and adopting a more positive attitude.

The writing was a bit uneven. The first hundred pages or so floundered a bit, with extensive detail but not enough focus. The jargon is foreign to me and I puzzled over talk about ministry and witnessing. It got much better once she was more entrenched in the church and her social group, and as she reflected on what she learned from her experiences. Because she had become so involved she ultimately had to come clean with those she had deceived which was an awkward, even terrifying, proposition. But she did it and is still close with one friend, called Alice in the book, who was understanding enough to forgive her deceit.

Once I got into the book I found it very interesting, and also comforting. Welch accomplished what she set out to do, putting human faces on the label of evangelical Christians and showing that they are not all the same, and not so different from the rest of us.

The reviews on Amazon are worth reading. Though many reviewers dislike that Welch deceived church members, had she been honest from the start her experiences would have been different and I don’t think she would have achieved such insights. Interestingly, these reviews led me to a book called The Unlikely Disciple, in which a college student spends a semester undercover at Liberty University, a college associated with Thomas Road Baptist Church. Coincidentally, he was there at the same time that Welch was undercover at Thomas Road. Have any of you read that book? I wonder how the two compare.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In search of the perfect sweater

When I began knitting, I wanted to knit every sweater I saw. Each time a new issue of Knitty or Interweave Knits was released, my list grew and grew. Panicked by the knowledge that I couldn’t possibly knit every sweater on my list in my lifetime, I agonized over my choices, feeling the pressure of commitment every time I cast on.

These days, I peruse new patterns more calmly. I add few sweaters to my Ravelry queue, in most cases knowing that the pattern is sort of what I want, but not exactly. Mostly I am disinterested in what I see. What has changed in these few years? Have I lost interest in making my own sweaters? Not at all, but I have learned a lot from the sweaters I have knit and this influences how I view sweater patterns.

I have a couple of sweaters I’ve knit that I wear all the time, like my Rogue (one of my very first sweaters, which I love in spite of the mistakes), and my Cozy V-Neck Pullover. But most of them languish unworn because they are unflattering, too homemade-looking, impractical, or just too damn short.

One of my goals for this year is to knit a pullover that I will wear regularly. This sweater must:

- Be nice enough to wear to work. So, nicely shaped and not to casual. Hoodies are out.
- Have a practical neckline. I don’t want my bra showing, nor do I want to wear a stifling turtleneck.
- Be made with worsted or, preferably, a lighter weight yarn.
- Have long sleeves.
- Not be yoked. With very few exceptions, I don’t like how yoked sweaters look.

These aren’t a lot of requirements but I’m generally stymied by the practical neckline. Amazingly, very few sweater patterns hit the happy spot between turtleneck and peepshow. The huge, gaping, off-the-shoulder necklines are a trend I don’t understand as they look kind of sloppy and, frankly, if it’s cold enough to wear a sweater, it’s too cold for my collarbones to be exposed. Although I generally wear a camisole or long-sleeved shirt under my sweaters, with a wide neckline it doesn’t usually look right. Of course they look lovely in the styled photos accompanying the patterns, but I don’t own a collection of sweetly-collared button downs in colors to match all my sweaters like a knitting magazine model.

I've looked through a lot of patterns and I have a few contenders. Parcel from Twist Collective is one of my top picks. I also love the Lightweight Pullover, which Greeley made recently – it’s beautiful and looks like it was purchased from an upscale boutique. Despite the yoked neckline, I also like the Bohus-inspired Yoke Sweater. (See? I can’t even stick to my own requirements.)
Hopefully, I'll make a decision in the next few weeks and then start choosing a color and yarn.

What about you? Have you used any of these patterns? What is your ideal sweater? Do you have a favorite that you've knit?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Playing With Matches : a review

Playing With Matches by Brian Katcher (2008)

Leon isn’t the most attractive kid at his high school, but he’s also not the worst looking. That distinction goes to Melody Kennon, who was seriously burned as a child and is now shunned by the other students. Her face is covered in scars, she has no ears, and no hair. Once the kids outgrew playground taunting, Melody was just left completely alone. But when she is suddenly Leon’s new locker neighbor, he casually makes a joke to break the ice and soon realizes he has a lot in common with Melody. He invites her to sit at his table in the cafeteria and she starts hanging out with his friends. Finally, he admits his feelings for her are stronger than friendship and they begin dating. Which is right around the time that Amy, who Leon has lusted after forever, suddenly notices that he exists. Now he’s in a predicament and like many of us at his age, he does all the wrong things.

The story arc is similar to Almost Perfect. The main character has a relationship with someone who is a risk to be with, he screws up, he tries again. This was Katcher’s first novel and at times it does feel a little rough around the edges, but that in no way lessened my enjoyment of it. Aside from being a great – and unusual – story, it had the added benefit of a main character with a healthy, yet dorky, sense of humor.

“What has two legs and bleeds profusely?

Half a cat!”

See? Hilarious!

Leon was a wonderfully mixed-up, misguided character who it is easy to identify and sympathize with. There was a period during which he would sometimes feel incredibly attracted to Melody, and at other times would feel rather put off by her. He was understandably confused by these on-again off-again feelings. I’ve had the exact same thing happen, yet I think it’s the first time I’ve ever read such a spot-on portrayal of this in a book.

Katcher is skilled at accurately representing how teenagers cave to social pressures, and the myriad ways in which they manage to screw up their lives and make everyone around them angry. His books are fantastically readable, and I just can't get enough of them. Seriously - he only has two! Please, Brian Katcher, write some more books!