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.