Friday, June 29, 2012

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green (2005)

Miles Halter reads only biographies because he is fascinated by last words and has memorized those of many famous people. Hoping to find his "great perhaps," he leaves his safe, boring life behind and enrolls in the same boarding school his father attended. His roommate, known as The Colonel, soon dubs Miles "Pudge" and introduces him to his friends Takumi and Alaska (apparently at this school you require a nickname only if your real name isn't unusual.) Under the watchful eye of their Dean, a.k.a. The Eagle, the group bonds over cigarettes, strawberry wine, and an ongoing series of pranks. But it's not all lighthearted fun, and soon Miles and his friends are hit by a shocking blow that leaves them reeling. Their homework takes on new meaning as they struggle to answer the question, "How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?"

I liked the dynamics between Miles and his friends, including his romantic interest Lara. He had an intense crush on Alaska from the moment they met, but she already had a boyfriend so he pursued Lara while still trying to get to know the mysterious and secretive Alaska. He liked Lara but didn't treat her especially well or have much consideration for her feelings, which was pretty believable. The time the friends spent together actually made me a little nostalgic, as their evenings of getting drunk on bad wine and philosophizing reminded me so much of my own formative years. The high school experience John Green created here was so genuine, with all the fun and drama and confusion of real life.

Although I did not love it as much as Green's latest, this was a great novel that I could have benefited from reading rather than listening to. The audio wasn't bad, but my mind wouldn't have strayed so much had I been actually looking at the words. As with other books by Green, there were many fantastic quotes and had I read a print copy, I'm sure I would have dog-eared it beyond recognition. I read this for my library book group, and I really can't wait to hear what everyone else thought of it. I think it will be a great discussion.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue (2001)

In 18th century London, a girl on her own is hard pressed to achieve her dreams of upward mobility. But Mary Saunders maintained her ambition after being kicked out of her house for being pregnant, and even after working as a prostitute to earn enough money to keep herself fed and drunk. Mary wasn't educated or patient, nor did she make especially good life choices, but her liveliness and resilience made for a captivating character.

Based on an actual case about which few facts survive, Emma Donoghue (author of Room) created a well-researched and richly detailed historical novel with an amazing sense of time and place. This is exactly what I love about historical fiction: the clear portrait of what everyday life was like. Because of Mary's interest in fashion, there were many descriptions of the tawdry dresses worn by the prostitutes as well as the lush gowns of the upper classes. Daily tasks, meals, and living quarters were also vividly illustrated throughout. As unpleasant a time and place in which this was to live (especially if you are Mary Saunders), I couldn't get enough of these descriptions.

Mary was a fascinating character, and while I didn't exactly like her, I was sympathetic to the conditions of her life. When she made bad choices - which was frequently - it was easy to understand why she did so. She wanted more for herself, and though she was sometimes briefly tempted by the promise of a quiet steady life, her ambitions were greater and her circumstances desperate. Unfortunately, in that place and time there were few options for a girl in her station, and the kind of life she wanted would be nearly unattainable. Mary was not the only character stuck in a life she didn't want; for a while she shared quarters with a slave, Abi, who made even Mary seem upwardly mobile in comparison. Freedom was a predominant theme in this novel (in fact, few of the characters were really free) and in that way it reminded me of Donoghue's very different novel, Room. I'm curious if this theme appears in any of her other work.

Much like with Tipping the Velvet, I've been wanting to read Slammerkin for several years before finally picking it up last week. That's not the only similarity to the Sarah Waters novel either - this look at London's underbelly was every bit as lush, detailed, and satisfying. I'm so glad I finally read it!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Knitting

All was going smoothly on my re-knit of the Puff-Sleeved Cardigan peplum until I reached row 17 of the 20-row lace pattern. Suddenly I didn't have the right number of stitches in ANY of the repeats, but I just fudged it by doing a k2tog instead of a k3tog in each repeat. Then on row 19 I saw that each lace repeat begins and ends with a yarnover, but the next row doesn't indicate any special treatment in these areas -such as knitting the first and purling the second, or knitting the second through the back loop - even though you can't knit two yarnovers in a row. I became suspicious. I've made this sweater before. I went on Ravelry and looked at forum posts related to this pattern. I saw a couple from me.


I had forgotten about this.

I just winged it like it did last time, but it still looks wrong, like it did last time. And like last time, there is STILL no update to the errata even though the lace chart is obviously wrong AND people have emailed the designer. I have become annoyed all over again.

But hey, the peplum is done! Again!

Here is my new, improved, shorter cardigan.

Now, just to make the button bands and sew on the buttons, tasks that I am not at all looking forward to.

Friday, June 22, 2012

How to Be an American Housewife

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (2010)

Shoko understood from a very young age that her best hope for the future was to make a good marriage. World War II brought lots of opportunity on that front, and she married an American soldier and left Japan. Trying her best to assimilate, she heeded advice on American cooking, housekeeping, marriage and customs from a book called How to Be an American Housewife. But her break with Japan wasn't a clean one, and years later when her health has failed, Shoko wants more than anything to make amends with her brother Taro. She isn't well enough to make the trip to Japan, so convinces her daughter Sue - Suiko - to go in her place. There Sue learns long-held secrets about her mother and finally begins to understand her more than she has from a lifetime of being her daughter. 

After Shoko came to the US she had many difficulties fitting into her community and forming friendships with Americans, no matter how hard she tried. The cultural differences with which she struggled were embodied even in her relationship with her daugter. Sue is a completely different kind of woman, born and raised American in every way, but not necessarily better at it than her mother. She too has struggled at being a housewife, finding herself divorced with a child. Neither woman understands the other though, of course, they are more alike than they realize.

The fictional book excerpts ranged from the helpful to the hilarious. My favorite was the passage explaining the personality characteristics of men with certain blood types and urging women to check the dog tags of military men to find out if their type is compatible before getting involved. But many passages were also nice illustrations of the clash of cultures with which Shoko struggled, and I really liked their inclusion in the story.

Despite the heavier focus on Shoko, including her bittersweet early relationships and complex marriage to Charlie with only brief attention to Sue's marriage, both characters were compelling and both struggled with the same challenges in finding happiness. Dilloway deftly wove the past and present together into a lovely exploration of a mother daughter relationship that was a pleasure to read. This is such a promising debut that I'm really looking forward to her new novel, out in August. Check out the gorgeous cover!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (2012)

Rory Hendrix lives in a trailer park with her single mother. It is a hopeless place, and Rory is determined to get out and make a better life for herself. She takes guidance from the Girl Scout Handbook, which she checked out of her school library so many times that the librarian finally withdrew it and sold it to her for 10 cents. Her story is told through a hodgepodge of memories, social work reports, word problems, fake Girl Scout badge guidelines, a couple of completely blacked out chapters, and a cocktail recipe. 

The story is one I've heard before: a young girl living a hardscrabble life riddled with abuse and broken dreams. What sets this novel apart is how that story is told. Although there are some events that happen in a particular order, it's more like a picture of what her life is like than a story in the traditional sense. Frequently I don't like that sort of novel, but this flowed well and the very short chapters made it quick to read, and I really enjoyed the untraditional elements. They were all a little satirical, like the cocktail recipe that calls for "equal parts sweat and heedless disregard" and the Girl Scout badge for puberty, which includes this required activity:

"Forget to change your pad long enough to allow a silver-dollar-sized spot of blood to leak through to the seat of your pants. Intermediate: Have a boy notice the spot before you do. Advanced: Have the boy who notices it be the one you secretly have a crush on (or his best friend)."

But the novel doesn't rely on gimmicks; these elements only enhance Hassman's writing which is spare and concise, yet clever. Describing Rory's hometown, she writes: "Tiptoe up behind Tahoe and put a hand over its mouth. Bear down slowly until it doesn't fight the developers pawing its land. That's Reno." There are many passages worth savoring and I found myself re-reading many of them as I went along.

Although I didn't love the novel the way many people do, I really admire Rory's ambition, and her dedication to Girl Scouting even though, or maybe especially because, her town had no troop and she was doing it all on her own. That is what I liked the most about the novel - it made me want to dig up my old Girl Scout Handbook and start working on the badges I didn't earn the first time around.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Knitting

This is my finished Cabled Baby Raglan Sweater. The photo isn't fantastic - I had a choice between too bright from the sunlight or too bright from the flash. But you get the idea.

Pattern: Cabled Raglan Baby Sweater, a free pattern from Knitting Daily
Yarn: Jaeger Matchmaker Merino DK
Needles: Size 4 Addi Turbos

It took me just under two months from start to finish, but I had a couple of false starts. Then after I finished the knitting and weaving in of yarn ends, it languished for about a week before I washed and blocked it, finally adding the snap and button on the day I gave it away. Had I focused on the project a bit more it could have easily been finished in a few weeks.

I made it for a friend who will be having a baby in a couple of months. Turns out that her husband knits and I got to see several pairs of booties he's made. The sweater was very well received!

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

In John Green's newest young adult novel, two teenagers meet and fall in love at the unlikeliest of places: a cancer support group held at a church ("in the literal heart of Jesus" according to their moderator.) Hazel is terminally ill and needs to lug a tank of oxygen with her everywhere she goes. Augustus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma. They meet through Isaac, who is about to lose his second eye from a rare form of cancer. It doesn't sound like a very cheery setup, but this book has a great deal of humor and heart.

Hazel's favorite book in the world is An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, and more than anything in the world she wants to find out what happens after the book ends. Augustus will do anything to help her. Hazel is stand-offish at first because she knows Augustus's last girlfriend died and doesn't want to put him through that again, but she finally gives in to his irresistible wit and charm. Together the young lovers embark on a trip to Amsterdam to seek out Peter Van Houten and get some answers. Events take a different turn, however, and everything is different after they return. 

There were some pretty sad parts of this book, as you can imagine, but despite all of that it was fairly uplifting. Hazel and Augustus were clever, yet pragmatic, even as they philosophized about life, death, and how they want to be remembered. I especially liked how down-to-earth they were about dying and how much it sucked. They both hated the stories about kids heroically facing their mortality and fighting until the bitter end and being such role models for other dying kids. Because it's not usually like that, even when people say it is, and although Hazel and Gus had basically positive outlooks, they still kept it real. As Augustus says, "The world is not a wish-granting factory." They were just great people to be around, and their story can teach us a lot about dealing with the pain that life inevitably brings us.

To paraphrase a passage from his own book, you have a choice about how to tell sad stories, and John Green made the funny choice. Very well told, Mr. Green!

This is truly a book full of quotes, many of which you can find here. I also have to put in a good word for the incredible job of narrator Kate Rudd on the audiobook - I highly recommend it.

The town where I work has just chosen The Fault in Our Stars as the community reads book for this year, so I'm quite excited that I'll soon see it everywhere, and everyone will be talking about it. I already want to read it again!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Going Bovine

Going Bovine by Libba Bray (2009)

Cameron is coasting through life, apathetic about school, family, and his job. Then he is given the bad news that he has the human form on mad cow disease and is going to die. As he lies in his hospital bed waiting for the inevitable, he receives a very strange visitor in the form of Dulcie, a punk angel/possible hallucination. She tells him that he needs to go in search of a cure and possibly save the world while he is at it. Cameron recruits his hospital roommate, Gonzo, a hypochondriac dwarf, and they set off on the trip of a lifetime.

I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult book group and wasn't crazy about it. It was obvious early on that the whole adventure is just a dream, so it seemed rather pointless to me. (I think that's supposed to be a spoiler, but seriously, if you cannot tell what's going on then you just aren't paying attention AT ALL.) It was also really very long, and I grew impatient with the flitting from one place to another in a mostly random fashion. 

But once we talked about it at book group, I felt a little better about it. I considered how much I liked some of the characters, especially Balder the yard gnome, and the book does actually have a point that I can't argue with (although "live life to the fullest" is a little overdone). I'm not a big fan of the surreal and trippy, but it was funny and entertaining even if it could have been a little shorter. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I've begun working on a wrap made with lace weight yarn and a series of yarn overs and dropped stitches. This may sound like a disaster waiting to happen but it should turn out something like this (though not, obviously, yellow.)

After knitting it will be felted, which makes all measurements imprecise. The pattern doesn't even include a gauge, which concerns me because although the wrap doesn't need to fit exactly, I would like it to come out the size in the picture. But alas, there are no measurements of any sort given. Thankfully, I have faith in the magic of both felting and blocking and I'm confident that I can force the thing into submission.

I've always kind of wanted a Matrix-style sweater and this may satisfy that urchin/dystopia need. I expect it to move along at an absolutely glacial pace though, so I may not actually have it done until the apocalypse, at which point it should be the height of fashion.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Shuttle

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1907)

I knew Burnett only as the author of The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, but I didn't realize that she even wrote adult novels until I read this review of The Shuttle. The title of the novel is a reference to the back and forth motion of ships between America and England (much like the back and forth motion of a shuttle on a loom), bringing the two nations ever closer together. America is treated as a progressive and ambitious nation full of people with new ideas, suggesting that England lags behind. It had lately become a trend for wealthy American women to marry English men and one such story forms the basis for the novel.

The Vanderpoel family is incredibly rich and live in New York. One of the daughters marries an Englishman, Sir Nigel Anstruthers, and moves with him to England. Rosalie writes home at first, but her communication becomes more sparse until her family fears that she has forgotten them. But her much younger sister Bettina, who remembers her own strong dislike for Sir Nigel as a child, vows to visit Rosalie as soon as she is old enough, and so she does. 

Twelve years after the marriage, Bettina arrives at Stornham Court unannounced and finds Rosalie a pale shadow of what she once was, dressed in rags and living in a once-grand house now fallen to ruin. Her husband is off in Europe somewhere spending all of Rosy's money while she is left alone with her hunchback son, Ughtred. Bettina, ever smart and industrious, begins to set things right on the estate and begins to rebuild Rosy's confidence from the battering it took from horrible Sir Nigel. Meanwhile, Betty develops a growing affection for the mysterious Lord Mount Dunsten, a local outcast who lives at a neighboring estate.

Sir Nigel Anstruthers is probably the most despicable character I've encountered in quite a while, and I must admit how much I enjoyed hating him! He was completely backwards in his notions about women and their rightful place, plus he was a little crazy and had an undefined illness that I suspect was syphilis. He was manipulative, behaving cruelly towards Rosy but twisting everything to make it look like she is just hysterical. Luckily, Betty is too smart to buy into it and doesn't believe him for a moment.

Betty Vanderpoel, however, was just one of the best female characters I've read in quite a while. Not only intelligent and strong, she was insightful and caring and completely willing to help out everyone she met with her loads and loads of money. It was as though a fairy godmother has descended on their village, bestowing goodness and hope upon its residents. She has good judgment, keeps her cool under pressure, and more than once was told that she "should have been a man" because of her competence. 

I won't lie - this book is over 500 pages and took me quite a while to get through. But it's really a wonderful story, and well told. The Shuttle is also a great feminist novel, and I'm surprised it's not considered a classic and read more widely. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by Strunk, White, and Kalman (2007)

Between all the long and slow-moving novels I've been reading lately, I snuck in a short book about grammar. I read The Elements of Style in high school (or at least referred to it) but only recently discovered this beautiful edition illustrated by Maira Kalman. (You may remember her from Daniel Handler's Why We Broke Up.) 

Divided into several sections, the book covers everything from basic grammar and spelling to writing more effectively by using an active voice and placing emphatic words at the end of a sentence. The longest section was "Words and expressions commonly misused," a mostly useful reference guide to misuse. I was surprised to see that Strunk recommends using the word "persons" instead of "people" and says that "prioritize" and "finalize" are "abominations." This may be because the book was originally published in 1959.

Many times while reading I felt validated by Strunk's advice. For instance:
"Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is. In long dialogue passages containing no attributives, the reader may become lost and be compelled to go back and reread in order to puzzle the thing out."

One of my biggest frustrations with reading contemporary fiction is that authors will not tell me who the hell is speaking. Does this bother anyone else? I don't understand why the simple but helpful "Sally said" or "Tom replied" is so out of fashion. Following dialogue has become almost impossible. Along the same lines, I miss the semi-colon and do not understand why it has fallen out of favor; Strunk would agree, as the semi-colon makes more than one appearance here. In summary, reading The Elements of Style has reminded me that modern fiction is a mess of confusing dialogue and run-on sentences. But I digress.

I should mention the illustrations, which are what induced me to pick up this edition in the first place. Each illustration accompanies a quote from the text, and they are all just wonderful. Sometimes they are quite literal - a picture of an egg beater accompanied by a quote about an egg beater, but just as often the relationship was not as obvious. For instance, the cover art is paired with the quote, "Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in." I just loved it.

This is a handy volume for anyone who ever writes anything, and if you're going to pick it up you may as well do yourself a favor and go with this beautifully illustrated edition. And no, it's not lost on me that I've probably broken several of Strunk & White's rules just in writing this review. Knowing is half the battle.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Monday Knitting

This is a little late because yesterday was my birthday and I couldn't bring myself to do anything I didn't absolutely want to do.

Remember this?

I added some length before starting the peplum because I don't like cropped tops very much. Although it looks ok in the pictures I took, it became apparent that there's a reason why peplum tops are always so short. This sweater just looked weird. I've never worn it. But every fall, I pull it out with my other sweaters and every spring I wash it and pack it away again. This time, however, I decided to buck up and fix the damn thing.

Even though the sweater is top down, there's still a bit of difficulty in that the button bands - and buttons - were added after. So yesterday I sat down and removed all 11 buttons and undid the button bands. I can do this less painfully now that so much time has passed since I had to pick up all those stitches and sew on all those buttons.

Today I pulled out the peplum, more difficult than it should have been since I couldn't find the stupid end of yarn and so started in a mid-peplum spot where I had switched yarn skeins.

Next step: start knitting!