Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Knitting

Christmas socks!

I was so intent on getting the pictures in focus I didn't realize the top of one sock was turned down, clearly displaying the yarn end sticking out to the side. Flattering!

These socks are made from the Waffle Rib II pattern from Sensational Knitted Socks, and were knit entirely on the bus. The yarn is Berroco Ultra Alpaca Fine which has some long fibers in it that I kept mistaking for cat hair and wondering "How did that get in here?" Because I don't take my cat on the bus with me. It's soft yarn with a nice drape and though it was a bit splitty I like it. I'll have to see how it wears before buying it again, though it's 30% nylon, so it should hold up well.

I need to make some more socks for myself so I can finally get rid of the rest of my store-bought ones and make more space in my sock drawer. I've cast on for another pair but I'm afraid it won't be the sort of thing I can knit on the bus. Those easy patterns are great for that, but I've been dying to make some socks from a more interesting pattern. I'll have to find some other easy project to knit on the bus while listening to audiobooks, because I've come to like my whole listen-and-knit bus routine. Luckily, I just made a fruitful trip to Windsor Button and have lots of new yarn and some ideas to go with it.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Game Change

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (2010)

This behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 presidential election was based on hundreds of interviews with people close to the campaigns. It chronicles the rise of Barack Obama, the fall of John Edwards, the spotlight on the previously unheard of Sarah Palin, and much more. Over 400 pages of strategizing, panic, and damage control lead up to election day, with such tension and excitement it's easy to get caught up in it even though we all know how it ended.

It brought back many memories, such as Obama's rousing speeches and Sarah Palin's desperate floundering. But I also learned a lot. The chapter on John Edwards was fascinating. I had no idea he was such an egomaniac or that Elizabeth Edwards was so unpleasant. Nor did I realize how troubled was John McCain's early campaign - that he was supposed to pledge to only serve one term, and that his wife was rumored to be having an affair. Hillary Clinton's campaign was also troubled in that one of her chief strategists was strongly disliked by every one else on the team. I was also surprised to learn that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had a friendly relationship and talked on the phone frequently. Given the scant attention I pay to politics, perhaps these things weren't all news to others, which was my main problem with reading this book - I don't know which information is actually a revelation and which is just news to me because I don't pay close enough attention.

Most of the players are cast in a pretty unflattering light, and it gave me pause. Were the authors unfair? Or were they trying to balance the smile-for-the-camera personas the candidates so carefully cultivated? I'm a little skeptical at anything nonfiction, especially so if it's political, but I think this book is generally pretty highly regarded in its authority so I don't want to dismiss their characterization of the candidates, but I can't completely accept it either.

Either way, it's quite entertaining - easily readable, the storytelling relies not on dry detailed analysis, but on fast-paced action. Given the impressions of all the candidates and what I learned about their personalities, ambitions, and preparation (or lack thereof), I'm even more glad that things turned out the way they did. But maybe that's the impression the authors wanted to leave me with.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey (2012)

Born in Iceland, Gemma was orphaned when she was only a couple of years old and taken away to Scotland to live with her kind uncle and his less kind wife. Several years later her uncle dies, leaving her to be mistreated and marginalized by her aunt and cousins. Gemma hopes to improve her situation by enrolling in a boarding school, but there she is treated like a servant. She continues to feel unloved and adrift, moving from one situation to another, trying to escape each new predicament.

Gemma barely knows who she is, nor can she remember anything about her first home, Iceland. Gemma isn't even her real, Icelandic, name. Impulsive and secretive, she makes each situation worse than it needs to be, but she doesn't know better. Because of all the uncertainties in her life, she is very protective of herself. It is frustrating to watch, but understandable.

When she learns something shocking about the man she is involved with, I thought her reaction was way out of proportion to his secret. Was this reaction just contrived to further the plot? Or did I just underestimate the Gemma's sensitivity? It threw me off a little, but not for long because the novel is just so compelling.

I found the story delightfully unpredictable, just like Gemma herself, the language rich, and the personalities wonderfully varied and nuanced. Though the novel takes place several decades ago, it has the air of a more bygone era somehow. Perhaps because rural places such as the Orkney Islands always feel a little bit left behind. The settings - Iceland and Scotland - and the trope of the unjustly treated young girl in boarding school drew me to the novel and I wasn't disappointed one bit. I became quite engrossed in watching Gemma grow into herself, rooting for her all along to find a family and  finally stop running.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I can't help but think I should be doing some sort of Christmas preparation today. Yet here I am, seaming together a cardigan.

The pattern makes this part easy because the pieces have a garter edge and then a bit of ribbing. All too often when seaming, it is unclear which parts should be hidden in the seam, which bar is the one you sew up, and what should be showing. The sleeves are always the most difficult pieces to sew in, but these were a snap.

Hopefully the rest of it will go as smoothly. Then, I only have to pick up a couple hundred stitches, knit the shawl collar, add button loops, find some buttons....Well. I suppose I won't have a new cardigan for Christmas, but maybe for the New Year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Favorites, and the test of time

Now that I use Goodreads to keep track of and rate what I read, I've noticed how my views on books change over time. Recently the director of my library asked us all to provide 1-3 of our favorite books from 2012 for a newspaper article, and when I started looking through my Goodreads list I was quite surprised. Earlier this year I gave 5-star reviews to a few books that I barely remember the details of now, and others only received 4 stars yet I still think about them and recommend them. I left the 5-star reviews as is, because although my love may have been fleeting it was strong at the time and that means something. Perhaps if I read them again I'd fall in love with them this time too. As for those  4-star reviews that seem more deserving in retrospect, I bumped them up to 5 without hesitation.

It's a little thing, but now I can't stop thinking about why certain books blow me away initially but don't stay with me, while others only grow more present in my mind over time.

When I read Age of Miracles, I was totally blown away. I devoured that book like it was cake. When I was done, I closed the book and stared off into space, shaking my head in wonderment. I can remember that, but can't quite grasp the details of what spurred my reaction. Maybe I've just forgotten too much after this much time, and would feel the same if I read it again now. The same with A Land More Kind Than Home. Fantastic book, and it really stood out but again, it's hard to recapture exactly why.

On the other hand, The Dog Stars has stayed with me in a way I didn't expect. I knew it was a very good book, but it didn't pack the punch of the two I just mentioned. However, it had an atmospheric quality that is somehow very easy to recapture.

Similarly, Wild has grown in my estimation since I first read it. I loved it right away anyhow but didn't think it was a favorite. Now though, I keep thinking about how amazing it was for a slightly unprepared and emotionally fragile person to have the determination to do what she did alone. It's really inspiring.

I always wonder how much my book reading experiences would have been different had I read the book at some other time of my life or if I was in a different mood, but that maybe entirely overthinking it.

So as not to leave you hanging, the 3 titles I submitted for work were Gone Girl, Where'd You Go Bernadette?, and Born Wicked (the sequel to which has been pushed back to June. June!)

This week at work I posted a more complete list of my favorite books of the year (restricted to those published in 2012), with links to reviews back here on my own blog. Because I'm lazy like that.

Do you feel like your views on certain books change over time? Are you ever surprised to realize you can barely remember a book you were effusing about a few months ago? Or read a book that you thought was good but not outstanding, only to not be able to get it out of your head later?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Insurgent (Divergent #2) by Veronica Roth (2012)

I recently reviewed Divergent, and couldn't wait to land my hands on a copy of the sequel. Be warned - there are spoilers ahead!

When Divergent ended, Tris was newly initiated into the Dauntless faction, but the event was marked by violence and horror that left the factions in conflict with one another. In this second volume, Tris is still reeling from being forced to kill a friend but she must keep going in an uncertain climate in which war seems inevitable. Erudite is using its knowledge to control other factions, and they seem to be looking for information held by Abnegation. Meanwhile, the factionless have grown in number enough to be a force in itself.

I'll admit I didn't spent a lot of huge chunks of time reading so it could be partly my fault for not focusing, but I think Insurgent suffered a bit from Second Book Syndrome. The first book in a trilogy introduces us to a world that is new and exciting, then the second book just tries to bridge a gap between the exciting first book and the climactic resolution of the third book. It's hard to fill that space with something that can compare. But this book had a few things going for it. We learned little about the Amity faction in the first book, but here they played a much larger role, as did Candor and the factionless. There's also a big (though not shocking) reveal at the end that makes me very curious about the third book.

Tris struggled with a lot of her relationships in this story - her budding romance with Tobias, her friendship with Christina, even her relationship with her brother Caleb became complicated by the events going on around them. She didn't know if she should trust Peter, who tried to kill her once before, or Marcus, Tobias's abusive father who seemed to hold the key to Abnegation's secrets. She had to decide for herself who she could rely on, and then face the consequences.

I appreciate that these books don't end on huge cliff-hangers. I hate reaching the end of the book with little or no resolution and though it came late here, it was fairly satisfying. Based on the ending, I suspect where the third (and final?) book will go. It's supposed to be released sometime in 2013, but I don't know when. Hopefully by then I'll still remember where the story left off.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Life in France

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme (2006)

This memoir, co-written by Julia Child and her husband's grandnephew, focuses on the years during which Julia and Paul lived in France. Paul worked for the USIS (United States Information Service) and was fortunate enough to be assigned to a job at the US Embassy in Paris. The couple fell in love with Paris, especially the food. It was here that Julia's lifelong passion for food and cooking was kindled. She ate as much as possible and learned how to cook as much as she could, studying at the Cordon Bleu in order to improve her technique. She became involved with two women who were trying to write a cookbook and the three collaborated on this huge project, which was eventually published as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. By then, Julia was back in the United States becoming a tv celebrity through her show The French Chef.

Julia approached everything in life with gusto, not just food. She threw herself into her projects, absorbed everything around her in France, and the other countries in which she lived. Even when she was forced to leave Paris for Plittersdorf, Germany - which she viewed as the land of Nazis and concentration camps - she still learned as much German as possible and exclaimed at how fantastic the beer was. She was chagrined that the other Americans with whom she was acquainted were not interested in German culture and didn't bother to learn the language. She, meanwhile, made the most of her situation, experimenting with the fresh sausages and local game she found in the shops.

She was also completely unflappable. If something went wrong during a cooking demonstration or other project she just figured out a solution and went on. When Julia and Simca (one of the cookbook co-authors) were to host a luncheon that would be covered in McCall's, Simca decided at the last minute to go out of town for the day. Julia just reworked the menu to make it more manageable alone and went on as planned. In life, as in cooking, she didn't expect everything to go perfectly and was always a good sport about it. Her healthy sense of humor didn't hurt either.

The bulk of the story was set in an interesting period. Though far away in Europe, Julia and Paul weren't completely insulated from the American political climate. Julia's father was a staunch conservative, making their relationship quite strained. But more worrying was Senator McCarthy, who at one point targeted Paul Child for investigation. It came to nothing, but made them both nervous and was a great inconvenience.

Her descriptions of France made me want to visit so badly and eat everything she described, although much of it I really wouldn't actually want to eat (there was a lot of foie gras in this book.) But I enjoyed experiencing it all vicariously through her descriptions and the many black-and-white photos throughout the book. I've never been terribly interested in Julia Child, but in this memoir I found her inspiring, not just her cooking but her entire attitude and approach towards life.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Almost Perfect

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher (2009)

I've just read this novel for the second time, for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work. Since I've already reviewed it I won't repeat myself, but will just add some thoughts.

One of my favorite aspects of this book has always been how the main character, Logan, dealt with Sage's secret. When he first learned the truth he completely freaked out, said terrible things, and high-tailed away from her as fast as possible. Eventually the better aspects of his nature came though, but he continued to struggle. Logan is a product of the small mid-western town where he grew up, and of our society as a whole, in which transgendered people are still pretty far outside of what most people consider the norm. Katcher is just brilliant at capturing the struggles of teens dealing with their conflicting feelings about other people (see also: Playing With Matches). His characters are incredibly genuine, and easy to sympathise with in all their imperfections and angst.

A couple book group attendees were skeptical that such a story would take place, because surely EVERY town has a PFLAG group these days, right? When one grows up in arguably the most liberal part of the nation, I suppose stories like these can be hard to believe, but I grew up in a very small rural town much like the Boyer, Missouri of the novel and I found it all completely believable. And every day I feel grateful that I live in the veritable utopia of eastern Massachusetts now.

It may seem like a strange choice for Sage's family to move to such a place when an urban setting would have provided the anonymity they wanted, as well as the resources to help the whole family deal better with Sage's transition. But growing up where I did, I remembered being surprised when gay people moved to my town only to be whispered about behind their backs and sometimes shunned. Why ever would you do that to yourself? Well, you would do it if you are a small town person who doesn't like cities much, and I think that's the case with Sage's family.

Almost Perfect remains true to its realism throughout, Logan consistently screwing up and seeming to learn from his mistakes, then screwing up all over again, as teenagers do. It's not a happily-ever-after book either and I think if it had been, it would have been a bit harder to swallow. But it's also not hopeless or depressing, and Logan has clearly been left profoundly changed for the better.

This has become longer than my original short review, but it's an unusual book that deserves attention and discussion, and it remains - in my eyes at least - one of the best YA books out there. I'm glad I read it again and had the opportunity to discuss it with a group. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday Knitting

My Livingstone Cardigan is positively flying off the needles. I do wish I had a better area to photograph my knitting though. I'm not doing it outside this time of year and don't have many useful surfaces - or decent light - inside.

Hence, my hideous circa-1950 kitchen floor.

Those are not sleeves, but in fact the cardigan fronts. They're a bit skinny because there's a big shawl collar that extends down the front, and that gets added on later.

These pieces went quickly since they're so narrow and knit in bulky weight yarn, but the arm/neck shaping was extremely confusing. It's always hard to keep it straight when you're decreasing both for an armhole and a neck, but when you also have to decrease into your cable pattern - while watching episodes of Doc Martin - it is just not pretty. I made a lot of notes though, and I think I followed them correctly.

But that's not all!

I also started the first sleeve.

....and I just realized that I'm showing you the back of it. Or, what will be the inside. These sleeves are in reverse stockinette, which I completely forgot while I was photographing it. Whoops. So consider this just a teaser of the sleeve!

Despite my relief that the sleeves have no cables - and therefore no confusing increases-while-cabling - it does make them a little boring to knit. As sleeves tend to be. Hopefully my momentum will carry me through. I'm actually beginning to think I might be able to wear this sweater this winter.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (2011), narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
Christine woke up this morning and didn't recognize the room around her. She didn't recognize the man sleeping next to her. When she went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, she was shocked to look 20 years older than she expected. Her husband then explained that she had amnesia from an accident years before and was unable to form new memories. She could remember the events of the day up until she went to sleep at night. Every morning she woke up having forgot it all again.

The day got stranger. After Ben went to work, Christine received a phone call from someone called Dr. Nash who said they met in secret; he wanted to help her improve her memory but she didn't want her husband to know. Suspicious, she agreed to see him and he handed her a journal - the journal she had apparently been keeping for several weeks. On the first page it said "DO NOT TRUST BEN." Christine spends the rest of her day reading her diary, unraveling the mystery of her life. The journal makes up the bulk of the novel, only returning to present day at the end, by which time everything has changed.

The premise of the story is intriguing enough, but the storytelling takes it to new heights. Each mystery unfolds slowly, sometimes in a completely misleading direction, as Christine reads through her journal entries, each one the story of a day in which she woke up knowing nothing about her present situation and would start by reading the journal so far. Reading through all the entries together, she learned more and more of her story until she was finally able to put it all together and make some sense of her life. But it is only back in the present day, when she finished reading the whole journal, that the final reckoning occurs. Watson expertly conveys the sense of confusion and disorientation Christine feels throughout the novel. I always love an unreliable narrator and this was the best kind because she wasn't deliberately hiding anything. She knew no more than I did which made me feel that much closer to her and her story.

Coincidentally, this audiobook was narrated by the same person as the last book I listened to, Where We Belong. Orlagh Cassidy has quickly become my favorite narrator and the most awesome thing about this was she was speaking in a British accent again, in what I can only think of as her Piano Teacher voice. It's so satisfying to have recaptured the experience of listening to that book - it was a very different story, but there's something atmospheric about the way she reads and I just can't get enough of it. I have a feeling I like this story more having listened to the audio than I would have if I had read the print version. Either way, I highly recommend this compelling novel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (2012)

This surprisingly popular exploration of how we form and break habits doesn't set out to help you quit smoking or stay on track with your exercise regimen, but it contains a fascinating trove of information that - among other things - may provide some insight into why we do the things we do.

Duhigg uses a "habit loop" framework to illustrate our behaviors and carries this throughout his discussions of individuals, organizations and society. His terminology can sometimes feel like a stretch - I'm not sure I'd consider friendship a "habit" - but mostly it's a useful way of understanding complicated concepts.

The real meat of the book are the stories about the habits of people like Eugene Pauly, who lost all ability to form new memories but could still develop new habits, and Lisa Allen whose entire life changed because she took a trip to Cairo. Less inspiring (to those of us cynical about corporate influence) but no less interesting are stories about the people who successfully sold products like Febreze by creating new habits among consumers. I was especially interested in the chapter "How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do," in which researchers at Target learned how to identify pregnant customers before they told anyone so the store could target the appropriate marketing to them before other companies did. If you want to feel completely paranoid about ever using a rewards card- or hell, a credit card- pay close attention to this chapter.

Other stories were about Michael Phelps, AA, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Starbucks, football coach Tony Dungy, the Outkast song "Hey Ya!" and Rick Warren's church - they are all over the place and sometimes a little hard to tie to the main theme, but still interesting. Duhigg's definition of habit is pretty broad, but still useful in the context.

The appendix is sort of a "how-to" guide regarding breaking bad habits. The example is his own habit of buying and eating a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. He talked about the cues, the routine, the reward and identified other behaviors that would satisfy the same urge. It's a helpful exercise, though in my case mostly made me crave a chocolate chip cookie. (But then again, what doesn't?)

Other things I liked about this book: there's an index and extensive notes (the last 90 pages). I like when authors cite their sources and Duhigg is very conscientious about notes. He includes when there was conflicting information from his sources and when spokespeople (like for Target) refused to talk to him.   I wish I had the time to read through all the notes but I'm a stickler about getting books back to the library on time.

Fascinating on its own, The Power of Habit was also a great complement to other books about behavior that I've read, such as Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink and Do One Thing Different by Bill O'Hanlon which also emphasize the importance (and danger) of habits.

This would actually be a great book group pick. There's a lot to discuss and much more I kind of want to say, but I'll have to stop here. I need to go get a cookie.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I finished my Jack-in-the-Box Mittens over a week ago but didn't get a chance to take photos what with Thanksgiving and whatnot. I actually took the mittens and camera to Maine with me thinking that I'd take photos there, but I don't know who I think I was kidding. Anyhow, here they are.

Afterward I realized that the thumbs are obscured. Sorry. Someday I'll get the hang of this photography thing. Or at least won't be too lazy to retake photos. But that is the back of the flipped open one. Here's the front.

And a close up of what the opening looks like.

Here you can see the opening where your hand comes out of the bottom part, and the flip-top which, when closed, overlaps a bit with the bottom to keep everything snug. If you button it.

I had grand plans to go out yesterday for buttons but it was snowing, and though it looked mildly festive from inside it was actually rather unpleasant. But I scrounged around in my card catalog and found these buttons:

Those are actually the backs - the fronts are red/orange. These mittens are attended to go with a bluish scarf and these buttons may work. I can't really think of what color would be perfect - recently I've tended to want buttons that just completely blend in with the yarn, but that's rather boring, isn't it? These might be a little small but I'm sure I can tighten those already-messy button holes.

Next, according to my plan, is a hat to match these mittens. (Why do I keep wanting to type "kittens"?) Anyhow, hats have becoming quite vexing to me in recent years for some mystifying reason. They rarely come out right anymore, and now I'm stuck on just choosing a pattern. Ideal would be a hat with the same cable pattern as the mittens but I don't think that exists and I'm not about to try and figure out hat decreases in a complicated cable pattern. So I'll likely do something rather plain-ish.

In the meantime, next week I'll have an update on my Livingstone Cardigan. I bet you just can't wait.