Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Knitting

I was thinking about my next project recently, and I realized that I don't have enough purple sweaters. So I started another one.

Actually, back when I finished my Cozy V-Neck Pullover I thought I'd like another one in purple. Then a few weeks ago when I went to Windsor Button for their closing sale I wanted to have a plan based on sweaters I plan to make soon, but couldn't decide on one. Then I remembered my idea for a purple Cozy V-Neck. My black one is pretty heavy, so I went with a slightly lighter yarn.

Though I made the first one four and a half years ago and with different yarn, I went ahead and cast on with the same size needles I used then, without making a gauge swatch. Because that totally makes sense!

The resulting fabric so far is pretty airy but I'm not sure yet if it's TOO much so. I'm sure you can look forward to some posts about ripping back, checking gauge, and restarting. On the bright side, this pattern goes along very quickly so no matter how many problems I have with it, the sweater should still be done before fall.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)

In the far future, blights and illness have ravaged the world and wiped out food sources. A couple of huge calorie companies such as AgriGen produce genetically modified foods on which people depend, and wield enormous power. In Thailand, Anderson Lake runs a kink-spring factory, a cover for his real job of seeking out foods thought to have vanished. He crosses paths with another rarity : a windup girl named Emiko, an engineered New Person from Japan, illegal in Thailand.

For most of the book, I had no idea what was going on. But one of the reviewers on Goodreads claimed the same experience and still liked the book so I persevered though I had been very close to just putting it down. By the time I finished, it made more sense and I immediately turned back to the beginning and read the first chapter again. I don't think this was the author's fault - I'm just a little dense with certain kinds of plots. (I once read half of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and had no idea what was going on, then watched the entire movie and was still mystified.)

A frequently complained about shortcoming in science fiction is the info dump, in which something is explained very thoroughly, breaking up the narrative flow. The Windup Girl went the opposite direction and explained nothing. A smarter person probably could have figured out enough from the context, but I have long thought that I'm not smart enough to read science fiction and this may have confirmed it. Even more difficult, much of what I didn't understand were the companies and government agencies Anderson Lake and other characters were involved with - even in the real world I'm confused by bureaucracy and organizations.

Make no mistake though, the writing is really good. I could picture it all like a movie (which I hope it will be someday) and considering that most of the reason I read this was for the setting, in that I was quite satisfied. Bacigalupi crafted realistic descriptions of the markets, factories, Megadonts (genetically engineered elephants used to power the factories), kink-springs, algae baths, and various other aspects of the world he created. The plot was well-developed, with surprises such as a minor character coming to the forefront late in the novel, and it is a frighteningly possible future - I mean, AgriGen is basically Monsanto.

Where it really fell short for me was the characters. I think it's fairly common in science fiction that characters aren't fleshed out, but unfortunately my tastes are for well-developed characters. Emiko, the windup, was pretty good, as was Anderson Lake's assistant Hock Seng, but I felt like I knew nothing about Lake or a few other male characters who were all fairly interchangeable in my head. Part of the problem was that it switched between so many characters without developing them much, and they were kept rather distant emotionally so it was difficult to care about them.

I think this really is quite a good novel, and my enjoyment of it was lessened only by my own limitations. Had I understood more I'm sure I would have liked it better, though I find myself liking it more the more I think about it and the more reviews I read. Maybe it's just a style that one has to get used to and I should read more science fiction to get better at it. What do you think?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Velvet by Mary Hooper (2011), narrated by Ruth Sillers

It is 1900 and Velvet is struggling with her difficult job in a laundry. It's all she has; her parents are both dead and she is still trying to recover from the guilt surrounding her part in her father's death. When she makes a major mistake at the laundry which will cost her job, she finds an even better opportunity: working with a spiritual medium and living in her comfortable, opulent house. Even better, Madame Savoya has a young handsome assistant named George who immediately captures Velvet's interest, even as she brushes off her old friend and admirer, Charlie.

Certain aspects of the novel were fascinating - the popularity of mediums and seances, baby farms where poor women would foster out their babies until they were stable enough to reclaim them, and even the experience of a poor girl working in a laundry to try and make ends meet. But the potential of the story just wasn't fully realized. A later development which I thought would be quite important to plot resolution was completely dropped. And the final scenes brought out aspects of Charlie's personality that were quite distasteful. Most unfortunately of all, Velvet is unbelievably stupid. For someone who was orphaned and had to live by her wits in the lower classes, she was extremely naive and gullible regarding matters related to both her job and her love life.  Once she began to figure out some of the things going on around her, I thought that surely she would be enlightened to related matters, but no. It all came extremely slowly. I wanted to slap her.

The production value of the audiobook wasn't great either. The narrator's voice is a bit breathy and simpering, which I was willing to put up with (I listened to a sample before downloading). But there are no breaks between chapters, the final sentence of one chapter barely over before the next chapter starts. Even more sloppy were the two times where the audio track suddenly sounded like it was skipping and a couple of seconds of what I think was another book came through. It wasn't enough for me to stop listening, but I did get the impression that the whole thing was thrown together hastily.

As promising as the idea of this novel was, it turned out to be quite disappointing. It didn't take up any of my reading time since I was just listening to the audio while walking or riding the bus, and had I been actually reading it I'm not sure I would have finished. The bare bones of the story was a great idea, but the plot and character development was poor. Unless you're starved for young adult literature set in that period and can't find anything else, you should probably skip it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Knitting

It took me less than two weeks to make the first Slipped Stitch Rib sock. Such a quick pattern!

It was only after I began that I realized I've made them before. They're super easy! It's just a variation on k3, p3 where in every other row you slip the middle k and the middle p.

This is a gorgeous colorway of KnitPicks Stroll that a friend gave me for Christmas. What a lovely break from the all the blacks and greys I've been knitting lately! But still practical, since so much of my clothing is blue and purple and these will match pretty much anything I wear.

Are you getting a little weary of all the socks I'm knitting? Me too. That's why I'm starting a new sweater this week! I'll tell you all about it next weekend.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

I wrote about The Great Gatsby not long ago, so I won't rehash the plot or my thoughts on the book, except to say that I think I like it more each time that I read it.

This time it was for a book discussion at work as part of my library's Gatsby Month. It's a like a mini Community Read that we planned in anticipation of the new Great Gatsby movie, back when it was scheduled for release in April (it has been since pushed back to June.) We had a number of events, including a party with a live jazz band and dance instructor who taught us all to charleston.

As it turned out, nobody came to my book discussion. It was just hours before a snowstorm was supposed to start, so I can only assume everyone was in line buying bread and toilet paper. But in my preparations I noticed something that didn't stand out to me in my previous readings, but which I now am rather fixated on. It's this funny little passage that just comes just after Nick and Mr. McKee left a party:

"...I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands. 'Beauty and the Beast...Loneliness...Old Grocery Horse...Brook'n Bridge...' Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o'clock train."

What do you make of that? I remember encountering it last time I read the book, but I wasn't sure what was going on and just went past it. This time, it seemed obvious that he slept with Mr. McKee. After considering it a bit, I did what anyone would do and Googled it. I found this recent article, which according to some of the comments is not news at all because everyone KNEW that Nick was gay. Unless you listen to the other commenters who say that it's a ridiculous misreading and anyway F. Scott Fitzgerald was totally homophobic.

But Fitzgerald also isn't especially wordy, so I wouldn't think he'd include anything that wasn't important or that he didn't especially want us to know.  That passage had to mean something, and what else could it mean? On the other hand, why do we even need to know if Nick had sexytimes with McKee? The book isn't even about you, Nick Carraway.

I've never read The Great Gatsby for a class (just for an independent project in high school) so I haven't discussed it much with other people. What do you all think about that passage? If it's not indicating a romantic encounter between the two men, then what does it mean? Everything else in this book is so straightforward, making that part especially baffling!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (2011), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

On the last night of 1937, Katey Kontent (accent on the 2nd syllable) and her roommate Eve go to a nightclub to ring in the New Year. There they meet a man named Tinker Grey. The three become friends and the novel follows their friendships, romances, and careers through 1938.

I don't want to say much about the plot because so few things actually happen and I think it's nice to not know all of those things before you start. The book is less about the plot anyhow than the characters and their lives and what that year was like for them. It's told from Katey's perspective, so it's more tightly focused on her life. Since some of the major plot points are about Tinker and Eve this is an interesting perspective.

Partway through I began reading The Great Gatsby again, and realized how much like Jay Gatsby Tinker Grey is. He's a bit mysterious, his acquaintances unsure of his background and he's some larger than life. I guess that would make Katey this novel's Nick Carraway, but she's less marginal to the novel than he was to Gatsby. We get to know Katey fairly well and I liked her a lot, although I didn't feel like I knew her as well as I frequently know a first-person narrator.

The novel was quite atmospheric, like dipping into someone else's life in another time. Even reading about Katey's job as a secretary at a law firm was fascinating, but it got even better as she took charge of her career and moved on to a magazine job. The writing was beautiful as well, which made the audiobook an even better experience. It was enjoyable just listening to each sentence.

If you can get the audio, I highly recommend it. Rebecca Lowman spoke with a slightly low, slightly husky voice that was just perfect. Her distinctions between characters meant that I always recognized who was talking, but the voices weren't exaggerated. It was an excellent production.

Rules of Civility has been on my list to read since it first came out. I kept hearing how good it was - and I fully intended to get around to it - but the description never quite pulled me in. Instead I kept buying copies of it for other people who then told me how much they liked it. Recently I've been trying to prioritize books that have been on my radar for a while, and my recent subscription to is making my reading much more manageable. If any of you have been putting off this book like I was, I'll just add one more voice to the chorus and urge you to make time for it. You won't be disappointed!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Knitting

My finished socks, complete with cat hair, lint, and other unidentifiable detritus:

They look a little like licorice to me. Mmmm.

I began picking out the cat hair, etc, but soon realized it was an exercise in futility.

The pattern is, of course, from Sensational Knitted Socks. If I had to live the rest of my life with only the sock patterns from this book, I think I could remain quite fulfilled. This particular pattern is called 3x3 Cable with Moss Stitch. The yarn is Cascade Heritage. I knit these almost entirely on the bus.

Given the pattern source, yarn, and knitting location you'd think I'm in a knitting rut. I prefer to think of it as a very comfortable pattern.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (2012)

In the early 20s, young Tom Sherbourne has returned from the war to his native Australia and taken a position as lighthouse keeper at the secluded Janus Rock. After a couple of years he meets a woman named Isabel while on the mainland and marries her, bringing her to the lighthouse with him. Although they plan to have a family, Isabel suffers through one miscarriage after another. When she finally carries a baby close to term, it comes early and is stillborn. Just days after this final heartbreak, a boat washes ashore with the body of a dead man inside, and a still living infant. Tom and Isabel know they should alert the authorities immediately, but instead they take it as a sign and keep the baby as their own. As you can imagine, this plan is faulty and has dire consequences.

I loved the setting of this book, and everything about Tom's job as a lighthouse keeper. His job is such a unique one, and he takes it very seriously. There was something satisfying in the descriptions of his meticulous record-keeping and maintenance of the light. There aren't a lot of books set in Australia that I know about, and it was fun to read about Christmas celebrations taking place outside with various games and races for kids - what a different spin on that holiday!

Although the writing was lovely, I found the storyline a bit too contrived, various events coincidentally happening with the perfect timing to create more drama. Isabel was rather an enigma to me, which is unfortunate as she is so pivotal to the book. But I could never really put my finger on her as a character. She is portrayed quite differently after all the miscarriages from when they were first married; it's taken for granted that those experiences would change her, but there were crucial aspects of this character development that were missing. I never knew whether or not her choices were in character because I didn't know her character at all. I was much more sympathetic to Tom, who I liked a great deal, and a few of the other characters who became more important later.

Many people loved this book and the reviews were very strong. It's a compelling story and easy to fly through quickly, and I suppose that overall I liked it because of the setting and the beautiful, vivid writing. But all the while I was disliking Isabel, and feeling like the book was trying to manipulate my emotions in a way that was too transparent.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Alias Grace

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)

In the early 1840s, a young Canadian housemaid and a fellow servent were accused of murdering their employer and his housekeeper/mistress. Margaret Atwood turned the sensational story into a novel about the young accused murderess, Grace Marks. When the novel begins, Grace is 24 and has already been in prison for 8 years. Public opinion is divided as to her guilt or innocence, and she has been inconsistent in her recounting of the crimes. A young doctor who is interested in mental health and hopes to secure funding for a new modern asylum, begins interviewing Grace in hopes of getting her to tell him the real story. Through their conversation we are taken back to Grace's early life as she recounts her experiences.

The story is told through Grace's first person narration as well as a third person perspective of Dr. Simon Jordan. Both are fascinating characters. Although they try to understand each other, it's clear that they never quite do. Every week Dr. Jordan brings an apple or root vegetable with him and puts it on the table between him and Grace because these items are stored in cellars, which is where the bodies the bodies were hidden, and he hopes to turn her thoughts and conversation towards the murders. He is unsuccessful in making his point clear though, and Grace always wonders why he asks her questions about vegetables.

Though earnest, Dr. Jordan is a bit misguided and, as it turns out, rather weak in character. But he truly wants to help Grace. I really enjoyed watching his character develop throughout the book even though I didn't especially like where things went with him.

I think I believed Grace to be innocent from the very start, probably because I found her so likable. She was very practical, down-to-earth and fond of folksy sayings like "ill words butter no parsnips" and "There is no use crying over spilt milk if you don't know whether the milk is spilt or not, and if God alone knew, then God alone could tidy it up if necessary." This woman lays it out on the line and isn't afraid to stick up for herself. But if you want to know whether or not she was guilty of the crimes, you'll have to read the book for yourself.

The chapters of the book were grouped into sections and each section began with a number of quotations and excerpts. There was always a quote from Life in the Clearings by Susanna Moodie (1853), a book which contains her (questionable) observations about the case. Those excerpts were rather fascinating and her work was referred to in the novel. In addition to these excerpts, Atwood included bits of poetry and whatnot, the sort of thing which I always find to be just filler. Does anyone pay attention to those? I'm sure they are somehow supposed to relate to what's going on in that section, but by the time I start reading the text I've totally forgotten about all those quotes. I can't be alone in this.

I was glad when my book group picked this to read because I had been wanting to read (or re-read) some Margaret Atwood. I read Alias Grace when it first came out, back when I was reading Atwood regularly. She hasn't written many novels recently, but the third book in the MaddAddam Trilogy is due out this fall so I'm thinking of starting Oryx and Crake and then continuing on to finish the series. I'd also like to read The Handmaid's Tale again, since I haven't read it since my early 20s. Either way, I see more Margaret Atwood in my future.

Monday, March 11, 2013

In This Light

In This Light: New and Selected Stories by Melanie Rae Thon (2011)

In This Light has been on my to-read list since my friend Kevin reviewed it for the Boston Globe almost two years ago. Most of the nine stories included were published in her earlier works, but they were all new to me and fit together quite well, thematically as well as stylistically.

Thon's characters are poor, troubled, grief-stricken, guilty, and desperate and we are visiting the darkest parts of their souls in their worst moments. Each story is exquisitely crafted with startling, vivid images, and each one was as emotionally powerful as the last. In "Punishment" a slave is hanged for the death of her master's son, and the story contains some of the most haunting scenes in the book.  In "Father, Lover, Deadman, Dreamer" the narrator reveals that she hit and killed a Native American man, and her father helps cover up the crime. I think one of the most vivid images in the whole book was young Dora lying inside an abandoned refrigerator in a field in "Necessary Angels."

The author employs some narration styles that are difficult and complicated but which she pulls off expertly. The voices bob and weave, take unexpected turns, a third person narrative suddenly talking directly to you in a way most unnerving. She even handles second person narration deftly, a style which usually comes off either awkward or pompous. Thon is both extremely talented and completely unpretentious.

I read this slowly over the course of a month. I'd only pick it up if I had time to read a full story, and never read more than one in a sitting. I don't think I could handle more than one of these stories at a time, they are so emotionally wrenching. When I finished I considered going back and reading some of them again because I felt like I'd get more out of them upon a second reading, and they certainly deserve it. Instead I took it right back to the library and put it on my Staff Picks display in the hope that some library patron would happen upon it. I'm surprised this writer isn't more well known, but I'll certainly be recommending her.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

I last read this classic Hemingway book back in high school, along with The Great Gatsby, for a project on the Lost Generation. All I remembered about it was a bunch of American expatriates in Europe, getting drunk and going to bull fights. But surely there was more to it than that. High school was a long time ago. Last week I read it again for a booktalk at work and was surprised to find that I really wasn't forgetting much. The Sun Also Rises is short on plot, but long on hedonism and feelings of disillusionment.

The narrator is Jake Barnes, injured in World War I, now drifting aimlessly around Europe. He is joined by other friends, most notably Lady Brett Ashley, not yet divorced but already being fought over by two of Jake's friends before she runs off with a bullfighter named Pedro Romero who is much too young for her.

Hemingway's style is not for everyone. He writes in a series of short, declarative sentences. I did this, then I did something else, then I went here, then I bought two more bottles of wine, etc. There is little description or emotional depth and though his style isn't my favorite, I at least find it easy to read. And there were a few moments with just enough description to convey the wonderful feeling of, for instance, lunch on a sunny day outside in an old European city.

It's hard to feel bad for these disillusioned folks, as unhappy as they are. Although they frequently complain about not having enough money, they seem to manage ok considering that none of them seem to have jobs. (A couple are writers, but don't seem to ever be writing.) They manage to pay for the hotels they stay in, the food they eat, the bullfights, and the copious amounts of alcohol they consume.

Perhaps when I was in high school I was convinced that if I played my cards right, this could be my life. Of course it's not the 1920s and my life isn't a work of fiction, so now it all seems rather unreal. It's always interesting to read a book I last read so many years ago, and it was an interesting little trip down memory lane. If I had to read more Hemingway it wouldn't be a terrible thing, but I probably won't make a point of it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (2008)

Jenna has been in a terrible accident that she can't remember, and wakes up in a body that she must learn to use again after a year in a coma. She can't remember anything about her life. She only knows what her parents tell her and what she learns from the home videos they have left her to watch. As she learns more about herself she starts asking a lot of questions, and when her parents aren't forthcoming with answers she is determined to find them herself.

I like this kind of book, where the protagonist doesn't really know what's going on and the reader learns the answers slowly along with her. Although the narrative is fairly simple and straightforward, the story asks a lot of big questions about bioethics and how far we should go to save a life. The science in this book may be leaps ahead of what's available today, but the questions are still relevant and ones that should be asked before the technology is available. I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work and I think it will make for a really good discussion.

Jenna was rather a wisp of a character, which I supposed makes sense given how little she even knows about herself, but I liked watching her grow into a more fully-formed character. We didn't get a whole lot of information about her world, mostly learning about medical technology and regulations and I think the story could have benefitted from the society being a little more fleshed out. These same issues would affect so many other aspects of one's life and I was curious about that.

Perhaps there's more information in the sequels. There are two follow-ups to this volume, which take place in the far future. The second book is centered around Jenna's friends Kara and Locke, who were in the accident with her. Although she felt their loss deeply, they weren't fully-formed enough for me to care about them, but they might be in the second book in which they are more prominently featured. I don't think I'm intrigued enough to keep going with the series, but if the subject is one that interests you, you couldn't go wrong - this was a fast, easy read and I'm sure it would take little effort to zip through all three.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday Knitting

Here is the finished project I gave you just a little hint of last week:

I made these for a coworker who hopefully isn't looking at this today. If so, um, surprise! Here's a preview of the gift you're getting tomorrow!

These baby boots are from a free pattern called Closeknit's Striped Baby Boots, which is a free Ravelry download. The pattern is fairly detailed and even includes some photos but I still found it a bit confusing. There's a part where you decrease and then immediately increase again, which makes no sense. And maybe the increases are supposed to be a different spot but it's really difficult to tell from the way the pattern is worded (and there's no photo for that part, alas). Anyhow, they are pretty cute little booties anyhow.

I used some Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino I bought at my recent little shopping spree at Windsor Button. It's a blend of wool, microfiber and cashmere. I've been wanting to make something blue and brown striped for ages and I really like how that came out.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Twilight Sleep

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton (1927)

Pauline Manford's family is unhappy and falling apart in all kinds of ways, but she can't deal with reality and instead relies on a busy schedule of meaningless engagements, rest cures and a series of spiritual healers to fill the void of her days. Her greatest satisfaction is in spending ever more money on expanding and improving her home and gardens, paying the huge bills, and counting the money still in the bank. She's too "busy" to visit an acquaintance with cancer or talk to her ex-husband about an important matter and so enlists her daughter Nona to do so for her.

Nona feels anxious and oppressed as though by the weight of everything her mother refuses to shoulder, and is unhappily pining away after a married man. Pauline's husband Dexter is tired of her superficial life and is drawn to his step-son's wife, Lita, which goes completely without notice by Pauline. Lita wants to run off and be in the movies, but Pauline seems to think she can be convinced she doesn't want to. Pauline believes that if she says everything is fine, it will surely be so.

The phrase "twilight sleep" refers to an insensibility to pain without losing consciousness, and that is state that Pauline strives for. She does it without drugs, instead relying upon whatever dubious spiritual healer is currently in vogue, and her own vast powers of denial. She speaks at various charity engagements, not even realizing that the organizations she is supporting conflict with one another in their goals. Her friends are just as superficial and ridiculous as she is. One, Mrs. Landish, has become so obsessed with Vikings she has redone her house to reflect that style. She becomes upset when the rushes she wants to cover her floor with aren't available and she has to settle for commissioning handwoven rugs from Abyssinia. We can presume these efforts will all be for naught when Mrs. Landish discovers a new fad.

This satirical novel about bored people filling their empty lives with meaningless activities - work, affairs, fake spirituality - was never very popular and from the reviews I've read, some people find it really dull but I didn't. The funny thing is that I read it YEARS ago and all I remembered was that I liked it. And that it had something to do with drugs. It has nothing to do with drugs, and much of it is so subtle that I'm surprised I liked it so much. But maybe I was just much more enthralled with the 20s than I am now (and I suspect my brain worked better in my youth.) I still liked it well enough, and I think it really does capture the era nicely. It's not especially well-known, but if you like the 1920s and/or Edith Wharton, I think it's required reading.