Monday, April 28, 2014

Burial Rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013), narrated by Morven Christie

In 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir has been charged with a brutal murder and is awaiting her execution. During this time she boards with a family in the countryside and is counseled by a young priest known informally as Toti. An unwelcome guest to the Icelandic family who is forced to take her in, Agnes is a source of tension for the family, especially at first. As her execution date draws closer, her story is slowly revealed.

Lauded by critics, blogs, and everyone I know who has read it, I was really looking forward to this historical novel about a real-life accused murderess. But I found it slow, even tedious at times, and through most of the book I just kept waiting for something to happen. When the novel opens, the trial is already over, so almost all the reader gets to experience is the waiting. Of course we don't know the real story of what happened that night, and Kent does her best to convince us that Agnes not the murdering type. Predictably, the truth is not simple, but when all was revealed it was not much of a surprise, certainly not enough to justify the buildup.

Parts were in third person and focused on Margret, the complex mother of the farm family who I would have liked to get to know better, and the priest Toti, who Agnes chose to be her counsel. Toti was young and unprepared for this task, and he became quite drawn to Agnes, struggling with his feelings throughout the story. I enjoyed the parts about Toti most of all.

Agnes herself was difficult for me to sympathize with at times. She begins telling the story of her life to Toti, and then to Margret, leading up to the double murder at Natan Ketilsson's farm. It was clear she had a complicated relationship with Natan, who she was accused of murdering along with two alleged accomplices. He was known as a womanizer, but since we learn this up front, it's difficult to share in Agnes's feelings of betrayal when she comes to that part in her story. In fact, in terms of her relationship with Natan, she seems rather naive for someone in her thirties.

I think a bit of my problem with this book was that I listened to the audio instead of reading it. Christie's narration was good, but a bit high and thin and whispery when she did Agnes' voice, and I didn't care for that. It certainly didn't help a story that I already found rather boring. While listening to this (which I should mention took me over three weeks) I came across an article about a study that shows our minds wander more while listening to audiobooks than by reading, and that we retain less of the information. This reaffirms what I already suspected, and perhaps I got too cocky after my enjoyment of literary audio books like Beautiful Ruins and Rules of Civility. I need to go back to restricting my listening to young adult books and chick lit like I used to.

Despite my feelings about the format, I don't think I really missed anything, and although I may have enjoyed the book a bit more had I read the print version I still don't think I would have liked it a whole lot. Usually I really enjoy books set in cold climates, but it needs a really good story as well and this just wasn't enough for me. The initial setup was interesting, as was the very end, but I'm afraid I all but lost interest in the long slow middle. I can appreciate the high caliber of the writing, but I'm afraid it just wasn't enough to sustain my interest. I'm obviously in the minority here, but I just couldn't feel enthusiastic about this novel.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd (2013)

Chip Kidd is the author of several books, but is known for designing the covers of many more than he has written. This graphic design primer is intended for kids and teenagers, but the clear text and visually appealing illustrations of various design principles is sure to appeal to people of all ages. Go isn't a book I would normally pick up, but grabbed a copy after hearing two of my coworkers enthusiastically recommend it.

Divided into just six sections, the book begins by introducing the idea of graphic design. Kidd points out that design is ubiquitous - every single thing you see around you was designed by someone, and every little detail of it is intentional. He then introduces himself and his work and includes a brief history of design.

The next four chapters each focus on one aspect of design: form, typography, content, and concept. Form, the longest chapter, includes everything from size and scale to patterning and color theory. Typography is all about typefaces, style, spacing, and even a little about the history of the written word. Content is about the purpose of the thing you're designing and how that informs its design. Concept bridges content and form, using techniques such as metaphor, illusion, or irony.

Finally, the last chapter invites the reader to try several different graphic design projects and submit results to Projects are as simple as collecting ephemera and combining them together for a design scrapbook, or as complicated as designing a logo to represent yourself. I can really see these projects as jumping-off points that would inspire the right kids to realize a love of design they might not otherwise know they had.

Not having any background in design at all, most of the content was new to me and I learned a lot. I know I've said it before, but I have to emphasize how much I like nonfiction for young people. There's no pretension, just information set out in a clear, understandable way. It's large size sets it apart as an artsy book, and indeed the many photos and illustration make Go a visual delight. I read the whole thing in one sitting, and I'd do it again. In fact, I just might.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Keeping the Castle

Keeping the Castle by Patricia Kindl (2012)

In the small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo a crumbling castle perches atop a cliff. Inside lives Althea Crowley, her mother, little brother, and two step-sisters. Althea must find a marriage prospect in order to keep Crawley Castle in the family, and as the story opens she is completely bungling her opportunity with one formerly-willingly gentleman. But no matter; the dashing Lord Boring has arrived in the neighborhood and Althea is determined to make herself his wife. If only his irritating cousin Mr. Fredericks would get out of the way...

This novel was recommended to me as a book with Downton Abbey appeal, but I found it much more like Pride and Prejudice. Many of the plot points were very similar, and the tone was similarly light-hearted, thought it was funnier and bit more fluffy. The ending was predictable (especially if you're familiar with Pride and Prejudice) but by then it was clear this wasn't an especially literary or risky novel. It was just a good bit of fun.

The whole premise was quite appealing. I like the storyline of a family down on their luck, living in a castle in disrepair, so poor they served guests minnows from the moat. The mean, superficial step-sisters may be a well-used trope, but it's one I like. And of course, I always like a bit of old-fashioned English-society romance. Althea was flighty and bumbling, yet likeable, and the male romantic interests ranged from slightly dubious to ridiculous. I always appreciate humor, which was really what made this novel. But there was also a rather delicious and scandalous secret that I didn't expect.

This was a contender for my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at the library and I'm actually glad we didn't end up reading it. Although I liked it well enough, it's quite fluffy and there's not a lot to discuss. That would have been an awkward meeting. It's been on my to read list for quite a while, and I've ultimately read it for the TBR Pile Challenge. This won't be a novel that sticks with me at all, but it made for a few pleasant and enjoyable hours of reading.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Perv: the sexual deviant in all of us by Jesse Bering (2013)

Perv's premise is that we are all sexually deviant in some way so we shouldn't be so judgmental of each other. Bering traces the history of the word "pervert" and how it became known to refer to sexual outliers, and discusses how our notions of what is unacceptable has changed over time. He also points out that our laws are based on morality, not on actual harm, and examines the notion of harm in a way that made me look at it rather differently. These arguments are illustrated vividly with many examples of various practices and people who fall outside the accepted parameters of normal sexual behavior.

In discussing the way our desires are fixed, he uses the metaphor of a lottery. Only luck determines your sexual orientation, erotic target (person, animal or inanimate object), erotic behavior (normal intercourse or a paraphilia), and erotic age orientation (how old the objects of your desire are.) You can see how this could all too easily provide you with a very difficult life that you did not ask for.

While reading, I was never exactly sure how the book was organized. Looking back at it now, it makes a lot more sense but it's really difficult to follow a rather intellectual argument when it's thoroughly peppered with so many fascinating tidbits about people and practices that thoroughly distracted me from the discussion at hand. I'm not going to lie - several times I put my book aside and picked up my laptop so I could look up something or someone Bering mentioned in passing because what he gave me was a bit of a tease. I needed to know more, for example, about Erika Eiffel who married the Eiffel Tower. And then there's Milo and Elijah Peters, twin brothers and porn stars who not only have sex with each other on camera, but are romantically involved in real life. (Spoiler alert: since publication of this book, one of them acquired a girlfriend and they no longer speak to each other.)

I was also astonished by how many things there are words for. I have to wonder how many people have to be turned on by, say, the rays of the sun before it gets its own word (actirasty, if you're wondering.) There are also acrotomophiles, amputee fetishists, and their cousins, apotemnophiles, whose fantasies involve having their own limbs removed. My favorite though, are the climacophiles, people who experience their most intense orgasms while falling down stairs. How would you even discover such a thing about yourself? It's hard to imagine a situation in which one would be having an orgasm while falling down stairs, much less having the situation crop enough to be able to distinguish between those who find that it heightens their pleasure, and those who don't. It would also be difficult to have a relationship with someone who doesn't share your predilection. I mean, for them it's just a potential trip to the emergency room.

As you can see, I learned a lot from this book which is why I really should read more nonfiction. Apparently it's all about picking the right subject matter, because I read this considerably more quickly than probably any other nonfiction book.

Despite all the salacious material though, the lesson of Perv is not to cast stones. The author was willing to share a lot of personal details about himself for the sake of argument, to point out that the most normal-seeming of us have interesting quirks and they are just part of who we are. Many of his points about morality and harm, and pretty much everything he says about pedophilia - which nobody talks about, except in a witch-hunt sort of way - are worthy of further thought and discussion. This would be a great choice for an adventurous book group.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Notorious Life

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning (2013)

When the story opens, our heroine has just found a woman dead in the bath. She realizes the implications - she's going to trial that day and this won't help her case - and quickly decides to switch identities with the dead woman and make her escape. Now we are taken back to her childhood and get to know Axie Muldoon as she was growing up, poor and orphaned, before she reinvents herself as Madame de Beausacq, a controversial midwife in who provides birth control and abortions.

Based on the life of Ann Trow Lohman, My Notorious Life is not only a compelling story of one woman's rise to success, but also a condemnation of the sorry state of women's reproductive rights in the 19th century. Axie, who was called Ann as an adult, went from being a young girl horrified at the idea of abortion to a woman who provided them. She never found it pleasant work (and the descriptions are chillingly graphic - anaesthesia was not available) but she knew in many cases it was a matter of life and death for the women. This was something her foes, like the moralistic Anthony Comstock, could not understand.

I found Ann to be quite strong and admirable. Despite the risk she put herself in after the Comstock Laws were enacted, she continue to help women. It was something she felt she had to do, and despite how much she enjoyed and flaunted her wealth, she did what she could even for women who couldn't pay. I did feel a bit unsettled about her material greed, but chalked it up to her impoverished background.

One of my favorite aspects of the story was Ann's relationship with her husband Charlie, because it was so complicated. They met on the orphan train and found each other again later and became a couple. Though they were devoted to each other, Charlie would leave for days at a time with no explanation and just repeatedly told Ann to trust him. Given that her mantra was "Never trust a man who says trust me," it was a constant struggle not to doubt Charlie.

The first page of the novel is a letter introducing the book as a found memoir "belonging to my great-great-grandmother Ann" and including some corrections by her husband who blacked out some words. None in fact are blacked out, but swear words and others that may have been objectionable like "crap" and "abortion" are riddled with asterisks. That didn't bother me as much as the words that appeared in ALL CAPS. I guess this was supposed to be how Ann talked, her language also rough with poor grammar. The style was a little distracting, and definitely set the novel apart stylistically from others I've read set in this period. I don't know how realistic it is that after gaining so much wealth and success she still spoke like a street urchin, but I guess her only education was of a pretty specific kind. On the other hand, her husband was an aspiring journalist who at least at one point attempted to improve her speech, and you'd think his more educated diction would rub off on her.

My Notorious Life was, in many ways, reminiscent of the Victorian novels of Sarah Waters, and Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin. I became engrossed almost instantly in this morally complex feminist novel, caught up as much in the vivid details of daily life as the larger struggles endured by the characters.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Knitting

The textured pattern of the Feathernest Raglan is made up knits and purls and not, as I had thought from looking at the photos, a lace pattern. That was a relief.

But when I started knitting it, I realized that it was going to be more confusing than I had thought. The sweater is knit from the top down, so after knitting the neck the stitches are all marked off for the front, back, and both sleeves. Increases happen at the beginning and end of each section. The ones at the end are easy, but I had to mark the beginning of each of the pattern repeats and count back to figure out what those stitches should be. For instance, I would count the number of stitches before my marker and say "Now I have five stitches, so what are the last five stitches of the pattern repeat?" and knit those before reaching my marker and starting the pattern repeat from the beginning. It was fairly confusing at first, but got easier as I went along.

It doesn't seem like I screwed it up noticeably, even though I've been knitting this while watching tv. Now I've finished the increases and separated the sleeves from the body. Several rounds of the body are knit straight before the waist shaping starts and I have to start thinking and counting again.

I still haven't tried it on.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)

Kambili and her brother Jaja live in Nigeria with their mother and their very strict Catholic father. Kambili's life is ruled by rigid schedules, high academic expectations, and the fear of disappointing her father. Even Kambili's mother is not spared from their father's swift and unmerciful punishments. Amidst growing political unrest, Kambili and Jaja go to stay with their Aunt Ifeoma, where they can relax and act a little more like regular teenagers. As she begins to feel more comfortable with this way of life, Kambili finds herself feeling torn between two very different parts of her family.

Adichie's first novel is less sophisticated than Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.  It's a simpler story, a coming-of-age tale in which the family story is prominent, the political situation just a very vague backdrop. Though the setting is very different from my own childhood in America, a great deal was universal in Kambili's experiences. Learning to look at her familiy from the outside, and understanding that there's a much bigger and different world out there for her, led to important growth in her character. Her crush on the priest, Father Amadi, was bittersweet, but he helped instill confidence in herself. Most recognizable for me was when Kambili's cousin Amaka refused to take an English name for confirmation, much like I refused to take a saint's name myself, and for similar reasons. (In my case, my stubbornness wore down both my mother and the priest and I was still confirmed under my heathen name, but Amaka was not quite as successful.)

Kambili's father, Eugene, was especially well crafted. Though he was undeniably abusive, he was also well-respected in the community and for good reason. His generosity towards those less fortunate was genuine, and I always felt that even his misguided behavior towards his family was rooted in a desire to do what was right, primarily stemming from his strong religious beliefs. The abuse was painful to read about and I knew this situation had to come to a head somehow, but it did so in a way I did not expect.

Kambili's immediate family differed from her aunt's family not just in the religious strictness, but also in their wealth. Her aunt's family isn't nearly as well off, and Amaka is quite bitter about what she views as Kambili's glamorous life. I liked this tension between Kambili and Amaka and the way it was transformed through a better understanding of each other.

Sometimes my experience with a book is affect by external factors and this was unfortunately one of those times. It took me about five days to read the first 100 pages because I was so distracted by other things, but once I finally got into it I read the other 200 pages in one day. Perhaps I would have liked it more had I been more focused, but I still don't think it compares to Adichie's other two novels. However, she has created characters who feel authentic and relatable, and captured the sights and smells and tastes of Nigeria. Her ability to bring me into this totally different world is what I love most about her writing and Purple Hibiscus certainly succeeds on this front.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sunday Knitting

I started a new sock and kept meaning to post about it, and now it's finished already. Here's a picture from yesterday when I was partway through the toe decreases.

This is another pattern from Sensational Knitted Socks, called Traveling Eyelet Rib. I felt a strong need to knit something in a springy color, and when I discovered this green Lorna's Laces yarn in my stash, I cast on quite eagerly.

I also accidentally started a sweater. During my yarn-buying binge at Windsor Button before it closed, I bought some Cascade 220 in a sort of dark bright blue. Every time I find a pattern that I want to make that calls for worsted weight yarn, I think of that yarn but it never seems like the right color.

In the Winter issue of Interweave Knits I saw two sweaters that I really liked. Not dressy sweaters, but comfy lounge-around type sweaters that seem like the sort that would gets lots of wear. I tried a gauge swatch for the Winnipeg Pullover, but didn't really like that particular pattern in that particular color.

My other option was the Feathernest Raglan, but when I sat down to make a swatch I realized it was knit in the round. I've never really had much accuracy or success with this situation. You can knit a regular swatch of the pattern back and forth, but know that it will probably be off because that's just not how you'll be knitting it. Alternatively, you can try to knit it in the round. Swatches in the round can be made most easily by knitting across the row, then just leaving a long piece of yarn in the back and starting at the beginning of the row again. I've done it, and it's messy - I either leave the piece too long, or make it too short, which distorts the whole thing. If you want to be really accurate, you can knit an entire tube, which means using magic loop or double-pointed needles, and it should pretty much mimic how your sleeve will come out. But an entire tube is larger than a small swatch and I am lazy.

So I just started the sweater. Because when one is too lazy to make an accurate gauge swatch, it makes so much more sense to knit the entire top half of a sweater for, essentially, a gauge swatch.

The yarn looks much brighter in natural light. Inside, it's pretty dark.

I'm making pretty good progress on the knitting. Soon I'll separate the arms from the body, try it on, and see whether I should keep going or rip it out and start again. Should be fun.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Radioactive Boy Scout

The Radioactive Boy Scout: the frightening true story of a whiz kid and his homemade nuclear reactor by Ken Silverstein (2004)

He wasn't a very good student, but David Hahn was nevertheless fascinated by science, especially chemistry. Inspired by the old and out-of-print Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments he received as a gift, David began a series of experiments that grew more and more dangerous, turning his mother's backyard potting shed into a laboratory where he ultimately tried to create a breeder reactor. In the course of his research, the difficulty in obtaining certain materials led him to extract them from common household items, which were fairly large projects in themselves. Before he could finish, a whole host of organizations - including the EPA and FBI - descended upon him, terrifying the neighborhood and bringing his experiments to a halt.

Science has never been my strong subject, but I found this true story fascinating. Woven into David's story was a great deal of information about the history of nuclear science and the quest to create a breeder reactor - a nuclear reactor that creates its own fissile material to generate energy. Although written for a teenage audience, I didn't understand a lot of the the science (at which I have never excelled), but that's not essential to appreciating the story. It's more about this boy and his obsession with the project, and the lengths he was willing to go to achieve his goals. Despite how dangerous it was, I was actually a little envious of his focus and dedication, not to mention his aptitude for science.

The story took place in the mid-90s and I was inspired to try and find out whatever happened to David Hahn. According to this article, he never really changed much, continuing to conduct science experiments while not really focusing on a career. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and was arrested in 2007 for stealing smoke detectors for their radioactive parts. I really wanted to hear that he had become more disciplined and pursued a career as a scientist, because he truly seemed very intelligent and driven, but instead it appears that his life is pretty difficult and unfocused.

One aspect of this story that interested me a lot was related to the book The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. I believe it was published back in the 60s, and Silverstein contrasts the content with current books about science experiments that encourage nothing more dangerous than raising worms or observing microbes under a microscope. I certainly wouldn't encourage teenagers to endanger their lives the way Hahn did, but I began to wonder if we're trading valuable knowledge and inspiration for safety. After all, it wasn't a current textbook that inspired David - it was this older, more risky one. What other kids may have been inspired to a career in science if they had the opportunity to conduct more interesting experiments as a child? Soon after reading this book I came across a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic called "The Overprotected Kid" which speaks to exactly these issues. The article is focused on playgrounds, but emphasizes the needs to explore and take risks, and cautions against creating environments that are too safe, and in which kids won't learn to watch out for danger. It's a lengthy article, but I recommend at least looking at the pictures and the 3-minute clip about a playground called The Land, where kids are free to engage in exploration and can even set things on fire.

What I love about a good nonfiction book is how it can be a jumping-off point for learning about related topics, and I'm sure The Radioactive Boy Scout will generate some great discussion at the upcoming Not-So-Young Adult book group.

Have you read any great nonfiction books written for teenagers? I'd love to suggest some more to the book group.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Recent technical issues

You may have noticed the blog being down frequently in the last month or two. We're having some server problems that are too boring to go into here, so I'll just try to distract you with a cute picture of my cat, Clarence. Isn't he adorable? It's like he's reading this, except he's far too stupid to understand words.

Actually, he's almost 19 years old and deaf as a haddock (as a former coworker used to say). He's like an old man who no longer bothers to comb his hair and can't remember why he just came into this room so he may as well just take another nap. He's still friendly and affectionate though, and I'm just glad he's still here. Our days left together are numbered.

Hopefully the blog issues will be resolved quite soon. Stay tuned for a book review in the next couple of days - it should be a pretty interesting one!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

City of Thieves

City of Thieves by David Benioff (2008)

During the Siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown in jail with a deserter named Kolya. They are given a chance to escape execution - by bringing a dozen eggs to to a powerful colonel who needs them for his daughter's wedding cake. Food is so scarce at this time that people are eating their pets, paper, and each other. But Lev and Kolya are determined to find eggs to buy their lives, and embark on a dangerous and unforgettable journey around Leningrad.

Best described as a tragicomedy, the horrors that Lev witnesses are softened for the reader through his (albeit dark) humor. How else can one deal with so many close calls, so many gruesome deaths? Lev and Kolya often silence their banter in such times, but only for a bit, because they need to go on. What choice do they have? They have their own lives to think of.

Throughout all of this it is bitterly, bitingly, bone-achingly cold. I read most of it while huddled under an afghan because it was so cold here too, but of course that was nothing compared to what these Russian youths endured. In one scene, they approached a soldier from the back only to find that he was frozen dead in an upright position. This wasn't just cold; this was Russian cold, and it only enhanced the feelings of desperation throughout the novel. When Lev and Kolya occasionally arrived someplace warm, the atmosphere completely changed, and the happiness and comfort let them forget their troubles if even just for a short while.

What keeps Lev going throughout all of this is Kolya. Relentlessly upbeat, Kolya entertains Lev with stories about all the women he has had (Lev is younger and lamentably unexperienced) and expositions about literature, especially a novel called The Courtyard Hound. Kolya's optimism and easygoing self-assurance reminded me a bit of Boris in The Goldfinch, and I wonder if that's a set of traits common to Russians or just to their literature. Either way, he made an appealing counterpart to the less confident, anxious Lev. Though they began as strangers, their friendship strengthened through the course of their adventures and their growing loyalty to one another provided the most touching moments in the story.

This is all couched within another story. The opening chapter is told from the perspective of Lev's grandson, visiting his grandparents to get information about the Leningrad for an autobiographical essay he needs to write. As usual in this kind of setup, I completely forgot about this outer story. It wasn't completely necessary, but it was amusing to re-read that first chapter after finishing the novel.

I keep thinking that I'm completely burnt out on novels from World War II, and then I come across one that offers a fresh perspective and I forget that I'm reading about the same war. Of course, I never grow tired of anything set in Russia, and this rather madcap story about the friendship of two young men on the hunt for a dozen eggs was delightful and satisfying (even if it made me hungry for an omelet.)