21 March 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A. J. FikryThe Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When this novel begins, the odds are against A.J. Fikrey's chances of happiness. He is widowed, having lost his wife in an accident when she drove an author home after an appearance at A.J.'s bookstore on Alice Island. He should have been driving, he thinks, but he can't drive; he has absence seizures. One plate of hurled vindaloo changes everything: when he wakes up after a binge, it has been cleaned up, but his prized copy of Tamerlane has been purloined.

Absence is a key trope in this story. The philandering husband of Ismay, A.J.'s sister-in-law, is often absent. His longtime friend, a publisher's representative, has died. He has decided to drink until he and his store are gone, too.

But - one almost-Christmas day, there is a sudden presence: an abandoned toddler girl, Maya, with a note pinned to her Elmo doll saying that her mother hopes the child will grow up to be a reader. "Funny world, right?" muses Lambiase, the police officer. "Someone steals a book from you; someone else leaves you a baby."

A.J. does not believe in fate, but he does believe in responsibility. He shocks everyone by deciding to adopt Maya. The social worker shocks herself by agreeing to the adoption, reasoning that she always loved orphan stories like Anne of Green Gables. Ismay, Lambiase, Amelia (the new publisher's rep), and the townspeople soon coalesce around the widower and the preternatually-verbal little girl, who tells A.J. she loves him after he sings "99 Luftballons" during her baths.  "I warned her about giving love that hasn't yet been earned," he says, "but honestly, I think it's the influence of that insidious Elmo."

Maya thrives in the bookstore, which also thrives as her new father adds children's books, books for the women's discussion group (Bel Canto, after he runs out of books with the word "wife" in the title), and a new group for Lambiase and his police friends. A bottle of Purell sits on the counter ("please disinfect before handling the infanta"), and Maya sits on the floor, learning to read and write. Love has appeared where it was least expected.

Each chapter is introduced by A.J., who loves short stories and has written an appreciation of some of the most elegant of the genre. (If only there were an anthology of these stories, to deepen the reader's appreciation for the elegance of this book!) The theme or circumstance of each story, including selections such as "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (Salinger) and "What Feels Like the World" by Richard Bausch) is mirrored in the storyline. ("A Diamond As Big As the Ritz" is a favorite, but not The Great Gatsby, which A.J. thinks was "overgroomed... like a garden topiary.")

What began as absence leads to happiness. A.J. expresses his gratitude when he "closes his eyes and thanks whomever, the higher power, with all his porcupine heart." So will the reader, who should remember that nothing in well-plotted fiction is accidental. Pay attention. It will be worth it.

I received a galley of this book from NetGalley. This is a fair review.

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17 March 2014

Guidebook to Murder

Guidebook to MurderGuidebook to Murder by Lynn Cahoon

Quaint, pretty South Cove, California, is home to Jill Gardner, a former lawyer who has found her bliss in running a bookstore-café, Coffee, Books, and More. When she was a newcomer in town, octogenarian Miss Emily was her first friend, offering iced tea and a sympathetic ear. Now the town is threatening to knock down Miss Emily's ramshackle house to build sleek condos. Jill goes to see her friend and to mow her lawn, only to find the old woman dead in her bed, with a teacup and a Regency romance on the nightstand. Only faint marks on her neck hint that she didn't die of natural causes.

As the plot unfolds, many characters present themselves as possible suspects, including disgruntled distant relatives and a would-be land developer whose trophy wife's dog bites Jill in her own café. Miss Emily and her property prove to have had secrets that could have inspired homicide. Add the sudden disappearance of Jill's friend Amy, whose presence on the job at Town Hall could have obstructed some of the less savory plans for the old house, and you have a storyline that keeps you reading, wondering, and hoping.

Often, the first of a proposed cozy series is stuffed with backstory and explication. I found myself wishing for more early detail about Miss Emily than her protective outburst against a teen who mowed down her fairy ring, and some details about the town itself from the book that one of the suspects purchases from Jill. Perhaps the author will be more generous about the town and its residents as the series progresses.

Three stars: I guessed the perp too soon, I disliked the thankfully-brief appearance of a faux gypsy, and lack of backstory. Kudos, however, for the Oxford comma in the name of Jill's café!

I received a free galley of this book from NetGalley. This is a fair reivew.

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13 March 2014

The Memory Book

The Memory BookThe Memory Book by Rowan Coleman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The blank book is bound in red leather, and filled with textured paper that seems to "chime against the tip of a pen." The book - Claire's memory book - was bought by Claire's husband Greg on the advice of a counselor who thought it would be good therapy for her to write down the memories that her early Alzheimer's has begun to steal.

Four characters fill the book with narratives. Ruth, Claire's mother, writes about going on holiday with her daughter shortly after her own husband died of the same disease now devastating her daughter. Claire chronicles her deterioration, the unexpected joy of marrying Greg when her daughter Caitlin was a teenager, getting lost in the park and in time as the disease progresses. She worries that her three-year-old daughter, Esther, will forget her and will never know her love. Caitlin, pregnant and dropped-out of college, writes of her determination to exclude the father of her unborn baby from her life, unaware (at first) that she is about to repeat a decision that Claire had made - and now regrets. Greg writes of the unexpected joy he felt when he learned that he was to become a father.

Who are we if our memories are gone? Can you love if the people you loved are now strangers, or if you are no longer moored in time and space? The narrative moves forward and back through the pages of the memory book, and alternating chapters told from each character's point of view. Caitlin decides to follow her mother's advice and find her father, whom she had thought abandoned her. Will he welcome her? See himself in her? Love her? Claire takes pleasure in becoming friends with a man she meets in a cafe because he sees her purely as herself, not as a woman whose personhood is seeping away. These are affecting and sympathetic characters. The reader will care.

The literary device of a memory book is appealing, but there is so little deviation in tone amongst the writings and the alternating chapters that it begins to be a distraction. This is especially true of the chapters and pages by Claire. The woman whose mind is drifting into chaos, who can no longer read a picture book to Esther, and who plots gleeful, childish escapades with her three-year-old simply can not be writing long, nuanced commentaries about identity, emboli, and Jane Eyre. It simply is not believable.

Recommended, with reservations.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. This is an honest review.

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08 March 2014

Murder and Mendelssohn

Murder and Mendelssohn (Phryne Fisher #20)Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a romp! Miss Phryne Fisher is the heroine of this mystery, twentieth in a series that has some parallels to the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Both sleuths served in World War I as medical personnel, experience painful flashbacks from the carnage they saw, and call upon contacts from their war experience to help them solve crimes. But where Maisie is thoughtful, philosophical, modest, and faithful, Phryne is sophisticated witty, wealthy, and, well, easy.

Aristocratic Phryne surrounds herself with luxury, an adoring staff, brilliant adopted children, and lovers. One daughter is so clever that she "lives on tea and pencils." The other is preparing to be a chef under the tutelage of Mrs. Butler, who can whip up a feast in no time while her husband drinks tea so strong it could dye stockings. The household includes a sleek black cat, but Phryne, with her sleek black bob, green eyes, and white teeth that snap through a croissant, may be more feline than Ember.

The mystery: who killed the choirmaster as he was prepping a herd of randy and rowdy young volunteers to sing Mendelssohn's "Elijah"? Honestly, who cares? One character calls Mendelssohn's work "the musical equivalent of fairy dust." The dead conductor was loathed by all for his general boorishness and for being a "hands pig" - a groper. All agree that "he really got on someone's quince."

The young men and women couple and part, as do older men and men, while  Phryne renews an affair with a beloved man whose usual preference is men(and who is in love with a violet-eyed intellectual). Unrequited love is soon requited. Phryne takes it all in with eyes so flinty that anyone else's would garner the equivalent of "the hardness of fudge" on a Mohr scale.

The mystery? It's solved. Minuets and randy madrigals are performed. All's well that ends well.

Why only 4 stars? Because there were so many choristers that I could not keep them sorted out, because I guessed the murderer before eighty pages had passed, and because I have a low tolerance for violet-eyed angels who bedazzle with talk of Chebyshev polynomials. The book is fun to read. Go for it! After all, if the author begins by acknowledging the services of a "Duty Wombat," you know you're going to a good party.

I received this book from Net Galley. This is an honest review.

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24 February 2014

The White Magic Five & Dime

The White Magic Five & Dime (A Tarot Mystery)The White Magic Five & Dime by Steve Hockensmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Athena Passalis, Tarot reader and con artist, has been murdered, found brutally strangled in her Arizona establishment by her teenaged assistant. Although Athena's daughter Alanis has been estranged from her mother for many years, Athena has willed everything to her, including the White Magic Five & Dime.

At first, Alanis assumes that her mother's shady dealings have caught up with her, that Tarot-reading was merely the last of her mother's many schemes to pry money from gullible souls in this Sedona-Lite town. Not all is as it seems, though, and Alanis decides to take on her mother's last career choice to help a delectable police detective find the killer.

Armed with a deck of Tarot cards and a puckish Tarot guidebook (Infinite Roads to Knowing by Miss Chance), Alanis employs imagination, intuition, and the ability to spot "tells" that she learned in her peripatetic childhood, when she, her mother, and Athena's partner comprised a travelling scam circus. Suspects are plentiful. Was it the husband of a woman whom Athena had urged to buy a herd of llamas? The family of an aged woman who had been convinced to let Athena take away her "cursed" jewelry for her own protection? A bumbling bail-bondsman who was ridiculously easy to identify after a threatening phone call?

Miss Chance's book gives Alanis the basics of Tarot meanings along with asides that appeal to her own cynicism. (As in, yes, the symbolism on the cards could seem overblown enough for a Lady Gaga video.) The Hermit, muses Miss Chance, may seem like an isolated crazy in Idaho who writes anti-government screeds in a cabin, but the card-reader still should listen and learn. Likewise the muumuu-wearing Justice, or the Wheel, which might bring treasure, or might bring a winged cow. Listen and learn...

Alanis begins to feel an unaccustomed pleasure in the life of a small town. What am I really doing here? she asks the cards. The 8 of Pentacles hints at the value of learning a useful trade that could benefit a community. Perhaps, she thinks, she could stay and use the Tarot for good instead of for scams.

Yes, Alanis solves her mother's murder. (That fact really isn't a spoiler in a cozy mystery.) The reader is in for an enjoyable beginning to a new mystery series. Recommended.  Why only 4 stars? Because this reader guessed two plot points a bit too soon. I chalk it up to the authors' need to establish the who and where, and I forgive. I'll certainly read a sequel.

I received a reader's copy of this book from NetGally. This is a fair and unbiased review.

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13 February 2014

Thrive, she says

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and WonderThrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is a mishmash of pre- and re- digested advice about getting enough sleep, becoming mindful, meditating, and changing one's value system to honor "the third metric": a redefinition of success to include values beyond money and power.

Ms. Huffington spends many pages telling the reader to unplug from digital devices, and then spends as many pages listing and annotating apps to meditate by, unplug by, control one's multi-tasking by, or even do nothing by. **

She praises and damns social media, makes generalizations about what physicists believe about time, and makes enormous generalizations about being guided by one's intuition or inner sense of rightness. (Note: terrorists believe in their sense of rightness, too.) Other generalizations are more annoying. Sorry, I don't buy the idea that sleep is a feminist issue, and I disagree strongly that people do not bond over moments of shared mortality. Our national experience and personal experience belie that assumption.

Much of the book is not this annoying, but so much of it is that the reader almost misses some genuine insights - such as the observation that the algorithms that govern the user's "personalized" experience at sites such as amazon.com provide a very shallow interpretation of who the user is.

Note to Arianna's editor: Metaphors work better if they're not, dare I say, counter-intuitive, or downright wrong. The iceberg did not hit the Titanic. The Titanic hit the iceberg. Just saying.

I received this book as an ARC. This is my honest review.

**Literally. As in, watch this app for 2 minutes if you want to do nothing.

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11 February 2014

Lost Lake

Lost LakeLost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another lovely story from Sarah Addison Allen!


Lisette: a mute French woman who senses others' emotions "... slipped straight to her as if through mouse holes..."

A woman named Bulahdeen, whose grandmother used to say that old hands make the best food.

A lake described as "a dense round plop of gray-green water surrounded by trees with Spanish moss hanging from their limbs, like the long hair of ladies dipping their heads to sip from the lake."

All this, plus redemption, courage, love charms, food, and a talking alligator...

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01 February 2014

silent poetry reading in honor of St. Brigid (or, sing along)

Oh what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.
Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.
Who made the mine owner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.
And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaina.

They will plunder will-nilly,
Cry the bells of Caerphilly.
They have fangs, they have teeth,
Shout the loud bells of Neath.
Even God is uneasy,
Say the moist bells of Swansea.
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.

Throw the vandals in court,
Say the bells of Newport.
All will be well if, if, if,
Cry the green bells of Cardiff.
Why so worried, sisters why?
Sang the silver bells of Wye.
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney?

Words from "Gwalia Deserta" by Idris Davies
Music by Pete Seeger

18 January 2014

Beautiful Wreck

Beautiful WreckBeautiful Wreck by Larissa Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"as though we'd run out of original things to be..."

Historic reenactments are no longer hobbies for the few in 22nd-century Iceland, where all now pursue their favorite eras in costume, interacting only in the recreated past. Jen, a young linguist, brings her expertise in Old Norse language and gestures to a bold, new, fully-realized Viking longhouse scenario in a full-sensory sim "tank," where participants will be immersed in their beloved era, "minus the messy beauty of a real farm, the stink of animals and work of many hands." After they leave the tank, they will re-enter the city, where the only birds left in this dystopia are crows, and the sky glimpsed only  between tall, tall buildings.

Jen's translation of a Viking woman's diary has given her a glimpse into the reality of one farmer's wife, whose sensibility seems, to Jen, more modern than most of her time. "The sky was big today, all ice and violet," wrote this woman, who also penned a lullaby to "woods and whales and sea. Goodnight to the circle of young girls, their long braids lit by fire..."

Jen's familiarity with the language and lore gives her enough of an edge to survive when the sim tank malfunctions and flings her onto a black beach, half-in and half-out of a freezing sea, half-conscious and half-aware of the song of a whale. Rescued by two Viking men whose stinking breath shocks her ("a breakthrough in the design quality"), she begins to understand that she is not dreaming -- she truly is living the life that most of her countrymen long for. She has been transported through time.

Most of the novel takes place in that very real past, where Jen (now called Ginn) becomes a member of a clan in a longhouse ruled by a young chieftan, Heirik. His fearsome birthmark represents mystery and power to his people, but Ginn learns the facts behind the lore that has defined him. She falls deeply in love. Heirik's reluctance to love becomes clearer as Ginn's immersion in this new life becomes deeper and more dear.

The reader learns about the dynamics of the varied, gritty, loving clan members as their stories intertwine, clash, and mesh. Larissa Brown's scholarship is worn lightly. The Vikings feud, gather, and love against history and folklore, like the runes, cables, and braids of Viking design. Each character and plotline is deep and real, especially those of the the displaced, beached Ginn and the women she joins in the chores, sorrows, and dreams they share.

Readers who are fiber enthusiasts will be delighted as Ginn masters the art of the spindle from the accomplished Hildur: "she showed me how the thread was forming, how to feed the fiber, like spun sugar in my hands." Images of whiteness form the background of the story: white fleeces, like the clouds that the Norse goddess Grigg spins, the white snow that piles high outside the longhouse, the snowblooms that are harvested to make mouthwash, and the disorienting whiteout that nearly costs Ginn her life. Against this whiteness are golden vistas, green swaths, and the immense blue sky.

I was as immersed in this wonderful novel as a 22nd-century Icelander would have been in the sim tank. As a modern woman, I wanted to cut through the myths and hesitations so that the characters could live their dreams, love whom they wished, and thrive. As a modern reader, I was satisfied with the way the stories unfolded, and happy with the vivid, engrossing, well-written story. Larissa Brown has taken elements of romance, history, and science fiction, and blended them into something new, vivid, and wonderful.

(Note: I was given an ARC to review. I will definitely reread the published novel - it's that good!)

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07 January 2014

from the distaff side

Disclaimer: I've never used a distaff. However, I spin. Lots. Especially since Maisie (my Victoria) and I have made friends. (Maisie doesn't have a distaff, either.) 

You can read about the origins of Distaff Day at the Book of Days. Essentially, Distaff Day marked the resumption of duties after the 12 days of Christmas, but it was often sabotaged by spinsters and those pesky ploughmen.  My favorite phrase from this article, describing how men viewed spinning: "It stoppeth a gap..." --  in other words: it keeps women out of trouble and makes a useful product. Heaven knows what trouble a woman might get into. It's enough to make me clutch my pearls.

Disclaimer: I don't own pearls.

I'm reading an ARC of a book by Larissa Brown, writer and knitting designer: Beautiful Wreck. Much of it is set in ancient Iceland, where a woman from our future finds herself - in both senses of the word. She finds herself in an alien landscape, and she finds herself as a person. Larissa Brown wears her research lightly: I found myself totally comfortable in the midst of history and language with which I'm not familiar. I'll review it thoroughly when I'm done - prepare for many stars and superlatives.

I did know one of the references, though: Frigg, the Norse Goddess, who spins the clouds...  In the West, we know her constellation as Orion, but to the Norse ancients, his belt is her distaff, and Venus is her star. In one article, she is "spinning the threads of time." When I am sitting at the wheel, or plying a spindle, I lose myself to the creation; my time is enhanced and - yes - useful. In so many ways.

Happy Distaff Day! And yes, that is a wombat sitting in my spinning.

Disclaimer: I don't have a pet wombat.

31 December 2013

a theme for the new year

Why I need an attitude adjustment

Did you see that? I almost started this post by bitch-slapping myself. Self-judgement, self-loathing, self-fulfilling masochism. Begone!

An article that I read on the Huffington Post a few days ago was intriguing - enough so that I still remember it:  Why a New Year's Theme Works Better Than a Resolution says that specific goals don't work because they're too - well - specific. You want to lose a particular amount of fat tissue, and redistribute the remainder to fit into some arbitrary manufacturer's sizing schema. Or you want to make more time for .... something. Or you want to spend less time on .... something. You are choosing a result, not a path.

Instead, the author suggests, choose "a word that resonates with you and embodies something that has been missing... Keep your theme in mind and allow your days to unfold from there." Her examples of theme words include mindfulness and nourishment.

When I shared the article on Facebook, my family and friends loved the idea. My glorious and generous aunt said she'd need several words, or a sentence... One word isn't enough for me, either, so I shall give myself two, taking the sub-theme of generosity from my aunt.

My theme words for 2014 are hope and courage. Hope, Emily's "thing with feathers," reminds me to open my heart to the possibility of good outcomes - not an easy thing for a lifelong depressive. Courage clasps hands with the hopeful self, saying "take the step, begin here, have a little bit of faith that you can do this."  These are huge and scary concepts to a survivor of childhood trauma, one whose energies have been aimed at finding a safe place, a nook, enough.   

Remember: these are themes, not goals. If they have been missing, they can be added to the batter, even now. Even tomorrow. 

Hope and courage to you, all who are reading this. Let's see where this goes. And here is Emily Dickinson to start the new year.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

06 June 2013

choice means choice, dammit. respect it.

I just read a critique, by Juliet Gorman of Etsy, of a new book that I have not read: Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, by Emily Matchar.. Remember: I have not read the book. Nonetheless, I shall state my piece about what I've read, and support the rebuttal..

Matchar also wrote an article for The Atlantic last year: "Think Twice Before Quitting Your Job to Sell Homemade Jam." Here is a part of her argument:

"Small business" has always been embraced by politicians, the phrase a lazy stand-in for "good, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Americans." 
But now, in many progressive communities (Austin, Brooklyn, Portland, my hometown of Chapel Hill, NC ), small—very small—businesses have gained a new, distinctly groovy luster. In these parts, people speak of an "artisan economy" of "hyper-local" businesses selling "handmade" goods. In this new artisan economy, running a teeny-tiny business is not just fulfilling, it's morally good. Not only are you pursuing your creative goals and rejecting the rat race, you're also striking a blow against corporate behemoths and all they represent—greed, environmental destruction, the homogenization of culture.

I've heard this since the feminism of the late sixties and seventies; I've also **rejected** defining entrepreneurism as false or flawed ambition. 

No one gets to define "ambition" for me, or for any other person, male or female. No one gets to tell me what I should do, what should or should not be fulfilling. No one can tell me that making useful or decorative items is less, somehow, than being an accountant or (as I was), a librarian. If there's anything that feminism should have given all of us, it's respect for individual choice.

This, quoted by Gorman from Matchar's book, is particularly irksome:
"If women cut back on their ambitions en masse, institutional change will never happen and the glass ceiling will lower. We need to be [in the workplace] to demand the equal pay, mandatory maternity leave, more humane hours.”

Yes: Those are worthy goals. BUT- they will be accomplished by society as a whole, not only by those in the larger workplace. Wherever we work - or don't - inside or outside of the house - we can choose which goods to buy, which businesses to support, and which leaders to vote for. That's how change will occur: step by step, person by person.

As I said, I don't plan to read the book. Really, I've read enough...

04 June 2013

quodlibet **

**Quodlibet: Latin for "what pleases." Musical quodlibets can be pretty chaotic. I've decided that my posts can be, too.

First up, knitter friends, please click here and buy a copy of  K*tog: Oklahoma Tornado Relief.  You can read all about the project on Holly Barcello and Lars Rains' blog, Suburban Knits. Holly and Lars have collected projects - from socks and hats to cowls and toys  - that you can knit while making a real difference in peoples' lives. Good karma all around!

This ebook features 20 knitting patterns from 19 designers who graciously donated their work in order to support the efforts of Other Options, Inc., an Oklahoma City charity that provides food and other services to the people of Oklahoma who lost so much in the recent disasters that affected the area.100% of all profits from the sale of this ebook will go to this charity. Cost: $20.00 US

Holly Threads Thru Time Tiny Turkish  I've been spinning on my wheel, top-whorl spindles, Turkish spindles, nearly anything I can get my hands on. Here's a picture of one of my toys - a teeny tiny Turkish spindle from Threads Thru Time. The arms are made from holly, one of my favorite woods -- sprigs of holly in the home are said to provide a place for fairies to play. (You have to act fast to catch a teeny TTT, but if you're new to Turkish spindles, start with a medium and work down.)

I've aspinnerated (taught spindle-spinning) or assisted in aspinneration for a few people lately. It's a good thing. 

Reading: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I'll review it on Goodreads one of these days. I read it on my Nook, which means I was deprived of one of the books' delights: a glow-in-the-dark cover design. Delightful, funny, witty, and wise.

watermelon radish002_edited
Knitting: socks. More socks. Including these socks, in a Moose Manor colorway called, for obvious reasons, "Watermelon Radish." 

I'll save the other stuff - politics, the psychology of retirement, letters, and The Great Tea Scare - for another time.

For now - please, knitters - let's help knit peoples' lives together. Thanks!

18 April 2013

Emily Dickinson, for poem in your pocket day -

Once a year, the Academy of American Poets invites each of us to carry a poem to share.  This is my choice. 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

10 April 2013

Leaving Everything Most Loved - a review, and related meditation

One of the reasons I've been negligent about blogging is that I'm finding being retired to be less than a mixed blessing. In fact, I can't really call it a blessing at all. I was very, very focused for many, many years on my career. Its end was earlier than I would have chosen, as I've written here before, and the time since has not been easy, in many ways.

This afternoon, at Barnes & Noble, I helped a woman choose between two sets of flash-cards for her autistic nephew who loves historical facts. It’s the first time I’ve felt truly useful in … awhile. (Yes, it was a bit disconcerting to hear “can someone help me?” being called over the railing into the cafe, but once I saw she wasn’t in need of CPR or a tourniquet, it turned into an opportunity. I hope we chose well.)

Anyway, the one thing I can be counted on to do is read and comment. That the title of my latest read is related to how I feel about the above is pure coincidence. 

Leaving Everything Most LovedLeaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Can one's life be too settled? Maisie Dobbs rejects the comfortable path as she works on two cases. One case, the murder of two Indian women, brings her to think of the role that country served in the lives of her two mentors, Khan and Maurice, and to wonder if she, too, needs to experience a journey out before she can make a choice.  Another case brings her back to neighborhoods she would have known as a child, a sharp contrast to her present circumstances. Other people in Maisie's life face choices and dilemmas, and another World War seems inevitable.

This is a slightly darker Maisie, and it left me even more eager to see what choices she makes next. As always, the writing is evocative and clean, and the characters as real as they come.

Highly recommended!

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06 April 2013

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I've been negligent about blogging. I haven't been negligent about reading, though, and I have (at least) rated some books over at Goodreads. Some knitting has occurred, mostly socks, plus one silvery thing that (I hope) will make one of my friends happy next week.


I love knitting lace...

Here's a review of the last book I read. It reminds me a little of a Barbara Pym plot gone slightly mad, with touches of the pain of Empire lingering in the hearts of some co-existing with the utterly dense hearts of a dying aristocracy. 

Major Pettigrew's Last StandMajor Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I couldn't love this book more if it were made of dark chocolate and I could eat each page after I read it. There are some of the funniest set pieces I ever read - check out the meeting where characters select food and decor for a country-club dinner, and a walk-through of the most decrepit-yet-charming English cottage ever - as well as genuine characters who grow, change, love, and take up residence in your pantheon.
Recommended to -- everyone. 

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08 March 2013

The Missing Ink - review

The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of HandwritingThe Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting by Philip Hensher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Handwriting is good for you,” says Philip Hensher. “It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual.”

(The incontrovertible truth of the author’s conclusion is made so much more endearing, to me, by the nonchalant use of the Oxford comma.)

This is not an author who shies from his opinions, or from sharing his vocabulary. Haruspication! Really? Oh, Philip, how do I love thee?

The Missing Ink is a very personal amble with handwriting and pens. You get history, style, art, practice, and glances into strange places, real and virtual. How delectable to learn that there is a “gloriously mad blog” out there that teaches how to improve your penmanship by changing your menu? Or that the Prince of Wales writes long letters to various government ministries, imparting his philosophy in purple ink?

The subject of handwriting analysis yields treasures. What does one have to see to believe that the penman “would jump out of an aeroplane… and drink the homebrewed absinthe of a Serbian warlord”? (And what, I wonder, would that do to my own handwring?)

Hensler devotes an entire chapter to the pen that has been my own guilty pleasure for over half of a century: the Bic Cristal. How many of these have I used until the last of the black ink, long disappeared from view and confined only within the oh-so-solid confines of the point, finally discharges its last, perfectly-black line? I hoard them against the day that some scribbling tyrant decides these pens are no longer necessary in the corporate line.

I love to read about ink colors. Hensler says, “I am not quite convinced about writing with blue ink… It is cozy and friendly, but perhaps not very serious… Beyond [blue-black or black], we are really into exotic and faintly frightening territory.”

Were I to write to the author, I would respect his preferences, but in (almost) all other ventures, I profess a great love for the purple, the turquoise, the sepia – even the occasional oxblood.  I am, in most things, a child of the sixties.

(I do admit to having been chastised by a pen friend, once, for writing a red letter on yellow paper. Point, as it were, taken.)

Oxblood brings me back to Oxford. Yes, I love this book with all its whimsy, chattiness, and excellent punctuation. You – you know who you are – will also. I promise.

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28 January 2013

Script & Scribble - a review

Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of HandwritingScript and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a lifelong fancier of all things having to do with handwriting and pens, I adored this book and wished that I, too, had samples of my handwriting from childhood to the present.

Florey peppers the chapters with marginalia, including a response to her own rhetorical question about whether we should be concerned about being able to read old aunt Gertrude's illegible diary: no, because "everyone named Gertrude was thoroughly instructed in penmanship in school."

The author sent samples of her own deteriorated scribble to Kate Gladstone, who e-mailed many pages of suggestions, including a dandy idea for how to write a lower-case "k."  (First a downward stroke, then a quick, upward hook, followed by a separate, graceful downstroke.) I intend to get a copy of Getty's Write Now and start working on changing my idiosyncratic little letters into something with some class!

My favorite sentence in the book comes from a discussion of graphology and its connections to ancient beliefs:

A bronchiomancer could divine the will of the gods from the pattern made by a set of llama lungs hurled against a flat rock.

How can you not love a book that includes such a sentiment?

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26 January 2013

what are the chances?

I believe in chaos and randomness. Unless something can be explained by the known laws of physics and chemistry, I don't believe in it. I reserve judgement on things I have experienced - my grandma Sadie's uncanny perceptions, for example, and the time something told me to swerve out of the lane seconds before a crushed car on a flatbed came flying off. My little elephant (VW beetle: elephant because it was grey and it had a trunk up front) would have been demolished, and I wouldn't have felt too good myself.

This one, though: too woo-woo for me.

Have you ever played with one of these? They're fun. They're also uncanny. Not so uncanny that they can't be explained by pretty standard AI stuff, but - uncanny. Especially if you think you've come up with a word that isn't simple. 

So there I was, at Barnes and Noble, and I decided to play with one. I thought of an animal and answered 5 questions. FIVE questions, and it got the answer right: "hedgehog."  

Really? Enough people think of hedgehogs to add it to a toy's database?  I guess so.  Next time I play with it, I'll have to think of something really different. Any suggestions to help me stump the toy? 

Why am I even writing about this? I guess, because I'd really like to believe in magic.

Anyway, here's some eye candy for you - my latest completed handspun. This one is "Chicken of the Forest," 180 yards of Corriedale, SW Merino, and Tussah silk from Enting Fibercraft. I might combine it with the green from the last post and make a fluttery little shawl. Or, I may just add it to my basket o'handspun and pet it. Either way. It's all good.

04 January 2013

it begins with silk

This is the fiber that was bathing with my little duck the other day. 

Purty, isn't it? The colorway is called "Chocolate Mint," and the fiber was battified and sold by Naomi, whose shop is here

If you are a spinner, you can appreciate the soft, smooth, delicious fiber from the moment it arrives until the moment that it's a completed object. If you aren't a spinner, just imagine how soft and shiny a fluffy ball of 4 types of wool plus silk would be. 

(If you're a spinner or knitter, check out Naomi's fibers and yarns. They are always exquisite. She also makes lovely jewelry.)

I went to the Rhinebeck Sheep & Wool festival in October, where I took a class on my wee Finnewig inkle loom (no, "wee" and "inkle" are not the same thing), tried out lots of wheels, bought a couple (ahem) of spindles, and bought a book from Sarah Kilbourne, the author and descendant of William S. Skinner, a Victorian silk entrepreneur. American Phoenix details his arrival in the United States in 1845 and the creation of a successful silk business. It also tells about how that business was destroyed by the Mill River Flood in 1874 and rebuilt. I'll report on it soon.

In the meantime, I do want to tell you about one of the books that I read during those long days after the hurricane, when we had no electricity. I liked  Howe's first book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which I reviewed here. This one, I loved. I just wasn't feeling as verbose...

The House of Velvet and GlassThe House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
  From the ornate dining-room of the doomed Titanic to the sitting- room of a medium, from the mean streets of 19th-century Shanghai to the investigations of
William James, Howe leads the reader through the illumination of one woman's mind and soul.  So much research went into this book! - and yet the reader is never pummeled with it.
One of the most delicious, sensual, and satisfying books I read all year.

When I say "one of the most," I mean that it wasn't on the same level as The Night Circus (reviewed here) - but few books are. Erin Morgenstern = genius. I wish for a new book, but in the meantime, there's a new Flax-Golden tale every Friday to make me happy. Today's tale is "Tools to build the stars." (Hint: visit her site every Friday...) And, if you have a few minutes hours to while away, brew yourself some tea, go to Pinterest, search "Night Circus," and settle in...