Book drunkard

I have no doubt that it is a wise ordinance of fate — or Providence? — that I cannot get all the books I want or I should certainly never accomplish much. I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.

— Lucy Maud Montgomery, 4 April 1899, The Complete Journals vol. 1, p. 432

Reading Round-Up: May 2022

I completely forgot about last month’s round-up. We’re 23 days into June so this will be an interesting exercise in whether I actually remember anything about the books I read. Shall we begin?

  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksander Solzhenitsyn)
  • You’ve Been Volunteered (Laurie Gelman)
  • At the Water’s Edge (Sara Gruen)
  • The Office BFFs (Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey)
  • Glittering Images (Susan Howatch)
  • Class Mom (Laurie Gelman)
  • Yoga Pant Nation (Laurie Gelman)
  • Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain)

First off, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie Gelman’s “Class Mom” series, even though I accidentally read it out of order! You’ve Been Volunteered is actually the second novel (Class Mom is the first), and while I definitely missed some background stuff, it stood well enough on its own that I didn’t realize it was part of a larger series until I had just about finished. These books are funny, irreverent mom-lit centered around the drama of an elementary school PTA and the parents who make it up. They’re fun.

Glittering Images is the first novel in Susan Howatch’s six-book “Starbridge” series. All together they span about thirty years, the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, with a cast of characters whose lives all revolve around the Church of England’s (fictional) Starbridge Cathedral. In Glittering Images the Rev. Dr. Charles Ashworth, a bachelor theologian at Cambridge, is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to discreetly investigate the private life of the charismatic and controversial Bishop of Starbridge, Dr. Alexander Jardine. Needless to say, he finds more than he bargained for. Susan Howatch is deeply wise about psychology, spiritual pitfalls, and the healing of psychic/spiritual wounds. Even if they don’t want to read all six novels (which is a commitment; they’re dense) I think that ordained or wanting-to-be-ordained persons would really benefit from reading this and the concluding novel, Absolute Truths.

Here’s a fact: I love The Office (the American version). It’s a perpetual rewatch show for me, something I throw on for background noise or when I need something familiar and comforting. I’ve read most of the books written by cast and crew of The Office, I listened to both of Brian Baumgartner’s Office-centered podcasts, and since mid 2020 I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey’s rewatch podcast, Office Ladies. It’s lighthearted and chatty, and I like to throw it on while I do chores. It feels like I’m just hanging out with some friends, gabbing about a show we all love. The Office BFFs is their new book, another behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. Unlike Baumgartner’s disappointing Welcome to Dunder Mifflin (essentially just a transcript of his podcast episodes), The Office BFFs was about 90% new material as far as I could tell, and included a lot of Jenna and Angela’s personal stories and photographs. If you’re also an Office fan, this is a great one.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (made famous by her debut novel, Water for Elephants) is set mostly in Scotland during the second world war. American socialites Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off from Ellis’s father’s fortune after embarrassing the family in a drunken New Year’s debacle; determined to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, Ellis brings Maddie and his best friend, Hank, to the Scottish Highlands in the middle of the war. His goal? To succeed where his father failed, in hunting and capturing the famous Loch Ness Monster. Although Maddie is an adult through the whole book, it has a real bildungsroman feel as she struggles to find her place in this new milieu. My one criticism is that by the end of the novel the villain felt a little too villainous — other than that, it was a well-written and engrossing read.

Kitchen Confidential is a crazy look back at the coke-and-booze-fueled restaurant kitchens of the 80s and 90s. It’s funny, it’s grim, it’s fascinating… mostly though, by the end it left me feeling sad, just because of knowing how Bourdain’s life ended. Throughout Kitchen Confidential you get the impression that’s he’s been looking his whole life for — something — but in the end, I don’t think he ever found it.

And last but certainly not least, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized account of an ordinary day in a Siberian gulag. I first read this novella back in high school; as the books got passed out and we opened them up for the first time, a heavy snow immediately started falling outside our classroom window, which provided an excellent segue into a discussion of the pathetic fallacy. A few images had stayed with me from that first reading, but by and large I was able to appreciate this book with fresh eyes. It felt especially poignant to be reading it against the background of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the kidnappings/deportations and “filtration camps” currently happening in Russia-controlled territories. Plus ├ža change…

Friendship shawl

Today I had the immendse pleasure of a day-long visit with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in three years, and to celebrate I made her this shawl! I only picked up the yarn on Thursday, so it was a real race to the finish — I worked on it for 1-3 hours every night, and ended up doing the last three rows in front of her while we chatted. It got done just in the nick of time. My right thumb is feeling cranky and will definitely need a rest, but that’s ok. I’m just glad I managed to pull it off.

The yarn is Lion Brand Shawl in a Ball Metallic, in the colourway “Prism”. It’s got beautiful long transitions between sort of peacock-y colours, and a strand of blue metallic thread carried through the whole thing. Pictures don’t show how nicely it sparkles! The yarn is pretty soft to work with despite the metallic element, and it doesn’t fuzz and fray as much as regular SiaB; I had some of the non-metallic version a few years back and it was a nightmare to work with and impossible to frog. Whether this is a difference between the two related product lines or just a general improvement, I’m not sure.

This is a “virus” pattern — so-called because it expands in every row, and you just let it grow until it’s the right size. This particular one is often just called virus, although technically I think it’s German shells. It’s a simple four-row repeating pattern, and once I reminded myself how to get started it was pleasantly mindless. (I’ve done the same pattern before for another shawl and a baby blanket.) For this I used a size H hook, which gave me a lot of drape.

Fun fact: someone once pointed out to me that the centre line of the pattern looks like angry owls. I can’t unsee it and now neither will you.

Simple knit scarf

I’m done knitting my second-ever project, and my first scarf! Incidentally, I figure I’m also done… knitting.

This is just a shortie. It started out as a generic scarf mostly for the purpose of building my knit-and-purl muscle memory (which, I have to say, it did). But Perpetua took a shine to it, so I stopped when it reached a good size for her.

The pattern is very simple. I cast on 30 stitches, and started with three rows of garter stitch. Then I moved to stockinette with a three-stitch garter border on each side. This meant that on odd rows I would just knit straight across, and on even rows I would knit 3, purl 24, and knit 3. Finally I did another three rows of garter stitch so the ends would match, and cast off. A quick wet and some improvised clothesline blocking, ends sewn in, and there you have it. It is a scarf.

Above: something going wrong near the end. It turns out I didn’t care enough to fix it. I fixed other mistakes, earlier — and got through large chunks without any mistakes at all, which was gratifying. But around the halfway point it became clear that while I had acquired a basic knitting competency, I was also having zero fun. It was stressful when it wasn’t incredibly boring. If it hadn’t been for Perpetua asking to have the scarf, I doubt I would have finished it at all.

Learning to knit was one of my goals for 2022. I did it, and now I’m going to put my needles away. It’s always nice to add another skill to your repertoire, and if there is ever some sort of… global… knitting… emergency… ? … I’ll be able to step up to the plate. Until then, though, this craft is just not for me.

All that being said, I’m still pretty satisfied with the finished product — though I may crochet a little flower or other embellishment to cover that hole.

The yarn is from the Ella Rae “Seasons” line in the colourway “carrot cake”. It was leftovers from my stash; I used it several years ago for a lap blanket and you can see how different it looks when worked up in crochet! As before the yarn was a pleasure to work with. I knit this piece on size 7 needles and it is safely tucked away until called for this winter.

LaserWriter II

I finished this dreamy little book about a week ago and I’m still thinking about it.

It’s not a plot-heavy novel; in fact, virtually nothing happens in it. It’s the 1990s in NYC. A young woman named Claire gets a job at an indie Mac repair shop called TekServe, works there for a while, learns to repair printers, leaves for other things, and that’s about it. It’s not a page-turner in the traditional sense.

Where Tamara Shopsin excels, however, is in the her ability to vividly capture a particular moment in time and space — that’s what LaserWriter II is really about, I think — and the delightful, dense imagery of her prose. I mean, look at this:

Claire waits till she is called over. Gary’s side of the bench is six steps, but a world away. Pop music by a girl groups always seems to blare — the coffee shop kind, spiced up with a violin or a flute.

Gary’s fingers are stiff and bloated like a stale pretzel that hangs from an umbrella of a hot dog stand. He tries to remove a plastic sensor that is akin to the metal prong of a doll’s shoe buckle. Sweat beads on his forehead. Claire is afraid it will drip into the printer.

It does. (107)

Or this:

As Deb worked at 163, more specialized technicians were added and intake was created. The Mac Plus was programmed to be a “now serving” machine and mounted above like a convenience store mirror. A billiard ball was hung on a string next to it, and was pulled to advance the serving numbers.

Customers came to the second floor depressed, clutching their ailing computers, to find a space that was as if Santa’s workshop had made love to a Rube Goldberg machine, complete with mutated elves. Hearts would melt, Coca-Cola would flow from glass bottles, and customers would wait patiently for their number to be called.

Soon Tekserve outgrew 163 and moved a few doors down to the fourth floor of 155 23rd Street. Everything and everyone came along for the move, and it was the same, only more. (47)

“It was the same, only more”. I love that. It’s just six words, but how evocative! I don’t know if Shopsin writes poetry, but I think she probably could (and maybe should). The narrative is also occasionally broken up by whimsical little interludes where printer parts discuss things like philosophy with each other while Claire cleans and repairs them. Which sounds weird, I know, but somehow it really works.

LaserWriter II is a strange, dreamy, nerdy little novel — and I’m really glad that I picked it up.

Everyday sandwich bread

I’ve been baking bread from scratch for the past two years or so, ever since my breadmaker vibrated itself off the counter in a gory suicide during a kneading cycle one day. After many different recipe tweaks, I’ve finally nailed my perfect everyday sandwich bread. Have at ‘er.

Ingredients (makes two 40% whole wheat loaves):

  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2.5 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 heaping Tbsp bread booster (I use Fleishmann’s)
  • heaping 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour

Method:

1. Add lukewarm water to a medium mixing bowl. Add yeast; allow to sit for a few minutes. Add salt, bread booster, wheat germ, and oil.

2. Add flours directly on top of wet ingredients. Mix by hand until dough starts to form a ball.

3. Knead for 5-10 minutes until dough is smooth and springy. I don’t usually need to flour my surface.

4. Return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for 40-60 minutes or until doubled in size.

5. Punch dough down. Grease two loaf pans. Briefly knead the dough and shape into two loaves. Let rise, covered, in the pans another 40-60 minutes.

6. Bake at 350F for 40 minutes or until the crust reaches your desired colour.

Process vs. Product

Sometimes you make something and it just isn’t what you envisioned. It’s hard to know what to write about it in this case: “here is a thing, and it disappointed me” is not the tone I usually strive for. But here we are! I made a thing! It wasn’t fun to make and I don’t like the outcome. TA-DAA.

I mean, it’s not objectively hideous. But I am very conscious of the following things:

  • I had forgotten how much I dislike making amigurumi. It’s all small hooks and super-tight hand-hurting tension and counting, counting, counting all day. Forget it!
  • Because I don’t like crocheting ami, I shortened the ears by a good ten rows and completely omitted the arms. The pattern was for a sleepy bunny, rather than the… generic animal head? that I ended up with.
  • I didn’t have any polyfill and didn’t feel like driving across town to get some, so I stuffed the head with scrap cloth. In many ways that’s fine, but it kind of throws off the balance (though with a heavier head and the blanket trailing behind this would probably be great for throwing).
  • The ears appear to be different lengths. An optical illusion? Did I add or omit an extra row? I don’t know, man, counting stitches is annoying.
  • Also I’m not crazy about spirals. Working in the round is fine, but I’d much rather join at the end of each row than work continuously.
  • I used some of the crappier acrylic from my stash and it’s just not that nice to work with.

What this all boils down to, I guess, is that I am even more of a “process” crafter than I realized. It was already obvious to me that I’m not attached to my finished products — I have no qualms about giving things away or chucking them into the back of a closet no matter how much work I put into them. Out of sight (or perhaps, off of hook), out of mind. But what’s clear now is that whether a project is a success or a failure in my eyes has almost everything to do with how much I enjoyed the creative process and almost nothing to do with the actual result.

For my own records; I used Bernat Super Value yarn in white, Red Heart Super Saver in “Monet” (leftovers from Perpetua’s blankie), and the eyes and nose were done with Stylecraft Special DK leftovers from my Eastern Jewels blanket. I used a 3.75mm hook for the animal parts and a 6mm hook for the lovey portion.

Anyway, this was supposed to be a gift for someone’s baby… but I feel weird enough about it that I’ll just make something else. This can go into the toy bin for my daughters to fight over and I’ll pretend it never happened.

Oh well. At least someone likes it.

Apropos of nothing

I recently had to call a doctor’s office about some scheduling. According to their voicemail introduction, patients are forbidden to leave messages during the following times: on weekends, on holidays, after 4 pm, and while the office is closed for lunch. Which makes me wonder: what exactly do they suppose an answering machine is for?

It’s finally finished!

Way back in 2019, I decided to buy myself a birthday present, and ordered a crochet blanket kit: Janie Crow’s beautiful “Persian Tiles” pattern, in the “Eastern Jewels” colourway. After 2.5 years of on-and-off work (mostly off), I finally finished a night or two ago. Here it is:

I’ve made some variations on the pattern. If you look up other Eastern Jewels blankets, you’ll see that there is no black in the original. I wanted to really separate the tiles in a way that highlighted their colours, going for a stained glass effect — which I think I’ve achieved! To do this I made all of the square and octagonal motifs as written, and then added a row of single crochet in black around all of their edges. This also made it very easy to do a no-show join, as I simply whip-stitched the pieces together with the same black yarn.

The other variation had to do with the triangles. The pattern calls for sixteen of them: twelve between the octagons on the outer edges, and four on each corner. I decided to omit the corner triangles entirely. For the inner group, instead of following the pattern and making coloured ones (to look like the square tiles, halved) I just made granny triangles, again in black. Because of my chosen stained glass aesthetic, I didn’t want it to look like any “panes” were incomplete.

The border is a simple one. Once the blanket was all sewn together, I did a row of single crochet all the way around, followed by two rows of moss stitch. After that, I did two rows of loops (chain five, skip a stitch, anchor with a single crochet stitch, repeat) and… that was that! I toyed with the idea of adding a third row of loops, but decided I’d rather be done. It will be very easy to add on later if I decide I really want it.

The blanket was made with Stylecraft Special DK yarn in twelve colours (storm blue, pistachio, tomato, spice, violet, duck egg, mustard, sage, fondant, vintage peach, buttermilk, black) and one ball of Stylecraft Life DK in fuschia. This made for a lot of ends to weave in. Like… a lot lot. Over 500 if I’ve totted it up correctly! Weaving all the ends may have taken more time than crocheting the squares; it definitely took more time than the assembly and border. Good thing I don’t mind doing the ends (and that the results were worth it).

All in all, this was an enjoyable project. I’m glad to have done it, and I’m really, really glad it’s done.

Reading Round-Up: April 2022

Big list last month. Let’s jump right to it:

  • Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  • Tangerine: Poems at 94 (Tangerine Bell)
  • Rattle #75
  • Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome)
  • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (T. Kingfisher)
  • Nurk (Ursula Vernon)
  • Madness, Rack, and Honey (Mary Ruefle)
  • When It Happens to You (Molly Ringwald)
  • Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson)
  • Rattle #70
  • Little Town in the Ozarks (Roger Lea McBride)

April is (inter)national poetry month, so I deliberately went heavier on that than I usually do, reading one full-length collection of poems (Tangerine), two issues of Rattle (my all-time favourite poetry journal), and one collection of essays about poetry (Madness, Rack, and Honey). Surprisingly, I hadn’t actually read any poetry yet this year — too busy mainlining Brandon Sanderson novels — so it was really refreshing to dive back in. I especially enjoyed Mary Ruefle’s essays, which were beautiful and strange. It would also be greatly remiss of me not to mention that Tangerine Bell is my grandmother! She published Tangerine: Poems at 94, her first major collection of poems a few years ago. Tangerine is still alive, but she lives very far away and communication is getting more and more difficult as she ages, so it’s really meaningful to me to have this collection of her thoughts, words, and voice. (PS. buy her book)

T. Kingfisher is the pen-name of Ursula Vernon, who writes sweet children’s fantasy under her own name, and weird grown-up fantasy under the Kingfisher moniker. Nurk is subtitled “The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew” and is pretty much what it says on the tin. It was a quick read, and I think my kids would really enjoy it. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking starts with one of my favourite openers, namely a dead body somewhere it’s not supposed to be — in this case, on the floor of the bakery owned by Mona’s aunt. Mona is a magicker, though only in a small way as her magic only works on dough. But with someone hunting down the city’s magickers, and the Duchess’s army and chief wizard away, Mona soon finds herself called to greater deeds than she ever believed possible. This one felt like a standalone but I hope that Kingfisher/Vernon takes us back to Mona’s world again sometime.

I read Shadow Divers for the first time about six or seven years ago, I think, so this one was a re-read for me. It follows the story of Captain Bill Nagle and his crew of deep-sea wreck divers, who discovered a mystery U-Boat wreck off the New Jersey coast in 1991, far from where any known U-Boats were supposed to be. Kurson chronicles the discovery, the divers, and their deadly six-year journey to finally identify the “U-Who” and the men who served upon it. Even though I remembered the rough outlines, it was still absolutely gripping. See also: the men of U-869; “Everest at the Bottom of the Sea” (this is about diving the Andrea Doria but the ethos is the same).

I enjoyed Molly Ringwald’s (yes, that Molly Ringwald’s) novel-in-stories When It Happens to You. I would say that the plot was that of a fairly typical unraveling-family story, but the structure — telling it as a series of interconnected short stories — worked very well and added a lot of the experience.

Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page was a standard Vinyl Cafe offering: amusing and tender as always. And Three Men in a Boat remains a perpetual re-read, and one of the funniest books I know. (See also: this post from… 2009, wow.)