A pandemic pantoum

Last spring, Perpetua’s godmother came to visit us when she was in my city for a weekend — a visit that was technically illegal under Ontario’s then-current pandemic restriction measures, which prohibited gatherings between people not of the same household. I don’t think I’d had a chance to be vaccinated against Covid-19 yet, but she’d had her first dose, and we sat inside with the kitchen window open and the back bathroom fan running so as to create a nice draft. It was the first social visit I’d had with anybody in many months.

I baked a cake for us. Later, I wrote a poem. It’s a pantoum, a form made up interconnected, repeating lines grouped in four-line stanzas. (So in a four-stanza pantoum, the first three would look like 1-2-3-4, 2-5-4-6, 5-7-6-8, with lines from the first stanza coming back around to finish: 7-3-8-1. Clear as mud?) Constructing a poem that made sense with all those lines moving around was a fun challenge, and its repetitive nature was perhaps especially suited to writing about the pandemic given the latter’s own Groundhog Day-style monotony.

“Pandemic Restrictions, Day 402” was recently published by Dunes Review, available for puchase here.

Reading Round-Up: January 2022

Ah, the first books of 2022! It was a big month for fiction in general and fantasy in particular. And you know that thing where you discover a new author, and you enjoy the first book of theirs you read, and then you decide to just read… all of them? Yes, that. Here’s the rundown:

  • Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)
  • Princess Academy: Palace of Stone (Shannon Hale)
  • Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters (Shannon Hale)
  • Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • Midnight in Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • Because Internet (Gretchen McCulloch)
  • Cryoburn (Lois McMaster Bujold)
  • Welcome to Dunder Mifflin (Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman)
  • The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Wandering Fire (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Darkest Road (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Postman (David Brin) *did not finish

My kids love Shannon Hale’s early reader series, The Princess in Black [and the yada yada] and I thought I’d try out her Princess Academy series, which is more middle grade. It’s nothing like you’re probably assuming from the name, and all three books were great reads. (And fast — there’s nothing like reading three novels in three days to make you feel like you’re starting the year off right!) Miri lives a simple life with her father and sister on a Mount Eskel, where her village mines for valuable linder stone. But when a prophecy reveals that the next heir to the throne will marry a girl from her village, Miri finds herself in the “princess academy” from which the prince will choose a bride in a year’s time. Needless to say, things don’t turn out to be as straightforward as advertised. This was a really enjoyable little trilogy.

Austenland is one of Hale’s adult novels, a light romance set at an exclusive — like, sign-an-NDA-exclusive — Jane Austen-themed retreat where staff and guests live a fully immersive Regency-era experience (albeit with indoor plumbing). Pride and Prejudice-obsessed New Yorker Jane Hayes is gifted a fortnight at the retreat courtesy of her aunt, who hopes that it will help Jane to sort out her romantic ideals. Guests at Pembrook Park can enjoy some genteel flirting with the actors who fill out the scene — but where is the line between handsome “Mr Nobley” and the man who plays him? And is he in love with “Miss Erstwhile,” her Regency-era alternate identity, or with Jane herself? It’s a light, fun read.

I went into Midnight in Austenland blind, expecting more of the above. It’s still a quasi-Regency romance set at Pembrook Park, with some recurring characters as well as a new protagonist — but it’s also a creepy murder mystery, complete with actual corpse. Um, what? Still enjoyable, but it also kind of gave me whiplash.

Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet is definitely the most fascinating book I read this month. McCulloch is a linguist with a particular interest in informal writing, something that we’ve never really been able to study at any sort of scale until the advent of the internet. Why do some people think it’s passive-aggressive to punctuate the end of text messages? What’s with the parallel evolution of emoticons and emojis? How did we start using ~sparkle text~ for irony and the “/s” tag for sarcasm? Why do Boomers capitalize so much of their messages (LOL)? How (and why) do memes work? Gretchen McCulloch will tell you!

Cryoburn is either the 15th or 18th or 22nd installment of Lois McMaster Bujold’s sprawling Vorkosigan saga, depending on if you’re counting in internal chronology or publication order, and whether or not you think short stories or only novels count as “installments”. At any rate, it’s well towards the end of the series, and of the read-through I started back in the fall. I don’t even know where to begin in terms of summing things up, but it’s all glorious space opera, and if you’re a sci-fi fan even a little, they’re worth your time. Start with either Cordelia’s Honor or The Warrior’s Apprentice.

Welcome to Dunder Mifflin was my only other foray into the nonfiction section this month; it’s a collected oral history of The Office drawn from interviews conducted by Brian Baumgartner for his podcast… The Oral History of the Office (hmm). I’d listened to most of the podcast so there wasn’t really any new information in the book for me, but hey, at least there were pictures.

The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road make up Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. I was first introduced to these books, and to Kay’s writing, when I was assigned The Summer Tree as an independent reading project in grade nine (thank you, Mrs. R), and I scored an omnibus edition at a library book sale when I was in undergrad. He is one of my favourite fantasy authors now, and this trilogy has been a companion of mine for many years. The story begins when five Toronto men and women go to hear a public lecture at UofT’s Convocation Hall — but are then summoned by the mage Loren Silvercloak to his home world, the world from which all worlds are spun, Fionavar. Although they are only supposed to be there for a week or two, as an exotic present for a reigning king, they are quickly drawn into magic, intrigue, and a desperate war against the fallen god, Rakoth Maugrim. It’s fantastic stuff.

Finally, The Postman by David Brin. I don’t usually keep track of books that I don’t finish, but I read enough (about 2/3rds, plus the last chapter) that I think it counts. The Postman is a post-acpocalyptic novel set in the United States around the turn of the millennium. After years of pandemics, nuclear attacks, and civil skirmishes, what’s left of the country has dissolved into small pockets of survivors: communes, nascent fiefdoms, dens of burglars, and lone wanderers. Gordon Krantz is one such wanderer, who comes across a USPS uniform in Oregon, dons it, and begins conning a nation back into being. The Postman has been made into a movie and won a whole bunch of awards, and I wanted to like it. But while the concept is very interesting, I found the writing clunky and dated, and Brin kept bringing his characters to the brink of action and then using chapter breaks to fast-forward right past it. Great idea, less than stellar execution. This was a disappointing read.

And that’s a wrap!

The Dickory

Many years ago, I started writing a series of poems that I would characterize as nursery-rhyme-adjacent. My inspiration petered out after three or four, but I kept them in my files and have occasionally sent one or two out into the slush piles of the poetry world.

It is my great pleasure to announce that my poem “Up the Clock,” a meditation (of sorts) on Hickory Dickory Dock, has just been published by Better Than Starbucks in their Children’s Poetry section. You can read that poem here. Print copies of this quarter’s issue of Better Than Starbucks are available for purchase here.

Season of small projects

I’ve been making and finishing small batches of things, lately.

With my machine (and a small amount of hand-stitching to finish) I made a dozen double-sided cloth napkins out of fabric I had in my stash. The gold stripes and the blue were both pillowcases. The green and the brown stripes were… I don’t know what. Bolt leftovers, I suppose, that I think I got from my friend Kendra many years ago.

I crocheted a hanging basket so that our hats and mitts would have somewhere to go besides all over the floors. This is yarn from my stash and it’s either Red Heart Super Saver or a similar acrylic from Bernat. It’s too rough and stiff to use for a garment — the sides stand up on their own! — but it’s great for this kind of household storage.

I darned a favourite pair of tights for Perpetua, using three stands of embroidery floss and a wooden darning egg. It is a very amateur job but got it done. She says that it feels “great, but more tickly!”.

I made Perpetua an ear warmer and she hated it, so I turned it into a hat for me. The first picture (a mid-construction fit check) is more accurate to the colours. The yarn was a small skein of some soft and lovely 100% alpaca given to me by friends a number of years ago. It can sometimes be hard to find good projects to do when you only have one skein of something, but this ended up being exactly the right amount of yarn. This was made without a pattern.

And finally, after many many months of hiatus, I’m working on my Eastern Jewels blanket again and determined to complete it. There are sixteen of these octagonal tiles, and I had finished them all through to row 9 — and then just got the most terrible mental block when I tried to move on to row 10. There was something off in my counting, I think, but I just couldn’t figure out what to do! But recently I looked at it again and it just clicked, so we’re off to the races. I can finish one tile (rows 10-15) in an evening and it’s been really fun to see them come together. I have some plans to expand and slightly alter the pattern so… stay tuned for that 🙂

Reading notes: 2020/1

Happy New Year! I’m quite flabbergasted that it’s 2022 already; the pandemic has played real havoc with my sense of time. 2020 seemed to last about a decade. 2021, on the other hand, was over in about six minutes. I did find time to read in the last year and change, although the changes to my recording method meant that far, far fewer books got written up here on ye old blog (well, the changes, and the mush-brain that seems like it’s affected me in more of covidtide than not). I am definitely not going to attempt to chronicle them all now (!) — but here are some highlights of my last 1.5 years in books.

July – Sept 2020 (27 books total)

Aug 9 — Fog by Katherine Scanlan. This odd and beautiful little book did get its own post. I read a library copy, but just got one of my own for Christmas & I have no doubt I will return to it many more times.

Open by Andre Agassi. As my husband will readily attest, while I don’t particularly care for sports as such, I love good sports writing. Combine that with my love for memoirs, and it’s no wonder I found Open completely engrossing. It also offered a sober warning regarding some parenting pitfalls, chief among them what happens when you force your children to pursue your dreams instead of their own.

Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. This was my first Riordan book, and it was quickly followed by the rest of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and then the Heroes of Olympus series, and then the Trials of Apollo series, and what I’m saying is, boy can Rick Riordan write a novel. Don’t let the “middle grade” label turn you off. They’re fantastic.

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This one also made it to a standalone post. I still think about it sometimes.

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat. This is a Canadian non-fiction classic. And now I know a lot about wolves! Wolves are cool.

Oct – Dec 24 2020 (29 books total)

Dead Cold by Louise Penny is here standing in for the Three Pines series entire, or nearly: I read her first book, Still Life, in the last block, and then between October and mid-December last year I read Dead Cold, The Cruellest Month, A Rule Against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, The Long Way Home, The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses, Kingdom of the Blind, and A Better Man. Phew! At this remove they blend into each other a fair bit, but I remember A Great Reckoning, The Long Way Home, and The Beautiful Mystery as being especially fine. (They’re best read in order, though.)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. This was a reread for me, but it held up to a second go-round. Alternate earth timeline. Government agencies. Time-travel. Witches. It’s a great romp (also bit of a doorstopper).

But What I Really Want to Do is Direct by Ken Kwapis. I like movie behind-the-scenes extras even more than I like movies. I’ve watched all the extra features for The Lord of the Rings. I’ve hugely enjoyed the episodes I’ve seen of the Netflix series The Movies that Made Us. I listen to Office Ladies and The Office Deep Dive. But What I Really Want to Do is Direct scratches that exact same itch, and I enjoyed getting a glimpse at behind-the-scenes from the directorial point of view.

Christmas 2020 – March 4 2021 (30 books total)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. So help me, I cannot resist a novel with footnotes. I cannot. This was another reread and I loved it all the more for already having my footing in terms of the setting/world-building. It’s an astonishing book.

Wine Girl by Victoria James. The thing I love about memoirs is that you learn the most interesting things about little parts of life for which you might never otherwise spare a thought. Wine Girl chronicles James’s journey as America’s youngest-ever sommelier. While I enjoy drinking wine I know exactly nothing about it, and this book was a fascinating peek at the weird world of professional wine people.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway broke my heart. (The actual cellist of Sarajevo was not so happy with it, however.)

Dearly by Margaret Atwood. Overall, I found this collection to be a little uneven, but it was worth reading just for the titular poem alone, and its last line still reverberates in my heart.

March 4 – July 3 2021 (30 books total)

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve been listening, on and off, to the Writing Excuses podcast for a few years now, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with BrandoSando, but this was my first encounter with his writing. The Way of Kings is the first book in the Stormlight Archive series, which is set in a sprawling and absolutely fascinating world. I read the four full novels that are out, as well as two novellas set in between some of them… unfortunately the last book in the series isn’t slated to come out until Christmas 2023. I suppose that just means I’ll have time to reread the others in time for its release!

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. Okay, so it’s a school-of-magic book, like Hogwarts. Except there aren’t teachers, and the school is infested with maleficaria that regularly kill off 3/4 of the graduating class, and the school is semi-sentient and also, maybe not malevolent exactly, but not exactly pro-student either. So, you know, actually not much like Hogwarts at all. (I will read anything that Naomi Novik writes and you should too.)

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford. It’s 1944 and a busy London street is hit with a bomb, killing five children. Only what if they didn’t die? What would their futures have held? Spufford rewinds the clock, diverts the bomb, and follows his five characters through the decades of the rapidly-changing 21st century. It’s a breathtaking, beautiful endeavour. I read an electronic copy and took… many screenshots.

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary. These two memoirs are really two halves of one whole, so I’ll list them together. We are big Cleary fans in this house, and I am perpetually rereading her books to Anselm and Perpetua (Socks is the current favourite). Her memoirs are absolutely charming.

July 4 – Oct 22 2021 (30 books total)

Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Mozart kept a pet starling, and so did/does Haupt. This is a thoroughly charming little book about starlings, about music, and about finding kindred spirits in surprising places.

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. I read a lot of purely escapist books in this period, including several by Christina Lauren (the nom-de-plume of writing partners Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings). In a Holidaze involved a Groundhog Day-style time loop and was easily my favourite of the lot.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. This is food writer and critic Ruth Reichl’s account of her years as the NYT’s food critic in the 1990s, and of the lengths to which she had to go in order to visit restaurants anonymously. Reichl is an inviting writer and I read two of her other books in this period as well.

To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters. See above re: escapism. This was a fun regency-era novel following a husband and wife who end up staging an escalating series of fake accidents and illnesses in a bid to win back the other’s affection. It’s silly and satisfying.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. If I’m in the mood for a move and don’t know what else to pick, I’ll generally default to a 90s rom-com, so I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Tom Hanks lately. As it turns out, he can write as well as act, and this collection of short stories thoroughly charmed me.

Oct 23 – Dec 31 2021 (25 books total)

A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris. I have to be in the mood for David Sedaris, but when I am, I really am. This is a collection of his diary excerpts from 2003-2020, and it was so interesting reading someone else’s thoughts on things I’ve actually lived through. Plus, you know, he’s awfully funny.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Let’s just say I’m not surprised this was a runaway bestseller.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson. I went into this one knowing nothing about it except that I always enjoy Stephenson’s books. Turns out it’s about climate change. And Sikh martial arts. And constitutional monarchies. And performative warfare. And feral pigs. It was great.

The Deep Places by Ross Douthat. Douthat is probably best known as a conservative, Catholic commentator for the NYT. He also suffers from Lyme disease, and The Deep Places is a history of the disease in the wider sense as well as in his own life. It is a touching account of the “terrible gift” of chronic illness, and surely a bit of a memento mori for those of us who haven’t been so touched.

And that’s… well, that’s not the lot! But it’s certainly enough for now, and as it’s high time to end this post, I will simply wish you all some wonderful reading in 2022.

Yarn and thread

Once upon a time, when we were relatively newly married and in our starving graduate student phase, my husband and I bought our first (artificial) Christmas tree, which cost $30 on sale at Rite Aid. We bought a few strands of lights, and I made some ornaments out of sculpy to supplement our small collection. As for the bottom of the tree, all we had for an improvised tree skirt was a white sateen baby blanket someone had given Anselm. It fit very awkwardly — being a rectangle and all — but we made do.

Two years ago we upgraded the tree, but we’ve still been making do with the same improvised tree skirt… until now!

This was made semi-following a pattern I bought from Mary Maxim. I followed it exactly for the twelve snowflake motifs, but then went off-piste for more of the rest. The original pattern isn’t a joined circle, but has two sort of flaps that overlap in order to make it easier to put around the tree. I prefer the security of having it totally closed; we’ll just have to remember to put it over the stand before the tree goes in. No big deal. I decided to go with a single red accent stripe in the outer section mostly because I was running too low on the other colours, but I brought the white and tan back in when I added the tassels. All in all, I’m very pleased with how this came out.

The yarn is also from Mary Maxim, called “starlette sparkle”. It’s nice and glittery, but it’s a fairly rough acrylic. That makes it good for household projects like this one — but I wouldn’t want to wear it. Still, I expect we’ll be using this for decades to come, which pleases me.

Also in the realm of pleasing things, check out this beautiful old girl:

That, my friends, is a vintage Singer 403a, manufactured in either 1959 or 1960. My grandmother was downsizing, and — lucky me — I ended up with with sewing machine. It came with the manual as well as all requisite parts, and after a good cleaning and oiling this morning it runs like a dream. It’s been years since I’ve had a working sewing machine, so I just sat right down for two quick and dirty projects!

I do mean quick and dirty. I neither ironed nor pinned (I know, I know). But I think they came out well regardless. The first used the fabric from Perpetua’s old broken umbrella, which I turned into waterproof tote:

The second is an envelope-style slip cover for a throw pillow (I’ll make its twin soon):

This fabric is very special to me. I mentioned recently that I’ve been sorting through all our old baby things as Tertia outgrows them. Something I couldn’t bring myself to either sell or donate was the woven wrap from Lenny Lamb that I used to carry Anselm through most of his infancy. He was a winter baby, and a heavy one (!), and those long cozy layers were perfect for us as I learned to be a mom.

And so, instead of getting rid of it, I decided to transform it. Anselm’s wrap will live on in our home as cushion covers, and perhaps other things as well — there’s certainly enough fabric for more projects. It warms my heart to have a reminder of those special months that’s so tangible, beautiful, and practical. Hooray for being able to sew again!

A morning’s work

We seem to be in a bit of a transitional season here at casa Pennylegion. Tertia is a sturdy toddler now, and so I have had to start deciding to do with all our baby things: what to sell, what to donate, what to put away for sentiment’s sake, what simply needs to be thrown away. And of course, in late October, the season is in full transition as well; after some unseasonably warm weather we are now indisputably into fall. And while it’s still warm enough when we’re walking Anselm to school in the morning that snow suits would be overkill, it’s still cold enough that little legs need a little more coverage in the stroller.

Happily, this all afforded me the chance to kill two birds with one stone. After a morning’s hand-sewing, Tertia now has a lovely warm stroller sack, and I have three fewer flannel baby blankets in my cupboard.

These blankets were all square, which meant a certain amount of experimental folding and pinning before I got a shape with which I was satisfied. The sports panel in the middle is folded in half, and the outer striped panel is folded to meet it, which gives three layers of flannel over the portion that will cover her torso. The back half is a leg pocket, made of the dotted blanket. That was been folded in half one way and in… sixths?… the other, which allowed it to join up nicely on the sides with the front half, and will leave her legs with three layers on top and two behind.

From the front the whole thing is much less busy — all you see are white and grey stripes, with some purple stitching (blanket or whip, depending on the section). And while getting my sewing machine working would certainly have made this a lot quicker, there is something about hand sewing that I find very satisfying — perhaps not despite, but because of its slowness.

Last Harvest

We had frost on the ground this morning, and there’s rain scheduled for the next day or two, so I decided to harvest the last of our garden produce for this year. There’s not much going anymore, but I still brought in a good bowl full of brussels spouts (of various sizes), a nearly overflowing bowl of tomatoes (of various ripenessess), and the last seven unripe figs.

We did have a few figs ripen this season, which was more than I expected. The first was half-eaten by squirrels, drat them, but I brought two others in before they were quite ripe and they finished up in our fruit basket. Those were delightfully soft and jammy, with a berryish taste. There is one more undergoing the same indoor ripening treatment now.

As for the unripe figs, the thing to do seems to be to first boil them to death, and then poach them in simple syrup with some clove and vanilla. So that will be a fun experiment! If they turn out well, it looks like they’re fairly easy to preserve this way, which will be handy in future years when we can expect a larger crop.

All in all, I consider our first year of gardening to have been a success. There are definitely some adjustments we’ll make next spring — more strawberries, for one thing! — but with the 2-3 more raised beds we’re planning there will be plenty of room for all sorts of experiments. I do want to have one bed just for strawberries. The cucumbers and tomatoes both did very well, and I’d like to grow more of those next year with an eye toward learning how to can and pickle. And I think it would be great fun to try a three-sisters planting in one of the beds: sweet corn, some sort of squash (pie pumpkins?), and beans (pole? runner?) growing in harmony.

For my winter homework, I’ve got a handful of gardening books from the library to absorb. It’s been tremendously satisfying to be able to eat food that we’ve grown ourselves, and I can’t wait to see where our next season will take us.