Thursday, March 8, 2018

February 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month.

January 2018 Reads

I was nose-to-the-grindstone all February—no blog posts, no newsletter, no nothin' but writing a book. Okay, maybe that's not entirely true. I have actually been knitting and quilting quite a bit, which I'll share about here soon, and getting outside, whatever the weather (and the weather was mostly icy), but all my writing energy is directed to one goal—and it's paying off. I don't know if I'll meet my goal of finishing by the end of this month, but I'll be close. In the reading department, I had so much reading to do for research, I tried to forbid myself from reading anything for fun, but that didn't work out so well, as you'll see below.

I try to keep one book on the craft of writing or some otherwise motivational topic, although I had fallen out of that habit over the prior few months. I got back on track in January and February (sometimes it takes me more than one month to finish a book) with The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. This is not the kind of book I would be likely to pick up on my own—it's very guy, if you know what I mean, with lots of references to athletes and army generals. But my brother-out-law gave it to me for Christmas the year before, so I figured I'd try it. His recommendation had been to dip into it when I was feeling stuck, and while I'd done that over the last year, I wasn't getting very far and decided to dive in and read it straight through. I found a lot of helpful advice in it, like don't waste energy on things outside of your control (geez, someone could have told me that about ten years ago), instead put that energy into reaching your goal. Okay, yes I can do that. And much more, too, of course, it just so happened that those two bits of advice were very timely and useful when I red them.

The other book in this category, which perhaps does not belong here, or in this post at all, since I didn't actually finish reading it, is This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Have you ever noticed that the titles of essay collections and short story collections rarely fit the whole book, because they often come from the title of one piece? This is one such collection, and I would never have thought to pick it up (who wants to read about a happy marriage, anyway?) if someone hadn't suggested it to me and if I hadn't happened to have found it at a used book store. The intro and one of the first essays are about writing and the writing life, and really, what writer wouldn't prefer to read about writing than actually write? Am I right? The one about how Patchett subsidized her novel-writing by freelancing was especially interesting to me, since I've just started freelancing myself. Not that I have any illusions about it paying the bills (or of ever working for Gourmet or GQ), but I liked how she described the way skills developed in freelancing translated to novel writing. The rest of the book, I just gold-mined, reading what sounded interesting (an appearance at a college in the south where a few parents were up in arms about the book Patchett wrote, the opening of her bookstore), skipping what didn't (anything about dogs or marriage).

February's nonfiction reading was all in service to The Book. I was working on a chapter (for most of the month, believe it or not) about an area of our hike heavy in history (including my family's history) and I finally got around to reading three books that have been on my shelves for years: The Last Ridge by McKay Jenkins, about the 10th Mountain Division (WWII soldiers training in skiing and mountaineering, who fought on the Italian peninsula), Leadville, by Gillian Klucas, about the absolutely maddening effort to clean up mining waste in the eponymous town (any of my friends who work in Superfund and find their projects frustrating, read this book and you will think you're on a cake walk by comparison), and The Two Lives of Baby Doe, by Gordon Langley Hall, about one of Colorado's most famous/notorious historical figures and her rags-to-riches-to-rags story.

Like I said, I wasn't going to read anything for fun in February, but then I thought, just one book read only at bedtime wouldn't hurt, so I picked up Death at Glamis Castle, by Robin Page, a very mildly gothic murder mystery set around the turn of the century (I've read two others in this series, all wildly out of order, but still entertaining). And then I pulled The Crying Child by Barbara Michaels off the shelf. I though I'd finished all my Mertz/Michaels/Peters books, but this one appeared out of nowhere. Also a gothic tale, this one with actual ghosts, set on a Maine island of all places (it is funny to see how Mainers are portrayed by people "from away"). And then I figured I might as well labor on with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. I bought it last winter after PBS had a show about the Bronte sisters and I became interested in the lesser known two. I started a few months ago, but it was slow going at first, as most Victorian novels are. Once it got going, though, it was a real page-turner. As in I barely put it down over one whole day (luckily I was wearing these socks).

Finally, E and Z continued our Amelia Peabody adventures with The Hippopotamus Pool (by Elizabeth Peters, of course). I was retelling the story I wrote about last month, and E corrected me, saying it was actually Z who didn't get that they were mysteries, and that it's Z who doesn't know what's going on half the time, but that E follows along just fine. So I stand corrected. Hippopotamus is the last book in which Ramses appears as a child (if you count 16 as no longer a child; I know my 16-year-old does) and I thought they wouldn't want to stick with it, but we've carried on. Besides Ramses, they like Kevin O'Connell and Cyrus Vandergeld, and they are waiting with baited breath to see if the Mater Criminal is alive or dead. Z is either very confused (or just pretending to be very confused) that some characters are real people (Wallace Budge, Howard Carter, Lord Cromer) while others are not (O'Connell, the Emerson-Peabodys, Cyrus). Anyway, I'm enjoying reading the series all over again as much as they're enjoying listening to them, so expect many more installments!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

January 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month.

The key words for last month's nonfiction reading were "knitting" and "almanac."

I read Aldo Leopold's classic A Sand County Almanac for my naturalist's writing group. I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read the whole book before (there was a bookmark to show I'd read part of it at least). It's every bit as good as its reputation and really makes one think about what ecology means on the land, and how important every link in the web is…down to the grains of earth we wash away so carelessly. Love it and will be referring to it again and again.

My mom sent me Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac for Christmas. Another book I *should* have read long ago and which I loved every page of. Even if I never knit any of the projects—which, let's face it, are a bit dated, I have already learned so much from Zimmerman's wisdom and good humor (always knit a gauge and just drape your yarn over the needle when you start to cast on—no slip knot needed! Brilliant!). Among the just delightful writing all through the book was this gem: "The products of science and technology may be new, and some of them are quite horrid, but knitting? In knitting there are ancient possibilities; the earth is enriched with the dust of the millions of knitters who have held wool and needles since the beginning of sheep."

I also read Knitting Pearls, a collection of essays on knitting by famous writers, edited by Ann Hood, a kind of follow-up to Knitting Yarns, and every bit as good. It left me thinking—and writing—about my mother and grandmothers and all of the knitted and crocheted items that passed from one loving set of hands to a child or grandchild.

As part of the research for The Book, I read Beloved the Sky, a collection of essays about clearcutting, edited by John Ellison. I didn't really find any useful information in this book, but it did help me focus my thinking on industrial forestry. I read several other books on clearcutting, all written in the bad old days of the 1980s and early 90s (not that clearcutting or industrial forestry has gone away, by any means, but they've either used up the old growth on the national forests and/or moved on to easier/cheaper tree supplies; I shudder to think of the developing world and what might be happening to their forests). Anyway, it was a disturbing course of study, and one I preferred living in cozy ignorance about (by ignorance, I'm focusing on the ignore  root of the word, because of course I knew, I just preferred not thinking about it).

To counteract the heavy reading, I needed a good dose of escapism and finished off the last two unread (or not-read-in-at-least-two-decades) Mertz/Michaels/Peters books on my shelf: Black Rainbow and The Wizard's Daughter, by Barbara Michaels. They're both historical fiction in the Gothic style, with a heavy dose of suspense, and both quite fun, witty reads, and wholesome escapes from reality. I also read Persuasion, which had been lost in the back of my bookshelf during my Jane Austen phase last winter. I had thought Persuasion was my favorite Austen book, but now that I've reread it, I don't think it stands up to Pride and Prejudice, but still an enjoyable weekend read.

I finished reading Elizabeth Peters's The Last Camel Died at Noon and read all of The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog to E and Z and still they want more "Ramses" books. I don't know why they love them so much—about half of it goes over their heads and we have to stop and explain the connections in the plot, remember who the characters are, and decipher Arabic phrases, Latin quotes, and lines of Romantic poetry. But love them they do. (As we started on the latest installment, which is the sixth book we've either read or listened to in the series, I said something about them being mysteries. E was shocked. "What? What do you mean they're mysteries?" "Well, there's usually a dead body or two, at least one gang of criminals, often the Master Criminal, and a puzzle to figure out who is the bad guy and who isn't." Still he was aghast. So really, I have no idea how much they get out of these books…or maybe he thought mysteries had to be like the Hardy Boys).

Thursday, February 1, 2018

In Other Quilting News

I got E's quilt back from the long-arm quilter and put on the binding last weekend. He picked out a circles-and-swirls quilting pattern that looks like bubbles and ripples of water; fitting for a frog quilt.

For the back, E and I chose a soft lime green flannel (he really wanted turquoise velour, but I talked him out of it…and after I made him a pillow from said fabric, I knew I made the right choice—it was horrible to work with and even just sewing a binding on it would have made me crazy).

Now all three kids are covered—literally.

I can turn my attention to myself. Here's a sneak peek at my next project. Usually when I make a quilt, I do all the planning at the beginning and from there it's all tedious cutting and piecing, but this one is planned square by square and I find it positively thrilling to come up with combinations of fabric and then see how they turn out once they're put together. I've almost exhausted my supply of red fabric, in terms of using each only once (they will get repeated later when I start making smaller blocks) and I'm waiting on a shipment of reinforcements from my mom.

I worry a lot about creative energy and whether expending it in one area (e.g., quilting, knitting, painting, etc.) drains the well so there's not enough left over for the main activity (i.e., writing). I don't know the answer to this, but I do know that while this project is distracting, it is also energizing and it makes for a beautiful kind of escapism that's preferable to a television or social media binge.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Farm Quilt

I've had the idea of making a farmyard quilt/play mat for a long time. Many babies of our acquaintance have been born and outgrown the play-on-the-floor-with-tractors stage during that time and I just hadn't pulled it off.

And then the sweet young couple who own the farm where M works had a baby in December and I knew it was exactly the right time to finally make the quilt. 

M and I used to pick strawberries at the farm and shop at the farm store when he was little. It was under different ownership then, and he named the farmer and little girl in his Playmobil tractor set after the farmer and his daughter.

As a tot who loved tractors ("tack-tah" was his second word), I think M would have dug driving all his toy farm vehicles around on a farm quilt, and hopefully the little guy who will be driving around toy (and probably real) tractors way sooner than his parents can possibly imagine, will dig it too.

 I modeled the barn after the one where M sits in the summer, handing out quart containers and ringing up pick-your-own strawberry purchases (though I accidentally tilted the asymmetrical roof the wrong way—oops). And I hid a little cowboy behind the openable barn door, for a fun surprise.

I don't know how to do the quilting part of quilting (I usually take mine to be done at the quilt store) and I lack a proper walking foot (though I learned later that for freehand quilting, the thing to do is use a darning foot and put your feed dogs down). So I just kind of winged it on this one. It ended up a little rumpled and puckered, but I figure the more imperfect it is, the easier it will be to throw it on the floor or grass and let the littlest farmer have at it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New Year's Things

I know, I know, I was going to retire the blog by now. But somehow, while I felt sure I was ready to move on back in November, now I think I might stick around a little longer. I still have things I want to tell you about, and the blog feature on my new website is just a little less user-friendly than this platform—it requires more steps to write and post a blog and I have less control over how it's formatted (and I can't figure out how to add a subscription option and I like my list of blogs I read running down the margin). SO! At the risk of appearing like one of those furniture stores that is perennially going out of business, I'm going to stick around for a little while now. If you go to my site and click on the "blog" link, it should bring you here, and if you click on any of the buttons to the right, they should take you to my website, so it's all neat and tidy.

Now, onto the subject at hand: 2018. This is a picture of my new calendar/journal, a SELF Journal, from (I'm not an affiliate or anything), a 13-week, goal-oriented journal which is going to help me reach my impossible-seeming goal of finishing The Book by April 1. I'm down to mostly research with some revision (more of the latter as I go on, bulldozing the rubble toward the end of the book). It's slow going and doesn't always feel super productive, but the idea is that by telling myself every day I'll finish by April 1, it will happen. Wish me luck (and please, please tell me how to make research less painful!).

Other plans for 2018. Inspired by this post from my "friend"* Kate, who was inspired by this essay by Ann Patchett, I've decided to make 2018 another Buy Nothing Year. Exactly ten years ago, in 2008, I implemented a Buy Nothing Year for myself (and by extension, our household). I wrote several blog posts throughout the year about the challenges I faced and the solutions I came up and the perspective I gained while attempting to Buy Nothing all year.
Buy Nothing YearBuy Nothing Year Part IIMore Buy Nothing Birthday PresentsBuy Just One Book YearBirthday Month Wind-DownPotholdersBuy Nothing Back-to-School and Lunch Bag TutorialReduce, Reuse, Recycle, RepairHandmade Holiday, Part IHandmade Holiday, Part IIBuy Nothing Year Redux
In 2008 I allowed myself some exceptions (underwear and socks, used items, materials needed for making things, health and safety items, and car repairs). Ann Patchett allowed herself to buy books, because she is a writer and bookstore owner. I think I'll allow books as gifts for other people (because I don't plan to hand-make every present I give this year) but not for me (because I have A LOT of books in my "need to read" pile).

I've kind of modified the idea to Buy Nothing Frivolous. Which fits in with my original exemptions, and means that if something is really needed (e.g., underwear or socks) I can buy it. But it also means that I'm expanding Buy Nothing beyond consumer items to consumables like drinks and sandwiches and cookies. I can go out to lunch with a friend, or buy a vitamin-C enriched smoothie drink if I have a cold, but no more bagels when I'm roving around town or Kombuchas when I'm grocery shopping.

I've put the Buy Nothing Frivolous idea to the test already. Last week I felt I really NEEDED a file box to help organize things like bank statements and bills around my desk. Then I remembered I had a file box upstairs that held the drafts from my grad school short stories. Last time I organized I wasn't ready to get rid of those drafts (or even go through them), but I could put them into the filing cabinet in the basement and free up the file box. I cleared some junk out of a file drawer, dropped the stories in, and now I have a tidy little administration area near my desk—no trip to Target involved.

The second thing Kate mentions in her post is deleting her Facebook account. I'm not quite ready to do this, because there are a few people with whom that's my only point of contact, and I use it as a way to promote my own work (for what that's worth). I wish I could limit the posts I see to people's writing news, vacation photos, and new babies, but since there's no filter like that yet, I've mostly just stopped going there. I don't need the endless loop of bad news repeated and reiterated in different ways. I was not making the world a better place by reading, and reposting, more of the same The World is Coming to a Screeching Halt articles, so I've just withdrawn, mostly. I've also cut way back on news in general—NPR, online news venues, etc. It's just too discouraging and truly, reading ten different analyses of the same insane events doesn't really help anything and adds to my stress.

Looking back at the end of 2017, the two things I wished I had more of were time and money. Buying Nothing should help with the money department, somewhat, and cutting back on social media has already added to time.

*I put "friend" in quotes because Kate and I have only met in person for like 30 seconds, but we've been friends on social media for years and she only lives about 25 minutes away from me and is in the same graduate program I went to and we have at least one mutual friend and I'm sure if both our lives weren't so insanely busy, we'd be friends in real life too.

Monday, January 8, 2018

December Reads

A monthly recap of books I've read. For past months, see:
January Reads 
February Reads 
March Reads 
April Reads 
May Reads  
June Reads
July Reads
August Reads 
 September Reads
October Reads 
November Reads

If November's reading list was about fun and escape, December's list is a bit more well-rounded and seasonal.

Measure for Measure, edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver. This book I read over several months, a poem or two or three per day. It's organized by different meter types and while I still wouldn't be able to tell a dactyl from a trochee, I had a lot of fun reading it and look forward to seeking out more metric poetry.

Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed. Not really sure if this book counts as nonfiction or not…it's a collection of quotations from Strayed's other books. I received it for Christmas last year (or maybe the year before) and had picked it up and read a quote here and there over that time, but after I finished Measure for Measure I still felt like reading short pieces in the morning and this happened to be on my night stand. The other thing it has in common with Measure is that it's a hard-cover book the size of a paperback, with a ribbon bookmark—my favorite kind of book of all.

Holidays on Ice by David Sederis. This probably doesn't count as nonfiction, either (I've read that David Sedaris describes his writing as "true-ish"), and it shouldn't be on this list anyway because I only read one piece, "Santaland Diaries," not the whole book. I read "Santaland Diaries" every Christmas, but the other pieces only once every three or four years or so. Nevertheless, I wanted to put it on the list in case there's anyone out there who hasn't given themselves the pleasure of "Santaland Diaries" which is hilarious. The one downside to reading a piece of writing so often you almost have it memorized is that when C and I went to see a one-man play of it earlier in December, I noticed every time the words had been changed (do we really need to update "camcorder" to "iPhone"? Doesn't everyone still know what a camcorder is?) or a part had been left out.

The Winter's Tale, by Shakespeare. This was referred to in the Introduction to Literature and the Environment lectures I've been watching on YouTube. I haven't read Shakespeare since high school, when I found the writing pretty much impenetrable, but I was surprised how well I understood what was going on and how little I had to refer to the text notes that came in my copy of The Winter's Tale. It was a good story with a twist at the end.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. E and Z opted to not listen to a holiday picture book every night leading up to Christmas, for the first time this year. Instead I read the full, unabridged A Christmas Carol to them, mostly to their annoyance. But it can't hurt to have a little Dickens tucked into their brains, especially since it appears that literature is disappearing from the curriculum.

The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing. I'd always thought of Doris Lessing as a writer from a long time ago, but this collection of four short novels was published in 2003 (her literary career ranges from 1950 to 2008; she died in 2013 at 96). Each of the four short novels/long stories was so engaging and so different from all the others and so almost word-perfect. I hope I can write only half so well in my 80s (and anytime between now and then). I've always meant to read The Golden Notebook sooner or later; now I'm determined to read it and much more of her writing.

Death at Gallows Green by Robin Paige. This is the only book that could count as escapism for last month. It's tangentially related to a book I read in September, Death at Hilltop Farm by Susan Witting Albert (Robin Page is the pen name Albert and her husband write under), in that Beatrix Potter makes an appearance, but I thought it was even better than the Hilltop Farm book and I'll be looking for more Paige novels this year.

P.S. By popular demand, I'll continue my monthly reads posts at my new website. Check there in a month for January's list and anytime for other writing updates and posts.

Friday, January 5, 2018

New Year's Hat

There's really nothing "New Year's" about this hat, except that I started it last November (as in 2016) and it's the only thing I knitted in all of 2017 and I was determined to finish it before the year was out. That would have happened, except that I ripped out and re-knitted the ribbing four times, at first because I was afraid it would be way too big and then because it ended up too small. As you can imagine, each of these episodes resulted in a mess of dropped and twisted stitches which had to be rescued and repaired.

I finally wrapped up the last of the four ribbing re-dos and the end weaving in just shy of midnight last night. In the end it came out a little too big, but I'm not doing it again. Goodbye to the last project of 2016, the first project of 2018 and the only project of 2017.

The only reason the hat took so darn long was because it was made of tiny yarn on tiny needles…and because I spent an awful lot of time not knitting…because of said tiny yarn and tiny needles and because of all those very long rounds of stockinette with nothing to break it up but YOs and K2togs. Next project will be made with thick yarn on big needles and a little more exciting action.

It's also a bit too cold for a thin, cashmere hat right now. But I can wear it inside for now, and I'll say this for the hat: it's versatile—it can be worn as a slouchy hat, as a tam-o-shanter, a jaunty beret, or a shower cap.

Pattern notes on my Ravelry page.
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