Monday, May 30, 2011

Apologies, etc.

I'd like to apologize for my sporadic/late/backdated entries of late. My life has, once again, taken a turn for the crazy. I've been totally consumed between:

  1. Gearing up for grad school. I have a million tiny, tiny things to take care of before it gets started. I need to get a student ID made, check up on the status of my parking permit, and, most importantly, have a cage fight with the residency status-determining bureaucracy, which has arbitrarily and unfairly designated me an out-of-state student. I'm gathering my documentation and filling out the long form, and will hopefully have it sent off by Thursday. (Please cross your fingers for me on this. It's $20,000 worth of difference over the course of the degree.)
  2. Dealing with a very unpleasant work situation. I've always made an effort to not blog about my job, partly because I think it's extremely unprofessional to snark on one's co-workers, bosses, or customers/clients on the public internet, and partly because my company has a fairly strict social networking policy ("Make us look bad, and we will can you."), so let's just say conditions have gotten to the point where I've decided to cut my shifts and go back to waiting tables part-time (if you'd like the full deets, feel free to e-mail me). So far, I have one offer and one second interview, and am feeling pretty optimistic about the whole situation.
  3. House-hunting. Matt's acquiring another house so he can rent the one he's living in now, and...guys, house-hunting is sucky, hot, and difficult. A surprising number of houses up here do not have air-conditioning, and a number of the ones that do have been foreclosed on and therefore have no electricity. Beyond that, it's apparently quite difficult to find a house up here that has a basement that doesn't have foundation/retaining wall problems (we're talking cracks you can see daylight through, people) or water seepage issues. That on top of finding something with a good floorplan, enough space, a not-microscopic kitchen, and a location that's not far away from everything that doesn't cost a small fortune (what housing bubble burst? Asheville remains absurdly expensive, housing-wise, for a city its size) is well-nigh impossible.
  4. Uh...reading books? Knitting? Baking cookies? Making passive-aggressive comments about the amount of time Matt spends playing video games? Wherever else my non-blogging time goes. 
I'll get better, maybe. In the meanwhile, I have a ton of book review updates scheduled. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I've officially finished the third (and possibly final) Sherlock Holmes book I intended to read for the Victorian Literature Challenge. I may go on to read the rest of them; the more of them I read, the more I find myself enjoying them. I find I prefer the volumes containing shorter mysteries preferable to those with feature-length, as it were, stories. The longer ones seem to get wordy and bogged down, and veer off on bizarre tangents. For the most part, the shorter stories are far more coherent.

One thing I've started to find intriguing about Sherlock Holmes novels in the presence of a great deal of commentary on gender roles. Holmes often finds himself sought after by wronged women. In those days in England, women had very few legal rights. In fact, virtually the only right they had was the right to inherit property and pass it down to their children; however, this property (or money) was pretty much always controlled by either a male relative or their husband. It appears that jealous relatives and gold-digging potential spouses attempting to deprive women of their inheritances was such a common occurrence that the theme pops up in several mysteries. In fact, most of the mysteries which feature women characters involve inheritance theft in some form or other. I found that pretty interesting, and filed it away in my mental list of reasons why I'm don't think life in the Victorian era was particularly romantic (most of the reasons boil down to wanting to 1) have rights and 2) not die of cholera).

Very enjoyable. 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review: So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba

I was supposed to read So Long a Letter for the Classic Feminist Literature challenge back in January, but the library didn't have any copies and it took me a while to get around to procuring one through Amazon's used booksellers. (Read: I was lazy, broke, and had a gigantic pile of library books to get through). Once I realized that the library didn't have a copy of God Dies by the Nile (June's selection) either, I decided to buy them both. I'm very glad that I did; So Long a Letter was excellent.

Taking the form of a (very long) letter from Ramatoulaye to Aissatou, a friend from school, So Long a Letter details the struggles that modern, educated women face in a slowly changing society. Ramatoulaye details her experiences following the death of her husband, who had betrayed her several years earlier by taking a second wife. Not only must she contend with his second wife's family's attempts at her property and see to the raising and educating of her numerous children, she must rebuff a number of attempts by her husband's friends to marry her. Throughout the letter, she reveals the extent to which entrenched patriarchy dominates her life, making freedom and self-determination very difficult. She also muses upon their husbands' choices to take second wives despite their earlier promises, reading them to be a calculated betrayal of their ideals.

Overall, an intriguing look into African feminism. I only wish I could have read it in French; this translation was a little wonky. 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fingerless Gloves Sample: Progress!

As you can see, I'm almost finished with the first glove that I'm using to test my tutorial on designing one's own fitted fingerless gloves/armwarmers. I realized the yardage in Aslan Trends Santa Fe yarn is a little shorter than the usual 50g skein of sock yarn, so I decided to omit the fingers. All that's left is finishing the wrist ribbing and the thumb, so I should be able to post Part 3 very soon.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: The Devil's Rooming House by M. William Phelps

I don't generally read true crime, and I'm not quite sure what possessed me to check The Devil's Rooming House out of the library. I maintain that true crime novels serve to satisfy the worst human instincts: voyeuristically ogling the misery and depravity of fellow members of the human race. I think I was hoping that The Devil's Rooming House would have something of a historical bent, as I am generally interested in that point in history.

Either way, it turned out to be a pretty typical work on a serial killer: Amy Archer-Gilligan, a pioneer of the old folk's home industry who swindled her clients out of their savings and then killed them by lacing their food and drinks with arsenic, thereby opening their spaces in the house for new victims. The story was later adapted into a play: Arsenic and Old Lace. Phelps relates Archer-Gilligan's story from the beginning: the purchase of the home and the untimely death of her first husband to her ultimate conviction and sequestering in a mental hospital.

While it's mostly well-written, the narrative itself is split up and juggled very ham-handedly. It's also quite repetitive and becomes bogged down in multiple places. I can't help but feel that it should have been substantially shorter than it actually was, and while informative, I didn't leave the experience of reading it feeling particularly enlightened. 2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I don't know why, but traveling always takes a lot out of me. It doesn't matter what form it takes, be it plane or car, or how long the actual journey is, I'm always beat afterwards and need at leas a day to recuperate. I got back from the beach on Monday (and am very pleased that I didn't get sunburned at all while I was there!), but am dead tired bow because I didn't get my usual day of relaxation: I spent Tuesday taking Camacho to the airport, having lunch with Matt and his co-workers, and then house-hunting all afternoon with his mom and realtor. The good news is that we found a couple of promising houses (and only one or two "Is it really safe to be in here?"s), and they're all relatively close to where we're living now. The bad news is that I am still exhausted, and have nothing else to write about for today.

I mean, unless you guys want to hear about the heat rash I got during my first day back at work today.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How to Make Fitted Fingerless Gloves/Armwarmers, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my series on making fingerless gloves/armwarmers. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here. Part 3 is here.

Part 2: Measuring and Math

Okay, okay, I know most knitters aren't really into math. However, some basic algebra and arithmetic are critical in ensuring a good fit, so there's no getting out of it. I promise to make the math as painless as possible, and will include a step-by-step series of equations that will show exactly how I arrived at the numbers I used for the gloves I'll be knitting as I write this series.

Step 1: Make a hand turkey. Include both your fingers and as far up your wrist/arm you'd like the gloves to go. Make sure you use a big piece of paper for this, as you'll be annotating it constantly throughout the process.

Step 2: Measure all parts of your wrist/hand that will be covered by the armwarmers. You'll definitely want to measure around the fullest part of your upper (right underneath your fingers) and lower (around the base of the thumb) palm, your thumb, and a few spots along your wrists and lower arms (especially if you're like me and have very tapered arms and skinny wrists!) If you're planning on doing half-fingers, measure your fingers. Write these measurements down next to their corresponding parts on the hand turkey you just drew.

Step 3: Adjust measurements for negative ease. This step is optional; if you prefer to have zero ease, feel free to skip this step. I recommend against positive ease, though-- the finished product will come out way too loose. I tend to prefer a 5-10% negative ease for things like socks and wristwarmers. To get that, multiply your measurements from step 2 by either .9 (for 10% negative ease) or .95 (for 5% negative ease). Here's what I got when I made the conversions for my gloves:

  • Pinky Finger: 2 x .9 = 1.8
  • Ring Finger: 2.4 x .9 = 2.16
  • Middle Finger: 2.5 x .9 = 2.25
  • Index Finger: 2.6 x .9 = 2.34
  • Thumb: 2.5 x .9 = 2.25
  • Upper Palm: 7.25 x .9 = 6.53
  • Lower Palm, around base of thumb: 9 x .9 = 8.1
  • Lower Wrist: 6.5 x .9 = 5.85
  • Upper Wrist: 7.5 x .9 = 6.75
I've found it very useful to write both numbers on my hand turkey next to the parts they correspond to. 

Step 4: Convert Measurements into Stitches. This is exactly what it sounds like. Since we found out how many stitches per inch we're getting in Part 1, we can plug that number in to see how many stitches we need to cover each of the parts we've measured. You can arrive at that number by multiplying the measurement in inches by the stitch per inch count you obtained earlier (I got 8). Here's how I did it:
  • Pinky Finger: 8 x 1.8 = 14.4
  • Ring Finger: 8 x 2.16 = 17.28
  • Middle Finger: 8 x 2.25 = 18
  • Index Finger: 8 x 2.34 = 18.72
  • Thumb: 8 x 2.25 = 18
  • Upper Palm: 8 x 6.53 = 52.24
  • Lower Palm, around base of thumb: 8 x 8.1 = 64.8
  • Lower Wrist: 8  x 5.85 = 46.8
  • Upper Wrist: 8 x 6.75 = 54
You'll get some uneven numbers, but don't worry. Round up if you want it to be a little looser, down if you want it tighter. Write the stitch counts down on your hand turkey next to the corresponding parts.

Step 5: Measure the vertical distances between the horizontal measurements. This sounds complicated, but it isn't. In order to make sure the gloves fit right, you'll need to find how many rows you'll need and plan out increases and decreases accordingly. Since you did that gauge swatch already, you can measure how many rows per inch you'll be getting and can plug that number into your hand turkey. For vertical measurements, you'll want to measure between all wrist measurements, between the wrist to the base of the thumb, and from the base of the thumb to the base of the fingers. If you're doing half-fingers, measure each of your fingers and your thumb from the base to where you want the gloved to end. If not, just measure your thumb from the base to where you want it to end, and then measure your fingers (together) from the base to where you'd like the gloves to end. Plot these numbers on your hand turkey. 

This is how your hand turkey should look at the end of the process (click to see the larger version): 

I think it's time to take a break, don't you? Coming soon is Part 3: Converting the Numbers into a Pattern. There will be 90% less math in that section, I promise!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

I admit it: I cheated. I knew from the beginning that I would adore Kitchen Confidential. This is partly because I started working in food service at sixteen, and finally kicked the habit at twenty-five. Over the course of those nine long years, I saw a whole lot of crazy thing, and have some really great stories that I'll probably never be able to publish in any kind of public forum. Bourdain took a fair number of public and private risks when he decided to write and publish Kitchen Confidential; anything that tells the unadulterated truth of what working in restaurants is like is pretty much guaranteed to be some combination of horrifying, offensive, and just plain gross. 

Lucky for me, I already knew about all the gross stuff (like how if you order meat cooked to the consistency of a shoe sole [well-done], you'll get a crappy cut, that you should never get seafood on a Sunday or Monday, and, most importantly, that it is extremely unwise to piss off anyone who touches your food), so nothing came as much of a surprise to me. 

Anyway, I knew I'd enjoy the book because one of my ex-boyfriends was obsessed with Bourdain's television show, No Reservations, in which he travels the world eating all kinds of food. I figured that since I enjoyed the show, I'd enjoy the book, and I wasn't wrong. A memoir of his early days in the kitchens of New York and Rhode Island and rise to prominence as the chef at Les Halles, Kitchen Confidential was just as funny, smart, and brutally honest as No Reservations, and Bourdain has quite the knack for writing. I look forward to reading his other offerings. 5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to Make Fitted Fingerless Gloves/Armwarmers, Part 1

I've been meaning to do a series of tutorials on fingerless gloves or armwarmers for a while now. For the most part, I don't like to knit from patterns for fitted items like socks or gloves because they almost never come out fitted. Much better, in my opinion, to do the extra legwork from the beginning and ensure they come out right. I came to that conclusion after completing three pairs of wristwarmers that all had baggy wrists and upper cuffs. You see, I have very skinny wrists and small, short hands with stubby fingers, and knitting gloves this way allows me to compensate for that.

Part 1: Planning and Swatching

Step 1:  Select your yarn. I recommend fingering or sport-weight yarn for heavy-wear items like socks and fingerless gloves. The greater number of stitches per inch, the more durable they will be and the longer they will last. I do not, however, recommend using laceweight (unless it's heavyweight superwash laceweight like Ella Rae or Wollmeise, which are really more light fingering weight than laceweight), as it's not always plied and tends to be a bit too delicate. As far as fiber content goes, I get best results from superwash wool or wool/nylon blends, the more tightly-spun plies, the better. Wool is elastic without stretching unpredictably, and is very durable and less prone to pilling. I don't recommend using cotton, which is inelastic and prone to shrinkage (and color fading), or alpaca, which pills like a mofo and stretches all over the place, or 100% synthetics, which can't be blocked and don't breathe.

Yardage requirements depend on three important factors:
  1. How big your hands are.
  2. Whether or not you want to do half-fingers.
  3. How long you want them to be. 
I've found I can squeeze a pair of half-finger gloves that go just past my wrist out of a 50g, 200-ish yard skein of fingering weight sock yarn and still have some left over. Of course, I do have fairly small, short hands (I'll provide my measurements in the next entry in this series). If you have larger hands or want longer gloves/full fingers, you may want to get a second skein. 

Step 2: Make a gauge swatch in the round. I know, I know, nobody likes to make gauge swatches. Sadly, when it comes to fitted garments of any kind, it's really necessary, as is doing a swatch-in-the-round for something that will be knitted that way. Most knitters' gauge changes when they switch from knitting flat to in the round (particularly if they knit continental style), and that can really affect the fir of the finished project. I usually try to do a 30 x 30 swatch, measuring the stitches in the middle of the square. If you're planning on blocking the finished project (I generally don't block socks and wristwarmers), you need to block the gauge swatch as sometimes washing can change gauge counts. I've found this happens less frequently with the superwash wool/nylon blends commonly used in fingering weight sock yarns, but it happens quite often with heavier, 100% untreated wool yarns.

You should shoot for a gauge in between 7-10 stitches per inch. Anything with fewer stitches won't wear as well and may pill with wear and use, and anything with more than that will take for-freaking-ever to finish. I usually wind up in the 8-9 range.

As for doing a gauge swatch in the round, I use this method, which is quick and easy to measure. Again, make sure to measure the stitches in the middle of the swatch, as this method does distort the edges.

Once you've completed these steps, you can move onto Part 2: Measuring and Math. I promise, I'll make the math as painless as possible.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: Sundown Towns by James Loewen

I've been meaning to read Sundown Towns for a while now. It's come highly recommended by a number of people whose opinions on race relations and sociology I greatly value. Believe it or not, I had no idea what a sundown town was until about a year and a half ago, when my boyfriend at the time mentioned that the town he was working in (somewhere in Oregon) used to have a sign at the outskirts telling black people to not let the sun set on them there. I was dumbfounded. Having lived in a number of cities, I knew all about housing segregation, but I had no idea that there were (and are!) hundreds, if not thousands, of cities which refuse to allow black people to even live there-- and drive them out with violence or threats of it if they try. Ironically, that's probably because I'm from the South. With the exception of parts of Appalachia, sundown towns are rare here. They're most common in the Midwest (that's where the bulk of the lingering ones are), though they originally existed across the West and Northeast as well (most of these have since been integrated). Given that many people erroneously believe that all racism in the US is located in the South, the reality of sundown towns and their effects on society had never been acknowledges, much less studied, until James Loewen decided to take a crack at it. 

Sundown Towns is, in a lot of ways, the only book of its kind. While other works have mentioned their existence (often falsely situating them in the South), only Loewen has compiled an extensive list of towns, documenting their histories and cultures so as to explain why they went sundown in the first place and explore whether or not they continue to be to this day. It was a very challenging endeavor; as we all know, nobody wants to 'fess up to being a racist, especially not to a pencil-necked academic outsider. Loewen had to rely on a mix of oral histories (from those willing to talk to him), census figures, old newspaper articles about racial violence in small towns (the ones he could find that hadn't been expunged by historians attempting to whitewash their towns' history), and, of course, digging trough town histories themselves, looking for inconsistencies in the story. He was able to confirm the existence of over a thousand towns, though he estimates that there were anywhere from three to fifteen thousand during their heyday. 

Beyond identifying sundown towns and describing their history and ongoing existence, Loewen does an excellent job in delineating precisely why sundown towns, and housing segregation as a whole, is bad for society. All-white suburbs, the descendants of sundown towns, Loewen argues, both provide shelters and breeding grounds for racists. Racists move into an area, ensure that other, undesirable races stay out, and then start to influence the community as a whole, even members who may not have previously held negative attitudes towards other races, especially children and young adults. By grounding exclusion in the language of money and social class, those who inhabit the suburbs minimize the true nature of racism in housing segregation, effectively blaming the victims. 

Meanwhile, suburbs are often leeches on the cities they surround: they don't pay taxes to contribute to the city, yet their inhabitants use the infrastructure of the city (roads, bridges, sidewalks, buildings), the city's cultural attractions, and they also unload their "undesirables" into the city's public health system by refusing to allow homeless shelters, low-income housing, and any kind of medical treatment facility for the poor to be built in their environs. Since they're not paying for much by way of infrastructure or public services, they can funnel their money into their school systems, a luxury that cities simply don't have. I'll spare you my feelings on the way that American school systems are organized, but suffice it to say: the way public school systems are organized and funded reinforces unequal socioeconomic statuses, and since black children are more likely to be in poorly-funded schools, they're less likely to succeed later. 

Sundown Towns isn't all doom and gloom, though. Loewen provides a series of potential solutions to desegregate holdout sundown towns as well as affluent, all-white suburbs and to ameliorate the problems they've caused. In the years since 2001, when Sundown Towns was published, some things have gotten better. Others, clearly, have not, but I remain optimistic.

Illuminating. 5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Knitting Progress: ish.

 So, despite having been at the beach for several days now, I have yet to accomplish much knitting. I've only managed to work on my Aeolian shawl. That's partly because I don't want to sand-ify my projects by knitting on the beach (and hauling looseleaf patterns around is problematic for obvious reasons), but mostly because I've found I prefer reading books to be a more enjoyable pastime. I'm on track to have finished all of the books I brought with me by the time we get back Monday afternoon. I'll have Tuesday off to pick up any slack, but we'll probably be spending that day looking at more houses.

The first picture is of the completed Transition Chart, which I finished in the car. The second is of the agave charts: I did one regular, and one final agave. They took a pretty long time thanks to all the nupps. The Ravelry fora are correct: nupps really are Satan's nipples.

I've started on the edging, and I'll hopefully finish it today or tomorrow so I can either continue working on the omelet shawl (or maybe the Juneberry) or start something else. I'm really pleased with how it's turning out, even though it's taking longer than I anticipated.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The weather is here, wish you were beautiful.

I'm at the beach! It's really nice here, but the internet connection is pretty awful and fritzy, so I'm not for sure how well my entries are going to post. Either way: I'm having a great time, and so far, no sunburns.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

It's pretty much impossible to write summaries of post-modern novels given the nature of the beast, so I'll be brief: if you like post-modern meta-narratives and Calvino's writing style, you'll enjoy this book. I did, even though parts of it were a bit tedious and I generally possess a pathological hatred of the use of the second person as a narrative style. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beach Knitting Docket!

So, my list of what I'll be knitting at the beach has been finalized:

  • Complete second attempt at an Aeolian shawl
  • Complete Omelet shawl
  • Start and finish Orchid Thief shawl
  • Work on second Juneberry shawl (may not have enough yarn with it to finish, don't want to pack more)
  • Generic fingerless gloves (may be posting a tutorial)
  • Second iteration of Idiot-Proof Sideways Scarf
I seriously doubt I'll be able to finish it all but it's worth aiming high. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Remember the Omelet Shawl?

Yeah, I finally finished Chart B. It's funny how four and a half repeats of the same chart can take forever and kill your motivation. Given how easily distracted I am, I have to be careful which patterns I select, because nothing sends a project to the UFO pile faster than near endless numbers of chart repeats. I suspected that the Omelet shawl would do this to me, and I was right. I managed to finish Chart A and the first two repeats of Chart B fairly quickly, but after that? It went into a drawer and stayed there for about three weeks.

This is why I never finish anything.

I was finally motivated to get cracking on finishing it by the arrival of Brave New Knits* from the library. I've had it on hold for about six months now, and it's finally my turn to borrow it. I would like to knit the Orchid Thief shawl, but in order to do that, I need the size six needle that the Omelet is currently occupying.** So, I've managed to knock out the last two and a half repeats of Chart B and all of Chart C (easy enough: it was only ten rows) over the course of the past four days. I'm pretty pleased with myself, even though I still have Chart D (twenty rows) and Chart E (thirty-four rows, plus the bind-off) to complete.

Hopefully, my beach trip will be fairly productive, knitting-wise. I will, after all, have to return that book to the library when I get back.

*I very rarely buy knitting books. 95% of the time, there are only one or two patterns I really like, so I just check them out of the library (or, if they're available a la carte online,. I'll buy them). The exceptions tend to be stitch guides and Cookie A's sock books.
**In order to keep the number of projects in the to-finish pile at a slightly less horrifying level, I only buy one of each needle size.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review: Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre

I started this book on the recommendation of an ex-boyfriend. I was sort of skeptical that I'd enjoy it, as I'm not generally one for military history. It's just not something I've ever found particularly interesting, and since so many of them glorify wars and violence, I am often left with a bad taste in my mouth after finishing. Fortunately for me, Operation Mincemeat was more about espionage than killing people. In fact, MacIntyre praised the operation extensively because its success ensured that far fewer lives of both allied and Nazi soldiers were lost in the invasion. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Operation Mincemeat depicts the real Operation: Mincemeat, a plan enacted by the British during World War II to trick the Axis powers into believing that the Allies' southern front in Europe wouldn't attack Sicily, the most obvious and convenient jumping-off point for an invasion of that part of Europe. They knew that if they were unable to pull off the trickery, Sicily would be well-fortified and casualties would be very heavy. Taking a plot from an obscure novel, British Intelligence officials decided to procure a body from a local morgue, dress it in military clothes, plant forged documents on it, and then float it at (supposedly) neutral Spain, and use local intelligence officials to ensure that the documents fell into Axis hands. It would have been a macabre comedy of errors had the stakes not been so high.

MacIntyre nicely juggles several concurrent narratives, and presents the history in an informative and accessible way. Overall, I enjoyed it, but I think I'll head back to my more usual literary fare after this. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Aeolian redux, deux!

Yucca chart: COMPLETE! I did six repeats:

I flew through this chart-- probably because this is the fourth time I've knitted it. Hopefully, it will take this time.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Beach Book Docket!

Here's what I am planning on reading at the beach:

  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (okay, so, I'm about 300 pages in. Almost 400 more to go...)
  • Something Rotten, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, and One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde
  • Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft (Don't worry, readers/Dad/Linds. I hung up the dating jerks habit years ago; this is so I feel slightly less unprepared for school this fall).
  • Children of Men by P.D. James
  • Culture of Make-Believe by Derrick Jensen
  • Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn
  • God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi*
  • So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba*
  • possibly something from the e-reader? I am sort of behind on the Victorian literature challenge.
*If they have arrived. I had to order them used from Amazon since the library didn't have any copies.

I probably won't finish them all, but it'll be interesting to see how far I can get!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

As it turns out, I read Barbery's first novel before her second; Gourmet Rhapsody was published first in France, but second in the United States. So I didn't get them backwards, after all.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog takes place in the same apartment building as Gourmet Rhapsody, and the action, interestingly, begins at the same time as that of Gourmet Rhapsody. The news of the imminent demise of everyone's most-hated food critic kicks off a chain reaction that affects numerous other inhabitants of the building, most specifically, Paloma, whose family occupies the apartment above the food critic's, and  Madame (Renee) Michel, the concierge of the building. Neither is what they seem; both behave like stereotypes in order to hide their intelligence. Paloma, who has all but given up on life (at the age of twelve!), has resolved to commit suicide on her next birthday/ Madame Michel, haunted by her childhood, is a recluse in a building full of people, carefully hiding her reading (lots of Russian novels) and viewing (Japanese art films) material. Paloma pretends to be a typical, airheaded teenager while Renee hides behind a facade of soap operas and intentionally idiotic remarks.

Their carefully-crafted illusions start to crack when a mysterious stranger, Kakuro Ozu, moves into the now-vacant apartment and befriends them both. Their friendships with Ozu, and each other, dramatically transform them. Barbery does an excellent job intertwining their thoughts, beliefs, and commentary into a cohesive narrative, and the characters themselves are fantastically well-rendered. I had a difficult time putting this one down! While The Elegance of the Hedgehog is written in a very similar style to Gourmet Rhapsody and involves many of the same characters, I found myself enjoying it much more. I think that's mostly because it's longer, which allowed for a more fleshed-out, complex story. I also appreciated the multiple perspectives and the more philosophical tone.

Rapturous. 5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own is the May selection for the Classic Feminist Literature Challenge I'm participating in this year. Virginia Woolf is another author I've read in excerpt, but have never completed a full work. I'd seen this book quoted in a number of other feminist works, and was looking forward to reading it. I wasn't disappointed! Woolf is, above all, very intelligent, highly articulate, and quite quotable:
"The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself."
Anyway. A Room of One's Own is apparently an expansion of a lecture Woolf once gave about women in literature, in which she argued that it is impossible to say anything true or of substance about women's literature, due to women's ongoing socio-economic and cultural subjection to men. Women, she writes, must have money and a room of their own in order to truly write. Too much of literature written by women had been composed around their domestic duties (think: Jane Austen in the parlor) or in direct opposition to them. Either way, Woolf believes, it revolves too much around men: they're either being catered to or condemned, and in neither case is a woman writer really composing women's literature. In order for that to happen, Woolf argues, a woman must be able to support herself and have her own space.

It's a compelling argument, one that still applies today, in far more realms than just writing. 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Same Song, Second Verse

I'm taking another crack at the Aeolian shawl. This time, I'm using some malabrigo lace in Azul Bolita. (I'm repurposing the Lacey Lamb for something else.) This is the set-up chart, completed!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

As a borderline hypochondriac, I've long avoided reading books on environmental toxins, fearing that the knowledge I'd find therein would send me straight over the edge. I have this Yossarian-esque need to not die even if it kills me, and it's led me to all manner of strange behaviors over the years (one of the reasons I took up knitting is that it's said to help prevent Alzheimer's, for example). I'm too much of a fan of being alive to subject myself to things that will harm me, and sometimes, ignorance is neurosis-free bliss...

...until you get cancer from cooking out of chipped teflon-lined pans, or your kid develops hypospadias because you ate microwaved food out of a plastic container when you were pregnant, or you go insane and die from eating too much tuna (sadly, there is such a thing) and developing mercury poisoning.

These examples are extreme, of course, but the problem with the way that American (and Canadian; Smith and Lourie are from there) chemical companies are regulated is that their products are presumed to be safe until demonstrated otherwise. This is in stark contrast to the way in which the FDA's pharmaceuticals testing works; a drug must be proven safe before it is marketed. The inevitable end result is that toxic products can be on the market for years, if not decades, before a critical mass of evidence and consumer outrage accumulates and forces change. This, too, can take years of work, given how powerful the lobbying arms of the chemical companies are. In the meantime, people get sick and die needlessly.

The cool thing about Slow Death by Rubber Duck is that it's not 100% doom and gloom. Despite going into great, painstaking detail about how easy it is for toxic materials to build up inside your body (and how ubiquitous they are!), they offer an optimistic look at the future. The more environmental awareness grows, they argue, the more likely it is that standards will change and damaging products will be removed from the shelves. In the meantime, though, it is possible to avoid them by being a savvy consumer. They provide long lists of shopping tips that are designed to help people weed out sketchy products as well as advice on how to mitigate any damage that has already been done.

I guess it goes without saying that I've spent the last week going through my possessions and tossing a bunch of stuff. The biggest casualties have been cosmetics and hair/skincare. The crazy thing is that I went sulfate and silicone-free a couple of years ago because of my curly hair, and it turns out even that wasn't effective. Luckily, I was able to find some acceptable hair products at less than what I was paying for the old stuff (Kiss My Face brand, if anyone is curious. One of the good things about living in Asheville is the widespread availability of crunchy products). Less luckily, I discovered that there are few to none brands of mascara that are phthalate-free, and that I will more than likely be switching from body wash to plain soap.

I've also gotten rid of all the scratched-up non-stick pans in the kitchen, and will be looking for replacements at some point in the near future. I'm planning on going for stainless steel with copper bottoms, though apparently Cuisinart has launched a lone of non-stick pans that do not leach carcinogenic or toxic chemicals. I'm also looking into replacing all of the plastic food storage containers we use with glass ones (which will probably still have plastic lids, but they won't be touching the food) and getting rid of the plastic glasses floating around the cupboard.

Luckily, I eat tuna so infrequently that my sushi rolls are safe. Canned tomatoes are another matter entirely, but I guess you can't win them all.

All told, I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. It's given me a lot to think about.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

I decided to buy this book after reading a positive review of it in Scientific American. As someone who has long been skeptical of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus mentality, I found Delusions of Gender both enlightening and enjoyable.

My skepticism is largely due to my own life experiences of, for lack of a batter term, being a blue girl in a pink world. Despite my mother's best efforts to mold me in her own image (stereotypically feminine extrovert), I am resolutely just like my father (brainy and introverted, with a dash of a number of friends insisting over the years that I'm a dude trapped in a girl's body)-- despite my own failed efforts to conform to the expectations of my mother and those around me. As a child, I hated tea parties and playing dress-up, preferring to read books , and as an adult, it takes serious bribery and/or threats to induce me to wear a dress and heels, and I practically never wear makeup. Obviously, I still spend much of my free time reading.

People like me, who don't readily conform to gender norms for whatever reason, encounter a lot of judgment and friction in their lives. It's caused me a lot of stress and anxiety; at the end of the day, nobody likes being treated like a weirdo because of their honest personal preferences. My mother's continual exhortations to be more like my sister (remember how I've said we're polar opposites?) really did a number on me, too. It took me a long time to accept who I was and stop trying (and failing!) to adhere to societal standards of What Women Are Like and just be myself. That journey has taken me a lot of places, and I've read a number of books on the subject over the years to try to make sense of my life and experiences. My women's and gender studies minor was an invaluable part of the process, as it taught me to think critically about the whys of social expectations and the ways in which they feed into entrenched societal paradigms.

I ultimately wound up taking the view that people who gleefully tout the huge, insurmountable differences between men and women based on vague observations of head scans to be the modern equivalent of nineteenth century phrenologists who firmly believed that the different sizes of cranial bones indicated that white men are superior to everybody else (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Throughout my studies in sociology, it was apparent that the differences within members of a given sex were nearly always greater than the ones between the two sexes, and that research on the subject was plagued by faulty research that includes, but is by no means limited to: cherry picking, confirmation bias, tiny sample sizes, flawed data analysis, non-objective experimental design, poorly-controlled variables, and what Fine dubs the 90/10 Principle: that people, even researchers, will ignore 90% of the data that doesn't fit with their worldview and focus on the 10% that does. Sadly, that tendency carries over to the whole of society: journalists, doctors, teachers, and you and me.

Delusions of Gender provides an excellent debunking of both the bad science that leads to the publishing of Mars/Venus-type books that is easy for laypeople to understand. Though I have a decent background in the social sciences, I nevertheless found Fine's explanations of the way that studies ought to be conducted (versus the way that they actually are) very illuminating and learned quite a bit. Beyond explaining the studies, Fine delves into the meat of the science behind them, making a compelling argument that we simply know too little about how the brain works to be making grand, sweeping statements about intrinsic characteristics of men and women, especially considering what the stakes are. Fine provides a great deal of evidence that much human potential is being lost to these antiquated notions, and that ideas of what men and women (and boys and girls!) are capable has more to do with culture than biology. Her often humorous takedowns of pop-science writers and journalists (along with shoddy researchers themselves) who propagate bad and misleading science are quite enjoyable in addition to being very informative.

Everyone should read this. 5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, May 6, 2011

FO: Idiot-Proof Sideways Scarf

It's finally finished!

Pattern: Idiot-Proof Sideways Scarf by ME. I'll post the pattern once I knit a few more models
Yarn: Noro Sekku 
Needle: US #7
Finished Size:  10" x 68" 
Notes: Overall, I'm pretty happy with how this first draft came out, though there are a few changes I'll probably make. Despite the things I've said about Sekku in the past, it does make for a very nice summer scarf fabric. As I'm giving this to my mother for her birthday and she lives in Memphis, I imagine it'll go nicely with the weather.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Review: The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

Speaking of books that hit uncomfortably close to home, The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams had a much stronger effect on me than I had anticipated. I didn't think that I would have much in common with a thirteen-year-old character who is born into a repressive polygamous sect in the middle of nowhere, but it seems that some aspects of being indoctrinated into the notion that women are inferior to men because god said so are universal. The Chosen One left me shaken, moved, and very, very thankful that books were there to set me free, as well.

The Chosen One revolves around Kyra, the thirteen-year-old almost-eldest (her older sister appears to have Down's Syndrome) daughter in a polygamist family. Her father has three wives, and since the sect doesn't believe in birth control, Kyra has over twenty siblings (with a few more on the way). She manages to stay sane through playing the piano, carrying on a secret, forbidden relationship with Joshua, a boy her own age, and covertly visiting the Bookmobile and reading secular books. Her secret world begins to collapse when Kyra learns that she has been Chosen to wed her sixty-year-old uncle, who already has six wives. She is thoroughly disgusted by the idea, and begins to break away from her family and community. As her rebellious acts escalate, the abuse that the Prophet and the all-male Elders inflict upon the community becomes increasingly clear. Kyra finds herself torn between her loyalty to and her need to protect her family and her desperate desire to flee her repugnant uncle and everything that a life with him would entail.

Williams deftly explores the psychology of someone who has been raised in a truly dysfunctional environment; Kyra's struggles are both realistic and deeply compelling, inspiring both frustration and compassion in the reader. It's clear that Williams has done a lot of research to explore the nuances of fundamentalist polygamist groups, and it shows throughout the narrative. As someone who was raised in a conservative christian environment (I thank my lucky stars most days that it wasn't worse), the way that the leaders used religion and the threat of eternal damnation to browbeat their followers into obedience rang true, as did the multitude of things they did to repress and control the women of the community. Needless to say, I found myself with a glass of wine and some knitting not long after I finished it.

Outstanding. 5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why I Tell People Majoring in English is an Incredibly Bad Idea

I've briefly touched on this subject in the FAQ section:
Seriously. Don't major in English unless:
  • you really want to teach middle/high school literature, 
  • or you are 100% sure you're going to post-secondary in something that's actually lucrative [hint: this does not include master's or doctoral programs in English, or anything else in the humanities], 
  • or you are independently wealthy and won't, you know, need to support yourself later, 
  • or you really, really like waiting tables, folding shirts, or other similarly demeaning career paths.
If you like to read, get a library card. If you like to talk about books, start or join a book club. I don't consider my lit degree a waste of time, but it was definitely a waste of money and resources that could have been better spent elsewhere. To paraphrase Good Will Hunting: all of the books I read were in the library.
but the arrival of a survey from Vanderbilt's English department inquiring as to how my course of study has impacted my life has inspired me to expound a bit. I'm not going to lie; I was irked by the leading questions about the benefits of a liberal arts education that were obviously trolling for viewbook/website fodder in light of the things that I and many of my fellow English/humanities majors have experienced since graduating.

While I'm on board with the ideas behind a liberal arts education as well as the underlying principle that education and learning are ends in themselves, not means to an end, I simply cannot, in good conscience, recommend pursuing one to the vast majority of students. At the end of the day, college costs money and we all have to eat, so future earnings potential should be a primary consideration when selecting a course of study, not a secondary. It's one thing if you're wealthy, and someone else is footing the bill for your education, and you know that you have a job waiting for you the moment you cross the stage (or that it's no big deal if you never hold an actual job). It's quite another to be middle class or lower, having to take out a minimum of $20,000 in loans (that's roughly the maximum that schools are allowed to require you to take out as part of aid packages; however, many students find themselves borrowing considerably more than that from private companies), only to discover upon graduation that your fancy-pants degree has effectively priced you out of the regular job market and you don't have the option of mom's lawyer's cousin's golf buddy hiring you straight out, and simply not working was never on the table in the first place.

Four years and countless resumes later, you're still working in jobs that require you to wear a nametag, your student loans are in forbearance (accumulating capitalized interest all the way!), and there's still no sign of a way out of the pit higher education dug, except for, you guessed it, more school. And, of course more loan debt.

That's what will really kill you if you get an undergraduate degree in the humanities. With a few exceptions, you're going to have to get some kind of advanced degree to be employable, and said degree (unless you're becoming a teacher or college professor, which, frankly, is a terrible idea in its own right given the massive surplus of people who decided to go that route) will often have very little to do with what you originally studied, and may require supplemental undergraduate coursework for admission. While some post-secondary programs are undergraduate-major-neutral (mainly, law school, but again: a terrible idea in its own right), a great many aren't, and require coursework not generally pursued by the average humanities major (pretty much everything in the health and human services fields, the sciences, technology...maybe I should have said everything except for law school).

My situation is hardly uncommon. The majority of my friends who graduated at or around the same time as I did with degrees in the humanities (and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences) who didn't go to law school are in more or less the same position that I'm in: stuck under varying amounts of student loan debt, unable to find a job befitting our educational level, and continually fending off donation requests from the old alma mater. (A number of the friends who went to law school are similarly screwed, but for different reasons.) As a result, I'm not going to extol the virtues of a student loans-funded liberal arts education to anyone who may have to work for a living one day, and I find it incredibly unethical that many universities are still selling the old "critical thinking will get you a job four years from now!" line. It might, perhaps, if you're a philosophically-inclined engineering major, but trust me, it'll be the engineering part that lands you the job, not the philosophical inclinations.

Further evidence? My boyfriend, who dropped out of a four-year program and subsequently came close to not bothering to finish his associate's degree from a community college, makes about three times what I do, and doesn't have to wear a nametag to work.

At the end of the day, I would have been much better off acquiring a library card and majoring in something useful. This probably applies to the majority of people who major in English.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Almost finished with the first Idiot-Proof Sideways Scarf. After this row, I'll have six rows plus the bind-off left. I should be able to block it tomorrow or the next day.

Finally finally finally. I'm so tired of this awful yarn!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Book Review: Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern

I don't generally read a lot of memoirs. I find them tedious, often unsatisfactorily dishonest, and generally prefer my own navel-gazing to that of others. However, I made an exception for Denial: Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern, as it seemed like it would be more complex and interesting than the usual topics of living wackily for a year, cooking a whole bunch, adopting a new quirky behavior to compensate for a bad breakup, or, my personal favorite, better living through pseudophilosophical poverty tourism (it seems that the best selling personal journey memoirs involve all of the above). Denial's source material was a little different.

Sterns, a renowned terrorism expert, was contacted by a detective from the police department in her hometown out of the blue one day. He had reopened her and her sister's rape case, and was attempting to connect it to a series of assaults that had taken place in nearby towns over the years. He asked for her help. Sterns agreed, and decided to document the process, believing that it would provide her with clues as to why she was capable of interacting with terrorists who had few, if any, qualms about murdering Americans without being afraid, yet was totally crippled by fear when attempting everyday activities and was unable to have a normal relationship with other people. Over the course of the narrative, Stern's research takes her back to her hometown, to the childhood home of her rapist, and eventually to the seaside town of a fellow victim. All the while, she attempts to unravel long-suppressed, complicated feelings concerning the attack and its aftermath, along with the chaos of a childhood that, quite frankly, would have been traumatic even if she hadn't been raped.

This, of course, leads me to what bothered me about Denial. While I found Stern's exploration of her assault and the life of her rapist illuminating, along with her frank discussion of how it came to negatively (and positively, if in a perverse way) affect her adult life most illumination, I was often frustrated by her unwillingness to honestly investigate the full implications of her relationship with her dysfunctional family. Throughout the narrative, she continually hints at having been molested by her grandfather, but never seems to make the connection between that and her present difficulties. The same, for the most part, applies to her emotionally distant father (who basically foisted her and her sister off on a series of stepmothers following her mother's early death) and her possibly-abusive stepmothers. Her insistence on hashing out one traumatic instance in her life in hopes of improving herself while refusing to engage in a number of others simply didn't make any sense to me. It caused what would have been an otherwise engaging, honest read to bellyflop into the pit of navel-gazey denial.

That's memoirs for you.

Intriguing, but still more navel-gazing and dishonest than I care for. 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

When I was in high school, the English department seemed to delight in forcing us to read books about dysfunctional prep school students. I expect Skippy Dies to make an appearance in the curriculum any day now, as it's the literary offspring of an unholy union of JD Salinger, John Irving, Pat Conroy, and John Knowles. Don't get me wrong; I really enjoyed reading it, but I couldn't help flashing back to my freshman year of high school, in which I contemplated my deep contempt for Holden Caulfield and each and every one of my classmates who identified with him (note: I was one of the smart, poor kids the school brought in to up the test score average, so my reaction to The Catcher in the Rye consisted of rolling my eyes and making the "world's tiniest violin" gesture repeatedly). Despite my best intentions towards being a good person, I tend to have pretty epic failures of empathy when people (real and fictional) who have lived thoroughly charmed lives start whining about their self-inflicted First World problems.

As such, I wasn't expecting to really enjoy Skippy Dies for the first fifty or so pages. While Skippy dies (during a donut eating contest!) in the first few pages, the subsequent chapters revert to a period of time several months prior to his death, introducing the reader to his whiny, milquetoast history teacher and his motley crew of outsider friends, neither of which inspired much enthusiasm on my part. The writing was very good, though, and the characters were just interesting enough to keep me reading. I'm very glad I did, because while the book starts out sort of slow, it ultimately develops into an amazing, multifaceted look at Skippy's sad, dysfunctional world that is nevertheless uplifting. Murray did an excellent job of keeping my curiosity about how and why Skippy dies piqued throughout the quite convoluted narrative. Despite their unfortunate resemblance to some of my more annoying high school classmates, I grew to care a great deal about many of the characters-- a true testament to how great a writer Murray is.

Very enjoyable. I'll probably read Murray's next novel. 4 out of 5 stars.