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Tag Archives: Reading

Authors & Artists: the Byatt Shawl

January 2015 112After a few teasing posts, I am happy to say that the Byatt shawl is now available from Ravelry (and will soon be available from LoveKnitting too).

The shawl is named after one of my favourite novelists, A.S. Byatt.  I first encountered her books when I was a young woman on the cusp of starting university. I read her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession in translation by Claus Bech. I later learned Bech had been awarded the Prix Baudelaire for his work, but that was no help to me as I diligently worked my way through dense poetry sections.

A few years later I read Possession in its original English and Byatt’s book was transformed. While Bech’s work was lauded, I could not connect with it in the same way I could connect with Byatt’s own language. It was rich, layered, warm, gently witty, and wonderful. The book became a touchstone and I have read it eight or nine times now.

And so Byatt’s novels became part of my life.

The Frederica Potter novels – The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman – kept me company as I grew from a young woman to whoever it is I am now. I read The Biographer’s Tale whilst travelling around New Zealand (it remains my least favourite Byatt novel to date). And I curled up with her short stories – Angels and Insects and the Matisse Stories, among others, when I lived in a suitcase trying to figure out who I was going to be. Reading Byatt quietens that voice inside my head that urges me to be less bookish, less arty, and more .. normal. I owe her much for writing about quiet, creative people with complex inner lives who muddle through life trying to remain intact. We exist too.

The Byatt shawl takes its main design cues from the cover design of  The Children’s Book. The rich teal and the golden brown are obvious nods towards the teal and gold found on the cover. Insects recur often as motifs in Byatt’s books – the slip stitch pattern forms braids on top of the garter stitch, but the individual stitches can also resemble tiny wings or delicate leaves.

January 2015 107

The horseshoe edging was my toughest design decision. I wanted the shawl to have an Art Nouveau feel, so I first added leaves to the edging. Interestingly, I found that very open lace patterns clashed with the remainder of the shawl and I experimented with bold chevrons until my eye was caught by the classic horseshoe pattern. Its light chevron feel and close/open movement worked both within the context of the fabric and also with the design inspiration. The edge is finished off with a picot edging which just adds a touch of polish.

I’ve had a few questions about the shape of the shawl. Funnily enough, neither my photographer, my tech editor nor myself even considered that issue, so I have uploaded the schematic to my Rav project page to tide things over until I can get my photographer (also known as David, the boyfriend) to shoot some photos. Many apologies for the oversight. On the other hand, it is the sort of feedback that improves my patterns, so thank you for getting in touch!

The only other issue is that I am currently waiting for my lovely friends at LoveKnitting to publish the pattern, so it becomes available in all EU countries. I am keeping tabs on the situation and am exceedingly frustrated that not all you lovely people can buy the pattern straight away. Maybe an excuse to go stash-diving or plan colour combinations?

Stay tuned for colour combination suggestions from Old Maiden Aunt Yarns. If you are planning on going to the Edinburgh Festival, you will want to stay tuned to learn why knitting a Byatt shawl might be a good idea. I did say plans were afoot, non?

2015: The Unread Books Project

Just before Christmas I read a delightful book by Andy Miller called The Year of Reading Dangerously. On the surface of it, it is about reading all the books you’ve always promised yourself you’d read, but the book doubles as a witty semi-autobiographical look at how reading shapes who we are and how we ended up being whoever we are. I liked it a lot, in other words.

After my career path changed and I ended up doing, well, knitterly things, I have found myself an increasingly out-of-shape reader. I used to tackle tomes with confidence and read 100+ books a year (granted, I was single, unemployed and just out of university). These days I am lucky if I manage 40 books. My Kindle is partly to blame: I do read more but I tend towards reading easily digestible trash where I don’t need to flip back and forth between pages. Far too many of my books err towards the The Dastardly Duke’s Devillish Duel side of things when I really yearn  to sink into a rich, gorgeous book with layers. And I don’t know why I don’t do that more often.

Inspired by a Twitter conversation I had with Andy Miller, I decided to look at my book shelves. I have so many that I already own and that I really want to read – but for some reason they just sit there. Here’s a list of books I really want to read and hopefully by listing them, I will actually start to become a fit reader again (post-modern push-ups, fictional flexibility, muscular metafiction .. the bad puns write themselves).

In no particular order:

Eleven books. Six female writers. Three books I’ve begun but abandoned for various reasons (I forgot my Tristram Shandy Everyman edition in a Swedish forest one midsummer. Long story). A mix between current fiction and a few pre-1930 ones. Some I can read straight off the bat, others I’ll need to approach after my reading fitness improves. Some authors I have read before with much pleasure (Atwood, Robertson and Mitchell in particular) and others new to me (James, Barnes, and Plascencia). It’s a good mix.

I am not one for book groups or read-alongs, though a few of you have suggested such on Twitter. I’d love to see others look at their book shelves and rediscover their own unread books, though. Maybe a casual Twitter hangout ever so often to check in? (Many of you are much better at this than me.)

I’m about 120 pages short of finishing Andrew Drummond’s A Hand-Book of Volapuk (it’s a novel, I swear) and then I’m going to start my little reading project.

Books & Wool, But Of Course


I gave away about 80% of my books when I left Denmark and I can still see ghosts on the shelves, though I merged my collection with Dave’s when we started living together. So many books.

Reading my 2006 blog posts I sounded so cavalier about culling my book collection:

Red is for never again, never, no, it is so replaceable and it was fun but now the thrill has gone

Yellow is for what a lovely edition, I’ll never find it again and my library wouldn’t be complete without it.

Green is for of course, without a question, it’s part of me and good memories of dear ones.

I may not have a driver’s license but I have many books. I’m putting tiny stickers on their backs: red, yellow, green. So far at least 100 books have been marked with red: Borges*, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, DH Lawrence*, Jane Austen, Thomas Mann* and, er, Marion Zimmer Bradley. The yellow category is the difficult one. Which of Margaret Atwood’s works are yellow and not green? Should I put a bright yellow sticker on John Ruskin or is that a red (because I’m sure there’s a nicer edition out there)?

As I go through my books I realise I’m a flirty reader. I pick up books, break their hearts & spines and drop them cruelly. So many books I never finished: Anita Brookner, Iris Murdoch, James Kelman, Samuel Butler and John Barth. I’m so sorry but it’s not you, it’s me.

And the green books. My friends, my family. Alasdair Gray, Jonathan Coe, AS Byatt, John Donne, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Pullman, Ezra Pound and EM Forster. I pet you gently and remember when I first encountered you. You are in my blood. You are going nowhere.

*victims of the bad edition rule”

And so we’re back to 2014. Still so many books and they are not alphabetised. Fret.

Speaking of books, I am currently reading David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. It’s an interesting look at the Proto-Indo-European language (the ur-language that spawned English, Greek, Hindi, Russian etc) and how PIE is reconstructed following linguistic rules. Anthony also looks at words and concepts that are found throughout the descendants of PIE. Words relating to wagons and wheels, certain types of animals and – relevant to my working life – textiles.

Anthony traces the possible origin* of the word wool – *HwlHn- as PIE contains roots for sheep, ewe, ram and lamb. He argues convincingly that these linguistic fragments point to a domestication of sheep. He also looks at archaeological evidence from Uruk that indicates sheep began being bred for their wool around 3350 BCE. The book then follows the linguistic fragments as they start to spread across the PIE areas. *HwlHn shatters into *Hwel- or *Hwol- .. but the word fragment doesn’t always mean “wool”. Sometimes it means “to felt”, “something made of felt/wool”, “to press” or “to weave”. Anthony even looks briefly at whorls and spindles. Most of the book is devoted to horses and wheels (as the title indicates) but I did enjoy the dip into textiles. I’m now settling into a section on Neolithic farming in the Caucasus. As you do.

PS. Lots of people have posted pictures of their bookshelves (shelfies?). Do join in!

Twin Practices

Knitting, if acquired in youth becomes so mechanical an employment that the occupations of reading and knitting can be carried on simultaneously; while the benefit of early training in this work is felt in extreme old age, and when the sight is dim or lost, a pleasant creation is still open for the experienced knitter

– from “Myra’s Knitting Lessons. No.1” circa 1800

I still haven’t really mastered it – I find it easier to knit along to TV, films and podcasts. And thank you to Louise Scollay of KnitBritish for pointing me towards Myra’s Knitting Lessons. How marvellous.

The Glamorous Life of A Quiet Knitter

When people tell me they’d love to work in the knitting industry, I don’t think my last fortnight is what they had in mind. I have been crawling around on my knees finding stray balls of yarn underneath boxes, behind furniture, and in strange places. I have been covered in yarn fluff and dust (achoo). My hands have been rubbed raw from handling thousands and thousands of balls of yarn. And then I spent several days tracking down product codes for long-discontinued qualities, noting everything down and triple-checking it against inventory notes before going home for long showers that did not get rid of the yarn fluff stuck inside my ear.

Life, she has not been glamorous.

Still, there are good things to report. Firstly, there are new shadecards in front of me together with glossy previews of all the new summer collections. Secondly, two new designs are currently blocking on my living room floor. Thirdly, I have a logo for Karie Bookish Knits (more on which in a future blog post). And fourthly, Edinburgh Yarn Festival have finally announced their workshop list!

I have also finished my third read of the year.

Susan Cain’s Quiet has been a real hit with readers this past year. As a reader it is hard not to be enthralled when a book tells you that it’s really, really cool that you prefer reading a book to a loud party. That may sound like a cynical take but much of this book reads like a hard sell to the quiet, bookish crowd (i.e. people who buy books). Introverts like me are amazing – we invent things! we empathise! we could have stopped the recession! When Cain forgets to stroke egos or offer self-help solutions, the book becomes far more interesting: her examination of the 20th century as the century of the ‘extrovert’ is good as is her take on 21st technology enabling social interaction without sensory overload. As a non-American, I didn’t quite connect with some of Cain’s examples and some of her generalisations about cultural personalities were iffy – but Quiet was a decent read. If you’ve ever hid out in a bathroom stall to avoid small-talking your way through an evening, this may be a book you’ll want to read.

A few random links:

Hope you are all keeping warm and are knitting away. Me? Well, tomorrow I am donning my oldest clothes and will return to crawling around on dusty floors..

there will be no miracles here

Narratologists are endlessly fascinated by ‘plot’ – one of the most famous books on the topic is even called Reading for the Plot. Whilst I did read Peter Brooks (who wrote the aforementioned tome) and Mikhail Bakhtin at university, I was never a great fan of narratology. I preferred poetry to prose and if I read fiction, I sought out works that somehow clashed with Brooks’ ideas of ‘narrative ends’ and ‘sequence and progression’.

EdinburghA couple of years ago Tom McCarthy’s novel C was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. McCarthy was rather good at sound-bites. He declared the novel ‘the Finnegans Wake for the 21st Century’ or even a nouveau roman. This was utter nonsense, of course. I enjoyed the novel a great deal but at its core it was a rather conventional Bildungsroman cleverly disguised as an experimental anti-novel.

I just finished reading Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child. It is difficult to call it conventional and as I was reading it, I could not help but think of McCarthy and Brooks.

Hawthorn and Child is a detective novel – that most conventional genre of fiction and one which narratologists love because the genre’s raison d’être is precisely narrative logic and satisfying progression of plot. Yet Ridgway’s novel is also not a detective novel. The recurring characters of Hawthorn and Child are police detectives and we follow them in their job, but we only catch glimpses of plot. A boy was shot. Who shot him? We are never told. The boy says a car shot him. There is a man, Mishazzo, with whom the police appears obsessed. What does he do? We do not know as we only glimpse him driving from one place to another.

And that is what you get with this book. You get stories of the detours, the gaps, the liminal spaces within conventional plot structures. Does that make it sound hard-going? It is not. You leap from one character to another – in a way, Hawthorn & Child can be understood as a short story collection too – and every section/story is exceedingly well-written with very distinct stylistic choices.

For me, the whole book came into its own with the segment “How To Have Fun With A Fat Man” which is so cleverly constructed and written that I read it several times just to savour what Ridgway did. Here he juxtaposes Hawthorn policing a riot with Hawthorn attending an orgy in a sauna. Bodies mingle, mix and become blurred – and so Ridgway’s prose mingles, mixes and becomes blurred. Paragraphs become bilocated in the narrative. It is a dream-like, yet visceral read.

Hawthorn & Child is an extraordinary read. I cannot remember the last time I have been this excited about a book and I don’t think my words do it justice. Word of mouth has been very strong – in fact I first read about it on John Self’s book blog – and I think that is how the book will find its audience. I hope the audience will be a large one. It deserves to be read (and read and read).

(Hawthorn & Child is my second read of the year. My first read was Mary & Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes; a graphic novel partly about Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce.)

A Year in Books: 2012. Oh GOD.

2012 was the year my boyfriend read more than 120 books – not including re-reads. I read 80 books – a vast increase on 2011’s 45 books, 2010’s 21 and 2009’s 38 . I wish I could say it also meant a huge increase in quality, but 2012 was a year of reading low-brow, easily-digested genre literature. My Kindle had something to do with this: it became far too easy to grab yet another regency romance when I found myself in need of distraction. And so I read books called things like The Wicked Wyckerly, Mad About the Duke, Surrender to a Wicked Spy and so forth. I remember very little about most of these books. So easy to read, so easy to forget.

Writing about the best books I read in 2012 is easy. There weren’t that many.

Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin was fantastic. I also really liked an anthology called Justified Sinner: An Archaeology of Scottish Counter-Culture which looked at radical arts & literature in Scotland from the 1960s onwards. It’s a niche publication but definitely my sort of niche.

I did have a handful of decent reads – mostly regencies like Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful which was a thoughtful, well-researched look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon rural Derbyshire post-Waterloo. It was also a look at what warfare does to the human psyche. It veered closer to traditional romance territory in the second half, but even so it remained psychologically convincing. Sherry Thomas’ Ravishing the Heiress was beautifully cynical and almost uncomfortable to read.

But there were far too many forgettable, formulaic books in my reading year. The few times I read non-regencies, I didn’t like the books much due to poor choices on my part.

I have a plan, though. And that plan is called “my bookshelves”. I have so many books that I genuinely want to read:

New Year Reading

From the bottom up:

  • Andrew Drummond’s Volapük – An Abridged History which appears to combine many of my favourite literary topics (Scottish literature, universal languages, Sir Thomas Urquhart and lunacy).
  • Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died A Lot. The seventh book in the Thursday Next series. We met him in 2012 and I turned into a puddle of fangirl goo despite myself.
  • AS Byatt’s Ragnarok. One of my all-time favourite novelists reworking Norse mythology. Why haven’t I read this already?
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Her Oryx & Crake was one of my novels of the last decade. Why haven’t I read the sequel yet? Why?
  • Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie. I found this on the kitchen table, cornered the boyfriend and accused him of keeping an interesting sounding book away from me. Apparently I bought this for myself for my 2012 birthday..
  • Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Because I have read Charlotte and I have read Emily. And I’m a sucker for 19th century melodrama Brontë-style.

Finally, and not shown in the photo because I bought it for my Kindle, Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child. The novel has been making serious waves among book bloggers and publishers – and since I used to move in those circles (before knitting took over my life) I am rather curious.

Care to see how much I am sticking to my plan? Want to exchange some book love? Why not catch up with me on GoodReads? One thing is sure: the only way is up..

You are Changing Forever Anyway

I was 12 and a bookish girl who was curiously prone to catching fevers, colds, and coughs. I spent days reading in bed or curled up in the big cream chair at the far end of the living room. My dog would snore at my feet as I got lost in yet another book. I came across one of Margaret Mahy’s books during one of these spells – The Tricksters. I think it was one of the very first supernatural YA books I ever came across. I lived in Nowheresville, Denmark and I had almost run out of books to read from the local library.

Margaret Mahy – I kept that name in my head.

Then my local library bought Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover. My life would never be the same – it was one of those books that changed you. At the very least it changed me.

The synopsis sounds fairly mundane: a teenage girl discovers her young brother is possessed by a demon and she enlists the local school prefect to help her battle the demon. Okay, the synopsis sounds pretty terrible – but the book was terrific. It was well-written (and later I’d discover the literary allusions one by one) and the real dangers lurked in every-day life beyond the surface drama of soul-stealing demons and witchcraft.

What changed me? I think I caught a glimpse of myself in the book.

I have never been good at identifying with characters in books and much of my reading pleasure derives from well-turned prose, intelligent plots and clever structures – but I think my 12-year-old self saw something of herself in Laura Chant, Mahy’s teenage protagonist. Laura Chant was realistically drawn: a strong and independent girl but with a complex family life which renders her more than a bit vulnerable. Mahy also captures Laura on the cusp of becoming something more than just a daughter, a sister, and a girl. There is a strong streak of yearning throughout “The Changeover” – characters yearn to make sense of the world and move beyond petty squabbling in the school ground and the tiny shopping centre. “There is a world out there,” the book whispered, “and it is yours to explore!”

I read and re-read “The Changeover” getting it out of my local library again and again. I bought the novel in English when I first set foot in Foyles some six years later. It was one of the first books I ever read in English, let alone owned. I still re-read my copy every couple of years or so. Time has not lessened my love.

And Margaret Mahy was instrumental in kick-starting my love for New Zealand. I was 24 when I travelled through New Zealand for a month and I hung out the bus window desperate to get a photo of the sign saying “Welcome to Paraparaumu” – a town mentioned in “The Changeover” as a mundane place. The mundane place seemed magical to me. I still have that photo too.

Rest in Peace, Margaret Mahy. And thank you for making a lonely teenage girl much less lonely and far bolder.

“I like to swim in deep water. I like to be where I can’t feel the bottom and I have always liked that from the time I was very small, but there is always the fear of the shark sneaking up from the darkness below, and grabbing your foot. After you’ve been frightened of the shark for a while, you begin to tell stories about it, to take it over … and in odd moments of life, when you have a little go at being the shark yourself, you recognise an old truth in what you are doing.”

Yes She Said

YarnI bought myself two Christmas presents. First of all, I finally became a member of MetaFilter – still the best community weblog the internet has to offer. I have been lurking on MetaFilter for almost ten years, so it was definitely time to take the plunge and cough up those five bucks.

My second gift to myself has also been a long-time coming. For years I have been circling Garthenor Yarns and their organic, sheepy goods. Their yarns are produced from sheep kept on organic lands and the yarn is spun with minimal processing and no dyeing. I finally cracked earlier this week and now my Shetland single ply laceweight in ‘light oatmeal’ has arrived.

Oh, but it is beautiful. It reminds me of the Faroese laceweights I have been using: the same self-assured simplicity and honesty that says ‘this has worked for centuries, so why change anything?’. This yarn is as far away from novelty yarns or instant gratification yarns as you can get – and for my money it is all the better for it. Although I’d love to see Karise knitted up in this sort of rustic yarn, I think I’ll end up writing an entirely new pattern for it.

FabricsOkay, I have also bought fabric but it is less an indulgence than a response to ‘oh dear, I have just thrown out half my wardrobe’. I did try to find tops I liked on the high street, but eventually I just went to Mandors and bought several yards of pretty polycotton in their January sale.

I intend to make several Art Teacher tunics – I’ll be tweaking the pattern, though. The original Art Teacher tunic had a zip which I confess never using as the tunic easily slips over my head. I’ll also lengthen it a tiny bit, make it slightly more A-line and I’ll try very hard not to have ironing mishaps during construction. Scout’s honour (I was never a Girl Scout).

Finally, I’m going to read James Joyce’s The Dead tonight. Why? The story takes place on January 6.

Joyce is one of those authors with whom I have not really made peace (having said that, I think that is everyone‘s relationship with Joyce). I have read Dubliners from which The Dead is taken. I have made headway into Ulysses and Portrait but never attempted Finnegans Wake. I could happily drown in a sea of Joyce’s words – Listen, a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos – but I never connected with him the way I connected with TS Eliot.

Having said that, if you have not read any James Joyce and you recoil at the very idea, sit down and read The Dead. It is a fairly quick read, you won’t need a spreadsheet to help you understand it and – best of all – it is wonderful.

Enter Here

This has stayed with me for a very long time.

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.

Today works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Henri Bergson and James Frazer all enter the public domain. All eminent modernists or people whose work influenced High Modernism a great deal.

I am perusing The Dalkey Archive Press – that great publisher and re-issuer of modernist works (among other things) – whilst pondering what to pick up. I have pledged to read a modest twenty books this year – a modest amount as I want to read better books, not more books. I have begun by finally reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevinwhich is hopefully a step in the right direction? I am 150 pages into it and it reads like, well, a coiled-up snake waiting to strike (what an unsuccessful simile!). I have several books lined up: The Picture of Dorian Gray(in a beautiful edition given to me by D.), Jamaica Inn, and James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Stillare the first three.

2012 is off to a quiet, thoughtful start. This is good.