Books 2011

A Year in Books: 2011

2011 was the year when my boyfriend read more than 110 books. I am not sure if that number includes re-reads, but it might tell you a bit about our household. I read 45 books, up from 21 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. That tells me two things: 1) I read more crap this year which means 2) I was more stressed this year. I am nowhere near the 110+ books read by my Other Half - then again, he does not knit! 2011 was also the year I finally signed up for GoodReads which influenced my reading a great deal. As my profile shows, I found adding books somewhat addictive. I began reading more and - crucially - I began reading better books. I began using my local library a lot more and I kept track of my to-read list via GR too. Huzzah for getting organised!

The worst reads: Alan Hollinghurst disappointed me big time with the Man Booker long-listed The Stranger's Child. Hollinghurst is one of the finest writers of his generation, but TSC just did not deliver. It read like a reiteration of everything he has ever written filled with token, tired literary allusions. Emma  Donoghue's 2010 short-listed Room made me angry. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was long-listed for the Man Booker prize this year. The first chapter was spectacular: a dystopian novel with a feminist bent. Oh yes! Unfortunately life is cruel and the rest of the book was a poorly-constructed and badly-written teen novel. I felt like giving up reading after Zadie Smith's On Beauty. And don't get me started on Lev Grossman's The Magicians. I really read far too many bad books this year.

The honourable mentions: Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imaginationwas uneven but well worth my time. While Atwood writing about other authors is not her at her most interesting, I really enjoyed the section dealing with her childhood and the general overview of genre.  Jasper Fforde redeemed himself with both the delightfully metafictional and whimsical One of Our Thursdays is Missing and the far more sinister Shades of Grey. Jonathan Stroud's The Ring of Solomon was good - Stroud is quietly turning himself into a very reliable source of entertaining YA fantasy novels - and actually the book rekindled my desire to read. Isherwood's Goodbye To Berlin and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time were both unsurprisingly solid. Finally, Susanna Jones' The Earthquake Birdwas a quirky, psychologically interesting read which reminded me of Murakami mixed with early Iain Banks.

The very good reads: After a year of mostly disappointing books, I re-read a few of my favourite novels.

AS Byatt's Possession: A Romance was one of those re-reads. I love it with quiet intensity as only a lonely girl who grew up surrounded by books could love a book about lonely people surrounded by books who in turn love reading about lonely people surrounded by books. Another re-read was Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. It floored me.

My best new read of the year was China Miéville's Embassytown. How interesting that in a year when mainstream literary fiction faltered so spectacularly a so-called genre novel took on all the hard questions and pulled it off flawlessly. Embassytown is not only incredibly well-written and tightly-plotted - it is also a challenging, sophisticated read that delves into the philosophy of language and notions of identity. It is absolutely splendid and deserves as much praise as possible. How very silly that some people will not give it a try because it is speculative fiction, gasp.

Moving Forward: I am not such a fool that I will announce how many books I will read next year. I will crash and burn out if I make any such pledges. However, I do hope that I will read far better books next year. This year was a real downer in terms of quality - even the books I thought would be decent reads turned out to be on the dubious side of things (HOLLINGHURST!)

Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds mentioned the concept of 'slipstream' books which can be 'defined' as "the fiction of strangeness". I looked into what kind of book that may be and the loosely-defined canon include so many of my  favourite books and authors that I will probably use the 'canon' as a source of inspiration (sans John Barth). I have never been able to pinpoint what type of books I enjoy but I might have a new vocabulary. We shall see.

(2009 entry; 2010 entry)

Reader, I Knitted The Cardigan

There is a lovely bit in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre where the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, says something in the vein of, "Oh, hang on a sec. Must. Finish. This. Row." I smiled in recognition when I came across it during my recent re-read of the book. I first read Jane Eyre when I was fourteen. I had this mad, mad notion of 'reading all the classics' before I turned fifteen. My school library had the Danish equivalent of Everyman's Library, and so I just started with the first book in the series. I did not get far, of course, because I read indiscriminately and without any real understanding of what I read. Jane Eyre was one of the books I did read (alongside Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights) and I remember thinking it was 'okay but a bit dull'.

Then I decided to revisit Eyre a few weeks ago and I am so very glad that I did. It took my breath away. What an intelligent, passionate, fierce book it is. Then I took it upon myself to watch a few adaptations of Eyre: the recent Wasikowska/Fassbender film was difficult to pin down (this is a compliment of sorts) whilst the 2006 BBC mini-series was atrocious and hammy. Eyre is an oddball of a novel - it is easy to describe it as an exterior novel because so much happens on the surface with storms raging and mad women running around, but I actually read it as an extremely interior novel with so much thinking going on. No wonder it is difficult to adapt satisfyingly. I won't leave it another twenty years between reads.

I finished my Red Cardigan of Doom during my Eyre marathon. Want to see?

Pattern: Patsy by Kim Hargreaves Yarn: Rowan Baby Alpaca DK Verdict: Mneh.

I started this cardigan last summer and finished knitting it around Christmas 2010. I did some provisional seaming just to see how it looked, and it was Not Good. The sleeves were particularly problematic because I have quite long arms and there was some weird chicken-fillet-dangling-in-the-wind action going on somewhere south of my elbows. Don't ask. It wasn't good, mkay? So this cardigan languished and languished until I finally decided to perform some sweater surgery (complete with scissors and assorted weirdness). I finished the cardigan on Wednesday and wore it to my meeting on Thursday. I still haven't found the buttons I bought for it last year, so I'm just wearing it with a shawl pin.

And I'm really unsure about it. The yarn is heavenly soft, drapes so beautifully and is wonderfully warm - I'd use it again in a heartbeat - but I'm really not sure if the cardigan suits me. I do like Kim Hargreaves' patterns but this one was perhaps not the right choice for me.. or maybe my body shape just doesn't work with Kim Hargreaves patterns which is also a point worth remembering.

I have another Finished Object to blog but that is for another day..

Here, There & Everywhere

A couple of announcements: My Karise shawl has been chosen as a pattern for the next Old Maiden Aunt knitalong on Ravelry. To celebrate this, I am offering a whopping 20% discount on the pattern until November 30, 2011! Just cite OMAKAL as your discount code. More information in the Old Maiden Aunt Ravelry group.

I have been re-jigging my social media commitments, so I now have an open-to-all Twitter account that you can follow. If you used to follow me on Twitter, you may want to follow the new account instead. Knitterly stuff guaranteed, but I'll basically be tweeting about anything that takes my fancy. A condensed version of this blog, if you like.

(Speaking of which, I have managed to delete my entire folder of knitting blogs from Google Reader. I have tried to reconstruct my reading list of 300+ blogs but if I usually comment on your blog and you think I haven't been around lately, do let me know.)

This Saturday I will be teaching a lace shawl class at Wool 4 Ewe in Aberdeen. I think the class has filled up pretty well already, but any Aberdeenshire dwellers can check with Kathy whether she has had any cancellations. Hopefully I will see you there - and if not, feel free to drop in after the class to say hello!

So, yes. Busy times!

I have actually finished quite a few things, but I've not even made any Ravelry project pages for them, let alone managed any pictorial evidence.

This is a brand-new project. I'm using one ball of Rowan Kidsilk Stripe for a very straightforward triangular shawl.

Kidsilk Stripe is a new Rowan yarn: essentially 2 balls of Kidsilk Haze in one ball and combining shades of KSH to create lovely stripes. I've been pleasantly surprised by how much life the stripes have. Purple isn't just solid purple but has all sorts of subtle variegations. I hope my photo hints at that. I'm using the Twillight colourway for this shawl  (greens and purples) but I also really like the Cool colourway (teals and deep pinks).

And I have new specs! I was lucky enough to win a free pair of spectacles from Edinburgh-based Spectacles Direct via a Facebook(!) competition. I never win anything and I was in dire need of new spectacles, so I was very, very thrilled.

How do you like my "awkward MySpace photo pose? Ahhh, what you don't do to appease your mother when Official Photographer is at the other end of the city.

Finally, I finished reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child last night. It is exceptionally well-written (as you'd expect from Hollinghurst who is probably the finest stylist of his generation) but it is also exceptionally dull. I was going to write a full review but I would struggle to find enough interesting things to say.. ironically enough,  the exact same problem the book has.

Reading 2011: Emma Donoghue - Room

For years I used to live inside my head. I think it is an occupational hazard if you are within academia: you get used to silently arguing with yourself; to constantly question and explore your own thoughts. My head was (and is) the biggest place I have ever lived. I do not think of myself as an author, but I do think of myself as a writer. My words and thoughts are the most tangible things I possess. Words matter. And I think that is why Emma Donoghue's Room makes me so damn angry.

A brief synopsis: Room is the story of a young girl who is kidnapped by a loner and kept in a tiny room in his back-garden. She gives birth to a boy and raises him within the small room where they are at the mercy of the loner. The story echoes recent real-life crime cases - Josef Fritzl and his daughter, Natascha Kampusch, and Jaycee Lee Dugard - but is a work of fiction detailing life within confinement and subsequent events. Room has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and has won many major literary awards.

The subject matter is not the problem. Although it would be easy to step into "misery literature" territory, Room sidesteps this neatly by leaving out most of the actual abuse. Indeed, Donoghue is not preoccupied by the grisly details (which may disappoint some readers, I am sure) but instead she wants to explore how human beings respond to extraordinary situations and to each other. She employs the five-year-old boy, Jack, as the narrator of the story - undoubtedly to defamiliarise to an already unreal scenario.

And Jack as the narrator is the problem with Room.

I can understand the lure of using Jack as the narrator as it avoids a lot of sticky situations for Donoghue as a writer (as discussed above) but Jack the five-year-old narrator is wildly inconsistent. He uses abstract concepts like "sarcasm" in context and says "hippopotami" with correct declension - but Donoghue also has him saying "I finded him" and "I knowed." So, the five year old kid can wield correct Greek grammar, but not use standard English strong verbs?

Russian literary critics used to differ between fabula and syuzhet: fabula is what happens; syuzhet is how it is told. Emma Donoghue has a firm grasp on the fabula part of her story, but Jack-as-narrator is a structural (syuzhet) problem that messes up Room in a very big way. It is not just that his language usage is woefully all-over-the-place but the pacing is off, any characterisation is by necessity very flat, and the internal logic has extremely big flaws.

And, so yes, reading Room made me angry.

I thought it was awful.

I have been reading a lot lately, but I don't write much about the books I read for some reason. As always, feel free to catch up with my reads on GoodReads - the widget is to the right.

The Knitting Book by Patmore & Haffenden

You know silly words like "transparency" and "full disclosure"? I believe in them, so you should know this: I did some pattern checking/tech editing, some sample knitting, I am thanked in this book, and I received an advanced copy. But I am still going to tell you exactly what I think of this book.

You may know that my day job involves meeting lots of knitters and offering technical advice. As part of this day job I get often asked which book I would recommend for beginning knitters. I usually recommend Debbie Stoller's Stitch & Bitch because it gives a beginner information I think is vital: in-depth notes on needles, yarns, and patterns that understand different skill levels. However, S'n'B suffers from three flaws: the pattern styles are outmoded, the yarns used are rarely available to a UK knitter, and once you have graduate from being a beginner to a intermediate knitter, you won't find the book super-useful.

The Knitting Book (KB) ticks the boxes that S'n'B does not do - whilst still delivering the entry-level information that a beginner needs. KB is actually jaw-droppingly all-inclusive. You get a section on tools and materials that explains everything from needles, yarn weights and how to understand a ball band to colour theory, how to use blocking wires, and garment care.

The section on techniques had me reeling. The beginner gets a competent and assuring run-down of how to cast-on and how to do basic stitches. Intermediate knitters get tips on shaping, knitting in the round, and using colour. Advanced knitters? Oh heavens: cast-on methods I had never heard about, two-colour i-cord, ways of knitting backwards, clever buttonholes..

.. can you tell that I'm actually pretty shocked to have encountered a book that combines traditional tried-and-tested methods with trendy Ravelry-style techniques? I am so used to seeing knitting books that essentially just repeat what hundreds of older books say ("there are three ways of casting on, you pick up stitches this way, baby garments are only knitted in baby wool..") that I am honestly taken aback from the sheer knitterly joy and unbridled freedom that I see in KB. This book is clearly written by people who understand there has been a minor earthquake within knitting in the last ten years and who want to combine the sense of everything is possible with the UK's proud knitting heritage.

The pattern section is particularly strong on this point. Intelligently it picks up on techniques previously showcased and delivers accessible designs for knitters of all skill levels. The designers must be used to dealing with knitters on a daily basis because I can see so many of my usual queries being answered: easy accessories (also for men!), gift ideas, and baby items. Want to learn how to do fair isle? There is a small project idea for that! Fancy giving socks a go? Three different patterns are available at increasing difficulty. Every pattern has hints and tips - I wish all patterns came with these little features as they would make my life a tiny bit easier.

I have three patterns that I personally want to try: the cabled wrist warmers (I was just given the perfect yarn for them), the Jelly Fish scarf (which looks super cosy), and the Harlequin scarf which uses Kid Silk Haze in a colour-graduating fashion. Mmmm, Kid Silk Haze..

Are there any drawbacks to KB? Yes, of course there are. It is more expensive than, say, Stitch'n'Bitch. It is not particularly portable and will most likely become a reference book residing on your shelves rather than being dragged with you to knitting group. Some beginners will feel overwhelmed by its wealth of information and run away screaming. I am unsure about the stitch dictionary section: you first see it straight after the tools & materials section, but the actual instructions only appear sections later - this feels a bit random. It is not styled to within an inch of its life nor does it have beautiful people wearing the knitted samples in a stylish home. KB is much more utilitarian than that.

I am trying to be objective here - truly I am - but KB is a cracker. I see and get offered so many knitting books and I rarely come away feeling like I have uncovered a gem. I'm clearly not the only one to feel this way, though, as I have been told this title is already being translated for overseas markets. I am very, very glad to have this as part of my library. It is going right in next to Montse Stanley & I am going to use this for many years to come.

Swatch Done; Now Moving On

One crap Johnny Depp film later, and I finished my Rowan Fine Tweed sampler/swatch. I still need to steek and block it, but I'm very happy with how it turned out. I also learned that I have to watch my tension on the diagonal stripes section as it does pull in a bit. I cannot wait to start knitting the jumper in the DK weight.

The yarn is very soft - softer than I thought it would be, actually. The red shade - Bainbridge - has lovely tiny flecks of orange running through it. I love that about it. However, I'm wondering if the single-row stripes shouldn't be a third colour? Navy? Apple green? Brown? Brown might just work.

We watched Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate which I remember seeing in my favourite Copenhagen art-house cinema back in the late 1990s. I remembered it as a real Euro-trash turkey and I was right. However, I had forgotten its high camp value which went some way towards making it watchable. Look! Depp has grey temples! Now he doesn't! Oooh, the bad stunt double is flying and you totally cannot see the wire-work!

I remember liking the book, The Dumas Club, on which The Ninth Gate was based. I also remember the book having a great of interesting sub-plots which had been completely exercised from the Polanski film - most notably the The Three Musketeers sub-plot which gave Pérez-Reverte's novel its title. Oh, when bad films happen to decent books.

Speaking of books, I am current reading Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. I shall be forever grateful to Lori that she made me pick up a Vonnegut book in the first place. I'm having a slow day, a day off, and I shall now return to my favourite reading space with a cuppa tea, my favourite blanket and Cat's Cradle. August is off to a good start.

PS. thank you for your comments on swatching/not swatching. You are a bad bunch - just as bad as me! - for not always swatching!