Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More reviews

First, the movie:  The King's Speech is well worth seeing if you or someone you love has ever struggled with a speech impediment.  It's the first R-rated movie I've ever taken a child of mine to (my favorite 11th grader and fellow-blogger at Greeks2Geeks).  It deserves all the Oscar nominations.  A lot of the additional fun is playing "Where have I seen that actor before?"  And now I really loathe Edward the Abdicator.  If he was even half as despicable in real life as portrayed... ick.  So fun to see Helena Bonham Carter playing a nice girl... er, Queen... for a change.  And Timothy Spall as Churchill was brilliant.  But of course the heart of the movie is the unlikely friendship that develops between the King and his speech therapist.  Nicely done, all round.
Cautions: therapeutic profanity, royalty getting in touch with their feelings.
Of interest to: those who like to follow Who's Who among British actors, history buffs (are they one and the same, I wonder?)

On to books: I cannot say enough nice things about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.  They are beautifully written, gently humorous vignettes of life in Botswana, that highly favored of the countries of Africa, where life is simpler even when it's complicated.  I just finished reading Teatime for the Traditionally Built, in which Mma Ramotswe must say farewell to her beloved Tiny White Van, a main character in all the books up to this point; and her assistant Grace Makutsi must deal with the machinations of her man-stealing rival Violet Sephotho (who most decidedly did NOT achieve 97% on the final examinations at secretarial school).  Highly recommended, but the series is best read in order.

The Clutter Cure by Judi Culbertson is one of those helpful get-yourself-organized books that I always check out from the library around New Year's in my never-ending quest for better organization.  This one is better than the how-to types, though, because it actually addresses the emotional roots of clutter and hoarding and gives practical examples of the mental dialogue required before people can "let it go."

I just bought Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting (and I really should have bought it from Amazon because it's cheaper there even than at the bookstore with a $5 gift card) in hopes I can design my own sweater with the yarn I purchased last week.  While I realize that the purchase of this book and the yarn probably negates everything I learned in the previous book, I'm full of contradictions that way.

Finally, Letters from Pemberley is light, frothy and enjoyable, a short novel presented as a series of letters from Elizabeth Darcy to her sister Jane Bingley.  I'm not sure I really liked some of the cutesy touches that are meant to be homages (like the Daleys, thinly disguised versions of Emma and Mr. Knightley), but overall an entertaining read.  Nothing much happens, but sometimes, that's what we want from Austen fan-fiction.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Whatever happened to children's lit?

My favorite 3rd grader is quite the reader.  My challenge is to make sure what she reads is, if not worthwhile and "improving" in the Victorian sense, at least not actively harmful.  That seems to be harder than it was with my oldest.  This one has been through the Boxcar Children (several times), goes through the fairy books (like this set: The Jewel Fairies) by the dozens, and likes to listen to audiobooks that she gets from the library -- over and over again, until the tape player breaks, regardless of literary merit.  She goes to a classical school where I can rest easy she will read good books, and she has read the Little House books, Narnia, and as far as I will let her in Harry Potter (that's the first 2 books for now).  She likes her comfort zone, I guess.  I've started intercepting some of the books she gets out of the library these days.  Friends ForNever - Summer Camp Secrets struck me as training wheels for the growing genre of mean-girl Young Adult chick-lit.  I didn't read it all through, but at the very least, it has way TMI for my 8-year-old, mostly relating to complicated blended family relationships and gossip and hurt feelings.  Horrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy slipped under my radar, probably because of the Fairy in the title.  I've rejected Judy Blume just for being Judy Blume, and issued a ban from henceforth on the Bailey School Kids series.  The Junie B. Jones series has a free pass for now because it's her older sister's current favorite, but she herself has outgrown it (thankfully!).  There are probably others I'm missing, but from now on I'm resolved to allow her to read only challenging, age-appropriate, mostly-harmless books. Yep, Censors 'R Us, and proud of it.

Here's what I'd like her to work on: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Nancy Drew, some of the Little House spinoff books, more of the Warriors series; and of course, the wonderful Brian Jacques Redwall series.  And I've got a whole tall shelf full of other classic children's literature when she finishes those.  If she reads a couple dozen of the American Girls doll tie-ins, I can at least live with that.  And maybe require another read-through for Narnia.  You can never have too much Narnia.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stash enhancement

So I have been doing a lot of stranded colorwork knitting, and I've been reading about even more challenging and beautiful patterns than the ones I've attempted so far, and the local yarn store, StitchCraft, is closing and offering a 30% discount. So it was only natural, I suppose, that I would be drawn to these lovely Shetland yarns, suitable for fine Fair Isle knitting. I'm contemplating the possibility of designing my own pattern.

Left to right, there are 2 (25 gram) skeins each of Jamieson's Shetland Spindrift in Oxford, Seaweed, Sunrise, Autumn, Bracken, Yellow Ochre, Clyde Blue. And 1 skein each of Rosewood, Pine Forest, Nutmeg, Thistledown, Twilight, and Moss. It wants to be knit up into a cardigan, I think (I love cardigans) on #2 or #3 needles. It has been awhile since I bought new yarn and it makes sense to own some of this for the kind of knitting I'm wanting to do. Pricewise, I came in at just under $100 (including some buttons I bought as well.) I have enough to do something creative, but of course depending on what pattern I eventually choose I may need more of some colors.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Connectivity issues

We have been experiencing intermittent internet outages. Thinking back to the age of dial-up, not that long ago, I can remember what it was like when your modem didn't do its thing. It used to make a sequence of musical buzzing and boinging sounds lasting about 15 seconds: if the sequence deviated even a little or lasted longer than 15 seconds, you knew that you would have to try to sign on again. But now, we have come to expect instant access. This problem does not appear to be caused by the modem. Something in the wiring of the house or the neighborhood, perhaps? Wiser technological heads than mine are stumped. All I can say is that it is annoying.
We finished the bear puzzle that was put out for the Last Noel over last weekend. There was a section of pieces missing around the chest of the bottom bear: a hazard of puzzles bought at Goodwill. Otherwise a beautiful and challenging puzzle -- I can never resist a jigsaw puzzle. I decided to take a picture of this one and then throw it away, so as not to pass on a puzzle missing pieces to the next Goodwill customer. The thrifty part of me had a hard time doing this. As you can see, it's a beautiful puzzle and did provide hours of enjoyment.
In knitting news, Ravelry closed down Remnants. For those who are not knitters, this would be a little like, say, Facebook having a very large, very random forum for everyone who was on Facebook but not otherwise productively occupied (for example) in playing Farmtown or Bejewelled Blitz, to say basically anything they wanted or to comment on the ramblings of others. With buttons to vote "agree", "disagree," "funny," and so on. And then, imagine the moderators of that forum just might find it hard to police. So it was pretty inevitable, but there are possibly thousands of displaced, drama-loving knitters wandering the internet right now, seeking random conversation. If you stumble across any, please be kind to them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sleeve island

Here are the sleeves of my Green Mountain Gardens cardigan. About 4 inches down, many more to go. I sewed up the cuffs loosely so that I can now use the sleeves themselves as mini-bags for the multiple balls of yarn that otherwise will get hopelessly tangled. Sleeves don't make up the majority of sweater knitting, but they take the longest perceived time to knit. I've heard it referred to as being "stuck on sleeve island."
Adrienne Martini, who wrote Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously, speaks of "The Sleeve Death March." I liked that part, though I found the rest of the book pretentious and needlessly snarky. The premise is that she issues herself the challenge of knitting an Alice Starmore sweater (something of a knitting holy grail) in one year, and writing a book about the experience, while interviewing the biggest names in knit-blogging about the nature of Art and whether her Starmore is really a Starmore. It continues to amaze me that a book published in 2010 about a knitter's self-imposed challenge finds the need to drag itself into a toxic wasteland of snark by injecting hatred of George W. Bush into the mix. But, whatever.
Cautions: language, narcissism, excessive namedropping (of knitters).
Of interest to: obsessive knitters trying to understand their own obsession.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book reviews

I thought I'd do the occasional book review. In my effort to be as eclectic as possible, let's start with Emperor, by Stephen Baxter. This is a book that bills itself as "alternate history," but it was mislabeled as such. It takes place over many generations, and while there are hints of some kind of supernatural "weaver" of Time's tapestry who is trying to interfere with the timeline by means of a mystical Latin prophecy, I was disappointed that the centuries passed by (and yes, it was a bit of a slog to get through, so that part felt realistic) and there was no noticeable deviation from History-As-We-Know-It. This is book one of a 4-book cycle, but I just wasn't enticed to read further. The structure of the story meant that none of the characters lasted through the book. And really, there was no great reason to like any of them that much, or to know why we should care about their Prophecy. There are hints that the author was going to take the tired line that Constantine and Augustine co-opted Christianity and attempt to propose an alternate universe where authentic primitive Christianity prevailed. If he had been successful at describing this, I would have been irritated by the worldview, but at least it would have been artistically consistent with what he seemed to be setting out to do.

It reads well as a work of historical fiction. Depictions of the building of Roman roads, the movement of the legions, and the political maneuvering behind Roman rule ring very true. And Baxter has a much better prose style than the other primary author of alternate history I have read, Harry Turtledove. Turtledove's Crosstime Traffic series is constantly having to break into didactic mode to explain the breakpoint in the timelines; but his imagination is so inventive I don't mind. Baxter, however, wasn't able to hook me despite well-rendered characters, impeccable historical detail, and the clever acrostic Latin prophecy that served as the framework for it all. I wanted to like this book. But it just missed the mark.

Cautions: violence (brutality, actually), adult situations, and a sense of futility.
Of interest to: Fans of ancient-era historical fiction with long attention spans.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Comfort blogging

Everyone in the family caught the same cold this week. We soldiered through but tonight I'm staying in. Just finished watching Pride and Prejudice on my laptop. This thing's like a self-contained entertainment device. Who knew? I was only interrupted a few times. Peter burned his hand on a mug he had microwaved while empty. I guess he thought there was water in it. Soon the rest of the family will return from the fellowship group. Maybe if I pretend to still be suffering, they will put themselves to bed. I did get about an inch of the sleeves on Green Mountain Gardens knit during the movie. That's a fair amount of progress. Just think what I could accomplish if I barricaded myself in my room and watched DVDs every night!

One of the few disadvantages of knowing Latin: when you read the ingredients list of your homeopathic cold remedy and see "apis mellifica," you know what you're ingesting. If your cold is bad enough, you take it anyway.

Monday, January 10, 2011

My favorite 5th grader on safety patrol

Today she dressed more warmly: this picture was from last fall. The wind was chill today, so the Hello Kitty winter coat was called for. But as always, she is happy to serve. It is so hard to believe she is in 5th grade, looking at the big change to middle school next year. Yikes. I hope no matter what, she always keeps her smile.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Last Noel

The Last Noel started when Steve and I were newlyweds and hosted an open house in our tiny neo-Victorian townhouse in Reston, Virginia. It was before Christmas then. A few years later we lived in Colorado, had a baby and traveled over Christmas, so the party was moved to the general vicinity of New Year's. But there are always competing events on New Year's, so it made sense to move it back a little more to the week after. When we moved out here 11 years ago, we had 3 kids and found it utterly impossible to get a party together before Christmas OR New Year's. The Last Noel was born to use up the leftover Christmas cookies and candy, but it's also an excuse to enjoy all the Christmas things we never had a chance to sit and enjoy during the "official" season, and to get our overlapping circles of friends together at least once a year.

We had plenty of food, enough for leftovers. About 70 people came, most of them kids. Apparently playing hide-and-seek in the dark in our muddy backyard is the best game ever. Numerous pairs of shoes were ruined in the process, including two that I had just bought the day before. (The pink-and-white ones were successfully laundered; the owner of the black ones insisted he prefers them filthy).

It's a good time, but it's also good to take the day after and do nothing, just to recover.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Today was a cooking day...

The menu never really changes for The Last Noel. Sloppy Joes, Dairy Hollow House Pasta Salad, veggies with that amazing dip recipe I got from Fern R., potato chips, assorted Christmas cookies, punch, hot cider, coffee and tea. We will push back the kitchen table against the wall and have it be the drink station. Foods will be served from the kitchen island, except for the cookies, which will be placed strategically throughout the living room and dining room.

I bought 10 pounds of ground beef for the Sloppy Joes yesterday, then another 5 today when I started thinking about all the teenage boys who will be coming straight from racquetball. I decided to stretch it even further by adding lots of onions and celery as I was browning it today. I lost track, but I think maybe 9 onions all told, and almost a whole bunch of celery. And peppers. The fumes from the onions bother me as I chop, but then my eyeballs toughen up and everyone else is bothered by the smell as they cook, and I can't even tell. The rest of the seasonings and sauces will be added tomorrow when I plop the meat into the crock pot. I also made the pasta salad, which is a fairly big production. It's chilling in the fridge in my biggest ceramic bowl, with only the garbanzo beans and cheese to be added before serving. Steve is making yet one more batch of cookies tonight, and The Mikado is blasting on the computer.

I also made this recipe today, for today's dessert after spaghetti: banana mousse It was quite nice, and a good way to use up some bananas and Knox gelatin.

Here's that recipe for dip for veggies:
1 C. sour cream
1 C. mayonnaise
1 t. each: dried minced onion, Lawry's or McCormick's seasoned salt, Accent, dill, Worcestershire sauce
1 T. parsley flakes
11 drops Tabasco sauce

It's best to let it chill overnight for the flavors to blend. I need to go mix it up now.

There has been absolutely no knitting or quilting going on today, and not nearly as much cleaning as I'd like. I'd love to have a spotlessly clean house, but I will settle for Not Noticeably Filthy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Meet the cats

The holiday season being almost over by anyone's reckoning, I didn't want to lose the opportunity to document one of my most challenging decorating jobs, ever.

That's Smudge on the left. He's a tuxedo cat with a smudge of white on his chin, big on lovability and very poorly-endowed in the brains department. Nickname: Thunderpurr. Sadly, Smudge is a many-times repeat offender against litterbox protocol, and is serving out his sentence as an exile in the backyard, or occasionally a fugitive from justice in the basement. He never strays far from our door, spending most of the time in his hidey-hole in the window well or underneath the deck.

Bilbo is his brother and generally the more dominant of the two. He goes outside most nights and we frequently wish we could fit him with a cat-cam, just to see what he does. Nickname: Fleabait.

Muffball was a stray kitten our neighbors found last spring, and we do call her Muffin when we take her to the vet. She shows promise, that one. Not a morning goes past that she hasn't dug a new ball of yarn out from somewhere in the depths of my stash and left it for us to find and admire her hunting prowess. She's a bit skittish, but occasionally consents to being captured and cuddled. Of all the cats, she showed the most ingenuity in the futile attempt to remove the bow.

I relented the day after Christmas, and removed the bows myself.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Musca domestica; or, where's Domitian when you need him?

It started with a couple or maybe three houseflies in August. Somehow they had found their way in, and were relentlessly circling around in midair in the living room. It seemed they never lighted, but they must have. By late September there were several, and some had started circling in the family room, occasionally dive-bombing us as we watched TV. I discovered that the kids' toy bug-catcher net was useful, and started performing catch-and-release (outside) operations. My sister, visiting at the time, commented that I was perhaps too tender-hearted... "Albert Schweitzer" she called me. She was right. Sterner measures were called for.

Ordinarily, our cats take care of the common housefly, which usually is fat and slow flying. But these flies are of a different breed, smallish and high-flying and fast. We eventually discovered that when they rest, they rest on the ceiling. Catch-and-release morphed into catch-and-squish, then dump-and-flush. I became adept at the precise swooping motion needed to catch the flies when they were resting on the ceiling. The net became blood-spattered. I discovered in December that our angelfish and the new electric yellow cichlid like to gobble down flies when they are dumped into the aquarium. The white angelfish has now aquired the name "Glutton" because he eats the most. The black angelfish is now "Botox" because his oversized lips make it difficult for him to catch the flies without pushing them away. The yellow dude is "Lightning" because he is fast and unpredictable. I thought we had them whittled down over Christmas; but yesterday a new brood must have hatched. We came back from church to find a veritable menage-a-vingt-trois circling in the living room.

In other news, our house will be open to friends and neighbors this Friday. The Last Noel began when we were too slow to plan our Christmas or New Year's open house, and just decided to go with the Epiphany theme and call it good. It's actually a good time for a party: the first full work-week of the new year. We have found that it's an expected event every year now. Hope you can come and partake of sloppy Joes, Christmas music and goodies with us.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ars longa, vita brevis

Art is long, and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
- from Psalm of Life, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My oldest son and I have similar taste in literature. He is memorizing the above poem, in complete form, for a student competition. It was always a favorite of mine in my younger years as well. The above verse, however, strikes me now as a bit of a downer. Hippocrates, he of the Hippocratic oath, gave us "ars longa vita brevis." Basically, there's a lot to learn and life's not long enough.

Work proceeds on my current cardigan, a fair-isle stranded knitting project called Green Mountain Gardens, made of yarns reclaimed from unraveled thrift store finds. I finished the body over Christmas break and sewed and cut the steeks. Steeks are a way of knitting complex colorwork in the round without having to turn and purl the back side: after knitting is complete, you sew some reinforcing stitches so the knitting won't unravel, then cut the areas where you want an opening.
I am of the "don't think about it too much, just do it" school of steeking, so I sewed and cut them immediately after I finished knitting the section, and without photographing the process. I finished the bands where the buttons (actually clasps) will go and the neckband, so all the finishing has been done that can be done at this point...

and the sleeves have been started.