Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review - Guardians of Ga'Hoole series - The Owls Have It

Young children go through phases with their reading, most of them driven by the basic human need for security.  In early childhood they want the same bedtime story read to them over and over again, and parents go mildly insane doing 100 reps of Goodnight Moon or, in my case, The Cow Who Fell in the Canal.  Then when they first begin to read, it's repetition of simple sounds and words, like Sam-I-Am in Green Eggs and Ham.  The jump to chapter books is an important one, and it's not a coincidence that there are many books in simple chapter books series like The Boxcar Children.  My children started reading the Boxcar Children when they were anywhere from 4 to 7 years old, and two of the four have read every available book in the series ... but no child I've known has ever continued reading the Boxcar Children past age 9 or 10.  The repetitious format of formula fiction is self-limiting, and kids must move on.  Many times, they move on to something like the Guardians of Ga'Hoole, a series of chapter books about heroic owls by Kathryn Lasky. With many books to bring back familiar characters, this series offers more literary merit and more complex storylines.  But still, the reading level is most appropriate for ages 7 to 12, with few over that age who are more than tolerant of the overall story.

I admit, I was dubious about Lasky's Ga'Hoole books after reading her Memoirs of a Bookbat, a Judy-Blume-ish adolescent memoir about the evils of censorship riddled with badly-disguised bigotry against evangelical Christians.  But my firstborn son had fond memories of the Ga'Hoole series: he said it kindled a love of heroic fantasy literature in him and he compared it favorably to Brian Jacques' Redwall books, which we all love.  There is a film version of the first three books, with gorgeous animation and visual effects, which our family watched on TV, although I dozed off at a few key plot points (probably no fault of the movie, I was just very tired). So I gave the series a try, checking out audiobooks of the first three books from the library, and listening to them in the car with the family.  They had great production values, and the writing is very good.  Lasky has written close to 100 books, and she knows all there is to know about plot and pacing and character development.  But I can't say I love these books.  Maybe it's the juvenile gross-out humor and TMI about every minute detail in owl life.  Maybe it's the improbability of believing in a post-apocalyptic world where owls have evolved to take the place of humans, including mastering metalworking and warfare.  But I think most probably it's the idea that some owls evolved an abnormal psychology that necessitates domination of other owls through brainwashing and concentration camp tactics.  It's most likely an attempt on the author's part to portray World War II in a less threatening way so kids can process it.  But if you're looking for an animal fantasy/adventure story for elementary readers, I believe there are better options.

Some children's books you just can't wait to read to your kids; some, if you have eager readers who outstrip your ability to stay ahead of them, you just hope will not damage your kids if you never get around to reading them first.  The Ga'Hoole books do observe this primum non nocere principle, mostly.  The action is engaging and, if you don't overanalyze things like I do, there's always something exciting happening.  There are several charming characters: Soren the barn owl, Gylfie the elf owl, Mrs. Plithiver the blind nestmaid snake.  So, these books are great fodder for the eager readers, as long as they are not disturbed by potentially dark themes (fratricidal owls who join a conspiracy against owl-kind, ghosts, forced labor and re-education camps under a strange totalitarian system).  As a child, I would have more likely been confused by some of the moral ambiguity in the minor characters, and bored by the technical details about owls' digestive systems.  As an adult I was ready for the third book to be done, and when one of the CDs was unusable, took that as a sign to quit listening and check out something by another author.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Design Wall Monday - New Design Wall! ... and stash report

I think I'll keep up with the combined Design Wall Monday and Stash Report; both link back to Judy L. at Patchwork Times.
I have a new design wall!  The old one was just not big enough to see a whole quilt at a glance, and the string between two nails was not sturdy enough to make it any bigger.  I took a long piece of half-round molding we had in the garage and supported it between the two window frames, 68" apart, with a nail on either end to secure it. 
Then I zig-zagged a few more strips of old batting onto what I already had and staple-gunned the batting to the molding.  It hangs flat and is big enough for Orca Bay, which hasn't really grown much since last week, I've been too busy with other things.  I tend to make almost all bed-sized quilts, and it's a real pain laying them out on the floor when they get too big for the design wall.  Now I have a bit more space to play with.  I did cut a hole in the batting to reach the light switches for my sewing area -- I used to have to reach behind the "curtain".   I'm hoping to get Orca Bay all together soon.

Stash report:

Fabric used this week: 4.15 yards - Sports quilt top and binding for Crumbs
Fabric used year to date: 7.4 yards
Added this week: 0 yards
Added year to date: 0 yards

Net used for 2012: 7.4 yards

Yarn used this week: 0 yards
Yarn used year to date: 414 yards
Yarn added this week: 492 yards (handspun light fingering BFL)
Yarn added year to date: 492 yards (all handspun, not purchased)

Net used for 2012: -78 yards

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grading Marathons and Latin Bloopers

This pretty butterfly puzzle was really challenging to put together, and it's missing 5 pieces.  So we removed it from the puzzle chain rather than giving it back to Goodwill.

I'm always very frazzled during the last week of each quarter and the first week of the next.  There are final exams to administer and then grade, and there are always other large grading projects, as well as prep for the next quarter.  And grades are due Wednesday.  I finally have all three sets of finals graded.  Still to do are the Panis Angelicus for 7th grade and the Isaiah 40 Vulgate passage for 8th grade, and 8th grade mythology pages on Venus.

I occasionally run across unintentionally humorous answers on my final exams.  For example:

More than one young person has rendered "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" as "It is sweet and filling to die for ones country."

Long ago I was floored by the young lady who gave her translation of the all-purpose Latin greeting "Quid agis?" as "What do you drive?"  Because we teach ago, agere - do, drive, act, treat, it's fairly easy to see how she got there, but somehow the image of ancient Romans inquiring as to someone's favorite mode of transportation has always struck me as funny.

I give my 8th graders the challenge: Ille certissime malam fortuam fert qui nullos amicos habet.  Nam Cicero, "Sine amicitia," inquit, "vita est nulla."  Which my own son Secundus last year gave as, "That fortune is bad and has no friends.  Cicero was without friends.  Therefore he had no life."

And then there are the matching sections I throw in at the ends of my exams on Roman history, culture, and mythology.  They are matching sections... so I am always surprised when it's not as obvious and logical for the students as it is for me.  To read the exams, you would think that:

A.K.A. Dis, Hades, or Orcus = Apollo
Son of Apollo, god of the healing arts = Pluto or Venus
A.K.A. Pallas, Athena = Venus (she got around)
A.K.A. Aphrodite = Aesculapius
Separated from Thisbe by a wall = Cerberus
distaff = used to make wedding cake (I'm thinking as a stirring spoon?)
spelt = a woman's shawl

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Paella a la Costco

Some nights I just don't feel like cooking.  This week has had a lot of those nights.  I've been scrambling to print out final exams, restock the pantry after last week's deluge, and now grade final exams.  Yesterday when the usual inquiries after dinner began, I decided to throw the Costco chicken and apple sausages in the oven and make a rice dish to go with them, somewhat inspired by paella but without any meat... because the meat was in the sausages.  Practically all the ingredients for this lovely looking dish came from Costco.  The day before we had Costco chicken for dinner and I made stock afterwards from the bones in the crockpot.  I used the stock to cook the rice dish: I had thought I'd make soup, but didn't have the energy to make it.  It came out so pretty that I had to take a picture, and I knew I'd be in the throes of grading tonight so thought it might be an easy blog entry.  Here's my approximation of a recipe, because I didn't take notes.

Put a swirl of olive oil in the Dutch oven and saute a chopped onion and several sliced mini sweet peppers.  Add about 1/2 C lentils and 2 C Jasmine rice, some chopped snap peas, and saute slightly.  Add 4 C chicken stock, the dab of tomato soup and small serving of leftover broccoli that was languishing in the fridge, several chopped Kalamata olives, some chopped fresh cilantro, some seasonings (salt, pepper, smoked Spanish paprika, thyme, basil, etc.)  When the stock comes to a boil give it one last stir, put some thin lemon slices (Meyer lemons from Costco, supposedly they're "chef's choice") on top, turn the heat to low and put the lid on.  Leave it to cook for 25 minutes while whatever meat you're planning heats up, and get someone else to set the table and toss a salad.

I don't know if you can call it paella if it doesn't have meat in it, but it's a whole lot nicer than rice-a-roni and not that much harder.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

WIP Wednesday: Progress photos across the spectrum

Seriously.  I have way too many irons in the fire.  But I think I like it that way.  So this Wednesday I took photos of everything that I worked on, even if just a few stitches, in the past week.  Here goes.
Knitting: Nautilina shawl, my second in the 12 in 2012 challenge: about 75% done.
Knitting: Argylefest 2012: about 25% done with one sock.
Spinning: 4 oz. Blue-Faced Leicester, dyed and mostly spun last summer; I wound off the second skein and measured the total yardage at about 492 yards of heavy laceweight/ light fingering.  That will have to be added to my stash totals next week, but it doesn't count as buying new yarn!  And I began spinning some Wensleydale last night, also dyed blue.
Machine quilting: The Crumbs quilt, the one with signatures from all the Cedar Tree kids and staff, is on the Megaquilter; about 25% done.
Farmer's Wife quilt block #85, Square Dance.  Yes, I used some of the scraps of the vintage donated fabric that I used in the backing for Crumbs.
Block #86, Squash Blossom.  Kinda busy, isn't it?
Piecemaker's 1996 calendar quilt: half done with the applique on the 2nd of the setting blocks.  It's so satisfying to take out those little applique pins and put them away!
Another quilt for the Cedar Tree auction: I'm sashing it and sewing the rows together: 85% done.

Not pictured because I haven't done any more since the last photo: Orca Bay quilt top, about 25% done.

Now I'm tired, it's Finals week, and I still don't have any projects finished.  Linking up to Freshly Pieced so you can see what others are up to.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan

I've written before about P.B. Kerr and his Children of the Lamp series, when I reviewed books 1-6 last February.  It's an inventive children's/ YA fantasy series featuring a twin brother and sister who find out they are djinn.  Now the final of the seven volumes has been released: The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan, and the series has been brought to a mostly satisfactory conclusion, with wit and style. 

John and Philippa Gaunt have had many adventures with their lovably pompous Uncle Nimrod and his grumbling butler, Groanin (including one they don't even remember).  They are enjoying a spot of R&R in Italy when Vesuvius suddenly becomes active and threatens a catastrophic eruption... as does virtually every other volcano in the world.  Clearly, some evil plot is afoot.  To avert a worldwide catastrophe, John and Philippa must join forces with a team of Icelandic vulcanologists and embark on a rollicking quest to stop whoever is manipulating the world's volcanoes.  The secret may lie in an ancient prophecy, the hidden tomb of Genghis Khan, and the race memory of a family of camels that has relocated from Mongolia to Australia.

The series obviously tries to capitalize on the phenomenal popularity of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson; readers benefitted by receiving 7 entertaining books in a little more than 7 years.  The Children of the Lamp has done for djinn what Harry and Percy did for wizards and demigods, albeit without quite the same bestselling status.  But the last few volumes were rushed a bit too much, I believe.  There are certain uneven spots in editing, and certain things it would have been nice to see wrapped up more neatly.  For example, we do not have a final scene with the children's parents, nor are we given a great deal of insight into whether the evil djinn are behind the volcano plot.  Indeed, the bad guys are really not much more than cartoons in this book, though they are very entertaining cartoons.  This is very clearly the final chapter in the series.  Kerr writes an author's note at the end that will be particularly enjoyable to his fans.

My biggest concern with book 7 was that a few (relatively minor) characters are killed off in this book, but these deaths are dropped into the plot almost as an afterthought, and the swashbuckling, tongue-in-cheek tone continues almost without missing a beat.  Modern kids are not likely to be as disturbed as I would have been by this fast pace and somewhat flippant treatment of death, but I'd still be cautious about giving this book out to kids under 10 for that reason (especially if they haven't read books 1-6 yet, because it is meant to be read in order!)  However, the series as a whole has kept a lighthearted tone all along... unlike the Harry Potter books, which grew progressively darker with each volume, I have no problem classifying all of the djinn books as "children's literature" rather than "young adult."  Some parents may be uncomfortable with the Eastern mysticism on which Kerr builds his series, but I heartily recommend the entire series to anyone who enjoys an entertaining fantasy rich with literary and historical allusions.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Design Wall Monday and Stash Report

Full disclosure: my design "wall" is too small.  I tend to use it as a staging area for whatever project(s) I'm working on at the moment.  It's right behind my ironing board and the clutter is really bad, even after my marathon ironing session Saturday night.  This is exactly how it looks right now.  At the top is 1 1/2 strips of the sports-themed quilt I'm trying to throw together for the Cedar Tree auction.  Top right peeking out from under that is one of the Farmer's Wife blocks (they stay on the design wall until they're blogged, then they go into the pile).  In the center and partially covered by the sports are two of my Piecemaker's blocks, with applique complete on one and partial on another.  Draped over the ironing board is Orca Bay, which is about 1/4 sewn together.  I can't really use the design wall for it because it's too wide, so I'll really have to vacuum the carpet and use the floor for layout.  Behind and under the ironing board is pinned a Jack's Chain block, one of my long-term UFOs.  Just so I won't forget about it! 

To make my design wall more usable for the size quilts I tend to make, I've decided I need to get a 72" dowel rod to stretch between the two window frames on either side (which are 68" apart) and add a few more strips of batting to increase the width of what I've got now.  It would be fine if I only made baby quilts, but most things I make are at least twin size.  Right now the batting is supported by a "clothesline" strung between two nails, and it's not terribly sturdy.
The Crumbs quilt is on the Megaquilter frame!  I chased down every last kid at school and almost all the staff to get their signatures.  I did a test swatch with green variegated thread and it's looking okay... no thread nests so far.  I'll start quilting as soon as I stop blogging today.  I'd like to get this finished and off to the school.

Stash report:

Fabric used this week: 3.25 yards (pieced backing for Crumbs quilt)
Fabric used year to date: 3.25 yards
Added this week: 0 yards
Added year to date: 0 yards
Net used for 2012: 3.25 yards
Yarn used this week: 0 yards
Yarn used year to date: 414 yards
Yarn added this week: 0 yards
Yarn added year to date: 0 yards
Net used for 2012: 414 yards

I'm linking up to Judy L's Stash Report and Design Wall Monday.  I hope it's okay to link to both.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Where Football Meets Classical Education

Joe Paterno was the football coach at Penn State since before I was born, and for about 4 times as long as I've been a Latin teacher (which is a pretty hefty chunk of my life, now).  Yet his name was only vaguely familiar to me, since I am a football agnostic, until his essay, "Joe Knows Latin," was featured in the Spring 2008 edition of the Memoria Press newsletter.  Unfortunately they've changed the archiving of that article so it is more difficult to obtain the full text.  But it's well worth the read... inspiring, even, for those of us teachers who face constant questions about the worthiness of our arcane subject matter.  You can read more extensive excerpts of the article here, but I'll be trying to find a link to the full article to share if I can.  It was after reading this article, partly, that I tried to become more careful about looking up the teachers who had influenced me and thanking them.  Because we never know when a great teacher may be taken from us, or for that matter, when old age and a shifting zeitgeist may render him a pariah.  (46 years followed by a quick trip through the tabloids to the ash-heap of history... how do we begin to process that?  Well, worse things happened to Cicero.)

I guess football is quite similar to ancient warfare, really.  Horrifying battle helmets, grotesque war paint, screaming throngs watching from the city walls, obscure mystical rituals before and after each play; and of course, the lively oral tradition of retelling the game afterwards for those who didn't see it.  Some heroes do indeed seem to be specially favored by the gods; and JoePa, as he was known, surely had a friend in Minerva, the grey-eyed goddess of strategy and warfare.  In an age when imperialism is frowned upon, capturing yardage and taking possession of the ball are more socially acceptable outlets for young testosterone than capturing hostages and taking possession of Gallic towns.  So I'll just pose the question and you can think about it: is studying Latin and Caesar's conquests good preparation for ... football?

Friday, January 20, 2012

When it Snows in the Northwest

 ... it's never too far from rain.  Schools are cancelled, kids rush out to play... in the slush.  Grown-ups have to work.  News professionals adopt their serious, civic-minded voices as they urge extreme caution for anyone who needs to go out (on clear or only slightly wet roads).  By mid-afternoon, most teenagers wind up at the mall, and the snow has usually changed to rain.  This week, drenching rain, enough to flood the basement with rising groundwater.  Not a terrible flood, thanks to some of the repairs we made last year, but a definite nuisance.

The girls managed to make a snowgirl before it was washed away.  I didn't have the heart to tell them what a real, Northeast Ohio winter was like when I was growing up.  This will probably be it for their snow memories this year.  Sigh.  Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?
I am immensely pleased with this picture.  As soon as she saw it snowing Monday, Tertia donned her jacket and raced outside to taste the snowflakes.  It's such a gift, having a child's heart always.  This came home to me this week, as we had to sign a permission slip for her to watch the PG-13 movie "The Outsiders" with her Lit class after reading the book.  She's really growing up, becoming a young lady, in so many ways.  We were worried the movie might be too intense for her, but she said she watched the whole thing: "I was a brave princess."  A brave princess who knows one must rush outside to taste the snowflakes when they first start falling.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

WIP Wednesday: Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

My daughters recently heard about a little ritual that was supposed to produce a snow day off of school: you sleep with your pajamas inside out, mismatched socks, and a spoon under your pillow, and the next day there will be no school.  They tried it Sunday night and it didn't work (for the Cedar Tree kids: Tertia had no school because of the MLK holiday).  But I think I may have come up with a better trigger: finish and block a shawl using Madeline Tosh Merino Light:
It was really more of a slush day, but I was glad of it because I woke up with the same headache that never went away yesterday.  I did have to protect the camera from the drips when I took it outside.
That was my 414 yards of yarn for this year!  I finished with about 6 yards left in the skein.  So what do you think -- have I hit on the key to causing a snow day?  It happened this way last year, too!  I would be more than happy to knit with TML lots more from now on if it really works!
I made two more Farmer's Wife blocks this week: this is #83, Spider Web.  You may remember I am using something vintage, thrifted, or repurposed in every block of this quilt; the blue stripe is from an old dress shirt of my son's, and the green is scraps I found at the Goodwill outlet bins.
Block #84, Spool.  The tan has been in my scrap bag a long time, I think since I stuffed a bag with scraps at the store that Quilter's Newsletter Magazine used to run in Colorado... so at least 15 years ago.  The pink is leftover from a patchwork dress I made at least 10 years ago.  I think.
I've started sewing the pieces into rows for the Orca Bay quilt.  It goes a bit slowly and I have to be careful with the stretchy edges of the string blocks.  But it's coming along.  It's too big for my design wall: I should really do something about making my design wall big enough for the typical big quilts I usually  make.

My Crumbs signature quilt is still at school, waiting for one last Kindergartner's signature and a few staff members.  Then I'll see about getting it on the frame and quilting it in time for the auction.

Here's another quilt possibility for the auction: leftover sports-themed fabric donated by my Mother-in-law, very simple 8" blocks.  I have almost enough to make a twin-size quilt.  It would be a nice counterbalance for the bright pink Stars quilt.

Oh, and since some are weighing in about the SOPA bill and how to stop online piracy without hurting free speech rights, here's what I think: I think we should stop piracy by going after the pirates, not after successful businesses.
WIP Wednesday at Freshly Pieced

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Finished Baby Sweater and Stash Report

I think I can finally blog about this finished baby sweater from 2011.  I used the Elliot Sweater, a free pattern, and my handspun merino from Crazy Hat Lady (I spun it up and N-Plied it during the Tour de Fleece last summer).  The Ravelry project page is here.  It was a long-overdue baby gift for my sister Sarah's newest little girl, and I couldn't be happier with the softness of the yarn and the way the colors organized themselves.  Hope it fits her... I made the 12-month size, but she's been growing!

Okay, there is a stash accountability thing going on at Judy L.'s blog, and I'm going to make an attempt to participate.  Why? Because I have way too much fabric -- same reason as I'm participating in the UFO challenge.   I'm also going to be tracking my yarn usage.  And I'm not going to purchase any yarn or fabric (unless essential for a quilt backing or immediate need*) until the end of May.  Here's how I'm going to do it: I just don't see myself keeping precise records, so I will count fabric used only when I have a finished item: either a quilt top, or quilt backing, for example, finished since the last update, and thus yardage moved out of the working stash.  I reserve the right to estimate yardage based on my own obscure mathematical calculations, and will attempt to be transparent about the amount of stuff moved out of my cupboards, bins, and boxes.  I can assure you, I want it out of there just about as much as anyone else could, and not just so I can justify buying more.  Nope, I want to simplify my crafting life, and enjoy serenity in my little quilting corner.  It's not what you could describe as serene right now, by any stretch of the imagination.

Fabric used this week: 0 yards
Fabric used year to date: 0 yards
Added this week: 0 yards
Added year to date: 0 yards
Net used for 2012: 0 yards

Yarn used this week: 414 yards
Yarn used year to date: 414 yards
Yarn added this week: 0 yards
Yarn added year to date: 0 yards
Net used for 2012: 414 yards

To see what I made with the yarn, you'll have to come back after it's finished blocking.  There really should be some fabric usage pretty soon, too.

*"immediate need" subject to author's definition

Monday, January 16, 2012

Design Wall Monday - 1996 Piecemaker's UFO

Well, this is something different on the design wall!  I'm so excited to be able to share this.  Judy L. at Patchwork Times is sponsoring a UFO challenge this year, and I'm participating.  This month my challenge was to prepare half of the applique pieces for the setting blocks for my ANCIENT project, the 1996 Piecemaker's calendar quilt... and I got on a roll once I set up my system, and prepared them all!  Then I used tiny little sequin pins to position them on their triangle or rectangle backings.  They are all ready to do the actual applique.  And, in fact, I'm working on the applique for the first one when I have time for handwork.  The hard part's all done.

Now, it's not all good news, because in looking over the actual calendar blocks, I could see that most of them still require some additional handwork, either applique or embroidery, to finish them.  I'll let that be my challenge for the next time this comes up in the UFO challenge.  But I didn't think I'd ever get back to this project, and it's really quite pretty.  I'd forgotten how fun applique is.

I am linking up to Design Wall Monday at Judy L.'s blog, so you can see what other quilters are up to!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I haven't done a book review in 2012 yet.  How about starting with one of my favorite of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
This book has grown on me.  When I first read it, I felt Harry was too angry, too impatient, and the adults were either too distant, incompetent, or downright malevolent.  But after reading the full series, it becomes obvious that Harry is not just an adolescent with anger management issues.  Rowling is beginning to tie the series together in this book, and the emergence of the dark lord Voldemort with restored powers is only part of the threat to the Wizarding World.  The Ministry of Magic itself is suffering a lapse of leadership, with Cornelius Fudge and his associates trying to downplay public fears by denigrating Dumbledore and Harry as unstable cranks.

Things start badly for Harry, with Dementors attacking him and his cousin right in Little Whinging, and Ministry officials taking the opportunity to try to expel him.  But right-minded wizards have a secret society: the Order of the Phoenix, dedicated to fighting Voldemort. Except, Voldemort is playing hard-to-get. There's a rumor that he's stalking the Ministry, trying to get access to a weapon of some sort. We get to meet several members of the Order, including Mad-Eye Moody and Nymphadora Tonks, and we spend some time in the headquarters of the Order, the Black family mansion.  There, Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, spends his days in virtual solitary confinement with only Kreacher, a sour old house-elf, for company.

Soon the action shifts to Hogwarts, where Harry is surrounded by rumors and doubt.  Only his immediate circle of friends seem to trust him, and a few weird new characters like Luna "Looney" Lovegood.  Kids who have ever had an unfair teacher, or adults who have ever been caught in nasty workplace politics, will love to hate Dolores Umbridge, the new Defense Against Dark Arts teacher.  Seriously, if you thought the nanny state of Orwell's 1984 was bad, Umbridge will take it to the next level.  But Umbridge's regime provides the spur for some of Rowling's best scenes ever.  Harry's friends band together to learn the skills they will need from him, and they find the perfect room of requirement for their forbidden activities.  My personal favorite character, Professor McGonagall, knows just how to handle a twit like Umbridge.  And Fred and George Weasley have their moment to shine as well.  Oh yes, and Hagrid finds his next of kin.

The theme of friendship and the loyalty of friends, as always, is a major one in this book.  Harry's self-doubts, his impulsiveness, his irrational angry spells, though, mean that it is one of the more introspective of the series.  A major character does die in the last chapters of this book, and Harry blames himself.  Although the book may read like a humorous, swashbuckling romp, the serious ending makes it better suited for those older than 10 or 11.  As I've noted before, this poses a problem for parents whose kids race through the earlier books.  I'll be stalling my 9-year-old for at least another year.

A word on the movies:  I'm a firm believer in requiring kids to read the books first.  The movies will give you the essential plot and feel of the series, but you will miss so much that makes reading a joy.  That said, I like many things about the movies, and am frustrated by a few things.  The first two movies are fun and family-friendly, a great start to the series and an introduction for the illiterate.  The third is very well-made, darker, and is considered by many fans and purists one of the better films.  I'd consider it the best of the first 5 films.  I was frustrated by the 4th film, which is impossibly fast-paced and seems like a breathless highlights reel of the book; so much so that the emotional impact of the final scenes is diminished.  The 5th movie does a better job of editing, but had to eliminate many of my favorite characters and scenes.

My other Harry Potter reviews:
Sorcerer's Stone
Chamber of Secrets
Prisoner of Azkaban
Goblet of Fire

Friday, January 13, 2012

Snippets from Cedar Tree

This morning when I arrived for work, Mr. King had the 7th graders in a circle on the frosty grass of the quad underneath the flagpole, sitting on bags of ice, reading Endurance.  (You know, Shackleton, the Antarctic expedition.  Look it up if you don't know).  It was a great Cedar Tree moment.  A couple of hours later I overheard interesting snippets from the kids, including this gem: "My bum didn't get too wet."

I took the Crumbs quilt to the Kindergarten class to collect signatures.  I discovered that some Kindergartners, although they can all write their first names, are shaky about writing even the initial of their last name.  In fairness, some wrote their full last names without batting an eye (these tended to have 3-letter last names).

A few days ago I discovered that 1st graders sometimes need to be told how to spell their last names, but they could all at least handle the last initial.  Second graders split about evenly in choosing just last initial or full last name; of the last name initial crowd, most put the period before the initial, so it looked a little bit like a web address:  Sally.J

They get progressively more capable with each subsequent grade, until I finally get them in 6th - 8th grades.  Then I start spending most of my time thinking about the imponderables, like why young people make unwise choices.  Sometimes the more capable they are, the more help they need with the basics: doing homework, being kind to others, respecting their parents, reading their Bibles.  I wish there was a failsafe, Kindergarten-style rubric to get smart kids through adolescence.  But lacking that, I think sitting on bags of ice reading Endurance is a good start.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

WIP Wednesday: a little progress on many projects

We had a beautiful sunrise today.  Heavy frost made the ground look almost like it had snowed, but I had to dash my daughter's hopes for a snow day.
Some of the same colors are in my Farmer's Wife quilt, block #81, Snowball (and I didn't even plan it that way).
I also did block #82, Spider Legs.  This one was a pain: drew it on graph paper and paper-pieced it, and it's still on the small side.  I purposely chose colors that do NOT remind me of spiders.
I'm still working on the Orca Bay mystery: about halfway done with making the units that will be used in the border.  If I wanted I could start piecing the body, but I like to do the steps in order.  I'm hoping to get several hours at a time this weekend to piece: for the last few weeks I've just grabbed 10 or 20 minutes here and there, in the cracks and crevices of the day.
I've made a little progress on my UFO project of the month, preparing half of the applique pieces for the 1996 Piecemaker's calendar quilt.  This is the quilt I began when I was pregnant with Secundus, and figured that if he was a girl, it might be done by the time "she" was in a big girl bed.  Tertia and Quarta came along, and moved to big girl beds, and the quilt is still not done.  It's time to git 'er done.  I have all the stems for the floral setting blocks, all the leaves, and maybe 10% of the flower petals and flower centers.  It's fiddly work, lots of standing at the ironing board with a paintbrush and spray starch, but it's been progressing, and that's something.  I'd like to get all the pieces prepared now that I've started, and that would leave the actual applique for another month's challenge.

I have my finished crumb-along quilt top in at school, where I'm almost finished collecting signatures from all the students and staff.  I still have Kindergarten and 2nd grade to collect, and a few absentees from other grades.  Yesterday, two 1st graders asked me how to spell their last names.  I told them to just use the last initial.  I hope to have all the signatures collected so I can begin quilting soon, maybe even this weekend, but I'll need to piece a back first!
I did some spinning last night and plied a bobbin full of this Blue-Faced Leicester that I dyed and spun last summer.  I'll have two skeins of light fingering/ heavy laceweight, but still need to skein the bobbin I spun last night, wash both skeins and count the yardage.  I should have enough for one of the shawls I'm planning on knitting this year.

My two shawls are progressing nicely, even though I don't have new pictures.  I'm in the last section of the Age of Brass and Steam, past the part involved in the yarn barf incident.  I'm planning on making it a 5 section shawl instead of a 3-section kerchief.  Might even finish it this weekend.
Okay, one thing did get finished last week: this photomosaic Charlie Brown puzzle we picked up at Goodwill.  None of the 1000 pieces missing: it's a keeper!

Once again I'm linking up to Freshly Pieced, where you can see lots of other progress from lots of other bloggers.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Filled Raisin Cookies

Okay, I taunted you with the photo yesterday.  Here's the recipe.  It's one of those old-fashioned family recipes.  I'm not sure whether it was from Great-Aunt Laura or another of the Granger/ Maffett/ Cordier/ Clester connection, but I do know I copied it from my Grandma Maffett's recipe file.  The first time I made it, I learned by trial and error because the original recipe left a lot of steps out.  This is how I make it. 

Filled Raisin Cookies

2 C sugar
1 C butter-flavored Crisco (or 1/2 C regular Crisco and 1/2 C butter)
2 eggs
1 C sour milk (buttermilk, regular milk with 1 T vinegar added, or even yogurt)
1 T baking powder
5 1/2 C flour

Cream sugar and Crisco; then add eggs and beat well. Add other ingredients and mix to make a very soft dough.  Chill dough for several hours or overnight.

1 pound raisins (about 2 C)
1 C water
1 C sugar
2 t. vanilla
4 T flour

Put raisins and water in blender and pulse until the raisins are coarsely chopped.  Pour raisin/water mixture into saucepan, add sugar and flour, and bring to boil.  Remove from heat; add vanilla and stir in.  Let filling cool.

Roll out dough about 1/4 inch thick with plenty of flour.  Dough will be soft and sticky (but it is probably the best dough for snitching raw ever!).  You will need a doughnut cutter with removable hole attachment:
... or you can improvise something else.  Cut bases for the cookies and transfer to an ungreased baking sheet; place a heaping teaspoon of filling on the center of each, and cover each with a "lid" that has the hole cut out.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Last Noel: Q&A

I was a party hostess instead of a blogger for the last few days, so here are some of the frequently asked questions about our Last Noel party Friday night.

Q. So how long have you guys been doing the Last Noel, your fabulously popular end-of-the-holiday-season open house?
A. It started when we were newlyweds in 1992, but it was before Christmas then.  It shifted to after New Year's when we had small children and were always travelling over Christmas.  There were several years when it didn't happen at all, but it's become an annual tradition since we moved out here.

Q. How did it get to be such a cool event?
A. Honestly, we have no idea.  We do not see ourselves as the kind of people who throw the coolest party of the season.  Hungry teenage boys, sloppy joes, and word of mouth might have something to do with it.

Q. What's the menu?
A. Sloppy joes, pasta salad, veggies and dip, potato chips, coffee, tea, hot cider, punch, and assorted Christmas cookies.

Q. How much food do you buy for it every year?
A. 15 pounds ground beef, 96 buns, 2 pounds of pasta and lots of assorted vegetables, 2-3 Costco sized bags of chips, 3 gallons apple cider, 3 gallons cranberry juice, 3 2-liter bottles of lemon-lime soda, 3 2-liter bottles of flavored seltzer water.  (This is more for my own future reference than yours).

Q. How many sloppy joes does the average teenage boy eat? 
A. It appears to be 3.  Two if they are holding back, or ate before they came.

Q. Is it really true that no one is allowed to have a Christmas party after the Last Noel, until next Christmas season?
A. No, that's just something I told my 7th grade class, and they're literal enough to believe me.  I wonder how they think I'd enforce that?  But I don't think anyone would want to have a Christmas party after the first full week of January.

Q. Do you have to clean the house furiously beforehand?
A. No.  This is actually a key part of it.  We clean, but not obsessively, and the piles of papers stay pretty much in place.  The tree doesn't come down until after the last guests leave, although they may be invited to help undecorate if they wish.

Q. How many people show up for this thing?
A. It varies from year to year.  We had about 75 people this time; not as many as some years, but most of them stayed longer.

Q. Music?
A. We have about 15 hours worth of Christmas music queued up.  Steve is in charge of that.  He tends to favor Baltimore Consort and the choir of King's College Cambridge.  I like to add a little Vince Guaraldi and Mannheim Steamroller into the mix.  We both like all the Celtic Christmas albums.

Q. Was this year's Last Noel successful?
A. I'd say so.  None of the kids had nosebleeds or needed an ice pack this year.  The noise level was intense, but the crowd managed itself pretty well.  Serious conversations took place in the dining room, the boys headed upstairs to hang out with Primigenitus, younger kids in the family room, and various groupings of lively conversationalists in the kitchen and living rooms.  Muffball remained in deep hiding in the basement and poked her nose out at about 10:30 when she was sure everyone had gone.  We took the tree down and vacuumed most of the little cedar seeds and debris up before going to bed.

Q. Have you ever in your life been more tired than the Saturday after the Last Noel?
A. No, I don't think so.  I may recover in time for school tomorrow, but I am definitely not as young as I used to be.

Q. When are you going to share the recipe for those fabulous filled raisin cookies pictured above?
A. Tomorrow.  They're worth waiting for.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

WIP Wednesday

Since school just started back up again I'm not really much farther along than when I last posted about the Orca Bay mystery.  I may have sewn a few more units, but that's it.  One of my projects this year is Judy L's UFO challenge: she drew number 5 for this month.  #5 on my list was the 1996 Piecemaker's Calendar quilt: I broke it down into 2 months' worth, each of them being to prepare half of the pieces for the applique in the setting rectangles and triangles.  I brought out my Piecemakers' Calendar quilt so I could assess the amount of work I'll need to do this month.  I am making a twin-sized quilt with fewer blocks: so I will need a total of 6 rectangles and 4 triangles.  The rectangles will need 3 stems, 5 leaves, 3 flower centers, and 12 petals each.  The triangles will need 1 stem, 2 leaves, 1 center and 4 petals each.  So I will need a total of 22 stems, 38 leaves, 22 centers, and 88 petals.  I have some leaves prepared, plus what you can see on my sample block.  I will declare victory if I can make all the stems, and half of the remaining pieces, and lay them out on the backing.  I'm not going to require myself to applique them down, but if I do, it's all to the good!  I use the freezer paper/ spray starch method to prepare applique pieces, and all the bias strips from stems are already cut.  I think it's doable in one month.  But of course I've also got Orca Bay and the Crumbs quilt to finish.
Yesterday I signed the completed Happy Quilting STARS quilt over to Cedar Tree for the auction.  They require you to place a value on it because they are not allowed to do that themselves... so I guessed $300.00.  If any of you have sold quilts at charity auction before, let me know if you think that's a good estimate.  It's really hard to say; it's a balancing act between the work and materials that go into a quilt and what the market will bear. 
In knitting, after my yarn barf episode, I cast on another shawl.  This is Melinda VerMeer's lovely and intriguing Nautilina, and it's autographed because the designer is in my knit group (Hazel Dell Starbucks, every Monday evening!)  Really, how cool is that? The yarn is my handspun, from a batt by Butterfly Girl Designs called "Seashells."  It's got lots of sparkly stuff in it, angelina and firestar, in a base of merino and bamboo.  I'm well into the second section so far.  So fun to knit.  The yarn was just recently washed in Kookaburra wool wash, and I love how it smells!

I'm linking up to WIP Wednesday at Freshly Pieced.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In which I engage in political punditry...

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
  -- W.B. Yeats
...while hoping not to lose friends.  Because that's the real challenge, these days.  And as the results of the Iowa caucuses come in, I will do my best to be an equal-opportunity satirist and return to my regularly-scheduled needlework blogging tomorrow.
Politics has got to be the greatest spectator sport in America.  Much better and more brutal than football.  My cousins in Iowa have a chance to have their votes count, but most states I've ever voted in have late primaries and so I've never played a significant role in choosing a presidential nominee... by the time I got to vote it was always mostly over.  BUT I did work for the National Right to Life Committee for 3 years, have seen firsthand many of the players and the playing fields of politics in the late 20th century, and was once frisked by Dan Quayle's Secret Service agents.  (I'll have to tell that story sometime, I guess).

I love politics, but it's a game for the young and strong of heart, those with nerves of steel and rhinoceros hide.  Vast amounts of wealth and influence can't hurt either.  But competence?  Not really necessary, as President Obama has shown. I'd like to think that the Republican field has better to offer, and really hope there will be a meaningful challenge to the status quo coming out of this.  It could happen: truth can be stranger than fiction.

By "a meaningful challenge to the status quo," I most decidedly do not mean Ron Paul.  I am astounded at how so many religious and cultural conservatives think his particular brand of isolationism and extremist libertarianism is worthwhile.  I think David Bahnsen may have nailed the reason for it on his blog, where he describes Ron Paul as appealing to the mediocre.  And I can see that.  He's like the kid in class who doesn't really want to do the homework, but instead wants to stir things up so the standards are changed for him.  He thrives on negative attention, and actually hopes he'll get sent to the principal's office, because he doesn't like the school and its rules anyway.  He's almost anti-patriotic in his desire to diminish American influence abroad, promote a nuclear Iran and a weak military.  And his endorsement of legalized dope and prostitution, the conspiracy theory of 9/11, and tolerance of racist comments are just beyond the pale. But what really ticked me off was in one of the debates, where he was asked about Supreme Court justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Alito: and he couldn't think of a single positive thing to say about any of them.  As someone who fought like anything to get some of those guys in, I find that incredibly offensive, proof that Paul is not interested in Republican or conservative ideas at all.  He has no real plan for how he would govern if elected.  Why don't we all just lob spitballs at the student council members from the back of the room?  I know, we're not supposed to speak ill of a fellow Republican.  And some of his economic policies are sensible.  That's about all I can say for him.

Sarah Palin: I know, she's not running.  I'm not sure how I feel about that.  It's no secret I'm a huge fan of hers: we both have a child with Down syndrome, a love for the populist masses that make up the Tea Party and the rural Red States, and (I flatter myself) a gift for the occasional witty verbal jab.  I think she would have made a phenomenal VP for McCain, though I've never been convinced she had enough experience to be President... but people had those same kinds of reservations about Reagan.  I think she has the potential to be a Reagan for this generation... or not.  Maybe her best place right now is in the media, trying to reverse the politics of personal destruction that she knows all too well from the receiving end.  But I still like to daydream about having an inspiring female President who is not teleprompter-dependent.

Mike Huckabee: Another one not running.  He was my caucus pick last time around, and had he declared last year, I would almost certainly have voted for him.  He's got the soft touch that wins hearts as well as minds, and a race with him in it would be honest and clean: the kind of presidential race that should appeal to the better natures of all Americans.  But the cynic in me says that Americans have lost their better natures and don't want a clean race.  Also, I wonder if he has the necessary personality traits to be President; could he face down an evil tyrant and make choices that he knew would result in loss of American lives, for example.  Quite possibly this is one of the reasons he decided against running.

Michele Bachmann: Probably not relevant anymore; I have always had to fight the impression that she was Palin lite: Junior Varsity.  That's strange, because her credentials are impressive, both personally and politically.  Her voice is a bit irritating... but then many people say that about Palin.  The feminist in me is really troubled by the fact that she is the one who has to fend off the "Are you a flake?" questions when Ron Paul (for example) doesn't.  Particularly when she has given some of the best and clearest condemnations of Paul's policies of any of the candidates I've heard.  It's not fair, but there it is: female and black Republicans come in for a disproportionate amount of negativity.

Speaking of which: Herman Cain.  That was just sad.  He should never have run; he had no realistic conception of the level of scrutiny he would receive.  But let it never be said that Republicans weren't willing to jump behind a black candidate.

John Huntsman: Who?  Um, I'll have to do some research and get back to you.

Mitt Romney: They say he has nice hair...eh, it's okay, I guess.  His debating and public speaking skills are very good.  Don't like his sense of entitlement to the nomination, just because of his large fortune and years of waiting.  We're not supposed to hold his Mormon religion against him; but the truth claims that Mormonism makes are the kind that make me question the intellect of those who seriously embrace them.  Not that we need the greatest intellect in our Presidents, but still... I wonder what book he would take the oath of office on, whether he'd have to have all Mormon Secret Service agents to go with him to the Mormon temple so it wouldn't be defiled, and how he'd conduct high-level international negotiations if he can't do it over alcohol, tea, or coffee.  Little things like that; but I suspect that he'll be the nominee in the end.  And middle America will never warm to him, Ron Paul will stage a 3rd party run (or at least rabble-rouse enough to throw the election into disorder) and Obama will get a second term.  And then we'll have total economic collapse.  For all this, I don't dislike Romney and will cheerfully vote for him if he's the nominee.

Rick Perry: He was supposed to be the candidate that would win the evangelicals.  They say he has nice hair too, but I like Romney's better.  Really, hearing him speak in public can be painful.  I like the idea of governors of Texas becoming President; I think it's worked well in the past.  But I'm not sold on this one.  Not dead set against him, but not on board the train.  Anybody can have a bad debate or four, I guess.  But Perry seems to have the same kind of sense of entitlement that I get from Romney, only less well disguised.

Rick Santorum: I've had a soft spot for him ever since I played a small part in his 1992 House race (I placed a few ads).  He has the credibility of a leader who has come from within the pro-life movement, so it's not surprising that he's appealing to social conservatives.  He has nice hair too... but he does remind me of some of the geeky guys who used to want to date me.  Just a little awkward in the prime time lights.  He's a good guy, and I'll probably support him if he makes it to March.  I'm guessing he will be the Huckabee equivalent (to Romney's McCain equivalent) in this election cycle, and the end result will probably be the same.  He'll have a good run and make it farther than expected, but lose to Romney in the end.  But I'm stating it here in the hopes that truth will be stranger than fiction and something positive will shake loose.

Newt Gingrich: I have no idea whether he'll last much longer or not.  I was flabbergasted when he took the lead a few weeks back.  With negatives that high, and an ego bigger than any of the other candidates, it's still actually fun to see him do what he does best: set the pace of the debate for everyone else.  Whether I like him personally or not is irrelevant: he still has ties to the glorious Reagan years, and can articulate the conservative positions very well.  Surprisingly he's less likely than many of the other candidates to go negative... he doesn't really need to.  In this political climate, that's impressive.  What's not impressive at all: his hair.  Totally underwhelming.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Orca Bay Mystery 7

I've been working on the Orca Bay Mystery and have a little progress to report.  At long last I finished step 6 (the Ohio Star blocks, finished New Year's Eve). So now I am squarely in the thick of step 7, making the red string flying geese units.  That will take me quite a while yet, but I couldn't resist playing with the layout that Bonnie gave us in step 8:
This is quite easily the "busiest" quilt I've ever worked on.  Sometimes I have my doubts as I'm sewing with my eyes less than a foot away from the fabrics.  But from across the room, it's absolutely stunning.  All my quilts should be appreciated from a distance!  That way you don't see the mismatched seams!  But seriously, I am getting very excited to see this come together and have loved every scrappy step along the way of this mystery.  It's not too late; the clues are still up if you want to download them and try this yourself.  The pieces are on the small side and there is a lot of piecing.  Check out the link above to see what bloggers all over the world are doing with this truly inspiring pattern!

I'm also linking up to Design Wall Monday where there's all sorts of quiltiness going on.

My mother-in-law showed up New Year's Eve with a grocery bag full of fabric for me.  "I thought you used all yours up and needed more," she says!  So far from it... I've been contemplating doing the weekly stash reports that Judy L. sponsors, where you report how much fabric goes in and out of your stash each week, with a yearly goal of using a bunch up.  I'm not sure if I'm ready to do all that math, though.  In any case, since it arrived in my stash in 2011, this fabric wouldn't count, would it?  And how much fabric is there in my stash?  I'll never tell (because I'd have to count it)!  I would like my stash to fit in my sewing area cupboards, though.  So if any of you have any opinions on whether I should do the stash-tracking thing, let me know.  Now would be the time to start if I do...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Yarn Barf

To celebrate the New Year, I cast on two new knitting projects: the first, Argylefest: my first attempt at the lovely Scottish tartan-inspired socks using the intarsia technique, much avoided by modern knitters.  I'm using Knit Picks yarn for those in 4 different colors and have to manipulate the bobbins carefully to keep them from tangling.  Because I knew it would probably be slow-moving and frustrating, I also chose for the first of a possible 12-in-12 shawls challenge The Age of Brass and Steam, a very simple shawl pattern, mostly stockinette stitch with a few yarn overs and occasional garter stitch, in quite possibly my favorite yarn of all time, Madeline Tosh Merino Light (colorway "nutmeg").  I anticipated a nice, relaxing knit.

So guess which project I'm ready to throw across the room right now?
The argyles are progressing slowly but neatly.  Knit Picks yarn doesn't tangle very easily, and the little baking pan is keeping the bobbins from running away too far.  The ToshMerinoLight, on the other hand, because of its single strand construction and the grabbiness of the merino wool, seems to be very prone to the phenomenon known to knitters as "yarn barf."  (For some reason, this is not a common phrase among non-knitters.  I had to repeat it multiple times this afternoon to uncomprehending stares).  You see an excellent (if incredibly frustrating) example on the right of the picture above.  It happens when the unsuspecting knitter pulls the yarn from the center of a center-pull ball (specially wound yesterday) and the working end of the yarn catches onto a strand from somewhere in the very middle of the skein, and hauls it out of its neat packaging way too early, thus creating a very bad tangle which will take most of an afternoon to undo.  During that time, of course, no knitting can take place.

So now you know what yarn barf is.  I seem to get it a lot; I can usually work through it and untangle it, but I think from now on if I get any more TML, I'll unwind it from the outside of the ball, not the center.

Sometimes yarn barf happens when your daughter left a ball of yarn in her coat pocket and that gets thrown in the washer and dryer along with big brother's clothes (and he forgot his wallet, too!)
In that case, the yarn was Red Heart acrylic and I just cut the yarn off the jeans and threw it away.  I cannot do that with Tosh Merino Light.  I did give the wallet back to Primigenitus.  This reminded me of my poem, the one I published here for "Poem in my pocket day."

Happy New Year, everyone, and may you weather the inevitable frustrations of life this year!