October 23, 2013
Once again, I’ve jumped into the middle of a mystery series—this time the Oscar Wilde mysteries by Gyles Brandreth. I requested (and received) a review copy of the sixth book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal. I figured Oscar Wilde, mystery novel, free ebook—that’s a chance worth taking. And I was right.
This book is largely set in (no surprise) Reading Goal, where Wilde spent the majority of his two-year sentence for gross indecency. (There’s a whole back story here that deserves study from biographical, legal, and cultural perspectives, but I’m not going to go into that here; just know that if you poke about on the internet or in a library there’s lots to learn.) The pace is slow. The clues, which often aren’t immediately recognizable as clues, are dealt out sparingly. The beginning, end, and a central interval are set in Dieppe, France, after Wilde has been released and where he is recounting the story of his imprisonment to an unknown man who’s offered to write the story up for publication and split the profits.
Because Wilde’s prison life is monotonous (both as lived and in the later retelling), one needs to be prepared for a somewhat turgid pace. (Note that I don’t mean “turgid” in a bad way; it’s just the best word I could come up with in terms of denotation, even though it’s not quite right in terms of connotation.) This novel isn’t a cliff-hanger that ends each chapter leaving the reader desperate to begin the next. Once one adjusts to the pace, this is an ideal book for end-of-day reading: engaging, but not over-stimulating, something that will allow you to enjoy settling in for the evening without tempting you to sacrifice sleep in order to keep reading.
I prepped for reading this book as I often do by searching for on-line reviews, both professional and amateur. Most of the reviews agreed on a few points:
• the murders are secondary to the central story
• the central story is, in fact, a tale of Wilde’s emotional and ethical maturation that results from his imprisonment.
I have to say I disagree.
I approached this book anticipating a character study, but found myself reading—as the cover promised and as most reviewers denied—a mystery novel. Yes, Wilde reflects a bit on his life during his time in goal, and he is somewhat changed. But the material of real interest starts about two-thirds of the way through as one begins to see the puzzle that’s being presented, but can’t yet begin to predict its answer. The mystery is presented with subtlety, but mystery it is, and as far as I’m concerned the mystery is the heart of the book.
I’m not going to say more about the plot here because I think this book is best approached “chastely,” without the bump-and-grind or quick feel provided by spoilers and near spoilers. There is, however, one last topic I’d like to remark on, and that’s the pleasure of reading a book peopled in part by writers whose work I appreciate. Wilde is the only author who is present as a character in the book, but Wilde’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle is an on-going presence. Wilde knows Conan Doyle’s work and identifies with Holmes with the same sort of smug self-confidence typical of Holmes himself. I enjoyed the amalgam created by this blending of bon mot and great detective. I’m eager now to read earlier books in the series in which Conan Doyle appears as a character. (And Bram Stoker appears in the second volume in the series—bonus!)
If you have the patience—or the need—to move slowly and take pleasure in thinking about the ways writers’ mind operate, I expect you’ll enjoy this series as much as I enjoyed the one volume I’ve read thus far.
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October 19, 2013
Melissa and I have what we call the “essentials” shelf. Right now, it’s not an actual shelf, but the books themselves are real. What makes a book an essential is not just the fact that it’s good read—it has to be the sort of read that is rich enough to invite rereading, that promises to keep providing moments of surprise and insight even as it become familiar. We often get our books in paperback or electronic copies, but once we’ve decided a book is an essential, we pick up a hard-cover copy. We feel comforted knowing that we own a copy of the book that is ready to stand up to the years of revisiting we intend to spend on it.
One of the essentials I discovered this year is Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies. This book opens with a one-way correspondence from Ivy Rowe, a young girl growing up in Appalachia, to her unresponsive Dutch pen-pal, Hanneke. From the start Ivy’s voice rings true and spills out across the page in an engaging jumble of observations and reflection:
“My dear Hanneke,
“Your name is not much common here, I think it is so pretty too. I say it now and agin it tastes sweet on my mouth like honey or cane or how I picture the fotched-on candy from Mrs Browns book about France, candy wich mimicks roses. Have you seed any such as this? I have not. I have seed them in her red book that is all.”
In her next letter to Hanneke, Ivy announces “I want to be a famous writer when I grow up, I will write of Love,” and despite her circumstances, we already feel as if this might be possible, given Ivy’s voice and force of personality.
And a bit further along, as Ivy rants at her unresponsive pen-pal, we can’t help but both laugh at and admire her change in tone and her angry re-imagining of both Hanneke and the Dutch countryside where Hanneke lives: “I hate you, you do not write back nor be my pen friend I think you are the Ice Queen instead…. I know you are so rich with all your lace and those fine big cows. I know you have plenty to eat…. I hope that the sea will come in the hole in the dike and will flood you out and you will drown. I will not send this letter as I remane your hateful, Ivy Rowe.”
From the moment Ivy turned on Hanneke, I knew I wanted to spend time with Ivy—a book’s worth of time. I wanted to see what sort of woman this feisty girl would grow up into; I wanted to watch her take on the world. I wanted to be around when she became that famous writer, writing of Love.
Ironically—spoiler alert!—Ivy never leaves the mountain community of her birth, but her life is remarkable nonetheless.
Given the pleasure my time with Ivy brought me, I’d been waiting eagerly for Smith’s latest book, Guests on Earth. In this novel, as in Fair and Tender Ladies, we first meet the narrator, Evalina Toussaint, as a girl. Evalina, the soon-to-be-orphaned daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer, is an altogether different creature than Ivy: unsure of herself, carried along life’s eddies and unwilling to chart a path for herself. She does gain the opportunity to attend music college—but recognizes that she’s happier as an accompanist, using her playing to highlight the accomplishments of others. While both girls are highly observant, Ivy charges into the world, while Evalina watches it from a remove.
Evalina spends much of her life in and out of Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina—the hospital in which Zelda Fitzgerald spent much of her adult life and where she died in a fire, trapped in a locked ward. So this isn’t just a novel about Evalina; it’s a novel about Zelda and Highland’s other residents and staff as well. Evalina half watches, half participates in their lives, accompanying them as much as traveling on her own journey.
I’ve been interested in Zelda’s life story since I read Tennessee William’s play Clothes for a Summer Hotel—one of his last works and one that features Zelda Fitzgerald. Guests on Earth doesn’t focus on Zelda nearly as much as the jacket blurb suggests it will, but it turns out that’s not a problem. Zelda comes across as a talented woman, as much conceited as self-confident, and given to sudden bursts of unkindness. Evalina is a pale character beside her, but she’s nonetheless a much more interesting character.
Reading Guests on Earth, I had an experience I don’t recall having had before with a novel: there were moments when I forgot I was reading fiction. Yes, I’ve been lost in the worlds created within novels any number of times, and the characters of my favorite novels feel utterly real to me—but Evalina’s story made me forget I was reading a story. I kept slipping into a different sort of consciousness, one that I can’t define well, but that I know I experience when reading memoir or biography, not fiction.
I’m not quite certain yet whether I’ll be buying a hardback copy of Guests on Earth for the essentials shelf, but I do know it is a remarkable book with a subtle magic that has nothing to do with the occasional, fiery presence of Zelda Fitzgerald. Read it. Read Guests on Earth. Read Fair and Tender Ladies. Spend some time with Ivy and with Evalina.
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October 15, 2013
One thing I know about mystery novels is that they mystery itself seldom carries the book. A few writers can keep us breathless, anticipating the next plot twist. Most successful mystery writers, however, succeed not only by providing a good mystery, but by building a relationship between reader and protagonist that can develop richly over the course of multiple books. You see what’s coming, but you still want to go along for the ride just to see how the character you’re attached to manages things.
The trick with this kind of novel is that, if the attachment to the protagonist doesn’t happen quickly enough, the reader lacks the sense of personal connection that makes her keep reading. One example of this conundrum is the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters (a pseudonym for the recently deceased Barbara Mertz). Initially, Peabody (an amateur Egyptologist) is nothing but irritating—a pre-WWI blue-stocking with a highly elevated sense of her own intelligence and social position. I slogged through the first few novels in the series, grinding my teeth at Peabody’s arrogance, kept going by the ancillary information about early-20th Century Egyptology (Peters/Metz held a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago). And somewhere around book four, I was hooked. I started seeing Peabody in context: in relationships with people she loved and respected, who loved and respected her. Their willingness to see beyond her off-putting exterior allowed me to do the same. And, well, it turned out she is pretty much every bit as smart (but nowhere near as socially sophisticated) as she thinks she is. What was once irritating became amusing, then almost comforting. I loved my time with her and her extended family, who also became occasional narrators as the series progressed. I counted on a new Peabody novel every year or two, and now that Paters/Metz has passed away, I’m mourning the loss of that anticipation.
I relate all this, not just because I’d urge you to read the Peabody mysteries (and I am hereby urging—check them out!), but because I’ve recently read a book that may (or may not) allow me to develop the sort of relationship with the protagonist that keeps me going. In this case, the protagonist is Estelle Ryan’s Genevieve Leonard, a high functioning autist with three doctorates in psychology, great skill in reading body language, and real difficulties in following metaphors and slang.
As an academic who feels emotionally and socially challenged on an almost-daily basis, I delight in the care with which Leonard explains interactions to herself. We sit inside her head, watching her wrestle with terms like “red herring” and with the profound discomfort of sharing a computer screen with another individual. While I don’t feel the character has yet hit her stride (mind you, I’ve only read the middle of the three Genevieve Leonard mysteries), at this point I’m willing to keep reading and see what develops.
The good news is that the first Genevieve Leonard novel, The Gauguin Connection, is currently available for free download on Amazon. You can take her on a first date, so to speak, with no out-of-pocket expense and see if you want to continue the relationship.
As I said, I’ve only read the second book (The Dante Connection) in the three-book series, which also includes The Braque Connection. I suspect that when I go back to the first book, I may find it less engaging simply because—as many other reviews of the series have pointed out—the characters don’t really begin to solidify until book two. But at this point, I have decided I want to go beyond the first date with Leonard. I want to spend more time with, see how she understands herself, see how she understands others, look at my own world from the neuro-nontypical perspective she offers.
My one real complaint about the series at this point is that it needs better editing. I cringed at the regular problems with subject-verb agreement, which seem inappropriate to a character as well-educated and precise as Leonard. I’m hoping that if the series continues the quality of the editing will improve.
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October 13, 2013
Polar exploration has wound up on my radar thanks to Melissa, who has a bit of an obsession with it. So, like the good wife I am, I tend to notice books with ice on the cover or titles that include words like ice and longest and search. If this is a subject that interests—or that might interest—you, I can recommend Andrew Cohen’s Lost Beneath the Ice.
This book recounts two searches: the HMS Investigator search in the early 1850s for the lost Franklin expedition and the present-day search for the remains of the Investigator. The text is brief—just thirty-eight pages—but well-written. The style is as crisp and transparent as one might imagine the the arctic skies the crew of the Investigator found themselves trapped under (though that analogy falls apart pretty quickly given the rigors of their voyage and the pleasure of leafing through this book).
The bi-temporal story in the text sets the scene for the real riches of the book: the collections and historic and contemporary images that take up the bulk of the pages. You can pour over detailed ship’s plans, 19th century photographs and paintings, and under- and above-water photos from the present-day expedition.
As I’d mentioned above, polar exploration is a favorite topic of Melissa’s both for reading and for her artwork. She’s found the open spaces of the arctic productive ground for conveying the smallness of our human selves against that vast landscape. (If you’d like to see some of her images and to read about her print making process, click through here to her piece titled, “Explorations.”)
That sense of our own smallness also comes across in Lost Beneath the Ice in the pictures of some of the artifacts recovered from the Investigator, particularly the single leather shoe that somehow survived more than a century under Canadian ice. Imagine the foot in the shoe, the man attached to the foot, the ship that man sailed on, the endless, yet insufficient, rations that man ate while his ship was trapped in the ice for nearly two years. Our endurance and our hubris are staggering.
Please note: I was lucky enough to receive an early electronic galley of Lost Beneath the Ice. If you want to read this book yourself—or give it to the polar-expedition-inspired artist in your life—you’ll need to wait until its official publication date, 10 December, 2013.
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October 12, 2013
One of the odder books I’ve read recently is Howard Anderson’s Albert of Adelaide. The cover image of the platypus makes it easy for one to expect a heart-warming animal tale along the lines of The Wind in the Willows, but that impression doesn’t last long. Albert—he’s the platypus—has escaped from the Adelaide zoo to search for “Old Australia,” a human-free promised land of sorts, dreamed about by the creatures in the zoo. He’s tired of his daily routine: wake, get shoved out into his viewing area, get fed, crawl back into the burrow at night. He’s also haunted by the memory of his mother’s death defending him from a dog when he was just a pup (a pup? a kit? a platypette?).
When we join Albert, he’s wandering lost and on the verge of heat stroke through the Australian desert. The book quickly moves into a sort of hallucinatory western, “peopled” with kangaroos (most of them gun-carrying), a pyromaniac wombat, a pair of gay bandicoots, and a raccoon who landed down under after a panicked flight from the docks of San Francisco on a ghost ship. There are also dingoes. And a badly scarred, formerly prize-fighting Tasmanian devil.
I don’t watch westerns. I don’t read them. But one way or another, this book kept me going. Partly, I just wanted to see what craziness would happen next; partly, I really did start to grow fond of the blood-thirsty little marsupials. When you need a little something unexpected, you may want to pick this volume up. Just bear in mind that you’ll be reading the equivalent of a collection of just-so stories penned by Hunter S. Thompson.
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October 09, 2013
I’ve just finished reading Stephanie Carroll’s A White Room, a novel set in the first decade of the 20th Century. As my title suggests, one of the inspirations for the book was Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a novella that I’ve read again and again and that I’ve encountered in completely different ways, depending upon my age, my mood, and the topics I’m most enjoying or most wrestling with in my own life.
My first encounter with The Yellow Wallpaper occurred when I was in junior high and found it in an anthology of horror stories. The story in brief as I understood it then—creepy house, the creepiness of which only the female protagonist is aware; she knew the house was trying to drive her mad, no one believed her, and the house won. The story was particularly disturbing because it hinted that this woman was not the first the house had destroyed.
I confess that when I was in junior high, photocopiers were a new technology and I had not yet figured out that one could go to a bookstore and ask that a particular title be special ordered. But I wanted, needed a copy of The Yellow Wallpaper because I relished its menace, the way the reader becomes isolated along with the protagonist as she sees her own doom while those around her deny it. So, I copied it. By hand on binder paper.
In college, when I was coming out, I read The Yellow Wallpaper as a novel about the inherent inequality in relationships between men and women—the heroine goes mad because her husband refuses to take her seriously, insists on his perception of the situation being the accurate perception, an insistence that ultimately comes at the price of his wife’s sanity.
More recently, I’ve read it as a historical piece, a documentation of the specific ways in which women were treated/tormented by the medical profession in the early 20th Century—the protagonist has the time to dwell on the house (particularly the wallpaper of the title) because she’s perceived as being in fragile health and is condemned to a “rest cure” (endless days in bed, no reading, writing or stimulation of any kind allowed) that drives her mad. This reading is, I believe, closest to Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s original purpose. She wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a work of social criticism. The rest cure was standard medical practice at the time she was writing, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman was subjected to a rest cure herself with devastating results, so she wrote to depict the rest cure in a way so horrifying that the medical profession would be forced to abandon it.
All of this is a long preamble to my consideration of A White Room, which, given its inspiration, I can’t help but compare to The Yellow Wallpaper. A White Room initially feels like a slower, expanded remake of The Yellow Wallpaper—a woman is forced into a marriage in which she feels unloved and disrespected and in which her sense of self slowly deteriorates until she is hallucinating, imagining the house in which she lives is attempting to destroy her.
If this were all A White Room did, I would probably be telling prospective readers something along the lines of “don’t bother; stick with the original.” But Carroll is trying to do something different than Perkins Gillman did. Her protagonist descends into madness, but also finds a way out again. At this point, I don’t want to offer more summary; I don’t want this essay to be a “spoiler.” I just want to say that I enjoyed Carroll’s imagining of a positive alternative for a woman of that time.
The book is uneven. The pace in the first half is slow, slow, slow, while the second half races along in a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” fashion. It contains far too many descriptions of the protagonist’s clothing, most of which don’t contribute purposefully to the story. The characters are unevenly developed, so, while we can understand the perspectives and motivations of some, others, particularly the “villains,” are drawn with much less nuance. At times, the phrasing and word choice felt decidedly un-1900-ish—though I can’t claim expertise in this area, so it may simply be that the book didn’t meet my preconceived notions.
But despite these weaknesses, A White Room is still most definitely worth a read. It attempts to solve a problem, not just depict it, which is challenging work, indeed. It leads one to some very worthwhile consideration of the quality of women’s lives, the impact of class divisions, and the practice of medicine in the early 20th Century. So, instead of saying “stick with the original,” I’d say to give it a go. Don’t expect perfection, but do expect intellectual engagement and a worthwhile use of several hours of your time.
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October 09, 2013
Obviously, I haven’t been writing about knitting much lately. In fact, I haven’t been knitting much lately. What I have been doing is reading. And reading. And reading. Reading fiction after years of devoting myself to non-fiction. Getting caught up in character and voice. Slipping inside other people authors have invented.
I’ve been pushed in this bookish direction by a few specific things:
• First off, I bought a Kobo eReader for myself after Christmas. I had no idea whether I’d like it or not, but I felt that it was time for me to try out this brave new world of books from the aether available by the hundreds in the palm of my hand. And the experience is every bit as wonderful as it sounds: books from the aether by the hundreds in the palm of my hand.
• Second, I started using GoodReads and LibraryThing. My obsessive self absolutely adores being able to catalogue and rate the books I’m reading. I like seeing that page with cover shots of all the books I’ve read this year. I love, love, love the variations on “if you enjoyed this book, you’ll probably enjoy these as well” that both sites offer. Plus, free books! Both sites have regular giveaways for members—GoodReads on a daily basis (though one has to wade through a lot of dreck to find the books one is really interested in), LibraryThing on a monthly basis (less frequent, but overall higher quality selection).
• Third, once I realized I was addicted to my Kobo Arc, which can surf the net and has a colored, back-lit screen, I suddenly found myself longing for an eReader that would function better in bright daylight, and I quickly convinced myself that it was only sensible to buy a Kindle Paperwhite.
So books. Books. Books. Books. For now, let me just list a few of the best. Soon, I plan to start writing about individual books in more detail. Knitting will still crop up from time to time, but I am allowing myself broad discretion in my choice of blog topics.
This year’s five-star reads as chosen by me:
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Imagining Argentina, Naming the Spirits, and Tales from the Blue Archive, all by Lawrence Thornton
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim
The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries
The World to Come by Dara Horn
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Saints and Villains by Denise Giardina
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling
The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Those are the five-stars. I’ll leave the four-stars for another time. I know a list isn’t a particularly valuable thing in itself, but I promise to think more and to write more thoroughly in the future. For now, I just want to say that these are great books. Any two or three of them could keep you—or at least keep me—content on a desert island for several years.
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January 13, 2013
With the pressures of a new academic quarter starting up, I’ve turned to my garment of choice for pleasing knitting with minimal complications and time commitment: hats.
I have been love, love, loving Swallow’s Return’s Snowdrops Beret, (a free! pattern) for ages—and now it’s a finished knit, rather than just a slot in my queue.
I’ve knit up a Star Hat (another free pattern, this one from Rainbow Knitting). The finished piece is very cute, but I didn’t pay attention to gauge, and with my tight knitting it turned out more of a watch cap than a beret, so I am planning to try this pattern again moving up several needle sizes and perhaps a yarn size as well. The decreases at the top of the hat keep the piece in the pattern stitch all the way to the end, which is a lovely touch.
I’m currently working on Tante Ehm’s Milanese Lace Topper (yes, another free pattern). I’ve changed the band a bit because I found it rolled as written, but the main lace stitch is great as it is.
Mind you, I have no objection to paying for a good pattern, but the ease of just printing a pattern off and getting in to the knitting is a pleasure when life is too full of complicated work-related projects.
And in that spirit, let me share a few more of the free hat patterns I’m hoping to knit up in the coming weeks.
Neon Ski Bonnet by Lacey Volk (though I’d skip the pom-pom).
Foliage Hat by Irina Dmitrieva.
Keila MaiMai’s Embossed Leaves Hat.
Nine Dwindling Cables by The Yarn Owl (note nice detailing on band).
Tiina Kuu’s Virtauskia.
And two of my absolute favorites, both of which I’ve already knit and which I suspect I’ll be knitting again and again and again—
Molly by Erin Ruth (more great decreases).
Jan Wise’s Slouchy Hat with Picot Edge(another great band).
My heartfelt thanks to all these designers for sharing their patterns so generously and giving me (and you!) a delightful way to forget about work and whip up something beautiful.
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January 06, 2013
[This post has wound up being longer than I'd anticipated, so let me begin with the moral to our story: we can come up with ways of raising money for causes we care about by doing what we love (knitting), rather than sacrificing what we love. I do encourage you to read further (excellent pattern links at the end), but this is my main message.]
Last fall, I watched several documentaries about polio—both its history and current presence in our world. One of these was the History Channels’s Modern Marvels: Polio Vaccine. Another was A Paralyzing Fear. I also watched a third film, the title of which escapes me, and which was the one that really stuck with me because it documented current global eradication of polio efforts.
For people of my generation and younger living in the U.S. and Europe I think polio is primarily an abstraction. We know what polio is, can connet the disease with the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, know that it was epidemic in the past—but we’re privileged enough not to have strong mental images of the impact of polio on everyday life. We no longer fear this disease; we also expect that its effects can be mitigated by the kinds of adaptive technologies available to us. For us, polio is neither personal nor specific.
What struck me most about that third documentary (if only I could remember the title!) was that it showed me polio today in the regions where it’s still endemic: Pakistan, parts of India, some African nations. There polio is not an abstraction—its impact is vividly, distressingly real. In these countries where poverty forces many people to make a living through physical exertion, basic labor, polio is devastating, taking away the few options available for some hope of being self-supporting. Adaptive technologies are limited, so that a person who has lost the use of her legs from polio may have to drag herself along using her arms or be carried by a family member any time she needs to change locations. Polio remains in our world, and it remains in the places where its impact will be most devastating on the lives of those who contract it.
The World Health Organization, along with Rotary International, has been conducting a vaccination campaign in the hopes of eradicating this disease, in the same way that we successfully eradicated small pox a generation ago. But we’re at a crucial point in that process. While most areas of the world are polio free, it remains endemic in enough areas that we can’t be confident it won’t spread again—and those ares are difficult to reach and the people affected have often been fed a body of conspiracy theories about what the “real” goal of the vaccination campaign is. As a result, workers for the vaccine campaign have been murdered in Pakistan.
So what does this mean for me as a knitter? I suppose one answer would be to never buy another skein of yarn again and instead donate my yarn money to polio eradication. But I know myself, and I know I will not forgo yarn purchases. Instead, I decided to put that yarn I’ve purchased to work in a way that can help underwrite polio eradication efforts.
This November and December, I ransacked my little home, pulling out knitting projects from the past few years. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I often knit things without a recipient in mind just because the pattern pleases me or is suitable for meeting knitting or because I have an idea I want to play with. That search through my home turned up 30 or 40 handknits that I’ve never worn and that weren’t intended for anyone in particular. So I figured I could sell these—and instead of having people pay me directly, I’d have them write checks to W.H.O. Polio Eradication instead.
As much as possible, I contacted the designers of the patterns to get their permission to sell the pieces for this purpose, and—not at all surprisingly— every one of them was glad to have her design used this way.Knitters, as always, are the best!
I took the knits to a meeting of a group of high school teachers I work with and to a faculty meeting at UC Santa Cruz, a friend took them to the teachers’ lunchroom at a local grade school, another let them be displayed at a holiday art sale she and several friends put on every year.
I decided to handle pricing by putting the estimated number of hours required to knit the piece on a stick-on label and asked for donations of $1-3 an hour. For the most part, the donations were on the bottom end of that scale (although one very generous colleague whose grandmother had polio as a child made quite a substantial donation). In an ideal world, it would have been nice to make more (sometimes the actual cost of the yarn exceeded the number of hours required to knit a piece), but I figured this method of pricing would also help educate non-knitters about the time investment represented by handknit goods. It certainly can’t hurt to have more people who understand that a shawl may represent work equivalent to a full 40-hour work week.
The final total: $707 for polio eradication. Not a fortune, but a much bigger donation than I would have been able to put together if I’d just decided to donate money on my own. I got the pleasure of buying yarn, other people got lovely handknits to wear or give, and the cost of the yarn was “played forward” in the fight against polio.
My point here isn’t to pat myself on the back, but to remind all of us of one fact: we can come up with ways of raising money for causes we care about by doing what we love (knitting), rather than sacrificing it. Whatever it is you love to do, whatever the issues are that concern you, you can put the two together in ways that provide multiple benefits.
And now, a shout-out to the designers who let me use their patterns for this purpose. Please take a moment to go look at their lovely patterns–you may enjoy knitting them yourself!
ErinRuth of Knit Me a Song let me use her Molly hat pattern.
Kari Steinetz let me use her Able Cable hat pattern.
I was given permission to use Stitch Therapy’s Aston hat pattern.
Pauline Gallagher let me use her Oison Owl pattern.
Ashley Knowlton let me use her Old Bones shawl pattern.
Mollie Woodworth let me use her Eugenia’s Mittens pattern.
Kristina Cotterman let me use her Wandering Lace watch cap pattern.
Justine Turner let me use her Poppy hat pattern.
Meghan Jackson let me use her Debaser shawl pattern.
Valentina Georgieva let me use her Leaves fingerless gloves pattern.
Marjorie Dussaud let me use her Sauterelle shawl pattern.
Erica Jackofsky of Fiddle Knits let me use her Impressionist cowl pattern.
Larissa Brown let me use her Rapunzel fingerless gloves pattern.
Linda Irving-Bell let me use her Christmas Rose hat pattern.
Judd let me use her Hues of Lothlorien hat pattern.
Devin Joesting let me use her Optimistic mitts pattern.
Evelyn Uyemura let me use her Greenleaf baby hat pattern.
Jan Wise let me use her Slouchy Hat with Picot Edge hat pattern.
Kathryn C. let me use her Cafe Au Lait tam pattern.
Denae Merrill let me use her Twisted Rib fingerless mitts pattern.
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January 02, 2013
If you’re pressed for time, just ignore me. Instead, click over to Mick LaSalle’s excellent essay on violence in popular entertainment. I have things to say, but I can’t imagine I’ll say them any better than he does.
O.K., welcome back. Wasn’t that an excellent use of your time?
To make a not-as-trivial-as-it-first-seems comparison, violence on t.v. and in movies is a lot like soft-drink consumption. We don’t want someone else telling us what or how much to consume. We figure that as long as we pay attention, we can avoid its worst effects. But I don’t believe either product is as benign as its promoters would have us think—and I doubt my own ability to control their effects on me.
Most of my favorite t.v. shows over the years—CSI, Numb3rs, Elementary, for example—are structured around violence. Even when they’re not graphic, violence is the sun at the center of their little solar systems. I think of the characters in these shows as “my people.” I like following their lives, thinking about the decisions they make, hoping the best for them, but most of the time I don’t acknowledge the fact that they’re just small planetoids circling around a central act of violence.
I have my “aha! moments” when I see the violence clearly. Years ago, I was more or less hooked on reruns of The Equalizer, which A&E aired on weekday afternoons. I loved the mythic proportions of the narrative, they way that the central character, Robert McCall, used knowledge gathered during his career as a CIA operative to set things right for ordinary people. Sickened by covert ops, he became a rescuer of everyman (and woman). And since his hands were already stained with blood, since he was used to it, I felt no regret at his continuing violence.
One episode changed all that for me. It was the episode where the bridal parts gets taken hostage by anti-corporate terrorists. Robert McCall makes sure he’s not one of the hostages released early and eventually manages to free everyone. Of course, there was the small matter of the bride being gang raped by the terrorists. But everyone got out alive and McCall made the best of a bad situation and it wasn’t real anyway….
Here’s the thing of it: that particular story wasn’t real, but the events it depicted were real. Women are gang raped; people are held hostage; individuals find themselves victims of larger forces well beyond their control. For just a moment, I saw the violence on that show as truth, not as fiction. And I never watched another episode.
Obviously, given that list above of favorite shows, the fact that I could no longer watch The Equalizer didn’t really translate over to my other television viewing. I never watched Law and Order S.V.U. because I didn’t want to see a show that focused on violence against women, children, the elderly. But it’s not as if some of my other favorites, eschewed that kind of violence—they just didn’t proclaim that as their focus up front.
I am human and therefore, as Melissa put it recently, “messy.” Not in the housekeeping sense (though there is that, too), but in the sense that I’m inconsistent. I make choices that aren’t in my best interest. I’m still watching Elementary. But, at the same time, I wonder what I see (the expanded “I”: conscious, subconscious, literal mind, figurative mind) when I see acted violence. The parts of my mind that I’m in direct contact with know that the violence is staged, know that it isn’t desirable, even if it’s part of an effective story line. But what about the parts of my mind I don’t control? What about the millions (probably) of decisions and assumptions I make every day below the conscious level. How does violent entertainment factor in there?
Melissa and I were discussing Mick LaSalle’s essay (here’s another link in case you breezed by without clicking through earlier) this morning. Melissa pointed out that as a culture, we’ve pretty much come to accept that the pervasive, unnatural, air-brushed images of women in advertising and entertainment have devastating effects on the self concepts of young women (and a good many of us older women, too). We haven’t eliminated those images, but we’ve found ways of responding to them that can strengthen and affirm us.
But we are much less critical about violence.
I’ve come to two resolutions.
First (and this resolution really isn’t new), I intend to avoid entertainment where the violence is the entertainment. I can’t promise I’ll never watch another crime drama or historical movie, but I will do all I can to make sure that the violence is well-contextualized with a world that includes gentleness, respect, and thoughtful approaches to problems as well.
Second (and this is the new resolution), I am going to start training myself to talk back to violence in entertainment the way I take back to all those unnatural images of women that the media keeps throwing my way. When the media give me distorted images of what beauty is, I try to stop, think of the women I know, think of the different shapes of their bodies and the things I find beautiful about them. I think about the price we all pay in terms of our relationships with ourselves and others when we let our understanding of beauty be so arbitrarily limited. When the media show me rape, murder, cruelty, I need to talk back to those images, to remind myself of the real-life damage they do. I need to reflect on the examples set by my friends who are exceptional problem solvers, who find mutually beneficial ways out of what first seem like irreconcilable differences.
We need more conversation. More conversation about beauty. More conversation about violence. And we need to be talking with ourselves, as well as with others.
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