Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

A few weeks ago, I was frantically trying to watch a few of the movies on my Netflix Instant queue before they expired on the first of the month. One that I watched was 84 Charing Cross Road, a 1987 film starring Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff, a wise-cracking New York writer with a love affair with classic English literature. Fed up with the lack of such books in America, she writes to Marks & Co, a London antiques bookshop, starting a decades-long friendship with book dealer Frank Doel (masterfully portrayed by Anthony Hopkins). I was charmed, mesmerized, and instantly smitten with the movie. It reminded me very much of Love Letters, a play by A.R. Gurney which consists entirely of two people sitting on stage reading letters back and forth.

After I finished the movie, I immediately searched online to see if it was based on a book (what does that say about Hollywood that a movie I found smart, funny, and witty had to be based on a book?) and it was! A book of letters! Actual letters, in fact, and not fictional, made-up ones. Of course, I immediately bought it, because I was sure I was going to love it. I was so sure, in fact, that I didn't just buy 84, Charing Cross Road, but the Helene Hanff Omnibus which collects all five of Hanff's memoir-esque books into one fat, delicious volume.

The book fortuitously arrived just as I was finishing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate so I was able to immediately dive right in. I skipped over Underfoot in Show Business, the author's memoir of trying to make it as a playwright in 1940's New York, and started in on 84.

I loved it.

The book is short. The first edition only clocked in at 95 pages, but boy howdy, what a 95 pages. Obviously, not every letter is included and often months or even a year or more passes between letters. But despite those omissions, the letters between Hanff and Doel (interspersed with letters to/from others at Marks & Co. and Doel's wife Nora) are everything I expected. Hanff's writing is rich, alive, spontaneous, and open - I could almost hear her shouting in my head. Doel's words are more reserved, filled with British reserve but no less warm.

84, Charing Cross Road is Hanff's loving tribute and memorial to her remarkable two-decade friendship to a man an ocean away, a man who she never met, over a shared love of books.

I do wish that there were more letters - just so that I could have visited longer with Helene, and Frank, and the others. Thankfully, as soon as I finished 84, Charing Cross Road, I was able to immediately start on The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hanff's diary of her trip to London after the publication of 84.

"I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lacy Bunny Socks

These socks were made with a light fingering weight wool/bamboo blend. I would probably recommend a fingering weight - they were a little snug.

I wear women's US size 6 shoe, and these socks were designed for my feet. You may find that you will need to go up or down a hook size, depending on the width of the foot. Or, alternatively, you may continue increasing the toe until you reach the desired width - the lace pattern is a multiple of 4.

NOTE: I went through the pattern and tried to catch any errors, but inevitably one or two slip through. Any comments or suggestions are greatly appreciated.

  • Approximately 400 yds fingering weight yarn (smaller sizes will require less, larger sizes will require more). I used JL Yarn's Bamboo Zania
  • 3.5 mm/E crochet hook

Special Stitches:
Linked Double Crochet (ldc): dc, insert hook through horizontal loop of dc and yo and pull through loop (two loops on hook), insert hook into next st and yo and pull through (three loops on hook), yo and pull through two loops, yo and pull through last two loops; ldc completed.

Make 2.

Rnd 1: Ch 10, sc in 2nd ch from hook, sc in next 7 ch, 3 sc in next ch. Do not turn; continue working on opposite side of chain. Sc in next 7 ch across, 2 sc in next ch. Do not join.
Rnd 2: sc in first sc, and in each sc around to end, 3 sc in end st, sc around to end, 3 sc in end st. Do not join.
Repeat rnd 2 5 more times. (44 sc around)

Rnd 1: sc, (ch 3, skip 2 st, sc) 7 times, skip 1 st, ch 1, sc 21 times, ch 1, join with sl st to first sc.
Rnd 2: Ch 4 (counts as dc and ch1), dc in same st as sl st, [skip ch-3 space, (dc, ch 1, dc) in sc] 7 times, skip ch-1 space, dc in next st, ldc in next 20 st, skip ch-1 space, join with sl st to 3rd chain of starting ch-3.
Rnd 3: sc in 4th ch of ch-3 space, (ch 3, sc) 7 times, skip 1 st, ch 1, sc 20 times, ch 1, join with sl st to first sc.
Repeat rnds 2 and 3 until sock, stretched, reaches turn of ankle. End with rnd 2.

Rnd 1: Base ch/sc 22, skip pattern stitches and join with sl st to first ldc. Turn.
Rnd 2: sc in 4th ch of ch-3 space, (ch 3, sc) 7 times, skip 1 st, ch 1, sc 20 times, ch 1, join with sl st to first sc.
Rnd 3: Ch 4 (counts as dc and ch1), dc in same st as sl st, [skip ch-3 space, (dc, ch 1, dc) in sc] 7 times, skip ch-1 space, dc in next st, ldc in next 20 st, skip ch-1 space, join with sl st to 3rd chain of starting ch-3.
Repeat rnds 2 and 3 until leg is desired length. End with rnd 3.

Rnd 1: Ch 3, ldc around, join with sl st to 3rd chain of starting ch-3.
Rnd 2: Repeat rnd 1.
Rnd 3: Ch 3, *2 fpdc, 1 bpdc*, repeat from * to * around, join with sl st to 3rd chain of starting ch-3.
Rnds 4 and 5: Repeat rnd 3.
Fasten off.

Turn sock inside out and hold with toe pointing towards you. Join yarn to first dc in the right-hand corner of the heel opening.
Rnd 1: Sc in same st as join, sc to last two st before corner, sc3tog, sc across foundation chain to last two st, sc3tog.
Next rnds: Sc across to last two st before corner, sc3tog in rounds until there are ten stitches left around.
Last rnd: Sew the opening together with 5 sl st.
Bind off, weave in ends.

See the bunnies?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review: The Stepsister Scheme

I have always had a fascination with fairy tales: the whimsy of magic, the ability of commonborn to rise above their station, the idea of a happily ever after. Walt Disney tapped into a deep-rooted love of the fairy tale with his movies. But as I grew older my imagination stretch, I found that I like fairy tale revisionings (also know as "cracked fairy tales") even more than the original stories. I devoured Bill Willingham's Fables graphic novel series, fell in love with The Book of Lost Things' macabre fairy tale twists, and will happily read fairy tale retellings for hours on end.

So I was delighted when I stumbled across a book by Jim C. Hines called The Stepsister Scheme, the first book in a fantasy series which examines what happens after the "happily ever after."

Danielle, aka Cinderella, has settled into life at the palace and is pregnant. But then her stepsister attacks, only to be foiled by Danielle's surly maid, Talia. Danielle discovers that her mother-in-law, Queen Beatrice, has a habit of collecting fairy tale princesses -- whose lives did not end up as happy as the tales would have it. Talia is the Sleeping Beauty whose awakening was a lot darker and sinister than publicly known. And beneath the castle, Danielle meets Snow whose seven dwarves exacted a much higher price than anyone could imagine.

And when Danielle's husband Armand is missing, the three princesses go off to Fairytown to rescue him.

Hines has ingeniously re-envisioned the fairy tales, creating three-dimensional characters from two-dimensional stories. As I alluded to before, these are not the fairy tale princesses we know from bedtime stories or Disney movies. There princesses are not passive pawns in their own stories, but kick-ass heroes in their own right. They don't wait around for Prince Charming to save the day -- they go off to rescue Prince Charming!

The first book was fun, engaging, and totally original. The others in the series were in the same vein but more deeply explored the three princesses, Queen Bea, and the world they live in. I came for the cracked fairy tales and the Charlie's Angels-esque plot. I stayed for the characters.

Stay tuned for a new sock pattern up tomorrow!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Best Books of 2010

Every year, I challenge myself to read at least 50 books and I keep track of what I read and my impressions over at Goodreads. In 2009, I had read 122 books -- so it is with some feeling of failure that I clocked in the end of 2010 with only 74 books. Still a high number, but I felt I could have done better.

Below are some of the best books that I read last year, in no particular order.

The Magician's Elephan by Kate DiCamillo
DiCamillo is known for her children's books, many of which contain a fable-esque quality. The Magician's Elephant is a very sweet story of an orphan boy, an elephant, and how wishes do come true.
"Magic is always impossible.... It begins with the impossible and ends with the impossible and is impossible in between. That is why it's magic."

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
William is a farmer's son in Malawi, a poor African nation. During the midst of a famine, his family could no longer pay his tuition and he was forced to leave school. Using old textbooks available at the library, scavenged materials, and ingenuity, he builds a windmill to power his family's home, and gains international fame. The truly remarkable thing: he was only fourteen. This is an extremely inspiring story of perseverance, tenacity, overcoming adversity, and the power of learning.
"I try, and I made it!"

Soulless by Gail Carriger
This is the first book of Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, a fun steampunk romp featuring Alexia Tarabotti, a spinster who happens to lack a soul. One night at a party, she stumbles onto a plot involving vampires, a werewolf lord, and a secret society. See my review of the entire delightful series here.
"Cats were not, in her experience, an animal with much soul. Prosaic, practical little creatures as a general rule. It would suit her very well to be thought catlike."

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
by Helen Simonson

Major Earnest Pettigrew is a widower in a small town in England. Mrs. Ali is the widowed Pakistani shopkeeper in town. Together, the two defy societal conventions, fishmongering busybodies, and cultural differences to find deep friendship and even love. Utterly charming and delightful.
"The world is full of small ignorances. We must all do our best to ignore them and thereby keep them small, don't you think?"

The Actor and the Housewife
by Shannon Hale

A fairy tale without magic, and a love story without romance. A frumpy middle-aged Utah housewife stumbles into bestfriendship with a Hollywood heartthrob. They are from two different worlds, are complete opposites, but yet fit together perfectly. See my full review here.
"He would never abandon her, never leave a gaping hole, and even if he died someday, he was preserved like a lab specimen from all the alcohol he imbibed, so he wouldn't look or act much different."

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I have a weakness for epistolary novels. I love them, adore them, and devour them. There is a true talent in telling a complete story in only letters. Guernsey takes place after World War Two, and tells the story of Juliet Ashton and the friendship she forges with the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey through letters. She learns of the Nazi occupation of their island, and the formation of their Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (read the book to find out the origin of the name). Completely engrossing.
"We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us."

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This book follows three women in the Civil Rights era South: two black maids, and one white woman. The three band together on a very dangerous project: to give black maids of the town a voice to tell their stories. The book is both heartbreaking and hopeful.
"All my life I'd been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine's thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe."

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
Smith and Lourie are Canadian environmentalists who used themselves as guinea pigs, testing to see how much the use of normal, household products can raise their urine and blood levels of dangerous chemicals of concern. The authors also gave a thorough history of each chemical, and the potential dangers of exposure - particularly to the very young, and what we can do to reduce our exposure. This is a book I think everybody should read because knowledge is the most important thing in keeping ourselves and our children safe.
"Far from being the rock or island in the Simon and Garfunkel song, it turns out that the best metaphor to describe the human body is 'sponge.'"

Happy 2011!

Happy New Year, everybody! It has been an interesting, roller coaster year for me but it has ended well enough. I rediscovered my passion for crocheting; found two awesome roommates who share my love for yarn, books, and other dorky things; acquired another adorable rabbit; watched my goddaughter be born; and adopted a cat who in no time at all made his way into my heart.

Things I learned in 2010:
  • No matter what toys you buy cats, they will always prefer empty water bottles, balls of paper, grains of rice, dust bunnies, and paper bags.
  • Don't be afraid to frog. It's all part of the process.
  • Cast iron cookware is better than non-stick. That stuff is AMAZING.
  • While it is not possible to have too much yarn, it is possible to have too little money.
  • Homeownership kind of sucks (this isn't a new lesson, but something that is reiterated to me every so often).
  • Crying is okay. It's means you're alive.
  • I should never have more than five projects going at a time, or five books. More is the way to madness.
  • When designing socks, I should write down what I'm doing while I'm doing it so I remember for the second sock.
  • I should update this more often.
  • I truly have the best friends in the world.
Here's to a great 2011!