February 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
I know about as much about China as, apparently, the average book-club member, and through exactly the same venues. Somewhere around middle school, I hit a vein of popular contemporary Chinese literature at the Watauga County Public Library, and so it was that I read and fell in love with Jung Chang, Adeline Yen Mah, and Yu Hua.
I mean, I didn’t follow up with it at all–I didn’t study the language in school, and shied out of conversations about Chinese politics and history whenever they came up. Aside from what I’ve read in novels, China’s a country I don’t know much about.
For some reason, though, over the winter, I bought Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. Since it was released in English right around the time of Mo Yan’s Nobel win, the two kept coming up in reviews, often placed in opposition to one another.
This was, of course, a tombstone of a book: heavy in my backpack and in my mind, cold and dispassionate in its presentation and analysis of facts, and nuanced enough to present the different faces of famine as they appeared in different provinces, devastating year after devastating year.
I stood in awe of the twenty years of illicit archival research performed by Yang Jisheng, and in awe of his final estimate: 36 million dead.
What particularly drew me in–aside from the constant stream of folly, blindness, torture, death, and cannibalism–was his analysis of the causes of the famine: “The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism.” The only things I’ve read on totalitarianism, really, are Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and also Xenophon’s Hiero, which barely counts. But it was amazing, having read Arendt’s analysis of Nazism and Stalinism, to lay that theory over Yang’s portrait of the destruction caused by Maoism–to see where it fit, and to see where it didn’t. Statements like this one:
“In the face of a rigid political system, individual power was all but nonexistent. The system was like a casting mold; no matter how hard the metal, once it was melted and poured into the mold, it came out the same shape as everything else. Regardless of what kind of person went into the totalitarian system, all came out as conjoined twins facing in opposite directions: either despot or slave, depending on their position respective to those above or below them.”
absolutely blew me away. The relationship between famine and government (“food politics”? “hunger studies”?) seems so complex and interesting, but also utterly fundamental. And obviously very important. I have some reading and thinking to do.
The diagnosis of the famine as an urban v. rural conflict was also something I found noteworthy (but not surprising). I don’t know much about how the Great Leap Forward contributed to the development of the Cultural Revolution, but I wonder how much a role urban/rural tensions played. I mean, that particular problem is with us still, today. I was also struck by how boldly he talks about “the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people” (is that why we can paint Chinese anomie with such broad strokes? or, maybe, condescend a bit?), but how little is said about the current system of government. We have this in the introduction:
“I firmly believe China will one day see totalitarianism replaced by democracy. And this day will not be long in coming.”
But we also have this, the last sentence in the book:
“…the very people who are most radical and hasty in their opposition to autocracy may be the very ones who facilitate the rise of a new autocratic power.”
Then again, he lives. In China. And Tombstone is, of course, banned there.
ETA: looking at all of this in light of what’s purportedly going on in North Korea takes this pretty firmly out of the past.
November 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Did I ever tell you that Zac and I were hand-piecing and hand-sewing a quilt together?
It’s the Irish Chain pattern from Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration.
Just in case the sentimental factor isn’t sky high enough, I stole Zac’s rattiest work shirt and cut it up, so it’ll be the accent bit of blue.
The very idea of co-quilting a quilt is, in my mom’s words, “DisGUSting!”
“Is it a divorce-quilt?” asked a friend of mine, over drinks, when I told her about it.
But I think they both meant it in an affectionate way.
I mean, it isn’t yet.
October 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
I really enjoyed this one; read it in one sitting. Having read all the positive reviews that came out after its publication, I was pretty eager to get my hands on a copy. I was lucky to borrow one from Nic, who herself had it on loan from another friend (If the half-life of love is forever, I wonder how the rule applies to lent-out books?).
I think all the good things have already been said, but, man, his language is fabulous.
Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration, by Denyse Schmidt
Such a gorgeous book. I’ve read it in bed nearly every night for the past two weeks. My soaring quilting ambitions, let me tell them to you (and ever since running in to the folks from Zelinger’s at SAFF, they involve these).
I’m About Halfway Through:
The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell
Which I thought was an interminable text-wall of incest, Nazis, and vomiting–I mean, I could darkly discern some serious genius (or, at the very least, years of difficult research?) buried in the all too literal mire–until I read this article by Daniel Mendelsohn. It cleared things up.
That said, I still haven’t managed to get all the way through it. Not only are there the evil parts of the banality of evil to knock me down (and the atrocities and obscenities are absolutely as bad as can be), but then the banal parts are, by design, a slog.
Although that seduction-via-Phaedrus–that gets a gold star for humor (humor?).
On Love, by Alain de Botton
Maybe it gets better? I just–the Groucho v. Karl pun simply has not got enough humorous impetus to carry half a paragraph, let alone a 12-page chapter titled “Marxism.”
Someone explain it to me? Is it more than pedantry?
Just Acquired, via the Morganton flea market:
A Southern Garden, by Elizabeth Lawrence
which I’ve been wanting ever since reading her letters to Katherine White, “calm plotter of the resurrection.” I am very excited to read it this winter.
Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, by Harold Bloom
I have also had my eye on this anthology for a while.
and, finally, the gem of the weekend:
Caroline and the King’s Hunt, by Jean le Paillot
STELLAR BOOK. I will have to make scans and show it to you sometime.
I am desperate to find out what happens in this one, another of the Caroline-the-Cow series.
October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
This month, I read:
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
This book very nearly came out of nowhere– I found it at the Saxapahaw General Store‘s Take-a-Book-and-Leave-a-Book library, standing around and waiting for Zac to buy something. I did not leave a book.
Out of everything I’ve read this month, I think this book gave me the most trouble. It’s made me think, mostly, about the relationship between work, dignity, and the meaning of a life. Not that these sorts of sentiments aren’t in the air already– and maybe I ought to finally read that copy of Studs Terkel I keep lugging around with me before I’m allowed to speak on the subject– but I felt this book particularly keenly because I’ve had a taste, albeit a faint one, of the sort of work Stevens counts himself privileged to have performed.
What is it to work? What is it to serve? What is it to be an amateur, and what is it to be a professional? Whence dignity, whence greatness, and exactly how problematic is my Anglophilia? This life-in-retrospect, brilliantly laid out over the course of (naturally) a trip to what-might-have-been, is pure, piercing, uncomfortable genius. It is devastating.
ETA: I read this interview the other day on the Paris Review & really enjoyed it.
Koolaids: The Art of War, by Rabih Alameddine
Consciousness-raising to say the least– I cannot imagine having the heart of my world burnt out by a disease or gutted by war. I don’t know which is worse.
Alameddine tacks rapidly– confusing-on-purpose-ly– between different characters, between the parallel plotlines, and back and forth in time. The only constant, in this bricoleur’s grim meditation, is death. In the face of it, what good is family? What good are friends? What good is art?
The worst part, for me, is that I’d never heard of the Lebanese Civil War before. It embarrasses me that the world is so foreign to me.
Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, by Stanley Hauerwas
I’m not certain why I read this now– it came to be at least two years ago as a loan, mixed into a large stack of Wendell Berry– but I did and I am glad. It’s a funny sort of relief to read a memoir– to watch someone else’s younger self navigate the world is far easier that worrying about how I’ll manage to do the same. Reading this book also made me desperate to be a Christian again, and I’m glad to say that I’m taking steps in that direction.
I’ve also been left with a reading list longer than my arm (this is the trouble with reading things that aren’t novels– a whole vein is opened up, and there’s a radical multiplicity of authors and titles), and I’m also taking steps in that direction.
A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin
You know, for fun. I think it was a little bit ruined by having watched the series– reading the book felt like watching a directors cut– but I might read the rest if I come across them.
August 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ve just finished reading Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, and it makes me want to cook again. The way she describes the process of building a meal is singularly poetic but never less than utterly exact. Ingredients that would otherwise be cast aside or despaired at are coaxed, loosened, encouraged, and otherwise brought along to their perfection.
If the cook should coax imperfectly, she offers solutions for every pedestrian wrong turn short of burnt garlic. Over-salted pasta can become the filling for a pasta frittata, and over-boiled eggs are destined for an egg salad.
But although she embraces thrifty cooking, local and humane eating, and classic peasant dishes, this book is about much more than cooking from the garden, eating in season, and smugly grounding one’s moral superiority in one’s manner of breaking bread. And although Adler helps her amateur cook through workaday bungles and suggests that she take this to work, or cook that immediately upon stepping off the subway and into the apartment, this book is about much more than making fast fixes and quick meals.
This is a book about competence, control, and flexibility in the kitchen, but it is also a book about living humanely and responsibly, with a lavish frugality. Adler begins with the hungry reader. “Instead of trying to figure out what to do about dinner,” she suggests, “put a big pot of water on the stove, light the burner under it, and only when it’s on its way to getting good and hot start looking for things to put in it.” From this beginning, we wend from one meal to the next, “ingredients…toppl[ing] into one another like dominos,” borne through the everlasting meal by her stories of past meals, cultural observations, and (always my favorite) etymological illuminations.
After Chapter One, How to Boil Water, we learn How to Teach an Egg to Fly (the answer I found in that set of 16 pages: make shakshouka), How to Make Peace (rice, grits, and other grains, that’s how), and How to Build A Ship, which is about how to fall in love with cooking all over again (or, for some, for the first time).
This is neither a lyrical meditation on the practice of cookery that manages to be thoroughly practical, or a De Re Culinaria that happened to soar above itself, but a graceful and elegant interweaving of the two types. It has already changed the way I cook.
January 3, 2012 § 4 Comments
Elizabeth Zimmermann begins her Knitter’s Almanac with an Aran sweater (“a challenge,” she says, and promises “Simpler projects will follow”), and this sentence:
“Once upon a time there was an old woman who loved to knit.”
This is one of the most simple, pleasant, and memorable opening lines I know of (“an old woman’s knitting, ἄειδε θεὰ”).
Setting out to follow, this is the shape my beginning has taken:
Several Barbara Walker stitch dictionaries, the 2010 reprint of Aran Knitting, a buried sketchbook, open Ravelry page, and, of course, Knitter’s Almanac itself
(also pictured: camera battery charger, wallet, chocolate bar, US 4 circular needles, WOOL.)
The wool in question is Cormo Rusticus, a unique and one-time woolen offering from JMF (you read, didn’t you, that we’d all set some aside for ourselves?). It’s creamy, luscious, and utterly unlike anything I’ve ever knit with before. It really is exactly identical to the stuff that the sheep out there are covered in– although that’s obviously no surprise.
In lieu of reinforcing the so-often-imposed dichotomy between softness and scratchiness/sheepiness (and the perhaps concomitant moral imperative– to which I so often fall prey– to choose the sheepy and scratchy over the silk/alpaca/mass-produced-merino and soft), I won’t be telling you that this wool is “So cozy, yet so sheepy– it’s a perfect marriage!”, because I think that’s the easy way out, and that’s boring.
Really, the adjective that comes closest is creamy. It’s like the inside of a perfectly-cooked bean. Tender. With substance. Coherent. Two ticks to the smooth side of gritty. It’s perfect.
Anyway, let’s talk about cables!
And, because I am, after all, in debt to the Divine Elizabeth, I can’t not put a Fishtrap Cable on either side of the front.
There are two Sheepfold cables on the back (of course),
two Aran Braids underneath either armhole,
and two irresistably-named somethings that Barbara Walker calls Sausage Cables.
And there are two panels of Gull Stitch, flanking the 10 steek sts (I like to give myself lots of room).
If you’d like to knit along with me, I don’t think I can recommend Cormo Rusticus highly enough. I’ll be posting pretty frequently about the making of it here on my blog, so stay tuned– or, better still, knit an Aran with me!
ETA: Ravel’d here! How could I have forgotten!?
March 18, 2011 § Leave a Comment
“The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.”
– Wendell Berry, from A Native Hill
February 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
“When [Sam] Houston’s brothers then found him living with the Cherokee, he told them that he
liked the wild liberty of the Red men better than the tyranny of his own brothers, and that if he could not read Latin in the Academy then he could, at least, read a translation from the Greek in the woods, and read it in peace.
The translation to which he referred was Pope’s Iliad, which he recited from memory to Cherokee girls on long walks in order to impress them.”
– Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of the Classics in America
December 22, 2010 § 7 Comments
Perhaps you have heard of my dog. This is a picture of her. She is named Karla.
I am writing in short sentences because I am very excited.
Karla is half pit bull, half Labrador, and, being what she is, has very short fur (technical term: “pig fur”). She gets very cold during our frigid North-Carolinian winters (we frequently do make her go outside), and, so, she needs a sweater*.
Look at it!
My self-pleased contentedness is just pealing out in short, staccato sentences! Look at that dog! look at that sweater!
So, this is a made-to-measure, modular pattern that really could not be more simple– or, for that matter, more adaptable (“measure your swatch. measure your dog. knit until your sweater is as big as your dog.”)– that came out as a perfect fit.
I admit I had my doubts.
There were also serious doubts about yarn choice: to wool or not to wool? This is the same choice that the newly be-babied face: a superior fabric and feel, plus environmental unimpeachability, or, well, washability. Karla, unfortunately, smells like a dog, and so I chose superwash wool– KnitPicks Swish– so as not to give my mom too hard of a time.
The other bad thing about superwash is that it is particularly unsuited for steeking– and this sweater has three of them (I guess no more than a human sweater, come to think of it). So, below, you see the foldy-undery bits– those have been cut apart to make room for the dog’s stomach/freedom-of-movement/annoyance-factor/etc. They would, were this wool, just stick there, and eventually irreversibly fuse themselves in place! (Wow! I think that is the coolest!) However, because the entire function of superwash wool is to resist this fusion– the scales are stripped off the wool with chlorine, then any scales remaining are slicked down with plastic (Hercosett 125)– one must sew down the steeked sections by hand, then live in eternal fear that one day the sewn/reinforced steeks will unravel and the sweater will fall to pieces. No problem. That’s what I did. Am doing.
I picked the pattern from Shelia McGregor’s Traditional Scandinavian Knitting (a true source of endless joy & fascination. I read this tiny book all the time, and still meet things I do not understand (and, truly, cannot! You should be grateful, dear reader, that this blog will never devolve into account of my forays into Nålbinding). Anyway, she notes:
Eighteenth-century Iceland pattern for a man’s knitted waistcoat from a pattern book dated 1776 in the National Museum in Iceland, which was probably intended to be knitted in a purl-and-plain as in the contemporary silk and wool jackets in Denmark, Norway, and elsewhere.
So, that about covers it. Fantastic dog, fantastic sweater. Really happy. These are my simple dog-thoughts.
*really, she does. she shivers. I am not a knitting-sweaters-for-any-old-dogs kind of girl, believe me!
August 25, 2010 § Leave a Comment
In honor of Back To School, I would like to take this opportunity to go over some new knitting books that are coming out this fall. Bear with me. Please. I am pretty excited.
Starmore’s book Aran Knitting (Interweave Press USA, 1997), now no longer in print, has reached such popularity and renown amongst knitters that a secondhand copy currently sells at astonishing prices starting at around $200.00 USD.
Forget Take Ivy. This is knitterly samizdat (okay, not really, because no-one is going to imprison you for it), and, to quote the NYT article, “the nearly unattainable center of a passionate cult.”
Speaking of passionate cults, there are two! Elizabeth Zimmerman books coming out this fall (putting out patterns from Beyond The Grave– if only I could be so influential!):
The first, a book of her garter stitch designs, made from her notes & sketches, from Schoolhouse Press, which, according to the wonderful Franklin Habit of The Panopticon, will include:
“Incredible sideways gloves. A chic biased garter stitch pullover. Little slippers with curled Turkish toes. Piece after piece after piece after piece and they’re not done yet.”
The second, a commemorative 100th anniversary edition of The Knitter’s Almanac, from Dover Press (I love Dover Press. They make such good, cheap books. Also weird ones, like my childhood Coloring Book of Famous Physicians). I don’t feel like I ought to buy it– and yet. And yet.
There is also a book coming out in the spring called Brave New Knits, the theme of which is, “Knitting & the Internet; Knitting-Famous; Celebrities; The Growing Industry.” And I find this super-interesting, since it’s an industry I’d like to try & break in to. At least on the side.
SOCKEN AUS ALLER WELT
And then we have a book which makes me want to put the whole world in Time Out:
I just. Really? Really!??