Category Archives: Literature

Spring has … sprung?

You wouldn’t know it from first glance at our front yard. We didn’t get to do our final fall lawn cleanup because our first snow came early here in Boston, so there’s quite a mess awaiting me this month. By late March, we usually have a few croci but I have yet to see one poke up through the ground.

Or maybe I’m avoiding looking at the mess in our border gardens!

This winter kicked my butt, mentally and physically. I was sick most of March and still don’t feel like I have my energy back. That said, I’ve managed to get quite a bit of craft work done while recuperating and hiding out from the snow.

My big project of the season was mastering the tailored shirt:

Kwik Sew 3555 women's shirt

Kwik Sew 3555 women's shirt

 

Both shirts were created in Pam Howard’s excellent Craftsy class, The Classic Tailored Shirt, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in making (or wearing) custom tailored clothing. One of my strange fascinations is with men’s tailoring … I can spend hours watching YouTube videos about old Sicilian tailors or the future of Savile Row. When my husband and I honeymooned in Italy, I swear I was more excited about his getting a custom tailored jacket in Milan than he was.

A hand-tailored shirt can run into hundreds of dollars, and there’s usually a minimum order, which means unless one has thousands of discretionary dollars sitting around in a checking account, this kind of clothing is out of reach of most ordinary folks. I am definitely “ordinary folk,” but I do have some mad sewing skillz, so this winter I decided to master shirt-tailoring. My ultimate goal is to fit and create shirts for my husband’s wardrobe, and my interim goal is to master the details that go into fine shirtmaking by sewing shirts for myself. The pink shirt was my first attempt. It’s made of linen, which was lovely to press and sew, but a bit too ravel-ly for the flat-felled seaming I had to do. The blue shirt is cotton chambray, and I definitely improved on this second attempt. Each shirt took me about a week to complete; I would spend a couple hours each night on one facet of construction, such as cutting fabric, sewing the collar, or felling seams. This schedule worked out great for me as I never felt rushed or tired, and each night I could see my shirt taking shape.

The pattern, btw, is Kwik Sew 3555, view A.

I have been sewing since I was in junior high/middle school, and although I was always enthusiastic about creating clothing, I was never very good at it, simply because I had no patience and wanted to wear what I was making that night. Cue a lot of wiggly seams and ill-fitting attire. The turning point in my sewing career came when I started knitting. See, it can take months to knit one sweater and a week to knit one sock. However, sewing an item of clothing, even when I’m patient and methodical, can take just hours. Sewing feels F-A-S-T to me now, even when I spread those hours out over a week or two.

Still, knitting is my true love, and I’ve been knitting up a storm. Here’s a peek at a sweater I just finished but haven’t properly photographed:

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I’m using notions and trimmings from my stash, so I decided to go with the plaid, which ended up being a great choice for the thistle color of the wool, don’t you think? Very Highlander. 🙂

Some odds and ends … I have been thinking about a blog post entitled “Buying is Not the Only Way to Engage,” written by Samantha at A Gathering of Stitches. This part really struck me:

“Look at your stash. Yes, right now, go look at it, really look at it. Pretty nice,huh? Wouldn’t it feel really good to just pull it out, piece by piece and start using it? What are you saving it for? Don’t buy more, until you use some of what you have! Buying is dangerous. It is a temporary exchange. Once that thing comes home to you, you adapt to it and become de-sensitized to it, and it is no longer as satisfying as you thought it could be.  So you push that button again and buy something else…. A vicious cycle ensues…. “

I am guilty of this kind of behavior, thinking I can’t start a project because I don’t have the right thread or that my creative life would be so much richer with a Juki F600 on my sewing table. Samantha’s post made me realize how much possibility I have already, and it inspired me to get back into my sewing room and work with the riches I already have.

Next — a couple days ago I got a nasty paper cut on my left hand, which has now gone all itchy. I’m convinced I’ve contracted an MRSA superbug and will shortly be losing my hand … okay, I’ll stop with the drama. My research led me to this interesting PBS news report that a medieval treatment of garlic, wine, and cow’s bile can kill MRSA bacteria. Here’s the video: fascinating!

Lastly, are you watching Wolf Hall on PBS? I had a terrible choice Sunday night: Mad Men or Wolf Hall, and I went with Mad Men because I knew I could watch Wolf Hall later on my PBS app. When I was a kid, I was fascinated with Tudor history, and as an adult, I’m still a little nerdy about it. I watched the first episode twice, and next Sunday I’ll probably save Mad Men for another night. I’ve read the book, but have yet to read its sequel. On my reading list …

Flora Poste’s hat

One of my favorite rainy day films is Cold Comfort Farm. It’s funny, the dialogue is a treat for the ears, and it’s just one of those movies that puts me in a good mood.

In the scenes where Flora Poste (played by Kate Beckinsale) travels to the farm from London, she’s wearing a jaunty cream-colored knit cloche:

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This summer Churchmouse Yarns & Tea released a pattern based on this hat and sponsored a knitalong on Ravelry. While I completed the cloche in record time, it took me a few months to photograph the final result:

Flora Poste's hat

Full Ravelry details here.

I purchased the yarn at WEBS this summer, fully intending to select the cream-colored Blue Sky Alpaca Silk, but in hand I felt kind of meh about it. This lovely grapey purple spoke of fall to me, so I went with that instead. The hat’s a little snug–my noggin’s on the large side–but I’ve also had my hair cut since the summer so I’ve got some reduced bulk to fit under there when winter comes. It’s not my warmest cap, but it’s certainly my most elegant knit topper.

September is kicking my butt, thus why I’ve been so quiet. O is slowly easing into middle school, although the transition hasn’t been the smoothest. He’s not a morning person, nor am I, so the 7:15 a.m. bus arrival has been a trial by fire for both of us. Luckily the school is an easy bike ride on the trail, unlike his elementary school, which was a good four miles on the other side of town. O also has a lot more homework, and with my studying for nursing school I’m exhausted by 8 or 9 p.m. Everything has suffered–blogging, housework, keeping up with family and friends–but this week feels a little more settled. Fingers crossed!

 

 

English king’s remains found

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Richard III. One of the few lines of Shakespearean drama I can remember years after college is the king’s dying cry on Bosworth Field: “A horse, A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Scholars have long searched for this medieval king’s remains, and today the University of Leicester, along with the Richard III Society and the Leicester City Council announced that remains excavated from underneath a city parking lot are indeed the remains of the last English king killed in battle. Mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton was matched to a Canadian man who is a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York.

The video above explains how the remains were discovered. A friary once stood in place of the city parking lot. The king’s body was rumored to be buried in the choir area of the church. Since researchers knew the geography of the former church, once they started digging and found location markers, they were able to figure out where the choir would be. Luckily, the rumors were accurate! One thing I’ve never thought about is how often archaeological remains are found and we never know much about the person they once were. In this case — what a story!

Morning porridge

“Into these bowls, Mrs Squeers, assisted by the hungry servant, poured a brown composition, which looked like diluted pincushions without the covers, and was called porridge.” — The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

It’s a blustery morning here outside Boston, and although the wind gusts are warm, the gray, wet weather calls for a bowl of hot porridge.

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We typically think of porridge being a oats-based cereal, but most any hot grain cereal can be considered “porridge.” When I was a child and teenager, I remember reading novels where children were forced to choke down their morning porridge, a horrid cold, gray slop. I never made the connection that this dish was the same one I ate most mornings, whether it was the Cream of Wheat or Cream of Rice that my maternal grandmother cooked for us, or the packets of instant oatmeal flavored with apples and cinnamon I’d eat on the run. Hot cereal was always my favorite breakfast, and forty years later, it still is.

I’m the only one in our household who loves starting the day with a bowl of hot porridge. My son won’t touch it, maybe because I pointed out to him he shares the same name as a wide-eyed urchin who had the courage to ask for another bowl of porridge. (Actually, poor Oliver wanted more gruel, which is a thin, watery porridge.) My favorite grain for porridge is Bob’s Red Mill 8-Grain Cereal. It’s not gluten-free, but it is free of wheat, a grain my digestive system struggles with. It consists of ground corn, oats, brown rice, soy beans, oat bran, millet, sorghum, sunflower seeds, and flaxseed.

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Here’s how I make it. I bring one cup of water and a pinch of salt to boil. I add 1/4 cup cereal and turn the heat down to low, stirring frequently so the cereal doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. If it looks like it’s getting too thick, I add some hot water and keep stirring. I like my porridge with a bit of chew, so after about four or five minutes of cooking, I start tasting it. When it’s to my liking, I scrape the cereal into a large bowl and the fun begins.

Since porridge is rather bland, it marries well with flavorful toppings. My usual additions are a handful of slivered almonds, a handful of frozen wild blueberries, a teaspoon of coconut oil (esp. in winter!), and a good slosh of maple syrup. Then I top with a bit of milk, mix it all together, then enjoy my porridge while reading my favorite blogs. Not only is this a pleasant ritual, eating porridge every morning powers me through to the afternoon — I get a quick burst of energy from the carbs and sugars, then more steady energy from the fats and proteins in the nuts, coconut oil, and milk. When I skip my porridge routine, I feel it for the rest of the day.

Are you fan of hot cereals? How do you make yours?

Knitted hot water bottle cozy

Like a Victorian, I’ve taken to the habit of bringing a hot water bottle to bed with me at night:

Hot water bottle cosy - closeup

I used to feel a bit geriatric about this, but no longer. I read an article in the Financial Times by British architect Ben Pentreath that rather than going out in the winter, he’d much rather snuggle up in bed with a hot water bottle and watch The West Wing … substitute Criminal Minds and that sounds like a good January evening to me! And recently author Jane Brocket blogged about not being able to go to bed without her hot water bottle warming her feet.

I detest electric blankets. First, the thought of falling asleep enveloped by a magnetic force field scares me. Second, around 2 a.m. I tend to heat up … I know because I wake in the morning with my bedclothes strewn over the floor and blankets kicked off the bed, and an electric blanket is simply overkill. Third, I worry about those blankets catching on fire. Or leaving the house with the blanket on. Hot water bottles can be placed where they’re needed — on a sore back, near icy cold feet — and there’s no danger they’ll fry my brain or other parts. (My only worry is that someday my son will jump on the bed and the hot water bottle will explode into the sheets.)

Last weekend I finally got around to knitting a cozy for one of my bottles. The hot water bottle can get quite hot against my skin without a buffer, plus wool is insulating and keeps the bottle warm all night long. I used a free pattern I found on Ravelry and modified it to accommodate the leftover yarn I had from one of my Christmas projects (to be blogged about later). This cozy is knit from the bottom up, which means it has to be seamed, so next time I’ll knit it from the top down so I can graft the stitching at the bottom closed. The wool — a dark olive — is very drab, so the next cozy I make will be bright and pretty.

Hot water bottle cosy

Are you a fan of hot water bottles or do you associate them with cramps, Charles Dickens, and bruised knees?

Thank you Jeff Kinney

I’m just about to hop on my bike, pedal down to the bookstore, and make O very happy today. The latest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series was released on Tuesday, and before you roll your eyes and scoff at my son’s reading choices, hear me out.

One of my biggest hopes — nay expectations! — was that any child I birthed would be a reader. Of course he would! Both my husband and I are bookworms. My husband read more books than any other kid one summer and won a trampoline through the public library. I learned to read when I was three, and my childhood is one long, hazy, pleasant memory of gorging on everything from Nancy Drew mysteries and Little House on the Prairie, to biographies of doomed European queens (Marie Antoinette and Anne Boleyn were particular favorites) and books about faraway places I longed to visit (Japan, India, England of course). I was the kid who read under the blankets with a flashlight, whose parents claimed I’d go blind for reading in the dark. When I had my own child, I dreamed not only of the books we’d read together before bedtime, starting with Goodnight Moon and Richard Scarry, but I even held off reading all of the Harry Potter books so we could read them in tandem when he was old enough.

You probably see where this is going.

O has never been a reader. He resisted learning how to read, and I swear, he only liked me reading to him at night because it gave him an extra 10 or 15 minutes before we turned out the light. I offered to buy him any books he wanted; there was no limit to what I’d spend. Instead, he’d ask if he could turn that largesse into Legos or stuffed animals or anything besides a boring old book. When his teacher in second grade noted that he read far below his grade level, I cringed. No, I’ll admit it. I was embarrassed. I wondered if she thought we were one of those families who didn’t read. You know, you walk into their house and the only book you can find is the phone book, covered in dust, because who really needs a phone book anymore now that there’s Google? I felt the need to tell her that when we moved to Massachusetts, I got an upcharge from my mover because of all the books I owned. That I’ve written three books; I practically read for a living! That our town librarians know me by name, as do the cashiers at Barnes & Noble … in multiple locations. Amazon.com even used to send me plastic travel mugs at Christmastime for being such a valuable customer.

I may have even come home and ordered O, “You’re going to start reading, dammit, and you’ll like it too!”

During one trip to Texas a few years ago, I told O that we needed to stop by Barnes & Noble. He must have been in a good mood or wanted something at Target because he agreed to go. Wandering around the children’s section, I noticed The Diary of a Wimpy Kid display and picked up a book. It was written in big type. It had pictures … well, line drawings, but enough to break up the type. I brought the book over to O and gingerly asked if he wanted me to read it to him. Much to my surprise, he said I could. We read a chapter and he asked (cue angels singing), “Can you buy it for me?”

(And the devil in me replied), “Only if you promise to read some of it yourself.”

He said he’d try.

I read the book to him the rest of the week we were in Texas. He read it again — by himself — on the plane ride home. When we arrived in Boston he asked if I could buy him the next book, which I did. That night. When he found out the third book wouldn’t be released for several months, he cried.

Mental stadium cheer.

I’ve talked to a lot of parents who scoff at these books. They’re not Literature, they contain poop jokes, they don’t offer valuable life lessons for children … oh please, I want to interrupt. Just stop it. O now reads far beyond his grade level; in fourth grade he was spelling and reading at the sixth grade level, and this year I’ve caught him reading The Hunger Games and The Hobbit, not to mention encyclopedic tomes on wildlife. Books like Kinney’s get kids who don’t like reading to read. And then they talk to their friends about what they’ve read and those friends recommend books they like. And they start wondering what else is out there to read. And even — I kid you not — they talk about writing a book of their own and would I mind if it contained a poop joke or two?

Do I mind? You’re talking to someone who enjoyed reading about queens who got their heads chopped off. What’s a little poop?

ETA 6:15 p.m.: O has been reading The Third Wheel steadily since 4 p.m., taking a break only to eat a jelly sandwich. 🙂

November, November

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November is not my favorite month. After the autumn colors of October, it feels so stark and dreary to me. Even the word November sounds cold and lonely, maybe because it rhymes a bit like “woe” and “slow” and “snow.” I also struggle with seasonal affective disorder thanks to my northern European genes coupled with living in the northeastern U.S., and November is when it seems to hit me the hardest.

I have high hopes for this November, though. I’m focusing on all the wonderful things about the month. First, it’s my birthday month. I used to dislike celebrating my birthday, but the older I’m getting, the more I appreciate every year I have on earth. There’s still so much I want to do and see. Two years ago when my doctor told me I had cancer, the first thing I thought was, “But I still have so many things I want to knit!” Silly to say, but that thought pulled me through some dark moments, and today it guides me toward a more productive life day after day, whether knitting, writing, cooking, or traveling.

It’s also my son’s birthday month, and he LOVES his birthday. His enthusiasm is always contagious.

November delivers some great books and movies. This year it’s a new Bond film and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and while it came out in October, I’m eager to see Ben Affleck’s film Argo. As for books, I have new releases from Barbara Kingsolver and Ian McEwan to enjoy.

All the great produce is gone from the supermarkets, but November has some food gems. I’m happy to see the nuggets of candied fruit for fruitcakes, large bins of mixed nuts, peeled chestnuts, bags of fresh cranberries, and tiny orange clementines piled high in the stores. O and I can begin looking for Candy Cane Joe-Joes at Trader Joe’s. And closer to Thanksgiving, one can start looking for stollen in the bake shops.

Unlike summer when it’s light out until 9 p.m., I don’t have to feel guilty about plopping myself down on the couch to knit an hour or so before bedtime. In the summer I spend my knitting time fretting about dozens of garden tasks I should be doing while it’s still light.

November is a month for slowing down, no permission needed. Taking a nap on a summer afternoon always feels so indolent to me, but during a chilly Saturday, tucked underneath a down comforter? No one raises an eyebrow.

Any other sweet spots in November?

I leave you with this picture of O and his best friend L from last night’s Halloween festivities. O went as a medieval ninja, and his friend is a scary book character whose name I can’t recall. I was very impressed with L’s costume, though. When O and I arrived at their house, his parents were madly tacking on strips of ripped fabric to his clothes. L had forgotten the costume he’d planned to wear at school, so this was improvised. I think they did a fantastic job! (P.S. I couldn’t stop giggling at the size of O’s feet. He’s at that age where his feet are humungous and his body hasn’t caught up.)

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It doesn’t belong to Howard

A couple weeks ago, I was reading a New York Times‘ article about the appeal of Downton Abbey when my eyeballs hit the brakes:

“Granted, it’s rare that we don’t go nuts for lavishly produced Edwardian costume dramas with beautiful clothes, houses and manners; with their delicious tensions and upheavals and their tendency to squash lowly clerks under enormous bookcases after they enter into ill-advised romances with impulsive, intellectual upper-class girls. (See the tragic denouement of “Howard’s [sic] End.”)

You see, I’d made the same mistake in a post I’d written about Downton Abbey just days before. Just as I hit “post,” a 20-year-old memory of a paper I’d written in “The Modern British Novel” floated into my consciousness: Howard does not possess the End: It’s Howards End with no possessive “s.”

(The NYT has since issued a correction on the punctuation mistake.)

Here’s another one, though, that took me by surprise. I’m blaming it on skipping out of Great American Novels Written by Men so I could read the likes of Woolf, Eliot, and Wollstonecraft in college. I was in Barnes and Noble this weekend, flipping through those B&N classic novel paperbacks that are priced so reasonably at $6.50, when I spotten an n-dash between Moby and Dick. For years, I’ve been writing that I’ve never read Moby Dick. Well, yes, that’s because it’s Moby-Dick, and I haven’t read that doorstop either. Finnegans Wake is another title I see mis-punctuated with a possessive “s.” I hesitate to call Finnegans Wake a novel, though. More like 600 pages of a crazy Irishman’s scatological ranting.

Are there any other works of classic literature that have titles frequently mangled by either the masses or the press, as in the case of Howards End? Inquiring minds and all …

 

 

What I’ve been reading (and a giveaway)

My right hand has been giving me some trouble (too much knitting?), so I’ve been catching up on my reading while giving my poor hands a break.

First up is Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill, a book I’ve had on my Goodreads list for a long while. If you’re the type of person who walks into a friend’s home and studies her bookshelf for clues about who she really is, you’ll like this book. Hill, the author of the The Woman in Black (yes, the scary film starring Daniel Radcliffe is based upon it), decided to spend a year reacquainting herself with her personal book collection rather than shopping for new books. Hill is a lovely, evocative writer; my only quibble —  keeping in mind that I haven’t yet finished the book — is that it reads more like a book of essays than a flowing narrative, which I’d prefer. On the other hand, since I find myself dipping into the book in the few short minutes I have reading in bed, I can get through a chapter and know that when I pick up the book again, I won’t have to backtrack to pick up. I’ve found myself making mental notes of books I’d like to read or re-read: Great Expectations, Enid Blyton’s children’s books, and yes, The Woman in Black since I don’t like watching ghost stories on film (too scary!).

I’ve written here about my enjoyment of Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity. It’s a book where I like looking the pictures more than reading the text: Brocket has a habit of dropping reference to her advanced degrees that I find a little offputting. I got to the point where I said to the book, “I get it! You’re educated! Give it a break!” She reminds me of a friend who cannot get through a conversation without mention of her Ivy League degree.

But I digress. So if you’re like me and like Brocket’s book sans copy or you hated Brocket’s book, you might like the book I picked up last week called Homemade: 101 Beautiful and Useful Craft Projects You Can Make at Home by Ros Badger and (the late) Elspeth Thompson. The book is set up by seasons, which I love, and most of the projects can be completed with found objects around the house. There are recipes (elderflower cordial, spicy chutney, pumpkin soup), as well as simple knitting projects and even household fix-its, like instructions on how to restore garden furniture, create planters, and build a pebble garden. But what I really love about this book is that none of the projects have that “cutesy” look I detest in so many modern-day craft books. Everything looks stylish, but organic if that makes sense. It’s the kind of book I can flip through to give me inspiration on decorating my home on a tight budget. For example, we have some dreadfully ugly floor registers. My hope was to replace them with some brass registers but they’re prohibitively expensive. While glancing through Homemade, I got the idea to clean them and give them a good coating of spray paint. I was going to do them in an antiqued brass, but decided to paint them glossy black to match the thresholds. I just finished the project this a.m., and while the registers don’t look as pretty as brass ones would, they’re 1000% better looking with a coat of paint.

Last week the publisher of The Real Elizabeth by journalist Andrew Marr sent me a couple review copies. I’ve been itching to read this biography as I’ve heard that the Queen gave many of her staff and intimates permission to talk to Marr as he researched the book. I’ve also read excerpts on the web, which piqued my interest in Elizabeth’s 60-year-reign as Britain’s monarch. Last week marked the beginning of her jubilee year so in celebration, I’m giving my other copy of The Real Elizabeth away to one lucky Hail Britannia reader. All you have to do is tell me, in the comments below, what you admire about the Queen … even if it’s just her corgis. I’m sorry but with this giveaway, I can only ship to addresses in the U.S. or Canada. The giveaway closes on Friday, February 17, 2012 at 5:00 p.m. ET, and I’ll draw a name at random early next week. Good luck … and thanks for entering!

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor giveaway: We have a winner

I used a random number generator to pick a winner for Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor:

Congratulations to Else, who was the first commenter on this post. Else, you should have received an e-mail from me this a.m. requesting your mailing address.

Thanks to all of you for entering. I haven’t, unfortunately, finished the book — too much work these last few weeks! — but I’m at the part where Rose is learning how to handle the most difficult Lady Astor. It’s indeed a fascinating read.

On another note: what do you think of Downton Abbey so far? I’m liking it but wish they’d focus more on the developing relationship between Lady Sybil and Branson. I’m kind of tired of Lady Mary and Matthew … just get married already! And it’s bugging me that the storyline would have us believe that three single rich marrying-age females in that age would stay single from 1912 until 1918/1919!