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Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Round-Up

Man, I'm behind.

Jincy Willett, The Writing Class: As with Winner of the National Book Award, Willett excels at characterization. She sets up the class at the start of the novel with satirical caricatures of potential writers -- the woman who does not read but thinks publishing a book would be easy and fun, the socially inept nerd living in his mother's basement and writing scifi, the bored housewife, the professional who wants to be another Grisham or Crichton. But then we get to know them and can no longer dismiss them; instead, Willett forces us to see them as three-dimensional people, good, bad, flawed, or all three. There is also a bit of meta-fun; at the end, some members of the class begin asking for the details of how the murderer committed the crimes, but Amy, their instructor and the protagonist, brushes them off: "What difference does it make? . . . I'm not waving off the what and the why. I'd never do that. But the how bores me to death." And so we never really learn how either. Reading examples of bad fiction was fun too.

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book: An excellent book, with a couple of exceptions. The structure was very similar to Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, where the novel goes back in time to tell the story of an object through various episodes in history. This book is based on the fascinating story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, with Brooks imagining a history for it as it survives through the ages. Some of the segments were a bit heavy-handed if very educational; I knew about the convivencia from my Spanish lit studies, but I had no idea Muslims and Jews coexisted peacefully for a long time in Sarajevo, and one section of the book shows Muslim characters risking their lives to protect Jews from the Nazis, because their cultures are so similar and they have to stick together and help each other because who else will, and ow, I just got hit by the Anvil of Irony. The sections where the protagonist, Hannah, interacts with her mother were unpleasant. I appreciate that Brooks did not go the standard route of misunderstanding, bad blood, misunderstanding, big cathartic fight, new appreciation of each other, but the resolution of their relationship seemed unduly harsh. They had huge problems, no question, but in light of all the atrocities in the book those problems seemed both not serious enough and too complex to justify the ending. I'm not sure why Brooks felt the need to include this in the book, except as a further illustration of her thesis that sometimes there is no happy ending, which was amply demonstrated elsewhere in the book. Overall, though, I enjoyed it.

McSweeney's 13: I like McSweeney's Quarterly so much, I wish I could get all the issues. This one had a comics theme. The vast majority of the works were comics, with a few comics-related essays; even the book itself was wrapped in one big comic sheet. The stories were funny, tragic, heartbreaking, disturbing, dull, clever, and beautiful. I was inspired to learn about the Métis and reminded that I really need to check out Love and Rockets (I just don't know where to begin). That's the best part of lit journals like this -- the exposure to writers and information I would not otherwise encounter.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Crafting Again

After a two week absence I finally made it up to my craft room. It was a disaster -- half finished projects everywhere. So after straightening up a bit I was inspired to make some headway against all those long-neglected projects.

First up was a "free-range" monster I wanted to make from an old issue of Craft Magazine (now defunct as a print mag). The pattern was very easy and deliberately imprecise, to encourage people to experiment (especially those who had never sewn before), though the actual directions were a bit twee. Over a year ago I made the pattern -- basically a oblong blob with legs -- but got no farther. (Just draw a simple monster shape on a piece of 8" by 11" paper until you get a shape you like.)

So yesterday I dug out the pattern and cut out front and back pieces from yellow craft felt. I sewed it together on the machine (the usual technique -- sew right sides together and leave a gap for turning and stuffing; slip-stitch shut). For his eyes I used teal and black buttons rather than the felt they used; I did use felt for his mouth. I "dressed" him in an old sock I had, one of those stripey/fair-isley/deliberately mismatched ones. Because he had no arms, all I had to do was cut the tube off just above the heel to make him a tube dress. The hair was the biggest pain. Their technique was to use a needle and thread to sew through yarn at one inch intervals, making loops, and use the needle and thread to then attach the looped yarn to the top of the head. As always I made things difficult by picking a thin fuzzy yarn that was hard to pierce with the needle. I did get the hair on there eventually, though. I think he's pretty cute:

Someday I'll remember to take pictures while I'm in the middle of a project.

Today I finished a necklace. Over the summer I made a button pendant from Button Ware:

Pink, yellow, and green buttons strung on turquoise craft wire and finished with a glass fire-polished bead. Simple, but it sat on my table for a long time because a silver chain seemed too boring. This morning I realized ribbon would work -- it would add color, provide a bit of texture, and be in keeping with the "sewing notion" theme of using buttons. I found a bit of thin pink satin ribbon and strung it on, and tied on a large lobster claw clasp.

As soon as I find an appropriate charm I'll attach it to the loop at the bottom of the button stack.

Up next -- sewing a fabric organizer to sit under my machine and hold seam ripper, clippers, etc. That's been on the to-do list for years, I picked out fabric for it last year, and I cut out the pattern pieces today. Progress!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mixed Media Heart Garland

Remember the paper cloth in pinks and reds? Grabbing snippets of time here and there this week I was actually able to make the heart garland I had in mind (based on Perkin's bird garland). The first step was to cut out the hearts using a cookie cutter as the model:
I cut four from the four sheets of paper cloth, to make two hearts each. But because the garland I envisioned was a vertical one, I thought eight hearts would be too long, so I saved the light pink hearts with the pale gold shimmer for another project.

Next, I embroidered them, using Caron Collection Wildflowers thread in African Sunset and dark rose silver-lined seed beads. The red and dark pink hearts I did with feather stitch (my favorite stitch), long stitches with a few beads on them to slide around, and seed stitches with the beads:
For the pink confetti hearts I used star stitches and a line of bead embroidery echoing the yarn embedded in the paper cloth:
For the pink and silver hearts I wanted to use the embroidery to help anchor the candy foil, and my first thought was to do so sort of the way one attaches shisha mirrors, which led to me experimenting with different Hardanger needleweaving techniques:
But the fourth square I did with simple straight stitches, and i liked the primitive patchwork effect so much I undid the rest of the embroidery and redid it:
I think this is my favorite.

The last step was to cut a long piece of fuchsia yarn, sandwich it between two hearts, and sew around the edge with a zigzag stitch. I repeated that for all the hearts, spacing them 5 inches apart, and added a fake metal heart charm and some tiny metal clapper bells to the bottom. Et voila:
I'm quite pleased with it, except 1) I don't care for the look of the zigzag, and will use a straight stitch next time (especially since there is no worry that paper cloth would unravel) and 2) I can't put it up because it is too much of a temptation for the Beadboys to yank. Damn wiener kids.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Paper Fabric (or Is it Fabric Paper?)

Apparently it's paper cloth. The on-going project for this round in my Crazy Fridays class is making paper cloth from the mixed media book Stitch Alchemy, by Kelli Perkins. The goal is to have lots of sheets in different colors and textures, which can then be cut up and embellished and incorporated into projects. The base is very simple: mix two parts water to one part white glue, brush it onto muslin or other plain fabric until it is saturated, and then layer on torn pieces of tissue or other thin paper, using more glue mix to adhere it.
Here are the different sheets I made. Most are tonal, using one color of paper in different shades (lots of reds and pinks because I want to make a Valentine mixed media garland). One sheet I covered with old Spanish stamps, another I covered in words cut from a photocopied page of the Nutcracker, for another project. The sheet on the far left is made from different scraps of Chinese papers that came in a grab bag from Silver Crow (the best online store ever), and the one next to it has confetti, sequins, thread snippets, and yarn (with another layer of tissue paper on top).

The next step is painting. The book goes through dozens of different techniques for adding color with paints, chalks, wax, bleach, inks, and pretty much anything you can think of. We did the coloring in class, which allowed us to share materials.
It's hard to tell with the glare, but this is the paper with the words on it. I used pearl white Jaquard Lumiere paint, with a little green, which was sheer enough to still show the text. These sheets will be cut up and be used as "frosting" on mixed media Christmas "cookies."
For the Chinese papers I brushed on thick gold and red paints with a very dry brush. For the bronzey sheet I used copper paint in two consistencies -- I first watered the paint down and brushed it over almost all of the brown and gold tissue paper, then added a second layer of undiluted paint on the edges of the different tissue pieces. Not sure what I will do with these.
For the pink paper on the left I brushed on a pretty pink paint diluted with a texturizing goop whose name I can't remember. The result is much prettier than the icky baby pink of the unpainted tissue. I had glued on bits of paper doilies, which did not absorb the paint as well, creating a neat effect (yet another way to manipulate color -- different papers react to paint differently). Once it was dry I sprayed on a glittery spray (Glimmer Mist?) to add a bit of iridescence. The one on the right was made with dark pink tissue papers, to which I glued cut up bits of silver candy foil. I swirled on thick silver paint, then brushed over the whole sheet with a lavender pastel chalk, which highlighted the texture of the paper. I then sprayed it with fixative to keep the pastel from rubbing off. I think this will look better when I cut up the sheet for the garland.
The white paper with the sequins and thread inclusions I washed with the diluted pink I used above, and then for both I dabbed on red paint with a natural sponge.
The last technique I used was Dy-na-flow paints from Jaquard, which are the neatest things ever -- very sheer, thin paints that are highly pigmented, giving a lot of color without obscuring the paper underneath. The result is a lot like watercolors, but brighter. For the stamps I used purple, red, and blue, for the green paper I used purple, fuschia, and orange, and for the sheet with the sewing patterns I used bright yellow and orange. Unfortunately the orange dominated, when I wanted the the sheet to be mostly a strong yellow, so I may add other paints to it to get the color I want.

I have other sheets still to paint. It was fun, but the process takes up a lot of space and drying time, so I want to get all the sheets made and painted at once, leaving me with a stack I can then cut up and use at my leisure. I don't think I will do this technique too often, because of the aforementioned space and time issues but also because I don't want to get sucked into buying more paints and inks and so on (which is why I was glad Perkins had instructions for using pastels, allowing me to make use of the pastels I saved from way back in college for an art class). I have enough techniques and gear already.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Sky Gods

Amazing how one measly virus can screw up weeks.

One of the books I'm currently reading is a fascinating discussion of myth. A few years ago the publishing imprint of Canongate started a "Myths Series," short novels by different authors retelling iconic myths. The series started with a Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, a scholar in comparative religions. Her book serves as an introduction to the power and importance of myth in human life. Her analysis starts with the Paleolithic era, and with the "Sky Gods" or "High Gods" that were the first to be worshiped.

Her use of the phrase "Sky God" immediately brought to mind the Christian God, because El, one of His names, was originally a Semitic Sky God (See Turner and Coulter's Dictionary of Ancient Deities at 164, and the Wikipedia pages for "El"). Depending on one's view point, either El did not reveal His true nature as God until Abraham, or Abraham turned a a cult devoted to one Semitic god into a monotheistic religion. What's fascinating is the way some of the the traits Armstrong ascribes to the Sky God parallel elements of the Christian God (something she implies but does not state; nor does she mention El specifically). He is
the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth. He is never represented by images . . . . The people yearn toward their High God in prayer, believe that he is watching over them and will punish wrongdoing . . . . The tribesmen say that he is inexpressible.
(Myth, 20.) Armstrong also says that this Sky God was distant from the people, not involved in the day to day aspects of the people's lives, and that it was this distance that ultimately doomed him, as paleolithic tribes turned to pantheons of "more dynamic, interesting and accessible deities, such as Indra, Enlil and Baal" (21), with rites and the promise of more personal dealings. She goes on to state that this is why the Judeo-Christian God "has disappeared from the lives of many people in the West" (22).

I think Armstrong overstates this abandonment of God in the West. While in the past few years Atheism and certain Atheists have dominated certain media, and certainly there has been a drop in people who attend services or identify as religious, the vast majority of people here in the US (for example) call themselves Christian, and Judeo-Christian values and culture still dominate. Perhaps this is because God managed to avoid the fate of other Sky Gods. Orthodox Judaism, the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Churches are all highly ritualized and have strong ethical codes, and many Protestant sects promise a "personal relationship" with God.

I wish Armstrong had given citations in her work. I am neither a theologian nor an expert in paleolithic cultures, and I would have loved to check out her sources. I also wish I knew enough to tease out other points in her work, such as the difference between myth and logos (and how that relates to the Biblical concept of logos), the fact that the earliest humans were monotheistic with a male god (rather than common wisdom that warlike, patriarchal monotheists conquered peaceful mother-goddess worshipers), and the transformations that mother-goddesses experienced. But the book is a wonderful overview of the role myth has played in our lives.