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Monday, February 28, 2011


I've been working on Linda Abel's Heirloom Hardanger Needlecase for a number of years, and today I finally finished it:
I made a few changes here and there, including using different colors. I made only one pocket, on the left, because I wanted to leave more space on the right for a second needleflap (underneath the flap is felt, to hold needles). For the cover of that second needleflap I cross stitched a Bible verse about sewing, which seemed to suit the old-timey sampler feel of the first. The far right is blank, for now. I can use it to hold pins or threaded needles. I could attach a third needleflap, or a button or ribbon to hold scissors. In the meantime, the felt will hold my regular sewing needles, and I'll put my oddball needles (self-threaders, two-eyed needles) in the pockets.

This is part of my "set" of needle books. For tapestry needles, a kit I picked up in England:

For chenille and embroidery needles, crewelwork scroll pattern of my own design (the original case, with a dragonfly not of my design, disappeared in my old house, grr):

For quilting and applique needles, a design from American Patchwork and Quilting:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Good and Evil and the Lord of the Rings

Earlier this week ran a review of a Russian novel, The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov, that purports to re-tell the story of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings from Mordor's perspective (there is no official English translation yet). In general, I think reimaginings can be interesting, but this one does not appeal to me. For one thing, I love the source material too much to enjoy a book that completely subverts everything that was good and beautiful in the original. For another, it sounds awfully similar to Noam Chomsky's and Howard Zinn's unused commentary for the DVD release of The Fellowship of the Ring, which was a big old satire of certain trends in scholarship that are worthy but can be taken too far, especially if used for their own sake and not to discover something true.

Two things that surprised me, however (although it should not have), were the way this re-telling has been praised for subverting LOTR's "overly simplistic morality," and the assumption that it is a story for kids, specifically teenage boys (something Yeskov himself thinks). Others go farther and praise The Last Ringbearer for correcting the unrealistic, fantastical, "unscientific" LOTR.

There's a lot going on here, and I am not sure I can address it all coherently. For one thing, to suggest that LOTR is juvenile fiction, on par with the Narnia books or The Wizard of Oz or the Harry Potter books (all of which I love), is bizarre. LOTR is a very dense book with a lot going on, not just a sword and sorcery story. Tolkien incorporated a great deal of scholarship and philosophy into the books, and while people can certainly read it on just the top level, a magical adventure story, that does not prevent it from being read on deeper levels. I first read the series in sixth grade, and I have re-read it countless times over the years, always getting something from it. There is stuff in here about good and evil, love, self-sacrifice, restraint, power, corruption, environmentalism, progress . . . I could go on and on.

For similar reasons, the charge that LOTR's morality is "overly simplistic" is flat out wrong. It may not be apparent to everyone, but the books were intentionally suffused by Tolkien with Catholic theology, particularly on the nature of good and evil. I think part of the reason this accusation exists is because of a modern tendency, in this country at least, to reject the idea of Evil-with-a-capital-E, of Satan, in favor of a focus on the evil deeds that men do. To a certain modern sensibility, the idea that there is an inhuman, magical creature like Sauron who is pure evil seems childish. It's not, of course; even if you don't believe in anything super- or preter-natural, go read Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas and then tell me that the Catholic theology of good and evil is simplistic.

But even if Sauron is cartoonish in the way that Voldemort is, he is hardly the only representation of evil in the book (just as Voldemort is not in those books, something people tend to overlook when criticizing Rowling). Evil isn't just the actions of demonic powers, it is in the actions of ordinary men and women who commit evil because of human weakness. Nor is it simply just a matter of good versus evil. Frodo, the hero of the books, and an undeniably good person, fails his task -- at the last minute he succumbs to temptation. Gandalf, the "white wizard," has to keep on constant guard that he does not abuse his considerable power and allow it to corrupt him as it corrupted Saruman (who had a chance at redemption despite the tremendous evil he committed, but allows his pettiness and bitterness to rule the end of his days). Boromir, a noble, strong, smart, well-intentioned man, has a weakness that leads him to do a very bad thing; nonetheless he is given a moving act of redemption. Denethor commits great evil despite his desire to keep his kingdom safe and good, because of his pride and despair. Even sniveling, disgusting, corrupt Gollum is shown to have a true humanity and flashes of the innate goodness buried deep within him. This is not the stuff of simplistic fairy tales.

The impression that some critics, including Yeskov, don't fully understand or appreciate LOTR is strengthened by Yeskov's very long, very rambling follow-up article in Salon about why he wrote his book. After a section on the nature and ethical considerations of derivative works (and for the record, unlike some other fans of LOTR, I have no problem with The Last Ringbearer as a concept), Yetsov writes that a fantasy novel in general and LOTR in particular has a medieval black-and-white ethos that forbids moral relativism, and is more appealing to adolescents than adults. There is a lot wrong with this claim. First of all, this is a false dichotomy he has set up. As the examples I listed above show, it is in fact possible to have a notion of absolute good and absolute evil and yet have characters and situations that are "gray" -- after all, humans are flawed creatures. An acknowledgment of the contradictions in human nature, and the ability of a person to commit good, bad, and neutral acts, sometimes all in the same day, is not at all the same thing as moral relativism, which holds that the the terms "good" and "evil" have no universal meaning. Second, there are a number of fantasy books that do, in fact, incorporate moral relativism, or at least a much more elastic view of good and evil. Third, the claim that this fantasy ethos appeals only to adolescents is insulting to both adolescents and adults who are capable of a nuanced understanding of morality and for whom the concept of absolute good and absolute evil is a thoughtful, reasoned part of their faith or beliefs.

There are other, nitpicky misunderstandings of LOTR floating around. In the same article, for example, Yeskov (a scientist) discusses the scientific errors in LOTR, mentioning in particular another critic's focus on the geologically impossible nature of Middle Earth because there is only one continent. My first thought, like a true fangirl, was "No, there are two continents, and maybe more, given that Tolkien deliberately left vague the peoples and lands to the east and south of Middle Earth." Similarly, Yeskov likes to stump Tolkien afficionados by asking what currency was used, his point being that Tolkien's failure to mention any is a significant flaw in the realism of the book. Only, Tolkien does mention it -- the hobbits in one scene pay for beer with silver pennies. That kind of sloppy fact-checking does not incline me to take seriously the critic. Moreover, while I totally understand the impulse of a specialist to correct errors in a work (I could rant for days on the laughably wrong understanding of the legal system most Hollywood writers have), I don't think it is fair to let such errors obscure literary merits (especially since Tolkien was not an earth scientist and plate tectonics were not well-understood then).

My not-at-all-expert opinion is that what is really going on is simply that some people don't like the fantasy genre in general, and LOTR in particular, and therefore get hung up on "realism" issues like money and plate-tectonics and demonic evil. But while there is nothing wrong with not liking a genre, it is a (very common) mistake to assume that what you do not like is no good. Complaining about the realism of a demonic evil presence in a book whose genre is predicated on the existence of such supernatural and preternatural forces is silly. Expecting a professor of linguistics to have a deep understanding of plate tectonics (ahead of his time, no less) is unfair. While a sloppily-researched or poorly-thought-out book should be criticized for that reason, we should not get carried away with realism. Not the least because there is more than one kind of realism: Tolkien may have created an impossible geography and he may have ignored certain realities like money, but he depicted the realities of loss and sacrifice, temptation and free will, quite well.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Beautiful Beads

A couple of months ago I bought beads from Beads for Life, an organization that teaches Ugandan women how to make beads and other products, giving them a way to earn real money for themselves and their families. It's exactly the kind of program I like (see also microloans, which I think can offer direct, tangible results that cannot always happen with large-scale charities, institutions, and governments [not that those aren't also capable of good]), and anything that helps women around the world and provides me with pretty beads is win-win.

I bought the assortment of multi-colored beads (why have one color when you can have many?). These are rolled paper beads, a technique that's been around for a while. Many moons ago I went to a private school for grade school, which was run on a trimester basis. The three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were a mini term, with a different schedule and classes focused on a particular topic such as the Medieval era. When I was in fourth grade, the topic was ancient Egypt, and one of our activities was making paper beads by cutting long skinny triangles out of magazines, rolling them around toothpicks, and gluing them. I loved it, of course, but I found the colors from the magazines too muted for my taste. I don't know what this had to do with ancient Egypt, but I wish I'd kept those beads.

Yesterday I made a necklace from an assortment of the beads, interspersed with cheapo, light-weight brass beads:
It is long enough to wear wrapped once or twice around my neck, or four times around my wrist.

Beadboy2 became fascinated with the project, and even helped pick out some of the beads, so today I helped him make necklaces using black cotton cord and a heap of plastic beads. For himself:
For his pre-school teacher:
He got overly-ambitious, and started necklaces for Beadboy1 and several of his friends, but after he knocked over the box of beads I called an end to the activity.

(The colors in the pictures are washed out, which is driving me nuts. This happens sometimes with my camera, and recharging the battery didn't seem to make a difference this time. I hope this doesn't mean I need a new camera.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Faharad Zama

An absolutely delightful book set in Southeast India, in the town known as Visag (also, a gorgeous cover). Mr. Ali has retired and decided to open up a business in his home arranging marriages, with predictable if enjoyable results. Zama's writing sometimes was too much telling and not enough showing, but still engaging (especially the linguistics -- some of the turns of phrase and syntax appeared to be influenced by Zama's native/first tongue, and were fun to read) (this is not a translation, by the way, Zama lives in England and wrote in English). And while some people probably would not enjoy the info dumps, I really liked learning about different aspects of Indian culture, particularly the Muslim and Hindu marriage rites (and the fact that a love marriage, rather than an arranged marriage, is scandalous). Which leads to one of the first things I noticed -- at least in that part of the world, not only do Muslims, Hindus, and Christians live together in relative peace, Zama shows that in fact they have a lot of the same values and beliefs; something I think we all need reminding of.

This is light, romantic fiction, so of course by the end all problems are solved, differences are overcome, and couples live happily ever after. But always present underneath that are the realities of Indian social problems -- the undue importance the caste system holds for some, the poverty were chicken is a luxury and it is perfectly normal for a family to share one bed in a one-room home, the callously brutal way some widows are treated, the problems balancing economic and technological advances with traditions and the rights of the people. This all stayed in the background for the most part, with the main characters saying all the right things, but for me at least it helped keep this book from becoming too saccharine, too much of a fantasy.

Zama appears to have written two more books about Mr. Ali's bureau, but they have not yet been published in the States. I eagerly await them, and in the meantime, I need to eat more Indian food.

The Rite by Matt Baglio

This is the book the movie was based on. Baglio is a journalist in Italy who spent years with Father Gary Thomas as he was trained to become an exorcist. The book provides an excellent, well-researched examination of the rite of exorcism, including its history, theology, the processes by which priests determine whether someone is actually possessed and not suffering from neurological or psychological problems which can have similar effects, and real cases.

One of the most surprising things I learned is that an exorcism is not a "one and done" event; it can go on for years, or even decades, with the victim of possession regularly receiving prayers and actual exorcisms every week or month. It becomes something to be managed, not cured, much like diabetes. The other notable fact (at least to me) was that demonic possession can happen not just to those of weak faith who dabble in the occult, but also very holy people and people who are "cursed." The latter in particular was surprising -- for all that I believe in God, I have a fairly strong scientific mindset and I don't believe in actual, working magics or curses. So realizing that many priests, at least in Italy, think curses are real was unexpected. More upsetting for me was the idea that a demonic possession can be caused by someone else; one of the worst cases described in the book was that of a woman cursed by her own mother in utero. This seems fundamentally unfair to me. I realize cancer is not fair either, nor a flood, and people can suffer abuse for years at the hands of others, but somehow this feels different. Despite the serious nature of the subject matter, however, I enjoyed it quite a bit; it was extremely informative and non-sensationalistic.

P.S. Don't read this if you are at all hypochondriacal, or you will be convinced that every headache, every flash of pain, every stray negative thought you have is actually caused by a demon. One night while reading it I had to stop for a few minutes to reassure and put back to bed a crying Beadboy2, who believed there were "scaries" in his room. 20 minutes later, I got to read about how one of the signs of possession for one woman (the one cursed by her mother) was the fact that as a child she felt there were monsters in her room, and she always buried herself under the covers like Beadboy2 does. That did not make for a restful night.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lots of Hearts

Over the past couple of weeks I've finished a few more squares for the heart sampler.

A heart-shaped yo-yo on a three inch square:

Three little crocheted squares I sewed together and topped with a glitter heart (doodads I picked up at various times):

Hearts appliqued onto a snowball block:
This pattern came from an old issue of American Patchwork and Quilting. I modified the size to turn it into a 9 inch (finished) block (and, in the process, forgot about the border I was supposed to attach, resulting in a background that was a little bigger than it was supposed to be). The hearts, which are kind of puffy, were appliqued in a non-traditional manner. I placed to rectangles wrong-side together and stitched the heart shape, then cut a slit in the center of one side and turned the heart right-side out, before appliqueing it to the background. Doing it this way allows for smoother curves (although, only as smooth as one can sew, as a close-up of my work will show) and a dimensional quality.

Finally, because Valentine's day shouldn't be too sweet:
I used queen's stitch, three of which together form a nifty little heart.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


For this square I attached (using different stitches) some tiny crocheted rings I found a while back.

Friday, February 11, 2011

X Marks the Square

I grabbed some scraps of thread and made random cross stitches throughout the square. Simple as that.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Cross Stitch New and Old

Cross stitch projects tend to take me a long time, so no wonder my seasonal patterns are a little out of date. I finished Cool Christmas into an ornament, after Christmas day itself but still during the season, so I guess that's not too bad:
I cut a piece of green wool felt with a rotary cutter and a wavy blade, and appliqued the cross stitch onto it. I punched a hole and added a hanger made from metallic thread, then realized that was probably not a good idea, so I reinforced the area around the hole with a little glue.

I used the same idea to finish another cross stitch ornament that had been floating around my craft room for years:
It's a Prairie Schooler design from the 2003 issue of Christmas Ornaments.

Last week I finished the jack o' lantern pattern, and only three months after Halloween!
I'm not sure how I will finish this, although I have 9 months to figure it out (which means, of course, I will forget about it until after the next Halloween).

Now I'm working on a beautiful design I started a couple of years ago, and which can be seen here. I love it, but it is a big, dense, design, so it will take me a very long time. My work so far: