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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gee's Bend Cuff

I sewed all those (square-stitched) squares and rectangles into a cuff:
The kit was designed by Cathy Collison for Glass Garden Beads, based on the incredible Gee's Bend quilts (I think this one, specifically); Mr. Beadgirl gave it to me for Christmas. The kit came with 17 different colors of seed beads, which I cycled through as I made the components to keep the colors balanced, using less of the pink and orange whenever the bands of colors used per component set wasn't a multiple of 17 (which, unsurprisingly, was often). I also left off three of the medium squares, to make the cuff a little shorter for my wrist. I have a lot of the beads left, so I may make a couple of the biggest squares for earrings.

It's the perfect summer jewelry -- bright, summer-garden colors, and a bracelet (that won't be covered up by long sleeves) rather than a tight or confining ring or necklace.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler has an unusual structure -- each section of the book is the opening chapter of another, fictional book; alternating with these sections are sections about "you" trying to read a book called "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," but printing errors keep inserting the wrong first chapters, forcing "you" to hunt down each successive novel. It is a novel about reading and writing, and is rightfully considered a post-modern masterpiece.

Mitchell borrows this technique for his novel Cloud Atlas. Each section tells a different story, but it ends just at the climax of the tale, moving on to a completely different story in a different time and genre. Unlike Calvino's novel, however, the central story is complete, and then the process reverses itself, as each of the previous stories is completed in reverse order, back to beginning. The novel has been aptly described as a set of nesting dolls. (This structure is actually mentioned in the book too; one character describes life as a series of shells, and the "doll of 'now' [] encases a nest of presents yet to be" -- which is exactly what this book is.)

And what a set of dolls it is. Mitchell brilliantly writes a variety of time periods, characters, and literary styles. The first story purports to be the diary of an American on a Pacific ocean voyage in 1850, and the diary-writer has all the assumptions and biases you would expect of a white, educated man of that time. The second story is a collection of letters from a young, dissolute musical genius to his friend and former lover. The letters are dated 1931, and depict an uneasy Europe between the wars. The third story, taking place in 1975, is a parody of fast-paced, poorly written thrillers; so successful a parody, in fact, that I kind of didn't want to finish it. The fourth is in the style of contemporary literary farces, with the protagonist one so often finds in those novels -- a male baby boomer, educated and clever but with no common sense or wisdom, self-deprecating but convinced of his superiority to everyone else, randy but impotent, and almost totally lacking in values and integrity.* The fourth section is again a completely different style, this time a Blade Runner-esque distopian future where corporations rule all, "consumers" are required by law to spend a certain amount every month, and human clones are bred with specific traits to work menial jobs, with no rights or dignity or "souls" (microscopic chips that keep track of consumers and allow them to buy and sell). The final, or rather middle, section is yet another dystopia, this one a post-apocalyptic tale about humans struggling to maintain what little culture and technology they've retained, much like A Canticle for Leibowitz.

As different as these stories are, they are nonetheless linked in various ways. The 1931 letter-writer finds the 1850 diary, although he suspects it is a fraud; the recipient of the letters is a character in the pot-boiler and gives them to the heroine, who also tracks down the writer's last composition entitled Cloud Atlas Sextet; the protagonist of the fourth section, a vanity publisher, receives the the third section as a novel to be published; the protagonist of the fifth section, a clone on death row for attempting to forment a revolution, asks as her "last wish" to watch the movie made of the vanity publisher's adventures; and in the last/middle section, this same clone is worshiped as a god, and the narrator treasures (but cannot understand) the archival recording of the clone's story. Moreover, characters in each section share a birthmark, suggesting in at least some cases that they are reincarnations of each other (but this cannot be given too much weight, since, for example, the pot-boiler is supposed to be fiction). The structure alone of Cloud Atlas is quite remarkable.

Thematically, too, the stories are linked, and they allow us to see a certain degradation of civilization as more and more evil is tolerated in the disguise of progress. Slavery doesn't go away, it just takes different, insidious forms. One character lectures that "[a]nother war is always coming . . . . They are never properly extinguished." Over-privileged idiots maintain that the ideal governance is a corporate empire. The elderly and useless are shunted to the side, and nothing is allowed to get in the way of the future.

Despite what all this progress leads to, the book is not entirely bleak. Ụnderneath all the tricks and interlocking structure, there is a commonality of striving for something better, something transcendent. And so the 1850 diarist is inspired by what he sees to become an abolitionist. The dissolute composer abandons his hedonistic pursuits because of an overwhelming need to express himself in music and create a masterpiece that will outlast him. The clone goes to her execution, content in the knowledge that her actions have inspired others who may be able to change what she could not. And the characters of the last/middle story will not give in to lawlessness and violence the way others have, determined to hold on to not just culture and technology, but human decency.

References in the book and statements made by Mitchell himself liken souls to clouds that drift across the sky. The signs of decency in the book sometimes seem like little wisps floating in a sky of human failings, but they are there -- changing and dissipating and re-forming, but always there.

*See David Foster Wallace's "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think" in Consider the Lobster for a take down of more self-serious versions of this man. See Straight Man by Richard Russo for a genuinely likeable version.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Recipe of the Day

Ritz Cracker Torte

Crumble up a bunch of Ritz brand crackers (accept no substitute). Beat six egg whites, sugar, and a little vanilla into a stiff foam. Fold in crackers, bake for 30 minutes, and cool. Top with Cool Whip brand whipped topping (accept no substitute).

The companion recipe to Ritz Cracker brand mock apple pie?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Alabama Stitching

Beadmom and Father Beadbrother came to visit for a week, so not much crafting got done (especially since my sewing room is also a guest room). I did start a skirt for myself. The pattern is from the Alabama Stitch Book, which is all about handsewing with knit fabrics.

I've never worked with knits before, but I adored the skirt, and after seeing Artsy Crafty Babe tackle it successfully a couple of years ago, I figured I'd give it a shot too. The technique is simple -- four panels make up the skirt, each with two layers in different colors embellished with reverse applique. Stencil a design on the top layer using paint, sharpie markers, or whatever, sew a running stitch around the shape, and cut away the top layer inside the stitching line.

I've already cut out the panels, stenciled them, and completed stitching on one. (As usual, my apologies for the crappy photo; maybe my camera needs a new, not recharged, battery?)
It's been easier than I thought. Cutting out the fabric was a bitch, because I had trouble marking the design with the recommended tailor's chalk (the knit fabric is very fine and kept catching) and so I had to cut around the pattern, which was held in place with cans, which led to jerky cutting. There are various ways I can remedy this in the future, however. Layering the two pieces on top of each other smoothly was also kind of tricky, but once in place they did not budge, which made sewing less nerve-racking. The sewing itself is a piece of cake.

I'm still apprehensive about how it will all come together. I had to enlarge the pattern, and shorten it, and narrow the waist (I'm so easy to fit!). It's pretty, though!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Inspirational Embroidery (of a kind)

After embroidering "Where's Fluffy" from Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, I thought it'd be cute to do a few more little embroideries with a pop culture theme. The Simpsons were the logical choice for the next project.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I adore Lisa Simpson, so of course I chose something related to her: the note Mr. Bergstrom wrote her when he had to leave her school. I got a screen shot of the note off the internet, traced it onto the fabric, and used cotton floss in the color of pencil lead. I even found a plastic hoop in "Simpsons yellow":
Where I'll put these, I have no idea.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Round-Up

The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba: The lead singer of My Chemical Romance is apparently determined to become a modern-day Renaissance man; he developed the concept and original sketches of this comic, in addition to writing the stories. Umbrella Academy is about seven children conceived and born under unusual circumstances, and raised by a cold, eccentric millionaire to fight crime. By the time they are adults, they are fully dysfunctional, as one would expect. This collection, the first six stories, serves as an introduction to the characters as they try to prevent one of their own from destroying the world. The writing is quirky and dark and cute, a good match for Ba's clean, wonderfully expressive artwork.

A Short History of Nearly Everything By Bill Bryson: Bryson wasn't kidding with that title -- he covers everything from the creation of the universe to the extinctions we face every day, the earliest humans to the scientists of the last century, stars to volcanoes to tiny little single-cell organisms. He synthesizes this into a highly organized, compulsively readable, occasionally terrifying narrative -- particularly impressive since I already knew most of the information in this book. People often lament the abysmal lack of scientific knowledge most Americans have; requiring everyone to read this book would remedy that.

Waking Up in the Land of Glitter by Kathy Cano-Murillo: I adore Cano-Murillo's crafty/artistic sensibility, so I was excited to pick up her first novel (plus, I am required to read all craft-themed novels). It is a light book, about three Latinas in Phoenix whose lives intersect around arts and crafts. Everything in the story is resolved exactly as you would expect, in a pretty, glittery bow, but what makes this book stand out from others in its genre* is the unexpected ways the characters got there. There are a lot of left turns and odd little detours that kept me engaged, and I liked that the characters, if not fully dimensional, were nonetheless quirky and interesting. Cano-Murillo's writing style could use a little work -- she had some neat turns of phrase, but she has a tendency to tell instead of show, and some of the transitions were a little abrupt; my copy also had a few typos. Overall, I really enjoyed the book.

*There needs to be a name for this genre; it has its rules and conventions, just like any other. I won't accept "Chick Lit," or even "Chica Lit," because first of all the term at its broadest includes every book ever written by a woman, making it not-at-all helpful. Second, men write books in this genre too. Third, it just serves to ghettoize fiction written by women as being something different from "regular" fiction. Fourth, it facilitates the dismissal of books read primarily by women as being less important that the books men read. See also: the way romance gets less respect than any other genre, including scifi; Franzen's Oprah kerfuffle when he balked at the idea of ordinary women reading his masterpiece; the theory that no woman could write the great American novel because women write about families, not important stuff (never mind all the male writers who write about families and are acclaimed for their insights on the human condition); etc.

Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso: Ostensibly a fantasy, because it takes place in another world where people have hair like artichoke leaves, this graphic novel follows a few generations of a family as they struggle with a civil war and its aftermath. Kelso's illustrations are cute and deceptively simple, but the subject matter is anything but. Like the real world, everything is messy, loyalties are confusing, and neither side is entirely right or wrong. The story was quite poignant, if a bit thin, and it left me wanting to know more about the characters.

Unlocked by Courtney Milan: My first e-book! (Well, sort of -- I have copies of Flatland and ABC for Book Collectors on my laptop too. So, my third.) I could not resist the Smart Bitches review or the dollar price, and reading a novella on my laptop was no hardship. A common complaint about a certain style of "old-school" romance is that the purported hero is a complete and total ass to the heroine until the very end when he realizes how good and pure she is; a quick apology (if that) later and they are Happily Ever After, while the reader thinks the heroine could have done so much better. Milan inverts this. The bad behavior the hero committed occurs ten years before the start of the book, when he returns to London much more mature and determined to make amends. But the apology is not enough -- he then has to earn her trust and her friendship before he can even begin to earn her love. This was a quick, emotionally satisfying read with thoroughly likeable characters. Special props to Milan for the heroine's mother, a proto-feminist, but not the spitfiery, iconoclastic, totally unrealistic type that shows up in historicals.

Ego and Other Tails by Darwyn Cooke: Cooke is a writer/illustrator of comics who has a wonderful retro style -- no surprise that he worked on Batman: The Animated Series. This collects several of his pieces about Batman and Catwoman. My favorite image by far is the cover to Batman: Gotham Adventures #50, which perfectly captures the personalities of Batman and Catwoman, and their relationship. The main Catwoman story, "Selina's Big Score," I already owned, so I bought this mainly for the Batman story "Ego." A recurrent motif in comics is the struggle between Batman and Bruce Wayne, and which is the real person. Cooke literalizes this by having Wayne confront his dark side, the Batman, who is cold and ruthless in his pursuit of justice. The lesson Wayne learns -- that he must control his dark side, not give in to it or ignore it -- is entirely unsurprising, but it was nonetheless a good crystallization of the Batman mythos.

What caught my eye in "Ego," though, was an argument the Batman figure made: Wayne needed to kill Joker to finally put an end to his crimes; his longstanding moral code of never killing anyone is "cowardly." This is exactly the argument that has been floating around the Catholic blogosphere concerning the morality of torture or weapons of mass destruction. Those of us who argue (correctly) that torture and the indiscriminate killing of civilians are intrinsically evil and never justified are moral cowards, afraid to make the tough choices that real life requires. This reasoning is not confined to conservative Republican types, either; it is related to the view among a certain segment of comic readers that the only authentic, realistic comics are those filled with death and extreme violence and despair (because that's totally the real life these comic book readers experience in suburban America). Although neither group probably realizes it, the core of this viewpoint is nihilism, and a contempt for anything good. Bruce Wayne recognizes this, and understands that he can use his dark side for the strength and edge it gives him while never allowing it to overtake his morality. (He still violates the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments to a ridiculous extreme, however, and he is totally a state actor.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Felted Wool Bead Earrings

I seem to have entered a crafting slump -- little time to craft and lots of long-term, on-going projects, so little progress to show. I did manage to make some earrings last week, however.

I wanted to make some more beaded felt ball earrings, but this time make the wool balls myself from woving, rather than buy them. A google search quickly found this great and easy tutorial from Knitty magazine. In an evening's work (and two days drying time), I had four pairs of felted wool beads:
(Unfortunately, the color in all the photos is off again -- the teal beads, for example, should be deep green.) The tip from the tutorial was to use toothpicks to make the holes, but at 11:00 on a Sunday night I had none, so I came up with the brilliant idea of using size 20 chenille needles. Brilliant, that is, until two days later when the beads were dry and I removed them from the needles -- not only were the holes quite a bit smaller than I wanted, most of the needles had rusted, rendering them useless for embroidery. Other than that, however, the process was very easy.

The next step was to string the beads onto headpins, with "silver" (the guy who sold them to me said they were silver, but English was not his first language and the price was very cheap, so who knows) spacer beads. Using thread to match the wool, I sewed on seed beads in different patterns:
(They look much prettier in person.) I made these with the intention of selling them, but I like the light bluey-green ones with pink daisy flowers so much, I may keep that pair for myself.

For completion's sake, the felt bead earrings I made in the fall with commercial wool beads:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

New Feature! Recipe of the Day

I'm currently cataloging cookbooks, which means I come across all sorts of oddball recipes. The most recent one (for a dish that scarred my childhood):

Chipped Beef a la King

Condensed chicken noodle soup
Condensed cream of mushroom soup
Hard-boiled eggs
Chipped beef
Green peppers
Onion flakes
Parmesan cheese
Canned mushrooms.

Mix together, heat, and pour over toast. Bleagh.