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Sunday, December 31, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 52

Unfortunately, I can't say that I managed to stitch every single day, and the project petered out at the end because of Christmas preparations, festivities, and so on (and a terrible cold that just won't. go. away). Nevertheless, it was a fun project and it serves as a diary of the year.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 51

This project got neglected again as I hurried to finish the quilt, but I did get a few stitches and motifs in.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

On the First Day of Christmas ...

Well, it's not the first day of Christmas yet, and not the first day of Jo's Online Advent Calendar, but it still seems appropriate because my two most recent cross stitch finishes are partridge-in-a-pear-themed, to go with my growing collection:
Prairie Schooler
Just Nan
We don't celebrate Boxing Day in the States, although I am familiar with it because my father-in-law is English. Nonetheless, we have developed traditions for the day -- my brother is a Benedictine priest, and while he is required to stay at the Abbey Christmas Eve and Day, he is given a short vacation after. So every year, my mom and brother come on the 26th to stay with us a few days.  Since Christmas Day usually has an English vibe (turkey or goose if we can afford it, Christmas pudding, crackers), the day after I crank up the Puerto Rican Christmas music and prepare a pernil (roast pork shoulder). If I'm especially ambitious, I'll also make tostones (twice-fried plantains), queso frito (pan-fried white cheese), or coquito (like eggnog, but coconuty). It's nice to keep the celebrations going for more than a day.

Merry Christmas, and I hope everyone has a wonderful Boxing Day!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Star, a Star, Shining in the Night

It's finally done:
And it only took *mumble mumble* years.
Made of an assortment of star blocks from a bunch of different sources, in lots of different sizes (see, this is my problem -- I get ideas, and I don't realize how complicated they will be to sew up until it's too late).  It was quite a jigsaw puzzle to put all together.
It's bigger than I anticipated, too, but then it will fit a full-size bed if he ever gets one.

The lovely quilting was done by Susan Wood of Valentine Quiltworks, and I couldn't be happier with it:

The backing fabric:

I can't wait to give it to Beadboy1 Christmas morning.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It's a Marshmallow World in the Winter ...

So it turns out, there aren't any Christmas songs with the word "gingerbread" in them. But the "icing" on this gingerbread woman is sweet, if I do say so myself:
This was originally a Victoria Sampler pattern, "Gingerbread Cookies," but if you go to that link you'll see I made a lot of changes -- I got rid of the Santa hat and omitted the buttons and beaded necklace, instead filling in her dress with a blackwork pattern accented with the necklace "pearls." I did use two of the white buttons for eyes, and added a few white seed beads for the mouth. She's backed with a brown batik fabric and lightly stuffed. The picture is not great, but I'm really pleased with it.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 49

(Eep! Almost done!)

A very bad back injury kept me from doing anything other than feeling sorry for myself the last two weeks. Also, we got a new (to us) car.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

Beadboy1's quilt -- a decades-old commercial quilt of dubious quality -- is literally falling apart. He's getting a new one for Christmas, so I've decided to use the old one as a cutter for different projects (when I can wrestle it away from him to snip pieces). First up was Kathy Kerstetter's Vintage Snowmen Ornaments, from the 2015 issue of Quilting Arts Holiday:
The buttons on the middle pieces are vintage; the beads and buttons on the faces are not. And they are missing their "carrot" noses, which I only noticed after they were all done. Oops.

Beadboy3 was enamored of these snowmen and begged me to make one just for him, so I did out of craft felt:
I remembered the nose this time
He's sleeping with it as I type.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Halloween Sampler

I've finished the sampler I made with Stitchy Box's Halloween Countdown box:
This was a lot of fun! I'm in the process of charting it, although all the specialty stitches may be beyond my software capabilities.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Bookburners by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery

A story about a secret black ops organization at the Vatican that hunts down and neutralizes demonic books was an obvious thing to add to my reading list. Bookburners is the first "season" of a novel that was initially serialized on the internet; as such, it reads like a collection of short stories with an overarching plot that becomes increasingly important. 

The POV character is Sal, a NYC cop and non-believing Protestant who learns about the existence of demons, magical books, and demon-possessed magical books when her brother is ensnared by one.  In an effort to save her brother's life (and soul), she joins Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum. It's fast-paced and a lot of fun to read.

It's also quite smart.  The Church's take on magic is that it is too dangerous, too easily corrupted by demons, to use, but there are characters within and without (good, evil, and neutral) who disagree -- to them, magic is simply a tool, and humans should learn how to use it before it's too late.  But rather than fall into cliches about repressive institutions and freedom-loving individuals, the authors treat the matter quite seriously.  Both sides are heard, both viewpoints are respected, and the events depicted don't fully vindicate either take. 

This parallels the story's treatment of religious faith; Father Menchú's rock-solid faith, Sal's atheism/agnosticism, and Asanti's pragmatism are all treated fairly.  It makes for a refreshing take on the usual tropes, and I can't wait to read "season" two.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Old Wine Shades by Martha Grimes

For a long time I was huge fan of Martha Grimes's Inspector Jury/Melrose Plant mysteries, devouring each one as it came out. Over time I gradually lost interest in the series and lost track of the latest books. A few days ago I picked up Old Wine Shades, the oldest of the ones I haven't read yet (I think), but I was soon reminded why I stopped reading them in the first place -- the sameness of it all.  Jury and Plant continue to brood about their lives, envy the other his life, and pine from afar for the same women. Racer continues to be an incompetent jerk, Wiggins is always dosing himself with home remedies, Aunt Agatha won't stop complaining or eating fairy cakes. Grimes won't allow her characters to grow, and that's a shame.

But then the story got good. The mystery was an unusual one, told in an unconventional way, and I was reminded of how good Grimes's writing can be. At her best, her stories are atmospheric and clever, filled with an assortment of interesting secondary characters.

And then the psychic dog showed up. Which was ... unexpected. In the past Grimes has had animals that were characters themselves, intelligent in their own animalistic way, but a dog that can send telepathic messages -- in English! -- belongs in a completely different story.

But! There was an incredible twist to the story two thirds of the way through, and all was forgiven as I raced to see how it would all end.

And ... it ended in a deeply unsatisfying way.  I think it's clear Grimes was experimenting in several ways here, but only some of them were successful.  From what I've read of the following novels, I think I'm done with the series. Maybe I'll re-read the first 15 or so.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Book Round-Up: Autumn edition

Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet: A cozy but dark mystery seems appropriate for the season.  This is the first installment of Malliet's series centered around an ex-MI5 agent who becomes an Anglican vicar in a small English town; so a modern version of Grantchester. Malliet's writing is smart, fun, and a bit moody.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving: The version I read had been illustrated and adapted by Will Moses, which I didn't realize.  I think I would have preferred to read the original text, but it serves its purpose of making the story accessible to kids -- Beadboy2 reads the book over and over every October.  I did enjoy the illustrations thoroughly. Moses is the great-grandson of Grandma Moses, and he was clearly inspired by her and her son.

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen: The latest from one of my favorite writers, and a sequel to Garden Spells. This novel highlights by comparison the flaws in the Strawberry Hearts Diner. Allen writes about a southern town with mom-and-pop businesses, quirky people, and a quaint ambience; but she's not afraid to show the trailer parks, desperate people, and bad decisions that also populate the town.

Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett: I won't commit to reading all of Pratchett's Discworld novels, but I do enjoy the ones I pick up. These are the first two in the "witches" sub-series, and like the best of his books they marry laugh-out-loud high-fantasy satire with genuine insight into the human condition.  I was planning to read the third, but it seems to have disappeared; perhaps Granny Weatherwax disapproves.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Is it Even the Same Design Anymore?

I stitched a skull for All Souls Day and Dia de Muertos:

And here is the pattern I "followed":
Beware by Linda Medina, 2017 Just Cross Stitch Halloween
The first change came with the materials -- I didn't have pink fabric, so I chose teal, which meant tweaking the colors of the floss.  As I stitched the skull I added an extra row on the bottom for the jaw. Then I decided to emphasize the flowers at the top more, which eventually led to the lazy daisy and bullion stitches.  "Beware" no longer seemed like an appropriate caption, so I changed that. I liked the spiral, but that had to move.  I didn't forget about the little orange floral motif at the top, so those became Rhodes stitches in chartreuse.

I'm pleased with how it came out. Maybe if I ever get pink linen, I'll stitch the original (with no changes) for a companion piece.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Trick or Treat Blog Hop

Welcome! Jo at Serendipitous Stitching is hosting her annual Halloween Blog Hop, and I get to join in on the fun.  My eerie, enchanting letter is
Fiddums Family Font Alphabet E

But you are here to see some stitching, too.  I've only one cross stitch finish this year, the Frosted Pumpkin design from this year's Just Cross Stitch Halloween issue:

I started some other patterns, but then set those aside to work on a design of my own. At the end of the summer I signed up for Stitchy Box's Halloween Countdown Box -- a box of 31 stitching goodies, one to open each day of October. The loot:
The hoop is mine

About halfway through the month I got the idea of incorporating the supplies into a sampler of 25 one-inch squares, filling out some of the spots with stuff from my own stash.
The day was too gloomy for a good photo
It's not completed, but it was a blast to make, and I may do a similar thing for Christmas.

Next up in the blog hop is Needle, Pen and Sword.  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez

Locke & Key is a comic book series about three siblings who discover mysterious keys in their ancestral home, which unlock doors with all sorts of magical properties -- giving a person wings, turning a person into an animal, fixing broken things.  As so often happens in these types of stories, there is also a demon trying to gain control of the keys for nefarious purposes whom the family must fight.

It's the kind of thing that's right up my alley, with one big exception -- the story is thoroughly in the horror genre*, not fantasy (or even its sub-category, dark fantasy), and I really don't like horror. Before starting the series I deliberately sought out spoilers to ensure it didn't have a totally depressing ending and to prepare myself for some of the events.  And still, it was a tough read. A lot of very bad things happen, some deserved and some not; the subplot involving a mentally challenged young teen was particularly stressful for me.

Despite all of that, I'm glad I read it.  It's a fascinating story, the backstory and characters are well done, the artwork is evocative, and there are cool concepts galore.  Above all, the portrayal of a family shattered by horrific events but surviving because of their love for each other was touching.

*Joe Hill is Steven King's son.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This creepy, compelling gothic novel was the perfect read for October nights.  Margaret Lea, a bibliophile and sometime biographer, is summoned to the home of a reclusive writer who is finally ready to reveal the truth about her background -- incest, insanity, and murder set in a decaying ancestral home (the plot owes much to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and even The Fall of the House of Usher).

Margaret's narration is at first overwritten and mannered, something I find in gothic novels no matter when they are written; I think in most cases a baroque plot is better served with plainer language. As the book progresses, however, and Margaret gets caught up in Vida Winter's story, her style settles down.  Vida's sections, on the other hand, are a treat. There is a real satisfaction in seeing this character who has written so many stories and told so many lies struggle to finally tell the truth, and to do it coherently.  In particular, the way she shifts from third person to first person plural to first person singular is crucial to understanding who she truly is (literally and metaphorically).

The novel is stripped of any extraneous material; there are no references to friends or outsiders, the world at large is barely mentioned, and descriptions of surroundings are kept to a minimum.  This not only emphasizes the claustrophobia of the stories themselves -- Margaret's and Vida's -- it adds a sense of eerie timelessness to the narrative.  Read this with a mug of cocoa and a blanket wrapped around yourself.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 40

A pumpkin in bullion knots. Surely if I stitch enough leaves and pumpkins, the weather will cool down.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman's novel is a fictional account of the life of Pissarro's mother, particularly her controversial marriage to her deceased husband's nephew.  I was skeptical of the book and only picked it up because it's September's pick in the Inspired by Literature club, but I'm so glad I did.  Hoffman's storytelling is beautiful and evocative, and rich in cultural detail. It even incorporates a little of the magic realism that she is known for.

Although the perspective changes occasionally, most of the book is told from Rachel Pissarro's point of view. Rachel is a force of nature, enough to rival the storms that hit the island and nearly ruin the family business. She is smart, willful, and passionate, alternately willing to make sacrifices for her family and willing to defy laws, conventions, and neighbors to get what she wants. She is also a bundle of contradictions; some of those contradictions deepen her already complex character, but others are inexplicable. It's as if in some scenes -- just a few -- Hoffman wasn't quite sure who Rachel was. Nonetheless, she is a memorable character, and her sections of the book overwhelm those portions told by her first husband and her son.

Most of the story takes place on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, and Hoffman's description of life there reminded me strongly of Puerto Rico, where I was born.  In particular I was taken with the repeated motif of the flamboyant trees (flamboyán, as we called them) with their brilliant red flowers.  My grandmother (a Spanish and French woman herself, although Catholic, not Jewish) was a painter, and one of my treasured possessions is the painting she did of a Flamboyán tree on a street in San Juan:

So that was my inspiration. I embroidered my own flamboyán, and placed it in a brass frame.  I added some glass pearls for luck (like the heirloom necklace in the novel, that can bring or take away luck).

My enchanted island is suffering terribly as a result of hurricane Maria.  If you are able and inclined to do so, please consider giving to help the people.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 39

I stitched some autumn leaves, in the hope that they would bring cooler weather.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

In Spark's classic novel, a mysterious voice calls several elderly people to tell them "Remember, you must die."  The source of the calls -- mundane or supernatural -- is never explained, but that's not the point.  Instead, the novel is a meditation on aging, death, and the way the various characters come to terms with their lives.

The results aren't exactly admirable, but they are funny, satirical, pathetic, and moving.  Human frailty is on display here as the characters mull over their lives, make excuses for themselves, and criticize their peers while coping with the physical and mental costs of aging. Above all, the concern is to have a "good death," whatever that means to the individual -- in the comfort of one's home, in a hospital with round-the-clock care, with a lot of money, surrounded by loved ones, mourned by the public at large. 

But the concerns often become petty. One character is constantly revising her will to reward or punish people; another schemes and blackmails to get inheritances.  One character catalogs the infirmities of everyone around him for the sake of "research" that's really busywork; another does it to reassure himself that he is "winning" at aging.  Towards the end of the book one woman, astuter than the others, makes the observation that "[a] good death ... doesn't reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul."  This is a point that is often ignored when we discuss end-of-life issues because we are so focused on getting rid of suffering and in "dying with dignity." But some suffering cannot be avoided no matter how hard we try.  And dignity doesn't lie in how able-bodied or sound-of-mind we are, but in our character.

For the most part, the characters in Spark's novel don't quite grasp that. That doesn't make them contemptible, though, just human.  Just like the rest of us.

Friday, September 22, 2017

It's that Time of Year

... when I get the urge to stitch, bead, and sew all things pumpkin and foliage.  First up is a scrappy pumpkin pillow, which allowed me to use a Halloween-themed charm pack from my stash:
Instead of 2.75 squares, I made mine 3.5 finished to better accommodate the 20 inch pillow form I had.  I also quilted it with perle cotton and big stitches:
To finish it I used the envelope technique, which I learned all the way back in 6th grade in my first quilting class:
No zippers!

I'm in the process of recovering the old, ugly cushions on the rocking chair. Doesn't this look better?
Speedy Beadboy3 lunges for the pillow

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Book Round-Up

Darned if You Do by Monica Ferris: the latest but one of the Crewel World series, this novel had some sloppy editing, but it was made up by a genuinely interesting mystery.  Ferris's character development continues to shine.

Rose Cottage by Mary Stewart: A quiet, gentle story set in post-war England, this novel is part mystery, part family drama, and part romance, but is mostly a pleasant diversion.

The Strawberry Hearts Diner by Carolyn Brown: This was ... kind of awful.  I'm all for cozy novels set in cute small towns, but this was too unrealistic.  The small-town superiority was too ridiculous, the characters' relationships developed far too quickly, the alleged conflicts were too minor (or just petered out instead of being resolved). I ended up skimming through to the anti-climactic ending, and it wasn't worth it.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux: Published in 1907, it's one of the first locked room mysteries, and well constructed; I was able to accurately guess the perpetrator of the crime and his motive, but the way he did it confounded me. It's also a product of its time; the success of the crime hinged in part on two people deliberately impeding the investigation to protect someone's honor -- not an internal sense of honor that comes from integrity, but an external one based on reputation.  I have little patience for that sort of thing, and it kept me from appreciating the novel as much as I should have.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Even More Blockheads

I got inspired over the Labor Day weekend.

Floral heart:

The Wicked Witch of the West:

I am vengeance! I am the night (flight)! I am ... BATMAN!

Monday, September 4, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 35

Two new motifs: a gridiron for St. Lawrence and St. Jerome's cross; both are the patron saints of librarians.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Another Blockhead

This week's block is called Cat's Cradle, and like a couple of other members I used some cat fabric:
Ignore that erroneous-sewn seam at the bottom.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 34

We spent the past week visiting my mom, and I forgot to pack my 1 Year embroidery.  That doesn't mean no stitching got done, however.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Welcome to Night Vale: a Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Welcome to Night Vale is an on-going podcast about a mysterious desert town teeming with secret police, men in black, illegal angels, deadly librarians, and a glow cloud, all discussed by Cecil Baldwin in his daily radio show. In 2015 the creators came out with a stand-alone novel set in the same town.  The story fits into the narrative of the podcast, but knowledge of one isn't necessary to enjoy the other.

Fink and Cranor have a distinctive narrative style that highlights the absurdity and horror of life in Night Vale, but while that style works well in a half-hour podcast, it's too much here, becoming somewhat of a distraction from the story itself.  Which is a shame, because it's a very good story.  Jackie and Diane, along with many other Night Vale residents, begin receiving a mysterious message that may or may not be intended for them about a city that no one can actually get to.  And it's nice to see an expansion of some elements of Night Vale; a novel gives the opportunity for more in-depth storytelling.

As in other magical realism books, the oddities and supernatural occurrences are manifestations the struggles ordinary people have trying to figure out the big questions of life -- its meaning and purpose -- and what they want their own lives to be.  Diane's teenage son is a literal shape-shifter, because teenagers have to figure out who they are.  Jackie has been 19 years old for decades, because like a lot of young adults today she isn't quite ready to grow up. A charming but feckless character multiplies himself endlessly because he doesn't have an actual personality, and in the process almost destroys reality. In the end, the horrors of Night Vale remind us of just how little we understand the world and ourselves.  What keeps me coming back to that desert town is the humanity that thrives despite those horrors.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Jewelry Round-Up

Another beaded bangle, like the Christmas one, but with pale pink pearls and black seed beads:

Steampunk earrings, made from clockwork gears from Blueberry Cove's Steampunk Box (with faceted glass beads from the Renaissance Box):

A red and turquoise necklace:
The beads were two inexpensive strands from Michaels, but even together it wasn't long enough. I attached each end to a large jump ring, and then added chain with a strip of red sari silk woven through the links.

I don't remember what I was going to make with these Indian glass beads, so I made a necklace instead.  Super fast and super pretty -- it's like a strand of hard candy around my neck:

Pretty, sparkly cup chain wired to two "gold" bangles.  I got the idea from the March 2013 issue of Bead Style (Becky Nunn being the designer).  It will look lovely with these bangles.