24 June 2010

A Year in the Life

Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously by Adrienne Martini (New York: Free Press, 2010)

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend(New York: Little, Brown, 2009). Kindle edition

Ever since I encountered Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, I've been a sucker for books that chronicle someone obsessively doing something for a year. Julie and Julia (whose subtitle is "365 days, 524 recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen"); The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life—all sucked me into their spell. Sometimes the author's ego gets in the way for me, as was the case with A Year in Provence and the gaggingly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, but for the most part this is a foolproof Good Read.

The Madison Public Library has obligingly put out a comprehensive list of these books, so I see that the genre goes all the way back to 1948 and Henry Beston's Northern Farm: A Glorious Year on a Small Maine Farm. (Heck, it occurs to me that Walden probably qualifies as the great-granddaddy of them all.)

Two of them recently turned up in my Bedside Pile, and of course I finished them before just about everything else: The Happiness Project and, now, Sweater Quest. Both books began as blogs—doesn't every nonfiction book now? The explosion of blogonauts has swelled the ranks of the year-in-the-life genre to the point that I imagine publishing-house interns don't even bother with the slush pile anymore (if they ever did), but instead spend their days trolling the Web for examples of this new performance art. (The New York Times documented the term "blooks" back in December 2006, but it doesn't seem to have made it into everyday speech.)

Like dance marathons during the Great Depression, the one-year endurance contest seems especially to attract the un- or under-employed. Sweater Quest's Adrienne Martini is no exception. The Simon & Schuster Web site identifies her as a "freelance writer and college teacher." She's smart, and she has time to knit; what more do you want? When I heard her interviewed on Brenda Dayne's Cast-On podcast, I knew this was a book I had to read. Martini wanted to counter the "directionless haze" of her 2007 by doing something really, really big in 2008. So she picked the most challenging knitting project she could think of: the "Mary Tudor" cardigan designed by the Scots knitting behemoth Alice Starmore, "the Shakespeare of the knit and the purl." With fingering-weight wool (this means a very very skinny strand), in eleven separate colors, in a brand of yarn that's not even being made anymore—well, just assembling the supplies took Martini two months of her year.

I'm in the middle of a (non-Starmore) Fair Isle sweater that I'm guessing will take me a minimum of three years to finish, so I'm the perfect audience for Martini's book. She is easy to read, but I found I never really got lost in her work—perhaps because she, herself, seemed so detached from it. Once Martini figured out the Fair Isle technique, knitting the sweater itself became boring even to her. So she spends most of the book interviewing other knitting designers—some very good ones—with the question, "What makes an Alice Starmore sweater an 'Alice Starmore'?" Which is interesting, but a little repetitious.

Martini is good at details—maybe a little too good. She stops short of telling you how many calories are in the desserts and entrees she is endlessly eating with her interview subjects, but not very far short. She's at her best when she is filling us in on knitting-gossip backstory, like why most knitters refer to Starmore in print as "St*rm*re," or, delightfully, LSD, which stands for "Litigious Scottish Designer." But the book shows signs of being hastily edited, which means no one reined in Martini's tendency to reduce situations to a quick laugh, or evened out her tone. (Do we really need to know that Amy Singer has "a mighty rack"?)

Nor, in the end, did all those details add up to synthesis. For heavens sake—and I'm hardly issuing a "spoiler" here, because Martini makes no attempt to create a narrative arc—the sweater didn't even fit! A blogger might be able to get away with ending a saga with the equivalent of "And then I woke up," but really a grown-up book writer should know better. Sigh.

22 June 2010


———————— THIS MONTH'S BOOKS ————————
Knitting in the Old Way: Designs & Techniques from Ethnic Sweaters by Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson (Fort Collins, Colorado: Nomad Press, 2004)
Hot Broke Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos (New York: Business Plus, 2010)
Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously by Adrienne Martini (New York: Free Press, 2010)
Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
iPhone Application Development for Dummies by Neal Goldstein (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend (New York: Little, Brown, 2009). Kindle edition
Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
In the Hebrides by Alice Starmore (Blairstown, N.J.: The Broad Bay Company, 1995)

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder
Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously by Adrienne Martini
Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend

The Seven of Cups card in TarotThe knitting world has coined a term for the chronic condition of beginning more projects than you can possibly finish: Startitis. With myriad attractive things to choose from, you choose—all of them! Throughout most of June, I have been afflicted with Startitis in my reading world—though it is a matter of opinion whether it is actually an affliction.

Suffice it to say that Kindle is unlikely to provide a respite. Being able to get entire books downloaded to my iPod in less than a minute (for a price, of course) has supplemented, but not supplanted, my library habit. It used to be that, when I heard of a book I thought I'd like, I would request it from the library or, if I thought I needed constant access to it for the rest of my life (what was I thinking?!), buy it at the nearest bookstore. Impulse purchases were reserved for trips to worthy venues like St. Paul's Common Good and Nisswa's Rainy Days.

Now I am yielding to impulse as I sit in a coffeeshop or surf the Web at home. My pocketbook is suffering, but my patronage of my public library is not; I put 12 items on hold there this month.

But let's look at the things I'm actually reading. This month I finished Phineas Finn and started Phineas Redux, both on the iPod. This is at least my second time through both of them, and this time I am trying not to skip over the political bits—just as, when I read Moby-Dick all those years ago, I made myself read all the whaling parts, and actually ended up enjoying them.

So far Trollope's mine is not as rich as Melville's, but neither is it unrewarding. For example, I went to my college reunion this past weekend and, in one of those chance conversations one has at these affairs, I ended up talking to a fellow who's edited a book by the man believed to be Trollope's model for Phineas Finn: John Pope-Hennessy, 1834–1891. (M.C. Rintoul's Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction, available here in Google Books, discusses the various historical figures thought to be Trollope's Irish M.P., as well as providing a key to other less thinly disguised political lights; Daubeny turns out to be Disraeli, for instance. If you have access to Academic Search Premier or another database that indexes the journal English Studies, also check out John Halperin's April 1978 article therein on the subject, "Trollope's Phineas Finn and History.")

Emperor Maximilian IIn the physical world of old-fashioned print, I'm really loving Germania. Simon Winder has that light, ironic tone that seems to be wound into the DNA of the best British writers—I am thinking of my hero Nick Hornby as well. Winder is irreverent, but I find myself trusting him implicitly as he romps through German social and political history, which he cheerfully acknowledges is justly considered a cultural dead zone for today's scholars, tourists, gastronomes, and politicos. "I want to get round the F├╝hrer and try to reclaim a bit of Europe which is in many ways Britain's weird twin," he says.

Picking a page practically at random, here is Winder on the founding father of the Habsburg kaisers:

"The Emperor Maximilian I died in 1519 having spent a long and enjoyable life, fighting, having children, feasting and fixing up marriages for his own children. His reign has the air of a vastly prolonged international card game where through debonair luck and skill Maximilian winds up with virtually everything. ... Sadly Maximilian died before the [soap-opera] episodes where ... the marriage of his son Philip the Handsome to the Castilian Joanna the Mad was going to have the sensational result of their six children turning into two emperors and four queens."

I'm happy just living in a world where nutty royalists can trace their ancestry back to someone named Joanna the Mad. Aren't you?

02 June 2010

What Would Nick Do?

A friend of mine who calls herself “Barb” on her very funny blog justly chides me for not being clear about my intentions for this page. Actually, what she really said was:

“Glad to see Erin's book on your night table, but why won't you
tell us which you are reading? If you are writing a blog, please be so
good as to reveal your real reading preferences to us!”

I think the key phrase here is If you are writing a blog. My ambivalence about this hanging-out-in-public thing is showing. So is the fact that I never really explained what I was doing when I changed the focus of this blog from my moribund "23 Things on a Stick" project to simply books.

My hero, Nick HornbyWhat I wanted was to create something like Nick Hornby's wonderful monthly column in The Believer (now defunct, but collected in The Polysyllabic Spree and other books). Each column started with a list of books Hornby had bought that month, followed by a list of those he'd actually read — not necessarily drawn from the first list. (This had the effect of letting you keep score. If Hornby had read more books than he bought, he won; otherwise, he lost.) Then he described the experience of reading them, or more often what he did instead of reading them.

So the catalog of books by my bedside was supposed to be List #1 — my lofty goal — and you were supposed to learn from reading my golden words whether I actually succeeded in reading them. Clever, huh? Well, not really.

If I were following such a format for this post, my books-by-the-bedside list would look like this:

  • False Mermaid by Erin Hart
  • The Happiness Project; Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
  • In the Hebrides by Alice Starmore
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen
But here's the catch: I haven't been reading any of them. Or, rather, I did read The Happiness Project, but only because that was right before I gave my husband the birthday gift of a Kindle — and learned I could access his Kindle books through my iPod Touch. So here's what I've actually read this past month, all on an electronic screen:

  • The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner
  • So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (read for my book group)
  • Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia by Patricia Morrisroe
  • The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope (it turns out that Trollope's Parliamentary novels are free in the Kindle store, but his Barsetshire ones aren't)
  • Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
And I'm about one-sixth of the way through Phineas Finn as well. (Yes, I know I'm reading Trollope out of order. So sue me.)

All of which has left my literary world in a bit of a shambles. I thought I was one of those people who didn't consider a book a book unless it had pages and a cover; well, I have been drawn into Kindle's versions the same way that I would have been to the "dead tree" ones, and got just as irritated with Alice Vavasour there. (The original "Smart women, foolish choices.") At the same time, I am still buying books and checking them out of the library — yesterday I put myself on the wait list for three more — in the apparent belief that I have unlimited time to read any book in any medium.

So clearly I, like Alice Vavasour, cannot long continue on this headstrong course. But I will follow “Barb” ’s advice and do my utmost to keep you informed of my progress. Fair enough?