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.

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