Tuesday, February 6, 2018

January 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month.



Nonfiction
The key words for last month's nonfiction reading were "knitting" and "almanac."

I read Aldo Leopold's classic A Sand County Almanac for my naturalist's writing group. I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read the whole book before (there was a bookmark to show I'd read part of it at least). It's every bit as good as its reputation and really makes one think about what ecology means on the land, and how important every link in the web is…down to the grains of earth we wash away so carelessly. Love it and will be referring to it again and again.

My mom sent me Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac for Christmas. Another book I *should* have read long ago and which I loved every page of. Even if I never knit any of the projects—which, let's face it, are a bit dated, I have already learned so much from Zimmerman's wisdom and good humor (always knit a gauge and just drape your yarn over the needle when you start to cast on—no slip not needed! Brilliant!). Among the just delightful writing all through the book was this gem: "The products of science and technology may be new, and some of them are quite horrid, but knitting? In knitting there are ancient possibilities; the earth is enriched with the dust of the millions of knitters who have held woo and needles since the beginning of sheep."

I also read Knitting Pearls, a collection of essays on knitting by famous writers, edited by Ann Hood, a kind of follow-up to Knitting Yarns, and every bit as good. It left me thinking—and writing—about my mother and grandmothers and all of the knitted and crocheted items that passed from one loving set of hands to a child or grandchild.

As part of the research for The Book, I read Beloved the Sky, a collection of essays about clearcutting, edited by John Ellison. I didn't really find any useful information in this book, but it did help me focus my thinking on industrial forestry. I read several other books on clearcutting, all written in the bad old days of the 1980s and early 90s (not that clearcutting or industrial forestry has gone away, by any means, but they've either used up the old growth on the national forests and/or moved on to easier/cheaper tree supplies; I shudder to think of the developing world and what might be happening to their forests). Anyway, it was a disturbing course of study, and one I preferred living in cozy ignorance about (by ignorance, I'm focusing on the ignore  root of the word, because of course I knew, I just preferred not thinking about it).

Fiction
To counteract the heavy reading, I needed a good dose of escapism and finished off the last two unread (or not-read-in-at-least-two-decades) Mertz/Michaels/Peters books on my shelf: Black Rainbow and The Wizard's Daughter, by Barbara Michaels. They're both historical fiction in the Gothic style, with a heavy dose of suspense, and both quite fun, witty reads, and wholesome escapes from reality. I also read Persuasion, which had been lost in the back of my bookshelf during my Jane Austen phase last winter. I had thought Persuasion was my favorite Austen book, but now that I've reread it, I don't think it stands up to Pride and Prejudice, but still an enjoyable weekend read.

Read-Aloud
I finished reading Elizabeth Peters's The Last Camel Died at Noon and read all of The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog to E and Z and still they want more "Ramses" books. I don't know why they love them so much—about half of it goes over their heads and we have to stop and explain the connections in the plot, remember who the characters are, and decipher Arabic phrases, Latin quotes, and lines of Romantic poetry. But love them they do. (As we started on the latest installment, which is the sixth book we've either read or listened to in the series, I said something about them being mysteries. E was shocked. "What? What do you mean they're mysteries?" "Well, there's usually a dead body or two, at least one gang of criminals, often the Master Criminal, and a puzzle to figure out who is the bad guy and who isn't." Still he was aghast. So really, I have no idea how much they get out of these books…or maybe he thought mysteries had to be like the Hardy Boys).

Thursday, February 1, 2018

In Other Quilting News

I got E's quilt back from the long-arm quilter and put on the binding last weekend. He picked out a circles-and-swirls quilting pattern that looks like bubbles and ripples of water; fitting for a frog quilt.


For the back, E and I chose a soft lime green flannel (he really wanted turquoise velour, but I talked him out of it…and after I made him a pillow from said fabric, I knew I made the right choice—it was horrible to work with and even just sewing a binding on it would have made me crazy).



Now all three kids are covered—literally.

I can turn my attention to myself. Here's a sneak peek at my next project. Usually when I make a quilt, I do all the planning at the beginning and from there it's all tedious cutting and piecing, but this one is planned square by square and I find it positively thrilling to come up with combinations of fabric and then see how they turn out once they're put together. I've almost exhausted my supply of red fabric, in terms of using each only once (they will get repeated later when I start making smaller blocks) and I'm waiting on a shipment of reinforcements from my mom.

I worry a lot about creative energy and whether expending it in one area (e.g., quilting, knitting, painting, etc.) drains the well so there's not enough left over for the main activity (i.e., writing). I don't know the answer to this, but I do know that while this project is distracting, it is also energizing and it makes for a beautiful kind of escapism that's preferable to a television or social media binge.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Farm Quilt

I've had the idea of making a farmyard quilt/play mat for a long time. Many babies of our acquaintance have been born and outgrown the play-on-the-floor-with-tractors stage during that time and I just hadn't pulled it off.


And then the sweet young couple who own the farm where M works had a baby in December and I knew it was exactly the right time to finally make the quilt. 


M and I used to pick strawberries at the farm and shop at the farm store when he was little. It was under different ownership then, and he named the farmer and little girl in his Playmobil tractor set after the farmer and his daughter.

As a tot who loved tractors ("tack-tah" was his second word), I think M would have dug driving all his toy farm vehicles around on a farm quilt, and hopefully the little guy who will be driving around toy (and probably real) tractors way sooner than his parents can possibly imagine, will dig it too.

 I modeled the barn after the one where M sits in the summer, handing out quart containers and ringing up pick-your-own strawberry purchases (though I accidentally tilted the asymmetrical roof the wrong way—oops). And I hid a little cowboy behind the openable barn door, for a fun surprise.



I don't know how to do the quilting part of quilting (I usually take mine to be done at the quilt store) and I lack a proper walking foot (though I learned later that for freehand quilting, the thing to do is use a darning foot and put your feed dogs down). So I just kind of winged it on this one. It ended up a little rumpled and puckered, but I figure the more imperfect it is, the easier it will be to throw it on the floor or grass and let the littlest farmer have at it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New Year's Things

I know, I know, I was going to retire the blog by now. But somehow, while I felt sure I was ready to move on back in November, now I think I might stick around a little longer. I still have things I want to tell you about, and the blog feature on my new website is just a little less user-friendly than this platform—it requires more steps to write and post a blog and I have less control over how it's formatted (and I can't figure out how to add a subscription option and I like my list of blogs I read running down the margin). SO! At the risk of appearing like one of those furniture stores that is perennially going out of business, I'm going to stick around for a little while now. If you go to my site and click on the "blog" link, it should bring you here, and if you click on any of the buttons to the right, they should take you to my website, so it's all neat and tidy.



Now, onto the subject at hand: 2018. This is a picture of my new calendar/journal, a SELF Journal, from BestSelf.com (I'm not an affiliate or anything), a 13-week, goal-oriented journal which is going to help me reach my impossible-seeming goal of finishing The Book by April 1. I'm down to mostly research with some revision (more of the latter as I go on, bulldozing the rubble toward the end of the book). It's slow going and doesn't always feel super productive, but the idea is that by telling myself every day I'll finish by April 1, it will happen. Wish me luck (and please, please tell me how to make research less painful!).

Other plans for 2018. Inspired by this post from my "friend"* Kate, who was inspired by this essay by Ann Patchett, I've decided to make 2018 another Buy Nothing Year. Exactly ten years ago, in 2008, I implemented a Buy Nothing Year for myself (and by extension, our household). I wrote several blog posts throughout the year about the challenges I faced and the solutions I came up and the perspective I gained while attempting to Buy Nothing all year.
Buy Nothing YearBuy Nothing Year Part IIMore Buy Nothing Birthday PresentsBuy Just One Book YearBirthday Month Wind-DownPotholdersBuy Nothing Back-to-School and Lunch Bag TutorialReduce, Reuse, Recycle, RepairHandmade Holiday, Part IHandmade Holiday, Part IIBuy Nothing Year Redux
In 2008 I allowed myself some exceptions (underwear and socks, used items, materials needed for making things, health and safety items, and car repairs). Ann Patchett allowed herself to buy books, because she is a writer and bookstore owner. I think I'll allow books as gifts for other people (because I don't plan to hand-make every present I give this year) but not for me (because I have A LOT of books in my "need to read" pile).

I've kind of modified the idea to Buy Nothing Frivolous. Which fits in with my original exemptions, and means that if something is really needed (e.g., underwear or socks) I can buy it. But it also means that I'm expanding Buy Nothing beyond consumer items to consumables like drinks and sandwiches and cookies. I can go out to lunch with a friend, or buy a vitamin-C enriched smoothie drink if I have a cold, but no more bagels when I'm roving around town or Kombuchas when I'm grocery shopping.

I've put the Buy Nothing Frivolous idea to the test already. Last week I felt I really NEEDED a file box to help organize things like bank statements and bills around my desk. Then I remembered I had a file box upstairs that held the drafts from my grad school short stories. Last time I organized I wasn't ready to get rid of those drafts (or even go through them), but I could put them into the filing cabinet in the basement and free up the file box. I cleared some junk out of a file drawer, dropped the stories in, and now I have a tidy little administration area near my desk—no trip to Target involved.

The second thing Kate mentions in her post is deleting her Facebook account. I'm not quite ready to do this, because there are a few people with whom that's my only point of contact, and I use it as a way to promote my own work (for what that's worth). I wish I could limit the posts I see to people's writing news, vacation photos, and new babies, but since there's no filter like that yet, I've mostly just stopped going there. I don't need the endless loop of bad news repeated and reiterated in different ways. I was not making the world a better place by reading, and reposting, more of the same The World is Coming to a Screeching Halt articles, so I've just withdrawn, mostly. I've also cut way back on news in general—NPR, online news venues, etc. It's just too discouraging and truly, reading ten different analyses of the same insane events doesn't really help anything and adds to my stress.

Looking back at the end of 2017, the two things I wished I had more of were time and money. Buying Nothing should help with the money department, somewhat, and cutting back on social media has already added to time.

*I put "friend" in quotes because Kate and I have only met in person for like 30 seconds, but we've been friends on social media for years and she only lives about 25 minutes away from me and is in the same graduate program I went to and we have at least one mutual friend and I'm sure if both our lives weren't so insanely busy, we'd be friends in real life too.

Monday, January 8, 2018

December Reads

A monthly recap of books I've read. For past months, see:
January Reads 
February Reads 
March Reads 
April Reads 
May Reads  
June Reads
July Reads
August Reads 
 September Reads
October Reads 
November Reads


If November's reading list was about fun and escape, December's list is a bit more well-rounded and seasonal.

Poetry
Measure for Measure, edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver. This book I read over several months, a poem or two or three per day. It's organized by different meter types and while I still wouldn't be able to tell a dactyl from a trochee, I had a lot of fun reading it and look forward to seeking out more metric poetry.

Nonficton
Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed. Not really sure if this book counts as nonfiction or not…it's a collection of quotations from Strayed's other books. I received it for Christmas last year (or maybe the year before) and had picked it up and read a quote here and there over that time, but after I finished Measure for Measure I still felt like reading short pieces in the morning and this happened to be on my night stand. The other thing it has in common with Measure is that it's a hard-cover book the size of a paperback, with a ribbon bookmark—my favorite kind of book of all.

Holidays on Ice by David Sederis. This probably doesn't count as nonfiction, either (I've read that David Sedaris describes his writing as "true-ish"), and it shouldn't be on this list anyway because I only read one piece, "Santaland Diaries," not the whole book. I read "Santaland Diaries" every Christmas, but the other pieces only once every three or four years or so. Nevertheless, I wanted to put it on the list in case there's anyone out there who hasn't given themselves the pleasure of "Santaland Diaries" which is hilarious. The one downside to reading a piece of writing so often you almost have it memorized is that when C and I went to see a one-man play of it earlier in December, I noticed every time the words had been changed (do we really need to update "camcorder" to "iPhone"? Doesn't everyone still know what a camcorder is?) or a part had been left out.

Play
The Winter's Tale, by Shakespeare. This was referred to in the Introduction to Literature and the Environment lectures I've been watching on YouTube. I haven't read Shakespeare since high school, when I found the writing pretty much impenetrable, but I was surprised how well I understood what was going on and how little I had to refer to the text notes that came in my copy of The Winter's Tale. It was a good story with a twist at the end.

Read-aloud
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. E and Z opted to not listen to a holiday picture book every night leading up to Christmas, for the first time this year. Instead I read the full, unabridged A Christmas Carol to them, mostly to their annoyance. But it can't hurt to have a little Dickens tucked into their brains, especially since it appears that literature is disappearing from the curriculum.

Fiction
The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing. I'd always thought of Doris Lessing as a writer from a long time ago, but this collection of four short novels was published in 2003 (her literary career ranges from 1950 to 2008; she died in 2013 at 96). Each of the four short novels/long stories was so engaging and so different from all the others and so almost word-perfect. I hope I can write only half so well in my 80s (and anytime between now and then). I've always meant to read The Golden Notebook sooner or later; now I'm determined to read it and much more of her writing.

Death at Gallows Green by Robin Paige. This is the only book that could count as escapism for last month. It's tangentially related to a book I read in September, Death at Hilltop Farm by Susan Witting Albert (Robin Page is the pen name Albert and her husband write under), in that Beatrix Potter makes an appearance, but I thought it was even better than the Hilltop Farm book and I'll be looking for more Paige novels this year.

P.S. By popular demand, I'll continue my monthly reads posts at my new website. Check there in a month for January's list and anytime for other writing updates and posts.

Friday, January 5, 2018

New Year's Hat

There's really nothing "New Year's" about this hat, except that I started it last November (as in 2016) and it's the only thing I knitted in all of 2017 and I was determined to finish it before the year was out. That would have happened, except that I ripped out and re-knitted the ribbing four times, at first because I was afraid it would be way too big and then because it ended up too small. As you can imagine, each of these episodes resulted in a mess of dropped and twisted stitches which had to be rescued and repaired.

I finally wrapped up the last of the four ribbing re-dos and the end weaving in just shy of midnight last night. In the end it came out a little too big, but I'm not doing it again. Goodbye to the last project of 2016, the first project of 2018 and the only project of 2017.

The only reason the hat took so darn long was because it was made of tiny yarn on tiny needles…and because I spent an awful lot of time not knitting…because of said tiny yarn and tiny needles and because of all those very long rounds of stockinette with nothing to break it up but YOs and K2togs. Next project will be made with thick yarn on big needles and a little more exciting action.

It's also a bit too cold for a thin, cashmere hat right now. But I can wear it inside for now, and I'll say this for the hat: it's versatile—it can be worn as a slouchy hat, as a tam-o-shanter, a jaunty beret, or a shower cap.



Pattern notes on my Ravelry page.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I Did It! 2017

Time again for the annual I Did It! list, inspired by Lisa Romeo.



Writing I Did Its!

I finished a draft of the narrative part of The Book and put that narrative though one full round of revision. I still have a lot of research to do to fill in a lot of holes, but clearing that hurdle of getting those first round edits into the document felt good!

I continued to write and submit short pieces, especially during the first half of the year. My results:

Submissions: 24
Rejections: 26
Withdrawals (due to acceptance elsewhere): 2
Short-listed: 1
Acceptances: 7
Pending Publication: 2
Publications: 14


The reason these numbers don't add up is because rejections, acceptances, etc. include a number of pieces submitted in 2016. Even though my submission rate was almost half what it was last year (24 versus 45), my rejection rate was higher (26 versus 20) and so was my publication rate (14 versus 8), but my acceptance numbers were down (7 versus 9). What does all this mean? I have no idea.

The low submission number has to do with me focusing on writing short pieces and getting them out in the world during the first half of the year and turning my attention to The Book during the second half (only two submissions since May!). I would like to find more of a balance between The Book and keeping short pieces flowing next year. 

Right now I only have two essays that are finished and making the rounds of literary journals. They're two of the best pieces I've ever written, I believe, and they're having a hard time finding a home. Probably because I insist on sending them only to paying journals. I've got a bunch of partially written essays on hold in the files and numerous short stories on hiatus. At some point I have to address the gap between essay and short story—why am I having more success with the former than the latter? Which stories in the queue truly have merit and which need to be retired? I also want to write more fiction, despite the challenges it poses.

Other writing activity:
  • I applied—and was accepted—for a week at an artist colony (and it was amazing).
  • I applied—and was rejected—for a writing grant.
  • I entered—and have not yet heard from—a writing contest (not counted in submission #s)
I also continued to co-edit the Literary Reflections department at Literary Mama, wrote 90 blog posts (my lowest number since the first two years of the blog), started a monthly-ish newsletter, and created a new website. I attended a poetry festival in Augusta and an alumni weekend at my MFA alma mater, each of which was as good as a writing conference and much more affordable.

On the financial front, my writing balance is in the black! It's not much, in terms of trying to survive (or even buy the occasional cup of chai), but my income from publications and teaching workshops exceeded my expenses of buying books and office supplies and paying submission fees and alumni weekend registration, Duotrope and Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance membership fees, and cloud storage costs. I've reached my goal of not spending more money on writing than I earn. Now I just need to earn enough to live on.

Travel I Did Its!
I took the boys on a road trip to Colorado and back home (via Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota). This was the first time I went on a road trip as the only adult (though I had some driving help from M), and I think I did pretty great (we never ran out of gas and we never succumbed to a hotel room, camping the whole way there and back). We even survived a rare Utah Hurricane which threatened to float our tent away. And my kids had fun!

Crafty I Did Its!
Making things by hand has taken a bit of a backseat to writing this past year, but I still appreciate the satisfaction of creating a tangible and usable object—a different and often more immediate satisfaction than writing. A few things I made:

Art I Did Its!
I taught myself to watercolor by painting every day for 100 days over the spring and summer (and continuing not quite as religiously since then), following some online tutorials and attending a couple of painting classes at my friend's studio. Watercolor painting is something I've wanted to learn for years and this project not only got me started painting, but also taught me the value of doing something every single day—you actually get better!

Nature I Did Its!
I  taught a couple of nature journaling workshops and have been volunteering at a local nature center, helping lead groups of fourth graders through the woods and trails. I've also put my newly acquired watercolor skills to work in my nature journals. I compiled my birding Life List and went on several bird-watching expeditions, each of which added a few more birds to said list. C, E, Z, and I again did our Christmas Bird Count route. In general, I paid a lot more attention to birds.

Phew! That's a lot for one year! Can't wait to see what 2018 has in store, and I'm a little worried about how I'll keep track of it all if I'm not blogging next year.
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