February 24, 2012

No "Blah" Like the Present, and a Resulting Review

I am suffering from the "blah"s after a long, exhausting day of SuperToddler SuperTerribleTwos.  To be perfectly honest, trying to catch up on my enormous backlog of book reviews doesn't sound like the most exciting way to overcome these Mommy Blues, but there it is--some people feel compelled to eat chocolate, I get overwhelming drives to write.  Notice I didn't say "an overwhelming DESIRE to write".  Sometimes, I write even when I really don't want to.  It's like my brain gets taken over by little hobgoblins with quills and parchment in their hands or something, and I simply must write.

So, what say we review one of those books that I've been putting off too long while the goblins are hammering away in my head?

A Review of the Medieval Poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, composed by some unknown medieval Englishman who thought that King Arthur, if he ever existed, was a fellow Englishman, instead of a Welsh Celt, by JNCL

Okay, confession time (and a bit of a mini-spoiler, but only a very little one).  For years, whenever I heard the title of this book, I always assumed that the phrase "green knight" refered to the coat of arms of the knight in question.  I thought his shield must be predominantly green, and thus his tunic and his horse's caparison would be, as well.  "Huh?"  Right.  Let me give you a picture of a "caparison," so you'll know what the Hell I'm talking about. 

See how the horse is completely covered in a draping cloth that has his rider's coat of arms worked on it?  That's a caparison.  (Triple word score with this picture, actually, because it also shows you what a coat of arms is, and how both horse and knight wore pictures of the arms into battle, or at least, into tournaments.)  Now you can see why I used to think that the knight was just called "green" because he was probably wearing a lot of green, and would just have appeared green all over.  NOPE.  I was wrong.  The knight who ends up challenging the brave Sir Gawain to a duel of sorts is ACTUALLY GREEN.  Green as lettuce.  His hair is green.  His beard is green.  His skin, and his horse's skin, are green.  Completely green horse, mane, tail and all.

This medieval romance has many of the expected elements of the French, courtly, chivalric romances, clearly reflecting the Anglo-Norman society that developed in England after the Norman Conquest and its obsession with Arthurian legends.  The primary enjoyment I get out of reading books like this is what they reveal about the culture that produced them.  I find it fascinating to discover what such a culture's ideals were, what they thought SHOULD HAVE mattered to them, and even more fun to find out what ACTUALLY mattered to them instead!  There are more column inches of text devoted to butchering fresh hunting kills in this book than to any other single subject, despite all the talk of Marian religious devotion and chivalric knightly behavior.  Sir Gawain might be brave, bold and virtuous, but it's clear that the poet is REALLY impressed by the guy who brings home the venison.

Anyway, if you like Arthurian romance, you should definitely look up this one.  And if you want to make both seem even much funnier, read this book and then immediately afterwards watch "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."  You may need an oxygen mask to help you recover!

February 22, 2012

Blueberry Ripple

Hurray!  Another installment of my favorite yarn craft memes, and a chance to show you my latest exciting crochet adventure.  First off, I would like to announce the completion of yet another of my baby blankets for charity.  My sweet Brigid the SuperToddler had to come and feel it, inspect the work, try to identify all the colors this evening as I was putting on the finishing touches, and she seemed to give it the ToddlerHousekeeping seal of approval, so hopefully some new little one will find it fascinating and comforting.

The famous Christmas Blanket is still her favorite.

However, my photo this week features a project that is very dear to my heart, that I jumped into late last week to give myself some variety, so I wouldn't get bored with the baby blankets.  I had tried a "ripple" or "chevron" pattern once before about 5 years ago, with dismal results, but after seeing them on several people's Yarn Along posts, I decided I just had to try again.  I don't like letting my yarning efforts defeat me if I can possibly help it.  Naturally, what color would I use for an afghan I'm making for myself, especially one which has become a personal challenge for me?  BLUE, of course, and those who know me personally are all shaking their heads and asking themselves if I EVER get weary of all blue, all the time, knowing all the while that my answer is, "How could anyone ever get tired of blue?!"

ANYWAY, I actually finished the book in this photo just a few minutes before I snapped the picture, but since I haven't started another one yet, I figured I'd include it, especially since these two items together were a large part of my life for the past week.  Hope your reading and yarning have been equally satisfying!

P.S.  I forgot to give credit where credit is due for the pattern I'm using for the ripple blanket.  Thank you, Attic24!

February 16, 2012

Review of "Mansfield Park"

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

Yes!  I finally read this book, and now have only Northanger Abbey to go before I can officially say that I have read the entire Jane Austen "Sacred Six"!  It's funny, I've actually read a bit of her juvenalia, but still haven't finished the "canon" yet.  I'm quite surprised at myself about it, really.

You know, the more I read Jane Austen, the more I decide that she only crafted one plot, and kept writing it over and over, improving it each time, in each novel in which she used it.  The most amazing part of the whole enterprise is that she manages to keep me glued to the page EVERY TIME!

It's not actually the same plot, of course; it's a formula of re-arranging certain required elements into different patterns, and it is that very quality that allowed Austen to DEFINE the "comedy of manners".  Someone will behave in an absolutely infamous way when judged by the standards of the time.  At least one, and usually two people will be so impossibly stupid and annoying that the reader cringes every time that character appears on the page.  At least one main character is impossibly good, usually the heroine, though not always.  The one redeeming factor of this aspect is the fact that Austen uses it as a sort of quiet rebellion; though she never actually says so, she makes it clear to the audience that the snarls to happiness would have gotten untangled much quicker if that character hadn't been such a paragon of the virtues of Jane Austen's time.

So, it goes without saying that this book was that novel again, and that like all the others, this one had its own twist, its own take on the themes.  Nothing remains to give you but spoilers and my own opinion, and as I'm diametrically opposed to all spoilers, I'll just say that I enjoyed it, I always enjoy them, even though I'd sometimes be hard-pressed to outline exactly why.  Jane Austen was an absolute genius; what else is there to be said?

February 15, 2012

Review of "Pytheas"

And now I attempt the monumental task of catching up on my review back-log.  Wish me luck, everybody!

by Barry Cunliffe

Have you ever read a book that was interesting and actually quite dull simultaneously?!  Neither had I, until I read this one, and don't ask me how it managed such a thing, because I'm still puzzling over it.  I only know it's the case.

The story of this non-fiction work in a nutshell: in the mists of time B.C., a Greek scholar named Pytheas set off to explore the seas beyond his own Mediterranean, which was quite a daring project at a time when the entire world seemed to lay on the inner side of the Straits of Gibraltar.  He kept a record of his adventures, and from the best guesses of modern academics, he made it as far as Britain and maybe even Iceland.  The only draw back is that his own written account is no longer extant; we only know anything about Pytheas through quotes from other, later Greco-Roman authors.

This snag is where we hit the first rocky shoals of boredom.  If the original book were intact and available to us, scholars like Barry Cunliffe could do what scholars often do with texts like that--insult our intelligence a bit by assuming that we'll never read the original or wouldn't understand it if we did, but in the process create a shorter, more entertaining recap of the original that WOULD, after all, save us the bother of having to read it.  Since that's not possible here, however, what Cunliffe must do instead is craft a long-winded introduction to the world from which Pytheas came, the identities of the men who quoted him, and finally, what guesses we can make about where exactly he traveled and when, based on the clues contained in these second- and sometimes third-hand accounts.

The book manages to be interesting AND boring in that many of the individual facts are truly fascinating--for example, did you know that the "French" city of Marseilles was founded as an ancient Greek colony on the shores of what was then a very fractured landscape full of Frankish and other tribes?!  I certainly didn't--yet those interesting facts never coalesce into a solid, interesting BOOK.  It's a shame, really.  I wanted to enjoy this more than I did.  If you're really interested in some of the elements of the tale, like ancient Greek trade, the earliest existing accounts of ancient Britain, or tales of intrepid explorers from every era, then it's worth it to go ahead and wade through this one.  If not, I really suggest you stick to lighter fare.

Boy, Have I Been Yarning Along!

Well, gang, having nearly finished my diabetic education classes and nearly recovered from the plague, I am finally back, and I have certainly missed you all!  While I was bed-ridden (well, recliner-ridden) with bronchitis, and blessed that my Good Man husband was home to take care of the SuperToddler, I have been crocheting like some kind of machine and tearing through books at an alarming rate.  I didn't have the energy to do anything else, but especially once the cabin fever set in, I had to do something to occupy my time!  I tried a bit of knitting, as well, but let me just say from experience, when you're really sick is not the best time to try and practice a new skill.  I quickly went back to what I know best.

As you can see, the result was certainly substantial!  I now have three finished baby blankets for the local charity, and am about 1/3 of the way through a fourth.  Now that I've done a few of them, I understand even better why my mother always enjoyed making these so much, and her insistence that they work up really quickly.  My first one was rather a long slog, but I've gotten much faster at it by now.  Next big project--crocheting a new set of cotton dishcloths for my wonderful mother-in-law's birthday (good thing she's not a big fan of surfing the internet, so she doesn't really read my blog).  It's good to be back from the undead!

February 12, 2012

Too Sick to Blog?!

That's when you officially know you're too sick, my friends.  Yes, I am still alive, and no, I haven't abandoned you, my beloved little blog and my loyal band of readers.  One of you actually sent the posse out after me this week to be sure I wasn't dead, after my 6th day of non-posting! It's nice to know you guys care; it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

And believe me, I needed a little warm fuzzy or two to cheer me up, because I've been fighting bronchitis for a week!  Asthmatic bronchitis, to be exact; in case you're wondering what the hell the difference is, the asthmatic kind actually doesn't mean you have asthma.  It means you've been exposed to too many things like this, and your lungs can't keep up any more.

Photo by Guerin Nicolas

Photo by Dave Sceflo

At least, that's what it means in my case.  It's not the first time this has happened to me over the years--my allergies are of the particularly vicious variety--and whenever it does, then my lungs get to spend a little quality time with one of THESE little devils, a "fast-acting" or "rescue inhaler".  If you've never encountered one, you're a lucky little thing.  If, unlike me, you have to use one on a regular basis for the rest of your life because you have REAL asthma, then you have all my sympathies.

Photo by James Heilman, M.D.

Fear not.  With a cocktail of drugs that leaves my body completely baffled and kind of hyperactive, I am recovering, and more importantly, I have not been idle in my time away.  I have been devouring books like a bibliofiend (did I just invent a new word?), because after all, what else is there to do when you're that sick?  And my little family discovered that every cloud really does have a silver lining--at least, Brigid the SuperToddler and I did.  With Good Man Michael currently laid off, he was able to take care of us.  What HE discovered out of the experience is that being a full-time mom is a damn lot of hard work.  Welcome to my life!

Anyway, if you've been checking in on this blog at all to see if I had yet surfaced from the Black Hole of Calcutta, and if you've taken a glance at my challenges sidebar on the left, you've probably noticed that I've been one busy little invalid.  In the days ahead, you will be bombarded with reviews, as I'm very behind on them by now.  What am I up to now?  Five?  Six books waiting to be reviewed?  I've honestly lost count, but we'll plow through them together this week, in between the joy of returning to my favorite memes, I promise.  And just think?  Another new episode of Downton Abbey tonight!  Could this week look any more exciting?!

February 01, 2012

Hunger in Appalachia

Welcome to Chapter 3 in the Hunger Games Read Along!

Before we dive into the chapter itself, a little backstory on me as the reader: This is the first time I've read this book, and the first time in a while that I'm jumping back into the world of YA literature.  Honestly, I sort of withdrew reflexively from the YA genre when Harry Potter came to an end, mourning for the passing of an extraordinary era.  Of course, The Hunger Games has reminded me that good writing and the fascinations of the human imagination march calmly on.  It's good to be back to the YA shelves.

I had not yet begun reading this book when I chose to post on chapter 3, so it is pure coincidence that the blogger who picked chapter 3 is from a long line of Appalachian dwellers.  Many of the influences molded together in this story are apparent early on--the literature of a post-nuclear-apocalypse America, the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome.  Indeed, Rome is a particularly strong motif, since one great city derives all the benefits of empire from the rest of the continent.  But it is not until chapter 3 that we learn WHERE District 12, home of our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is located within the former United States.  Katniss is a mountain dweller, from the coal mines of Appalachia.

In many ways, Katniss' home in the future bears striking similarities to Appalachia both past and present.  When Europeans first settled in that region, most of them were Scots-Irish immigrants fleeing forced evacuations, famine, politico-religious wars and bigotted attitudes.  They came from the "Emerald Isle" and the Scottish Highlands, and when they reached the American shores, they settled in places that looked like home.

Maggie Valley, North Carolina
Photo by Bms4880

Considering everything they had experienced and were fleeing from, it is hardly surprising that they tended to defend their newly claimed land at the point of a firearm if any stranger came to call.  They wanted to maintain their customs and traditions, they wanted to live free, and they wanted to remain largely isolated from the rest of the nation.  Unfortunately, they got what they wished for in ways that were economically crushing.  The discovery of coal in their mountains seemed the natural escape from poverty, as the rest of the nation was clamoring for the stuff and Appalachia certainly had it.  Too late did the locals discover that they and the land would suffer a similar, horrible fate.  No mining technique was too intrusive, too destructive, for the mining companies, even if it meant poisoning the water and lopping off entire mountain tops.  The miners themselves were placed into mining camps, where the only provisions were sold by the mining company in the famous "company store," at such a steep profit that locals were soon having to buy on credit.  In debt to their own employers, they were all but indentured servants.  Their lives were hungry, harsh, dangerous and often short.  If a cave-in didn't get them, a new phrase they had learned was always waiting--Black Lung, the fine layer of coal dust, poured into their chests during years of working the mines, on which they would eventually suffocate.

The final indignity began when the coal became too difficult, too cost ineffective, to reach.  As Katniss points out, further mining would have to wait for future technologies, because the veins near the surface were soon exhausted, and humans would now have to dig much deeper in order to reap Appalachia's resources.  When the mining companies retreated, they left Appalachian dwellers with far less arable land, contaminated water supplies, no jobs, and no source of income other than government aid.  Today, many still live in crushing poverty in Appalachia, after powering the American industrialization for decades.  There is little in the region except destitute people trying to find a reason to hope, particularly in Appalachian Kentucky, which my family left during the Depression in search of jobs and some stability.  Despite its dystopian and science fiction overtones, The Hunger Games depicts an Appalachia not much changed by the future.
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