Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Plum Truffle, finished at last!

I have WAY too many unfinished projects. Some I can only file away (like notes for stories I won't get around to writing for years yet), but others—the crafty stuff—I can certainly put to bed. So I've started a UFO ('unfinished object') smackdown. Remember this? I got midway through before I realized I wasn't going to have enough yarn, so I ordered another skein (to be delivered to NJ, though I was still in Galway at the time), and the project went into hibernation.

There was another problem: as I was knitting the body I had the nagging feeling that I had cast on too many stitches, and that if I proceeded as planned (even with plenty of back shaping) the body wouldn't be as form-fitting as I'd envisioned. So I thought maybe I could just make the button bands narrower, but eventually I got honest with myself—I wouldn't like how that would look. The button bands should be as wide as they are in Megan Rogers' original (or is that 'original knockoff'?) I very briefly contemplated frogging the whole body, but ouch! Rip out eleven inches of careful cabling? Not if I could possibly help it.

It seems letting a troublesome project hibernate for awhile can make all the difference, because I took it out after a few months of inactivity, 'tried it on,' and thought of a MacGyver-ish solution: bind off several stitches on each side on the very next row, and steek that too-wide bottom portion. I had never steeked before, and of course I see why it scares some knitters stiff, but I used my trusty sewing machine and it all came out right...just in time for the frigid gales of August!

Pattern: Truffle Cardigan Tutorial in three parts, from Dulle Griet
Yarn: Rowan Yorkshire Tweed Aran (discontinued) in plum, 8 balls
Needle: #7, and #6 for the button bands (binding off with a #9)
Buttons: eight of 'em (1 1/8"), salvaged from my grandparents' candy tin
Raveled here.

Apart from the slightly noticeable changes in dyelot (I tried to alternate balls, but apparently it didn't help much) and the dimples where the buttons are sewn to the button band (can it be helped? I'll re-sew them at some point), I'm so, so happy with this cardigan. I'm going to live in it this winter.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Moon-Spinners

I picked the perfect book for my weekend trip to Florida: The Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart, which I discovered by way of Forgotten Classics (click the link to hear Julie read the first two chapters). Nicola, a 22-year-old English girl working at the British embassy in Athens, is on her way to the tiny Cretan village of Agios Georgios for a holiday with her cousin Frances when she gets mixed up in the aftermath of an attempted murder. Nicola is smart and capable, like all Stewart's heroines so I hear, and you have to wonder at how poorly her new friends Mark and Lambis would have fared without her intervention.

I've never read a novel quite like this one—it's romantic suspense crossed with a vivid and beautifully written travelogue. The descriptive passages got me very nostalgic for my Greek adventure with Aravinda back in September 2006 (which I'll retro-blog next month...lots of gorgeous photos and funny stories to share!) This is not a romance novel though; the blossoming relationship between Nicola and Mark is all subtextual, which makes it all the more satisfying. But speaking of vivid descriptive passages, here's my favorite:
You might, in a simpler world, have said it was magic. There was the illuminated rock of the sea bed, every pebble clear, a living surface shifting with shadows as the ripples of the upper sea passed over it. Seaweeds, scarlet and green and cinnamon, moved and swayed in drowsy patterns so beautiful that they drugged the eye. A school of small fish, torpedo-shaped, and barred like zebras, hung motionless, then turned as one, and flashed out of sight. Another, rose-colored, and whiskered like a cat, came nosing out of a bed of grey coralline weed. There were shells everywhere.

I lay and gazed, with the sun on my back, and the hot boards rocking gently under me. I had forgotten what I had come out for; this was all there was in the world; the sea, the sun hot on my skin, the taste of salt, and the south wind...
Go buy the book off Amazon marketplace for a penny. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Tenth Man

Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory is #47 on my 100 Great Books list. I'm quite excited to read it now, because this week I came across a copy of The Tenth Man, a novella with an unusual history: Greene originally came up with the idea as a treatment for an MGM project before the war, and had the opportunity to novelize it many years later.

A rich lawyer, Chavel, is imprisoned by the Nazis along with twenty-nine other Frenchmen. They're told that one in ten of them must die the next morning, so they draw lots. The rich lawyer is chosen, but offers his home and fortune to any man who will take his place. A sullen young clerk (who's probably dying of TB anyway), Michel Mangeot (called Janvier), takes Chavel up on his hysterical offer so that his mother and sister can live comfortably. Janvier is executed along with the other two men, and when Chavel is eventually released, he returns to his childhood home because he has nowhere else to go. Janvier's twin sister Thérèse offers him a job, and naturally he takes it. (Thérèse tells Chavel, who is now calling himself Charlot, that she will spit in Chavel's face if he ever returns. She's expecting him any day, so how can she not realize he's the very man she's confiding in? Even when she remarks on his familiar handwriting! But that's my only quibble.)

The Tenth Man is the first Graham Greene I've read, and I love it—spare but incisive. I don't mind bleak stories so long as there's a point to the bleakness, and this story is beautifully so.
The darkness had long enclosed them both and now the last light slid off the ceiling of the cell. Men automatically turned to sleep. Pillows like children were shaken and slapped and embraced. Philosophers say that past, present, and future exist simultaneously, and certainly in this heavy darkness many pasts came to life: a lorry drove up the Boulevard Montparnasse, a girl held out her mouth to be kissed, and a town council elected a mayor; and in the minds of three men the future stood as inalterably as birth—fifty yards of cinder track and a brick wall chipped and pitted.
And look how he pegs Janvier's mother:
She was like an old weatherworn emblem of wisdom—something you find in desert places, like the Sphinx—and yet inside her was that enormous vacancy of ignorance which cast a doubt on all her wisdom.
This line impressed me as well, but for a different reason: When you reach a certain age you don't care about the future: it is success enough to be alive; every morning you wake with triumph. Greene may have come up with the original idea for The Tenth Man in the late '30s, but he was eighty years old by the time he was writing this novella.

I'll leave you with one more gem:
She said, "You can't tell me he was unlucky. It's as you say. That thing happens to everyone once. All one's life one has to think: Today it may happen." It was obvious that she had brooded and brooded on this subject, and now at last she brought out the result aloud for anyone's hearing. "When it happens you know what you've been all your life."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Great Book #27: The Little Prince

Back in high school one of my friends gave me a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince as a birthday present. I remember her giving it to me with a certain air of momentousness, as if the book had changed her life and she wanted that experience for me. I'm ashamed that it took me so long to read it, but now that I have, I see why she felt that way.

The narrator is a pilot who has crashed in the Sahara and needs to fix his engine before his water supply runs out. A mysterious 'little man' with a head of golden curls appears out of nowhere, and asks him to draw a sheep. The little prince answers none of the narrator's questions about who he is or where he came from, but he always seems to know what the narrator is thinking, and the narrator eventually finds out that the little prince lives on an asteroid with three volcanoes (one extinct, but you never know) and only one flower, of which the prince is very fond. His planet is so small you can watch the sunset dozens of times a day just by going for a walk.

In his interstellar travels the prince meets several adults, each on their own tiny planet, and each engaged in something completely pointless. I tend to think of myself as an overgrown child, but I’m certainly not immune to the grown-up absurdities the prince points out. But above all, The Little Prince is a fable about love, loneliness, and letting go. He meets a fox who begs to be tamed: "Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat..." Of course, the little prince must eventually part with the narrator, too—the scene is poignant but not overly sentimental.

What's all too poignant is the fate of the author, which you can't help ruminating on as you look at his watercolors. Saint-Exupéry was a World War II pilot who was shot down during a reconnaissance mission in 1944, the year after The Little Prince was published.

He cried out, then:
"What! You dropped down from the sky?"
"Yes," I answered, modestly.
"Oh! That is funny!"
And the little prince broke into a lovely peal of laughter, which irritated me very much. I like my misfortunes to be taken seriously.

When I was a little boy, the lights of the Christmas tree, the music of the Midnight Mass, the tenderness of smiling faces, used to make up, so, the radiance of the gifts I received.

"And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Great Book #42: Man's Search For Meaning

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl: I can't overstate how brilliant, how useful, how life-affirming it is. In a sentence, this slim book is about "saying yes to life in spite of everything"—the author was an innovative psychiatrist and neurologist from Vienna who survived Auschwitz and three other Nazi death camps. The first section describes his experiences in the concentration camps, and the second outlines Dr. Frankl's form of psychotherapy, logotherapy (from the Greek logos, "meaning"), in very practical terms.

Dr. Frankl's psychiatric training made him uniquely equipped to observe his own behavior and those of his comrades in the death camps with a sort of 'cold curiosity.' He served as camp doctor, and had a chance to escape at one point, but decided not to abandon his typhus patients. He does not hold himself up as some example of 'the right way to suffer', however: "We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles—whatever one may choose to call them—we know: the best of us did not return."

Actual survival was, in a sense, irrelevant. To keep ever-present in his mind the faces of his loved ones (his wife in particular) and a vision of his future life, to retain his dignity and human impulses without denying the horrific reality of the concentration camp, marveling at a beautiful sunset even as his friends went 'up the chimneys'—he did all this, but without the intervention of blind chance at crucial moments he might not have survived. Dr. Frankl writes of emaciated prisoners exchanging recipes over hard physical labor, planning a post-war dinner party they knew full well would probably never happen. But that's beside the point. It's not about when you die, but how you've lived.

There are so many moving and insightful passages I want to share with you here, but I'd end up transcribing most of the book! So here are just a few of the parts I underlined:

"'Listen, Otto, if I don't get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, then tell her that I talked of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have gone through here.' Otto, where are you now? Are you alive? What has happened to you since our last hour together? Did you find your wife again? And do you remember how I made you learn my will by heart—word for word—in spite of your childlike tears?"

"...Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become."

"To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions."

"A statistical survey recently revealed that among my European students, 25 percent showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum. Among my American students it was not 25 but 60 percent." [And this was written in the 1950s!]

"...We watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions."

"...You may of course ask whether we really need to refer to 'saints.' Wouldn't it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best."

This is one of the very best books I have ever read. Enough said, right?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Galápagos Retrospective

I'm not going to be doing much traveling for awhile, but it seems you guys enjoy the pictures, so I thought I'd share some photos of my Galápagos adventure with Kelly (two years ago this month). It might sound trite, but observing evolution at work, and at such close range, is a profound experience. We had the good fortune to be adopted by a lovely South African family living in London (Nikki, Andrew, and 14-year-old Jamie), and hanging out with them made our trip all the more enjoyable. Even the frustrations (the cockroaches on the boat, the hilariously bad food and creepy cook, the irresponsible behavior of our fellow tourists) fell into the category of 'never a dull moment.' If you ever get a chance to go, DO!

(Above: a frigatebird strutting his stuff. The bird life is wonderful—clever little sparrows hopped right up to me whenever I opened my water bottle, and we even spotted a few penguins!)

But read Mike D'Orso's Plundering Paradise first. I had the privilege of working on this book while I was at Harper, and I reread it during our trip—it's an engrossing, very personable travelogue touching on the myriad environmental and economic problems wrought by tourism, immoral/illegal fishing practices, and government corruption, all through the eyes of island natives, scientists, and other long-term residents.

Anyway, without further ado, here's my little slide show, with a few journal excerpts thrown in.

Galápagos tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Isla Santa Cruz.

Unlike humans, marine iguanas don't seem to mind the lack of personal space.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007: "Just got back from our second morning of snorkeling—swam behind a sea turtle for maybe half a minute, saw a few sea urchins and a big indigo-colored fish, then a huge sea lion towards the end. We heard stories of sea lions mistaking people in wet suits for their own species, and even attacking. Yesterday morning I saw a small ray and a wider variety of fish—several schools (makes you feel so serene, watching them swimming in unison); a few pale medium-sized fish streaked with pastel pink, blue, and green; and a larger blue fish lying still beneath a rock."

Kelly chillin' with a sea lion.

Thursday, 23 August 2007: "Been having a tremendously good time—never again will I be able to speak the words "he peed in Barbara Bush's coochie" to a family of Jehovah's Witnesses..."

The boat circled Kicker Rock early in the morning—well worth getting up at 6 for, don't you think?

Thursday, 23 August 2007 (later): "Watched a sea lion in labor (for nearly an hour!) Came back from our walk and found mom and pup in the same spot on the beach near the pier. Blood on the sand. Saw waved albatrosses doing their mating dance, clacking beaks like a furious game of hockey. Stunning cliff views...

Aforementioned beak-hockey mating dance.

The infamous blue-footed booby.

"Horribly rough passage from Santa Cruz to Santa Fe this afternoon—newcomers were all seasick, and we all felt pretty queasy too. But I laid down and listened to Elbow. Proud of myself for not puking. Delicious hot chocolate served after snorkeling."

Sally Lightfoot crabs are cannibals! We saw the whole, um, feast.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007 (back on the mainland): "Last delicious thing we had on that boat, let me tell you..."

Kelly on Isla Bartolome, during the most scenic walk of the trip. Notice rocket-shaped Pinnacle Rock at top right—there's another view of it in that picture of us at the top of the entry.