Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Get Psyched for Halloween (#2)

Here are six things guaranteed to spook you:

1. Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe
Recounts a sighting of the ghost of you-know-who.

2. Havoc, In Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett
No ghosts, per se, but this is one of the most haunting books I've ever read. Finished it more than two years ago and I still get the willies whenever I think about it.

3. Real Vampires with Brad Steiger
Episode #106 of the Paranormal Podcast with Jim Harold. Apparently 'real-life' blood-suckers are far more terrifying than their Hollywood counterparts.

4. Let the Right One In, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist.
An exquisitely disturbing vampire film I watched at Seanan's house the last time I was in Tipperary. I have yet to read the book, but I hear it's amazing.

5. A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter by Sheridan Le Fanu. I know I've posted this one before, but gosh, is it good. (Or listen to it at Librivox.)

6. A Voice in the Attic, another gem from Castle of Spirits. I've posted this one before too, because it is seriously frightening.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Get Psyched for Halloween (#1)

One of my favorite travelogues is H.V. Morton's In Search of Ireland, published in 1930. Here's a short excerpt on the spooky St. Michan's Church in Dublin, where you can descend into the vaults and see for yourself:
Coffins lie stacked one on top of another almost to the roof…the weight of the dead pressing on the dead has caused the coffins to collapse into one another, exposing here a hand, there an arm, a leg, or a head. The idea of dead men pushing their ancestors from their coffins is worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. But what does startle and horrify is that these men and women, many of whom have been dead for 500 years and more, have not gone back to the dust…

‘Yes, they do tell a ghost story about it. It’s about a thief who went down one dark night to take a ring from a lady’s finger, and, as he was working away, the lady sat up in her coffin and stepped out over the side and walked away. Yes, she did! And they say she lived for years after. But that’s all blarney, sir...'

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Make Do and Mend: Tarot Breakfast Tray

When I lived in Boerum Hill I had really cool roommates who were both crafty and thrifty—Rachel made a colorful quilt out of old t-shirts, and Rel found some great furniture and other random stuff on the street (curbside shopping, can't beat it for the price!) She came upon a lone tarot card (I think it was Death), and she cut a small rectangle in the center and used it as a switchplate cover. Rel also found an adorable (if rather banged-up) breakfast tray someone was tossing, but she ended up passing it along to me when she moved out. That was back in 2003, and the breakfast-tray-with-potential had been sitting in my basement waiting for its makeover ever since.

Before: cute but scratched and faded vinyl tray covering and white paint job that was probably never sealed—it was flaking and splintering.

The plan: pull off the vinyl, strip the paint (using an eco-friendly...eco-friendlier?...paint stripper), sand the bare wood, stain it, put on a new lining using the decoupage technique (with Mod Podge Hardcoat), and seal it all up.


The eco-friendlier paint stripper worked pretty well, and I applied two coats of a dark stain. I knew the decoupage would be tricky, so I did the bottom of the tray first since most of the time it won't be visible. (Naturally, the reverse side turned out great, but there were a couple of tiny tears on the side everyone sees! Fortunately the pattern on the paper is busy enough that you'd never notice unless I pointed it out.)

I measured the paper, adding a fraction of an inch on all sides (to be removed with an exacto knife later), and applied the Mod Podge with a foam brush directly to the paper before positioning it on the wood. Then I smoothed out the air bubbles with an old credit card. Some decoupage tutorials suggest using wrapping paper, but I think that's a bad idea—I used relatively thick, high-quality paper, and still had a couple small problems with the paper tearing (too much glue and too much friction from the credit card). After the paper was in place, I waited for the glue to dry before trimming the edges. Repeated the process on the top surface, then painted on three thin coats of Mod Podge over the whole tray (over a period of a few days).

I panicked a little when the first topcoat went on though—an air bubble appeared out of nowhere, and it was impossible to smooth it out (as I'd been able to when I initially glued the paper on). I got frustrated—'why does every DIY project I attempt come out like CRAP?! ARGH!!!'—and then decided to watch Pride & Prejudice with my mom and try to forget about it. The topcoat had dried by the time I came up to bed, and lo and behold, the paper had tried perfectly flat and smooth! HOORAY!!!

To my dismay, the Mod Podge Hardcoat instructions say you've got to wait a whole month between the last coat and actually using the finished piece. It's perfectly dry now though, so I'm going ahead and taking pictures, and I'll eventually pick up a can of polyurethane. The Mod Podge people say you don't need an additional sealant, but I don't believe them.

Here's a close-up of the oh-so-appropriate new paper lining, purchased at a stationery shop in Florence in 2002 (and up to now, gathering dust in a roll under my bed). I'm such a sucker for pretty Italian papers.

This wasn't a cheap DIY project (the materials were about $25, and the paper couldn't have been more than a euro or two), but I can rationalize the expense somewhat because I'm planning to use the paint stripper (the priciest purchase) on another project. And it's quirky yet practical—just my style. Yay!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Great Book #85: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Julie at Forgotten Classics has recently finished her reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that seminal novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Legend has it that upon meeting Mrs. Stowe, President Lincoln exclaimed, "So this is the little lady who made this big war!"

Stowe's characters—the Christ figures of Uncle Tom and little Eva; runaways Eliza and George, Cassie and Emmeline; and everyone Tom encounters as he suffers through a succession of owners—illustrate in all-too- human terms what Condi Rice has called our country's congenital defect (and no doubt that's the only thing Dr. Rice has ever said that I can agree with!) The novel doesn't merely demonize the slaveholders (that would be too easy, and anyway not all of them are depicted as such; some are weak men with good intentions). Stowe emphasizes that just because Northerners didn't own slaves didn't mean their consciences were unstained by the evil.

Anyway, if you enjoy audiobooks, you should definitely listen to Julie's podcast in lieu of reading Uncle Tom in book form, since she provides so much insightful commentary in addition. I just love the reader's note, with which she begins each set of chapters:
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to expose the inhumanity of treating human beings as things. Former slaves agreed that her examples were true to life. Thus, some of the language and attitudes in this book are offensive because they reflect an ugly history. It is said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The reader does not wish to be responsible for dooming anyone by censoring either history or literature. Therefore the book will be read as it is written, offensive language and all.
Julie's reading sometimes brought me to tears, but I don't feel the urge to write a long post on this book. It's an important work— melodrama and all—and everyone (American or not) should read it at some point.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Emily capelet!

Sorry, but I have to gush a little: I fell in love with this capelet as soon as I saw Ysolda tweeting about it. It's so elegant and neo-Victorian, and the attention to detail is really fantastic—the short-row shaping, the intricate cable and scalloped lace, the built-in i-cord edging around the neck. Knitted it to go with this awesome green dress, which I'm wearing to two weddings this year. I was hoping for better pictures, but the weather's been terrible lately, so I just snapped these before I headed off to Jenny and Greg's wedding tonight.

Pattern: Emily Capelet by Ysolda
Yarn: Lana Grossa Chiara, ~ 2.25 balls in color #21, purchased from Woolbearers.
Needles: #9s
Raveled: here.

The pattern calls for 'heavy fingering to light worsted' and Chiara is a DK weight (perfect, you would think), but my gauge was too fine, so I cast on 68 stitches (instead of 52) to get the same length (13"). The yarn is marvelously soft and fuzzy (it sheds a lot, but that's okay), but I still can't figure out what color it is. It was a pale green (so I thought) when I bought it, but as soon as I got it out of the shop and took a ball out of the bag to fondle it again in natural light, it seemed gold, not green at all. Fortunately there's some bronze-ish beading on the bodice of this dress, so it's complementary no matter which color it is.

And I happened to have three adorable little buttons left over from Mamacita's 2008 Christmas present, so it's even a bit of a make-do-and-mend.

I was chatting to Jenny's friend Brenda at the wedding, and she said I looked like a character out of a Brontë novel. I love it!

Friday, October 16, 2009


Last weekend I went apple-picking with Angela, Matt, Kelly and Jeff at the Warwick Valley Winery.

We got cider (I had raspberry, yum!) and took our cups into the orchard for some one-handed picking. (Kelly also picked up a bottle of pear liqueur, which unfortunately tasted like turpentine, or maybe rubbing alcohol. However we described it at the time was very hilarious to me, but unfortunately I can't remember what it was. A couple pints of cider makes one very merry, but rather forgetful.)

We spent the night at Matt's family cabin in Highland Lakes in Sussex County, which is an absolutely gorgeous part of New Jersey— especially with all the fall foliage—and Kelly was finally forced to stop calling it "Dirty Jerz." Bwahahaha!

We got to the cabin late in the afternoon, and went for a walk by the lake.

There was a wedding going on in the clubhouse, and we considered crashing it, but contented ourselves with frolicking on the tiny beach:

(What a ham.)

(The view from the road.)

Things I neglected to take pictures of: inside the oh-so-cozy cabin, with an old wood-burning stove; apple pie and apple turnovers; rock-climbing in Montclair on Sunday afternoon (or attempted rock-climbing, in my case. I wimped out of climbing and only rappelled down, while Kelly kicked butt both up and down, and Matt and Angela of course made it look easy-peasy.)

One more awesome thing: Matt's grandmother's collection of owl figurines.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Love only what you do, and make.

When I applied to Yaddo a few months ago, I wasn't thinking too much about my chances. It was something proactive at a time when I needed to be thinking about the future, so I felt good just dropping the application in the mail. As the day of judgment approached, though, I half-convinced myself I couldn't get in, despite the warm encouragement of Jonathan Santlofer (former Yaddo board member, artist, author, and all-around awesome guy).

But I did get in! I got the letter on Friday. This is a tremendous honor and opportunity, and I intend to suck the marrow out of the whole experience. So many 20th-century American heavyweights have stayed at Yaddo—Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and on and on—it's very humbling, to think of them.

Of that list of luminaries, Sylvia Plath's is the name that resonates most with me, though I feel a little guilty admitting it. Not that she wasn't a brilliant poet, but her work is the stuff you live on when you're nineteen and hopelessly misunderstood (or such is your belief at the time). I picked up a copy of The Unabridged Journals when I was in college, and naturally I had to go back and read the entries she wrote at Yaddo in the fall of 1959. She sketches ornate old furniture and wall sconces, describing photographs and engravings in minute detail, and frequently doubts the quality and importance of her work:
I feel a helplessness when I think of my writing being nothing, coming to nothing: for I have no other job - - - not teaching, not publishing. And a guilt grows in me to have all my time my own. I want to store money like a squirrel stores nuts. Yet what would money do. We have elegant dinners here: sweetbreads, sausages, bacon and mushrooms; ham and mealy orange sweet potatoes; chicken and garden beans. I walked in the vegetable garden, beans hanging on the bushes, squash, yellow and orange, fattening in the dapple of leaves, corn, grapes purpling on the vine, parsley, rhubarb. And wondered where the solid, confident purposeful days of my youth vanished. How shall I come into the right, rich full-fruited world of middle-age. Unless I work. And get rid of the accusing, never-satisfied gods who surround me like a crown of thorns. Forget myself, myself. Become a vehicle of the world, a tongue, a voice. Abandon my ego.

Try a first-person story and forget John Updike and Nadine Gordimer. Forget the results, the markets. Love only what you do, and make. Learn German. Don't let indolence, the forerunner of death, take over. Enough has happened, enough people entered your life, to make stories, many stories, even a book. So let them onto the page and let them work out their destinies.
A 27-year-old acclaimed poet, bemoaning her wasted youth! (Also, of course, ridiculously ironic given the manner in which she died.) But I love what she's getting at in the second paragraph: it isn't about you, it's about the story. You have nothing to prove, and everything to tell.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Susie Modern

I finished this beret at the end of August, but since it was my mother's birthday gift I had to hold off blogging it. This is one of the most popular hat patterns on Ravelry, and you can see why—it's so lovely! (I will confess, though, that I still haven't learned to knit two-handed. I make an attempt, it's inevitably awkward, and I get impatient and keep going with my incredibly inefficient one-handed method. I'm afraid that's why the colorwork isn't quite as crisp as it could be. Oh well, next time...)

Pattern: Selbu Modern by Kate Gagnon Osborn
Yarn: Rowan Scottish Tweed 4-ply, thistle (1.2 balls or thereabouts), and Jamieson's Shetland Spindrift, hyacinth (less than 1 ball). I had a ball and a half of the Scottish Tweed left over from the dotty tweed pullover I made last year, so that worked out perfectly.
Needles: #1.5s for the ribbing and #3s for the rest.
Raveled here.

Just look at how cute she is!!!!!

Happy (week after your) Birthday, Mamacita!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Newes from the Dead

Mary Hooper's excellent YA novel Newes from the Dead is based on the true story of Anne Green, a 22-year-old servant seduced by her employer's grandson and unjustly hanged for infanticide in December 1650. Anne lies in her coffin—paralyzed, not dead—and thinks over the choices that led to her tragic fate (supposing herself in purgatory), as a team of Oxford physicians prepare for her dissection. The two narratives converge quite elegantly, as Anne is restored to life and hailed as a miracle of divine justice.

The historical detail is vivid and often horrifying, but I kept thinking as I was reading that Anne speaks more like a Victorian lady than a 17th-century illiterate drudge. In all fairness though, if Mary Hooper had written a more 'authentic' narrative, most readers would have found it pretty much impossible to get through. Anne's naiveté and weakness of character are the very things that lead to her near-demise—she forsakes her sweetheart, John Taylor, because she believes Geoffrey Reade (an out-and-out scoundrel) when he promises to make her lady of the house someday. She suffers appallingly for her foolishness and inability to protect herself and her unborn child; but then comes her redemption, and the reader is left with the definite sense that Anne will live her life quite differently from now on.

Here's my favorite passage, in which Anne recounts her last moments on the scaffold:

...my eyes alighted on John Taylor, and for a brief moment my heart again leaped with joy, for his face was neither accusing nor vengeful but was filled with compassion. This gave me some small peace, for it told me that he'd forgiven me and that, at some passing time, he had even loved me. I smiled at him, though my head was swimming and I felt as if I was in a strange daydream, for 'twas the most curious thing to think that in a short moment I would cease to exist.

Beside the gibbet stood the hangman, wearing heavy clothes and a blanket against the weather, also a leather facemask so that he would not be recognized after. He was big and burly, looking very like the bogeyman that your ma tells you will come after you if you sin. And so he had.

Those last two lines give me willies! It never occurred to me that a hangman wore a mask so he wouldn't be harassed in the street afterward; I always assumed it was because hangmen were sadists and so wanted to look as demonic as possible.