Archive for September, 2011

Ah, figure skating.  My favorite sport ever.  When I was a teenager, I was pretty much glued to the television set during Nationals, Worlds, and especially the Olympics.  My favorite skater was Michelle Kwan and I wanted desperately for her to win the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games.  Well, we all know how that turned out.  Michelle skated the program of her life, but so did Tara Lipinski, a 15-year-old sprite who tore into the Olympics and made them her own.  Michelle was left to go home and pick up the pieces of what might have been.

In Edge of Glory: The Inside Story of the Quest for Figure Skating’s Gold Medals, sportswriter Christine Brennan takes the reader through the 1997 – 1998 figure skating season for several of the sport’s top athletes — Elvis Stojko, Todd Eldredge, Alexai Urmanov, Michael Weiss, and of course, Tara and Michelle.  Starting at their home rinks, going through the selection of music and choreography, to the introspection (does a top male figure skater “need” the quadruple toe loop, or can he win the gold without it?), she goes through the year to Nationals and finally, to the Olympic Games, building up and following the champions to the biggest nights of their lives.

It’s the sort of book that someone with a passing interest in figure skating wouldn’t be interested in.  This book is more for the former skater or current skating aficionado, one who can tell a difference between the jumps and understand that a penchant for doing the most difficult technical stunts does not always a gold medal earn.  In some parts, it gets very technical — the nitty gritty about jumps and why they are placed where they are in the program, etc.  But it is a very interesting and fast-paced book; I read this in a day.

My criticism comes in the writing.  Since it is written by a sportswriter, I expect the book to read like a series of newspaper articles.  And in parts, it does.  Where the skater or the skater’s family granted Brennan an interview, it reads like a syrupy-sweet and introspective analysis, such as with Michelle Kwan, Alexai Urmanov, Michael Weiss (whom Brennan clearly has a thing for) and Todd Eldredge.  But when speaking about the skaters who declined an interview, Brennan unloads both barrels, and the writing takes a dive in quality, to be on par with trashy supermarket tabloids.  Unfortunate.

Those who are fans of Tara Lipinski will abhore this book.  “Team Tara” (Brennan’s name for the tight-knit group of Tara’s parents, coaches, and agent) was notorious for being picky about who talked to their little star.  Brennan was never granted an interview with the Lipinskis, but she more than makes up for it with hearsay obtained from Tara’s former coaches, snarky “skating moms” at the rink where she used to skate, and interview fodder of Lipinski’s mother shooting her mouth off again and again.  Those readers who would love a chance to snark on Lipinski as a “flash in the pan” would love this, but after nearly 14 years, I found it tedious.  In figure skating, as in all sports, there can only be one winner, and everyone else must learn to content themselves with lesser places.  Brennan’s clear biases towards certain skaters taint the book somewhat, and that is really unfortunate.

Rating: ***


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September is going to go down in infamy this year as being the month where I read the least amount of books, but perhaps the most amount of pages.  All due to the ambitious project this book has been.  I started reading it on September 2nd, and it took me twenty days to finish, longer than any other book this year.  But clocking in at a mere 1152 pages, this was not an easy undertaking.  Book 75 for the year is James Clavell’s Shogun.
In the year 1600, an English pilot, John Blackthorne, accidentally steers his Dutch ship into a storm, and the crew is wrecked upon the cost of Japan.  They are taken prisoner in a strange land, where the speech is alien, men lose their heads for simply disrespecting their betters, and there is no greater sin than that of shame.  Through a streak of luck, Blackthorne finds himself at the hands of the warlord Toronaga, whose interest  in the English “barbarian” drives him to instruct Blackthorne to learn Japanese through the tutelage of the beautiful Lady Mariko.  But Japan is divided by two warlords, Toronaga and Ishido, during the minority of the future Emperor of Japan, and only one of them can win the top prize and become Shogun, supreme military dictator of Japan.  Blackthorne finds himself and his ship are pawns on the formidable chess game between two feudal lords, where only one can win. 
I was first introduced to Shogun when I was a young teenager, through the miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne and Toshiro Mifune as Toronaga.  It is a haunting, sad story about a man completely marooned in a foreign land, unable to speak the language or understand the culture, yet finding himself of vital importance to the political situation at hand.  Blackthorne is a pitiable character in the beginning of the novel — he suffers as he is humiliated before the Japanese samurai, and he is terrified to discover that Japan is overrun by Spanish Catholic priests (Blackthorne, being a Protestant, is a natural enemy of the Spanish Catholics, the story taking place during the time of the Spanish Inquisition).  In his tenuous position, Blackthorne clings to the only person he feels he can trust — the beautiful Mariko Toda, the Christian wife of a Japanese samurai, who acts as his translator.
The love story between Mariko and Blackthorne is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.  It is difficult to read because you, the reader, know that tales of forbidden love almost never turn out well.  The only part of the love story I found corny was when they chose to speak in Latin to each other.  Mariko and Blackthorne both speak both Portuguese and Latin, and during times when they do not want anyone to understand them, they choose Latin, which turns into a bunch of “thee”, “thou”, “I love thee”.  Gag.  It’s the only time in the book that the relationship seems forced.
The book deviates from the miniseries in one important area.  In the miniseries, we see and hear everything only from Blackthorne’s point of view.  We understand what is translated to him.  We never know the motives or the minds of the other individuals.  In the novel, Clavell frequently writes from the points of view of all characters, major and minor, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese.  My favorite character in the book has to be the warlord Toronaga.  He is the antithesis of a xenophobe, unlike most of his countrymen, and he is a very practiced dissembler.  One does not really know the extent of his plans until the very end of the novel, and it is only in the moments when he finally lets his guard down and explains what he is thinking that the reader understands exactly how much of the game he has been playing all along.
This is a stunning book, a real tour de force, as it has been described.  But I won’t be reading it again any time soon.  It is simply too long for light reading.
Rating: ****

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When David and I moved into our current apartment (a 3-bedroom), we didn’t really have current plans for that spare space.  We thought maybe it would be a baby room eventually, but without plans to start TTC right now, the room kind of fell by the wayside and became a junk room.  After cleaning the whole apartment top-to-bottom (with the exception of the den/David’s “game room”), I decided I’d had enough of our having a junk room, and decided to repossess it as a craft room/den for me!
The results?
It’s a START.  The walls are so white and desperately need some pictures or artwork or something on them.  And as David said when he came home yesterday, the floor could really use a rug or something to brighten it up.  But the room is definitely coming together, and at last I have a quiet little space for curling up and watching Law and Order: SVU or The Tudors while I knit.
The ottoman is actually a little $5 wire rack I bought for containing bathroom essentials while I was in college, which doesn’t fit in our bathroom now.  I plopped a throw pillow on it and now it makes a great footstool!
This chair is one of the two white armchairs that my parents gave us when they upgraded their living room.  In a desperate attempt to keep black cat hair off it and cover up any unsightly rips, I threw two blankets on it.  The one on the back is the embroidered Irish throw that David’s grandmother’s “gentleman friend” (she refuses to call him her BF) gave us for our wedding.  The aqua and white quilt was a gift from my aunt Cathi for my wedding shower.  To the left is an old bench I found on the curb one day, which is covered up by the Red Sox blanket to again cover up any unsightly rips (my cats won’t use a scratching post, but they LOOOOVE furniture).
My little bookshelf!  The top shelf has all of my knitting books, my pattern binder, and a binder of my articles from my undergraduate Journalism degree.  *confetti*.  The bottom shelf holds a box of needles that my grandmother gave me, and that creepy looking thing is a ball winder.  Next to that is my work basket, which holds my WIPs (Works In Progress).
I used my father’s old antique desk as an entertainment center, that has a TV and a DVD player on it (no cable, but I barely watch anything on TV anyway, so NBD).  I put a couple of framed photographs on it.  Also not pictured is my big Rubbermaid container full of my yarn stash (which I DESPERATELY need to weed through — that will happen soon).
So that’s my new room!  I’m pretty happy with it.

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Learning to sew!

It’s Friday!  That wonderful day when work is furthest away, and the weekend stretches in front of you like it’s never going to end (but of course it will).  I have big plans for this weekend, and they involve…learning to sew.
I’ve sewn a few things before…an apron when I was 9, a dress for my little sister Christina when I was 10, a baby quilt for a doll when I was 11.  But I’ve never actually learned how to sew.  This is about 80% my fault (for being impatient and not wanting to learn), and 20% the fault of my mother, an excellent sewer and quilter herself, who is also impatient and who generally finishes a sewing lesson with me by saying “Here, it’s faster if I just do it for you.”
But this time, I’m determined to learn (I really want to be able to sew my own dresses, instead of relying on the stores to produce adequate ones in my size for me), and I’m going to my parents’ house today to make use of my mother’s sewing machine and her wealth of knowledge.
(She has promised, this time, not to simply take over and sew it for me.  But we shall see how well she sticks to her promise :))

And what am I sewing?  McCall’s Pattern #5094, shown at right.  The one I’m planning on making is going to be only slightly modified: I’m not planning on adding the contrasting ribbon., although who knows; I may change my mind.  With any luck, I’ll have this dress made by September 29th, before David and I leave for his cousin’s wedding in Massachusetts.  I told my mom I have no problem with coming over quite frequently in the next week or so, to work on it.  I just want it to be done in time. 
I picked out a really beautiful dusty pink fabric at the store, which I almost passed over, until I realized that it was patterned with Tudor roses.  Lovers of English history or historical fiction (or Philippa Gregory) will know immediately what I am talking about, but for those of you playing the home game, a Tudor rose was an emblem created by Henry Tudor  (Henry VII) after he won the Wars of the Roses between the English ruling houses of Lancaster (the red rose) and York (the white rose).  Taking both emblems as his, Henry VII created the “Tudor rose” — a symbol of both families as rulers of England — by putting the white rose inside the red. (See left)
Of course, because my fabric is a dusty pink color, the roses are done in pink and white, but I noticed just the same, and decided that, my love for English history being what it is, this was the fabric I had to choose.  
Real pictures of the progress forthcoming.  Hopefully I won’t mess up too much and I will have a real dress to post pictures of within the next two weeks!
Happy Friday, and I hope you have a great weekend!  Enjoy the fall weather.  I know I will.

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I haven’t participated in a Yarn Along in several months.  And this is why:
Yeah.  Same damn socks.  Although this is a change, since for the past month or so I’ve been churning out baby hats.  But I’m done with the baby hats (for now) so we’re back to the socks.  Which will be finished.  Eventually.
They are still made from STR Socks that Rock Lightweight in “Cattywhompus”.  
For my book, I am reading Shogun by James Clavell — actually a re-read (I read it for the first time when I was 20 or so).  This book is fantastic.  If you like historical fiction and Japanese culture, this is the book for you.  It’s long — 1200+ pages — and some parts of it can be a little dry, but really, it’s fantastic.  The miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain is all kinds of wonderful as well.  I admit that even though he’s gay, I still have a little crush on Richard Chamberlain.
From yourtrailer.net
 In other news, I turned 28 on Monday, and it was more or less a good day.  Granted, I had work in the morning (boo) but other than that, it was very laid-back and relaxed.  I’m not really a “birthday-party” sort of person, and spending the day with my husband, picking apples at the local orchard and eating fantastic Thai food was pretty much exactly how I wanted to spend my first day being 28.
If you live in CT and you like inexpensive, delicious Thai food, this is a great place to go for it:
From Patch.com
I’m trying to figure out the best way to spend the multiple gift cards I received from my parents and Christina for my birthday.  I need to buy a bathing suit before we go on the cruise in January, so I’m thinking that’s where some of the money is going to go.  Three months, three weeks, and a few days to go!  I can’t wait.

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As I’ve said before…this was truly the year of knitting baby hats.  But I can safely say that I am DONE, finally done…at least until another friend has a baby.
Behold…the last baby hat.
…For now.
Yarn: Knitpicks Shine Worsted (60% pima cotton, 40% Modal natural beech fiber) in Serrano, White, and French Blue (less than one ball of each).
Needles: Susan Bates US 4 dpns, set of 4.
Pattern: My own, traditional striped baby hat, 72 stitches on US 4’s. 
Size: (Hopefully) 6 mos. – 1 yr.
This hat is very late, considering that the bundle of joy (a boy, born to David’s cousin and his wife) was born back in early June.  But a baby boy doesn’t need a hat in the hot New York summer, so I sized it a little big in the hopes that it would work in the very cold winters that we on the Eastern seaboard are known for.  And since his parents are Red Sox fans, I did the hat in Red Sox (and patriotic!) colors.
I try to attach the hang tag on all my knit objects, particularly ones that are being mailed, so the recipients know how to care for them.  It’s an idea that I got from Grumperina‘s knit blog, and I hope she doesn’t mind me copying her.
(Last names censored to protect the innocent…and the not-so-innocent.)
This hat is on its way to New York today.  And I’m going to be very content to work on some socks from now on.

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There are some amazing book review blogs.  This is not one of them.  I read purely for pleasure, I pick the books I want to read, and I review them.  Nobody solicits me for reviews of their books, and while this little fact doesn’t make me a “true book critic”, it does (generally) exempt me from reading books that I am not interested in.  When I start reading a book, and, for some reason, can’t get into it (Outlander, A Prayer for Owen Meany), I put it down.  Sometimes I go back to it, sometimes I don’t.  But I don’t have an author waiting on the other end of their computer for my review.  There’s a sense of loneliness, but also a sense of freedom to it.  It’s a double-edged sword.
A few months ago, I reviewed a book that I bought for my Kindle, The Silence of Trees by Valya Dudycz Lupescu.  I liked the book, but because of technical difficulties in the Kindle formatting (there were no distinct transitions between past and present-day, making it difficult at first to grasp which tense the main character was talking in at the time.  Was she having a flashback?  What was happening?  This is what a commented on in my review on my blog (see above) and on Goodreads (verbatim, with the exception of leaving out the synopsis that I put in every review — I assume that people on GR don’t want to read my pathetic summing-up of the book).  Review in place, three stars given, etc.  I all but forgot about it.
This past weekend, two months after I wrote the original review, I received the following comment:
Everyone is allowed their opinion, and everyone reads a book looking for that special thing. But unless this is a professional book review for an analytical course in college journalism, please leave the technicalities to your own incapability of following the storyline. Only history books are written in chronological order! I’m surprised you didn’t expect her to include little pictures above each character and a family tree for reference in the back! Plus, the older one gets the more “jumping back” happens in generational stories. Without it, it wouldn’t be typical Eastern European! The author stood us, with her, in that room, exactly how her story was told! You just never allowed yourself to cross the threshold!

I feel that the commenter has a right to tell me that his or her opinion of the book differed from mine.  S/he even has the right to criticize my taste, and write anything that s/he wants to about my review.  S/he has the right to tell me that I have no better sense than a pack of weasels.  

BUT.  While s/he has the right to free speech, s/he does NOT have the right to tell me that I DON’T.  And that is where I chafed.  Right where s/he says this:

But unless this is a professional book review for an analytical course in college journalism, please leave the technicalities to your own incapability of following the storyline.
GR is, in their own words, “the largest social network for readers in the world. We have more than 5,500,000 members who have added more than 170,000,000 books to their shelves. A place for casual readers and bona-fide bookworms alike, Goodreads members recommend books, compare what they are reading, keep track of what they’ve read and would like to read, form book clubs and much more…Most book recommendation websites work by listing random people’s reviews. On Goodreads, when a person adds a book to the site, all their friends can see what they thought of it. It’s common sense. People are more likely to get excited about a book their friend recommends than a suggestion from a stranger. Our members also create trivia about books, lists of the best books, post their own writing and form groups and book clubs.”
The website was created for Joe Everyman (or woman) to review books that s/he felt were worth (or not worth) reading.  That is the point.  It is not a place for readers to stroke the egos of authors and give them nothing but stellar reviews if they don’t think that the book is up to scratch.  I’m not going to leave a five-star review if I don’t think that the book was worth a five-star review.  Disclaimer: I will admit that, in the past month or so, I have stopped writing reviews on books that I give less than four stars to.  This was a decision on my part when I realized that the authors were, in fact, reading my reviews.  And, as I’ve said before, not being a professional, I don’t have to write something negative if I have nothing nice to say.  So I abstain.

But there’s another thing that really got to me about all this.  I looked at the GR profile of the person who left me the comment.  And there were things about it that made me suspicious.  

1) The commenter joined the day that s/he left me the comment.  
2) The commenter only had ONE book on his or her book list — The Silence of Trees.
3) The commenter had “liked” all of the 5-star and positive reviews on the book’s profile.
Now.  I am not saying that any of this is proof that the commenter is the author of Silence, Valya Dudycz Lupescu.  What I am saying is that it’s an awful lot of coincidences that a person would get this up-in-arms for a book on GR with only 36 reviews, and not be either the author or related to the author.  
On March 16th, the literary world of authors and critics blew apart when author Jacqueline Howett went ballistic after the critic BigAl (pseudonym) wrote a less-than-stellar review of her self-published book The Greek Seaman.  Readers and critics alike went to town criticizing Howett’s bad behavior, and many commented that they would never read her books, that she had completely trashed her own reputation, and that things posted on the internet last forever (sadly, true).  In posting such vitriol, Howett hurt no one so much as herself.  As BulletReviews posted, from The Greek Seaman Review and Fallout (2011):

I would like to congratulate almost everybody else who replied in the comments section; their points were nearly all entirely polite and reasoned, and all had a genuine shock at Jacqueline’s ranting, calling it anything from an ‘attack’ to a ‘meltdown’.  All showed shock at the sheer unprofessionalism of such a paddy, and some endeavoured to pick up the toys and put them back in her pram for her.  I have no doubt that this will serve as a lesson to many: the eBook market is hard to break into with any great deal of success, and you need to have a great deal of tact to get there.  I hope, without hate, that Jacqueline is now regretting every clumsily bashed out letter posted on that site, although I wouldn’t be surprised if she never tries to make amends; the damage has been done.  Self publishing is a delicate industry, and destroying your reputation and fanbase isn’t a good plan.  As one canny poster put it: “The good thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it.  The bad thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it.”

Authors, on GR, Amazon.com, or any critic’s blog, should steer clear of posting any response to reviews, whether positive or negative, beyond “Thank you”, in their own self-interest.  This is not a restriction on the author’s rights to free speech.  I am not saying that authors should never be able to loudly praise a critic for writing a good review, or lambaste a critic for writing a negative one.  All I am saying is that it is in their own self-interest, as a professional, to not let their emotions seep into their public image.  
It’s the same way any professional should act.  For example, a business professional doesn’t haul off and scream all sorts of colorful things at her boss about his mother if he comes in and criticizes her output of work.  She swallows her pride, and lets the work show her improvements.  The quality of work will speak for itself. 
And finally, one final word: who are we to criticize?  We are just the readers.  I may think that Twilight sucks, but there are millions, millions of fans who think that I have no taste whatsoever and that Twilight is the greatest thing since Dostoevsky.  Stephanie Meyer doesn’t let my poor opinion of Twilight keep her up at night.  And you, authors, shouldn’t either.

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