Monday, January 31, 2011

2010 Book Oscars!

 (Warning: This widget does not translate well into a reader. Scroll down.)

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family

Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

A Christmas Carol and Other Stories

The Remains of the Day

The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria

The Odyssey

Lilith's Brood

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More, and Live Better

Spoon River Anthology

Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces

Life of Pi

The Old Man and the Sea

North and South


Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

The Happiest Toddler on the Block: The New Way to Stop the Daily Battle of Wills and Raise a Secure and Well-Behaved One- to Four-Year-Old


In 2009, I was at various times uncomfortably pregnant, on maternity leave, taking care of a newborn, and taking frequent breaks to pump breast milk at work, and I read a record number of books - 43, to be precise.

I spent 2010 chasing a crawler, then chasing a toddler, then chasing a toddler some more, and, yes, chasing a toddler even more. And the only record I set for reading was my all-time low. I only read 27 books in 2010, almost entirely on my 13 minute BART commute to and from work (and the time I spend on the platform, and sometimes, on my way up the escalator and into the elevator to get to my office). Those were a really great 26 minutes per day, though: a relaxing respite from parenting a very spirited child. I may not have read as much as I did in 2009, but I enjoyed every minute of reading I was allowed in 2010.

Without further ado, here are the awards!

Best Contemporary Fiction Featuring Old, Uptight Men

I read several novels published after 1900 this year! Picking the top two is easy, because not only were they the best contemporary fiction I read in 2010, but they are in the running for the best novels I have ever read. They are, indeed, that good. Go read them.

Tied for First Place!

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day.

Only Contemporary by My Standards Honorable Mention (Cross-referenced under "Books I should have read in High School but skipped")

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (Thanks to my education in baseball over the past several years - thank you Steve! - I even enjoyed the baseball references!)

I continue to strongly prefer novels that feature the reflections of uptight, pensive old men and old-fashioned prose. What can I say? Old men and me - we get along.

Best Victorian Fiction Read Last Year

I read quite a few 19th century novels in 2010, including a sampling of Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens, and even a Brontë. 

Much to my surprise, clear first place goes to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. I am not a die-hard Dickens fan. I loved Great Expectations, but I thought David Copperfield was at least five-hundred pages too long, and Oliver Twist bored the living daylights out of me. But A Tale of Two Cities is just expertly well-done. The one-liners!! Really, the man could turn a phrase. For example: "Those were drinking days, and most men drank hard." 

It's Dickens, so don't expect much in the way of characterization, but between the clever, funny writing and the smack-you-upside-the-head awesome plot, who needs realistic characters?

Honorable mention to Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, which has great characters, an epic class struggle, and only a little bit of drinking.

Best Farming Memoir Featuring Oakland!
Novella Carpenter, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.

I expected to enjoy this book primarily because it takes place in my back yard - downtown Oakland. But it is a delight - a thoughtful, well-written memoir about urban farming that avoids all of the usual cliches about "urban homesteading." She donated lettuce to the Black Panthers! She fed her pigs from dumpsters in Chinatown! She lives in a scarier part of Oakland than I do! Loved. It.

Best Only Poetry Read in 2010
Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology

Luckily I didn't discover that this is most popularly known for providing monologues for high school drama students until after reading it, because I am still working through some traumatic memories of high school drama classes. This anthology is a bit uneven but paints an incredible picture of small-town life in turn-of-the-century midwestern United States. And a good number of the poems are just gut-wrenchingly beautiful. I can't remember the last time I read a whole volume of poetry, but I really enjoyed this one.

Book I'm Most Glad To Be Finished
Homer, The Odyssey (Robert Fagles translation)

One of my new year's resolutions last year was to finally finish the audio version of the Odyssey that I had been listening to for over a year already, so that I could finally move on to something less ... epic. And thank goodness, I did, and I did! What I learned is that some (really long) books are very hard to get through on audio, especially if narrated/sung by Ian McKellan pretending to be some kind of ancient minstrel. Get the hard copy.

So, did you read any good books about old men in 2010? Do tell!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shirt progress/frustration.

Hello, I need to finish this shirt so that I can go back to sewing things for me! But I'm almost done: All that is left is attaching the sleeves and cuffs, flat-felling a bunch of seams, and then approximately two million buttonholes and buttons. No prob! I'll be done in a flash!

Or, I'll spend the rest of my life working on this never-ending project. One of those two.

Steve periodically stops by to ask when he can wear his new shirt, and my response is usually a low, almost inaudible groan.


Also, yes, I totally jumped the gun on Peter's sew-along, which was dumb because that means I have to figure this damn thing out all by myself.  So I sewed the sleeve plackets to the WRONG side of the sleeve, then CUT the placket open (for the uninitiated, cutting, as opposed to stitching, is IRREVERSIBLE), and was only able to salvage the sleeves by the skin of my teeth. I feel sure that if I had waited to let Peter guide me through the process, this would not have happened, but I am just not that bright.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In recent news ...

I just haven't been in the mood to blog. It does happen! But there is some interesting stuff going on:

  1. I have new little cousin-once-removed! My cousin Erin's baby AJ was born a couple days ago. He's a chunk (almost 9 lbs)! And cute! Major baby boom in my family these days.
  2. I have been making incredibly slow progress on Steve's shirt. I wouldn't say that sewing a man's shirt is "difficult" exactly, but it is time-intensive. A bit fussy. Lots of top stitching. So far, I have made two buttonholes, and if you stand back and squint, they're really not so bad. It's coming along. I'm learning lots of new stuff about my sewing machine (which is quite a bit older than me but can still surprise).
  3. Joe is still way behind in the speech department, but he finally started saying "Mama" - I find it funny that while "Dada!" is still used primarily to summon Steve to the scene of something fun and interesting, "Mama" is always said in a shrill whine while Joe is hanging off my legs.
  4. We are on a strict budget these days and trying to pay down our debt. I recently started doing weekly meal plans. I fully expected that this would be an extreme austerity measure that would kill all of my enjoyment of cooking. I have been pleasantly surprised to find (on week three here), that it is really freeing. I don't know what took me so long! More later. 
  5. Next: Extreme couponing? Nah.
  6. Confession: I am cheating on Secrets of a Jewish Baker with Amy's Breads.
  7. I randomly threw some old, expired seeds around the backyard. We'll see what comes of that.
  8. Joe continues to be obsessed with garbage trucks, but I'm trying to broaden his horizons to include trains, street sweepers, and pretty much anything on YouTube that isn't a garbage truck. Kids: love repetition. Parents: maybe not quite so much.
  9. Along those lines, CLICK HERE for hilarious Muppet awesomeness.
  10. I am reading the most amazing history, A Midwife's Tale. Apparently I am pretty late to this party, there's already a PBS documentary on it. (ETA: It was published in 1990, so I am very late. Like twenty-one years late. But it's still a rockin' party!)
  11. I would rather be reading my book than ... doing pretty much anything else. Sorry, blog.
  12. The book beckons. See you soon!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sewing a men's shirt.

I have a confession to make: I've never sewn anything for my husband. There. I've said it. I know what you are thinking: "That is so wrong!" I mean, I've made things for almost everyone else in my immediate family at some point - I've even sewn gifts for coworkers and acquaintances at times.

But it's true: I've never made Steve anything that couldn't be eaten immediately. And Steve is not above reminding me of this fact periodically.

The main reason I've never made anything for my husband is that Steve is a simple dude. He doesn't really need anything. If he needs something, he gets it for himself. So I've never known what to make him.

Then recently, I noticed that most of his clothes have giant holes in them. His favorite flannel shirt is completely worn through on the elbow.

Ah ha! I'll make Steve a shirt! A nice cozy flannel or corduroy shirt like the ones he loves to wear over his t-shirts in the winter.

I have only two worries: (1) I have this nagging suspicion that men's shirts might be technically beyond my sewing abilities; and (2) I haven't tried to make a buttonhole with my sewing machine for like ten years, and I vaguely seem to recall that this might be because it makes buttonholes that look like crap ....

Well, folks, I am about to find out!! I can't let Steve down now! Crappy buttonholes or no, I will make him a shirt! And since his other shirts are falling off his body in tatters, he will probably wear whatever I make him. That's a comfort.

I liked the looks of the Colette "Negroni" pattern, so I went ahead and ordered it:

I love it in the plaid flannel pictured here, but I think this project will be challenging enough for me without having to match plaid, so I chose a soft chocolate brown corduroy with a little stretch for the project. When I read that the pattern calls for nine buttons, I just tried to breathe through the anxiety.

And then, a few days after I ordered the pattern and started making my plans, Peter over at Male Pattern Boldness, a sewing blog that I follow, announced that he was going to be doing a mens' shirt sew-along! Using this EXACT PATTERN.

So now I will enjoy the benefits of step-by-step instructions from a far more experienced seamster/sewist than I!

Kismet! I tell you, this was meant to be.

I am so excited. A fun new challenging project, that will hopefully result in a better dressed husband! Awesome!

(Just kidding about the "better-dressed" thing, honey, you know I appreciate your style. But that one long sleeved t-shirt? It has really seen better days. You know the one. Ahem.)

My excitement will probably last at least until I make my first major, irreparable mistake. That's usually how it goes.

In the meantime, should I shop for a vintage Singer buttonholer for my vintage Singer sewing machine? Would that address my (remembered) button anxiety? (One of these days, I'm going to do a post about how seriously not frugal the supposedly "frugal" hobby of sewing really is. Or maybe I'll just stay in denial.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

First sewing project of the new year.

I am slowly working through my heap of unfinished sewing projects. I stayed up late on Sunday night sewing the corduroy jacket that I cut out for Joe a few months ago, sewed the buttons on Monday, and put it on Joe on Tuesday.

I had worried it would be too small, and it is a bit snug, and might not fit him for long, but it is cuuuuuuute.

Baby in the hood jacket hood.
Joe wastes no time getting food on his new jacket.

That snug, elasticized hood stays put really well, and it really highlights the fact that's Joe's head, and cheeks, are almost perfectly spherical. This would not be a flattering concept on me (can you imagine?), but it is to-die-for-adorable on a toddler.

The pattern is the "Baby in the Hood" jacket from Anna Maria Horner's Handmade Beginnings. I have made several projects from this book now, and so far, I have been happy and impressed with the patterns. But this one is by far my favorite so far - my only complaint is that the largest size, 24 months, is already a little snug on my baby, so I will have to get creative if I want to make a bigger version next year. (Note: If you are making this jacket for a taller baby, you might want to add an inch or two of length to the jacket body and sleeves. You might want to do this anyway, for a warmer jacket that covers up a bit more tush.)

I used lime green and gray corduroy and lined the jacket in flannel printed with piles of books (a tiny little subliminal message for my still almost nonverbal baby, ahem).

(The book fabric was designed by Anna Maria Horner as well - clearly I share her aesthetic sensibilities. The book with the green and red binding has the insignia of the Modern Library publishing company, which is just too cool.)

Baby in the hood jacket lining
Just like the shelves full of classics I grew up around.

Some minor changes - I used toggles instead of round buttons, and I used blue and black ribbon instead of self-fabric loops for the toggles, to bring the blue from the lining into the exterior of the jacket (and avoid having to make self-fabric loops in corduroy, ugh).

Upside down hood.
See? Perfectly spherical.

I love this jacket. I am pleased as punch with how it turned out.

And some gratuitious cuteness for you. Dangnabbit, that kid is cute. Those cheeks!

You would not be able to resist tickling him either.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some rambling about New Year's resolutions.

Happy New Year! Did you know that 2011 is a prime number? It is! So is 2017!

I love prime numbers (ah, the small pleasures in life).

In past years, Steve and I have made New Year's resolutions.

Mine usually sound something like this: "This year, I will pay down our debt, bring my lunch to work, get out and take more walks, become a better person, and remember to bring reusable shopping bags to the store."

Steve's is always the same: "This year I will eat more bacon."

I'm thinking that Steve is onto something here. Rather than setting yourself up for failure and guilt, why not resolve to enjoy life more? Have a little more fun? Eat a little more (in my case, since I do not eat pork, proverbial) bacon?

With this in mind, this year, I'm making a conscious decision not to make resolutions.

Specifically, I'm not going to make any sewing, gardening, blogging, reading, or cooking resolutions. I'm learning that it's counterproductive to load myself down with too many obligations associated with the fun things in my life, the things I do with my "spare time." Deadlines and guilt suck the fun out of activities I want to enjoy.

This year, instead of making resolutions, I'm giving myself permission to have fun with my hobbies.

Of course, me being me, I expect that this will involve learning new things and challenging myself. But that's not required.

If I don't feel like putting in a winter garden this year (so far, I haven't), that's fine. If I do, watch out, because there will be some chard! Otherwise, there's always the farmers' market, which can more than satisfy our swiss chard requirements.  And if I don't want to sew something, then seriously, why am I spending my limited free time on it? If I want to read trashy romance novels all year (unlikely, but who knows?), great! I don't have to bake bread, but I can if I feel like it.

 When you have a ton of hobbies (as I do), you will probably hear people compliment your work with the stock phrase, "You should sell this!"

I take this to mean, "This doesn't look/taste like a hot mess!" and as such, I really appreciate the compliment.

But I don't think I want to make money off of my hobbies. I have a job doing something I mostly enjoy, so I know what that feels like - sometimes it's great, and other times, I'm working to pay the bills, and that's fine.

On the other hand, I like that I am not obligated to sew, garden, or bake. Life is full of obligations - real obligations - but there is no need to make everything obligatory. It can actually be really freeing to not have goals.

I do have goals (like remembering to bring those damn reusable bags to the grocery store!), and I keep working on them, of course, but I also want to leave myself a little space to do whatever.

If I want to run around and play with Joe instead of doing anything else, awesome.

Here's to having more fun in 2011.