I Love a Good Yarn

Yarns, stories, and sometimes stories about yarn

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Goodreads book review: The Lost Dog

The Lost Dog: A NovelThe Lost Dog: A Novel by Michelle de Kretser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book some time ago, but I wanted to let it settle before writing anything about it, not sure if I loved it or thought it was just OK.

Now that my reading is almost solely limited to bedtime (the lack of a public transportation commute has robbed me of about 2 hours of solid reading 5 days a week), I feel that I often don’t give books a fair shake. When I read, I’m tired and apt to dismiss a book faster because of my weariness than I would if I were reading it while feeling fresher. It never occurred to me though to toss this one as a victim of the “50-page rule,” as I did with the two books I picked up subsequent to it. But until now, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it.

Generally I look for three main characteristics in a great book: a plot that pulls me through the pages; characters I know I’ll miss, as lost friends, once the book ends; and skillful writing that uses images and other literary techniques that are surprising, thought-provoking, and/or beautiful in some way. “The Lost Dog” doesn’t have much in the way of plot. There is a dog that’s gone missing, and the main character does spend some time searching for it. But that’s not what the book is about. This is a pondering book. The characters are observed as they ponder various scenes from their lives, or actual tangible objects, like Nelly’s collection of glass eyes or the neon sign of the girl jumping rope that occupies Tom. We learn a tremendous amount about the characters from the things and events they focus on and how they come to view those things and events over time. But the action is slow, and the plot almost nonexistent.

As far as the characters go, I didn’t develop any real affection for or attachment to Tom, Nelly, Iris or any of the other more minor characters. They were placed under de Kretser’s microscope to be studied, and real academic study requires detachment.

But the writing is beautiful. Here’s an extended example of what I mean by this:

“There was a girl who had been around at parties and clubs when Tom was twenty. She was no older, but seemed stereoscopic: she had starred in a film that had won a prize; her face, smilingly assured below a rakish hat, gazed out from billboards. Then she vanished, summoned by Berlin or LA, and Tom forgot her, until the day, years later, when he and his wife bought a pair of sheets in a department store. On the down escalator, Karen said, ‘You didn’t notice, did you? That was Jo Hutton who served us.’
For days, Tom was unable to evict her from his thoughts, the saleswoman he had barely noticed as she bleated of thread counts; within minutes of turning away, he would have failed to recognize her if she had materialized before him. While the transaction was being processed, he had grumbled casually to his wife about the time their train had spent in the Jolimont shunting yards before delivering them to Flinders Street Station. The saleswoman looked up: ‘The exact same thing happened to me this morning. Doesn’t it drive you mad?’ Then she confided that this was her last day at the city store: she had been transferred to a branch in the suburbs. ‘I live a five-minute drive away. I can’t wait to be shot of public transport.’ She handed Tom a pen and a credit card slip and shook the two gold bangles on her wrist as he signed: a small, unconscious expression of glee at her victory over time and the railways.
Tom tried to picture the girl in the tilted fedora pausing long enough to fret about train timetables but found the challenge too strenuous.
Now, sitting with Nelly in the drafty kitchen, he thought it was an error to equate authenticity with even tones. Existence was inseparable from tragedy and adventure, horror and romance; realism’s quiet hue derived from a blend of dramatic elements, as a child pressing together bright strands of plasticine creates a drab sphere.”

I’m tempted to read this book again, with full knowledge of the plot and character interactions, just so I can focus on the writing. When I’m in bed and half an hour away from turning the lights off, my ability to appreciate and enjoy great writing is stunted. And this book deserves clearer focus, because the writer has delivered some truly wonderful writing.

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Goodreads book review: The Snow Child

The Snow ChildThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Positives about the book first: Some of the imagery in describing the Alaskan wilderness was very nice. I find myself drawn to stories where the setting plays a big role in the characters’ lives. And I’m glad there was a not some tacked-on, not-really-fitting-with-the-rest-of-the-story, happy ending. The melancholy mood the book ended with was pretty consistent with the mood throughout the story.

But other than that, I wasn’t really grabbed by this book. After a few chapters, the landscape descriptions became a bit repetitive and lost their luster. It would also have been nice to know more of the main characters’ lives before making the move to their homestead in Alaska. The loss of the baby was given as the main reason for their making such a huge leap, but that was a bit thin for me as a premise. I felt there needed to be more flashbacks to how they came to the decision to make the move and what incentives made them choose such a formidable undertaking. Because Alaska was a very necessary element in the plot, I wanted to find out more about why they went there and not somewhere else – California, the Great Plains, or another almost equally large leap from their home in Pennsylvania.

The story also wasn’t original, as it was based on a children’s folklore tale. I don’t feel enough was done with the story to give it its own character and set it apart from its source. And though the back cover provided hints that the book would be “bewitching,” “captivating,” and “spellbinding,” I found it dragged in places and was a bit too predictable.

There was also a lack of nuance to the characters. Once they were introduced and we learned what they looked like and what their main drivers were, they came across as a bit one-dimensional. To be sure, they were consistent in their words and actions, which is a good thing. Too often I read stories where the characters suddenly come out with behaviors that seem so contradictory to what the author had been trying to create for them, that it’s too jarring and I can’t remain invested in the book. For example, the character of Esther was probably introduced as a light-hearted foil to the otherwise gloomy atmosphere, but her blustery, no-nonsense, unflappable presence became kind of cartoonish.

So, if stories with a hint of a magical element are your thing, this may be a good read for you. It’s a nice story that can be put down and picked back up without losing the thread. But I think it was just that characteristic that left me a little flat.

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Traveling knitter: J’adore Montreal

I’ve been waiting for a nice sunny day so as to get some bright shots of the lovely yarn I purchased on my Montreal trip last weekend, but April showers have finally gripped the Hudson Valley, and the forecast for the coming week is gloomy indeed, so I’ll just have to settle for rainy day yarn pics.

Luckily we did have some sunny weather while in Quebec, and my family and I made the most of it, strolling the gorgeous Jardin Botanique, taking in the lilacs and ancient bonzai trees:

eating our way through the city, including a stop for the most delicious vegetarian poutine around at the cozy and friendly Comptoir 21:

and of course shopping, starting with my favorite second-hand store ever, Eva B:


and rounding it off with some gorgeous yarn purchases from two charming stores.

The first was a recommendation from a member of my Swirl knit-along group. At Espace Tricot, the staff is extremely friendly and helpful, and the shop is well-organized and inviting. In the back, a large table was chock-a-block full of lively knitters, working and chatting away. The group lent further positive energy to an already great vibe in the shop. Several staff members offered some background on the various yarns they stock, specifically the more locally made fibers, which was my main interest. What was even more amazing is that they actually recommended I visit another yarn shop in a different neighborhood of Montreal. This kind of cordiality and community is what I’ve come to expect from knitters, but it’s still always a joy to encounter it in such abundance as I did in Montreal. My purchases at Espace Tricot included the yarns below: a set of grey/black shades from SweetGeorgia Yarns (based in Vancouver) for a project I have in mind for a friend, and the earth-tone “stone” colorway from Tanis Fiber Arts (Montreal), which is going to become a lovely airy shawl for me some day (the merino, silk, cashmere blend is heavenly!).

My other purchase from Espace Tricot was a sweater pin for my now-completed Swirl. Finished objects (5 of them!) will be shared in posts later this week and weekend.

The shop recommended by the nice folks at Espace Tricot was La Maison Tricotée. Both shops are easily accessible by public transport – the former by Metro and either bus or walk along Monkland Avenue in the Monkland Village neighborhood, the latter just around the corner from the Laurier Metro station in the Plateau/Mont Royal section (and on the same road as another outpost of Comptoir 21!).

As with Espace Tricot, La Maison Tricotée’s staff was super helpful, knowledgable and welcoming. Both also accommodated my complete lack of French language skills. Though I do dream of someday mastering Québécois French, I’ve not put in the time needed to even get the basics down yet. So, the store tour, the helpful hints, and cashing out were all in English, and delivered with such warmth, I had a hard time pulling myself away. My rather colorful purchases below are single skeins (shawls and socks!) of Riverside Studio in copper & zinc and iris superwash merino (Ottawa), Biscotte Yarns self-striping sock yarn in brown, lime green and beige (Quebec), Hand Maiden Mini Maiden wool and silk blend in the stunning pink, lilac and yellow hues (Nova Scotia), and the only non-Canadian purchase – because I couldn’t resist the bright yellow and speckles – Hedgehog Fibre’s sock yarn in the banana legs colorway (Ireland).


I’m hoping this fall will bring yet another nice getaway with more new yarn stores to explore. The question now is just where to go!

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Goodreads book review: Vinegar Hill

Vinegar HillVinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a brutal story, but it’s told so well, the heavy subject matter didn’t tempt me to abandon the book at any point. The story moves along at a good pace, despite the fact that there’s not much “action.” Most of the plot is internal to the different characters, and the focus changes throughout the book so the reader gets a clear picture of how the present has been shaped by what the characters endured in the past. The author’s language is accessible and clear, with wonderful imagery that is entirely appropriate, and not the kind of pedantic stuff one often encounters in modern literature. A great example of this is a short sentence about the protagonist’s negligent husband, as he settles into bed next to her:

“James punches his pillow into the shape of a mushroom and lets his head fall into it, a sudden release, like letting a suitcase drop.”

Simple language, but it says so much. The author masterfully conveys the atmosphere with such sentences, giving the reader much deeper insights into the characters, as well as the mood that surrounds them.

My only disappointment in the book, and the reason it’s not a resounding 5 stars is chapter 12. I will not add any spoilers, but I found the revelation in that chapter unbelievable: not what was done by Mary-Margaret’s mother, but how Fritz, Mary-Margaret’s husband, reacts. The reaction seems not at all realistic, but perhaps there’s something in Fritz’s character that I missed that would hint at his ability to fall for such an obvious deception.

All in all though, an incredibly well-written novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I will definitely seek out more works by this author.

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Goodreads book review: Happiness Sold Separately

Happiness Sold SeparatelyHappiness Sold Separately by Lolly Winston

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Unfortunately, I did not read the other Goodreads reviews before starting this book. If I had, I probably would have pulled it off the shelf and put it directly in the pile to be dropped off at one of the nearest “have a book, leave a book; need a book, take a book” bins sprouting up around the region.

There are absolutely no likable characters in story. A woman, frustrated by her inability to conceive and carry a child to term, treats her caring, thoughtful husband horribly. He reacts to this treatment by having an affair. The mistress not only dates this (married) man, but also a series of what can only be called losers – an alcoholic and a narcissist to name a couple. The mistress’s son is a manipulative jerk, who acts out and then wonders why no one wants to spend time with him. Back to the woman with the fertility issues – she uses her husband’s infidelity as an excuse to get wildly drunk and flirt with a boy half her age and have sex with a random horticulturalist who pops into the story to break the news to her that her favorite tree has to be cut down. The supporting characters’ sole function seems to be as enablers for all the screw-up main characters.

Other Goodreads reviewers mention enjoying the author’s debut novel, but after being so disappointed by this effort, I doubt I’ll come back to her other works.

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Goodreads book review: The Dangerous Husband

The Dangerous Husband: A NovelThe Dangerous Husband: A Novel by Jane Shapiro

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Dangerous Husband by Jane Shapiro is the story of a 40-year-old woman, who “had never managed to be married” but finds herself falling in love with a man she meets at a Thanksgiving dinner party. The courtship is swift, and, after a brief, passionate honeymoon period, they start to really get to know one another. And that’s when all the “accidents” start taking place.

Even before the marriage, only a couple weeks after their first meeting, he loses his job and decides to live off an inheritance and write a novel. Soon after the marriage, the wife begins to learn other things that surprise her – he’d been married several times before, he has a certain clumsiness that becomes more pronounced with time – but the many good characteristics, such as his desire to please her at all times, with gifts, attentiveness and affection, keep her firmly committed to the marriage … at first. But the clumsiness that accompanies these attentions soon puts her at physical risk.

Taken in a purely metaphorical sense, this is a fairly clever story. For a woman marrying for the first time at 40 when she meets someone charming, in a way giving in to societal expectations, perhaps after years of listening to questions like, “When are you going to get married? Don’t you want a nice husband? Don’t you want someone to grow old with?” and, as a consequence, not only not being happier than when single, but actually risking serious injury as a result of the union – it shows us that the grass isn’t always greener. And the negatives keep piling up, as friends fall away and even the household pets meet unpleasant fates.

But there was just something about the writing I didn’t like. The jacket description calls it a “witty, dark, brilliantly funny novel,” which I think gave me the wrong expectations. It was certainly dark, somewhat witty, but I found nothing at all funny about it. On the contrary, it made me rather sad: sad for the wife, who felt, even at 40, that her life would not be complete unless she tried marriage on for size; sad for the husband, who had married so many times, hoping to find the real thing, only to drive his wives away out of fear for their safety; and of course, sad that this kind of story has to be told. That being a lifelong single person still carries so much stigma.

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Naknicromo day 5: Any crafting heroes?

As mentioned in a previous post, Linda LaBelle, founder of The Yarn Tree, formerly a Brooklyn shop, now an online-only vendor, really helped shape my earliest knitting experience. And not just in my direct dealings with her as the proprietress of the store and knitting instructor, but in all that she did. She’s always been a sort of icon to me of what’s possible if you work hard at what you love. In addition to the yarn store, she’s traveled the world teaching women in impoverished communities how to dye, which provides them with valuable income in economies that don’t present many opportunities for women. She also wrote a book on the subject. She’s a very talented costumer designer, who worked with, among others, the visual artist Matthew Barney. And on top of all that, she’s a lovely person, who always took the time to give some pointers to a new, clueless knitter. I can’t say that was the case with many other yarn store owners/staff I encountered in New York City, where the inexperienced were often largely ignored or greeted with a roll of the eyes and a heavy sigh (hear that, Purl Soho?).

I would say my other big crafting hero is Maggie Righetti. I happened upon her book Knitting in Plain English when I worked for the parent company of its publisher, St. Martin’s Press. It is, exactly as the title indicates – an indispensable guide for the new knitter, written in language that is easy to understand. For a novice, it was a welcome resource, as there wasn’t the abundance of online videos, books, and helpful yarn store staff back in 2001 as there is now. Her approach is all about, “Yes, there’s lots to learn, but you don’t have to be an expert from day one. Here’s the most important stuff you need to know now.” So, it’s not a comprehensive resource for every type of stitch, cast on, and technique out there in the wide, wide world of knitting, and though I wouldn’t agree with the statement on the cover that it’s “The only book any knitter will ever need,” I do believe that every knitter should have this book. Because of its clear, concise instruction and easy-going tone, I also invested in her books Crocheting in Plain English, which I use whenever I have to add crochet stitches to my knitting (I am HOPELESS at crochet), and Sweater Design in Plain English, which I admit, I have only just perused. But I’ll come back to that on day 16, when the discussion will be about my “dream project.”