Friday, 16 December 2011

More Successful Knitting. . .

I've been knitting up a storm lately and really enjoying it. It's definitely become my latest obsession but completely relaxing and creative and fun.  And with every new project, I always try a new technique, so my knitting skills are improving bit by bit.  I'm working up to that sweater!  There are two projects I've completed recently that turned out as good as I'd hoped and I really LOVE wearing them.  The first came about when I learned to make a bobble.  And immediately thought a bobble scarf would be really fun for winter.  I had three skeins of this really soft baby alpaca and this was the result, which I designed myself (not that it's a particularly difficult design, but what I love about knitting is that with a bit of patience and some tweaking and swatching, you can really create exactly what you want).  This scarf is so warm and cozy.  My recent hat attempts were all in aid of matching this.

My colleague gave me a very funny Christmas gift this week - the DVD of the Royal Wedding.

We were working a conference in Jasper, Alberta at the time (which is seven hours behind the UK) and sharing a hotel room.  Now, I really like watching these spectacles live and since the coverage was starting about midnight, I decided just to stay up all night.  I wanted to see ALL the hats.  Perhaps though, this was not the best choice when I had to work the next day and the last time I pulled an all-nighter was decades ago.  My colleague was a great sport about it insisting she could sleep through the light of the television which was turned down low.  However, she  could not sleep through my loud curses at about 2am when it started to snow outside and the storm knocked out ALL the channels, just as things were getting exciting.  I was flipping madly and getting only static until for some reason at the very high numbers, I got some sort of specialty U.S. channel  (TLC maybe?) that was carrying it (with fairly stupid commentary, but at least I got the visuals).   I woke my friend up as requested when Wills and Harry left the palace and all went well.  We watched up to the balcony kiss, while ordering breakfast via room service, and made it to work on time.  I was extremely tired that day, but I'll always remember how much fun it was watching it with L. and discussing it ad nauseum with my other good girlfriends on that road trip.

Okay, what does this have to do with my knitting?  Well, do you remember a few days later, Kate was seen shopping at Sainsburys wearing this?

That shawl inspired many knitters to get busy. There are lots of patterns out there, but I loved the one by Vancouver designer Cat Wong, entitled The Milk Run Shawl.  It's a free pattern but she had the terrific and appropriate idea of asking instead for a donation to a local food bank, which I was more than happy to do.  The pattern is great - full of options for creating something slightly different versions - and full of good tips and funny instructions (the last one is to brush your hair until it shines before wearing it).  You can get the pattern here.  I chose to knit mine in a Donegal tweed, more olive-green-brown than Kate's version, and I was a bit worried about whether it would drape as nicely, but I'm very happy with how it turned out. I like to wear it around my shoulders when I'm reading at night in bed.  It was my first time doing ruffles (which go on FOREVER) but it was exciting when it all came together.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Chic Classics. . .

I'm always intrigued and delighted by those publishers who spend the time re-inventing the look of the classics, using ingenious design to make them irresistible objects of beauty to collect and treasure and sometimes just to drool over.  Penguin, Persephone, New Directions, Dalkey Archive,  Everyman, New York Review of Books, and Melville House's Neversink Library are all great investors in keeping these fabulous books alive along with many others, and I think their importance will only grow in this e-book era.

The French occasionally get in the act too, despite the fact that so many of their books seem to consist of endless rows of uniform cream covers with only type on the front.  A couple of years ago I walked into a French bookstore in Ottawa and was drawn to a series of paperback classics published by Gallimard's Folio imprint that were housed in these wonderfully textured slipcases.  Despite the fact that I read French very, very slowly, I was hooked and came home with several of them.

I just couldn't resist the flocked velvet of Romain Gary's La vie devant soi or the perfect subway tile design etched into the cardboard of Raymond Queneau's Zazie dans le m├ętro.  Aren't they gorgeous? They are so much fun to fondle. 

Well Folio has done it again.  Earlier this fall, I came across these two books:

Both the slipcases are smooth but look closely - can you see the metal bookmarks attached to the slipcases magnetically?  Let me pull them away for you.

Is this not one of the most beautiful packaging ideas you've ever seen?  They simply scream "buy me".  So I did. And of course I have the best intentions of spending the time to improve my French by reading them one day.  Or at least making liberal use of the bookmarks.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Locks and the Three Hats. . .

Hats and I just don't get along.  I think it has something to do with the fact that I have bangs and usually have my hair up in a ponytail, neither of which is conducive to a really good hat look.  But I live in Canada and it gets bloody cold in the winter.  So I'm on a quest to knit the perfect hat even though I still shudder when I think of my first attempt.  It looked like this:

It's now a lovely felted bowl.

I've improved my knitting skills over the last year and it was time to plunge into headgear again.  I found this pattern I quite liked from Classic Elite Yarns called the Kumera Diamond Cap.  And the pattern was just for one size. And I took the time to do a gauge swatch which I obviously didn't do for my first attempt. And it was fine for the horizontal measurement, but fell a bit short vertically.  What do you do in such a case?  I pressed on.  And here it is - it's a very pretty pattern and was quite fun to knit.

But . . . it's a wee bit too loose on my head.  You can't see it in the picture but there is an inch or so of ribbing at the edge.  I KNOW I should have knitted this with smaller needles but I didn't have the right size handy and so I didn't.   It does sit on my head while walking, and it's a good fall hat, and as long as a gust of wind doesn't come along or I shake my head violently, it usually stays on.  Maybe I need to find some discreet hair clips to hold it on in the way that women used to use their hatpins.  Does anyone do this with knitted caps?  Or do they just knit them to a perfect size?  I keep gazing at women wearing handknit hats on the subway and I'm guessing it's the latter.  Sigh.

I've been reading a lot of knitting books and blogs and certain legendary names in the knit world come up all the time.  One of them is Barbara G. Walker and I recently bought her book Knitting From The Top.

Someday I will be using her techniques to knit a sweater, but she also writes about knitting a hat from the top down so that you can stop and measure it as you go.  Terrific, I thought, and cast on.  Now, there's no specific pattern - you just start with 8 stitches and increase on a regular basis until you've knitted to the circumference of your crown and then you continue making a type of tube until it's as long as you want.  Here's the problem though: holding a circle of knitting on the top of your head as you gaze into the mirror on the bathroom cabinet, what exactly constitutes your crown?  Well, here's my second attempt:

I really liked the wool (Cascade Quattro for the grey/white blend and Cascade 220 for the brim) and the way the two went together (and this time I DID use smaller needles for the ribbing) and I was quite chuffed to be doing this without consulting a pattern.  But . . .  it's a wee bit too big.  I should have stopped increasing about 3 rows before I actually did.  It does work in a pinch, but I'm just not satisfied.  I'll probably rip it apart and start again some day but I just can't bring myself to do it right now.  Sigh.

Undeterred, having bought a skein of lovely, bulky Cascade Lana Grande, I cast on again from the top.   This would make a really warm woollen winter hat.  Though it's much thicker than the wool used for Hat #2, I did measure where I should have stopped increasing on that hat, and so my "crown" was much smaller.

And it was all going really well and I bound off and ran excitedly to the mirror and pulled it onto my head and . . . the bind off row was so, so, tight it left a huge mark on my forehead even after stretching it.  I was ready to cry at this point.  But I took a deep breath, thought for a bit, and carefully ripped out the bind-off row.  I got bigger needles and bound off much more loosely and ran back to the mirror. . . and . . . IT FITS!  It's warm and cozy and covers my ears and though next time, I think I'd do away with the three garter horizontal rows that I added on a whim, IT WILL DO FOR NOW!

I think hats are now out of my system until the next time.  And I still don't really like them.

Monday, 12 December 2011

An Elementary Country House Murder. . .

It may be due to all the Terence Rattigan that I've been exposed to recently, but this weekend I just wanted to continue spending more time with the Brits.  So I picked up Gladys Mitchell's Watson's Choice, a Mrs. Bradley mystery originally published in 1955 and recently brought back into print by Vintage U.K.  It's in the cozy mode of British crime writing centered around a group of eccentric but coolly detached suspects gathered in a large country house. Sir Bohun Chantrey is a huge Sherlock Holmes enthusiast and so throws a costume party with guests dressed as characters from the cases, complete with party games that call upon their knowledge of Conan Doyle's work. Then all of a sudden the "Hound of the Baskervilles" shows up, and even though the murder - of Linda Campbell, the vampish governess recently engaged to Chantrey - takes place several weeks after the party, this large dog proves to be one of the clues to catching the culprit. 

This is the second of Mitchell's extensive list of Mrs. Bradley mysteries that I've read and while I find her plots rather thin, she makes up for it with a sly humour occasioned by Bradley's forthright psychological insights and the banter between herself and Laura her secretary.  I probably would have enjoyed it more if I was acquainted with a greater number of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I didn't find it too much of a distraction. And when you get to the end, don't forget to reflect on the book's title.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Cast On and In Colour. . .

I spend about two hours each day commuting because I live in mid-town Toronto but work in Mississauaga. Fortunately it's only one long bus ride, preceded by a 15 minute walk that conveniently goes by at least three good places to pick up a latte. But I really don't mind the travelling because my latest daily obsession is listening to podcasts and what better place than on the bus?  

I've just recently discovered Cast On and am really enjoying it.  Yes, it's a knitting podcast.  It's created by Brenda Dayne, an American knitter and designer who moved to the Welsh countryside over a decade ago, and along with playing some really great music, she recounts her adventures with her craft (she spins and dyes as well as knits), has interviews and guest pieces by other knitters, muses on how knitting can encompass a whole life philosophy, and generally lets listeners eavesdrop on her little corner of the world.  She frequently makes me laugh and thus I generally arrive at work in a good mood.  I started with some of her latest episodes and then went back right to the beginning in 2005 and am listening to them in order, one on the way to work and one on the way home.  So far I've encountered everything from an audio essay on the sounds of wool (I know I'm strange, but I can listen to sheep baas endlessly), to an interview with an Oxford zoologist on silk spun by tropical spiders, to a very funny piece about a men's knitting club stressed out with all the xmas gifts they have to complete.  It's also SO comforting to know that even experienced knitters still have meltdowns, still have to rip back hours and hours of work, and it's all okay. Shownotes, photos and links to the things she discusses are always added on her blog/website located here.

One of the things Brenda also does on this podcast is to review knitting books and this is how I heard about Lorna Miser's The Knitter's Guide to Hand-Dyed and Variegated Yarn, published last year.  I promptly got my hands on a copy and spent hours last night delightedly pouring over it.

My grandmother taught me to knit - just the basics - when I was quite young, and over the years, I've occasionally picked up the needles and done the odd very simple project. A garter stitch scarf was pretty much the extent of my talents.  The "wow" moment that really got me determined to improve my knitting skills came - like many knitters, I'm guessing - when I first encountered a stitch dictionary.  My mind boggled at how several hundred patterns could be created just by knitting or purling in different combinations.  Well, the beauty of Miser's book is that it's essentially a stitch dictionary but especially for variegated yarns - those balls of gorgeous combined colours that suck me in everytime I visit a yarn store. I'm always buying them for my stash and then I never know what to do with them, since I'm really not that interested in knitting socks - yet!

I love, love this book and I have several swatches excitedly knitted last night to prove it.  Miser explains how to categorize all the different types of variegated yarns - machine produced and hand dyed- and to separate them into "calm" and "active" colourways, and then each succeeding chapter shows you different techniques to combine them in your knitting, whether by adding complimentary solids or using patterns that will highlight (or minimize) the colour striping or pooling, or adding different textures into the mix.  There are 65 stitch patterns and 20 projects for using them - two of which have immediately gone to the top of my future project pile.

Noro - here I come!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Next in the Neversink Library Challenge: The President. . .

I've been a little remiss on my latest ongoing reading challenge but I DO mean to tackle all of The Neversink Library even though they are coming fast and furious from Melville House. Still, I mean to persevere because I absolutely trust their editorial eye.  I've just finished my third book: Georges Simenon's The President, translated by Daphne Woodward.  You don't have to twist my arm to get me to read a new Simenon, particularly one of his romans dur, and I hope to see more pop up in Neversink.  This novel is very different in subject matter from The Train, which I reviewed here, but like all the Simenons that I have read, it carries his trademark creation of gloomy, somewhat existential atmosphere, iresistably entwined with an almost effortless suspense. I use the term effortless in conjuction with Simenon's literary skill, because the suspense never seems to be overly contrived. He just has a wonderful way of slowly building up the reader's interest in how events will unfold that sometimes even surpasses that of the characters directly involved. And somehow the endings always manage to both surprise and yet perfectly suitable and satisfying.

In this case, it's an 82 year old man, the former Premier of France, who sits in his Louis-Philippe chair by the fire, listening to the latest political news on the radio and reflecting on his life and past career. That's the plot in a nutshell.  But there is SO much more going on.  There has been a political crisis and a coalition govenment has been formed, led by one Chalamont, a former colleague who used to work under the Premier before getting embroiled in a scandal.  The Premier has evidence that would be extremely damaging.  He sits in his chair as the wind howls outside and the electricty threatens to fail and he waits for Chalamont to pay a visit. An assortment of employees - paid for by the government - hover suspiciously around him.  His health may or may not, be dangerously weakening. And why does an old contemporary from the Premier's village keep calling to reassure him that he'll be at his funeral?

Simenon's characters often fantasize about living a different life; in this novel, the life is re-examined along with the process of creating parallel interpretations with the benefit of hindsight tempered with regrets and grudges. It's a no less poignant - if occasionally futile -  exercise, both to undertake and to read about.

Monday, 5 December 2011

My Weekend With Terence. . .

Friday night I went to see the new movie, My Week With Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis, about a young assistant's infatuation with Marilyn Monroe during the shoot in England of The Prince and the Showgirl, written by Terence Rattigan, based on his play The Sleeping Prince.  Though the story is slight, I really enjoyed the movie, both for Michelle Williams' mermerizing performance, the atmospheric soundtrack, and for the wonderful cast of British theatrical royalty that peppers the film.  Kenneth Branagh has a large and juicy part as Laurence Olivier (and wouldn't it be ironic if this was the part that won him an Oscar?) and the great Judi Dench plays Sybil Thorndike.  But in one delightful cameo appearance after another, up pop Michael Kitchen, Dougray Scott (excellent as Arthur Miller), Simon Russell Beale and Derek Jacobi.  Tiny roles, but they kept me thoroughly engrossed. Dominic Cooper and Emma Watson round out the cast.

By coincidence, I had stopped off at Bay Street Video en route to the cinema - always a dangerous detour as I am a hopeless DVD addict.  And yes, I had to control myself and put back several new releases. But there was one I couldn't resist - The Terence Rattigan Collection, recently released by the BBC.  Terence Davies' new adaptation of Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea was my favourite film at TIFF and so I HAD to buy this five disc collection of television adaptations of several of his plays from the last few decades. Ensconced on the sofa with a pot of tea and my knitting, I watched five of them this weekend, one after the other.  I just couldn't stop myself - the casts were just superb.  

I started with my favourite Rattigan play, After the Dance, one of the most moving plays I've ever experienced about the inter-war generation. Gemma Jones was excellent as Joan, the party-going wife who has to watch her husband succumb to a younger and idealistic Imogen Stubbs.   Then it was on to Ian Holm, Judi Dench (wonderfully acid and bitchy) and a young Michael Kitchen in The Browning Version.  Penelope Wilton gave every bit as good and poignant a performance as Rachel Weisz, in The Deep Blue Sea with Colin Firth here as her younger lover.  By this time I was quite emotionally drained, so thank god for the fun and farce of French Without Tears with a fetching Anthony Andrews (not far off his Brideshead Revisited days) and the lovely and flirtatious Nicola Paget (remember Elizabeth from Upstairs Downstairs?).  And you'll barely recognize a slim and dashing Michael Gambon as a befuddled sea captain. This was followed by Geraldine McEwan and Eric Porter in Separate Tables.   I have the 1958 Deborah Kerr and David Niven movie version in my collection, but the play was originally designed to have the same actors play the main characters in both story lines, and this is what occurs in the BBC version with McEwan and Porter also taking on the roles played by Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster. Terrific stuff - I still have 2 discs to go, including Sean Connery taking on Alexander the Great in Adventure Story. Honestly, this would make a great Christmas gift for any theatre buff on your list or a fan of any of the above actors.  I'm so thrilled the BBC is going through their archives and releasing this gems - the picture quality of everything I've seen so far in this collection has been as excellent as the acting.

Now I suppose I should round out my Rattigan revivial and rent The Prince and the Showgirl, a film I've never seen.  Actually I'm thinking a Marilyn Monroe marathon might soon be in the works.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Sneak Peek. . . .

It's been a very busy time. I've been knitting like crazy on far too many projects with xmas coming up, and prepping for sales conference for our summer 2012 books which means dipping into as many manuscripts as I can, and then desperately trying to find the time to finish them all.    I can't really talk about them in detail at this point except to tease; suffice it to say there are some really great books coming out next year.  I'm loving The Chemistry of Tears, the new novel by Peter Carey. Novels by several of my favourite writers - John Irving, Toni Morrison, Helen Dunmore, John Lanchester, Philippe Claudel, Tessa Hadley - are beckoning.  There are lots of novels about the endless blunderings of love (there's a real trend in exploring the complications of the menage a trois - and not just from the French either!) that will make for tantalizing summer reading. There are some really exciting debuts,, and some award winning international literature that's finally been translated along with tantalizing classics that have been out of print for too long. My favourite title of the summer comes from the former category:  Life is Short and Desire Endless by Patrick Lapeyre, translated by Adriana Hunter.  It won the Prix Femina in 2010. I've halfway through and it's very entertaining. There's also an incredible line-up of mystery novels to look forward to. 

In the meantime, all the "best of 2011 lists" are coming out. I look at them with professional interest, but I much prefer it when they ask writers themselves to recommend their favourite reads. As they did in The Guardian here. Some great xmas ideas. As I do every year, I'll be going over my reading/movie journal and picking my top ten soon, but since I'll get a lot of reading (and film viewing) done over the holidays it's still a bit premature.