Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Mirror and the Light

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Book Review

The Mirror and the Light received a lot of attention when it was published in March 2020, just as stay-at-home orders took effect. I decided to read Hilary Mantel's trilogy as a diversion, having meant to read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but never gotten around to it.

I'm in awe of Hilary Mantel. She brings an influential man from Henry VIII's 16th century Tudor England, Thomas Cromwell, to life with conversation, aspirations, and thoughts we easily recognize from our own world, yet we would never mistake him for someone other than from his own time. He's especially good with the ladies, not as a suitor but because he notices them as people, and talks easily with them, to the bafflement of many blustering, strutting noblemen around him. 

For example, in The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell continues to work hard to preserve Henry's daughter (with Katherine of Aragon) Mary's life. She's stubborn, unlikeable, and a danger to herself because her devotion to her mother, to Catholicism, and her refusal to acknowledge her father as head of the Church is grounds for treason and execution. Cromwell knows what a public relations nightmare that would be, and also, one never knows who may be in power in the future. He offers her every opportunity to secretly hold her own counsel while officially supporting Henry. Meanwhile he can't help but despair of her physical clumsiness. When he finally engineers Mary's public acceptance of Henry, Cromwell hovers with her ladies in waiting as she ceremonially descends a staircase in an unattractive gown of her own choosing, Meg the train-bearer behind her.

Mary glances around, as if to check he is following. Meg gives her train a shake. She seems to steer her from behind, with clucks and murmurs, like a woman driving a cart. When Mary stops, Lady Meg stops. What if Mary panics? What if she thinks at this last moment, I cannot do it? But, he murmurs to Lady Shelton, my anxiety is not so much, will she change her mind--it's will she trip over her feet and land before her father in a heap. 

Mary's just one of the matters Cromwell oversees as the handful of years the book covers plays out before his own execution. Henry relies on him more and more, and Cromwell's power is known beyond the borders of England. Cromwell has loyal men in his household whom the king also comes to trust and rely on. Many, perhaps most, of the nobility are jealous and righteously convinced that low-born Cromwell is underserving of his elevated position as Lord Privy Seal, on the king's council, and other titles. They persuade the king that Cromwell's after the throne himself. Just look at his attachment to Mary.

By about the last hundred pages, Cromwell, unsurprised, feels the current of danger. The new marriage he's achieved for Henry has failed because Henry, who believes in romantic love, is not attracted to his new bride. (Hilary Mantel imagines a florid, extremely overweight, unattractively old Henry--depicted otherwise in a painting shown to his prospective young queen--surprising her in her chambers and eliciting a reaction of distaste. Henry can never get over that.)

At the next council meeting the Lord Chancellor says, 'If the king and queen are civil to each other by day, it will help counter the rumours. And I think we can rely on them for that.'
'When he was with the other one,' Fitz says, 'and he couldn't tup her, he blamed witches.'
'Superstition,' Cranmer says. 'He knows better now.'
Norfolk says, 'Well, Cromwell? What to do?'
He says, "I have done nothing, but for his safety and happiness.'
He overhears a young courtier--it is a Howard of course, the young Culpepper: 'If the king cannot manage it with the new queen, Cromwell will do it for him. Why not? He does everything else.'
His friend laughs. What alarms him is not their mockery. It is that they take no care to keep their voices low.
When the council meets they should, he feels, put down sand to soak up the blood. It is like the champ clos for a tournament, sturdily fenced to stop the spectators getting in or the combatants getting out. The king stands in a watchtower, judging every move. 
Eventually the king is persuaded, and walks away from Cromwell. Cromwell ends up in the Tower before his execution, a place where he has sent and visited many people. He knows Henry will not change his mind. 

I read the last pages in stops and starts, out of order, because I didn't want to face the approaching horror of his execution. Cromwell was ruthless in doing the king's will, but I liked and respected Mantel's version of him, and through him vicariously living in the upper echelons of Tudor England power. I realized addiction to power is the same no matter where it falls in history. Mantel's depiction of Cromwell's last days is a meditation on a life and an acceptance of fate. This Cromwell will linger in my thoughts for a long, long time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Digitalis Cardigan and Unselfish Knitting

I have one issue of Making magazine, No. 5/Color, which was published in 2018. In a burst of grandmotherliness, I bought it planning to make Susan B. Anderson's Sweet Bee and Flower for someone, and ordered the kit from her.

The little bees and flowers have not been made, but I've looked through the magazine over and over, daydreaming of making several projects featured in its pages (behaving just as the publishers hoped!). I thought about subscribing, but no other issue has captivated me quite like this one.

One of the sweaters is Digitalis Cardigan, designed by Amy Christoffers. The more I looked at it, especially after making several other sweaters, the more I wanted to knit it, even though I already had plenty of projects lined up to knit for myself. For a cardigan, it had details I like, including a V neck, raglan shoulders, and some lace design--but not too much. And after knitting a ton of stockinette recently, but appreciating being able to do it on autopilot, I liked the reverse stockinette texture.

I am at a stage in my knitting practice where I want to use the yarn the designer used if at all possible to help ensure a good result. (I'm a product knitter and started knitting because I longed for really great sweaters.) So in November, when I happened to see a colorway closeout of Berroco Summer Silk (the yarn Christoffers used) on sale online at WEBS, I bought it. It was a bonus that it seems to be the same color, which was also a reason I liked the sweater. On Instagram not too long ago someone posted that all they wanted to do was knit with mustard colors. I have had the same urge, recently purchasing the Mason Dixon Field Guide No. 14, Refresh, to make Carol Feller's Trellis Top in her Nua Sport yarn in the colorway Rolling Bales.

It is, of course, still shelter at home because of the pandemic, and knitting has been a refuge. This sweater has been fast knitting and I will finish it in well under two months, unheard of for me. I am optimistic it's going to turn out well, and that started me thinking about wearing it.

Which would be...where? It's not just the pandemic, it's that I no longer go to work every day. My wardrobe needs have changed. When I open my closet there are a lot of clothes just hanging there, going unworn, because like most people I tend to wear the same few things over and over again. That includes sweaters, especially cardigans, but I don't need this one.

I love the color--it's more brown than gold but not exactly. More like stone ground mustard than yellow mustard. There's someone else, a knit worthy family member, who also would love this color. I know because we've talked about what colors she likes. If it does turn out, and the fit seems right, I think I'll surprise her with it. I wouldn't say I'm a selfish person, exactly, but I'm not known for giving extravagant gifts. It would be a great joy giving this to her. Oh, there I go thinking about myself! But I think she'd find some joy in it, too.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Nothing to See Here

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
Book Review

As the grandmother of twins, I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard of it. I expected the book to be kind of a joke as I tried to imagine spontaneously combusting twins, but Nothing to See Here is a poignant story of children who have not been well cared for, including the narrator.

Lillian tells the story with her cool, painfully honest but don't-give-a-damn voice. She's 28, smoking a lot of weed, and living in the attic of her emotionally detached mother's house when her college friend Madison asks her to come live with her and her senator husband and his twins who will be moving in after their mother's (the senator's ex-wife) death. Lillian will be paid well to take care of them, and oh, there's one little important detail to be dealt with that Lillian isn't told until she gets there: they spontaneously combust when they're upset.

Lillian doesn't see many options for a better life and she's curious, so she agrees to come to their mansion in Franklin, Tennessee. She and Madison are friends but not in a confiding, companionable way. They keep in touch by letter (it's 1995) and Lillian knows nothing about Madison's interior life. At one time Lillian was ambitious and smart and pursuing a good college education without a drop of help from her single parent mother, but her relationship with Madison led to the destruction of that dream. Lillian wonders if there will be a reckoning between them, but soon realizes there won't be.

Instead she decides to take advantage of living like a rich person--Madison's life instead of the life Lillian had wanted for herself. But it's awkward, starting with cucumber sandwiches that look like dollhouse food.

We were, I understood, being polite. "But now you're here!" she [Madison] said. She poured sweet tea, and I drank it down in, like, two gulps. She didn't even look surprised, just filled my glass up again. I ate one of the sandwiches, and it was gross, but I was hungry. I ate two more. I didn't even realize that there were tiny plates stacked on the tray. I'd held the sandwiches in my dumb hands. I didn't even want to look down at my lap because I knew there were crumbs there.

When the twins move in, Lillian has to immediately invent a way to keep them from burning down the special house away from the mansion that's been built for them, which she does almost instinctively. She also invents a curriculum to occupy the days.  Lillian has no idea what she's doing but hour by hour, day by day, she recognizes they share her feeling of belonging to no one and a kind of existential despair. They don't trust her at first and she doesn't blame them. She earns their trust by letting them see the truth about her loser self. And they share a growing mutual distrust of Madison; their father, Senator Jasper Roberts; the employee Carl who tries vainly to manage the three of them, and even Madison and Senator Roberts' three year old son (the twin's half-brother), Timothy.

It was a little harder to believe Lillian found her way with the twins so surely than it was to go along with the spontaneous combustion condition, yet I did love this book. The ending came together in a satisfying way. Kevin Wilson is a smart, funny writer. An extra little kick of delight for me was discovering he is a nephew of my husband's high school classmate, whom I'd just met this past summer. At that time I heard the story about how the horses were hidden during the Civil War from the Union Army by leading them up the stairs of his mansion. When that same thing showed up in this book I thought maybe all the mansion owners took their horses up the spiral staircase to be hidden from the Yankees.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Hostile T-shirts at Odds

I've been thinking about a family we saw at breakfast last week in our Minneapolis hotel. I noticed a skinny blond boy about 13 years old bouncing around in the breakfast bar, deciding what to put on his plate. I smiled, thinking about the energy some boys seem to radiate and how they just can't help it. Then I noticed the t-shirt he was wearing, pictured on top to the right, and my good feeling about him was gone. Why wear something with a hostile message like that? I watched him sit down with at the table I assumed was his family.

There was another younger boy, maybe ten or 11 years old, with a striped rugby shirt on, spooning up cereal. Across from him sat their mom, her gaze unfocused, wearing a plain black shirt and black leggings, with longish blond hair that could use a wash, an empty plate in front of her. To her right was the dad, finishing a mound of eggs, potatoes, toast and sausage. He was wearing the t-shirt on the left.

Nobody was talking. The dad looked like maybe life had been pretty disappointing and he didn't know what to do about it. He couldn't have been more than 40, but his face and body were puffy, skin mottled, and he was dealing with going bald with a comb over configuration. I figured my husband and I looked like the enemy to him, meaning the label "liberal elites:" retired, healthy, and, if our technical clothing gave away that we were there to cross country ski (Minneapolis has an amazing park system in case you don't know), his suspicions would be confirmed. I'm sure I had my judgey face all over him, if he had cared to look.

Those t-shirts have been bothering me ever since, mostly trying to understand why that father and son wore them, but there was something else nagging at me. This morning I finally figured it out. I could have said to the dad, "I guess your feelings would be hurt if I stomped on the flag, but I have a right to do that."

Then I thought of another thing I could have asked instead: "Are you a veteran?" Because that adds a layer I don't pretend to understand.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Handywoman by Kate Davies
Book Review

I like to knit, mostly sweaters. It's fun to find knitwear designers who have a look or style that pull me in over and over as I discover and research their creations. When that happens, I not only track down whatever I can find on the internet that they've made, I like to discover more about their lives. Where do they live? How'd they get into knitting and designing?

Kate Davies is a knitting designer I recently discovered and admire. I would make just about any of her sweaters. I was further enchanted when I learned she lives in Scotland near the gorgeous West Highland Way, a 95 mile hiking trail my husband and I backpacked in 2012, and that it inspires many of her designs.

I also learned she became a professional knitwear designer after having a debilitating stroke several years ago while she was in her thirties. She's written a memoir, Handywoman, an account of who she was before the brain injury, how she dealt with it, and how her life was changed afterwards. It's also an intelligent, thoughtful, methodical exploration of all facets of being in the physical world, and in communities. Davies was a maker and knitter before her brain injury, but an academic by profession. She turned her intellect to understanding precisely how her changed self interacted with the environment. Along the way she determined she would start a new profession: knitwear designer.

The tone of the book is serious and thorough. For example, Davies' chapter "Raised" takes us through her experience and epiphany being assisted with the Etac turner, a non-motorized piece of equipment for transferring someone that leverages the weight of each person. She does so in explicit detail: its construction; each choreographed movement as the technician secures a brake, stabilizes the turner; each of Davies' own movements in response; and her elation at the realization her own body participates in the entire process, never surrendering to the complete trust of another person's physical effort.

She dissects why that is, and begins to look at designed objects with new eyes. She says, "I now think of the habit of attentiveness I began to develop during the time I spent on the neurology ward as a form of material engagement. Material engagement is both reflective and participatory. . . After my stroke, I came to understand that, in the processes of their making and their potential for creative accomplishment, tools and objects possessed a wisdom that was far greater than my individual mind and body."

But Handywoman is not all about the physical and social experience of brain injury. There are plenty of fascinating stories about her interactions with textile making communities. My favorite was her journey to the Shetland Islands and developing a deep connection and relationship with the woman and culture of knitting there.

I'll probably read this one again because her thoughtfulness about the dailyness of life is inspiring. Meanwhile, I've decided which of Kate Davies' designs is on my project list: the Carbeth Cardigan. Davies is well known and beloved: over 1,800 people on Ravelry have made, or want to make, this sweater, too.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
Book Review

Edith and Helen are sisters who grew up on a farm in north central Minnesota in the 1940s to the early sixties. They become estranged when their father leaves the farm to Helen, the younger, at his death some time in the 1960s.

Before that, Edith and her new husband, Stanley, leave their roles as caretaker and hired hand to move to the small city where's he's been offered a job. Stanley's no farmer and Edith's dad is not well, but this decision surprises Helen because Edith is loyal, hard-working, and lives to help people.

Helen hasn't paid attention to what's happening at the farm since she left for college three years ago, much less to Edith, but she sees how to turn this event to her advantage. Helen fell obsessively in love with the taste of beer and the process of brewing it when she was 15, and has been spending her college years learning everything she can about it. Her fiance, Orval, is from a beer-making family whose brewery has failed. Helen and Orval are trying to revive the business, but they need money.

Helen persuades her father, who is clearly not going to last much longer, to leave the farm to her. She promises she will give Edith her share when the brewery is making money. She and Edith never speak after Helen breaks the news, and the sharing plan falls aside.

Edith is not the kind of person to dwell on financial misfortune; she's much more sad to have no parents and an estranged sister. Edith and Stanley never have much money, and neither does anyone else they know. Edith resolutely, sometimes even cheerfully, shrugs off never owning a home, having no savings, and working well past the age she is when the book starts. (She's 63 and working in the kitchen of a nursing home.) Helen is ambitious, driven, and lonely (though she has Orval) but she doesn't care. Success is what she wants at all costs.

Edith's granddaughter Diana becomes the third major character in the story. A mixture of Edith's Minnesotan unpretentiousness and morality, and Helen's shrewd assessment of how to profit from all she encounters, she's the catalyst for Edith and Helen to find the end of their stories.

We know the setting of a book often works as a character in its own right. In The Lager Queen, it's not quite so much the rural landscape of north central Minnesota as it is the sturdy, unassuming civility of Edith and her friends. They judge people who don't play by their rules: don't swear, don't ask personal questions, be friendly and honest--but they keep it to themselves. Emotions are sublimated. But once in a while they'll make a subtle, insider joke about someone with people they trust.

My dad grew up just like that in the same area, and I recognize my cousins' way of talking in this book. Stradal, who's from Minnesota, has captured the personality of the region in a laugh-out-loud, entertaining, yet respectful, way. He also must love beer. I don't drink it, but this book is saturated with detailed descriptions of hops, brewing facilities, types of beer and their taste. I started to want a cold bottle.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Ice Cream Pails Have to Go

Thankfully I'm not buying this much ice cream anymore.
It seems everyone is decluttering these days, no matter what their age. I babysat yesterday for my daughter and her husband so they could sort through their storage room without one-year-old Nolan insisting on being involved. I've been working on paring down my own considerable amount of stuff, and see echoes of my sentimentality in my daughter's reluctance to let go of old dance costumes and art projects (thank goodness those managed to find their way to her house, not mine!).

In the past months since I've retired, my husband and I have sent bags and boxes and piles of unwanted or broken things to Goodwill or the landfill. Some of it was easy to get rid of, but a lot of it felt like throwing important parts of my own life away.

I don't want to forget past lives and experiences, yet I understand there's a cloying, heavy atmosphere pressing down when you surround yourself with your history instead of what's happening and important now. My husband and I often remind each other that we don't want to live in a museum. We've found we can let go of things that are sitting around out of sight, yet represent cornerstones to our identities, if we give ourselves time to get used to the idea. Terry, a former newspaper editor, finally gave away his lifetime collection of important newspaper headlines.

"Do you think my kids are actually going to pick this up someday to read about Barack Obama's election in 2008?" he asked, holding up a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal. Wordlessly, we both shook our heads, and he flipped it back on top of the stack.

I have given away hundreds of my books over the past years, first the disintegrating paperbacks, then the outdated nonfiction, then the novels I didn't enjoy that much, and finally all that I don't plan to read again, or fail to admire with a five star rating. It was hard, and I could do it only by not thinking about it too much (the "spark joy" Marie Kondo talks about, perhaps?), but it is stimulating to see only the books that matter most when I look at my shelves (there are still plenty, and now I'm trying to be a lot more discerning in purchasing ebooks).

Our basement laundry room is also a storage room, and every day I see what's on those shelves, which have been culled several times over the years, without noticing any particular items. But today my gaze fell on three gallon size ice cream pails taking up prime space on a shelf within easy reach. They're perfect for picking raspberries, strawberries, or children playing with water, or any other number of things. They're substantial, handy buckets with their handles and lids.

But we no longer grow raspberries or strawberries, and if the grandchildren want to play with water, there are many other options. We haven't found a use for them for two years, and I carried those pails to the recycling bin with a feeling of accomplishment.

After I did that, I remembered I should take out the trash, so I removed it from the kitchen. I went through the storage room with my plastic bag where, perhaps predictably, the large plastic bags we were issued one of the last times we skied the American Birkebeiner race caught my attention (while you ski for hours, your belongings are transported to the finish line so you can change into dry, warm clothes). Completing that race several times in my mid and late fifties is one of the most important things I've ever done in terms of meeting a challenge I set for myself. How could I simply throw those bags away? Or use them for trash? They are badges of honor! It's energizing to remember skiing all those kilometers through the Chequamegon Forest, not an oppressive weight!

I'm sure some other items on these shelves will show up in future posts.
Like the ice cream pails, no pressing or worthy use for the bags had turned up in the past four years. But they are, in the end, ugly, nondegradable plastic bags that the Birkie people don't even use anymore.

I moved them upstairs to live with the roll of kitchen trash bags, awaiting their turn to hold our garbage. Okay, I'll come clean: I will move them there after I finish this post. It just takes a little time and processing to say goodbye.