Tuesday, February 28, 2012

{read: Olympics vs. family} Gold by Chris Cleave

I loved the fresh writing and plotting in Little Bee and Incendiary, so I had high expectations for Chris Cleave's third book, Gold, in which he tells the story of three British Olympic cyclists and how their lives intertwine. Yet while I enjoyed the story, it didn't compare to Cleave's earlier two books. This one, which explores the themes of how we define success for ourselves, how society defines success, the cost and joy of parenthood, and the ties of friendship, had somewhat predictable plotting. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, but at times it almost felt like I was reading Jodi Picoult rather than Chris Cleave.

So what was the difference between his first two novels and this one? I think it comes down to two things. First, Little Bee and Incendiary made good use of first person narration, and Gold is told entirely in the third person. While this can work well in many cases, it seemed to keep me at more of a distance. Second, in his first two books Cleave took big, hairy problems like terrorist bombings, illegal immigration, and the problems faced by third-world African nations and made them personal. He showed you how they translate into the everyday lives of everyday people. While Gold deals with themes that interest me, I missed that connection to a more global problem and seeing its intricacies both distilled and concentrated into the characters' lives.

The cover, however, is awesome. It's an optical illusion that shows either two women's faces (similar to profile on the Little Bee cover)  or a gold cup depending how you look at it.

(This is a review of an advance copy. The book will be published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster in July 2012.)

Gold by Chris Cleave (Simon and Schuster, 2012)
My rating:  4 stars

Monday, February 27, 2012

{crafts} Natural Bean Jewelry

I love these necklaces. They would be so much fun to make. I think the hardest part would be drilling the holes. Once the holes were drilled it would be fun for a child to help string the beans! This tutorial is part of Etsy's How-Tuesday and can be found at: http://www.etsy.com/blog/en/2012/how-tuesday-natural-bean-jewelry/

Natural Bean Jewelry

“Me, sexy? I’m just plain ol’ beans and rice.”  — Pam Grier
Once thought of as the seat of the soul, beans have been buried with the dead, deemed the seed of sin, grown for almost nine millennia, and eaten daily across the globe. With over 4,000 cultivar they come in coats of many colors: rich red and purple kidney, tawny intricate tans of cranberry, or the the simple stark contrast of the black eye. I’m Lisa Kraushaar of radicals— by day a mild-mannered Etsy Admin — here to show you how to make beans into beads, and focus on the legume’s more decorative values.
Supplies You’ll Need:
  • Approximately 300 dry beans, any type (Pictured above are calypso beans, black eyed peas, red beans, and cranberry beans.)
  • Waxed thread
  • Flex shaft or dremel hand tool (or any tool that drills)
  • 1mm drill bit
  • Bench pin (or another wooden surface to drill into)
  • 4 mm spherical burr
  • Super glue
  • Scissors
1. With your bench pin at the ready, firmly secure your 4mm burr in your flex shaft or dremel. Carve a nook the size of the beans you’ve decided to use in you bench pin. This will serve as a brace to hold your bean secure when you apply the pressure of your drill.
Beans with drilled holes. Expect some bean dust!
2. Replace the burr with your 1mm drill bit in your flex shaft. Pinch the bean firmly parallel to the direction you’ll drill your hole. Hold it securely in the nook you’ve carved in your bench pin. Place your drill at the desired entrance of your hole and apply firm pressure against your drill bit and bean. At a gentle speed, push your drill through the length of the bean.
Hold your flex shaft firmly, but without a stiff wrist. In the event that your drill skips away from the bean, a loose wrist will give you the flexibility to pull away before nicking your fingers. You can brace your drill wrist against your bench pin for greater control.
Repeat step 2 until you’ve drilled holes through all of your beans.
3. Unspool about 2 1/2 yards of waxed thread. String your beans until you have about 6 ft. of beaded cord. The wax thread will be stiff enough to string your beads without a needle. If the tip of your string becomes frayed, twist or snip it back into a point. If you have any problems stringing your bean, blow air through the hole of the bean or clear it out with a needle.
4. Firmly tie both ends of your beaded string twice. Apply a small amount of super glue to your knot. Make sure to coat the spaces where stings some together. Let it dry overnight.
5. Snip the remaining string tight to your knot. Since you’ve glued the knot, you need not fear it will untie. You now have a beautiful string of beans that can be draped several times around the neck or wrapped around your wrist for a striking bracelet.
6. Wait for the oohs and ahhs to begin!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

{a thought for Thursday} Pain and peace

It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace. ― Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

{read: don't miss this one!} The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This is the story of the book I almost didn't read. The title didn't draw me in, I didn't like the cover, and the fact that it was set in North Korea put it low on my to-read list. Yet the good reviews kept piling up, so I put it on my library hold list. When it came in, it sat on my shelf until the day before it was due. Finally I picked it up to see if I wanted to read it or if I should just return it. Pak Jun Do and his story captured my imagination, and the story grew stronger as the book went along. (I had to pay 30 cents in late fees, but it was well worth it.)

This book is remarkable for the glimpse it provides of bleak North Korean life and the harsh regime, which at times reminded me of the Cold War and at other times reminded me of the Nazi death camps. Yet parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the descriptions of American life and especially American blues music. In other places, unexpected honesty contradicts the propaganda and party line that you expect all citizens to espouse. I think one of the triumphs of the book is Johnson's ability to flesh out the characters to explore how they deal with the daily struggle of life under the Dear Leader and still retain their humanity. The plotting is understated yet crafty, as pieces of the first half of the book take on a larger significance in the second half than you expected when you first encountered them.  

The Orphan Master's Son is definitely a contender for the best book for 2012. It's by far the best book I've read this year and perhaps the best one I've read in the past 12 months. If you only read one book this year, make it this one.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2012)
My rating: 5 stars

Thursday, February 16, 2012

{a thought for Thursday} A clean slate

Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet? — Lucy Maud Montgomery

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

{read: a love story} The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

By chance, this was the fourth novel I'd read in a row that might be characterized as a love story. (The others were Vaclav & Lena, To Be Sung Underwater, and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand -- all excellent.) This is a much darker book than any of those. Stefan Merrill Block writes a fictionalized account of his grandparents, Katharine and Frederick, and of their struggle to maintain a marriage through Frederick's manic depressive episodes. After flashing some old ladies late one night, the latest in a long string of drunken, inappropriate episodes, Katharine agrees that instead of going to jail, Frederick should be committed to the famous Mayflower Home insane asylum so he can get well. Alternate chapters detail this time in their lives from the views of Katharine and Frederick.

Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, has a blurb on the book's jacket that I think captures the essence of the book: "To get at truths that are almost unbearable: that love can fail, that a mind can immolate, and that language can sometimes leave us lonelier than our original silence."

This is a powerful, dark book about mental illness, love, and trying to make the life that you thought you could have. Yet when it comes to fictionalized accounts of grandparents' lives, I prefer City of Thieves by David Benioff, and when it comes to Block's work, I prefer his first novel, The Story of Forgetting. I think the storytelling in both of those is more fluid and compelling, and I found the characters more interesting. This isn't to say that Katharine and Frederick aren't complex as they wrestle with their own demons and try to figure out how to live, together or apart. Block continues to explore the impact of mental illness on relationships and families, and I can't wait to see what he writes next.

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block (Random House Publishing, 2011)
My rating: 3 stars

Monday, February 13, 2012

{crafts} Keepsake Papercut Tutorial from Etsy

Are you in need of a last minute Valentine's craft? Etsy.com posted this papercut tutorial. It would create a wonderful Valentine's card for a loved one. Enjoy. Original tutorial found at etsy.com.

Keepsake Papercut

In my own personal book of made-up lore, I like to think of St. Valentine as the patron saint of paper craft. Fictions aside, Valentine’s Day really has evolved into the perfect occasion to pick up some paper and sharp tools and start snip-snip-snipping away in the name of love. For this week’sHow-Tuesday post, Naomi Shiek of Woodland Papercuts has created a beautiful valentine for each of you. Print out her special design and make your own elegant card or photo frame for your sweetheart, grandma, teacher, or anyone else you’d like to send a little handmade love. Happy Valentine’s Day!
With Valentine’s Day nearing, cards are being bought, colored, and glued by countless sweethearts, from pre-school kids to grandmas. There are countless ways to make your love note, but there’s one I’m sure we’ve all attempted at one point or another: the papercut card. The tutorial below is a take on the old-school papercut card, though it can also double as a keepsake photo frame, which requires a higher skill level and a lot more patience than the average third grader can spare. This card will make for a sweet message to mail to your loved ones.
Supplies You’ll Need:
A self-healing cutting mat
Steel ruler
A sharp cutting knife and spare 30 degrees angle blades
A4 cover weight paper of your choice; something thick and stiff that can still run through a printer.
Printer (optional)
Gold pen and glitter or a wallet-size photo of your choice (optional)
2. Print out the template on your paper. If the paper is too thick for your home printer, print it at a local print shop.
3. Time to get down to business! Cut out the design on your self-healing cutting mat with your cutting knife, using a steel ruler when needed. Begin with the smaller shapes and work yourself to the bigger cuts that surround them. That way the paper won’t tear.
Tip: For an easier job, don’t use the standard blades that come with the scalpel knife. Instead buy a pack of the sharper 30 degree blades.
4. When you’re done with all that cutting, you can either write in your message at the center (I used a gold pen and glitter) or glue in a wallet size valentine photo instead.
That’s it, you’re done. Happy Valentine’s Day!
If you make your own papercut, share a photo with us in the Etsy Labs Flickr group.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

{a thought for Thursday} Chef's salads

People aren't either wicked or noble. They're like chef's salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict. ― Lemony Snicket, The Grim Grotto

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

{read: fictional portrayal of Flannery O'Connor} A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

While I haven't read any of Flannery O'Connor's work, Ann Napolitano paints a three-dimensional portrait of this famous Southern author. She's not the focus of A Good Hard Look, but she's one of the critical characters. Cookie Himmel, who dislikes O'Connor, returns to her hometown of Milledgeville, Ga., to wed her rich fiancee, Melvin Whiteson, and settle down. Flannery has also returned to Milledgeville due to her worsening lupus. Out of spite, Flannery tells the happy couple that she'll give them one of her peacocks. Melvin goes out to the farm, allegedly to pick it up, but really just to see firsthand what this flock of peacocks is like. They kept the whole town awake with their screams the night before the wedding, and he's curious. An odd secret friendship develops between Melvin and Flannery, and that, coupled with decisions made by some other townspeople, result in two catastrophes that leave some of the characters wondering how they've ended up where they are and trying to deal with the consequences. This book started out a little bit light for me, but I liked it more and more as it went along. It's also another example of a book that I find myself thinking about well after I've read it.

A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano (Penguin Press, 2011)
My rating: 4 stars

Monday, February 6, 2012

{crafts} : Modern Colorful Mobiles

These are beautiful and look fairly easy to do, posted at Project Wedding. 

DIY: Modern Colorful Mobiles

This bright mobile project is perfect for a daytime wedding reception or shower! (expert advice)

DIY: Modern Colorful Mobiles  article photo
This bright and modern mobile project is perfect for a daytime wedding reception or shower and can be done in any color scheme. It will transform the room and make a big impact!
The best part is this whole project can be made on the cheap--for under $25! Let's get started:
Materials:Vellum paper (we used 14 shades) 56 sheets of paper total $17
A sewing machine
Fishing weights (not pictured) $5
An exacto knife and straight edge (or a stack cutter)
Artist tape (for hanging)
Step one. Cut the sheets of vellum into one inch strips. You can do this with an exacto knife or have it cut all at one time with a stack cutter. (If you decide to go the stack color route organizing the paper in the order you want it to hang in will save you some time.)

Step two. Measure the height of the space where the mobiles will hang to figure out how long you want them. Keep in mind you'll want to keep the eyesight of the guests clear of any obstruction.

Step three. Once you know the length of the mobiles, layout the different colors in the order you want. Repeat until it is close to the length of mobile you want. Then put it into a stack and it is ready to sew.

Step four. Leave a 12" tail of thread at the beginning and start to sew down the middle of the first strip. (I found it is easiest to put a piece of tape on the sewing machine at the end of the strip as a guide to mark where the vellum should be sewn.) Continue feeding each addition strip into the sewing machine. At the end leave another long tail of string. As you are sewing try to be consistent on the amount of space between each strip but if its not perfect its ok, this design is very forgiving. Our mobiles were about four feet and the actual sewing took about 10 minutes for each mobile.

Step five. If left by itself, the bottom paper will curl up, add a simple fishing weight at the bottom to prevent this from happening and to add a nice polish to the project.

Step six. Hang the mobiles at varying heights over the center of the table with artist tape.

Thursday, February 2, 2012