Yarn Along


As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been dividing my time between two cities lately – and this means having two phone chargers, two bottles of each of my prescription medicines, and, of course, two sets of knitting projects. I’m usually in San Jose on Wednesdays, but since this week I’m in San Francisco I thought I would show you my orange cowl, which made appearances on Yarn Along many, many months (years?) ago. I lost track of it for a while but am really enjoying it now. I could cast it off today and be done, but my gut tells me to keep going; I like cowls to be really long and slouchy.

I’m reading a few books, one of which is Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’ Reading about music is not something I usually do (though I have done it once before, here) but I love the song and I love Leonard Cohen, and I’m enjoying the book so far. It’s not very technical, at least not yet. I’ll let you know more once I finish it.

And no, this Yarn Along photo was not taken on the surface of the sun. It was taken on an off-white tablecloth that for some reason GLOWS NEON YELLOW under the overhead light. The days are getting shorter, and natural light for Yarn Along photos will be harder and harder to come by.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

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A Review of Larry Watson’s As Good as Gone


I was surprised to look my Yarn Along post from a few weeks ago and see that I used the word “enjoying” to describe my relationship with As Good as Gone. How much has changed. I’ll tell you a bit about the plot and characters and then describe the general souring of my opinion toward what was at first a very palatable novel.

The central premise of this novel is that Bill Sidey and his wife Marjorie have to leave their home in Gladstone, Montana for a week so Marjorie can get an elective hysterectomy at a hospital in Missoula. Against Marjorie’s wishes, Bill arranges for his estranged father, Calvin, to stay in their home and care for their children, Ann and Will. Calvin was once a respected real estate agent in Gladstone, but he left when Bill was a teenager and hasn’t been seen in town since. Shortly before he left, Calvin’s wife Pauline traveled home to France to visit her family and was killed in a car accident there, and the rumor mill in Gladstone suggests that in his rage and grief over the loss of his wife, Calvin killed a man. Ever since he left, he has worked as a ranch hand and cowboy-for-hire and lived in a Spartan trailer in the wilderness.

This novel is written in a shifting point of view, with each chapter told by a new character. In other words, it’s a gigantic 21st-century literary cliché. In the 20th century, shifting points of view was a sophisticated technique practiced by the likes of Faulkner and Joyce; nowadays it’s the go-to approach for anyone aspiring to the “From our Library to Yours” shelf at Target. (Full disclosure: I’ve done it too. I’m currently revising one novel that uses shifting points of view and drafting another. Given my current mood, that may change.) The point-of-view characters include all four members of Bill Sidey’s nuclear family, plus Calvin and a neighbor named Beverly Lodge, who is sort of like Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched if Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched ever took off all her clothes and hid in Samantha’s father’s bed on one of his occasional visits. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Of course everyone in the family has secrets from one another. Ann – known by everyone in town as a paragon of responsibility because she attends school while also holding down a job at J.C. Penney’s – has a boyfriend who scares her; the first time we see her she is running for her life, cutting through backyards in the predawn hours to evade him in his truck. Will is besieged by his friends, who are desperate for him to rig some kind of defective-curtain scenario so they can spy on Ann getting dressed. Neither Bill nor Marjorie can stop thinking about Marjorie’s own bad-boy high school romance, a boy who died young – Marjorie with longing and Bill with competitiveness and insecurity.

Ultimately what this book wants to be is a dissertation on the Cowboy Code. Calvin Sidey is a sort of Clint Eastwood-shaped cardboard cutout who inspires awe, fear, and puzzlement – and, in Beverly’s case, lust – in the people he meets. Early in the novel, he downplays the romance of the cowboy life, telling Will that he’s dug more post holes than he’s roped steers, but his actions come straight out of central casting. Once this novel’s exposition is complete (and in a not-so-well-done novel with multiple points of view, exposition takes forever), the plot seems to consist entirely of Calvin stalking out of rooms and then driving somewhere to (your choice) threaten people, beat people with hacked-off garden hoses, or get in fistfights in alleys carpeted in broken glass.

The problem is that if an author is going to write in multiple points of view, he has to actually write in multiple points of view. He has to let his characters be complex. Every character in this novel is flat. They all think about only one thing. We spend at least a quarter of the novel in Calvin Sidey’s head, but we never understand why he agreed to come back to Gladstone to take care of his grandchildren, nor do we ever enter his feelings in an authentic way – and don’t get me started on the fact that reading Catullus in the original Latin is supposed to be very meaningful and therapeutic for him. Larry Watson could have written a great novel from Calvin’s point of view (probably in first person; I am coming to understand that Watson does his best writing in first person), and I wouldn’t write off the possibility that he might have been able to write it from another character’s point of view – Ann’s, for example, or Beverly’s.

The old me would add at least a thousand more words to this review. I would tell you that Will is a caricature, that none of the backstory on Marjorie’s relationship with her sister is necessary, and that Beverly Lodge would never in a million years have used the word “prose” – and I would be right. The old me would go on and on about the improbable sex between Beverly and Calvin – and maybe the future me will do that sort of thing too. But I’m going to end this review here. This is a disappointing novel, but I haven’t lost respect for Larry Watson, an author I admire. I will continue to read his work, but I hope he returns to the complicate psychological character studies that he really is quite good at.

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A Review of Craig Schaefer’s Harmony Black & Red Knight Falling (by Jill)



These are Kindle Unlimited books, and OMG what a pleasant surprise. I’ll admit I’ve been missing Kim Harrison and her urban fantasy Hollows series, and sorta kinda on the hunt for a new series to replace it since Kim has moved on from Rachel and Jinx and Ivy. Harmony Black came up on Kindle Unlimited a few months ago and when I finished The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on the plane on the way home from Atlanta in August I just picked another Kindle book to start. Harmony Black seemed like a good read for the airplane, and it was. It totally was. I kept reading it when I got home. I read it in the car that night on the way to sushi. If we hadn’t been meeting friends I would have kept reading it during dinner, and I’ve only done that once since I stopped being a kid (it was when the last Harry Potter book came out, and we were eating at The Cheesecake Factory). Generally I’ve been underwhelmed by my Kindle Unlimited subscription, and I often wonder why I keep paying $9.99 a month for it. But every once in a while I hit upon a hidden gem like Craig Schaefer. He’s got another series that I need to delve into at some point (they’re all available on Kindle Unlimited, thank god), but this new series is enough to restore my faith in Amazon’s taste in books.

I’ll admit, Harmony Black and Red Knight Falling are not literature. They are not as amazing as The Hollows series. But the first two entries in this series are better than the first two of Kim Harrison’s books. I read the first two and enjoyed them enough to keep going, but was sort of embarrassed about it. Kim hit her stride with the third book. Craig Schaefer hits the ground running here. It’s probably because this is not his first series; perhaps his Daniel Faust series starts slow. I’ll find out one of these days. But where was I? Oh yes. I’m reviewing these books together because I read them sequentially and I’m so far behind in reviews that I needed to do something to get caught up. I can’t exactly combine my reviews of A God in Ruins and I Regret Nothing, can I?

Anyway. Harmony Black is a witch and FBI agent. In this urban fantasy series, witches and demons and whatnot are not “out of the closet/coffin/parallel dimension,” so it’s not a post-apocalyptic sort of urban fantasy like The Hollows. Harmony is a solo agent who gets hooked up with a team of agents (called Vigilant Lock) who quickly become her family. She is replacing a member of the team who was killed, but maybe she needed to go anyway. (She did. We met her in the next book.) None of the others are witches, but the team’s leader, Jessie, may have some demon in her. Her father worshipped a demon and did some terrible things to his daughter when she was young. The mystery to be solved in the first novel is a baby abduction thing: every thirty years in a small town in Michigan, six children disappear, and it’s started again. The personal interest thing is that thirty years ago one of the babies was Harmony’s little sister. And the kidnapper is a demon. Shenanigans ensue. This book was a perfect plane book: fast-paced, action-packed, all that good stuff. And, I even cared about the characters. Schaefer is good at mixing action and occult and character development. Needless to say, Harmony solves the case, saves the day, and makes new friends. She even reconnects with a guy from her hometown.


The second book in the series, Red Knight Falling, did not go quite as quickly for me. Probably because I didn’t have six hours of uninterrupted reading time to devote to it. It pretty much picks up where Harmony Black leaves off, with Harmony, Jessie, Keith (the tech nerd), and April (psychologist/former amazing field agent until she got put in a wheel chair on an op) heading off for another adventure. This time, Red Knight, a satellite, is falling from the sky. No one really knows why it’s up there, but apparently it’s protecting the Earth from something OUT THERE that is threatening the planet. Of course there are conspiracies lurking under the surface that Harmony and her team are just starting to unearth (setting the stage for more adventures to follow). Of course Nikki, the “dead” team member who Harmony replaced isn’t actually dead. And of course, Nikki is now a baddie who is now selling her witchy powers to the highest bidder. The Red Knight story line wasn’t amazing, and nowhere near as engaging as the mystery in Harmony Black, but the character development and the long game story are of more importance here. I’ll keep going because I want to find out what sort of trouble Harmony and friends are going to get into with the FBI and the forces lurking under the surface of Vigilant Lock. The next book comes out in February 2017, I just checked. Stay tuned….

Posted in Craig Schaefer, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (by Jill)



If my review of All My Puny Sorrows was sparse on details, it’s nothing compared to how sparse this review is going to be. I read this book on vacation with my parents. My parents go to bed really early, so I got a lot of reading done, which was nice. Goodreads says I started this book on August 13th and finished it on August 14th. That is some fast reading, if I do say so myself, even though the book was pretty short. I read this book on my Kindle, and it was one of my Kindle Unlimited books, and I’m really excited to remove it from my Kindle when I’ve published this post.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961 and takes place in and around an all-girls boarding school in the later 1920s and early 1930s. The titular Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at said school and she takes six girls under her wing when they are ten, and she is “in her prime,” whatever that means. Miss Brodie is an aficionado of Mussolini in particular and fascism in general, which fascinates me, but then this novel takes place several years before World War II breaks out so things were kind of different back then, but it was still bizarre to read about this woman touting fascism as the future.

The six girls were pretty interchangeable while I was reading about them back in August, and they are even more so two months on. I remember one was very pretty, and one had very small eyes. Their names are Monica Douglas, Rose Stanley, Eunice Gardner, Sandy Stranger, Jenny Gray, and Mary Macgregor. Miss Brodie employs a different method of teaching than was standard back in the Twenties, or even today. She tells stories and gives advice, and that’s sort of all. I am not clear on whether or not she actually ever taught English to her students, though I know she talked about literature. Miss Jean Brodie also has two suitors, Teddy Lloyd, an artist and teacher at the school who is married, and Gordon Lowther, the school’s music teacher. There is much hullaballoo with this love triangle: Miss Brodie may love Teddy more, but she chooses Mr. Lowther because he is not married and seems to need her more, and I think he has an illness. At one point or another Miss Brodie decides that one of her girls needs to take Teddy as a lover, and that whole thing was really, really weird to me. If I could have not known about that, I would have liked this book more.

Despite this vague and miserable review, I really did like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Jean Brodie is a fascinating character, though I don’t really know that I knew her very well after reading this book. She is an enigma, that Jean Brodie. The novel is also really easy to read, it’s got that “effortless prose” we are so enamored with here at PfP. I would love to discuss Miss Brodie with someone one of these days; if anyone has any interest in doing so, please just comment on my post.  Also, if anyone has seen the movie with Maggie Smith, could you please let me know if it’s worth watching?  I just love Professor McGonagall.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Muriel Spark, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Review of Miriam Toew’s All My Puny Sorrows (by Jill)


all my puny sorrows cover.png

This one was Indiespensible #50 from Powell’s back in November of 2014. I read it over the summer, mostly while I was travelling to and from Georgia to visit my aunt with my parents. It was probably one of my favorite surprises of the Indiespensible books I’ve read—I wasn’t excited to read it but I ended up really enjoying it, despite the heavy subject matter.

The novel is narrated by Yolandi, a writer of “rodeo novels,” and a lapsed Mennonite, who travels home to Winnipeg from Toronto to be with her sister Elfrieda who has tried to kill herself. Again. Elfreida is a pianist, and a very famous and accomplished one. Her reasons for continuing to attempt suicide are never quite defined other than that she wants to not be alive anymore. This novel is not especially plot-driven; it’s more about Yoli figuring out her somewhat messed up life (she is getting divorced, drinks too much, has a fairly successful career writing books that mean very little to her, has two teenaged children who seem like good kids, but she definitely isn’t happy) and coming to terms with finally losing the person who means the most to her.

One regret I have about this book is that I didn’t get a chance to research Mennonites as well as I would have normally while I was reading since I read so much of it on planes, or in bed, where I have a fairly strict no devices before going to sleep policy. (For myself only–I think my husband may be on Facebook and Reddit while he’s sleeping.) I know that Mennonites are Christians, and that they’re sort of like the Amish but not really. I just did some Wikipedia reading really fast and the faith is, of course, more complicated than my initial impression. There are several different orders of Mennonites, some of which are very “Amish-like,” and some of which are more moderate. Yoli and Elf’s family is moderate, but it seems like they might be more liberal than the rest of their community. By the time the action of the novel takes place, Yoli, Elf, and the rest of their family are pretty much lapsed Mennonites, but are still shaped by their sort-of former religion.

I really enjoyed this book; Toews’ prose is beautiful, and I wish I had some examples to share, but the one passage I flagged is so long I’m not going to include it. Yoli is a well-drawn and reliable narrator, and Elfrieda is horribly flawed. I wish we could have seen in her head a little, to get behind her reasoning behind all the suicide attempts. All of the supporting characters were lovely, as well. I whole-heartedly recommend this book and wish I had blogged about it sooner so my review could be more detailed, but 2016 has not been my year for putting out detailed book reviews, and for that I apologize. Hopefully 2017 will be better!


Posted in Fiction - literary, Miriam Toews, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Review of Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams’ Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America


I came to this book because of my obsession with Hamilton, of course; I was interested to read a book that focused entirely on the relationship between Hamilton and Washington, and I was also interested to learn about the years that aren’t covered in much detail in the musical. This book is readable, and I did learn some more details about this alliance, including the fact that Washington sent Hamilton a “wine cooler” as a show of support when the Reynolds scandal broke. I’m presuming this gift was some kind of contraption that would keep wine cold in the pre-electric years, but I prefer to think of Washington showing up on the former treasury secretary’s doorstep with a four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes.


I enjoyed the chapter on “Partisanship, Fear, and Loathing,” in which we learn that John Adams publicly complained of Hamilton’s “superabundance of secretions” and declared that all the honors heaped upon George Washington were the consequence of his “handsome face” and “elegant form.” The authors are decidedly pro-Hamilton and pro-Washington, defending their subjects by characterizing Adams as paranoid and shrewish and claiming that he tended “to consider everyone he knew to be a potential foe instead of a potential ally” (224). As the book progressed, the bias grated on me a little. I wanted the authors to dig into Washington and Hamilton’s relationship and unearth connections that previously went unnoticed, when what they do most often is skate over the surface. In the book’s final chapter, Knott and Williams abandon all trace of objectivity in what is obviously a defense of Hamilton himself and of Washington’s confidence in Hamilton. They praise his encyclopedic mind and his caution, noting that “there would be times when statesmanship would require the president to resist the wishes of the people” (248). They also acknowledge that Hamilton “was a horrible politician, but as a nation-builder and strategic thinker, he was without parallel” (249).

I found this book very readable and generally enjoyed it, but ultimately it never quite transcends its sources. Almost every time I found a point intriguing, I checked the bibliography and found that it came from Ron Chernow – either from his biography of Washington or his biography of Hamilton, the former of which was also Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspiration and key source for the musical. I suppose this book is ideal for readers who are caught up in Founding Father Fever but aren’t quite ready to commit to reading both of Chernow’s massive biographies. I haven’t read either one yet, but I definitely intend to – so maybe I am not the ideal reader for Knott and Williams’ book, which is more a synthesis of other biographies than a work of scholarship in its own right.

Posted in Authors, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Brad Watson’s Miss Jane


Fair warning: this book is not about Jane Austen. I learned to make this disclaimer when I was reading the book, and everyone who saw the title said, “Oh! Jane Austen!” And then I had the pleasure of replying, “No! Mangled genitalia!”

This novel is about Jane Chisolm, who is born with a vaguely-defined defect of her urinary anatomy. We’re never told exactly what’s wrong, but we know that his first glimpse of his daughter’s genitalia led Mr. Chisolm to say, “Good Lord… what trouble have we gone and brought into this world now?” We also know that her doctor is concerned about fecal contamination of Jane’s vagina and urinary tract and tells her father in vague terms that her various tubes and passageways are “mixed up.” As someone who writes fiction, I see the wisdom of keeping things minimalist in this regard, but as a reader, I was a little annoyed. I wanted to know exactly what was wrong with Jane’s girl parts. What I visualized was a sort of baseball-shaped cavity into which Jane’s rectum, urethra, and vagina all emptied like three underground rivers feeding into an open cave. I am pretty sure this is not accurate, and it bothered me that I kept visualizing this layout throughout the novel.

(Layout. Underground rivers. Baseball-shaped cavity. Various tubes and passageways. Girl parts. Urinary anatomy. Has a more awkward paragraph ever appeared in a book review? I promise I won’t go on like this forever. Actually, never mind – I’m not sure I can promise that.)

A couple more facts about Jane: first, she suffers from both urinary and bowel incontinence throughout her life, and second, her reproductive system is mostly functional, in that she menstruates and has all of the organs necessary to conceive children. Her doctor assumes that she would be unable to carry a baby to term, for reasons involving the possibly-erroneous baseball-shaped cavity, but Jane never tests his theory.

Jane is born in 1915 into a miserably unhappy family. Her father, Sylvester, is a good, well-intentioned man but an unregenerate drunk who pays Jane’s doctor in moonshine. Her deeply unhappy mother blames her husband for Jane’s deformities, viewing Jane’s birth defects as divine retribution for the fact that Sylvester had sex with her when she was on a serious dose of laudanum for her anxiety and grief over the death of her young son. In addition to the son they lost, the family has two adult sons who have left home and are rarely mentioned and a sour daughter in her early teens named Grace. In the incapacitating depression that takes over Mrs. Chisolm after Jane’s birth, Grace essentially raises Jane, passing along her own stoicism and independence. From early childhood, Jane learns to clean her (here we go again) secret passageways and manage her incontinence without help.

Dr. Thompson – the small-town family doctor who delivers Jane – keeps in close touch with the Chisolm family and corresponds with a friend who practices urology at Johns Hopkins, determined to find a way to “fix” Jane. The doctor is a bit of an enigma. His wife leaves him early in the novel, when he refuses to sell his medical practice and move to a city. The doctor is a philosophical type, musing over the crowd of sick, wounded, and disfigured adults that crowd his porch while he is out delivering Jane, “And to think all these came out of the womb fully formed.” The doctor intervenes in non-philosophical ways as well, such as taking Jane to Memphis to be examined by specialists, giving Jane a detailed sex talk when she starts to menstruate, and – wrenchingly – intervening when a local boy seem to be falling in love with her, telling him outright that Jane can’t have children and hinting at the problem with her (this again) safety-deposit box, giving him just enough information to scare him off. Early on, I thought Dr. Thompson was gay and that the friend he consults at Johns Hopkins is a former lover. Their letters contains little glimmers of flirtation and allusions to a memorable past, and it would make sense if an uninterested husband, rather than a host of scary patients, were the real reason for Mrs. Thompson’s departure, but the friendship between the two doctors fades as the novel progresses. The point of this characterization seems to be to establish that the doctor – like most of the other characters in his novel – has his own baseball-shaped chamber to torment him, though in the doctor’s case the emptiness is in his heart.

The novel lingers in Jane’s adolescence but does eventually bring us to middle age. Jane inherits her family’s land and is Dr. Thompson’s beneficiary as well, and when a surgical procedure to fix her (and again!) miswired radio becomes available, she declines the offer to be operated on pro bono. By this point she is comfortable in the solitude and routines of her rural life, and she’s also insulted by the reminder that there are and always have been doctors out there who know about her case and have been striving for decades to “fix” her condition. In the novel’s closing pages, I heard echoes of the ending of The Scarlet Letter, when Hester – who by this point can go anywhere she wants – chooses to come back to Boston, pin on her scarlet letter, and move into the cottage by the sea where she had lived in isolation with her daughter. Both Jane and Hester (and Hester’s daughter Pearl) are set apart from their society. Hester is punished for her “sin,” which any reader with a brain can recognize as no sin at all but an act of pride. Similarly, Jane isolates herself not because of her (not this again) inverted teacup but because of her own sin, which is also pride (look at the cover – peacocks!).

After all this, I suppose I should mention that Brad Watson’s prose is beautiful. “One day in July,” he writes, “she stood beside the tomato row in a mild state of wonder, watching a doomed tomato worm eat her best plant. The worm’s fat, segmented body was studded with the rows of pure white cocoons that had grown from wasp eggs laid under its skin. They looked like embedded teardrop pearls or beautiful tiny onion bulbs growing from its bright green skin. Inside the cocoons, wasp larvae sucked away the worm’s soft tissue as casually as a child drawing malt through a straw. The worm seemed entirely unperturbed. No doubt a tomato work is born expecting this particular method of slow death, a part of the pattern of its making somehow, something its brain or nerve center, whichever it has, is naturally conditioned to recognize and accept. Just as a person hardly registers, until near the end, the long slow decadence of death” (248). Sure, you could argue that agriculture/fertility metaphors are overdone, but to my ear Watson hits exactly the right note here. Jane is tending her private garden – a walled garden, if we’re going to think in medieval cult-of-virginity terms, and of course we are – and the narrative voice here is characterizing Jane and her own slow acceptance (and cultivation) of the limits of her life. We are all limited by our bodies, of course, but Jane learned to accept this reality earlier than most. At the same time, Watson alludes to natural selection, to the slow ways that creatures adapt to their surroundings and pass these adaptations along to their children. Because of her birth defect, Jane is exempted from all of this. Sex drives natural selection forward, and Jane will never have sex or be a mother – and there is a sad, ironic freedom in that.

Posted in Authors, Brad Watson, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment