Knitlandia and The Yarn Whisperer by Clara Parks

Genre: “knitlit”, nonfiction
Secondary Genre: Crafts, memoir

If you follow my regular blog or my social media accounts, then you’ll know that I’m pretty involved in the knitting and yarn craft community (That is maybe an understatement. I design patterns). So I was aware of Clara Parks for a while, but had never read her work. She was just a name I’d heard on the convention circuit, someone who regularly taught at events or was interviewed on podcasts.

My new library, however, happened to have two of her books on audio available for checkout, so on a whim I grabbed both and listened to them in record time.

Quick and funny, these memoirs–stylistically like The Yarn Harlot’s books (aka Stephanie Pearl-MacPhee)–were honestly some of the most enjoyable pieces of “knitlit” I’ve ever read. Normally I find prose books written for the knitting community to be trite and full of pointless wool-gathering (no pun intended) (Okay, maybe it was a little intended), but these were a breath of fresh air. Knitlandia is a yarn-based road trip around the world as Clara describes some of her various speaking engagements and the mishaps that have ensued. It made me so eager to go to some of the conventions and events I’ve seen online but have never had the chance to attend. In the days of shelter in place, it will either provide 4-5 hours of relief for those itching to get out and travel, or make that itch completely unbearable once you are done. I blew through this book so fast I didn’t even take notes, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

In her book The Yarn Whisperer, Clara continues to discuss various events in the community, her adventures in attempting to write fiction, and how she learned about fiber and some of her extensive knowledge. I absolutely loved her writing style, which is filled with fantastic metaphors and off-beat humor.

It wasn’t until I started listening to this book that I discovered she’s queer. She doesn’t make a big deal of it in her books; when she speaks of her partner, they are simply a couple existing, which I love.

Both of these books are narrated by the author, which just makes them even better as she has perfect comedic timing. Even if you aren’t a big knitter, I think these are worth a listen. They’re amusing and relaxing at the same time, and that’s not a frequent combination.

(P.S. Clara, if you’re reading this: Want to be CPs? I would 100% read a mystery novel by you).

Pretty Little Killers by Daleen Berry

Genre: nonfiction crime
Secondary genre: contemporary history
Format: audio
CW: violence, drug use
Rating: planchet-4

What drives two teenage girls to commit murder?

Even more shocking, what would drive them to stab their best friend over a dozen times?

This book delves into the disturbing case of Skylar Neese, a teen girl who vanished in 2012. She was missing for five months before one of her best friends finally confessed: Skylar was murdered the same night she went missing.

Starting with the background of how the girls met and the society they grew up in, the story tracks the three girls as they finish middle school and start high school, and the complex and warped turns their relationships take. Could the crime have been prevented? If people had been more willing to come forward, or paid more attention, would Skylar still be alive? If the police had been more careful, would her killers have been caught sooner?

It sounds strange to say I “enjoyed” this book, but it was a very compelling read, and extremely thorough.

A Backpack, A Bear, and 8 Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Genre: Memoir
Secondary genre: Modern history
Format read: Audio
Content warnings: bullying, racist slurs
Rep: Ukranian/Russian, Jewish (racial), refugee, immigrant/1st gen American
Rating: planchet-4

In the 80s, the Russian government was in flux. After a period of anti-Jewish legislation, Mikhail Gorbachev open the borders briefly, allowing Jews and other “undesirable” people to flee. Among them was Lev Golinkin and his family: his parents, older sister, and grandmother.

Tracing his time growing up in what is now Ukraine, through their flight to Vienna and eventual immigration to the US, this book tells a heartbreaking story of the world as it existed around the time when I was born. Littered with humor, it’s an ultimately hopeful tale, but still makes us look at the world we live in today through a different lens. How much has changed since then? How have we really progressed? Are things better? These are questions Lev asks himself as an adult, returning to Vienna to interview the people who made his immigration possible.

As with most of the nonfiction I’ve read, it’s hard to summarize the story into something as short as a blog post without giving away the details. But it’s a wonderful book and one that I highly enjoyed listening to on my commute. If you are curious about the 1980s, international politics, immigration, or Eastern Europe, then this is a definite pick.

Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: cold war, espionage
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-4

Though the Cold War has been over for nearly a lifetime, the repercussions of that tense period in world history can still be felt. This book is the story of how a very bad spy and a man who wasn’t a spy but was accused of espionage anyway, and a pilot in the wrong place at the wrong time, wound up on a bridge on the edge of the iron curtain in a forgotten prisoner exchange that prevented the Cold War from turning hot.

This book tracks two sides of the same story up to the point where the finally converge on that isolated bridge.

While it started out somewhat slow for me, this book was a fascinating look at the politics of the time. I also can’t help but give points to the author for pointing out, practically on page one, that’s it’s essentially the story of privileged white men, most of whom were far more confident than their skills actually merited. As the book went on, however, things started to get more and more intense.

I don’t want to give away too much, since this is a work of nonfiction. If you want to look at the tensions between Russia and the US and where they started, then this would be a good choice for your TBR.

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

Genre: nonfiction, technology
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t pick this book because of the title–which was borrowed for Machines of Loving Grace, one of my favorite typewriter research sources (yes, I am a nerd. You just now noticed?).

Anyway, the book explores the role of technology in the human experience, and the difference between machines that think for themselves to replace humans, and those that are intended to make human tasks easier.

While the concept is interesting, I found a great deal of the material to be repetitive and dull. It also focused exclusively on innovations by men, and I know there are women making great strides in robotics and adaptive technology. In fact, most of the anti-AI and anti-technology arguments made in the book were centered on how technology impacts male-centered blue collar labor, while most of the pro- arguments (such as how technology could aid the disabled, or stay at home parents, or more female-occupied jobs like teaching or nursing) were glossed over or skipped completely. It was a glaring oversight, in my opinion, especially for a book that was only published in 2015.

It might be an interesting read if only for the questions it raises, but only about the first half of the book is useful. After that, the author just repeats himself a lot. Save your time for something more valuable.

Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: war
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: violence, racism,
Rep: Middle Eastern (various), Muslim
Rating: planchet-4

Another effort to educate myself on modern history and countries and events we didn’t talk about when I was in school.

Black Flags tracks the start of ISIS, from the 80s/90s up through the 2010s, weaving together a handful of seemingly disparate events into the terror organization we are familiar with today.

I found this book difficult to take notes on, just because so much of the information was new to me. I also think I would have gotten more out of this book if I’d had a physical copy to references. There were a lot of names my brain didn’t want to keep track of, and it would have been helpful to have maps for reference.

For these reasons, it’s also hard for me to write a proper review. But I found it highly educational and a total gut punch to read. I still don’t understand why Christians, Jews, and Muslims can’t just get along and let each other live as they want to live. But it does help me understand some of the background to current events. I wonder if white supremacists know who similar they are to Jihadists, and vice-versa.

If you have the spoons to handle this kind of book, and want to learn more about the world we live in, this is definitely worth a read.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Genre: memoir
Secondary genre: medical, modern history
Rep: poverty
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-4

We all know the show. But does the book match the drama and intensity of television?

Hell yes.

Following WWII, the UK made an effort to equalize things between the classes, instituting a large network of social services and welfare oportunities to increase health, sanitation, and access to services throughout the country.

Eastern London was poverty stricken, reeling from bombings during the war. The slums that had housed so many for centuries were in the process of being shut down, but with a housing shortage across the country and in London in particular, there were few other places for people to go. Residents of the now-famous Poplar neighborhood found themselves crammed 10-20 deep in 1-3 rooms, with no running water, except maybe a tap in the hall. Toilets were shared and located outdoors. Families scraped by on minimal food and income, wearing clothes until they became little more than rags.

The midwives of St. Nautilus house were a major part of the welfare initiative, proving free pre-natal screenings, delivery, post-natal care, and in home health services. At a time when one couldn’t simply go to the pharmacy to pick up a month’s supply of insulin–for starters most of their patients didn’t even have refrigerators–they administered medication, tended wounds, and checked in on the elderly or injured.

Jenny Worth was one such midwife and district nurse, working in the early 1950s. By bicycle she traveled all over London, mixing with the lowest members of society. Even on streets where policemen feared to walk, a midwife could go alone and be unmolested because of her uniform.

This book looks at several specific cases, some of which are interwoven as patients come back again and again. The last story in particular–which I won’t spoil here–was absolutely amazing to hear, and I have a hard time believing it’s even true.

Is it identical to the television show? Or rather, is the show identical to the book? Absolutely not. But I do think the show has done a great job of maintaining the heart of Mrs. Worth’s memoir, so if you enjoyed that, you should certainly pick up the book.

Code Talker by Chester Nez & Judith Schiess Avila

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: war
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: violence, racism, cruelty to animals
Rep: Native American (Navajo)
Rating: planchet-4

Navajo is a very tricky language. It’s said that one has to be born into it to speak it fluently because there are so many subtleties in pronunciation and meaning that an outsider just can’t pick them all up.

This is why the US government selected Navajo as the basis for it’s code during WWII.

Code Talkers is the story of Chester Nez, one of the original Code Talkers, from his upbringing just outside the Navajo reservation in New Mexico through his service in the Pacific theater, to his life after the war. It covers the many hardships and abuses visited on his family and his people by the government, and the fierce sense of patriotism that still lived in him. It is told in his own words, recorded by journalist Judith Schiess Avila.

It’s only been in recent years that I’ve learned how bad things are for Native peoples in the US and Canada, even today. I was unprepared for the events at the beginning of this book, and that fact that Chester and his compatriots remained fiercely loyal to the US, despite everything, I think shows a strength that I would not have.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about life for Native Americans or the hidden history of WWII.

For more information on conditions in American reservations, I highly encourage you to look at the Navajo Water Project, which the readers of my main blog voted to sponsor as our 2019 charity.

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with Our Families by Paul Gourevitch

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: politics
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: violence, racism, genocide
Rep: African (various, but mostly Rowandan)
Rating: planchet-4

I had a very conservative upbringing that neglected or skewed a lot of world events. Since starting college, I’ve tried to educate myself about world events, but it’s a slow process.

This book covers events in Rowanda from 1993-1997 (the book was published in 1998) surrounding the government sanctioned genocide of civilians and how the US exacerbated the problem through ignoring it, refusing to act, and then finally helping–the perpetrators.

It’s a difficult book for me to summarize without giving everything away. But the short version is that when Belgium colonized Rowanda at the end of the 19th century, they created a division between the Tootsie and Hutu people. For centuries, they had been getting along. But then the white Victorians, with their twisted ideas of racial superiority, stepped in. They decided that the Tootsie, who generally had lighter skin and looked “more European” were superior, genetically, intellectually, and physically, and began taking rights away from the “more African” Hutu peoples. For their own protection, obviously.

Flash forward a hundred years, through oppression and political turmoil, and the new Hutu leader of Rowanda called on all Hutu citizens to murder their Tootsie neighbors.

This book made me absolutely sick to read. Following WWII, we vowed that we would never allow this sort of thing from happening again, but we did. It was barely a blip in the American News Media. While I was very young when this happened, it was not something I recall being spoken of at all. And now, in the Middle East and even our own country, we have allowed this kind of behavior to continue–in the name of money, power, and “freedom.”

This is a powerful book, but one that I know will be hard for many people to read. But if you want to know more about world politics, and to find out more about the darker side of America  when it comes to international relations, then this is a very important book.

The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

Genre: nonfiction biography
Secondary genre: history, spiritualism
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

In the wake of WWI, The Scientific American magazine announces a contest: $5000 to any medium who can prove before a panel of investigators that their powers were real.

And among those investigating was the master of sleight-of-hand himself, Harry Houdini.

After years of failure, one promising medium finally piqued the panel’s interest: Mina Crandon. Unlike most of the other psychics the SA had tried, Mina was not some stage performer hard up for cash. She was a society wife who performed seances for her friends. In fact, for the purposes of the investigation, Mina went by her middle name, Marjory, to protect herself in the articles the Scientific American published after her seances. Her “spirit guide” was her deceased brother, a sarcastic and ribald man who had died some years before. In her private seances, Walter told his friends secrets, made off-color jokes, whistled, played with a photograph and a selection of musical instruments, and played practical jokes on the sitters.

From the first, Houdini declared Mina was a fraud. While he repeatedly mimicked her act, he never made the attempt to catch her red-handed, as he did with all the other so-called mediums he examined.

The book chronicles roughly a decade of investigation into the phenomenon surrounding Mina. Though Houdini continued to declare her a fraud and mock her outright on stage, she only ever voiced the utmost respect for him.

I think Mina was a classy lady who pissed off a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Some of it was straight up sexism. Some of it was prejudice against her vocation. But whether you think she’s an actress or really had conversations with the dead, there’s no denying she drew the short end of the stick after the investigation.

I do think the book was misleading, however. From the title, one would think it was about Mina, but about 2/3 of the book is dedicated to Harry Houdini, from his upbringing to his death, while Mina seems to arrive fully formed on the scene around the time the Scientific American prize is announced. Whether this is due to a lack of sources regarding Mina’s earlier life (it’s implied that she had a shady past) or the author’s choice is unclear, but the sexism that ultimately spelled her downfall in society can be felt in the author’s recounting of her story. It’s not overt, and in fact many will probably disagree with me on this point, but it was in the way the author spoke about her, and the quotes form those nearest to her. She was improper for a woman, and therefore could not be trusted or respected.

Have you read this one? Do you disagree?