I know it’s now mid-February, but I still want to share this very special Christmas present with you guys. I was given the extremely unexpected and generous Christmas gift of an Amazon gift certificate from some lovely friends. I was very moved by the gift because I had *absolutely* no idea it was coming and it arrived in the post on a really great day and it somehow made me feel like things were starting to come together for me.
A lot to read into a gift certificate! Not to be too dramatic, it just felt really nice and was extremely appreciated. I wanted to pick something really special, something I would still have years and years from now and always remember that it was such a kind gift.
The Goodhart Samplers by Dorothy Bromiley Phelan, Eva-Lotta Hansson, and Jacqueline Holdsworth (and published by the amazing Needleprint) is not an easy book to come by now and it took a while, but I managed to scoop up a ‘used’ (but looks barely touched!) copy via Amazon. It’s such an incredibly beautiful book, I can’t tell you how much I love it!
I’m extremely interested in samplers and the history of them, and the Goodhart collection is one the world’s largest. It’s got everything: band samplers, alphabet samplers, cross-stitch, canvas work, needlelace, darning … everything. The photography is crisp and clear like no other needlework book I’ve ever seen. You can see the thread of every stitch. It’s just remarkable, the whole thing.
I could tell before I even opened it that this book will be an inspiration for years to come. I already have projects planned after just browsing its beautiful pages a few times. Thanks, friends, you rock!
I’ve been a fan of Nancy since I was just a little girl, like about a zillion other girls over several generations, and she will always evoke a special feeling in me. Just holding one of the books is magic, it takes me right back to the special little corner in the children’s library at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. On a quiet little shelf all to itself, the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys collection sat mostly untouched. I’m sure there must’ve been girls like me all over the city, who sat at that shelf and admired those incredibly ratty old books, and loved them just like I did, but I never saw one of them there. It seemed like a special corner only I knew about and even though I haven’t been there in about 19 years, I can picture it as clear as if it was yesterday.
So while my parents roamed around getting their books from the grown-up sections, they left me in the care of the trusted librarian and Nancy Drew, girl detective. I would go sit at the shelf and pick up wherever I left off last visit and I suppose I must’ve taken them home sometimes but I only really remember reading them right there in the library. I’m sure I read all seventy-whatever of the books, but I don’t remember any specific plots, just Nancy’s plucky nature and the adventures she got in with her chums, George and Bess.
I moved to Europe as a mid-teenager and didn’t really have access to Nancy for a long-long time, but when an assignment at university allowed me to pick an essay topic from anything in the whole world, I jumped at the chance to learn more about the books. Since she’s such a 1950s icon, I’d never have guessed she was actually created in the 1930s and had undergone a huge re-imaging 30 years later!
It cost quite a bit, but I managed to get myself an early (not first!) edition of the first Nancy Drew book, “The Secret of the Old Clock” (to the left in the top photo) — this illustration is how Nancy originally looked. She was much sassier in the older versions and even fights off a tiger, if my memory serves. Plus, just look at how damn cute she is in that 30s outfit! Nancy was created in 1930 as a girl’s equivalent to the already popular Hardy Boys series, and she was an immediate success.
But in 1959, the publishers decided to revamp the series – go back and, supposedly, remove racial stereotypes present in the earlier versions, but the truth is that they basically gave the entire concept a white-washing (no pun intended). Nancy’s past is less emotional, her age is slightly raised so that she is no longer a minor, she’s given a mother-figure and her father becomes more protective, and, most importantly, she is made more ‘feminine’. She is much more obedient and demure, the way a ‘proper’ young lady should be, according to the time. The new Nancy even looks more well-behaved –
– checking in with the cops rather than running her own investigation around them. It’s such a shame they felt like this was necessary though I suppose that is a sign of the times and all that. If you ask me, the 1930s Nancy, driven by pure moxie, is a much better role model than the polite, mild-mannered girl who is (usually) fine with being told what to do by the men in her life. But even so, I love them both equally. So many of us grew up reading the new-and-improved 1950s Nancy Drew, having no idea there ever was another version of the character, and she will always be special. There is such a charming quality to these books that you just can’t help but love the vintage in them. Reading 1930s Nancy is kind of like reading the books in an alternate universe but if you love that style like I do, you’ll love them too. (I don’t know if they’re still available, but some years ago, they did reprint the first ten books in their original version, you may be able to find those used now for significantly less than the actual vintage books cost.) In today’s world, there’s absolutely room for the two Nancys to co-exist and be adored in different ways.*
The oddest part of the Nancy Drew renovation project was the way all of the books were standardized. They were made much shorter, as you can see here (for perspective, the type in both books is just about the exact same size):
Much of the detail was stripped in the new versions, making the stories quicker-paced and more action-packed. A sign of things to come perhaps, as that same concept is now followed by so many movies and television shows. No room for character detail when we could have more chasing! Each book was also made to have the exact same number of chapters, though I can’t imagine why that would have seemed important!
I honestly could talk about Nancy Drew all day and could easily spend time studying her academically just for fun. But mostly I just love her to pieces, reading the books always feels cozy and calm like my childhood, and kind of like stepping into an episode of a 1950s television show. I love her so much that I carried the first eighteen books back to Holland after finding them at a charity shop in London on a visit, and I carefully rationed them for years, reading them only when I felt like I really really needed a Nancy Drew break from the world. I’ve been out of new volumes for a long time now, so I’ll need to start hunting down some used copies of the next ones to see what other adventures she’ll get into!
*I will not even acknowledge what happened to Nancy after the 1970s. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as a modern Nancy Drew.
There it is, put away on the shelf – it only took about four months, but I finally finished The Casual Vacancy. Before I say anything else, I want to make sure I’m clear that the book itself is not responsible for the absurdly long reading time, that was (mostly) all about my bad reading habits.
That said though, there are some definite faults with this book that, I hate to say, made it a little easier to keep up those bad habits. I love JK Rowling, really really love her. The Harry Potter books are some of the most wonderful books ever, if you ask me, and not just because I totally want to be a Hogwarts student (true story). They made people – kids, adults, and everyone in between – read in a way that people just don’t seem to anymore. I have never in my whole life seen anyone line up for a book, let alone 7 books, and wait in line for hours for them. Rowling did something so amazing with those books, creating a huge, almost Dickensian world full of rich characters that, most importantly, everyone could identify with. If Harry was a super-handsome-genuis-athlete-ladies-man kind of hero, most of us would’ve never loved him in the first place. If Ron and Hermione were the extra-pretty-shiny sidekicks that most movies, TV shows and books feature nowadays, we wouldn’t really have cared what became of them. They have flaws and weaknesses and secrets and have done good things and bad things and want things they can’t have and don’t always see the things that make them lucky and are good friends to each other and get in fights and are all three incredibly brave. So many characters today have one or two of these traits which make them One Thing or The Other, but Rowling’s characters all have all of them. That’s what makes them real.
The characters in The Casual Vacancy are the same – this is, as I said when I talked about this book before, Rowling’s greatest strength, I think – and that is the book’s selling point. I refused to read any reviews before or while reading the book, but I just now had a scan of a few – some I agree with, some not so much. Seriously? You’re ‘shocked’ by the adult content? Sigh. That’s just dumb. Don’t read grown-up books then.*
Several reviews that I saw said that the characters were all unlikeable. Yes, I suppose I can see that one, but I don’t agree with it. I think most of the characters are unhappy for various reasons and they all deal with it in their own way – some tuck it deep down, some let it out for everyone to see, some are aggressive, some deny it completely. No, it’s not a happy, jolly book. Is there some reason that a book about unhappy people is a problem? Think about Great Expectations – are those characters all happy people?! I don’t think they are all miserable wallowers either though and I kind of think that if there’s not one of those characters whose unhappiness, large or small, you can identify with somehow, you’re not really being honest.
My real problem with The Casual Vacancy is, as you might have guessed because I haven’t mentioned it once yet, is the plot. Being that there isn’t really one. And yet the book always kind of feels like it’s just on the verge of breaking out into some Very Interesting Conflict. It’s all about quiet struggles, the ones that simmer just beneath the surface of everyday crap and are rarely acknowledged directly. Which might be more realistic, but makes a tricky book to read. I never felt like I couldn’t put it down, which hardly forced me to work on making more time for reading. Harry Potter was a special combination of a juicy (and inspiring) plot with depth of character that made you feel you were part of it too (because the characters are just like you). When I think about this book this time next year, I expect I will remember some of the characters I cared for most – almost exclusively the teenage group – but very little about what actually happens to them through most of the book.
There’s a lot more I could say about it actually, stuff about small town life and all that, but I think I’ll leave it there. I’m not sure I loved The Casual Vacancy but it made me think a lot about writing and class attitudes and a million other things, so I guess that’s a success in my world. I’m a dork though. Did you read The Casual Vacancy? What did you make of it?
(Next up: Stephen King’s Carrie. Yes, I have eclectic taste.)
*Note to add: not that I think think books need to be ‘adult’. Actually, I mostly think that more books could stand to leave out ‘adult’ things that just feel pasted in. But I am not ‘shocked’ by them. The reviews that claimed to be ‘shocked’ all came across, to me, as making a point of being conservative just for the sake of being conservative. That seems equally silly to me.
Way back when I started this here blog, I intended on writing a regular D.E.A.R. time feature – not really every week, but as I finished books I was reading. Just to go over my thoughts about it, suggest a book if I loved it, rant about a book if I hated it. You know, that sort of thing.
What? You don’t know about D.E.A.R. time?! Well, I’m not sure if they still do it, but American kids of an, ahem, certain age, will remember having an hour of classroom time per week (if I remember right) set aside for quiet reading time. Drop Everything And Read. It taught us about the joy of getting lost in a book, everyone just silently sitting at their desks, reading away. In retrospect, it probably gave the teachers a nice break as well.
Even though I am, historically, a voracious reader and even studied literature at university for a whole bunch of years, I have been going through a really serious reading drought lately. I used to go through books at an alarming rate when I rode a lot of public transportation, but I don’t do that anymore so much, and I’m always staying up late to finish off some knitting or stitching, rather than ending my day with some quiet reading time.
So I’ve had to set aside Monday night for D.E.A.R. time, when the house is pretty quiet. Although it will take me a long time to finish a book this way, at least that ensures that I’ll get a little reading in every week. I’ve missed it so much! I’m going to try to enforce reading lunch-breaks too, and I just bought a second-hand Kindle from the super-duper-awesome Holly of Beans and Toast, which will allow me to knit simpler projects and read at the same time.
But I’ll finish J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy first – I’ve purposely avoided all reviews and comments about it, so please be nice and don’t say anything yet. Opinions are too easily swayed by other opinions, and I want to decide what I honestly truly think about it before I go finding out what everyone else thinks too. So far I’ll only say that although I don’t find it super unputdownable, I am absorbed as soon as I pick it up. Rowling so perfectly pinpoints the tiny things that make people human, the little feelings that most people don’t say out loud. Magic is nice, but I think that a big part of what makes the Harry Potter books so wonderful are her real, imperfectly human characters. I’m not very far into The Casual Vacancy yet, but I have already passed several paragraphs that I’ve had to re-read a few times, just because they so beautifully describe those tiny things that make us us – things I’d never have been able to put my finger on myself, but had me nodding in agreement.
Anyway, more on the book when I finish. But while we’re talking books, here’s the bobbin lace bookmark I finished at my lesson this weekend:
I’m so damn proud of this! As I was working on it, I was so annoyed that the red fan curves along the sides weren’t curves so much as 3-sided shapes, but my teacher swore that it wouldn’t look like that once I took it off the pillow. Turns out she was right, I guess the contrast of the paper beneath the lace (which you can see here, if you weren’t here when I posted about it last time) is enough to notice and magnify every tiny flaw. I’m so proud that it looks so neat and tidy!
By the way, I did have a lovely photo of the whole bookmark against a page, then realized that of course I managed to randomly choose a kind of dirty page that I thought not everyone would want to read. Whoopsy!
The past week has been pretty crazy, with one exciting thing to share with you guys after another. And there’s still the giveaway going on and new embroidery patterns to release next Monday. Phew!
But there’s one more thing that happened this week, and I’ve been so anxious to share it: I had a wee contribution published in Issue 2 of &Stitches, the new embroidery / stitchy e-zine! It may not be as huge a deal for some of the more established stitchers who have had this honor before, but I’m still just trying hard to make a little Julie-shaped dent in the crafty world, so it’s a massive thing to me. Really, I was kind of freaking out just to be asked.
If you like stitchy stuff, you should totally check &Stitches out. This is just their second issue, but there’s already patterns, tutorials, and articles by some pretty amazing stitchers: of course there’s the lovely Carina and Nicole, founders and editors of &Stitches, but also Jessica from PaperStitch, Aimee Ray of Doodle Stitching, Cate Avenski – and loads more. Go check it out and get some stitchy on, you won’t be sorry!