Books: What I’ve Read This Winter

At the beginning of the year, I read that the fiction librarian at the Free Library read something like 300 books last year. That’s a pretty impressive number — nearly a book a day — and it inspired me to see my own reading goal for the year — 50 books. I’ve been keeping track on  a list and figured it might be worth it to do a quarterly review/round up of what I’ve read, both to keep track and to help it sink in better. So, here’s a quick list and review of the books I’ve read between January and March (there are 11, so I’m a little behind if I hope to make it to 50 by the end of the year):

January

Leaving the Sea: Stories; Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus is one of my favorite writers. The first thing I ever read by him was an essay in Harper’s magazine in 2005 and it was amazing. A little cranky, but amazing. His work is challenging, but not off-putting. The stories in Leaving the Sea feature characters (men) who find themselves in increasingly absurd situations, rejected by their loved ones or left floundering about in life. As the stories progress in the book, the style becomes more and more experimental. While the first two are fairly realistic, the last few are better described as explorations of the ways language works (or fails to work).

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir; Alan Cumming

I’m not really a memoirs person (which is weird to say, since there are three on this list), but this was a great read. Cumming recounts his fraught relationship with his abusive father, who tells him that he’s not his actual father. It’s a sad story, but it’s also a hopeful one, as he’s able to forgive his dad. Although memoirs aren’t really my thing, it was interesting to get to read the life experience of one of my favorite actors.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing; Marie Kando

Yeah, I’m counting this one. It was short and fluffy, but I read it twice. You can read a bit more about my experience with it here and here.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel; Haruki Murakami

Compared to 1Q84, his last novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki felt very lightweight. That’s not to say it was no good, it just felt so much simpler, as the plot wasn’t involved or twisty turny.  Tsukuru Tazaki was abandoned by his group of friends in college, and  years later sets out to find out why. I’d say it’s a light, worthwhile read, but the portrayal of women and the rape discussion in the book did make me feel a little weird, and those aren’t usually things I say  about Murakami.

The Unconsoled; Kazuo Ishiguro

I got to see Kazuo Ishiguro at the Free Library a couple of weeks ago, and in preparation for seeing him, I read the Unconsoled in January (and in February — it took me a long time to get through it). The novel is from 1995, right after the Remains of the Day. It’s a bit of a trip, but I’m not sure it was a trip that went anywhere. And that’s OK. The main character, Ryder, is a pianist who goes to a town to put on a concert. But, lots of stuff happens to him during his stay there, and it’s not clear why or how or what. . .  here’s an understatement: Ryder is one of the most unreliable narrators in existence. Apparently, I’m not the only person to struggle with the book, nor am I the only one to think it’s worth a read, even if it makes you tear your hair out.

Now I See You: A Memoir; Nicole C. Kear

Here’s another memoir, which I read for a book club I’m in. Kear has a retinal disorder that caused her to slowly lose her sight over a period of years. The book isn’t some sappy survivor story, but instead focuses on her  refusal to accept her worsening blindness or to tell others about it. Part of that involves living as much as she can before things go dark, part of it living in frustration as she can’t  do the things she once could.

February

How to be both: A novel; Ali Smith

I picked up How to Be Both at the London Review of Books bookshop when I was in England last September, but didn’t get around to reading it until February of this year (when I bought it in the UK, it hadn’t been published in the US yet).  The novel features two stories, one set in the modern day and the other set in the 15th century. Dual story aside, what makes the novel unique is that different versions of the book feature the stories in a different order. The copy I got had the 15th century story first, then the modern one. I have to wonder if that affected what I thought of it, as I found the story of the painter in the Renaissance to be harder to get into than the story of George, the girl in modern day who’s dealing with the loss of her mother.

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories; Moto Hagio

Whether A Drunken Dream and Other Stories belongs on this list depends on your thoughts about whether  manga/graphic novels count as a literary experience, or not. I say yes, so here it is. The book is a collection of short stories, created by Moto Hagio, who is is responsible for turning the shojo, or girl’s comics, from a genre that was mostly stories that men thought were relevant to girls, to a genre that fully explored the experience of being a girl. Some of the stories in the book, such as “Girl on Porch with Puppy” seem so simple at first, but are really deep. The collection was my first time reading shojo or any type of manga, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has no idea about it, but wants to.

March

The History of the Kings of Britain; Geoffrey of Monmouth

I love ancient history books. Not the stuff written today, but the stuff written hundreds or thousands of years ago, which we read today and have to think “hmm, was this real?” Herodotus’ Histories is an example, The History of the Kings of Britain is another. It spans early British history, from the time of Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, to a few hundred years after the death of Arthur (who, according to this version, didn’t die at the hands of Mordred). Merlin’s a character in the book, and there’s a whole section dedicated to his prophecies. Written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, in Latin, the book is apparently based on an older history books which is conveniently,  no longer available. Did this stuff really  happen? I guess it really doesn’t matter, but as someone who’s in the Arthurian legend, it was worth a read to see the more historically minded side of things.

How to Be a Woman; Caitlin Moran

I read How to Be a Woman a few years ago, when it first came out. After The History. . . I needed something a little light to read before jumping into the next book on this list, so I decided to re-read it. How to Be a Woman is both a memoir and an outline of Moran’s feminist views. That makes it sound really boring, when it’s anything but. It made me laugh a lot, while thinking about common women’s issues.

All the Light We Cannot See; Anthony Doerr

Try getting this one out from the library — you’ll be on the hold list for months. I was, so I ended up breaking down and buying it, so that I could read it in time for book club. It was totally worth it, as the book was great. It takes place during World War II, mostly in the occupied port city of Saint Malo. It’s kind of a love story, but not really. It’s a story about people making it through a terrible period in history, doing what they need to do, even, as is the case of the German boy who ends up fighting for the Nazis, they don’t necessarily agree with what is going on. Marie-Laure, one of the main characters, is a blind girl who’s left in the city of Saint Malo after her father is arrested by the Germans. Werner, a German orphan who proves to be incredibly gifted in science and mechanics, is the other main character.

There’s a lot that goes on in the book (as there should be, it’s over 500 pages long), but what stands out about it is the structure. Divided into several parts, each part is full of short, short chapters and each chapter jumps from one character to another. Although long, the way the book is structured makes it a quick read.

Shopping: Boden, Banana Republic, and KS Saturday

kate spade saturday zip back crop top

I’ve got a few quick reviews today of items ordered online. Although I’ve mentioned the perils of online shopping before, I do seem to have a bit more luck with it than shopping in person, as in I’m keeping more than 50 percent of the items I ordered and haven’t purchased anything I’ve seen  in a physical store of late, with the exception of this amazing bag from Urban Outfitters (although I’m embarrassed to admit I actually bought something from there).

So, there are a few hits, a miss, and one absolute, what was I thinking moment, so much so that the subtitle for this post could be, “That Time I Thought I Would Try a Crop Top,” but we’ll get to that near the end.

Boden_Ava_dress

Up first, the Ava Dress, from Boden. I really liked the dress in the catalog and thought it would be worth a try. It comes in three colors, blue, orange, and dark gray. As you can see, I went with the gray, because I have another dress that’s also blue and white and I wanted some variety in my closet (and bright orange is kinda out of the question). The gray probably wasn’t the best choice for my skin tone and all that, but that wasn’t the biggest issue I had the with dress. Its biggest problem was its fit — I’m just too flat for it. There was a lot of room up in the bodice area, but not a lot of me, so it just looked weird. Fit aside, in the end, I also wasn’t particularly in love with the belt at the waist, the print or even the fabric, so back it went.

Boden_Holland_Park_dress

Fortunately, the other dress I ordered from Boden, the Holland Park Dress, was much better all around. Better fit (I don’t look like  a little girl wearing a grown woman’s dress!), better color, better style. I’m seeing this inverted front pleat everywhere this season, and I really like it. I also really like the two little buttons at the waist on the dress.

Boden_Holland_Park_dress_side

The fabric’s a ponte and is a blend of cotton,  nylon and modal. Honestly, it’s not the best ponte, as it’s not terribly heavyweight, and it did arrive pretty wrinkled (but, then again, it had to travel across the ocean, from the UK to here, so maybe I should cut it some slack. I’ve arrived pretty wrinkled after traveling from here to the UK. . .) While the Ava dress is on its way back to Boden, I’m hanging on to the Holland Park Dress. And, no I didn’t wear it on March 17, so just shush.

banana_republic_floral_ponte_midi_skirt

I know midi skirts have been a thing for a few years now, but I’ve never really been into them. The wrong midi and I look wider or as if I’m drowning in fabric. But, I have to say, I really love the floral ponte midi skirt from Banana Republic. I got it during one of their 40 percent off sales, so it was a pretty good deal. It falls a few inches below my knees and sits pretty high on my waist, just below my rib cage. It was really the bright blue color and the print of the skirt that convinced me to give it a try. The photo is pretty muddy, but you can see on the website how vibrant the blue really is.

Fit wise, I’d say this one is a little tighter in the waist than other skirts I have from Banana Republic, but only just slightly. I’ve always found the cut of their skirts to be a bit narrower in the waist, while the cut of skirts from J. Crew, for example, are usually a bit wider in the waist, as though designed for person with a straighter figure. Looking at the midi skirt’s reviews, it seems as though the waist is a lot tighter than usual for some people, so I guess order with care and pay closer attention to your waist measurement than usual.

As with the Boden dress, the big problem I have with the skirt is the ponte fabric. It’s a viscose, it’s pretty lightweight and I’m a bit nervous it will pill. The skirt isn’t lined, either, which could be an issue, but for the moment, it’s sparking joy.

In fact, it’s sparking so much joy that I decided getting a crop top to wear with it would be an excellent idea. It’s got a high waist, I thought, I can totally pull of a crop top without showing any skin! So, I ordered this one from Kate Spade Saturday, since they’re about to close up shop and it was 40 percent off (heads up: now everything is 50 percent off, but final sale, so roll the dice with care).

My genius crop top idea
My genius crop top idea

Well, that doesn’t look terrible, you might be thinking. True, it doesn’t look terrible. But, it also doesn’t look good. The crop top just didn’t work on me. There’s no skin showing, at least with this skirt on, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that part of the shirt was missing. Plus, the fit of the top was a touch on the boxy side. It’s kind of obscuring the  nice waist definition I’m getting from the skirt.

Oh, and it had a plastic, exposed zipper running up and down the back. It had to go back; there’s just no way I would ever wear it. (A side note: I’m so happy I ordered it before they switched over to final sale!)

Shopping: J.Crew Spring (Part 2)

After leaving empty handed and unimpressed the last time I went to J.Crew, I decided to pop back in again this weekend and see what was new. Some of the dresses and skirts in the most recent catalog (er, sorry, “style guide”) looked pretty cute and I wanted to check them out in person. While I had more success this time around, I again left empty-handed. Part of that is because the Philly store only had a limited selection of items and part of that is because I wasn’t too enamored of what I found.

Let’s do this in order from pretty good to very much not pretty good.

A hot wrinkled mess, but I still kinda liked it.
A hot wrinkled mess, but I still kinda liked it.

Up first: the perforated A-line dress ($148). Yeah, it looks a mess, thanks to all those wrinkles, but I really liked it. It was a bit on the fancy side, but not so much that I’d feel weird wearing it out and about on a lovely day. It even looks good with a pair of Docs. The drawbacks were that it was a bit wide in the bodice area, but not wide enough to justify dropping a size (this is a 6), and it was a touch short. Luckily, it is available in tall sizes online, so I may go that route at some point. While it was full price in store, online the version in black is $10 off.

perforated_skirt

Next up: the laser-cut pleated skirt, which is on sale both in-store and online for $79.99 and also available in “dusty alabaster.” I mainly grabbed this so that I would have something to wear with the shirts I was trying on, but ended up kind of liking it, too. There were only a few sizes in stock, and a 6 wasn’t one of them, so I went with the 4. It fit, but the shirt I had tucked in was visible through the waistband of the skirt, as in you could see the lumps and bumps of fabric. I’m not sure if that’s because the skirt fit tightly and was made of a flimsy fabric or because the shirt had too much fabric going on. Probably a mix of all those.

The fabric on the skirt was a bit dodgy, and felt somewhat plastic-like. The lining was strange, it was more a nod to a lining than an actual full-cover lining, if that makes sense. As in, it was there, but it also sort of wasn’t.

Points off for length, too: it was a touch too short. Maybe a 6 would have been okay, since it would sat lower on the waist, but this isn’t a skirt I’d feel comfortable wearing without tights.

Does it look good with Docs? Yes.

green_silk_static

Let’s talk about the green top now. . . It’s silk. It’s olive green. It should be a hit out of the park or whatever analogy people who like sports would use. But, alas. It’s a hot mess. Look at that picture. All the wrinkles aren’t because the shirt needs to make friends with a steamer. That’s straight up static cling. If a shirt is going to get that clingy in the try-on room, just think of how it’s going to behave in the real world. It’s cut and fit didn’t do anyone any favors, either, and the silk was pretty thin and rough to the touch. Sorry, shirt, I’m going to pass on you. (I can’t find it online yet, either, so maybe everyone gets to pass on it).

navy_drapey_shirt

The last style guide had a really adorable look in it, combining the drapey oxford crepe top ($88) in mint with the structured mini skirt, ($88) also in mint. The Philly store didn’t have the mint top or the structured mini skirt, but they did have the shirt in navy and a few other colors. I went with the navy.

Drapey’s a good word to describe the fit of the top. Another way to describe it might be “hangs on the body like a sack.” I wasn’t impressed. The fabric was also not quite what I was expecting. It’s got a bit of texture and is a little heavier than you might think. The shirt’s final offense was the two buttons, with loop closure, at the back of the neck. I didn’t even bother to try doing or undoing them.

geo_dress

Last, and very much least was the Jet-Set Geo Shift dress ($138). The dress has a cute print and I like the zippers running down both sides, but the feel of it was just ugh. I’d compare it to stepping into a paper bag. It’s a stiff shirting fabric (poly/cotton) blend that I swear actually rustled when I put it on. The dress wasn’t lined, either, which made it feel really flimsy.

geo_dress_zipper

Although I hate exposed zippers on the backs of dresses (it just make things look unfinished), I did like the two zips down the sides of this one. Those zippers and the print were the only things that redeemed the dress.

It looks good with the Docs, though.

Shopping: A Stop at Loft

I had some time to kill before heading to see the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of Swan Lake yesterday, so I figured spending that time trying some stuff on was as good a use of it as any. The first stop was Loft, which I don’t usually have much luck with, although its clothes are on the cute side.

After a few laps around the store (it’s a small one), I took three things into the dressing room to try on: a blue dress, a bright yellow skirt and a crisp looking white top.

Loft_eyelet_skirt

First outfit: the pleat back softened shirt ($54.50) and geo eyelet skirt ($69.50). My experience with skirts from Loft has been that they tend to run large. So, I took in a size 4 (one size smaller than usual) and a size 6 (my usual size). Or, at least I thought I did. Turns out I took in two size 4’s, which I found out when trying on the second one and noticing that it fit pretty much exactly like the first. The size 4 fit right at the waist, but without any wiggle room. While the look is more flattering than if it had sat lower, I wasn’t quite sold on the fit, the drape, or the color of the skirt. It’s decently made, for the price, but I didn’t love it.

Loft_Shirt

I don’t know what is up with me and shirts lately, but they are all so boxy or oversized. It looks so sloppy. Look at the puff of excess fabric on my back. It might not look that bad, but that is only because I’m slightly turned to take the picture. It’s not as though I can go down a size, either, since then I’ll lose what little fit I have in the shoulder area. Dear shirts, it’s not me, it’s you.

Loft_spot_stripe_dress

Next up: the Spot Stripe Flare Dress ($69.50). This one was a real cutie, and the fit was almost perfect. Made of a rayon jersey, it was really soft to the touch. It has an invisible zipper up the back, not an exposed one, thank God. But, it was a touch on the short side, on me at least, as you can see. The length works with opaque tights, but I’d be nervous about wearing it bare legged in the late spring or summer.

Loft_dress_with_cardigan

I did think a bit more about getting this one, even trying it on with a cardigan (oh, that makes it even cuter), but ultimately left it behind. It just wasn’t special enough, even for just $42 (everything was 40 percent off). Maybe I’ll revisit it later in the spring. Or maybe not.

 

 

Shopping: Worth It? Rent the Runway’s Unlimited Program

All this . . . for $99 per month?
All this . . . for $99 per month?

Yesterday, I got an email that seemed to be perfectly timed with my closet purge. Rent the Runway, which lets you rent out dresses for a few days for special occasions and whatnot, was announcing a new, unlimited subscription service. A subscription for  3 dresses or accessories at a time (the company launched a subscription, for accessories only, last year) costs $99 per month, and you get to keep the items for as long as you want. Renting instead of buying lets you refresh your wardrobe quite easily, without commitment or worrying that you’d purchased the wrong size (if it doesn’t fit, just send it back for the next size up or down). I’d make a comparison to Netflix, but that’s been done.

My question is: is this worth it? I probably spend about that much per month on clothing, accessories and the like (I’m lying, it’s probably more, but I’d like to spend that much), but that’s all stuff that I get to keep. When it no longer “sparks joy,” I can either sell it or donate it, so there’s a chance I’d get back some of what I originally spent.

Of course, there is some appeal in having a dress, wearing it once (or twice), then sending it back for a new one without worrying about whether it will end up in a landfill or about the fact that you’ve just dropped a lot of money on something you wore once or twice. There’s no committing to the dress, or to a handbag or piece of jewelry.

But, as with Netflix, you can end up paying for a subscription you don’t really use. How many of us have DVDs languishing in their red envelopes, waiting to be watched? (What, you don’t get Netflix DVDs anymore? Oh.) Imagine that, but with a designer dress just hanging in your closet for months on end, waiting for the perfect moment. At that point, the monthly fee isn’t so much of a steal.

I also have to wonder about the items that do get used. Say you rent a nice bag and use it daily for a month. There’s going to be wear and tear — how will the next person to get that bag feel, even if it’s been cleaned? How can it be kept like new after so many uses and cleanings?

On the plus side, Rent the Runway covers the cost of dry cleaning and shipping. The clothing and accessories also have some insurance, in case you spill your beer on them or something. But, if someone steals your designer, rented handbag or if you somehow lose a dress (it can happen), you’re on the hook for the full retail price. Yikes.

I think my decision is this: I’m tempted, but I’m going to pass, at least for now.

 

Sewing: What I’m Working On

Since one half of this blog’s name is “sewing,” it makes sense to do a post about sewing projects, after so many devoted to shopping. This winter’s really gotten me down, in terms of creativity and productivity, so I haven’t actually completed anything, but I do have a number of projects in progress.

Violet Pattern

First is the Violet top from Colette Patterns. I bought this pattern (and the fabric for it) a pretty long time ago (so long ago I don’t remember who designed the fabric, but do know that it’s a quilting weight cotton), and never got around to sewing it up, until last spring, when I finally started cutting out the pieces. Then they languished in a zip top bag for another 10 months, before I decided to actually sew the shirt together.

Violet Shirt in progress

It’s still very much a work in progress, but at least at this point the front and back shoulders are sewn together and the Peter Pan collar is finished. I’ll have a review of it when I finish the shirt — which judging from the speed I’ve been working at, should be in another year or so.

houndstooth skirt

Next up is a pleated houndstooth skirt, made from a cotton jersey knit I got from Girl Charlee, again about a year ago. The skirt is modeled after this one, except the knit isn’t stretchy enough not to have a zipper. And I completely messed it up by sewing the zipper in first, before sewing on the waistband.  You can sort of see how the waistband doesn’t fully close, near my arm. There’s no way to get it to close cleanly without completely ripping out the zipper and redoing the side seam.

For that reason, the fabric will be a skirt for only the briefest of moments. I plan on repurposing it to make another version of one of my favorite tops. I might get a different hounds tooth fabric and try the skirt again, but for now the plan is to try the design with a woven gabardine fabric from Liberty. I’m thinking of the hounds tooth one as my muslin, a practice run before sewing up the fancy fabric.