Great teachers. Teenage boys. The Gettysburg Address.  A box of Kleenex. Watch The Address, a new film by Ken Burns.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee: A Superpretentious Literary Examination

fleeceartist.jpg
Dear Kay,
That’s Canadian yarn up there–Fleece Artist Merino 2/6. I thought I’d lead off with that beautiful stuff because I first heard of it from Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, and she’s on my mind today.
I just finished reading Stephanie Pearl-McPhee Casts Off. When I started reading it, I’d fold down a corner whenever she wrote something particularly funny, something I could quote in my little book review. Pretty soon I realized that this wasn’t going to work:
castoff.jpg
It’s just too much. Too much funny. I don’t really want to deprive anybody of the delicious pleasure of discovering these nuggets, so I’m not going to tell you the parts I liked best. The fact is, anybody opening a random page in this book is going to find something very, very funny.
I keep thinking about Stephanie, and what she does. I keep trying to figure out the literary taxonomy of Stephanie. (Hey, I was an English major.) Where in the world of the written word does she fit?
Possible categories:
1. Essayist. She is certainly an essayist. Is she some kind of knitterly Montaigne? I checked out Montaigne, because I frankly don’t know much about him except that he wrote a lot of essais and it sounds kind of classy to be talking about Montaigne. Our Wiki friends write, “He became famous for his effortless ability to merge serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography.” True! Stephanie has led me to speculate in a seriously intellectual way about thrummed mittens. I didn’t even know what thrumming was until I read her blog. And she pretty much owns the casual anecdote and autobiography.
But I don’t think Montaigne was a knitter. And laff riot is not the vibe I’m getting from him. Furthermore, I don’t know whether he spent much time pondering the absurdity of life. Stephanie, on the other hand, loves the absurd. Despite her claim that sometimes things can get too weird, I don’t actually think she believes that. I think that she finds it barely weird enough to take a head of nappa cabbage, wrap it in duct tape and roving and panty hose, and felt the thing.
2. Canadian humorist. There’s a Wiki list of Candian humorists, but somehow she’s not on it. She does, however, have her very own entry. Which really ought to be cross-referenced with the Canadian humorists entry. (Would one of you Wikiers please go fix that?) There is plenty of snow, hockey, and maple syrup in her stuff, but even somebody born in Alabama can understand the joke. So I don’t think Canadian humorist is the defining term for her.
[Update: Actually, Andrew has taken care of the Wikipedia problem. There's now a Canadian Humorist listed whose last name begins with a P. Strong work, Andrew!]
3. Knitting humorist. Stephanie has been described as a knitting humorist. I reckon that’s the most technically accurate description of what she does. But I really think Stephanie should be considered in the same breath as all the other fine contemporary humorists. If you poke through my dogeared copy of her book, what you see is humor, period. It simply happens, often, to involve the topic of knitting.
Think about Calvin Trillin, David Sedaris, Erma Bombeck (who in my mind is too often spoken of without the proper respect–that woman was a genius). It doesn’t matter whether their topic is Kansas City barbecue, growing up in crazy North Carolina, or life as a suburban homemaker. They lure us into their worlds, however familiar or strange, and show us the absurd, the goofy, and the weird. The great humorists of our time draw on their lives for their material. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee happens to have a life that is filled with yarn.
4. Humorist. That’s it! She’s a humorist, plain and simple. Which is a big deal, because there are few things as difficult as writing humor. And there are few things more generous than making us all laugh.
There are many knitters in the world–Stephanie has proved that this spring, if we ever doubted it. But there are even more people who don’t knit, perfectly decent and upstanding people who would likely find Stephanie’s world view totally engaging. Like it or not, “knitting humorist” implies a certain specificity in what she’s doing. People who don’t knit aren’t likely to head for a writer who’s called a “knitting humorist.” I think this is their loss, of course, but there it is.
I’m going to venture a guess. It’s fine if Stephanie chooses to write about knitting for the rest of her life. It’s a world that we all know is a bottomless pit. At some point, however, Stephanie may start to write books which are not so directly focused on the world of knitting. I frankly encourage this. She seems to have an inexhaustible arsenal of words at her disposal, and it may well be that she decides that hockey is a topic that’s interesting to her. Or medieval dentistry. My point is that it doesn’t really matter what she chooses to write about, because whatever it is, it will be funny. And I will be right there, loving hockey and pulling my own teeth because she’s so wicked persuasive about it all.
Love,
Ann

Tags:

56 Comments

56 Comments

  1. Well said, and absolutely wonderful! I started reading Stephanie’s blog about 1.5 years ago, and have not missed an entry since (including reading archived blogs). I am a knitter and found myself snickering, agreeing, cheering and having many of her anecdotes resonate with my own knitterly experiences. I have also shown her bloggings and books to my husband, coworkers (both male/female, knitter/non-knitter)and have enjoyed their snickers and gaufaws as they read her bits. She is definitely a humourist who happens to use knitting experiences as her (current) vehicle.

  2. Hear, hear!
    I’m a big fan of David Sedaris and I never put the two of them together in my mind before. It totally makes sense. I can’t think of two other writers who have made me ache from laughing uncontrollably. They are truly gifted.

  3. Amen Sister!

  4. Right on, Ann!! Especially your final paragraph. I am an unclaimed jewel, an English Lit prof.(ret), a non-parent, and knitter, but I LOVE and still mourn Erma Bombeck whom, I think, Stephanie most resembles; although, there seems to be a Swift, Shaw,Twain, Leacock and myriads of other legendary humorists residing in the heart of S.P.-McP.
    I am with you in sensing that her published writing will soon become like her blog where she writes of more than just knitting. Long life to her and an endless supply of pens!!!!

  5. If I weren’t sitting in a cubicle right now, surrounded by other cubicleistas, I would be on my feet, applauding thunderously. Beautifully said, Ann. This English major (and literary taxonomist) thanks you from the bottom of her heart.
    (An additional round of applause to Elizabeth A. Buckley for the Stephen Leacock reference. :)

  6. exactly right.

  7. Or home improvement? The perils and follies that lie therein. A great taxonomy Ann – I need to get my paws on that book, yes I trekked to Represent but still no book. A testament to my disorganization.

  8. So true.

  9. Please don’t start pulling your own teeth — it gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it… other than that, right on!

  10. After I read that book and reflected on her blog, the best I could think of was to call her a ‘knitting journalist’. It’s what she does best, and the reason I read her blog! Well, that and the humour and the awesome Canadianness ;)

  11. She reminds someone of Erma Bombeck? I loved Erma… I am going to have to look this book up!

  12. This was an excellent analysis, and funny in its own right. Thanks! I love the picture of the dogears–mine was looking like that, too, until I came to much the same conclusion.

  13. I am loving Stephanie’s new book, but that isn’t maybe the most critical review, because I love all her stuff. (I loaned out my copy of “Knitting Rules” with pang in my heart, telling myself I could easily buy another copy if need be.)
    However, I think Stephanie deserves a special literary prize for this effort. In support of this nomination, I will submit that I read one particular page (page 46 if you must know) aloud to my 12 year old son, and even he laughed. (He also said “so true.” He’d better marry a knitter, or there will be a lot of good training gone to waste.)

  14. Very well said!

  15. I agree with all of the above. I pull her books out just to read random passages and laugh a bit. Don’t have ‘Casts off” yet- I’m seriously thinking of paying full price for it.
    It is more than knitting humor- life and knitting? Don’t know. I’m delighted she shares here knitting and family life with the rest of us. Like Cheryl, I’m working my way through her archived blog entries- great lunchtime reading.

  16. Couldn’t agree with you more. I can always count on a good laugh when I read Stephanie Pearl-McPhee.

  17. That is so cool that she has her own Wikipedia article.

  18. The high-brow, serious, boring, killjoy comment:
    As Stephanie pointed out, without further commentary, “notice this happening with ‘women’s’ hobbies? Yes? And with “men’s” hobbies? No? Just saying.”
    Is she
    a funny Girl?
    a funny Canadian?
    a funny Knitter?
    Ummmmm, yes! Yes, she is! She’s also a funny Doula and a funny Blogger and whatever else she is.
    And David Sedaris? A funny PERSON.
    Erma Bombeck? Funny LADY. Gilda Radner? Funny LADY.
    Dave Barry? Funny PERSON. Chevy Chase? Funny PERSON.
    Ahem.

  19. I had the delightful opportunity to meet Stephanie in Pittsburgh on her most recent book tour. She is a wonderful speaker as well as a gifted writer. What surprised me was her sense of humility and her ability to make those around her feel like they are important. She is a builder of community (those who knit) and motivational philanthropist (her Doctors without Borders fundraiser) She is a gem!!!!

  20. For me Stephanie is the Anne Lamott of Knitting…

  21. I met Stephanie last Thursday in Denver – and she is exactly who she is on her blog, genuine, self-effacing,hysterically funny, and a proud knitting advocate to the death . It was, in fact, Stephanie’s blog, her review of your book last summer, that led me to your blog. I would like to attest to the fact that the humor on your blog is right up there with Steph. In fact, I have decided that now that I have met Debbie Bliss & Stephanie, I am left only with Ann & Kay,Wendy, Lucy Neatby, and Sheri @ the Loopy Ewe to meet, and then I can claim knitter’s heaven status. Although, there are more all the time that really peak my interest – Eunny Jang to name just one. And by the way, since this seems to be important to this post, I, too hold a BA (from your up the road neighbor, Austin Peay State University – LET’S GO PEAY!)in English. Maybe knitters are naturally gifted with words?

  22. Thank you for your post! I have tried to explain to muggles why they should look in on her blog or read her books. Now I have even better amunition for my side! I mean, you don’t have to knit to laugh at the whole -locking yourself out of your hotel room with nothing but a towel you found- story. She is life personified.

  23. Oh Ann! You hit the nail on the head – that is Stephanie exactly. I barely could be considered a knitter, but I check her blog every day and shake with silent laughter (I’m at work – sshhh!). Thanks for putting it into words. Of course, you and Kay do a fair share of that yourselves (make me shake with silent laughter, I mean).

  24. You’re right, of course, but what amazes me most about Stephanie is that she is a KNITTER. Stuff like the Bohus streams off her needles, tiny stitches, in black, and yet she doesn’t slog . . .

  25. One more note: At Knit’s End, Stephanie’s first book did win the 2006 Benjamin Franklin Award, recognizing excellence in independent publishing, for HUMOUR, not knitting humour, but ALL humour. Maybe there is still hope that the muggles will catch on!

  26. Hear, Hear! I couldn’t have said it better…well actually I couldn’t have sent it anywhere near as eloquently! Both the Yarn Harlot and Kay & yourself brighten my day with your witty blogs!

  27. To everything you said: yes, yes and yes! and particularly to Erma! I remember having quite an argument DECADES ago with one of my hipper-than-thou literary work comrades (we were all like that at that age) about Erma. He was dismissive, and I beat him to the ground defending “housewife humor.” Has anybody read Betty McDonald, another genius mining this field in the late 1940s? The Egg and I, Onions in the Stew, and a few others. Too funny. And Stephanie fits right in.
    Come to think of it, I may just have found MDK through her blog, but its been so long now I can’t remember :-)

  28. Well put! I agree. I was falling off my chair reading the new book!

  29. Wicked persuasive…I like that:) The thing about Stephanie is, too, that she makes me want to knit. It is a rare occasion for me to read one of her books and not run to pick up my needles and dive into some project or other. I think you are right to dub her a humorist…quite right. She is.
    Ang

  30. What I appreciate about Stephanie is true for Ann and Kay, as well. Such bright and talented women who manage to make us feel like they could be our neighbors, and that if they walked in and sat down in our living room, we’d feel like long-time friends from the first moment. And then we’d laugh the afternoon away.

  31. Great post, Ann. I couldn’t agree more. I just met her in St.Paul and loved being able to see her “live” after reading so much from her pen. So…that’s my segue to asking when you and Kay are coming to Minneapolis/St.Paul to regale us with your humor and knitting finesse? After your next book? Before? I think if you ask Stephanie, the Yarnery did a superb job with organizing her event…they could do the same for you. Whadyathink?

  32. Oh yeah!! Well said, Ann. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent people to Stephanie’s blog — nonknitting people. Her open letter to her teenage daughters went to everyone I knew who had (now or in the past or in the future) teenaged daughters. It even went to my formerly teenaged daughters. Her saga about travelling to Ann Arbor went to everyone I know because we all travel, right? Funny stuff & universal. I just hope she doesn’t take up medieval dentistry because that’s just yukky but I’m sure you’re right — she could make it funny.

  33. So beautifully put and as other’s have said, this too is the reason I come to your blog every day, and read and re-read your book. You generous funny writers – we are all better for your gifts.

  34. My hubbo is a muggle through-and-through (albeit a sympathetic one; he never says a disparaging word about my hobby) and he read part of one of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s books and he laughed out loud. I was stunned, but why should I have been? She’s that good!

  35. I so agree with your review! I read “Yarn Harlot” before I started knitting last fall. I could make so many connections to my hobbies of rubberstamping and scrapbooking (these stashes are waaay bigger than my yarn stash – although a recent yarn store closing prompted a bigger container). I soon found her site – and yours! – and now can’t wait to get my daily smile. I saw her in Cleveland and had tears in my eyes from laughing so much! Her humor, and your easy projects – wash cloth and baby kimono – got me started knitting again after a 20 plus year layoff. Thank you Stephanie, Ann, and Kay! I also agree about fellow Ohioan/University of Dayton graduate Erma Bombeck. I couldn’t wait to get her newest books from the library or read her column in a women’s magazine. She was amazing!

  36. Hear, Hear!

  37. I too have to give out props. Awesome review and spot on in all points. Stephanie is extremely funny, and kind of in a nerdy way that I appreciate – I’ve got my BA in geography and I analyze databases and make maps all day -pretty durn nerdy field. Steph has that dryness to her wit that I really appreciate and have come to look forward to. And you’re so right, writing funny is hard, hard work.
    But Kay and Ann I must applaud you as well. Your humor comes from a different angle. You’re funny in a silly, chatty way, like I’m listening to my family talk to one another. When I read your book (over and over again) there are so many little side conversations going on (the time line kills me, especially about the Kleenex cozy) that I feel like I’m at Thanksgiving dinner. Your word choices are very different where you two use colorful slang like “eggzakly” or however you spell it and Stephanie calls all non-knitters muggles – belying her inner geek.
    Thank you for a great post. And thank you for writing to us all the time (though I do wish it were twice daily…not that you have a life to lead or anything). Thank you to Stephanie as well, for giving us the credit we knitters deserve.
    Darn it, I’m going to go work on that sock now!

  38. Wikipedia now knows that Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is a Canadian Humorist. And I was proud to see to it.

  39. Of course I agree with all of this, except one teensy-tiny little thing:
    It would be Canadian humourist.
    Mwahahaha. XOXO

  40. I’ll add my “Hear hear!” – and I agree with Diane (I think it was) who remarked that Stephanie has made us ALL a genuine “community”; I started reading her blog and then found YOU, and couldn’t be happier to be a citizen of Knitting, governed by the likes of Stephanie, and y’all (not bad for a North Dakotan, huh?) I’m NOT a great knitter, but forged ahead to try your Ballband “warshrag” – and I’m DOING it!! What a brilliant treat! I’m a perpetual, addicted, process knitter and I have her, then you, to thank for it. I am one happy knitterly bubbe.

  41. I’ll add a word, as long as we’re defining. Compassionate humorist.
    Also, I’m cracking up now thinking about what it would be like to have her as your doula. Seriously, having Stephanie around when you’re in LABOR???!!!

  42. humourist!
    Perfect!

  43. 5. humanitarian–as in Knitters without Borders. that would be an important label i’d add. thanks for the delightful review. -naomi

  44. Ann,
    Well. Your (& Kay’s) blog and Stephanie’s are hands down my favorites, so it’s quite nice to have them intersect. Thank you!
    Janet

  45. As a male who does not knit, and who reads the Yarn Harlot unfailigly, I very much agree. My wife not only knits, but owns a hand-dyed yarn company, which is how I was introduced to Stephanie’s blog, but that’s not why I read it.

  46. Susan – yes, I remember Betty McDonald – wasn’t ‘onions in the stew’ the one with the teen-age daughters – I re-read it recently and things haven’t changed much…. She also wrote another ‘Plague and I’ – when she was in hospital with tuberculosis, and a few years later I had the same experience, a subject one would think it was difficult to be funny about, but she managed it brilliantly, I kept a copy in my bedside locker.
    We had an English writer called Verily Anderson, writing at about the same time, similar.
    I think S.P-McPhee is a brilliant writer, terrific vocabulary, can’t wait to see what else she writes….

  47. That’s on my list of books to obtain. I am a near-pennyless college student, so it will take me a while to obtain it, but obtain it I shall. *plots and schemes*

  48. I’ve heard Stephanie speak a couple of times. Somehow I managed to find her during the a couple of the earlier yarn crawls. I think I’ve managed to get her to sign the first 3 books. She’s very funny, unfailingly gracious and has the most unique ability to laugh at herself. A couple of my friends take great delight in borrowing the books in the car and amusing all by reading them aloud.

  49. Stephanie stands with one foot across the aybis ( cant spell) between what we would like to be, how we would like reality to be, and what it and we really are. Her description of a special occasion being one for which she finds her bra rings with my own aspirations and how it all turns out. It is central to her humor that she takes knitting as a serious occupation and worth the time , energy and swear words she expends on it, and the humiliation of being taken for a ride by a set of needles and some yarn. Confessing in public that she has arrived where she was supposed to be late and sans a change of underwear makes us all laugh, becuse I think we all operate part of the time without metaphisical underpants and everyone recognises the dangerously breezy feel of it.

  50. I just finished reading a chapter in Yarn Harlot that caused me to get a lump in my throat, “One Little Sock”. I didn’t want to read another chapter and wasn’t ready to return to knitting the linen/cotton blend towel that just won’t behave, so decided to see if there was a new post by Kay or Ann. Imagine my surprise to see Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s name on my homepage while I held her book in my hand. It is exactly that type of thing that reading her book is all about. I feel as if I am reading her journal or my own journal or the journal I would write if I was more observant, funnier, a better knitter and still lived in Ontario. I was raised on Canadian humour and don’t get enough of it here in New York. I didn’t appreciate Leacock when I was in high school but over the years I’ve noticed how his sense of humour continues to influence Canadians today. Any Arrogant Worms fans out there?

  51. Ann, I finished reading Stephanie’s new book a few nights ago. Yes, she’s described as a knitting humorist, but she is really an over-all humorist.
    But, I look forward to reading your review. You’re quite the wordsmith yourself!

  52. thanks for putting the appreciation for stephanie’s writing so beautifully! you have stated my opinion exactly. someone else in the comments mentioned anne lamott, i think that is also spot on.

  53. Not to mention totally accessable, if that’s the word for it. I left a comment on her blog asking for hints for finding lace patterns, as I’m knitting my own veil for my wedding, expecting maybe a couple people would shout out in the comments. Instead I got a very nice email from Stephanie with congratualtions and some advice. Not what I expected from a writer with international success. Very cool.

  54. I was totally with you until the knitting as bottomless pit part. Sounds way too much like my slogalong!!!

  55. I started telling my boyfriend about this post, and before I even really got started with the various categories she could fit in, he said very firmly, “She’s a humorist. She’s a damn good humorist. She’s on par with Mark Twain.” I love that man.
    She’s also such an amazing human. Even though I tend to put her up on a knitting Mount Olympus, I felt like she was just as thrilled to meet me as I was to meet her when she was in Eugene last year. I kinda want to be her when I grow up (whenever that might be), not just in terms of being a kick-ass knitter, but also in terms of being a gracious, down-to-earth, embracing-the-absurdity-of-life woman.

  56. You said it! Maybe now I can get my muggle friends and family to read the books, they see knitting and think thats just what they’re about.