Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Eleven years

It's been eleven years since that particular September 11th.  To be fair, I didn't realize it was September 11th until I was in the car this morning on my way to work and the radio DJ mentioned that they would not be doing one of their contests today, as they didn't feel it was appropriate.

My first thought was Good for you.

My second thought was Wait, it's September 11th already?

It sneaks up on me more and more each year, which I never thought it would do.  I never thought that there would be a day when I would be unaware of it, that there would be a day when I didn't think about it.  In some ways, I suppose there hasn't been, since in a post- 9/11 era everything has changed.  

I wrote about it last year, so I don't need to go over where I was and what I was doing that day.

But so much has changed.

I remember my first semester teaching--this would have been the fall of 2005.  I taught on September 11th to a developmental English class whose course I had designed around the Bill of Rights.  I don't know how much English I taught them that day, but I know that we had the best discussion we'd had all semester.

I thought about doing that tomorrow with my English class, and then realized that in 2001, most of them were six or seven.  And they're only going to get younger.

I went to Yahoo this morning to read the news, and expected all of the front page to be coverage of the memorial. It wasn't.  There are a few stories, sure.  One of them is about whether or not we've passed a turning point.

God, I hope not.  My mother has said in the past that they ought to show the news footage every September 11th.  I haven't always agreed, because of how painful it was, but sometimes I wonder if she's not right.  If we don't need that emotional gut punch every year. 

***

I had two memories this morning that I haven't written about.  The first is about my youngest brother.  A couple of years before, he had met Judi Patton, the First Lady of Kentucky on a homeschool trip to the Capitol, and at age four, had fallen in love with her.  She had similarly done the same, and he had been back a few times, taking her a Christmas ornament which she took him to hang on the official Christmas tree, etc.

At age six, his first thought on that day was, "Is Mrs. Patton okay?"  Reasonable--she was the highest profile person that he knew.  Mrs. Patton had graciously given my mother her secretary's phone number so we could let her know if we were coming to Frankfort so she could see Sam, so Mom called the secretary, hoping that she could say something to Sam to let him know.  The secretary told her that she would do one better, and put Sam on the line with the Kentucky State Police officer who headed up Mrs. Patton's security detail, who then assured Sam that Mrs. Patton was going to be just fine and that the KSP was going to take very good care of her.

Later that afternoon, my parents had to go out and do something--I don't remember what. They were coming back to the house when my cell phone rang.  I answered the phone to hear, "This is Judi Patton, the First Lady of Kentucky.  Is Sam there?"  They had just gotten back in, and I handed the phone over to Sam, and Mrs. Patton assured him herself that she was going to be okay, that he was going to be okay, and that everything was going to be all right.

She was right except for that last bit.

***

It was a few months later, and my mother and I were over at my grandmother's on a Sunday afternoon.  My uncle walked in, dressed in his Navy uniform, and we started exclaiming, of course, about how handsome he was, but he raised his hands and we quieted down, because he had a look on his face that we didn't like.  My aunt wasn't home, so he'd come to tell Gran first, and said, "There is a very good chance that I'll be deployed in the next year."

At Thanksgiving, we passed around Gran's netbook with the webcam so he could see everyone and all the food from Iraq.

***

Every year, another memory or two comes back.  That day was so full, so shocking, that it's little wonder--the brain can't process it all at once, or even over several years. 

Have we passed a turning point? No, not yet, I don't think.  Not until there are more people who don't remember than those who do.  Because it's not until then, I don't think, that this kind of national pain can be soothed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Much Time is Enough?

I was talking to my boss today, letting her know that I wasn't going to make a meeting on Monday and trying to explain why.  Monday is my mother's birthday, and my dad and I are going to take her to the zoo.  She hasn't been in a long time, and she wasn't able to go when Dad took her to the aquarium to see the penguins, so we're taking her for her birthday.  It's going to be a small inconvenience, as far as work is concerned, but the conversation kept bothering me anyway.  I went to the gym, went for a run, which usually clears my head, but didn't this time.  I came home and collapsed on the couch and somewhere between awake and asleep, I realized what it was that was bothering me.  It was something I hadn't said, an unspoken statement that I'm afraid to say:

I have to take my mother to the zoo because I don't know how much time she has left.

***

We knew something was wrong nineteen years ago.  My mother had been horribly sick when she was pregnant with Youngest Brother, though she'd had problems with fatigue long before then.  When my great-grandfather lived with us over the summer of 1996, he would peer into her room, trying to figure out why she was lying down in the middle of the afternoon.

I'm not sure when the word "lupus" came up.  But soon the piano lessons she gave to kids from town stopped.  She did her last wedding cake the week I got out of the hospital at the beginning of 1997 when I was 12--a friend came over to help her.  She had to decide where her energy was spent, and at that point, it was in homeschooling us.

We knew she couldn't do as much as she used to.  Things I remember from my childhood slowly slipped away as yearly activities.  But she was still Mom.  She was there to hug and hold and talk.

Until the end of 2009.

***

When Mom was diagnosed, the doctor told us that we'd have ten good years before things got bad.  We were lucky.  We had about twelve.

***

Lupus is an auto-immune disease in which the body's immune system turns on the body and starts attacking connective tissue.  It starts mainly in the joints, which was why Mom had to give up teaching piano and decorating cakes.  We thought we were doing good, because Mom's lupus had stayed out of her internal organs.  But during the course of 2009, as I moved away to get my Ph.D., things got much worse.

First, one of the medications to fight against lupus has serious side effects.  She had to start weaning herself off of it (a process that is still ongoing) before the medicine killed her.  That's when it struck, taking advantage of the lull in immuno-suppression (despite lots of other drugs to do the same thing) to attack her central nervous system.

They haven't been able to stop it.

***

In 2010, things were bad enough that The Boy and I considered moving up our wedding, though it would have put us only a month after Younger Brother's wedding, because we weren't sure she would make it all the way to December.  After consultation with her neurologist, we kept our date.  But slowly, over the course of 2010, things improved.  Youngest Brother sat her at Younger Brother's wedding by wheeling her wheelchair down the aisle.

By our wedding, my brothers were on each side of her holding on, but she walked herself down the aisle.

***

They took her off a lot of medication that was fogging her up.  Hallucinations stopped in the course of 2010.  She'd not driven in a while, and we knew she wasn't ever going to be able to again, but that was okay. She made more sense more often, could come up with coherent arguments, and while she was still obsessing over things, we thought, "yes! It was the medicine! She'll be better!"  There was damage done and we knew it, but we'd stopped it!  We could keep it from getting worse.

And for a while, we did.

***

She's hallucinating again. Seeing and hearing and feeling things that aren't there.  She's having new kinds of seizures, though the kind where she goes stiff and zones out have stayed gone for now--now, we can't really tell she's having one, except that she stops making sense.

In many ways, the last few years have been like what you read about dealing with Alzheimer's patients.  Or a five-year-old.

***

But at the same time, we also see moments of child-like glee and wonder in my mother, as if she's been gifted with the ability to once again shunt away adulthood.  Going to the zoo will be an adventure, but I know what she will do.  She will clap her hands at the sight of the giraffes, and squeal with delight at the penguins and marvel at the tigers. 

***

We're running out of time. Yes, you run out of time no matter what goes on, no matter who.  People can be taken away from us in a blink of an eye, and we are all left with regrets, thinking "Oh, if I'd only spent more time with them."

I know what's coming.  I know it's coming too soon. Now, more than ever, I have to make use of the time given me.

So I'm taking my mother to the zoo.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Inspiration

My friend Crystal over at Serving Joyfully asked this morning if anyone had seen her motivation.  I laughed when I read her post this morning.  I'd had a pitched battle with myself over whether or not I was going to go for a run, and had just come back when I'd read it, and I laughed because oh, how I recognized the feeling.  This week is the first time I've been for a run in several weeks, and the picture she posted with the quote "When you feel like quitting, think about why you started!" was too apropos.

But when I was in the shower, I really did start thinking about it.  Crystal's post was primarily about her weight loss goals, and I understand.  I will admit to the internet at large: I am at the heaviest I've ever been right now.  It's not something I'm proud of, but it is something I want to fix.  To that end, I've been working on being more active, and I've been working on trying to overcome my picky eating.

But what are my motivations?
  • I want to be healthy when my husband and I decide we want to have children.  This way, we can give our children the best possible start in life.
  • I want to be healthy for my children, to set an example of an active life that they can follow the rest of their lives.
  • I want to be healthy for my husband, as a journey towards a healthier life we take together, and so he has an active, healthy wife for years to come.
  • I want to be healthy for myself.  The more active I am, not only the more physically healthy I become, but the more mentally healthy. 
What do I mean by healthy?  It's not simply a matter of dress size or weight.  I will never fit into a size 0.  But a 10 or a 12 is a reasonable goal.  But I want to be able to have the energy I need to do everything I want to do in a day without needing a nap.  I want to be able to look in the mirror and be satisfied with who I see.  And I want to truly, honestly believe my husband when he tells me that I am beautiful.  (I am beautiful to him, no matter what.  I know this.  But I don't know that I'll intrinsically believe it until I feel that way to myself.)

But being healthy isn't the only thing I need motivation for.  I'm sitting here on the couch at my mom and dad's, glaring at the books on Foucault sitting next to me.  While I've been making progress this week (if you can call coming up with more questions than answers progress), I did decide yesterday that a valid life choice would be to watch the three Harry Potter movies I hadn't seen instead of reading.  In some ways, I can't decide which goal is more intimidating--losing weight or finishing a dissertation.

Admittedly, there have been days during my Ph.D. program when I have looked at the stack of books and paper and asked myself why I'm doing this.  What were my motivations?  I always joke that I wanted to read for a living.

Academia is stuck up.  Get a job at a community or technical college instead of a four-year university, or work as contingent faculty too long, and universities wonder why you couldn't get a "good" job before then (bad economies, elimination of tenure, and refusal of baby boomers to retire not withstanding).  So why am I doing this?

Then there are moments you remember.  A moment when a very brave young man stands up in front of his class, explains to them what it's like to be transgender, and how they can help stop the bullying of LGBT students in public schools.  A moment when two girls come to that young man with Bible verses, not to bash him, but to show him that real Christians should behave with love and acceptance, not judgment.  A moment when another young man starts coming to class, starts making an effort, starts pushing and experimenting and even liking writing.

It strikes me that I didn't get into academia to do research.  I got in it to teach.  And now the idea of a community or technical college isn't far from my mind. 

---

None of this answers Crystal's question about what we do when we need motivation.  Well, Crystal, here is my answer for you.  When I need motivation, I start thinking about inspiration.  Who inspires me to be better than who I am?  And how can I inspire them to be better as well?


God.
My husband.
My father.
My brothers.
My in-laws.
Dr. K and Dr. P.
Ami.
My students (that brave young man in particular).
My colleagues.

And last, but certainly not least, you, Crystal, are a source of inspiration to me.  So maybe we're going about this the wrong way.  Maybe we need to stop looking for motivation and start looking for inspiration.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Things I learned at Mamaw's

My great-grandmother died today.  My dad called me this afternoon.  My uncle had called and told him--the rest of the family had been told not to call Mom until after Dad got home and could sit down with her.

I sat down on the couch and cried.  My husband came and held me and let me cry.  I instant messaged my best friend and asked her to look in on the kitties.  Instant messaged my brother to see if Dad had gotten hold of him.  Sent an email to my dissertation director to tell her my revised prospectus wouldn't be in Friday as planned.  Wondered how my uncle was going to get hold of my grandparents who are in Peru right now, miles away from any form of communication.  Even if we do get hold of them, they won't get back in time, I don't think. 

My husband took me out, to get me out of the house and distracted so the depression wouldn't set in.  We needed cat food.  He bought me dinner and let me have my head space.  I'm still not sure about the depression.

I've been sitting here thinking about Mamaw's house.  About stories I've been told.  I was her first great-grandchild, and my mother took me to Lexington every week to see her.  She would feed me onions and beer cheese together. 

She taught me the word 'shit' when I was five.

When my youngest brother was in the hospital for several days undergoing tests, my parents left me with Mamaw.  We stayed up late and watched game shows.  She fed me cantaloupe and pork rinds. I can't eat either without thinking about her. 

There were Tinkertoys in the closet and a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos.  The marbles for Hungry Hungry Hippos were in a milk glass dish that sat in the hallway.  It sits on one of the bookshelves in my living room now, complete with marbles.

The attic was up a set of vertigo-inducing stairs, which were upholstered in that particular shade of green that was so popular in the seventies, and the stairs were often lined with jars of canned goods.  Upstairs was a haven of fabric and sewing machines.

Christmas meant everyone went over to Mamaw's.  The men played poker around the dining room table.  There was candy on the kitchen table that Mamaw had made.  Fudge.  Peanut Butter Ritz Cracker Sandwiches dipped in chocolate.  She brought those to Winchester to Pioneer Festival too, because she knew they were my favorite. 

She brought her quilts and her crafts to sell at craft fairs and did so for years until she couldn't see to quilt anymore.  She gave her quilting hoop to Mom, and having it is what spurred Mom and I to learn how to quilt.  Mom has Mamaw's old foot pedal Singer sewing machine.

We used to laugh about Bud telling stories about having to walk to school barefoot in the snow, ten miles, uphill both ways.  Mamaw scoffed when we told her.  She said, "It was more like two miles."  We quit teasing him.

She had a huge garden.  She could get anything to grow.  She had a cactus in the kitchen in a pot that looked like a pair of blue jean shorts.  When my youngest brother decided he wanted to be a cowboy, she gave it to him, since cowboys dealt with cactuses.

Downstairs a few weeks ago, I was going through the closet and found the baby blanket she made me.  It's yellow, with bunnies on it.  It's in marvelous condition for getting closer to 30 than I like to think about.  Someday it will be a baby blanket for a little girl.

She gave Mom a grandmother's garden quilt too.  My middle brother had it on his bed for years.  It's worn through in places.  I'm not sure how I could fix it.  My mom has a big yarn-tied quilt on her bad that Mamaw made.  It's all made from pieces of polyester and tied with yellow yarn and we all love it because it's warm and heavy.

She called me 'pissant.'

I called her Mamaw Ree.  Like some of my other great-grandmothers, I couldn't pronounce her entire name when I was little--Marie was a mouthful.  She was Mamaw Ree to all of us.

She cooked a huge breakfast every day.

The Christmas tree at Mamaw's had the best lights.  They were colored lights, with flowers that went around them.  No one knew what happened to them when they cleaned out her house after she went to the nursing home.

At her 90th birthday party, I leaned over and asked her if she could see what was on my finger.  She couldn't, so I told her it was an engagement ring and that I was getting married.  Her response was, "Well, shit."  Laughing, I told her that wasn't all of the news--my middle brother was getting married too.  She thought about it for a second, then said, "Well, shit."

When I went to the nursing home with my first quilt to show her, she tried to escape in her wheelchair out the door.  The alarm went off (I didn't know she wasn't allowed past the first set of doors), and the nurses came and got her and laughed.  Mamaw was kind of pissed.

When they emptied out Mamaw's house, my mother took the dining room table and chairs and Mamaw's china cabinet--the one that rattled every time you went by, with a sound that was unmistakable and unreproducible.  I thought she was silly at the time--my parents didn't have room for it, but I'm glad she has it now. They gave me the guest bed that had been my great-aunt's bed, so I could quit sleeping on a mattress on the floor.  It was the bed my husband and I slept in when we first got married.  Now it's the guest bed in our office. 

At one point, several years ago, she told me it was time I had a baby and that she didn't much care if I was married when I did.  Bud was horrified when I told him she'd said that.  Mostly, we think she just wanted to be a great-great-grandmother before her next door neighbor, Millie.  Millie died not long after, but with the arrival of my cousin's daughter last year, Mamaw did get her wish to be a great-great grandmother.

I'm going to go home tomorrow.  My mother is going to cry.  My aunts are going to cry.  I am going to cry.  My brothers will manfully hold it together for our sakes, and my dad will be right behind my mom, and my husband will be right behind me to catch us when we can't help it and fall apart.  People will laugh that pained laugh that you hear at funerals, the laugh from good memories tinged with the sorrow that you will not be making memories with that person any longer, a laughter laced with tears. 

The visitation is Friday.  The funeral is Saturday.  I will see all my relatives, hug them.  I saw them at my aunt's wedding in February, which was the first time I'd seen them since Mamaw's 90th birthday party, since we didn't do Christmas together after it got too hard on Mamaw.  I will see them now, and people will ask me how I am and how things are going.  They will tell me how proud Mamaw would be of me, how proud she always was of me.

And I will cry.  I will wish I had gone to see her more.  I hadn't seen her since her birthday party, though I had called.  She always confused me with Mom, though, even when I did go to see her, and so I just got updates from Gran and Bud on how she was doing, rather than confusing her.  When she thought it was Mom, she always asked how I was *really* doing.  When she knew it was me, she asked me how Mom was *really* doing, because she thought Mom was lying to her about how sick she was.  (Mom was, and I knew it, and I played along because I didn't want Mamaw to worry either.)

And finally, I will have to say goodbye and come to the realization that of all of my old people, I only have one left.  I was blessed with knowing all four of my great-grandmothers and two of my great-grandfathers.  But now, only Mamaw Retta is left.

For some reason, I think I thought Mamaw Ree would live forever.  Or it was that her passing never crossed my mind.  My worry is constantly whether my mother will leave us before her time.  In fact, I had the thought that my great-grandmother would outlive my mother. 

Tomorrow, I will go home.  And I will cry.  But then I will have to be strong.  I will have to hide it all in order to help my mother stay together.  And then later, I will fall apart where she can't see.  And I will think about the little white house on Meadowbrook, and remember the sound of the china cabinet and the smell of the kitchen, and I will curl up in the bed with my mother under Mamaw's quilt and remember that both of them love me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Book Review: Scotsmen Prefer Blondes

Ramsey, Sara. Scotsmen Prefer Blondes. Spencerhill Associates, 2012. Paperback. +326 pages. $11.99. Release Date: 30 March 2012.

Full Disclosure: I received an ebook copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

I hate reading a bad romance novel, and I'm afraid this qualifies.  Granted, I'm being a little nitpicky here, and granted, I have to admit, once again, that I judge all Regency romances by Stephanie Laurens, which probably isn't fair.  But I didn't find this book, the second in Ramsey's Muses of Mayfair series terribly compelling.

The general plot is that two friends go to Scotland to meet Malcolm, our hero, who intends to marry one of them, but who promptly falls in love with Amelia, her best friend.  The expected hijinks ensue, though in a reversal of most romance novel tropes, Prudence, who hadn't wanted to marry Malcolm in the first place, is quite angry with Amelia for "stealing" her man.

There is one further complication--Malcolm has political tendencies, and Amelia, unbeknownst to most, writes Gothic novels and satires, a la Ann Radcliffe.  This inevitably causes a lot of problems.

So what's wrong with this book?  It does follow the general pattern of a romance novel well enough, after all.  But the main problem is that I never really connected with the characters.  Prudence's anger with Amelia was so unexpected that it threw me somewhat.  Amelia's concern for Prudence, while mentioned often, almost seemed like an afterthought.

Now, generally, I don't discuss the sex scenes of these novels.  This is partly because I know that my dad reads my blog occasionally, and I'd rather not embarrass him too much.  But this is just completely astonishing here, as Ramsey uses certain phrases in the scene that would make the gals at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books facepalm.

First, Ramsey refers to a certain portion of the male anatomy as a "manroot."  While this does bring to mind certain images of tubers, I don't think that vegetation is necessarily the way you want your reader to think about a man.

It really sucked to be him after he had a lucky shot
that took out the U.S.S. Grissom. Both he and his manroot were
disintegrated by Captain Kruge.
.
The other part that bothered me came only two paragraphs later, when Ramsey notes that our heroine's "body disintegrated."  First, I heard Darth Vader warn Boba Fett not to disintegrate the crew of the Millennium Falcon.  Then I thought about Star Trek III.

I suppose that it's not that Scotsmen Prefer Blondes is a bad book, necessarily.  It's just not very good, and it's certainly not worth the $11.99 price point that Amazon currently has on the paperback.  If you're inclined to read it, go for the Kindle edition, which is selling for $3.99, because I wouldn't pay more than that for this book.

Scotsmen Prefer Blondes: D+

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

RAACK

Well, it's been a while since I posted anything here.  Part of that has been because I've been spending a fair amount of time over at Tosche Station, where I'm one of the bloggers for the site, bringing an academic point of view to Star Wars and geek culture. 

The other part is that I've been doing nothing but reading brain candy for the last week, and it has been glorious.  Last week was finals, but my students had all their stuff in before finals, so all I had to do was administrative work last week.  I took the rest of the week to read whatever I wanted, and it was wonderful.  I've been working through some of Kresley Cole's novels, as well as Christine Feehan--I do love getting hold of a new series.

But today, I would like to talk about a recent disturbing trend I've noticed in some of the books I've been reading, and to announce the formation of a new organization: RAACK (Readers Against Awesome Car Killing).

Let me explain.

Fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels know that bad things happen to cars in those books.  Generally speaking, they get blown up.  Ranger, one of the love interests, has cars for Stephanie as a line item under entertainment for the guys who work for him, as they all start up a book every time Stephanie gets a new car to bet on how long it will take before something happens to it.

Okay, that's fine and funny.  But if you know something's going to happen, why would you give her a new car?  Or, in what really caused me to wince, in Smokin' Seventeen was, well, a Shelby GT350.

This means this was one of two possible cars.  The first is the new 45th anniversary edition of the Shelby GT350 that was announced in 2010.  This picture of a 2012 Shelby GT--well, it makes me drool, and not just because I've watched far too much Top Gear with my husband.  I mean, just look at it.  It's a thing of beauty.

But the destruction of this car, while sad, could be sadder.  You see, the original Shelby GT350 was only made between 1965 and 1970.  That's right.  It means that Stephanie Plum could have managed to destroy this beauty (the picture here is a 1967).

This hurts my soul.  A lot.  I mean, just look at it!  How do you look at this car and say, "Yup, I'm going to write a book where one of these gets blown up!"

It's enough to make someone weep.

In any case, I thought that surely, I wouldn't come across anymore awesome cars being destroyed as I made my way through my romance novel foray as I caught up with the book series I'd fallen behind on over the school year.  Oh, but I was wrong.

I picked up Kresley Cole's Dark Desires After Dusk.  (Shut up about the name.)  The characters escape a variety of interesting bad guys in a Bugatti Veyron.  Want to know why it's awesome?  Well, I'll let Jeremy Clarkson tell you from the AutoVista section of Forza 4:

For those of you not wanting to listen to a pedantic Brit talk about how awesome this car is, I'll make it brief.  The Veyron is the fastest road legal production car in the world, the super sport topping out at 267 miles per hour, supported by an 8 liter, W16 engine which produces 1200 brake horsepower.  At top speed, it burns through an entire tank of gas in 12 minutes, and can shred a set of tires in about the same amount of time.  The base price is 1.7 million dollars (US).

And they wrecked it.

Apparently, I made a squeaky noise when that happened.

I will give this--Cole spends a good bit of time talking about how awesome the car is.  And then she kills it.  It folds in on itself like it's made from aluminum foil.  A Veyron.

So.  I would like to announce the formation of a new organization known as RAACK: Readers Against Awesome Car Killing.  Ladies and gentlemen, authors of the world, please, we beg you: if you're going to have your character wreck a car, do us a favor and wreck a Gremlin.  Anything else just hurts our feelings.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review: Leaving Mundania

Stark, Lizzie. Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012. Paperback. +272 pages. $16.95. Release Date: 1 May 2012.

Full disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

Leaving Mundania was one of the more interesting books I've read in a while.  Being a geek myself, I'm familiar with live action role-playing games.  Many of my friends in college played, and while I never made it to an actual LARP event, I knew the basics of how to play, had my own boffer sword (think a homemade Nerf sword--a pool noodle carefully duct-taped around a PVC pipe), and enjoyed practicing beating the crap out of my friends with it.

I never went to a LARP event, because when you got right down to it, it meant camping and tromping through the woods, and well, I didn't want to go.  I've always been much more of a table-top gaming girl myself (which I loved doing with these same friends).  In the intervening years, the LARP that I knew has gone under, unfortunately, so my husband and his brother don't spend weekends "playing whoop-ass" (as my mother-in-law likes to refer to it).

This is the LARP I knew--going out, dressing up in funny costumes, and beating the crap out of your best buds with a Nerf sword while traipsing through the woods after "treasure."  It meant many weekends making swords and sewing costumes (We learned how to make spider legs out of pantyhose) and a lot of fun.  While I never went, I knew exactly what was going on, whose characters had done what, and what the plot was.

What I didn't realize until reading Leaving Mundania, is that is only one kind of LARP.

I suppose, in retrospect, I should have realized that.  After all, I've played more than one table-top RPG and they all come together different.  Star Wars and Star Trek play on two different systems (d20 and d6, respectively), while Dungeons and Dragons takes a different approach, and anything involving Cthulhu is completely different.  Stark moves through several different kinds of LARP, from the boffer weapon LARP, to one that exists in a Nexus and allows people to play any kind of character they want, to the Society for Creative Anachronism, Cthulhu, and the more intense and strange Scandinavian LARPs.

First of all, Stark gets credit for being a nerd herself, though she obviously didn't start out as a LARPing nerd (few of us do, after all).  She recognizes someone playing Susan from Terry Pratchett's Discworld, she cracks Star Trek and Star Wars jokes, and one of her chapters is titled "Cthulhu fhtagn!"  So what I really liked about this book was that Stark went into it with respect.  She even devotes an entire chapter to the misconceptions people have about LARPs, Dungeons and Dragons, and even Magic, after the 1980s and 1990s when parents were all told that these kinds of games were converting their children to devil worship, not realizing that a D&D game looks more like the 8-Bit re-enactment than something out of a bad Johnny Depp movie.

Despite her respect, there are a couple of problems--she highlights the polyamorous relationship of three players, which has very little to do with the actual game and is something that people who might be uncomfortable with LARPing to begin with could then use an an excuse not to get involved, if they were just exploring it based on Stark's book.  But I am assuming that the people in this relationship said it was okay to use their full names, as Stark respects the wishes of those she interviews and withholds their names, as they don't want to be outed as LARPers.  In the United States, she notes, LARPers can be outcasts even in the geek community.

What's of more interest to me was Stark's journey through LARP in history, which points out that entertainments put on for queens and kings of Britain mimicked LARPs.  She also spends some time with the military and the exercises they use to immerse soldiers as much in a real world combat simulation as possible.  And then she goes to Scandinavia to take part in more artistic LARPs that focus much more on emotional character development than anything else.

For all the time that Stark spends playing in LARPs and her conclusion, I'm still not sure that she would consider herself a LARPer, though.  This still feels very much like the tale of an outsider, carefully trying to negotiate her way through a strange, new society.  While granted, this may be true, I think I was hoping for an ending where she hadn't just gotten more comfortable with herself because she'd been around all these weirdos who had no problem dressing up, but an ending where she actually still felt like LARP would be part of her life.  For all the tales of acceptance and fun of the LARP community, it still sounds like she's not entirely comfortable with it.

And granted, that's okay.  LARP isn't for everyone.  And overall, this book really does open LARP up to more people.  If you're interested in learning about the different forms of LARP and LARPing, this is a great book to get you started.

Leaving Mundania - B+



Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: Gravity by Brian Clegg

Clegg, Brian.  Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives. New York: St. Martin's, 2012. Hardcover. +336 pages. $25.99.  Release date: 22 May 2012.

Full disclosure: I received a digital advance copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Gravity is one of those books that is trying to do two things and doing neither very well.  At once, it's attempting to be a history of gravity as we know it and to explain gravity as well as possible in layman's terms, but reading through it, I found it a huge disappointment on both sides.

This is partly because of the organization.  Clegg jumps around from historical ideas to explanation with little to no transition.  I'm not sure that there would have been a better way to organize the book--after all, one must understand Newton before one gets to Einstein, but it's not well done.

I think the largest problem is that Clegg is not a historian of science, and I'm inclined to think that he had a bad experience with one somewhere in his career--either that, or he is one of those unfortunate souls who got to college, realized that things did not work the way he'd been told in high school and has continued to resent it the rest of his life.  Most of the beginning part of the book is correcting misconceptions from high school science and history, which I truly have no problem with.  After all, Clegg does address the fact that the Greeks and the medieval world knew that the world was round, for example.  He points out that Christianity and Islam in the Middle Ages did not repress science, but encouraged it, and he points out that the medieval world, while not yet at the point to recognize that the earth was not the center of the universe, did realize that the earth rotated.

Yet at the same time, Clegg's also correcting things that really don't matter.  No, according to the Gregorian calendar change, Galileo did not die the same year Newton was born.  But does it really matter?  And is the brief digression into Latin philology necessary?  And Clegg makes assumptions about the feelings of scientists without any evidence for them, sending him into one-sentence flights of fancy that is incredibly distracting from the rest of the text.  The same thing goes for a brief discussion about the inside-out nature of anti-space and his completely gratuitous mention of Galaxy Quest, without any real meat to the analogy.

Clegg is best at underscoring some of the newer developments, such as Horava Gravity, which he claims may, if future experiments work out, may someday reconcile Newtonian physics and general relativity.  These are relatively new developments, which I'd not heard of.  Granted, while I am an English professor, the history of science is one of my specialties, and I'm by no means ignorant of much of what he's saying.

One section which really bothered me was Clegg's digression regarding the rubber sheet analogy.  Oftentimes, physicists use the rubber sheet analogy to explain how space-time is warped by gravity.  Here's an illustration from Stanford (from an article about Gravity Probe B, which Clegg does discuss in the book) that might help explain.

If you want a really useful explanation, I'd click through to the article.  But the point is that everything with mass distorts space-time around it.  This is an example of it simply in one dimension.  But Clegg has problems with it, because in this illustration, if we pretend the probe in the picture is a marble rolling around to the center of the well, we forget that there is also a little distortion around the probe.

Clegg's point is not that this is necessarily wrong, but that it's overly simple--we forget that it's distorting space-time, not just space.  That's all well and good, but the digression wasn't necessary.  Clegg could have made the point without the need to attack the model. 

And I suppose that's the real problem with this book.  Clegg is constantly on the offense, either against bad history, bad illustrations, bad politicians who are cutting money from projects, and bad scientists who are letting them.  His explanations aren't clear, and the book itself would be immensely improved by illustrations for visual learners. 

All in all, if you want a good explanation of gravity and the way quantum mechanics may work with relativity, go read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe or watch the NOVA series.  It may not be as up-to-date as Clegg's, but you'll learn more and you'll learn it more easily.

Gravity- D+

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I'm Guest Blogging!

For anyone who's interested, I have a guest blog post over at  Tosche Station this morning on an academic defense of fanfiction.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Pulitzers and Review: Pirate King

The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced today, and for the first time in 35 years, there has not been a fiction prize awarded.  I've not read any of the three finalists for the Pulitzer, but I find it odd that none of them won.  After all, if you're a finalist for the Pulitzer, doesn't that, on some level, suggest that you are an author of a high enough caliber to win?

In any case, perusing the list, I was excited to see fellow academic and father of the critical theory of New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt on the list for his new book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  I'm a fan of Greenblatt's for several reasons--I use the Norton Shakespeare, for one thing, and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is a delightful book.  That's not to mention that New Historicism is part of my own particular critical viewpoint (more folded in with cultural studies, though).  Obviously, anyone with as many honors as Greenblatt has doesn't need the help of a lowly graduate student blogger, but I think The Swerve is going to be a book I'm going to want to read. It deals with finding a manuscript by Lucretius called On the Nature of Things, which might be the first written work to definitively challenge the idea that nature required a God and which, among other things, posited the existence of atoms.  I think it might be helpful when it comes to my dissertation--at the very least, it's right up my scientific/literature alley.

On to the book review: Pirate King by Laurie King!  I've loved King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series ever since I picked up The Beekeeper's Apprentice five or six years ago.  Russell is Holmes apprentice of sorts, and she does eventually end up marrying him.  It's highly entertaining to watch Russell go through all sorts of madcap adventures (some more so than others), outwit Holmes at his own game, and generally solve all sorts of problems in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (though I have to wonder if Holmes isn't getting a bit old now, since Pirate King was set in 1924, though apparently only ten years have passed since the beginning of the series).

That said, Pirate King is definitely one of Russell's more madcap adventures, to the point where the plot is almost too tangled to pick apart.  But the plot is designed to be this way, as Russell (and Holmes, by extension) is investigating a mystery involving a silent film company who is making a movie which--if I understand this correctly, and I'm not sure that I do--is about a silent film company making an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

Yes, I'll let the silent film of a silent film of a musical part sink in for a moment.

In any case, hiring of pirates, an insane voyage over the Mediterranean where Russell must shepherd 13 young actresses, a kidnapping and heroic escape all ensue.  One thing I did notice was that there was quite a bit of what we academics would refer to as gender-bending.  One of the actresses is actually an actor dressed up as a girl.  There's also quite a bit of reference to some of the characters possibly being gay.

This strikes me as odd for one reason in particular.  Though sexual attitudes got progressively more open after the turn of the century, 1924 was still only thirty years after Oscar Wilde's trial.  While World War I had opened up a lot of new ideas, the odds of a proper lady thinking about the possibility of homosexual activity would have been unusual.  Now, granted, Mary Russell is never truly depicted as a proper lady, but the previous novels had been very much more in character with contemporary literature of the fin de siecle.

I'm not suggesting that people didn't know or talk about homosexuality in that era--obviously that's not true.  I suppose to a certain extent, I've been so deeply stuck in Victorian literature for the past several months that anything that would have been considered "transgressive" during that time period strikes me as odd--anything Sherlockian seems like it needs to be firmly Victorian, though Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories were written from 1881-1927.  But I do think that this is symptomatic of a larger problem that King is having as she progresses through the Mary Russell series.  It almost feels as if the previous novels were more carefully researched and set than these later novels. King has said that Russell is what Holmes would be if he was a woman, of the twentieth century, and interested in theology.  I think the problem is in the twentieth century.  Mary Russell might be, dare I say it, too progressive for the time period?

Maybe I'm wrong, but something seemed a little bit off about this novel, and this was the only thing that straight out jumped out at me as being that little bit odd.  It still is a rip-roaring adventure, though a bit slower paced than I remember some of the other Mary Russell novels being (despite the seeming frenetic pace of the action Russell seems to be amidst), Holmes makes his surprise appearance, and Mary saves the day with her philological talents.  It's not the best of the Mary Russell novels, but it's hardly the worst detective story I've ever read. (I'm looking at you, Catherine Coulter and James Patterson).

Pirate King - B

Friday, April 13, 2012

Update and Copper Beach Review

1. Dear Google, I hate Blogger's new dashboard.  It sucks.

2. Well, as to where I've been the last few weeks, I've either been obsessively studying for prelims, taking prelims, or obsessively checking my email waiting for preliminary exam results.  The good news is that I passed the written exams!  I take my 18th Century oral exam on 19 April, and am still waiting for the Victorian exam to be scheduled, but I feel much more confident going into orals than I did going into the written exams.  It's one last hurdle.

3. In the meantime, I've really got to get cracking on my dissertation prospectus, as it's due at the end of the month, but let's face it, I kick ass when it comes to deadlines.

4. In other news this week, I was also awarded the McDaniel Award for Excellence in Teaching by my department, which recognizes excellence in teaching by graduate students.  This was a huge honor, and I was blessed to have a good friend and mentor present me with the award at the Liberal Arts Award Ceremony yesterday.  I certainly could not have asked for a better role model as either a grad student or a teacher.  Love you, A.T.!

5. I have so many reviews to catch up on.  In the next few weeks, I have several galley reviews to post for the following books:

Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives by Brian Clegg
Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games by Lizzie Stark
Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise by Mark Clark
Scotsmen Prefer Blondes by Sara Ramsay

So those are on the immediate to-do list for the next few weeks, starting with Brian Clegg's Gravity.

6. I've been able to take some really good advantage of the used bookstore and the used book section at Hastings recently.  I've come up with the first novels in some series by Christine Feehan and Kresley Cole, I managed to find my own copy of The Help, which I've been dying to read.  I got an awesome book called Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant (yes, it was the pun that won me over).  And I found one of Stephanie Lauren's Cynster novels that I've NEVER read.  I didn't think there was one out there I hadn't read, but I have a copy of it now too!

Plus, the university library has opened a new popular reading collection for new books that come in, which makes just browsing the shelves looking for something to read much easier.  Right now, I checked out Sherrilyn Kenyon's Retribution (again, since I didn't get to it last time) and Charlene Harris' Dead Reckoning.  Oh, and did I mention that I finally found a used paperback copy of Janet Evanovich's Smokin' Seventeen?  I realize that a lot of time my reviews are way behind the publication dates of novels, but there you go.

And--let's not forget that I've read Copper Beach by Jayne Ann Krentz recently too, and I need to review that as well.

7. Well, on that note, there's no time like the present.  So, Copper Beach!  I borrowed this from the library's popular reading collection as well, and I did enjoy it.  It's the first book in Krentz's Dark Legacy Trilogy and the plot is fairly standard--Abby is a rare book seller with psychic powers, Sam Coppersmith is after a book to help his family understand/keep bad guys from getting the power to unlock the psychic power in certain rocks his family owns.  The characters are your stock romance novel characters, and that's just fine--after all, that's what we read romance novels for--the feisty female who needs protection but doesn't want it, and the alpha male who is determined to provide that protection, be it from physical or emotional bad stuff.

What was difficult was transitioning from Krentz's Arcane Society series to this one, as this one doesn't seem to fit into the Arcane Society universe.  There is no mention of the aforementioned Arcane Society or Jones and Jones.  But Krentz seems to still be using a lot of the same ideas about psychic phenomenon that she developed while writing the Arcane Society books, such as dreamlight energy.  This makes me wonder if this will intersect back in with Arcane Society or if she's working on creating a new universe here.

To be honest, I'm not upset that Krentz is moving away from the Arcane Society.  The last few novels have been somewhat disappointing: you can see my reviews of Quicksilver and In Too Deep and  Canyons of the Night at the links provided.  But especially after reading In Too Deep and Canyons of the Night, I had really started to wonder if the Arcane Society stories were kind of played out, especially after In Too Deep, which just fell kind of flat for me.  Copper Beach was much more--I keep wanting to type flavorful here.  Flavorful in that you got lots of stuff besides the romance and mystery.  Sam had to come and help rescue Abby from her insane family, for example.  There was much more depth to this novel than there has been to the last few Arcane Society books, and that's a definite improvement in my view.

Copper Beach - B+

ETA: I should also note that I need to review Laurie King's Pirate King, but that'll have to wait until later.  :D

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hello!

Prelims are over. AAAAAHHH.

Cue the obsessive checking of my email to see if I passed.  I will post as soon as I know.

In the meantime, I have spent some time reading for fun.  Ended up reading Jayne Ann Krentz's Copper Beach, and I've started on Laurie King's new Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novel Pirate King.  I've also read the last two Wallflower novels from Lisa Kleypas which I managed to get used, so look for reviews on all of these coming up.  Also, I've got four (count 'em, four!) galleys to review in the next few weeks, so it may be a very exciting week over here at Bookshelf Love.

And that said, if you enjoy what I do and have a GoodReads account (or even just have a Facebook account that you can connect to a GoodReads account), then vote for me in the Independent Book Blogger awards!  I'm not terribly confident in my chances, but one never knows.  Voting begins April 10th!



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I will catch up more this weekend.  I'm now in the place where I'm going back to academic books for my dissertation (yay!) instead of studying for prelims, and it's kind of weird readjusting.  Still, I wouldn't trade the readjustment for the world.  Now if I just passed so I don't have to take them over again!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Prelims

So, it's occurred to me that not everyone completely understands this crazy thing called "preliminary exams" that has taken over my life. That's my bad. I forget sometimes that I'm living in what feels like a rather isolated little academic bubble of reading and writing and teaching and grading, and that not everyone understands the crazy that is part of being a graduate student.

To get a Ph.D. in English in my program you have to 1) complete 48 hours of coursework, 2) take the Ph.D. qualifying examinations (which I passed my first year here), 3) complete a foreign language requirement, 4) pass the preliminary examinations, and 5) complete and defend the dissertation.

(Reading the handbook, I think I've got to go take out the phrase "Ph.D. candidate" from my email...I don't think that's true until I've passed prelims. )

At this moment, I have over 50 hours of coursework, passed quals, took French for Reading Knowledge (ugh), and am currently awaiting prelims this weekend. So what do these prelims actually mean?

It means that I have to demonstrate my expertise in two subject areas in a test. My subject areas, as most people already know, are Victorian literature (my primary concentration) and Restoration and 18th Century literature (my secondary concentration). What will happen is that Friday afternoon, I will go in and be tested on the long 18th century. I'll take the Victorian exam Saturday morning.

Most likely, the written portion of each exam will have a number of questions, perhaps six, and I'll be required to answer three of them in the four hours I have to take the exam. In the exam, I have to demonstrate my writing ability (which I'm not worried about), and demonstrate that my knowledge in the area is accurate, appropriately broad (I know a lot about a lot of things), and appropriately deep (that I can really delve into things with my answer). I also have to be able to demonstrate critical positions--that is, I have to be able to identify and apply appropriate literary criticism to the works I'm discussing.

Yeah, I know. That doesn't sound all that bad. What makes it particularly nerve-wracking is the fact that you get two shots at the exams. If you fail twice, you are out of the program. Period. Goodbye to the last ten years of work and the future you'd planned on.

But we won't dwell on that. Once a student passes the written portion of the exam, they then go on to orals, which generally takes place a week or two after the written exams. From what I understand--and there isn't much about orals in the handbook, though I wish there was--it's a conversation between you and the examiners, sometimes about what's in the written portion. They may ask questions or ask you to expound on things you wrote about, or ask you to cover other things.

So, that's where I am right now. The Victorian exam is not bothering me. The 18th century exam does, and that's partly because it is the exam which horror stories are told about. I've still been reading, but I think that at this point, I may simply not be able to cram any more information into my brain. All I can do is try to get some rest (yeah, right).

This is my first attempt. It's not like my future hangs in the balance. (Yet.) But if you are so inclined, send good thoughts my way this weekend. I'm going to need them.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Crazy time!

According to GoodReads, here's what I've read since the first of March.

Scholarly:
The English Novel in History: 1700-1780
Candide
Satire and Sentiment: 1660-1830
High Victorian Culture
The Eighteenth Century Novel: The Idea of a Gentleman
The Madwoman in the Attic
The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 3.
(and half of Vol. 2)
The Commodity Culture of Victorian England
The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence
The Eighteenth Century
Sensibility: An Introduction
The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel
Making a Social Body: British Culture Formation

I've also been reading bits and pieces of other books that might be useful and rereading some important poetry.

What have I read for fun? Well, I took a day off and checked Jayne Ann Krentz's Copper Beach out of the library, and after this weekend, I'll have a review of it up. I've also finally got Pirate King, and I'm looking forward to reading it as well.

In fact, going back and counting it up, I've read 42 books already this year. I've also got four galleys to read and review in the next month, which I'm looking forward to.

Wow, I'm such a nerd.

In any case, all of this reading has been in the service of preliminary exam studying. So this Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, send prayers, thoughts, and good energy my way. I'm going to need it. :)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Enough already.

It's been a hard couple weeks. And the next week and a half are going to be worse.

I'm taking the Ph.D. preliminary exams in Victorian literature and in Restoration and 18th Century literature next week. I've been taking practice exams. I've been studying. And I've been doing a lot of other things that will distract me from the massive anxiety attack waiting to happen.

I called my mama this morning just to hear her voice and for her to tell me that everything was going to be okay. I don't do that a lot anymore--call my mama, I mean. It's too hard sometimes. Today was good; today, she was herself. Today, she was my mom.

Everyone else has been telling me that things are going to be fine too. Everyone comes up to me and says, "You're going to do great! You're so smart, you'll ace these." I want to shout at them that they have no idea, that I'm such a fraud. I'm afraid of failing one or both exams and disappointing everyone who assured me that I would do so well. It's Academic Insecurity Syndrome, we used to joke. Professors say that it never goes away. Maybe so, but it's never felt quite as real as it does right now. Dr. K tells me not to worry either, that I'm doing fine. As much as I love her, I still don't know if I believe her.

I've got a lot riding on this. The last ten years worth of work, my academic future, both immediate and not-so-much. I can taste anxiety in my mouth--it's bitter and nasty, and it won't go away, no matter how much medication I take. I'm not the only one; there are at least eight or nine of us taking exams next week, and I know that the office will not be pleasant next week.

There are other things. Other worries. Friends of a friend who were terribly beaten last week, who have been on my mind, the grandmother of another friend who took a terrible fall. A friend who suddenly finds herself in a position she never thought she'd be in, a position that makes me hurt for her and jealous all at the same time. And then the normal everyday worries of an everyday family.

There are good things. My husband has been taking such good care of me. For example, I haven't done the dishes in weeks--he takes care of all of that so I have time to concentrate and study, and then to rest afterwards. He holds me when I start to panic, makes sure that I'm going to be okay. Reminds me of what I always say to him: "God has taken care of us so far. No reason to think He's going to stop now."

Today, especially, I am homesick, though that may not be the right word. I miss my undergraduate years. There was studying and tests, but none of them were this important. I had lunch with my friends and the professors almost every day. In the springtime, Eastern smells like old books and mold, even just walking through the campus, and while that may sound disgusting, it's comforting. Sitting out by the fountain, chatting with friends, reading in the Ravine, hiding in the fourth-floor stacks of the library, reveling in the smell of old books. I loved that school. Still do.

I have to go teach here directly, a discussion of rhetoric and how students can reach an audience. I wish I could put what I teach into practice, teach myself how to argue myself out of wanting to crawl under the desk or pull the covers over my head and hide. But if there's any audience hard to reach, it's the audience of one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Farewell to an old standby

After 244 years, the Encyclopedia Britannica is finally going out of print.

This bothers me in many ways. It's not that the Encyclopedia Britannica is disappearing, but it is going to an online version. So what happens when the zombie apocalypse happens and all the computers don't work? Will we all be forced to get our knowledge from out of date encyclopedias?

Well, I did growing up, and it hasn't seemed to hurt me any. My parents were determined that we needed an encyclopedia in our house, but we couldn't afford a new one. My mom managed to pick up one from a yard sale--I'm not sure that it was the Britannica, off the top of my head. Twenty-six maroon tomes with faded gold lettering from 1956. I remember very distinctly reading in 1995 about "when man someday makes it to the moon."

I had a conversation with a colleague this morning about whether or not this was taking knowledge away from those who don't necessarily have technological access, but given the cost of encyclopedias, it was doubtful that they would be in a lower-income home anyway (at least not new--perhaps an out of date edition, like the one we had). We gathered that the idea is that if you have access to a library where you would be able to see a normal encyclopedia, you would have access to computers. But computers in libraries are often busy, assuming the library has them at all, and there are some public libraries in poor areas that don't.

I understand that this is an economic decision, and that the Encyclopedia Britannica print edition has probably been losing money for the last ten or fifteen years, if not more. But I do still hope that there will be a few print copies out there from the updated material, perhaps in the Library of Congress or in the Britannica offices. Just in case the zombies come.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Austen-ites

It may be a cliche for English majors to say, but I've always loved Austen. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books--there is no romantic hero quite like Mr. Darcy. My love for Austen may be even more cliche, considering my level of academic engagement. Since my specialties are in the long 18th and 19th centuries and Austen rather deftly fits into the turn of the century, her books encompass everything I love about reading.

So it was with great delight that I read Frances Burney's Evelina this afternoon. Published in 1778, with no small indebtedness on her part to Dr. Johnson, it's the story of a country mouse making her way into society and surviving the attempts to regain her fortune which has been wrongfully taken from her. Lord Orville, the hero, is very much like Mr. Darcy, but perhaps even better, because Lord Orville knows when to laugh. Darcy is solemn all the time, but Orville is able to laugh in genuine delight when something warrants it.

Many of the concerns are the same. Both Evelina and Elizabeth Bennet are concerned with the impact their families will have in how they are seen by society, and both have an acute awareness of their own particular social failures. To be honest, as I think about it, perhaps the reason these novels were successful, and in Austen's case, remain so, is because so many teenage girls recognize the situations.

For example. I love my dad. He is, without a doubt, quirky, and it took a long time before I came to love and embrace (and in some cases, emulate) that quirkiness. But for a good portion of my teenage years, he was also a source of some embarrassment, usually caused by his sartorial choices when going to the grocery store (and the tendency to sing "If I Were King of the Forest" from The Wizard of Oz in the parking lot).

But at the tender age of thirteen, at my first boy-girl dance, after which my father was taking several friends of mine home (including the boy I liked), my father came to pick me up wearing the following outfit: red and black checked pajama pants, a maroon t-shirt with a paint stain across the front, a gray zip-up sweatjacket, a Cincinnati Reds ballcap, and topsiders with no socks. More to the point, he came inside. Where everyone could see him.

I was mortified. (So was my mother.)

While this has, in the ensuing years, become a memory that spawns laughter for all involved (and yes, some of those friends do remember my dad's wild pajama pants--and some still see him in them when he goes to the grocery store on the weekends, though the red and black checked have been replaced by pairs printed with the Grinch, Oscar the Grouch, DC Comics and Pink Floyd), at the time, it was positively horrifying. I could generally deal with the outfits going to the grocery store, because as I well knew, I was really the only teenager who actively liked going to the grocery store with her dad, and opportunities for embarrassment in front of my peers were minimal.

My point in relating this story has been that we all recognize that feeling of being embarrassed in front of someone we really want to impress by someone we know and love for their own quirky attributes, and at some particularly socially important time. For Evelina, it's as she's being presented to society and moving out in the world. Being thirteen and growing up in small-town Kentucky, the first boy-girl dance is about as similar to late 18th century Britain social situations as I can get.

But the beauty of these books is that the hero always sees past the embarrassment to the true inner beauty of the heroine and accepts her no matter what. That's the love story in these books and the part that I think every person who reads them resonates with--the simple idea that one person can love another without any judgments....and then live happily ever after.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Writing

I was in a professional development seminar yesterday, taking notes, when something hit me.

I love to write.

I don't mean the intellectual activity of writing, though I love that too. No, I mean the actual, physical act of writing, of putting pen on paper and watching ink spill forth. Of even sitting at a computer screen, tapping at keys and watching words simply appear like magic. I suppose it's what makes a brand-new notebook special--what makes a brand-new notebook with a pretty cover even more special.

What caused this? It wasn't the professional development seminar. Though it was informative, it didn't have anything to do with this physical act of writing, and I was taking notes on the idea of voice in non-native speakers' English when it struck me. Now, part of this, I feel certain, was the fact that Cengage had a book rep there, and he had given me a pen.

I love these pens.

I got two of them last year, and was upset when they didn't last me all the way to this year.

I might have more than two right now.

Actually, I might have a lot more because I was tempted by their shiny brilliance every time I went by the table. (To be fair, he left a BUNCH for anyone to take after the seminar was over, so I don't feel bad about having a bunch, since everyone had a chance to get them and had left by the time I got there and snagged them. And now I will have them for a LONG time. Buahaha!) And I would totally buy these pens if I could figure out who made them, but my perusals of the office supply aisles have been for naught.

Anyway, something about the tail of a cursive 'y' caught my eye, and I stopped for a moment to simply appreciate the act of writing. I really do enjoy writing, especially by hand, though I'm never terribly happy with my handwriting for long, because the faster I go and more excited I get, the less beautiful my handwriting becomes.

It reminded me of an E.L. Konigsburg book I read when I was a kid: The View from Saturday, which won her a second Newbery Award. In it, one of the main characters is taught to use a fountain pen. The fountain pen--refillable, mind--is extolled as the most virtuous of pens, rather than the soulless ballpoint so in use today.

Personally, I've always been a ballpoint pen girl myself, though I've been picky about what kind. I love Bic pens, but not the crystal ones. I'm a fan of the RoundStic pens. I enjoyed Sharpie pens for a while, as the logical, less messy follower to felt-tip pens, though they were not fast enough for me to take notes in class. SnarkyWriter gave me an InkJoy, PaperMate's new pen (which is being featured on their website's front page right now), and I found that not having to press down on the ball resulted in quite a bit of mess, and I had ink all over myself. Mostly, I've used their Write Bros. pen.

But I've found that many of my favorite pens have come to me from various places. I have a KEA pen (the Silver Dyna Pen), and another one also emblazoned with the KEA logo (a variation on the Arctic Frost). I've several Clic Stics from a variety of organizations, and two Tri Stics with my alma mater's Continuing Education logo that I love dearly. In my pen jar, I've also several of the aforementioned Round Stics, Sharpie pens, Write Bros. in various colors, a PaperMate Mystix in orange (which I believe they've quit making). I've also a purple Pentel Energel that I use sometimes for grading, though I'm not a gel pen person.

But my favorites are always the ones I pick up. Working in a pharmacy as an undergraduate, I picked a number of pens from drug reps. I have a pen from a Marriott hotel, one from a Drury hotel. I've a blue pen I think my father bought. I've my Cengage pens. And like anything else, my tastes will change. It may be that by next year, I will no longer want the Cengage pens, and at that point, they will drift out into the world, thieved and given away. Pen karma.

But what matters is finding THE pen for the moment...and then finding that perfect curve in a word and smiling because it's just so fun.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Knits for Nerds

Full Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Take a look at what's out today, everyone! Toni Carr's Knits for Nerds was published today, and never, in my life, have I regretted being a crappy knitter before.

Until today.

The first thing I noticed was from the introduction--all the pictures were taken at NEIL GAIMAN'S HOUSE.

I can has?

There are only five patterns labeled "Easy" out of the 30+ patterns in the book, three of which are scarves--but really cool scarves. One is an easier version of the classic Dr. Who scarf:--basically this, but skinnier (and perhaps a little shorter). Unfortunately for me (but fortunate for all those who are more skilled knitters out there), there are some truly awesome patterns in here.

If I'm going through what I desperately want to add a +5 modifier to my knitting skill for, the number one thing is Carr's "Aim to Misbehave Brown Jacket." It's gorgeous, and I want it! Based on Firefly's Browncoat pattern, I couldn't help but think that River Tam would have had a Browncoat in this pattern. And as long as I'm on the Firefly themed patterns, the cunning scarf (one of the easy patterns) and the cunning socks might go well with the Jayne hat I crocheted for my brother-in-law a few years ago. Yeah. You know you want one (and knit patterns for the hat can be found all over the internet).

Other beautiful things I loved? The "Secret Beaded Bag." Done in purple tweedy yarn and embellished with some really pretty beads, it's inspired by Herminone Granger's Bag of Holding from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The "Light of Earendil" shrug is delicate and beautiful, and way beyond my skill level. It features a leaf pattern and beading, and makes me wish I was the kind of English teacher who could get away with the ethereal kind of clothing (all I can get away with is my tie-dyed skirt). One particular strength of this collection is the number of bags--including a laptop bag which can be spread out to make a chessboard.

My enthusiasm for these patterns not withstanding, there are a few bombs, which one would expect. The Princess hats (all based on Star Wars hairstyles) are a bit silly (though I can definitely see how "Padme's Battle Cape" would work for roller girls), and the Catwoman hat is patently ridiculous. And to be honest, I wasn't much of a fan of many of the patterns in the third section of the book that dealt with comics and manga, but that's more of a style thing on my part than a reflection on the patterns. Also, the sci-fi trivia used to fill in blank spaces at the ends of patterns is a bit hokey--if you've bought this book, you know the answers to these questions.

There is a fairly good how-to section at the back of the book to assist those novice knitters, like myself. Now if I can just get to where my purling doesn't look like a cat has taken its claws to my yarn.....

Overall, there is more good than bad in this book, and the "Aim to Misbehave Brown Jacket" is worth the price of admission alone. If you're a geek crafter, this is definitely a book for you. Grade: A-

Monday, February 13, 2012

Huh?

What is this? Where am I? Why can't I breathe through my nose?

In all seriousness, I have done almost nothing but read and fret in the last week. What have I been through? The Origin of Species (amazing), Darwin's Plots (academically interesting), a couple of books on 18th century history (in order to help calm my nerves about the exams at the end of March), a book on Victorian ideas, Lisa Kleypas' Because You're Mine and Eloisa James' This Duchess of Mine. Plus some Matthew Arnold for my dissertation. This upcoming week has more 18th century study, plus Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and a study of Victorian and modern poetics.

I had a very productive trip to Half Price Books this weekend. My husband and I had headed home for a family wedding (which was incredibly beautiful) and took three giant boxes of books to sell back while we were there (for which we got a grand total of $20. At least that paid for some of the books we bought and got the boxes out of the house. Half Price is a wonderful place, but it does not pay well). But I came away with three Eloisa James novels and a cross stitch book for fun, and several books that I think will come in handy for dissertation and exam studying--a book on general Victorian culture - What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew - the Norton 18th century anthology, a book about Herschel's discoveries, and a book called Apes, Angels and Victorians about Victorian perceptions of evolution, which is not a bad haul.

In the meantime, I'm also waiting for books to come from Amazon that I've ordered for my dissertation as well. I've ordered copies of some of the major Victorian scientific works of the era - Paley's Natural Theology, Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural Creation, and Lyell's Principles of Geology. At the same time, I've also ordered The Kristeva Reader and Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition to help me develop the theoretical underpinnings of my argument.

And yes, I am perfectly aware of how boring all that sounds and what an English nerd I am. In any case, I have a preliminary outline of how I want my first chapter of my dissertation to go, which is surprising in and of itself. Also, I really need to be working more on my prospectus instead, but my first focus really needs to be exams. Naturally, I'm hiding in romance novels. The Kleypas and James novels were pretty good, though I much preferred the Eloisa James novel--for one, it had much more of a seemingly conceivable plot.

No, what I really wanted to talk about today was Darwin. Most people who have talked to me in the last few weeks have heard this spiel already, but The Origin of Species is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read.

Having been brought up in a semi-evangelical household, I'm not sure what I was expecting when I began Darwin. My parents never pushed creationism on us--certainly not literal creationism, but when you're homeschooled, you get some of it by osmosis through some of your textbooks and I certainly had friends who did take a very literal interpretation of it. In some aspects, I think I expected to open up The Origin of Species and find the devil waiting to pounce. I also think that I expected a very dry, dusty scientific tome that I was going to have to slog through to get anything out of.

I could not have been more wrong on both counts. Darwin was very respectful of the religious aspect. He never denies God, and he's very careful in The Origin of Species not to make any conclusions involving man (that's another book). Darwin was, by no means, an atheist out to eliminate God from the world. He was actually a devoted churchman who was buried in Westminster Abbey. And yes, he realized that there were going to be repercussions from the theory--he discusses them somewhat in the book. But he never dismisses the idea of a Creator. He is moving away from a literal interpretation of Genesis in order to make the geological and cosmological record fit with Christianity.

I've been having a discussion about this with Dr. K, and she says that this is no different than what John Henry Newman was doing. An Anglican turned Catholic who was looking for what he felt was the best, closest way to doing things the way Christ wanted, Newman felt that something had to change in the way that we conceived of the Old Testament. It couldn't be God, because God was perfect from the beginning. So what he came up with was instead the idea that it was not God who had changed, but humanity. Genesis makes sense for a less educated people who could not comprehend the intricacies of the universe. Like Christ does in the New Testament, the Old Testament teaches through stories, metaphor and analogy. Humanity is changing and becoming more advanced and increasing in their understanding. The only difference is that Darwin was coming at it from the scientific view and Newman from a religious view.

And in doing so, Darwin establishes a natural world in some of the most beautiful language. It's almost poetic in spots--how else could it be when you're describing something completely new and wondrous to the world?

Yes, I still realize that I'm an English nerd.

In any case, I feel like we should do with The Origin of Species what I've always felt we should do about other books, like Harry Potter and Twilight -- read it before making a decision about the merit of it. And I think we should do one more thing--take Darwin as he wanted to be taken, not as the a) evil of all mankind or b) the savior of the agnostics/atheists/evolutionists. Darwin falls somewhere in the middle of the creationism/evolution debate, and it's always in the middle where I look for truth.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

*clunk*

So, I've been doing a lot of reading lately, and I do not have time or inclination to go into major reviews of what I've been reading. This is partly because it's late and I need to go get in the shower, partly because my head is so full of dissertation stuff that I can barely think, partly because I am frustrated with emails that have been coming in the last day and a half, and partly because for some strange reason I am hearing what sounds like muted guitar-thrashing solos in my right ear which is clearly either a sign of my impending mental breakdown or aliens trying to contact me through my teeth, both of which are equally likely.

So what does that mean? Quick and dirty book reviews!

Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas. Entertaining and witty. B+

A Duke of Her Own by Eloisa James. I remember this being entertaining enough at the time, but for the life of me, I can't remember--oh, wait, it was about Villiers. Okay, so it was actually pretty good, though it obviously didn't stick with me as well as her others. B-

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong. I almost didn't stick with this one as it started out so slow, but it was intriguing enough a take on werewolves and enough of a train wreck that I couldn't stop reading and have since started (but not finished) Stolen and have borrowed more/obtained more from Snarky Writer. B-

The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae by Stephanie Laurens. Oh, Stephanie Laurens, my love for you knows no bounds, and you have continued to blow me away in yet more of the best romance novels there are. The book just came out today, and my ever-patient and loving husband took me to Hastings to get it and then put up with my effectively ignoring him the rest of the evening and delving into the last book in the Cynster sisters trilogy where we finally get to meet the mysterious laird and learn why he's been so determined to kidnap one of the Cynster girls. And of course, it all turns out happily ever after. In Pursuit of Eliza Cynster might have my favorite hero in Jeremy Carling (because he reminds me so much of my own Prince Charming), but The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae hits every romance reader with one of the best stories I've read in a while. A+ (Yes, I'm a fangirl. Get over it.)

In other news, I've been doing a ridiculous amount of reading for my dissertation, but I am (obviously) trying to read something a little more light-hearted than discourse on Browning (though I'm so oddly excited by the prospect of dissertation research that I have determined, incontrovertibly, that I am the biggest nerd EVER). To that effect, I've checked out Sherrilyn Kenyon's Retribution and Richard Castle's Heat Rises (though I've not read Naked Heat yet either, but let's face it, they're basically episodes of Castle, so I think I can manage). I have already renewed them once, as I can't help feeling a little guilty for reading non-dissertation stuff. With the exception of The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae, which, let's face it, I would have started reading in the car on the way home if it a) hadn't been dark already and b) I didn't get carsick.

Anyway. Time for the shower and hopefully the guitar to stop shredding in my ear. It's so weird.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rage Against The Man!

Who, in this case, is the United States Congress. Wil Wheaton has said it much more eloquently (and ferociously) than I. 1984, anyone?

I think scholars should be particularly concerned, given "fair use" paradigms currently in play and possibilities that SOPA/PIPA could eventually bring to pass. After all, the free exchange of ideas is the most valued idea of the university setting, and the Internet has allowed that to be the closest reality it's likely to get in our lifetimes.

So contact your congresspeople and let them hear your voice. This is one bill the American public CAN--and IS--killing. You want to stop piracy? Great. But don't take away a free and open Internet--for people in and beyond the United States--to do it.

ETA: Want more info on exactly why it's bad? Read this article, originally from Mashable, on "Why SOPA is Dangerous."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Best laid plans....

I meant to be productive today, I really did. It truly is not my fault that circumstances conspired against me.

See, today was the first self-proclaimed official dissertation study day. I dutifully went to the library, picked up some books, sat down and engaged in some serious cogitation and reading.

And then the electricity went out. Over half of campus. And there was a tornado warning for the county.

It is January, people.

So my husband and I ran some errands--I went to the bookstore in search of Darwin, ugh--then went back to the library and checked out the books I had meant to check out, and I will work a bit more on them tonight, I think. In the meantime, I have the very first homemade pie I have ever made in the oven. We'll see how this goes.

In any case, despite the rather abortive attempt at studying (and yes, I know, I shouldn't give up entirely, but after sitting for an hour in the dark in the University Writing Center--because, hey, if you're going to die in a tornado, you might as well do it with friends--I decided to postpone some studying until this evening), I do feel like I got quite a bit accomplished. I've checked out a book called Destination Dissertation. It's much better than a book I just read called Writing the Doctoral Dissertation--my copy was very out of date and much more directed toward quantitative dissertations.

While Destination Dissertation is still skewed toward the sciences and social sciences, I really do feel that its ideas for working on your dissertation are much more adaptable to a dissertation in the humanities. Part of this starts with coding the literature.

I've already put quite a bit of effort into thinking about my dissertation--this was necessary as I was working on my Fulbright application. Today, I managed to get some things narrowed down. What exactly am I looking for in the poems I'm reading? How does this relate to a larger Victorian era? Just being able to look for places that can be categorized later is going to be really helpful later, especially when I'm trying to find something that I read on this subject in this book. Part of what this book recommends is that you read in front of a computer, and any time you come across something (at least in secondary literature), you type the passage out with a brief, easy citation--just the title and page number, for example. Then later, you print all of this out, and you can cut the passages up and rearrange them into relevant piles to help you organize your thoughts.

It's a lot like the way I suggest to my students that they work on organizing their papers--splitting up paragraphs into points and using the scissors to work them around, but I'd never considered putting it toward the research process before, and I think that this might also be a really valuable way to teach my students about what they need to do to research as well. So this book has helped as both a student and a teacher! Check it out, guys. (There's a copy in the UWC--I have the library's copy right now.)