Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Girl Effect

Just reading through some articles for my research meeting on Kenya tomorrow afternoon. We're working on a project promoting sustainable agriculture with the grain Amaranth. It's drought resistant, highly nutritious, and generally well-suited to the climate.

A team of students and faculty will be traveling to Kenya in August if there is no post-referendum violence. The last election did not go well, but we're keeping our fingers crossed.

I am not going this time. I am sending my student instead.

In some ways this is practical: I don't have a ton of time.

It is also selfish: I'd rather do this kind of thing with the whole family when the boys are older.

And a bit charitable: I can send a student instead. I've had the good fortune to travel around the world a little. I want to share that with our students. Funding is tight, and I REALLY benefit by sending a student. She goes, I get all the data, she gets the life-changing experience, and I get to not upset my routine and the lives of my small children.

Anyway, in preparation for the team leaving we meet on a weekly basis and read a TON of articles each time. Here are some excruciating facts:

Life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is 47 years*. imagine if that was your life expectancy. Imagine it. Really think about it. By that count I would have 11 years left, and would leave behind a 13 and a 15 year old. Beyond sad.

One in 9 Tanzanian children still dies before the age of five*.

These stark facts remind me of the Girl Effect video.

I am in love with this concept. Not only because it's inspiring and uplifting when SO MANY environmental/social problems are depressing, but also because I've seen it in my work in Kenya and India.

**Both facts from the article: Lowell, B., Conway, M., Keesmaat, S., and Richardson, B. (2010). Strengthening sub-Saharan Africa's health systems: A practical approach. McKinsey Quarterly.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book Review: The Ruby in the Smoke

When we lived in the Netherlands I remember lots of previews coming on for a BBC mini on this book. I only noticed it because our much-loved heroine of Dr Who Rose Tyler/Billie Piper was in the lead. We didn't see it though. Not sure why. I guess it came on too late, and these were the pre-DVR days for us.

I had no idea what I was missing.

I loved Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series. We read it several years ago, and it was incredibly imagined and realized. If you've read it you know: fantastic characters, a compelling story, and an incredible world.

My friend Izzy told me about The Ruby in the Smoke, and then kindly brought a copy over last week. I devoured it within 48 hours.

So. good.

It's a mystery (you had me at mystery) set in the Victorian era. The main character is 16-year-old Sally Lockhart, recently orphaned, who is working to understand what happened to her late father. It involves, among other things opium, a ruby (duh), the South China Sea, India of the British Empire-era, a horrendously vile character (the creepily delectable Mrs. Holland) and a whole cast of good-hearted London imps (can the Victorian tale exist without them?) that befriend and help Ms. Lockhart.

I hate to give too much away, but I SO RECOMMEND this. I think part of it is that I have spent most of the month reading MG books, and while I enjoyed most of them, they haven't pulled me in the way other books can. This reminded me that it's not me, it's just the books I have been reading. Though perhaps you need a few ho-hum books to remind you what makes an exceptional book.

There is apparently a whole series, which is now on my growing list of books to read.

Though I love reading tales set in the British Victorian era, I have no desire to write one. But, Sally Lockhart's fantastic mystery does have me thinking.

I'm getting an itch to set my next book in the Netherlands in the Golden Age. I fell asleep last night imagining a Dutch version of steam punk. The key difference of course is the...ahem, steam.

Is windpunk a term yet? That's their energy source of choice.

Mark my words. Mark your calendars. I think it will be now.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Top 10 voetballers

Just mine. Not an official list. It's heavily Dutch, based on 5 years of indoctrination.
From least to most favored:

10. Pavel Nedved. He's handsome. He's talented. He's Czech.

9. Steven Gerrard. Brit and fit.

8. Oliver Kaan. Stoic German keeper.

7.Phillip Cocu. Dutch.Fiesty and fabulous.

6. Ruud van Nistelrooy. Dutch. The star of the team while we were there. Well deserved.

5. Johan Cruyff. Dutch. Old School.

4. Zinedine Zidane. was. robbed.

3. Jean Marie Pfaff. For the foibles of his family, who I enjoyed watching thoroughly. They are the "Osbournes of Belgium" in terms of reality TV. I cried when Bompa died.

2. Edwin van der Sar. Dutch. Tall and talented.

1. Pele. C'mon. He's everyone's favorite, right? I distinctly remember watching a FILM on him in third grade, which must have been the early 1980s. He is fantastic. I dreamed we would run into him when we were in Germany for the last world cup. Not to be.

Musical inspiration from Yo Gabba Gabba

Writing inspirations

for swamped

these are actually real art, not just something I found on the web. These are photos by my friend Dorthe, who is shown by Jen Bekman's 20X200 project, which is a really awesome art gallery/institution. They sell images on paper by up and coming artists, some you can even get fro $20. I wish I could buy them all.

Writing inspirations

For the behavior of moths

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Road Trip Wednesday

I'm in Love-- with a guy who thinks it's okay to make out with girls who are passed out. Sleeping Beauty.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My eggs are hatching

Seriously. Just over 50 silk worm caterpillars.

I wasn't sure they were going to make it. I ordered them from a biological supply company after reading Project Mulberry (reviewed below) because I thought it would be a neat thing to try. I thought the boys would like to watch them grow, and my friends have already volunteered to take part in a silk-thread-winding-party at the end of the summer.

When the eggs arrived I was surprised to find that they were only the size of poppy seeds.
The accompanying literature mentioned that the eggs should be kept at about 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Great, I'll just go set the incubator to... wait-- we don't have an incubator?

Of course we don't have an incubator. We're not farmers, people.

So I worried that our house's fluctuation between probably the high 60s and the low 80s would not be right. I worried I might kill the eggs.

You should know, I am a bit of a worrier when it comes to family pets. I am constantly feeling guilty that we only take our dogs out for one long walk a day. I WANT to be the dog whisperer; I WANT to be able to strap on the in line skates and take my dogs for a nice 2-hour long 'pack run'. Reality (job, kids, weather, stress, exhaustion) does not allow this. The same goes for the fish. I am convinced that the tetras are bullying the guppy. His tail is getting bitten by SOMETHING. But nobody takes me seriously.

My worries about the silkworm caterpillars were roundly ignored. Plus, I wasn't about to go buy an incubator. I figured we just had to wait and see.

This morning, when I lifted the top off their ramekin (they're too small for the terrarium), I was shocked to see tiny black lines where my poppy seeds used to be. And I do mean tiny. They are maybe the same thickness as the average pin, but (nerd alert, I just measured one) just over 1/16th of an inch long.

I asked Mike to pick one mulberry leaf for me, then I tore it in two pieces and put it in said ramekin. They are ALL OVER IT.


Monday, June 21, 2010

OMG. First blog award

BIG thank you's to Super Mom Writes and Something Else to Distract Me (Erinn) for passing this blog award on to me.

Here are the rules:

1. Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award.
2. Share 7 things about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to 15 bloggers who you have recently discovered and who you think are fantastic for whatever reason! (In no particular order...)
4. Contact the bloggers you've picked and let them know about the award.

7 Things About Me:

1) I gave birth to two children in the Netherlands (at home). The best part was the nurse they send to take care of you, cook, grocery shop, watch your other kids, and clean your house for A WEEK. I am NOT KIDDING. Paid for completely by health insurance. So. Awesome.

2) I am getting fed up with students texting in class. It is just so rude.

3) I have been to Egypt. It was hot but beautiful.

4) When I was 15 I ate a can of dog food for $1000 dollars.

5) I once saw a baby owl in the wild. I got to hold it, and it was cuter than you could possibly imagine. I've also held 'gators, newborn leatherback turtles, and all kinds of snakes, frogs, salamanders, and insects.

6) I have met almost 0 famous people. The exception is that I once waited on Cliff Robertson, the original Big Kahuna. He was nice.

7) I love bugs like you wouldn't believe... but I detest cockroaches.

And now 15 other people should get this award, so here are some of the blogs I enjoy checking out. Though by now many of you have gotten the award already.

1) Erinn
2) Super Mom Writes
3) Blue Lipstick Samurai
4) Kate
5) Nerd Girl Reads and Writes
6) Punk Girl
7) Leila
8) Amanda
9) Michelle
10) Jess

... and that's where I lose steam. I've only been doing this for a month. I need more time!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Double Book Review: Hoot and Cicada Summer

I went back to the bookfair (YAY!) this week without the kids. I took all my bugs and bug books to Amy's class to give her a break in the final days of school. I had a great time-- though quite a different experience from my school visit a few weeks ago with preschoolers. After the bug event I had about 20 minutes to roam through the bookfair all by myself. So nice.

I did buy some books for the boys, 2 each to give to them as we drive to SC next month. Then I perused the mysteries; I am working on reading more MG because I want to know the upper limits of the genre, and not just through descriptions on the web, but in the tone and feel of the books.

Until recently I have been avoiding mysteries because I don't want to be influenced by them. But now that I have three books mapped out I feel a little more confident that I can take the influx of other authors' mystery plots.

Here are reviews for two new books I read this week: Hoot by Carl Hiassen and Cicada Summer by Andrea Beatty. BTW, I do read books that are NOT about bugs or the environment, but because my MS is all about that stuff I'm most curious about these now.

I have read Hiassen's Sick Puppy, and I had a feeling I would like Hoot. It was good. Nice characters, great conservation themes, and he SO NAILS Florida. He captures the people of that state quite well. There is also a scene that involves social action by citizens, and as a political science professor I totally geeked out on that. I liked it because in the real world, that is often how regular people find the kind of power necessary to combat something like a "big bad corporation". It wasn't flashy or dramatic, it was just a protest. Loved it.

Cicada Summer is a slim book, just over 20K (24,743, book level 4.7) words, but it packs a wallup (sp?). I actually felt it dealt with more mature themes and more serious subject matter than Hoot (61,113 words, book level 5.2) . Though (back to the endless conundrum) they're targeted for the same age group, Hoot is well over twice as long, and Hoot has a higher book level rating. The characterization was good, the plot kept it's pace, and it was sad and heartwarming.

Both books were fine, but reading them continues to solidify my idea that my books are on the cusp of upper MG/YA. I like all of the books I've read lately, but at the same time-- I haven't read anything lately that I feel really transports me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What do you love, love, love

One of my favorite moments of the movie Amelie (and there are so many, aren't there? Don't even get me started on Delicatessen or The City of Lost Children..) but, anyway, back to Amelie.

I love when the narrator describes who her parents "are" by describing things they hate and things they love. I know I won't remember them all, but I distinctly remember her mother hated being in the bath so long that her fingers turned prune-y, but loved professional ice-skating costumes. I also loved that her mother/father both loved cleaning out their respective (purse/tool box) and organizing it.

SO what do you love or hate?

I love seeing a mobile phone in a movie that's more than 5 years old, especially one that's over 10 years old.

I detest seeing couples sitting together in a restaurant and not talking.


Punk writer kid is having a big contest, for the writer, the reader, or maybe just the s'mores lover in your life.

This is a BIG THEME among the blogs that I am just sort of getting a handle on. Writers, agents, editors, etc. LOVE to give away books and love to give away prizes.

How awesome is that?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Road Trip Wednesday

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic:

When/why did you start writing?

In some ways I've have a rocky path to writing, in other ways I have been doing it all my life. I distinctly remember a childhood story I wrote about a pickle with super-powers that my mom saved (I really, really loved pickles), and I remember the first time a college professor read my essay out loud to the class. Still, I didn't think I "could write". It's just one example of the rules we make for ourselves, the restrictions we put on ourselves.

I have an acquaintance who runs marathons on a monthly basis and has begun training as a tri-athlete. At a Christmas party a few years ago we were talking about my decision to go with natural childbirth (long story, including the fact that this is how it is done in the Netherlands, where I had both my boys). Anyway, this friend, who accomplishes AMAZING physical feats ALL THE TIME said to me "Oh my God, I could NEVER handle natural childbirth." All the while I am thinking, "Jeez, I could NEVER run a marathon."

But, given different motivations, goals, desires, incentives... couldn't we? After having done the natural childbirth thing twice I know it's not that big of a deal. Don't get me wrong, it is incredibly intense, but I know that the IDEA of it is much scarier than the REALITY of it. She might say the same about tri-athlete events or a marathon. But still we put up barriers for ourselves and decide what we "can" and "can't" do, sometimes without really exploring the limits of our abilities.

I guess you could say writing a novel is one way I am exploring the limits of my abilities. I write for a living, but it's a very specific kind of writing: research and academic publications. I love my job, but I miss having a creative outlet.

In college I did a lot of painting and printmaking, but with two small kids it is a BIG hassle (and potential disaster) to keep all those supplies out, and when I keep it all tucked safely away it is difficult to just jump in on painting or making a print. In contrast, creative writing just requires a pad of paper, or a computer-- which I have access to 24/7.

So this past year I decided to jump back into creative writing by writing a novel. I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted a creative outlet that was child-friendly.

I didn't realize how much I would LOVE it, and how much it would mean to me after such a short period of time.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I had to rework my earlier post on querying.

Seeing those negative numbers looming on my screen was just too disheartening.
I revised that post, but thought I would re-post this new and improved information:

Because I work with and teach statistics I know a little secret. You can get numbers to support just about any theory. So here is my new theory. I am not an agentless author with no hope, I am a quickly-improving-author who will likely one day (one unnamed, unpredicted day in the near to very, very distant future) acquire an agent.

So here goes:

Percentage of queries in February/March meriting full/partial requests: 4.0%

Percentage of queries in April worthy of full/partial requests: 3.2%

Percentage of queries in May deserving full/partial requests: 14.3%

Percentage of queries in June earning full/partial requests: 7.4%

Whew. Self-esteem restored, and totally supported by the numbers.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Review: Project Mulberry

Just finished
Project Mulberry, which I picked up on Friday at the book fair. I am reading it in my quest to better understand how publishers define genres. I've read all about genres on the web, all the official definitions, but perhaps because my book is the opposite of "edgy" I feel it may appeal to younger readers. My book is somewhere between upper middle grade and young adult. From day one I have been calling it YA, because my protagonist is 15, but based on an agent's comment I wonder if it is more upper middle grade.

Back to the book. I liked it. This is what I think of as lower middle grade. It's just under 42,000 words. The main character deals with problems and emotions, but nothing too scary, too deep, or too dark. I read online that this book is targeted to 9-12 year-olds. Again, this delicate relationship between how books list and the age of the typical reader mystifies me. I think this book would most appeal to an 8-10 year old. It is just such a learning curve to take in all of these factors. And then you have to consider "what is the typical 10-year-old", which is an entirely different conundrum all together.

On to the book. Julia Song and her best friend Patrick are working on a club project in animal husbandry. Since they live in townhouses, keeping a typical farm animal is out. Eventually Julia's mom suggests they raise silk worms, as people do in her native Korea. Julia struggles with this because she feels it is too Korean, and she just wants to be American.

First, I love any book with a nod toward Korea, and especially any book that gives props to kimchee. My grandmother was born in Korea and lived there until she was about Julia's age (early teens). She had a lifelong adoration for kimchee. When we were members of the CSA in Charleston we got a ton of cabbage and I made kimchee. It was SOOOOOO good. My mouth is watering as I type this. I'm not growing any cabbage this year, but I bet one of our friends is at home or with the community garden. I will have to score some cabbage, stat.

What I love about this book: Korea and kimchee, but also: great information about silkworms (actually caterpillars), their life cycles, and the process of "growing" silk, without coming across as a science book/preachy/hey-kids-you're-learning-something.
It's a part of the story, and she works it in seamlessly. That's what I shoot for when I include insects in my own work. At one point Julia talks about how the different stages of the silkworm life cycle reflect her own progress about the project and it was incredibly well done (though I may not be doing it justice here). She and Patrick have to make friends with an older African American man in the neighborhood with a mulberry tree, and this makes Julia think about racism and her own Asian identity , especially as she notices how her mother interacts with this man. It explores race in a straightforward but really honest way. At the same time, again, it's not preachy or over-the-top, instead just a few thoughts here and there-- exactly what you would expect from a tween protagonist.

What I was not so crazy about with this book: in between some of the chapters the author (as herself) has a running dialog with her main character. Hated it. I am not dissing here, just one woman's opinion, but it felt indulgent. I have read on different boards, websites, etc. that some people like to do this kind of thing as a writing exercise. They may have their characters talk to each other, so that the writer "knows" the characters better. Again, nothing they would publish, just something for the writer to use as a tool to develop their character. That's not my method, but I can imagine it works for some. But why include this kind of thing in the book? It chopped up the flow of the book for me, and also just wasn't that interesting or relevant. I read it, though, because I assumed something pertinent was happening in these exchanges. Wrong.

In general, I liked the book. So much so that I ordered silkworm moths this morning from the biological supplier. Our backyard is dominated by a mulberry, and I would love to put it to use.

Anyone need approximately a mile of silk thread? I should have 10 miles by the end of the summer...

Bookfair on Friday

Chugging along through Mancation- where Mike and his friends have gone camping in VT while we all keep the kids at home. It has been a crazy weekend. Lots of fun, and I love having one on one time with the boys, but also exhausting. Mike and I just manage when we're both here, so doing it solo is an interesting experience. A couple of times this weekend I have instituted a why-questions-ban, just to survive.

On Friday James and Sadie had their final day of swimming, then we headed over to Macdonough School for an ice cream social. Because of the new redistricting they have a lot of programs planned this summer to help with the transitioning families. It was book fair time-- and WOW! what a treat. I always loved the bookfair. I remember as a child having to cut my list down from the 'wishlist' to the 'can afford' list. Truly a difficult process. I wanted to shop for myself, but it was difficult. Willy had a tendency to grab everything, and James saw a lot of things he wanted. I was able to pick up the book Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park-- I swear, I DO read books that do not involve insects in any way, but I saw the cover and I grabbed it. Now I want silkworms for our Mulberry tree. Seriously. I will review it when I am finished.

Reading more middle grade is part of my quest to clearly define my genre. Genre confusion is part of the reason I'm querying so widely-- I am not sure if I am YA or Upper Middle Grade. I know that if I am YA I am at the low end, because my main character is the opposite of edgy. At the same time, the crimes are real-- It's not some Scooby Doo version of events-- people die (though its not a gory thing, and the reader is not there for the killing and the body is never described) so I am not sure. My MC is 15, and I also know readers tend to read up, and I'm just not sure what cancels what out.

The other reason I am querying widely is that I am clueless about query strategy. People say you should find an agent that does projects like yours, but they also say you can be rejected by an agent because they already have a similar project. It boggles the mind. I thought on my initial foray into query-land I would just toss a wide net, and based on responses I can make a much more informed decision next time. I can easily remove about 50 from my initial list already, before I query my next book.

I am really getting excited about my second (and third) projects. I am working on a second book with Beatrice-- involving a box of old letters and a ghost. My new project is a mystery-solving boy-- and I like where he's going already (which is pretty much straight into the Okefenokee).

Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Review: The Butterfly Revolution

When I made my way through the Query Shark tank [see my original query posted here and another stab at it by the shark here] a few comments included references to books with an insect theme. The two I had not heard of before were The Butterfly Revolution and The Collector. I promptly ordered both and have since received these two new (to me, but actually used) books.

I finished The Butterfly Revolution this morning. I was surprised I'd never heard of it before. It was really engaging, but also incredibly sad. The back cover compares it to both Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies.

The story, in a nutshell, is about boys at a camp who decide to hold a revolution. The revolution is instigated by just a few key characters, the older boys at camp who hate all the silly activities. The title comes from their rebellion at the idea of having to collect butterflies, when they'd rather be doing something "fun". It is really a play on the idea of any coup, with all the predictable problems that come from one person's quest for power.

Everything you would expect to see happens: a committee for propaganda, dozens of brainless followers, a few truly crazy kids, and a whole web of deceit as the primary leader tries to control information and the masses. The author does the job incredibly well, but it is so hard to read in the sense that it is heartbreaking to watch it unfold.

And of course from my perspective it is not difficult to think of totalitarian or authoritarian states in existence right now, which is also depressing. In my classes we often talk about Robert Mugabe (more authoritarian than totalitarian, IMHO), because his quotes are a good jumping off place to talk about democracy, or rather "democracy".

I use his quote "Only God who appointed me will remove me - not the MDC, not the British" to talk about free and fair elections. Obviously, if only God can take you out of office, then it's a good bet your elections aren't being conducted in an honest way.

It was a good read. I am thinking about adding it on to the readings for my American Government class.

I plan to read The Collector, too... but I am giving myself a little break. Based on the back cover it is not a cheerful tale, and I need a little downtime.

In the meantime I have been rereading The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre. aaaahhh. delightful. I can still remember the first time I checked it out of the Charleston County Library and read it cover to cover. He is one of my all-time, favorite, naturalist writers. My current WIP deals a little bit with moth behavior, so I am including some of his studies on moths in the book.

Much more relaxing than totaliarian regimes, and just what I need considering Mike and all his guys friends are embarking on Mancation in just a few hours. They will be camping in Vermont until Sunday and I am planning a relaxing weekend at home with the boys.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


So, our modem died yesterday. It was painful. It took several hours to figure out what was wrong. Then Mike went to buy a new one, and then we tried to install it.

One tiny problem. Three years ago when we signed on with AT&T this service had a mail account associated with it. A mail account we've never, ever used.

Back at AT&T central, they wanted to know the user ID and password for this account. We really had no idea. We talk and talk with a rep,. he tells us the UserID is listed on our bill, and if we get the UserID and then try to log on, then tell them we forgot the password, the system will tell us the UserID.

But, I ask, wouldn't they send it to our email account? Which we cannot access? And besides, we can't check our bills because they are online-only. And we can't try to get a password for this account without the Internet.

Finally he gives us the option of answering a security question. There is one question. "What is your favorite restaurant?"

But there is one tiny problem. Neither of us EVER use this for a security question. We have a classic roster we always use: mother's maiden name, best man at your wedding, favorite pet's name (though we have different votes depending on whose question it is).

Favorite restaurant? Umm, where? In the Netherlands? In Charleston? In our home towns? In Connecticut?

He gives us a hint: It starts with an "S".

We guessed and guessed, to no avail. He would not ask us anything else.

Finally, at 930 I went to our neighbors' (Katie and Matt's) house for some Internet. I logged into our AT&T billing account, and pored over our bill. No User ID. I went to the help section, and found a notice describing where to find the UserID on your bill. It says very clearly "under the Internet section of your bill." I went back to the bill.

Nothing in the Internet section. Nothing at all.

Then I just started clicking around, finally, after half an hour finding a portion of their website which deals with accounts. There I found the UserID, and based on that, Mike and I could guess the password.

By the time I got home, I was so tired I didn't even bother hooking up my wireless. I just checked my mail on Mike's computer and went right to bed.

I was SO antsy about mail because I was hoping for some feedback on the many queries I just sent out.

Okay, looking at these stats is much too depressing. But... because I work with and teach statistics I know a little secret. You can get numbers to support just about any theory. So here is my new theory. I am not an agentless author with no hope, I am a quickly-improving-author who will likely one day (one unnamed, unpredicted day in the near to very, very distant future) acquire an agent.

So here goes:

Percentage of queries in February/March meriting full/partial requests: 4.0%

Percentage of queries in April worthy of full/partial requests: 3.2%

Percentage of queries in May deserving full/partial requests: 14.3%

Percentage of queries in June earning full/partial requests: 7.4%

Whew. Self-esteem restored, and totally supported by the numbers.

It is such a excruciating process. I feel like the work I am doing is good, but the question is: is it good enough? Some days I feel like it is, and some days not so much. Though in other aspects of life I can get my confidence from within myself, for this it really does matter that someone else like it.

So, with bated breath I rushed to check my email last night, after a WHOLE TWELVE HOURS of not obsessing over it.

No responses on queries. *sigh*

Road Trip Wednesday

The folks at YA Highway are taking their weekly roadtrip. Authors with blogs answer the question and all the other authors can jump from site to site to see the responses.

This week's question: How do you know when a project will work?

Well, define work. I feel strongly that perseverance makes a huge difference when it comes to doing anything. I am sure everyone is familiar with Edison's quote that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Did you know that when he was trying to figure out what should act as the filament in the traditional incandescent light bulb he tried EVERYTHING to see if it would work. He tried cheese. He tried peanut butter. Though it might be nice to have bulbs filling our houses with the smells of warm cheese (not so much) or toasty peanuts (a little better), he eventually settled on the carbon filament.

I feel that a project works when I make it work. Not to say I don't run into brick walls on occasion. I have two projects going right now, but continue to have ideas about other work. I keep a running list of future projects. For the projects I am working on right now, I just keep chipping away, reminding myself that it doesn't need to be perfect. That I don't have to falter over every sentence right now. First I have to get it all down, then I have to make sure it flows, and then I go through edit after edit until the product is 'finished'. And then I edit a few more times.

For my current projects, I also select the scenes I want to do first. Maybe a necessary scene with some exposition feels like drudgery, but a scene with a romantic twist is more fun. Just like with my regular job, I chip away at the things I am in the mood for at a given time, and hope that I will be in the mood for the other things some time soon. When I am working on a scene that I am really excited about, which is most of the time, I feel like it just flows. That the words take off on the page almost faster than I can write them down. When that happens, I know a project is working.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Book Review: Twenties Girl

As mentioned in a previous post, I checked out Sophie Kinsella's Twenties Girl from the library last week. I have not read the Shopaholic series, or any of her books before. I have yet to see the film. The real reason I checked it out? The girl drawn on the cover had a dragonfly dangling from her necklace, so I thought it can't be that bad.

And it wasn't

It was a fun, light read. It involved a bit of a mystery, which I was particularly interested in from a writing standpoint. I really hate it when a mystery or suspense writer makes it totally obvious, AND when that kind of writer gives you no good clues and changes all the rules at the end (see Lost finale post for more on this). Somewhere in the middle and I am fine. I was pleased with this novel. There was plenty of building evidence, and even though I kind of knew where it was heading, I had no idea how the author would get us there. The characters were fun and sweet, and there were enough twists in the plot to keep me on my toes.

Here's the basic premise:
The main character, Lara, is a bit of a mess. She's obsessing over her ex boyfriend (to the point he's asked her parents to get her to stop texting him *wince*). She starts a new business with her best friend, using all of her own savings, and her friend promptly bails on her. Her friend is traveling in India and decides to stay- no idea of when she'll return. Now she's the only person running "their" headhunting company, and she has no idea of how the job is done. When we meet Lara she is heading off to her Great Aunt's funeral, who nobody in the family really knew, or spent time with. In the midst of the funeral, Lara starts to hear voices, and soon realizes she's being haunted by her Aunt Sadie's ghost. The ghost of Aunt Sadie is desperately looking for her lost necklace. Lara has to stop the funeral and then find the necklace or she may never have any peace again.

Though I had no idea when I grabbed the book, it features a nice little mystery. The ghost was the cute, funny, entertaining type of ghost-- nothing remotely horrific or scary about it, which was also a plus for me. Life is tough enough, I don't need to be freaked out by books. Sadie was a young girl in the roaring twenties, which is an era I love. That was the form her ghost took, so it was interesting to read about the clothes/makeup/beauty regimens of the time.

My one complaint is that because Lara is always talking to a ghost that no one else can see, she often pretends to be on the phone. It felt like a bit of a stretch at times. Yes, for the most part I would ignore someone who seemed to be speaking into a phone, but not if, for example, they were yelling something like :"You're dead! When are you going to understand that!" Even the typically disinterested tube commuter would notice that I think.

I definitely recommend this book. A bit of mystery, a bit of social commentary, a bit of romance and family dynamics, but all lighthearted and fun. Though it won't go into the "to read again" pile, I enjoyed it immensely.

Tally Ho!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Books... check 'em out

This is a great line my manager Lee at the Yacht Club used to say all the time. It was a library promo when he was a child. I am thinking about this today because I feel like it is "summer reading time" even though I think I am way too old to sign up at my local library. I used to love the summer reading program at our local library. I remember the excitement of going to the library with our cards, signing up for the program, and then taking home a huge stack of books.

Summer always makes me want to read more. Though life these days does not include having the summer off. I am teaching, and doing a ton of research, but still I feel the itch to read. I just ordered a few books from amazon, including a couple to read with James. I will post all about that soon.

I am volunteering with a program in our neighborhood that works with high school kids. It's a mentoring program to help them get prepared for college. Many kids in our neighborhood will be the first in their family to get a higher education, if they make it. Our main responsibility is to help guide them through the process, because they do not have a lot of information about how the whole system works. So I met my lovely mentee Julie at the public library on Friday. She is such a sweetie. We had a great time talking. She was prepping to take the SAT so I mainly tried to (hopefully) keep her from getting too nervous about that. After, she showed me the YA section of the library. It's a separate room with a bright pink neon sign (not kidding) that says something like: "Teen Reads" on it. All I could think of was the workout video from my childhood "Teen Steam" starring Alyssa Milano.

Julie was waiting for me, so I just scoped it out quickly. I was looking for Simone Elkeles' book Perfect Chemistry, but couldn't find it. I've read a lot about it lately, as a relatively popular YA book. I grabbed Carl Hiassen's Hoot. I read his book Sick Puppy years ago, and liked it. Hoot is for young adults or maybe middle-graders, I am not sure yet. I know he is into the environment, and here's hoping his stuff is not too much like mine. I also saw recently that my all-time-entomology IDOL Edward O. Wilson has written a book about nature, bugs, and I think it also involves a mystery. I adore EO Wilson. He has many, many scientific works under his belt, and is also known for his essays on nature. I know he is a good writer, and incredibly knowledgeable about insects. I am also keeping everything I have crossed in hopes his book is not too much like mine. Not to imagine I am anything close to his level, I would jsut hate to be the second (or third) person to have an idea. We ordered Wilson's book Anthill from amazon because we both want to read it.

I found two other books at the library, back in the new titles section, Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella, author of the Shopaholic series, which I have not read. My mentee is going to let me borrow the movie. And, the new book Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (author of the Life of Pi). LOVED Life of Pi, so really interested to check this one out.

I already finished Twenties Girl-- will post a review tomorrow.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Barely staying awake

Ahhh. I have been fighting narcolepsy all day today. My week-long sinus affliction has crept into my ears. Not good.

It may also have something to do with the research I am working on.

We're trying to find a home for our analysis of the student engineers without borders implementation project in India. We interviewed villagers, local political leaders, the professional engineers and the engineering students about their greywater work in January. The work is not boring-- at least not to me. But the google scholar search to find the right journal to submit to is making me oh so weary.

I am thrilled that Friday is here. Can't wait to go to sleep at 9 tonight!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Best book I read in May

The folks at YA Highway have a road trip underway.
Bloggers answer a question each week, and readers can hop from blog to blog to read the responses.
This week's topic: What's the best book you've read this month?

I got lucky this month, because I had the chance to read some fiction. When school is in session that does not always happen.

Somehow I found a description of the book "I capture the castle" online in April. I couldn't believe I'd never heard of it before. It's exactly like the kind of book I loved growing up, and still love. It was written in the late forties by the author who also wrote 101 dalmatians (Dodie Smith). It's very British, with a strange little family with quirky issues, and young girls with no means looking to marry some rich, title-holding fellas. Classic. It reminded me of Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford in that way. I think it also felt like the Mitford books because the story takes place between the wars.

It's all about Cassandra, the youngest sister in a family living in a rented castle. She uses her journal to "capture" the castle and all of its occupants. The characters include her father (an author who wrote one book long ago and nothing else), her step-mother (a former artist's model from London), her older sister (the "pretty one" who is mopey and depressed, because they have no marriage prospects), and a younger brother who kind of fades into the woodwork. They are destitute, and then naturally two handsome American boys who have recently inherited the big manor house move in next door. I don't want to spoil the plot, but it's really well done. Great expressive characters, funny but endearing situations, and a bit of surprise and heartbreak along the way. Two thumbs up.


Our treehouse rocks

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Max and Ruby

Why do these rabbits disturb me so much? I think because Ruby never listens to Max.

She never, ever listens. Every episode is an exercise in agony as you watch her fail to understand him, scold him about things over and over, and then FINALLY get it. Uuugh.

I also worry about their parents.

Where are their parents?

This sort of parent-less focus isn't unheard of for kids programming. I actually have noticed that many kid shows involve children and no parents (Kai Lan, Backyardigans, Charlie and Lola, Dora has parents in the intro, but almost never in the show, Diego is being raised by his cousin?, toot and puddle), but in the case of Max and Ruby it seems more disturbing. The Backyardigans are playing outside-- that's the whole theme of the show. The parents are working on something else.

Max and Ruby are different. They're all over the house. They have scenes in the kitchen, in their rooms, in the garden, watching television. Their grandmother shows up on occasion, but there is never any explanation about the parents.

I am always expecting one day to see "A very special Max and Ruby", the episode where the division of child and family services shows up. To save these kids.

Oil and Water

I am working now to plan my classes for the Fall semester. For the first time I will teach the capstone seminar, which is a class all seniors in the department must take. The idea is that these well-informed junior-scholars should bring to the course all the things they've learned in the major. This class should cap off their college learning experience.

The fact that our majors have a lot of different interests is both a blessing and a curse. They should bring their varied strengths to the table, ideally allowing us to have great discussions. The negative side to this is that one must pick a topic that is broad enough to engage all of the students. In addition, every other member of the department visits for one week of class and leads the discussion based on readings of their choosing. So it has to be a topic that all of my colleagues can find some readings on without putting themselves through too much of a hassle. Last year's topic was human rights. That was a great topic. Even I, in enviro land, was able to connect it with my own work and interests. I talked about human rights and the environment in developing countries.

I have chosen "cooperation and conflict" for my course title. It is not only broad enough to allow my colleagues to talk about anything, but also to engage our wide range of students. Our students focus on law, criminal justice, politics, political research, international studies, or international relations. For my portion of the class, I plan to focus on oil and water. These are core issues that produce a lot of conflict worldwide. Oil has been the key conflict issue for decades (in my opinion second only to religion, which is of course the number one of all time issue people fight about. Can you name a war that wasn't about religion in some way?)

Water is "the next oil" if you can forgive the expression. People around the world are experiencing the privatization of water rights. Two excellent films on the topic are FLOW (For Love Of Water) and the more recent Tapped. Flow focuses more on the international aspect of water rights, while tapped is more about the American bottled water industry, though the two issues are intertwined. My own research is about how people enter into conflict or cooperation when making decisions about wetlands. So, that's an easy fit.

My initial idea was to talk about cooperation and conflict in terms of oil and water. There are many good books out there on these topics (Blood and Oil, Soil Not Oil, Conflict Over the World's Resources, Reflections on Water, and Water Wars are all books I'm considering for the class). And yes, there are two titles there from Vandana Shiva. She is also interviewed throughout the film FLOW. She rocks. This is the core of my planned summer reading list, though I am also planning some fun reads (A Suitable Boy, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Lacuna are on the shelf right now). And yes, there are two titles from Barbara Kingsolver. This is because she also rocks.

In the last weeks, however, oil and water have taken on a new meaning for me. Perhaps for you, too? I am working now to see how I can integrate the deepwater horizon disaster into the class. I am certain there is a lot of both cooperation and conflict happening throughout the process, but am not certain anything will be published about it between now and Fall 2010. Maybe we can address it through newspaper articles. That may be the only source at this stage.

Despite the horror of that disaster, I am looking forward to the class. Honestly, any issue that might grab the attention/interest of my students is appreciated. Though personally I'd rather this one never happened.