Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Steampunk: Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan

Today's post will be a review of the first book in Scott Westerfeld's YA steampunk Leviathan series.

Book One: Leviathan (released October 2009)

This isn't so much a review as it is a mash note. I loved this book. The world Westerfeld has created is an alternative-early 20th century as the European powers are moving toward WWI. The alternative part? The world is divided into proponents of evolutionary tinkering (Darwinists) and proponents of steam-powered mechanization (Clankers). The Brits and their allies are Darwinists, and the Austro-Hungarian/Germans are Clankers.

Deryn is a fifteen year old girl who disguises herself as a boy so that she can join the British Air Service, which uses great Beasties resembling squid filled with hydrogen. She loves to fly, and she has to protect her secret at all costs, or she risks being stuck forever on the ground.

Alek is the son of the murdered Archduke, on the run from his own people and the Germans with only a few loyal men to help him run his mechanical Stormwalker (which looks a bit like ED-209 from Robocop) to the safety of the Swiss border.

The characters are believable and the story is engaging--Alek and Deryn are thrown together and have to learn to trust each other despite being on opposing sides of the coming War. Keith Thompson's illustrations are fantastic (in all senses of the word) and a welcome addition to the text.

I loved the book, and I devoured it in two sittings.  Highly recommended, especially if you are a history or science buff. Westerfeld has done his homework, and his creations (both Clanker and Beastie) are believable. I found myself wishing I could get a ride on the Leviathan myself.

Next review: Book Two: Behemoth (released October 2010) 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Disgust and Despair

I can't bear it.

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court overturned (4-3) Judge Sumi's restraining order preventing the publication of the collective bargaining law. It will go into effect June 29th. I will make less money next year as a tenured professor than I did when I started on the tenure track. 

The Republicans are fielding fake Democratic candidates to confuse things for people voting in the July 12th recall elections. If you thought Chicago politics were dirty, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

I can't stand it. 

The state legislature is handing broadband control over to AT&T, which will cost schools millions of dollars they don't have--on top of the millions being cut from their budgets.

What I can't get over is that I have worked my entire adult life towards being a tenured college professor...and I feel as though I have failed somehow.

I thought becoming a professor would allow me to give my family a reasonably good middle-class life. Not so. 

We rent a 2 bedroom house for $550 a month (which is a steal, I know--we're lucky). The great thing is that it's out in the countryside--we have a garden, a deck, a huge yard--the not-so-great thing is that it was comfortable for three of us, but it's getting cramped now that Thing Two is a toddler (and a boy).

I am $70,000 in debt from my BA, MA, and MFA (most of it's from the MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago--probably not the smartest decision I ever made).

Thing One had a playdate with her best friend L. earlier this week. When we got to L.'s house, I cringed. The house is new (probably less than 8 years old), colonial, 3-car garage. We walked in and L and Thing One took each others' hands and ran up the staircase. I went into the kitchen (cherry cabinets, granite countertops), and gazed into the great room--two stories of windows looking into the wooded back yard. The sitter seemed nice, and I left.

I know that I have a better life than 90% of people in this world, but that doesn't seem to matter to my inner self.

I am jealous. I have house envy. Not that I want a new house, and certainly not one as big as L's house--I'd just spend half of my life cleaning it. I just want a house that's mine--where I can have a dog. Where each of the Things can have a bedroom. And I can have a room of my own for my books and papers and typewriters. 

This is what was supposed to happen: I was going to get tenure, get my piddly raise, and we would go get a construction loan to begin building our house--the 1800 sf farmhouse of my dreams--on the land we bought in the fall of 2004, six acres of former dairy farm with a huge shagbark hickory tree. We even have the plans already drawn up. Three bedrooms, a library, living room, eat-in kitchen, wrap-around front porch, 1.5 bathrooms, fireplace. We had done the math--we could afford to do it if we did a lot of the work ourselves (Hubby for most of it, but I can swing a hammer too). My dream house, a copy of which is pinned to the wall in my office, where I saw it every day for the last two semesters as I worked frantically for tenure.

And now the gorram plan is shot to hell, for a variety of reasons. 

One reason is that Hubby is in talks to take the job of his dreams in Chicago, about which I cannot write, other than to say that should it come to pass, it will mean that we will have to live separately for over a year, or I will have to leave my job. Since I cannot live without him--I do not want to live without him--I will need to go back to Chicago. 

I am not opposed to going back, not the way I was when we left in 2002. I do not know if I will teach again (certainly not at Columbia, special thanks to Garnett Kilberg-Cohen). I don't know what I would do. 

What I am doing is struggling with the idea of leaving my dream house...and all that it represents. My desire to give my children a better childhood than my own (which was on a hobby farm too, though with an alcoholic, rageaholic father). My longing for a place of my own, for chickens and dogs and horses to live on my farm. Maybe a lop-eared bunny or two.  It means giving up the security of guaranteed employment (though since comparatively speaking my pay is so abysmal it's starting to seem like not much of a sacrifice). It means leaving the beauty and peace of country life for the noise and dirt of the city--though the city has many good things to offer too, the best being a cosmopolitan atmosphere for my children, as opposed to the redneck, red-state area we live in now.

Hubby says we can live in the 'burbs, but I don't think I want that, either. It will mean a commute for one, probably both of us. The only 'burb I even like is Evanston, and I highly doubt we could afford to live there, though perhaps I could get adjunct work at Northwestern or Loyola...crap. I'm doing it again.

The other reason it's shot to hell is the political asshattery in this state means that I will make even less money this coming contract year than I did when I started. This is probably the most pathetic thing about it--and the thing that makes me the angriest. That I've worked so hard for so long, and will have even less to show for it (though still more than I did as an adjunct). I don't think we could build the house even if we were to stay in Wisconsin.

I am so tired. I can't do anything about my current situation except worry, and be angry and disgusted. It's exhausting.

So I think I am just going to try to be Zen. Accept the uncertainty I have never been able to tolerate (thanks, Adult Children of Alcoholics!). Trust (cf ACoA) that it will all work out. Conserve my energy and work on my novel over the summer. Go to New Orleans with Hubby in August and celebrate our 11+ years together.

If you have any advice, feel free to share it. I'm open.

Now for a nap, as Thing Two got me up at 4:45 am again.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Reviews to Come

I haven't had much time online this week (a good thing) but I am getting my remaining brain cells together to review a few books for the Steampunk Challenge:
  • Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
  • Boneshaker and Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
  • The Windup Girl and Shipbreaker by Paolo Baciagalupi
  • Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless [The Parasol Protectorate] by Gail Carriger (and by the time I get to it, probably Heartless as well, as it's due out July 1)
  • Steampunk ed. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

These have all been reviewed elsewhere, and the Steampunk Scholar is a far more in-depth resource (and should be since it's his PhD thesis)--but I'd like to take a crack at them too.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Summertime, and the Livin's Easy...

...well, sort of. It's easy in the sense that I don't have to prep or teach or grade for 4 classes.  It's not so easy in the sense that since my contract is paid on a 9-month basis, summer means no money coming in on my end of things until October. Hubby works 50+ hours/week, so we are able to pay rent, utilities, car payments*, and food, but everything else is a tight squeeze which depends completely on how much I've been able to save during the spring months (this year, not much--daycare at $850/month ate a quarter of my monthly take-home pay). I put my student loans (currently hovering around $70,000) in deferment from May-October because the $450 I'm paying per month just isn't doable on Hubby's salary.

*Car payments: Right now, we don't have one, because I killed my Honda Element the morning of graduation (5/20). 
Luckily I wasn't seriously hurt. A mild case of whiplash, a concussion, and a bad bruise on my left knee. The light pole I hit in the campus parking lot was impervious to any damage, as I was only going 15 mph (our lot gets lots of HS students who zoom through it, and I had been eyeing one such carload while making the curve through the lot--the officer who took my report told me that he's almost hit the pole too, because it's hard to see).

So I'm driving my mother-in-law's 1996 Toyota Camry (no a/c, and a cassette deck but it gets great gas mileage) and I'm lucky to have it. We have to go minivan shopping this weekend, and I'm not really looking forward to it. I loved my Element, and I'm sorry I killed it. 

Due to the accident, I barely got my grades done in time to meet the system deadline. Grading creative writing portfolios while on muscle relaxants and Percocet made for interesting (and extremely slow) reading. I only hope that my comments make sense when the few students who requested feedback come to pick up their portfolios in the fall. The writing was really good--a bit of a surprise, given how little most of them participated in class discussions.

I only had one case of blatant plagiarism in my lit course, and it was a head-shaker because the students knew I would be checking because I told them I would be checking. The instructions on the assignment explicitly forbade using the internet for the paper (which was on Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony--and there are about a bajillion websites--Academon, Free Student Papers, etc.--that have papers on the novel). This is the same assignment as the previous time I taught the course (Spring 2008) with the same warning (I had one case of plagiarism then, too--the student showed absolutely no remorse). I ran string searches on every single paper, and wouldn't you know it? One student pulled the first paragraph of her paper off a review of the novel. I stopped reading, printed off the website, paper-clipped it to the back of her paper, and wrote NG (no grade) on the first page. I simply do not understand the behavior in light of the explicit warning. Do they think I'm bluffing? That I'll be too busy to check? "No Grade" is a 0 on a 150 point assignment, a virtual guarantee of a failing grade for the course. The student came to see me afterwards, and simply said "I don't know why I did it--it's not like you didn't give us enough material in class to use for the paper. I guess I shouldn't have done it." I nodded and sent her on her way. *Sigh.* I hope she learned from this...but I can't guarantee it.

Summer hasn't quite started yet--although the weather is finally warming up--because Thing One is still in first grade until next Thursday. Thing Two and I are having some one-on-one time. He enjoys "'nuggles" (snuggling with me and his blankie) and taking his shoes off right after I've put them on. And now that Dinosaur Train ("Choo Choo ROAR!") is over, it's time for me to end this post. Up next: my summer reading list.