February 22, 2011

Jane Eyre

After the tome of Tolkein, Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) was practically light reading. It does always take a few pages to get into the Victorian style of writing. Then I start to feel quite civilized as I read.

Jane Eyre is a poor orphan who is raised by her aunt (who would rather have her fingernails pulled out than be kind to Jane). Her cousins are little better. The best thing to happen to her is getting sent off to boarding school. The boarding school is not much of an improvement that first year until a typhus epidemic shakes up the school’s directorship, and then the next eight years go quite swimmingly.

At 18 Jane is ready to go out into the world and puts out an ad to be a governess. The kid is cute and the place is nice. But when she meets the master of the house, Mr. Rochester (not actually related to the kid: long story), it’s love. Not love at first sight. She’s plain and he’s kind of ugly (I still couldn’t help picturing Colin Firth in the role). They get engaged, are at the altar, and it comes out that Mr. Rochester is in fact already married to a mad woman in his attic. Drama ensues. Mr. Rochester wants to basically elope, Jane can’t because “It isn’t right! No matter the circumstances” (I paraphrase), and Jane ends up leaving in the night.

Near starvation ensues because she took no money with her. She finds some nice friends who give her a job and then turn out to be her other cousins. She also inherits a bunch of money from an uncle she’d never met. She should be set, except she pines for Mr. Rochester. One of her cousins (this is a first cousin, mind you), St. John (no, I don’t know why his name is St. John and not just John), is a clergyman bent on being a missionary in India. He is all about denying Earthly pleasures to obtain a seat at the foot of God in the afterlife. He decides Jane is just the sort of person who would make a good missionary’s wife. Jane disagrees. Just as it looks like St. John might talk her into it, Jane has a vision and decides she has to find out what happened to Mr. Rochester in the year they’ve been separated.

The house is burned. All inhabitants have fled. Turns out crazy wife burned the place down and then jumped to her death from the roof. Mr. Rochester lost a hand and an eye getting everyone out, and then the other eye went bad. He’s sad, blind, and maimed in a little cabin in the woods. Jane goes to him immediately, and they all live happily ever after.

Phew! Sorry for all the asides; I just couldn’t help myself. That’s rather a longer synopsis than all three books of The Lord of the Rings, but relationship drama needs more details.

Other thoughts:
  • First of all, check out this cover! I know that Jane is meant to be plain, and Mr. Rochester is supposed to be almost ugly, but this cover makes them look terrible! I’m mean, woof! It just seems mean.

  • I often like to imagine movie adaptations of Victorian novels. How could it be brought into present day? Most of them work quite well. This storyline would not work. Mr. Rochester would have divorced the crazy lady and even if he didn’t, Jane probably wouldn’t have minded living with him.
  • While the main action of the novel takes place over probably two years, it’s still the shortest romance I’ve read in a Victorian novel. It usually takes at least three years for the couple to get together. My own romance notwithstanding (we were together seven years before he proposed), it must have been so boring to wait so long to basically get to go on a date.
  • I never realized how dark it must have been back then. In movies the drawing rooms are always well lit, but this novel really gave you a sense of how much fire and candle was required to do what one flick of a switch does now. Thank you, Thomas Edison.
Overall, a very enjoyable read. Anybody who is a Jane Austen fan will like this one. I came into it a bit nervous, remember Wuthering Heights with not a lot of fondness. Unlike Emily, Charlotte kept it light, and I do like a happy ending.

Up next: To Kill a Mockingbird

February 16, 2011

Mail Call

My good friend Ali very kindly included me in what I can only describe as a chain mail, book club. I honestly mean the very kind part. This is by far the coolest chain mail thing ever. You get a letter with instructions and you get some addresses. You send one book to the address on the back of the letter. You pick any book you like and send it to someone you probably don’t know. I mailed out a copy of Chasing Harry Winston by Lauren Weisberger (of The Devil Wears Prada fame) to Alabama (if I remember correctly). Then you mail six of the same letter and include the address of the person who sent the letter to you. If the chain keeps going, and people hold up their end of the bargain, you get 36 books in the mail.

Well, I love books. Especially free books. It’s like Christmas all year for me. My very first book just came in the mail. Arriving from Aspen, CO (and someone I’ve never met, but know of), came The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is a book I have never heard of, by an author I’ve never heard of. I love that because it means that it’s something I might not have picked up on my own. Apparently it involves a rather strange fellow investigating the death of a neighborhood dog. From flipping through it I can tell you that there are smiley faces and various illustrations and diagrams. I have to admit to being really excited about it.

I’m also really excited to insert my 36 chain letter books into the midst of my BBC 100 read-a-thon. All work and no play makes Jamie a cranky reader (not that all the BBC 100 are non-fun books, but I’m definitely going to need a few breaks).

So, if you were someone who received one of my letters, I hope that you are paying it forward. I want some more book lovin’ in the mail.

February 8, 2011

The First Haircut

Last night when I posted on Facebook that I might cry while H got her first haircut this morning, I was being mostly over-the-top/silly. Crying? Really? Imagine my chagrin when I did in fact tear up as the scissors started their snip-snip into H’s honey-gold hair.


H took the whole thing pretty much in stride. She sat on my lap decked out in a pink, Tinkerbell cape. When the hairdresser got to the back of her head, she kept trying to turn around to see what was going on. The biggest negative reaction came when H had to relinquish the turquoise comb she was playing with while the haircut was going on. Gladly, her very first dum dum lollipop made up for any comb sadness.
You can see why she was sad to give up the comb. It was pretty cool.

Why does the first haircut evince such reactions? I know I’m not the only cry baby out there. Is it just the fact that it symbolizes a milestone? But what sort of milestone is it? She is no closer to independence. I still feed her at least half her food and wipe her butt. She’s not tall enough to climb into either her high chair or her car seat by herself. She still speaks in sporadic one word “sentences.” Yet seeing her with her straight-across-bangs somehow goes straight to my mom heart with the thought, “She’s not a baby anymore.”

One haircut and sucker and she already looks too cool for me.

We spend a lot of time as moms wishing for our kids to grow up—to hold their heads up, to sit up, to roll over, to crawl, to smile, to coo. Sometimes a milestone pops up and it’s just as wonderful as you knew it would be (like smiling and laughing). Sometimes you wonder why you wanted this to happen (like walking and opening drawers).

Hanging out with her big girl hair cut and her new shades.

It’s the transition from totally dependent baby to semi-dependent toddler that I’m having a hard time with. Why this transition is symbolized by a haircut is anyone’s guess. H’s hair grew in surprisingly even. For a while I didn’t cut it because it looked like a super cute bob that I’d paid for. But her bangs were now so long they were in her mouth, but still not staying behind her ears. She pulls out every hair holding device known to man after about 10 minutes. Despite all that, her uncut hair seemed all soft curves and innocence. Her now even hair and little straight bangs identify her as a kid. No longer is she mine to hold apart as a baby. Clearly, she’s not quite ready to make her own way in the world. But in an almost-two-year-old scale, yes, it’s her time to go and explore. A lot of that exploring does not necessarily include me. I will likely be nearby, but I won’t be the center of her universe in quite the same way ever again.

I am happy for my beautiful daughter. Yesterday she climbed the stairs on the playground and slid down the slide with no help at all. Today she spontaneously took a downward facing dog and turned it into a somersault. Seeing her grow and learn is so exciting as a mother. I still look forward to all the firsts to come. But no matter what, I just want one moment every day to hold her close, smell her sweet child smell, and kiss her head.

February 5, 2011

The Lord of the Rings

The first book is complete! It only took a month because it was actually three books. Series of books will be my bane in this project.

To break it down, for each book I’ll give you a synopsis, including spoilers (beware), and then my random thoughts. Please remember that anything I say is my opinion. If I slander your favorite book or author, please forgive me.

The spine broke half way through The Two Towers, and this section of pages got loose. H might have helped them to come out a little.

Like I said, The Lord of the Rings actually covers three books: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. You may remember these titles from a series of popular movies. Basically, what happens is that a little nobody, Frodo (hobbit), inherits a ring that turns out to be mood ring of the most evil of all evil lords, Sauron. To avoid the utter destruction of the whole world, Frodo and eight buddies go off to Sauron’s land of Mordor to pitch the ring into a volcano and destroy it forever. There’s lots of camping, and then Frodo decides that he’s too noble to endanger other people, so he goes off by himself, taking only his trusty manservant, Sam, with him. While Frodo and Sam walk off to face Hell on Earth (literally, they walked the whole way), the rest of the gang gets into some crazy adventures of their own. One guy dies, two other hobbits get kidnapped, and the rest of the crew goes off after them. Then there’s lots of slaying of bad guys and rattling of swords and defending Middle Earth from utter destruction. All the while, Frodo and Sam are walking. They get some help from Gollum, the scary creature that used to have the ring and really wants it back (if you like him, he also makes an appearance in The Hobbit coming later in the project), but of course Gollum’s split personality forces him to actually lead them into harm’s way. Despite all the odds, Frodo and Sam get to the volcano and destroy the ring. Sauron literally goes up in smoke as soon as the ring is gone and everything is pretty much peaches and cream after that.

This is an extremely abbreviated synopsis. The whole thing was 987 pages; I mean, come on! But you get the general idea. Also, just rent the movies. It’s a much better use of your time.

Other thoughts:
  • Good editing could have reduced these books by at least 300 pages. Tolkien spends an inordinate amount of time telling us about each facet of the day, for many days in a row. Literally, we hear about breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, where they camped, how they slept, the weather, the scenery, everything. It was only because I knew that things would eventually pick up that I didn’t chuck the very first book of the project and call it quits.
  • Building on my first point, I think that there may have been something wrong with Tolkien. I don’t mean that in a hateful way. I just can’t believe than any normal person would invest as much time and energy in an imaginary place. Not only has he come up with a fun story, there are histories, maps, family trees of many generations, all done up in not one, not two, but six appendices totally nearly 100 pages. This is in addition to the prologue all about the life of your average hobbit of The Shire. I think he must have had some form of autism to explain the focus and attention to detail required.
  • Where’s the love? Now there is some serious man love, especially between Sam and his master Frodo. Sam would do anything for him in almost a scary kind of way. But I was sad to see that the whole love story between Aragorn and Arwen was pretty much an invention of Hollywood. If I hadn’t seen the movies, I would have been quite surprised when she shows up around page 900 something and they suddenly get married. Whoa!
  • I do have to hand it to Tolkien that he knows how to write a cliff hanger. Both of the first two books end with horrible cliff hangers. If he were alive today, angry fans would have rioted outside his house while he wrote the sequels.
  • What’s with all the poetry? Is it not enough to just say they sang? Do we have to have the lyrics? Yes, yes, we do. Several pages could also be saved by removing the songs and poetry. By and large, they do not add to the plot and some of them are in Elvish. Elvish.
  • One of my favorite parts of the book was actually the mini-adventure the hobbits have when they get back to The Shire after saving the whole world. No one cares about what they did, but they're really impressed with their armor and the fact that they kick some bullies out who were trying to turn The Shire into Nazi Germany. Also, if the whole thing was written at the pace of the bit about The Shire, it would have been a smaller book. Maybe that's another reason I liked it.
  • I feel almost at loose ends now that I’m done with The Lord of the Rings. I’ve spent all year reading it.
Next on the list is Jane Eyre. As a side project, I wonder if I can read everything without having to buy a book. Through the powers of the public library and the extensive collection of my English Ph.D. best friend and her English Ph.D. husband, I think I can do it.

February 4, 2011


In borrowed scraps of time, I’m a freelance editor. Consequently, I know a thing or two about writing. More importantly, I know a thing or two about how not to write. Some of this is really directed to all those scientists out there that I sometimes edit for, but hopefully this can help anyone who needs to write something that needs to be convincing.

I was recently treated to some really terrible writing destined for a congressman’s desk. As is so often the case, the writer completely ignored his audience. Writers who do so risk losing that audience. If no one reads what you write, you’re kind of screwed. In this particular case, no congressman would ever sift through that garbage to get the actual good point trying to be made. This is bad for the program that needs funding.

So, rule 1 of Jamie’s guide to being a better writer: Before you ever touch a keyboard or pick up a pen, think about who you’re writing for.

It’s all well and good to say write for your audience. But what does it really matter? It may be a matter of who ends up liking what you wrote. Or, if you’re writing a proposal to get a project funded, it could be a matter of considerable importance. Think about it: If the person who’s giving you the money can’t understand a thing you’ve said, are you going to get the money? Probably not. And the decision will have nothing to do with how good your idea is. The reader didn’t even know the idea was good!

I’ve noticed this phenomenon most when scientists are writing for non-scientists, but you could substitute in any expert writing for non-experts. Readers dislike two things very greatly: writers who talk over their heads and writers who treat them like dumb kids. Your job is to try for something in between. Respect readers’ intelligence, but also remember their limitations.

Let’s try a fun example: sex. Sex is something that adults will talk about quite a bit. But you will inherently apply my principle of considering your audience when you do so. If you’re talking to your best friend about sex, you’re going to use very different language from if you were explaining sex to your three-year-old who wants to know how the baby got in Mommy’s tummy. If you’re talking about sex with your doctor, you’d use a whole different set of vocabulary.

And it’s not just the words you use; it’s how you relate ideas and use examples. Going back to the whole sex thing: when you talk to the three-year-old, you’re going to scale down the complexity of the idea. Maybe you’ll skip the whole pre-marital option and just tell your kiddo, “Sex is when mommies and daddies love each other very much.” It’s completely irrelevant to this particular situation that sex is a possibility outside of marriage. Keep this in mind to avoid the excruciating background and detail of your expert topic that, really, no one cares about. If you don’t absolutely need to introduce a concept, don’t. Likewise, if you must have some background to understand something, include it! Don’t assume that your audience (your three-year-old) will have all the knowledge and references that you have.

When you’re done writing whatever it is you’re writing, read it. Read it while pretending to be your audience. If you’re trying to convince, make sure you’re actually making a compelling argument. Make sure that your examples are clear and that they’re relatable to normal experience. (How big is the oil spill? It could fill XX football stadiums.) And most importantly, make sure that it’s clear what’s in it for the reader if he or she agrees with your point. Are you saving money or time? Make sure you say that.

To sum up: Writing to sound important: bad. Writing to share knowledge like an equal: good.

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