Home for the Holidays

Last night, I arrived back in Greer after a week at my parent’s house, which is the longest amount of time I’d spent there in two years. This was one of the best Christmas breaks I can remember. It was restful, simple, and productive…everything I needed an extended break from my life to be.

Thanksgiving break was difficult, and in retrospect, I think that’s because I had planned so many activities into five days that I had no time to rest. I was still in the continuously frenzied, caffeinated mindset from this insane semester of working, teaching, and attending school, that I didn’t know how to slow down and just appreciate my few days off.

This time was different. First of all, the planned trip to Pennsylvania and New York fell apart less than 24 hours before we were supposed to leave, thanks to a freak storm front that moved across the east, dumping tons of snow on I-81, our route from the South to Pennsylvania. I spent those five days in Greer, shopping with Harvin, crocheting, watching The West Wing, baking, and thoroughly cleaning my room. It was as close to stress-free as I’ve been in months. Then I headed home for Christmas.

Highlights of my break:

1) The food. My family is a big fan of breakfast, so we either went out for breakfast or cooked delicious quiche and cinnamon rolls at home. Also, for Christmas Eve, my parents, brother, and I had Beaufort Stew and scallops. Delicious!

2) Christmas morning. The first gift I opened was the Director’s Cut of Watchmen that my brother bought for me. The DVD case is a Rorschach mask. It was seriously awesome. He did a great job. But the best part about Christmas morning was what I’d been looking forward to for months. My brother bought my dad a really awesome leather fire helmet, which is quite expensive. Berry bought himself one a few months ago, and he and Dad in all their conversations have talked about the benefits of having a leather helmet for a long time. Dad had no idea Berry was getting him one. It was something Dad had always wanted but never would have bought for himself. He cried when he opened the box. Then he wore the helmet around the house and sometimes just sat and looked at it. Berry wins big for best Christmas present ever. Buying gifts is the way my brother shows his love, and it pretty much made my dad’s year, I think.

3) My mom bought me the new Monopoly Deal card game for Christmas. On Saturday, Mom and I sat down and played for an hour or so. Then after dinner, my dad joined in, and the three of us played that game and Uno for three hours. We haven’t played games together like that since I was very young. It was a lot of fun.

4) My dad has recently taken up model railroading again. It was a hobby he really enjoyed for years before I was born, up through the time when we moved eleven years ago. For years, he’s talked about doing it again, but only when my brother moved out and Dad found a viable space to set up a layout did he dig out his old supplies. In the past few weeks, he’s built a platform around my brother’s old room, laid down foam and track to start the layout, and started putting together buildings. I’m super excited he has a hobby at home now. Every time I called him, until recently, if he was at home, he was sitting down watching TV. Now, he’s up, moving around, spending hours in the train room, or the “mancave,” as I’ve dubbed it. It’s good to see that my dad isn’t wasting time so much. He seems younger and more lighthearted now.

5) My parents are often planners who rarely follow through with plans. A year or so ago, they bought this huge steel shelving unit to put in our utility/laundry room. The intent was to give my mom a place to neatly organize all of her crafting and VBS supplies (she was the county association’s director for years and has tons of decorating and planning materials). Unfortunately, the nook where the shelving unit was to go was stacked with old boxes that have been in the corner since we moved in 11 years ago. Sunday and Monday, my parents and I thoroughly cleaned the entire room, getting rid of a ton of dust, dirt, and needless items, sorting through all the boxes, constructing the shelving unit, and organizing supplies into plastic bins. The result is that I sneezed a lot, we threw away huge bags of trash, and the room looks great. I have every intention of going home as often as possible and encouraging my mom to throw away stuff and organize. It felt really great to help my mom out.

Reading this post makes it seem like I had a super-busy week, but it was really quite peaceful and relaxed. I finished crocheting one scarf, crocheted a full one, and got a great start on a third scarf, all while watching The Big Bang Theory (a Christmas gift from my parents) and The Mentalist (my brother’s gift to Mom), so that was delightful. And I enjoyed being around our two cats, two dogs, and seven adorable, playful puppies. In fact, my apartment with its three residents seems a little strange now, having been around more animals than people over the last week. Maybe I should go buy another fish. A New Year’s gift to myself. Hmmm…I think I might do that today.

In other news, today is my two-year anniversary of being diabetic. I’m having much more fun today that I was two years ago.

Also, on Saturday, adventure will be had. Ticcoa, Harvin, Jessie, and I are heading to Savannah to see the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, and maybe go to Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island (yay lighthouses!). It’s going to be awesome. Expect an exuberant post next week.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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“This is the sound of a heartbeat.”

Friday night. The Orange Peel. Switchfoot. Incredible.

My fifth Switchfoot concert was the best I’ve been to. It would have been even better had I actually been able to see the stage. Sadly, being 5’2″ means that unless I arrive at the Orange Peel several hours pre-show, I won’t see most of the stage. However, when the musice is that intense, seeing the stage didn’t matter as much. I know what they look like by now. 🙂

The show was broken up into two sections. First, the band played the album Hello Hurricane from start to finish. As amazing as that album is, it’s so much more epic in a crowd of people who are screaming the lyrics and pumping their fists.

[Note: it was so intense, and I was so into it, that when I went to scream after the seventh song, “Hello Hurricane,” my scream was a hoarse cry that moved to a high-pitched squeal. I definitely lost my voice a mere 30 minutes into the show. Fortunately, I recovered by the end.]

After they finished “Red Eyes,” the final track from the album, Jon announced that we as an audience would choose the next song. We were all supposed to start singing the song we wanted to hear next. Eventually, the crowd would be singing the same song, and that’s how we chose. Of course, the song ended up being “Meant to Live.” It’s always a great one to hear live.

The set list for the second half of the show:

“Meant to Live”

“Stars”

“The Shadow Proves the Sunshine”

“Oh! Gravity.”

“Learning to Breathe” (my all-time favorite Switchfoot song–this is the third time I’ve heard it live)

“Twenty-Four” (a girl in the audience was celebrating her 24th birthday…fitting)

“Company Car” (from their first album The Legend of Chin. This song is so much fun live. Jon instructed the whole audience to put our arms around the person next to us and sway.)

“Dare You to Move” (a staple at any Switchfoot show)

They left the stage then, but they always do an encore. This time, it was “This is Your Life” and “Awakening,” two of my favorite songs to hear live. When Jon sings “This is Your Life,” he sings directly to the crowd. I always feel like I can conquer the world.

After the show, we headed outside in the bitter cold to hover around the tour bus. As we walked out, a group of people was singing Christmas carols to Jon Foreman. It was such a beautiful thing. Eventually, every guy from the band came out, so I met them all for the first time, took pictures with them, and they all autographed by deluxe edition of the album. I’m pretty sure it’s now my most prized possession.

Here’s me (and Candace and Jess) with the guys from Switchfoot:

Jon Foreman, of course, with me and Candace.

Tim Foreman, the bass player and Jon’s younger brother, was actually the first one we met that night.

Candace, me and Jess with Drew Shirley, the guitarist.

Us with Jerome Fontamillas, who rocks the keyboards. After Sam mentioned that I’m the biggest Switchfoot fan he knows, Jerome gave me an extra hug. It was pretty great. 🙂

Chad Butler, the drummer, was the last one to come off the tour bus, but we waited around in the freezing cold long enough to meet him.

I love Switchfoot. 🙂

Leviathan

According to Wikipedia (the root of all knowledge, as we know):

steampunk: (noun) “a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction [ . . . ] set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used–usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England–but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the world of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.”

* * *

Scott Westerfeld is a writer of young adult fiction whose work I generally respect, if not thoroughly admire. His dystopian series, Uglies, was marvelous, and even his contemporary spin on vampire lore  in Peeps and Last Days was intriguing and thought-provoking.

I was, therefore, extremely excited when I discovered that he released a new book in October. The display in B&N featuring this book and others was my first introduction to steampunk, and my interest was piqued.

First, the novel is gloriously beautiful in appearance. The cover depicts really fantastic steampunk art, with rich reds and golds. Inside the covers is a map depicting the setting of the novel–Westerfeld’s revised Europe on the brink of WWI:

Furthermore, the illustrations in the novel are beautiful, and even the font is pleasing.

The basic plot: Europe is divided into factions. The Darwinists (England, Russia, etc.) have built their armies on fabricated beasts composed of parts of living animals. Their shining glory is an airship called the Leviathan, which is composed of the body of a whale, as well as multiple other animals.

The Clankers (Germany, Austrio-Hungary, etc.) are the Darwinists’ enemies. Their machines are larger-than-life, as well, but these machines are just that…machines. The prime example of this is the Stormwalker.

The story has two main characters. Alek (a Clanker) is the son of the Archduke Ferdinand. When his parents are killed (in chapter 1), Alek and four of his men escape in a Stormwalker because the Germans are looking to kill him, too.

Deryn is a sixteen-year-old girl who loves to fly with her father in balloons. She poses as a boy named Dylan in order to join the British Navy as a midshipman. She successfully joins and, through an accident, winds up on the Leviathan.

The story is told from a third-person omnisicent perspective, but it switches back-and-forth between Alek and Deryn’s stories. They each get two chapters before Westerfeld switches back. Usually, this kind of narrative intrigues me, but this time, it gave me whiplash. Their stories don’t interconnect until well past halfway through the novel. I found it frustrating that Westerfeld would build up to a climactic moment, then make me sit through two more chapters of another story.

Also, the book just didn’t interest me as much as I anticipated. Westerfeld always creates his own jargon, and usually I appreciate that and catch on pretty quickly. This time, I was confused about some of the terms throughout most of the book, and I never really did figure out what other words meant.

Even the characterization annoyed me. Honestly, Westerfeld has yet to create a really strong lead character that I thoroughly support. Tally, the protagonist of Uglies, was annoying at times in her indecisiveness. The vamps in Peeps and Last Days were intriguing, but not characters I really related to. I like Alek okay in this novel, but Deryn was just ridiculous.

Also, Deryn is a girl pretending to be a guy to get in on some military action. Hasn’t this plot been overdone? And Westerfeld never gives resolution. Throughout 400 pages, no one ever officially confirms that Deryn is a girl. One of the scientists suspects, but no one else does. That was frustrating, especially when the end of the book arrives. Westerfeld, of course, leaves it wide open for the sequel (and who knows when that will be released?). I definitely won’t buy that book in hardcover. I’ll probably just check it out from the library at some point.

Finally, Westerfeld is an evolutionist. Now, I firmly believe that one can enjoy a book and disagree with the author’s viewpoint. However, Westerfeld is more extreme in this than in any of his other books, and I found that it got in the way of the story. For example, Alek (the Clanker) uses the adjective “godless” probably 5 or 6 times in the novel to refer to the Darwinists’ evolutionary beasts. “Godless” is a strong word, one that should be used sparingly, lest it lose its power. When Westerfeld creates a character who directly opposes his own worldview, and that character starts overusing emotionally charged words, it hinders the narrative.

All this to say, steampunk has the potential to be aweseme, and I’m sad that my first literary venture into the subgenre was disappointing. If you’re interested in the genre, or in machinery, or in revised history, or Westerfeld, maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. But I won’t exactly be recommending this novel anytime soon.

November Books

Only 6 this month, but they were mostly big books. This brings my yearly total to 98. I’m working on book #99 now: 1984 (my first time reading it, if you can believe that). I’m going to be choosing an extra-special one for book number 100…any suggestions?

1. Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers, edited by Judy Blume. I started reading this book during banned books week, to show my support for the cause. A lot of these stories are great; some of them not so much. Some are highly controversial; others, I couldn’t understand why anyone would ever think to censor the story. Nonetheless, it’s a highly intriguing read, and each author who contributed a story also has an essay on how censorship has affected him or her as an author of young adult literature.

2. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins. 617 pages. Victorian. Insane details. I loved it.

3. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. This was not for my Victorian Lit class. I just evidently love Victorian lit (and Dickens) so much that I read it for fun. 🙂

4. The Giver, Lois Lowry. For my adolescent lit class, I wrote a paper on teaching social justice (particularly freedom and oppression) to high school students through adolescent literature. I particularly examined dystopian novels, and The Giver is one of the first (and best) examples of this in YA lit. I decided to re-read it for research. 🙂

5. Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon. A Victorian sensation novel with a happy ending. Enjoyable, definitely.

6. Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld. A disappointment.