Current Distractions, June 2012 Edition

The fact that the "Current Distractions" tag is starting to look bigger than the "Top 100" tag in the tag cloud in the sidebar suggests I really need to get my act together. If you're curious to see what I'm reading at any given time (i.e. whether I'm staying on task and will be posting new reviews soon), in as close to real time as I happen to update it, I have a Goodreads account that I think I've mentioned a time or two before. We should be friends! In other blog-relevant news, Scoop is proving rather difficult to get my hands on, unfortunately, but now that I know it's apparently disappeared from the library, I'll be renewing my efforts to find it elsewhere.

Besides that, though, ladies and gents, it's summertime (and commarific). I spent a night at the lake this month, and it was just what I needed to make me realize the seasons have changed after all.

The most important things that have interfered with my free time this month are the graduations of my sister and my brother. My little sister finished her (first) undergrad degree this year (I now defer to her on all matters of childhood development and primary education), and my little brother got his high school diploma (meaning he's a kind of actual adult now, which boggles the mind). I'm tremendously proud of both of them, and also this makes me feel horribly old.

And speaking of being old, I'm trying really hard lately to procrastinate less, finish unfinished projects, and organize my personal archives, and a bunch of stuff like that. Plus my latest 101 Things in 1001 Days project came due this month and I've started a new one as of yesterday. I've been working for literal years on a way to organize all this stuff in a useful list form (I love to-do lists like nobody's business) with extremely minimal success, but then discovered Toodledo via a coworker. I've been using it most of this month and I really love it so far. It has very satisfying checkbox functionality.

And finally, probably my favourite thing that I'm doing right now is writing for the collablog that I have with several engineering friends of mine, called Socializing Engineers. June was the first month for it, but we'll be writing about a different topic (based on votes) each month. I highly recommend that you check it out, because I have brilliant friends who are awesome and I'm so happy and lucky to be doing a project like this with them!(!!)

A Series of Posts About Series - Part 1

I was going to wait until I got up to A Dance to the Music of Time to write this post, but since that's in the upper half of The List, it's still appallingly far away, and I'm reading Out of Oz right now, dammit!

In case you have no idea where I'm going with this, Out of Oz is the last book in Gregory Maguire's Wicked Years series, basically a gritty reboot of L. Frank Baum's Oz books. I'll tell you what I actually think of the book and the series when I review it, but it's gotten me pondering, once again, all of the different series that I've read or am currently not finished reading.

Book series are interesting things, and I really don't go into them lightly, because as a completionist I have terrible compulsions to finish anything I start at all costs, which I've talked about before. Still, sometimes you don't know that a book is part of a series, or only one book has really stood out over time (e.g. The Magnificent Ambersons, actually part of a trilogy). I can also get really turned off by a book when I find out that it's part of a series. Of course, book sequels and trilogies aren't usually the kind of obvious cash-ins that movies are, but they certainly can be, and books require a lot more time and energy to consume than movies do, and I don't want to have to spend weeks reading the earlier books in a series when only the fourth book looks interesting.

Anyway, this post is about the series that I haven't finished. They're in alphabetical order by series title, and may give you a bit of an idea of what kind of random reviews will be coming up. Maybe I'll save the series that I have finished for when I get to A Dance to the Music of Time after all.

Acorna Universe
Author: Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Ball, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

Confession time: I love unicorns. I'm not sure exactly when this started, but I know it had lots to do with old school My Little Pony, The Last Unicorn movie, and Unico in the Island of Magic. Between the ages of probably three to six years old, whenever I encountered a wishing well I wished for a baby unicorn. Seriously. Anyway I'm the prime target for a series of books about a unicorn girl, and I sincerely loved the first few of the books in this one. Acorna is an alien found by three space miners, and the initial stories about her growing up with a set of very confused dudes are quite good, but the books are somewhat derailed when the other members of her species show up. I also got jaded on Anne McCaffrey before I got through the series.

Will I Finish It? Extremely doubtful. I would consider revisiting some of the earlier books, but the fact that I don't care about the story at all anymore is a pretty good indication that I don't need to bother finding out what eventually happens.

Bitterbynde Trilogy
Author: Cecilia Dart-Thornton

I've been oddly fascinated by muteness since I read L. M. Montgomery's extremely romantic Kilmeny of the Orchard, so the first book of this trilogy, The Ill-Made Mute, couldn't fail to catch my eye. The book is about a person who's been disfigured by some sort of magical poison and features all kinds of cool things like sky pirates, but an ending transformation soured me on it.

Will I Finish It? I haven't had any urge to return to the series after the disappointing ending to the first book, and given my general impatience with fantasy nowadays, I doubt I'll bother going back to this trilogy.

The Black Book (Diary of a Teenage Stud)
Author: Jonah Black

This series is extremely mysterious, as I just discovered while trying to track it down for the purposes of this post. I heard about the first book (Girls, Girls, Girls) in Teen People magazine, which I mind-bogglingly had a subscription to in the late 90s/early 00s, but only found the second book (Stop, Don't Stop) at the library. I read it and loved it. Jonah Black is a hero in the vein of Holden Caulfield, modernized, or at least that's how I remember him after a decade. There doesn't seem to be information anywhere about who actually wrote these books, and they apparently weren't that widely read, because wikipedia doesn't even have a stub article about them.

Will I Finish It? I don't think so. I remember good things in this book about teen sexuality and so on, but I think I've moved so far past the target audience that it's too late to put in the effort to track down all of the books.

The Dark Tower
Author: Stephen King

This series is King's opus, about a gunslinger chasing a man across a disintegrating world. I'm a moderate to huge fan of King's, and I've read the first three books of this series and also a prequel tie-in that was in his Everything's Eventual short story collection. I'm a lot more picky about fantasy these days, but this is unique enough to hold my attention.

Will I Finish It? Absolutely yes. At this point it's been so long since I read the first books, I pretty much have to reread all of them. Sadly the series apparently falters at the end, but that's not going to stop me.

Author: Terry Pratchett

I almost definitely haven't sung Terry Pratchett's praises anywhere near enough on this blog so far. He's one of my favourite--if not my absolute favourite--authors, and I've read at least ten of this fantasy series, set on a disc-shaped world, held up by four elephants, all riding on the back of a space turtle. The series has basically everything: witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves, dwarves, barbarians, deities, and above all EXTREME HILARITY. I've jumped into it willy-nilly (basically whatever I could grab at the library or spot in the bookstore when I had spare change) for a dozen plus years now. I should also note that there's a YA sub-series about a girl named Tiffany Aching that is absolutely remarkable.

Will I Finish It? My plan is to read/reread the entire series from start to finish in the very near future. Don't worry, though, I'll still try to provide some variety in my reviews.

Dragonriders of Pern
Author: Anne McCaffrey

Say what you will about Anne McCaffrey, the woman was an absolute genius for cool concepts. Pern is a planet plagued occasionally by a destructive rain of "Thread." When it was settled by humans, they ended up genetically engineering intelligent dragons to help combat the Thread. This all sounds 100% hokey but makes perfect sense in-universe. The series is an intriguing mixture of fantasy and science fiction, but either the writing or storytelling eventually leave a lot to be desired. I think I read the whole original trilogy and cherry-picked a few other books in the series, intending to to read all of it but getting bored by Nerilka's Story and The Skies of Pern.

Will I Finish It? This is another series where I'd be more likely to go back to earlier books than to actually finish reading. Anne McCaffrey's son Todd has inherited the series, which feels a lot like Brian Herbert's inheritance of Dune: something I'm not at all interested in.

Earth's Children
Author: Jean M. Auel

This series was the subject of one of my “classic” reviews from that awkward in between period where I couldn't figure out whether I wanted to make fun of romance novels or not anymore. Anyway, it's basically about a cave woman who invents everything and has lots of hot sex, and ridiculous as that is, I can't get enough of it. The Land of Painted Caves book is reportedly the absolute final book in the series, and it's the only one I haven't read yet.

Will I Finish It? I'll definitely be grabbing that last book from the library one of these days.


76. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Uncomfortable Plot Summary: A ridiculous teacher manipulates young girls.

Year Published: 1961
Pages: 128
First Sentence: The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)

So I think that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the first book on The List that I just really don't know what to say about, at all. There was a lot about it that I liked (just look at that first line!), but I'm not sure if it was its brevity, or the way it's written, or the fact that I was pretty stressed while reading it, but basically the whole thing just sort of washed right over me without leaving much of an impression.

The story is about Jean Brodie, a teacher of junior students at the Marcia Blaine girls' school, and her "set," consisting of Sandy, Monica, Rose, Jenny, Eunice, and Mary. This is in Edinburgh (which I always read as "E den burg," ugh), by the way, over the course of several years in the 30s, and then beyond a bit, too. Basically Miss Brodie is a sort of emancipated woman who wants to create the girls in her image, and also she's kind of a huge tool. The book isn't so much about her as it is about the fallout of her influence on her set, and what becomes of all of them, and also a few scandalous things that I won't get much into so that I don't spoil them for you. But I should at least mention that it's really nice to have a female perspective for once (the last book on The List about a woman, written by one, was The Death of the Heart.. which I was overly mean to, and the only other one besides that was Wide Sargasso Sea).

I love the portrayal of pretty much every character in this book, sketched broadly but distinctly for the most part (a bit like the ones in Loving), although there isn't enough space to really flesh out all the members of the set. I really enjoyed the writing style as well. Apparently the technique Muriel Spark employs here is called "prolepsis" or flashforward (the English majors in the audience are laughing at me right now), and I've seen it before and love it every time I encounter it. It's revealed very early on that Mary will die young, and that Sandy will become a nun, making it even more imperative to read on and find out how the blanks will get filled in (I seem to recall a fair bit of this sort of thing in Midnight's Children, but I could be remembering wrong).

I have to apologize for this review being all over the place and indecisive and just generally unhelpful, anyway. The book is short enough that I can safely say that it's worth a read, even though I don't know what to make of it myself. Mostly I just can't decide whether I'd care to read it again, or, like, whether I even liked it. Sandy's imagination probably makes it worthwhile all by itself, but I'll let you decide.

'Do you think Miss Brodie ever had sexual intercourse with Hugh?' said Jenny.
     'She would have had a baby, wouldn't she?'
     'I don't know.'
     'I don't think they did anything like that,' said Sandy. 'Their love was above all that.'
     'Miss Brodie said they clung to each other with passionate abandon on his last leave.'
     'I don't think they took their clothes off, though,' Sandy said, 'do you?'
     'No. I can't see it,' said Jenny.
     'I wouldn't like to have sexual intercourse,' Sandy said.
     'Neither would I. I'm going to marry a pure person.'
     'Have a toffee.'

No Place for a Lady

Based on a conversation or four that I've had with friends and family lately, there seems to be some interest out there about what it is that I actually do for a living, and my feelings about it, and that sort of thing. So, since this is my blog, and my gimmick is that I'm an engineer with zero qualifications whatsoever to talk about books, I'm going to try to write a little bit more about what being an engineer means to me, what I do at work all day, etc.

For this first post on the topic, I'm going to go a bit abstract. About a month ago, I discovered that the enrollment of women in engineering at my alma mater was nowhere near as high as advertised back when I was in school three years ago, or when I was going to various recruitment events as a high school student. As far as I knew, female enrollment in the college was somewhere around 30% while I was there, with some disciplines being better (chemical) or worse (mechanical). Whereas an annual report from my professional association revealed that it was actually only 20% overall last year, meaning that three years ago it was probably even worse. My discipline, civil, is right around the average.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before or not, but I went to an all-girls Catholic school for six years, from grade 7 to 12 (inclusive, obviously). Thanks to a bunch of factors, not the least of which was the fact that I was a shy, awkward teenager, the four dozen or so girls I went to school with were basically the only people I knew in my city. I had very rare interactions with the opposite sex in the form of my friends' friends, my parents' friends' kids, and also, mercifully, the internet, but otherwise my social circle was overwhelmingly female. By the time I made it to university, I didn't know anything about boys. They were a kind of abstraction that I understood in standup comedy terms, plus teen loner cynicism. Remote caricatures, in other words, and I was also pretty positive that there was no chance I'd ever actually get to know any guy ever in a meaningful way.

(My Catholic girls' school experience is a post for another time, but I'm literally 100% less bitter about it than that paragraph makes me seem. I think maybe I could mine a post about half-forgotten teenage girl psychology out of it, too.)

Anyway, of course I ended up choosing one of the last male strongholds in post-secondary education as my degree of choice. Mainly this happened because of my dad's encouragement. I'm sure there are parallel universes where he's an engineer himself, but in this one he's a tradesman and has been doing various construction and maintenance work since he was 17. I didn't really know what engineering was, beyond "problem solving," but that was good enough considering I didn't have any idea what else to do, having abandoned my childhood dreams of "figure skater" and "princess" quite early on. So I trotted happily out of my convent school and onto the university campus, where I learned, for better or worse and under considerable emotional duress, a lot of math and science, and also that the male of the species are people too.

Or, tl;dr, I went from a very female-dominated environment directly into a very male-dominated one, and the experience was difficult and formative and blah blah really unique blah I'm very glad to've been through it.

Out of university, things got even more male-dominated when I started working in construction, a rough and tumble business that's no place for a lady. At my company, only about four out of the 27 people who share my title are women (i.e. 1 in 7 or 15%; the reason I don't have exact numbers is that some of the names are ambiguous and I don't know all of the other people who work here). When I include everyone that falls under the project management umbrella, that number remains pretty stable at 18%, but I think you can see it's not exactly balanced. The last time I was on a job site, I was literally the only woman working on the job with a crew of about forty guys (not the only one on site, just on that particular job, which I hope is a clear distinction to those outside the industry). Women are still so rare on construction job sites that we turn heads wherever we go. I like to joke that I've never actually seen any guys working because they're too busy watching me walk by, but that's not very far from the truth.

By now, if you're still reading, you're probably wondering what I'm trying to get at with all of these numbers.

Well, I have two different and conflicting reactions.

First, I find this kind of work environment really stimulating, even if "stimulating" should sometimes be read as "really, really, really stressful." I'm always conscious of people I deal with at work making snap judgements about me based on the way I look (e.g. boobs!) or sound on the phone (e.g. like a child). I'm conscious, too, of the fact that thanks to my inexperience/occasional airheadedness, I can't necessarily prove those snap judgements wrong all the time. But I feel good about the fact that I'm here at all, and I value the distinctness of my experience, not to mention the challenges of the job itself. Maybe everyone automatically assumes I'm a secretary of some kind the second they step into a site trailer, but if I have any influence on changing those assumptions, then I'm glad to be able to do that. My job definitely isn't perfect, but it has a novelty to it, for reasons including and beyond my non-traditional role, that I'm not sure I could find anywhere else and that I know I'd miss.

And in case you're wondering, I do recognize that as more women enter the profession, the experience that I've had will gradually be lost. I'm not sure that this is relevant, though. While I personally really benefitted from being in a male-dominated environment, it's more important to me that the field is challenging. The experience I've had isn't just valuable to me because lol now I'm one of the guys, it's because I have education that qualifies me to work in an area that conventional wisdom would like to deny me. I want to discuss engineering on its own merits, like whether the work is rewarding, or if it's something you can do without having to raze your personal life.

Second is less positive. Engineering is a profession that I care about even while it seems to disappoint me at every turn (this could be another post all by itself), to the point where I'm upset that it's so male dominated but I don't want to do anything about it. I can't recommend it on those merits I just mentioned because that's not how it is at all. I wouldn't wish the bad parts of this job on anyone, so I don't want to encourage any unsuspecting young people, including girls, to get into this line of work, and would maybe even go so far as to discourage them from considering it. There are huge structural changes required before I'm prepared to suggest to anyone that engineering is a good choice of career, regardless of what gender they are. I'm sure that there are some companies or places where engineers do cool, socially responsible, innovative things that they feel good about, while maintaining reasonable work/life balance, but right now those are few and far between.

This makes me so sad. For the mathematically minded, or for me at least, there's a certain joy in working out solutions to practical, numerical problems (as opposed to abstract problems, which I tend to struggle with and then address with blunt force and middling success). I've gotten that feeling from engineering, in school and sometimes even at work. The strange social forge I went through may have turned me into a kind of odd person, but nevertheless a person that I really like, and I can't deny that engineering has been a big part of that. The fact is, though, that the trappings of the job overwhelm that joyful solving feeling most of the time. I wish that I could feel good about doing recruitment, and go out and talk to girls in schools about a thing that I love, girls who are maybe scared of boys the same way I was and can't imagine standing toe to toe with them as peers in a field that nobody on the outside ever sees or hears much about (no matter how much proselytizing happens within the profession). I recognize that I'm in a position to be a role model, I just don't feel good about the role I'd be modelling. Engineering is a thing that I'm doing right now, and not something that I utterly hate, but that doesn't mean I think anyone else should do it.

I just don't know what the solution to all of this is. How do you encourage more girls to get into engineering if the ones who are already engineers don't feel comfortable mentoring them, maybe to the point of active dissuasion? How do you change the profession so that more women engineers would be willing to take on mentorship roles, or even just so that all engineers have a better quality of life? Is this something that needs to be left up to a foot vote, or should engineers be trying to change the profession from within? I've been struggling with these kinds of questions for a while now, and I just don't have any answers. What do you think?