19 April 2011

Book Reading Update

In September of last year, I wrote a post about slimming down my reading list.  Looking back, I'm pretty sure I never followed up on this on the blog, which is a shame since it was one of my most-commented entries.

Here are some stats (numbers = happy me!):
  • Read in 2010: 17,347 pages (35 books)
  • Left unread in 2010: 23,882 pages (48 books)
  • Eliminated: 5,449 pages (14 books)
  • Added in 2011: 10,152 pages (22 books) 
  • Read so far in 2011: 5,785 pages (12 books) + 1,245 pages (2 books) re-read = 7,030 pages
  • Left to read in 2011: 22,800 pages (44 books)
I ended up completely eliminating about 20% of my reading list, although I've certainly added back pages.  The titles that I added fall in four categories: books I owned but hadn't recorded, titles for book club, books I received for Christmas, or books published in 2011 by favorite authors. I have another 2,644 pages that are potentially going away; they're in a box that hasn't been opened since last October, probably for a reason.  I'm also thinking about taking the complete works of Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson, and the Brothers Grimm off my list, which would eliminate another 4,000 pages.  I'd never sit down and read those works cover to cover, but I tackle one or two offerings from time to time.

At this rate, I would almost finish this group of books by the end of the year, assuming I don't go overboard buying new publications.  What do you think... do I go ahead and eliminate those 6,600 pages?  Should a few more books go?  How are your reading lists coming?

Bonus Update:  Books I've read since my last book review post, with hyperlinks going to my reviews:
Persuasion (4 stars)
Stone of Tears (2 stars)
The Forgotten Garden (3 stars)
The Wise Man's Fear (5 stars)

18 April 2011

Women Hurt Women

It has been a long running theory of mine that since our great-grandmothers fought for our right to vote and wear jeans and our grandmothers fought for our right to earn a living outside the home and go to college and our mothers fought for our right to earn equal pay for equal work, that our generation is working for our right to have an equal voice.  I also think that our biggest opponents in this fight are ourselves.  Women seem to have a natural self-effacing quality that shirks praise or the limelight.  We also have an innate, evolutionary need to camouflage ourselves in public; most women hate to be dissenters in appearance or opinion, at least when others can see.  Doing otherwise is very much a learned behavior.

So it makes me particularly happy to read the recent backlash against a New York Times' review of HBO's newest series, The Game of Thrones.  The series is based on a set of books by fantasy writer George R. R. Martin which have received rave reviews for their creativity, gritty realism, and intricate, genre-defying plots.  The NYT review of the show, however, seems to think this:
The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
As one of those women (apparently statistical anomalies) who "read books like Mr. Martin's", this rubs me the wrong way.  (I'm not even going to pretend to know who Lorrie Moore is.)  But what's really horrid about this review?  It was written by a woman.  Thus, I was going to write a little blog entry about why it's particularly awful that a woman was unable or unwilling to seek out diversity in her own gender.  But happily, I find that it's already been done and done well!  Any number of blogs that I follow, with both male and female writers, are up in arms about such a sexist, uninformed viewpoint.  Here are some of the best:
  • Geekfemme: about how "woman" and "geek" are not mutually exclusive terms.
  • Almost Diamonds: A quick personal story about why some people read fantasy.  Amazingly, for the strong female characters who get themselves out of tough spots.
  • Bleeding Cool: A longer but very thorough piece on why it's particularly heinous that a woman wrote this review.  She says it in a more controlled and precise way than how I would have rambled from point to point.
  • MSNBC: A regular article from the day before the NYT piece about how women are increasingly driving geek trends.  Guess we're not so anomalous after all. (Plus, the point that the article makes about women's shirts at the end is a pet peeve of mine.  I am not a small man.  If you want me to buy your merchandise (and why wouldn't you?), make it in my size!)
  • io9: My favorite of all the responses; this piece asks why men would want to watch a show so obviously geared toward women?  The snark is great because she makes a relevant, valid point: it's all about perspective and individual taste... and it should be.
This comes off sounding like a rant about empowering geek women and maybe it is a bit.  But whatever your favorite literary flavor, here's why you should care: Anti-Bullying Starts in First Grade.  It's a very personal article about a little girl who was teased at school for having a Star Wars lunch box & thermos.  That sounds like a typical scenario (and kids will do this kind of thing in spite of what they're told), but what is important is the response.  The little girl wanted to change her thermos; essentially hiding her individuality, although at 6 years old she's just trying to avoid teasing.  I think her mom's response is spot on and it's why I'm pleased that so many writers responded to the NYT review's defaming and wrong characterization of women who read and watch fantasy.

As I think more and more about what I want my child to know, it comes down to this: the point isn't that teasing and bullying and narrow-minded people are facts of life.  Knowing that it's important to stand up for yourself every day is the lesson.  You can't appreciate the wonderful diversity of life if you don't promote it in yourself.  I hope my children grow up knowing that individuality should be approached with interest and wonder, both in themselves and others.

17 April 2011

Tea and Penguins

After my last huge post, here's some fun:

  • Penguin Tickling!  Yes, you read that right.  This 22 second video is much more hilarious than it should be.  Mild warning: this made my dog sit up and look for the noise, so if your animal(s) is irritated by weird noises, well, be prepared.
  • English Tea History.  I found this in my quest to decide on a Jane Austen menu for book club.  It's a great site for all things Jane Austen or Regency, but that particular page gives a great, accurate history of tea drinking.  I was surprised to find some particulars on the how tea was served during the Regency/Georgian era versus Victorian and Edwardian eras.
  • American & English tea history.  This website is harder to read, but worthwhile if you're interested in the differences between early tea service, tea as a separate event, and tea in America.
After all this talk about tea and penguins, I sort of want to pull out a copy of Mr. Popper's Penguins to read.

And best of all, my dad is now a published author!  His book, Spann's Guide to Gibson: 1902 to 1941, is available for pre-order through Amazon and other major distributors.  My father is a historian, genealogist, and musician, so the information in this book is a showcase of both his talents and his interests.  How cool is that!?

13 April 2011

Debt Free Month! Or not...

Note: This is the story of why April 2011 is no longer our debt payoff month.  It's a bit long, but I tried to make it flow for easy reading.  I hope you get something worthwhile out of it... please feel free to comment on your own experience!

About 3 years or so ago, we got serious about getting rid of our debt.  At that time, we had some substantial credit card debt (thanks to financial classes that were not a timely investment) and a lot of student loan debt (thanks to a private college that kept hiking rates).  We did have a financial game plan before we got married, something that I highly recommend for committed couples of all types, and we paid everything on time with extra when we could afford it.  But it becomes very easy to slip off the debt payoff wagon when things don't go quite like you expect.  For instance, it took a lot longer than we had planned for me to start my first career job.  We also discovered that there are some peripheral expenses to being a military officer (and really, just having a career... lunches out, anyone?) that we hadn't accounted for.

So, when I did get that job in April 2007, we recommitted to paying off our debt faster.  Much faster.  Because I have graduate loans, some of our debt had a 20 year payoff period.  Crazy!  I did not want to be one of those parents who writes the last check for their own student debt just to turn around the next month and start paying tuition for my own kids!  We crunched the numbers and decided that we could live off my husband's income for bills and groceries and in turn use ALL of my paycheck towards debt payoff.  As an engineer, I brought in just over half our take home pay, despite also taking a bigger tax hit.  By moving from a retail job at $10.75/hr to a career position, I had effectively doubled our total income.

This system was tough at times, but it had a huge effect.  Both of us kept lunches out to twice a month.  Dinners out were also twice a month and we tried to do one as a date night and one night out with friends.  We carefully budgeted for everything, especially household items and groceries.  It was hard sometimes, especially when friends bought new cars (mine was 15 years old) or went out to dinner constantly; but seeing those numbers go down was worth it!  At some point in our debt payoff scheme, I calculated how long it would be till we had canceled out all of our credit card and student loan debt.  The answer?  Fall of 2010!  Much better than December 2026!

Fast forward 18 months, to August 2009.  My husband got orders to PCS, which is military-speak for "relocate your life".  We only got about 8 weeks' notice, so we immediately changed our plan; no extra moving debt for us!  We kept paying debt minimums (of course), but everything else went into a savings account, just in case.  Moving is expensive, even when it's reimbursed, and it means finding a new job for me; there are no guarantees.

After lots of moving fun (read: annoyances), I wound up unpacking the house about three months later (the military is also fond of sending people to training, heedless of timing).  We planned for me to be out of work for about 9 months.  At the time, most people in my industry who were looking found new jobs in about 6 months, but they could go anywhere.  I recalculated that debt payoff date using our new lower cost of living (city to small town move): if I had a comparable job/income by July of 2010, we would be debt free by April 2011.  Still awesome!

You probably know, or can guess, most of the rest of the story.  The economy is still down; the local economy is non-existent for highly-skilled/educated jobs.  Our experience living on one income has been a lifesaver; my husband has been promoted and gotten the commensurate raises since then, meaning that his income now roughly equals our starting income from four years ago: his career plus my retail job.  We can and do live on one income comfortably, but April 2011 is no longer our debt payoff month and it's hard to say what it is now.

Some good things we did:
  • Savings build up.  We rarely touched this, but it has given us tremendous peace of mind and stopped us from running up credit card bills (if we're not willing to sacrifice savings for something, why would we pay interest for it?).  We recently reduced the disproportionate amount we had to pay off a couple of low balance, high payment loans, which has been great for our cash flow while still leaving us plenty for emergencies.
  • Early debt payoff.  The credit cards and loans that were paid off before we moved (plus the two paid off since then) meant that our minimum payments were much lower.  Our original minimum payments would leave no wiggle room on a single income, so this has made a huge difference.  We are also continuing extra debt payments, albeit at a slower pace.
  • Rented out our property.  It doesn't cover the mortgage, but the extra money that this brings in is being split between debt payoff and a baby fund that will likely purchase our next (family-sized) vehicle.  This income is only guaranteed for the length of the lease, however, so we don't count on it past a certain point.
  • Living on one income.  This move would have been an insane adjustment with no prior experience; instead, it was just a question of juggling some numbers.  I cannot overemphasize how little stress this has caused us and how horrible it could have been.
Now you know the story of my not-quite-debt-payoff month.  What about you... have you set financial goals that you've needed to re-evaluate?  What steps have you taken that turned out to be great in the long run?

06 April 2011

Random Findings

My post about our former debt free month is coming soon, but I ran across a few unrelated links today that I want to share before I forget:

  • First, the most important one: Preeclampsia Fundraiser.  My sister works for the Preeclampsia Foundation in Florida and every year they host a promise walk, just like those cancer walks we've all been on.  Pre-eclampsia is basically a condition during pregnancy where a woman's blood pressure rises to levels dangerous for both her and the fetus.  Although there are some known risk factors, it can develop with absolutely no warning.  Even with modern medicine pre-eclampsia is dangerous (sometimes fatal) to both parties and generally leads to early labor induction (with all of early induction's risks) when it is caught.  Besides labor induction, there is currently no treatment or prophylactic available.  The participants try to raise some donations themselves, so if you could help out with even $15, you would be doing a great thing!  
  • Second, a fun link: Suvudu's Final Cage Match of 2011.  Alright, so this is for sci-fi and fantasy geeks like me, but here's the scoop anyway: Suvudu runs a cage match of dozens of sf/f characters from different series each spring.  Each match also features a write-up of how the judges think it will go, but the winner is determined by an online voting poll.  The tournament is single elimination and eventually results in a final showdown: this year, Quick Ben from Steven Erikson's Malazan series is pitted up against a favorite character of mine: Vin from Brandon Sanderson's awesome Mistborn series.  You (yes, you!) can go vote for who you think would win in a fight between them; no registration is needed and you can only vote once, so no annoying reminders from me either.  And if you like me at all, you'll vote for Vin!  ;-)
  • Lastly, an everyday life link: Thoughts on Tipping.  I think that pretty much sums up what I think on the subject (especially about auto-gratuities).  I will add two thoughts: one, a party of 6 is not a "group", even though I've observed more restaurants lowering this number.  It would be more effective to have a policy of "8 adults" or "more than two checks".  Two, when out with a large party, we let a waiter or manager know (before ordering) that tips will be higher if they are not automatically included; otherwise, they will get the 18% only or (if the tab includes the "suggested" tip and we can adjust down), 18% will be the maximum they get for great service.  This has worked the majority of the time, both to get rid of the "auto-tip" and getting us wonderful service.
Alright, off to do some quick homework and my beginning of the month financial update.  Then tutoring, class, a volleyball game, and hopefully back here to write that debt payoff month post.