30 Mar

In Which Time Travel Is the Hip, New Thing

Book Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (translated by Nick Caistor)

Cover for The Map of Time

Cover for The Map of Time

The Map of Time weaves together the stories of three 19th century London characters: a wealthy young man who loves a common prostitute, a woman who is certain she cannot enjoy life in the present, and a science fiction writer who becomes embroiled in a number of schemes. You see this? I’m practicing my gripping introductions.

I have this problem with novels in which I can never muster up the enthusiasm to write about the novels I think I’m going to write about. Then there are other novels which I have no intention of discussing that I am compelled to write about. The latter scenario is what happened with The Map of Time (and the former with The Golem and the Jinni, which I finished a week or two ago and have been contemplating since). I read The Map of Time without making a point of thinking deep thoughts about it; rather I allowed the florid Victorian prose to bear me along in its current.

For the first two sections of the novel, I was not enthralled. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Palma’s work, but neither was I especially focused on reading it—I had to renew my loan for it twice (the library is your friend, people) although that is partly because it is a pretty long book. But once I made it to the book’s third and final part, the story came together and things became significantly more interesting. The promised map of time was revealed. Time travel conventions were explored. Threads of the story were connected. Indeed, it was art.

One of the things that impressed me about The Map of Time is that Palma clearly has a strong knowledge of early science fiction and the late 19th century—the novel’s setting. One of the novel’s protagonists is, in fact, H.G. Wells himself (I don’t know if any of you watch Warehouse 13, but I always want to picture Wells as a woman now, thanks to the show’s influence. Helena!). It takes skill, and a certain amount of chutzpah, to write a real person into the story. I am no Wells aficionada, but it seemed accurate (if we are to believe Wikipedia) and I felt it was well done.

H.G. Wells writing

H. G. Wells, keeping it real

This is one of those stories that is really about writers being writerly. Wells is brought into time travel schemes—hoaxes really, but for the best of causes. In both, Wells’ supplicants are seeking closure for issues in their lives. And since time travel is in the cultural zeitgeist, they believe traveling through time can really solve their problems. Why would normal people believe in time travel? In the parallel universe of the story, a man name Gilliam Murphy has opened a time travel experience in which a form of performance art is staged to make people believe they have traveled through time. Coupled with the recent popularity of Well’s The Time Machine, people begin to think that, well, anything is possible. In any case, Wells resolves his problems through, of course, writing and story telling. One involves creating a believable story for a heartsick young man. Another involves an epistolary tale told between lovers. Finally, Wells gets his due as a main character in the last section. Letters are again involved. Wells also gets the opportunity to be the subject matter expert on time travel. I think writers love nothing more than the fantasy of writing saving lives and solving problems.

I also enjoyed the way the rules of time travel were applied in the story. In the first two sections of the story, it seems like time travel is probably just a scam. No one actually time travels, but scenarios are crafted such that a number of people believe that time travel is happening. The reader gets to be in on the secret. However, in the final episode, there really is time travel, but after a novel full of fakeries, the reader hardly wants to believe it. In the end, there is some good discussion of parallel universes and such like. I quite liked where the story ended up.

The last thing I want to comment on is the quality of the translation. The Map of Time was originally written in Spanish and was later translated to English. I obviously cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation, since I have not read the Spanish edition, but the spirit of the work is amazing. I am impressed at how well the translation captures the feel of the story’s period. I can only imagine what reading this in Spanish would feel like (that’s not true, I could go find the book and then I wouldn’t have to imagine. Dear reader, you know what I mean).

Okay, I am going to keep this review a little shorter than usual, but I do recommend this book if you like things like steampunk, alternate history, the rules and conventions of time travel, or just well-researched fiction.

What to read next:

  • The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma is the sequel to The Map of Time. It is apparently centered on Well’s The War of the Worlds in the way that The Map of Time is based around The Time Machine.
  • H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life by Michael Sherborne is a biography of Wells. Reading The Map of Time, I realized I did not know that much about Wells’ life.
  • Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer is an anthology of steampunk-themed stories. If you like the setting of The Map of Time and have realized that you want more steampunk in your life, this short story collection should get you going.
26 Mar

A Special Request and a Long Rant

On behalf of job-seekers everywhere, I would like to make a request. If someone you know is looking for work and describing to you the ongoing struggle involved in doing so, if you immediately have an idea, if you just know it would really help this person’s life …

DON’T SAY IT.

Yes, don’t say it. Close your mouth. Listen. Think. I hear you thinking, “but my idea is so good! I just want to help.” We know. I know you just want to help, but here is the situation. There are a lot of people in my demographic who are in the trenches, so to speak, as I am. This is what I am going through, what I have gone through, and what I suppose, I will continue to go through (I know I am presumptuously making this request for job-seekers everywhere, but I will illustrate with my own life).

I quit teaching last February. I threw myself into the unwelcoming embrace of the economy. I started looking for work immediately. I applied for jobs in librarianship, in writing, in California’s state bureaucracy, in anything that looked remotely promising. I put out at least 500 applications, I estimate, in a six-month period. During this time, I finished my masters degree (I graduated last May) and I worked as a freelance writer, which ended up being a lot of effort for not a lot of money. I did some phone interviews here and there for writing jobs in Seattle. I went on probably a dozen interviews for state jobs. Inevitably, no one called back.

In July, I was offered an “intermittent” position in one of the many offices that comprise the State of California. Intermittent jobs are essentially part-time. You can work 1,500 over the course of the fiscal year (July to June). For comparison, the state defines a full-time “year” of work at 1,920 hours. I didn’t want to take the job. I took it anyway because trying to hustle up writing clients was more exhausting that I had expected, no fairy godmother of librarianship had appeared to me to turn me into a real librarian, and the due date for my student loans was looming.

Hermes Conrad, bureaucrat in

It’s bureaucracy time.

I started working for the State. I didn’t (and still don’t) have health insurance because when you’re intermittent, you don’t qualify for insurance until you work a certain number of hours (I could qualify now but I have been informed that it is “hella expensive.”). I eased up somewhat on the job applications. This was partly due to exhaustion and partly due to a prospect. I had been invited to interview at the University of Virginia Library for an excellent librarian position. I spent time preparing myself for the interview and presentation. I was somewhat optimistic.

Predictably, I did not get the UVa job. I spent a month being reluctant to apply for things and make a real effort, but soon after I traveled to Seattle to interview for the librarian pool at the Seattle Public Library. I was accepted. I have since received approximately two notifications of open jobs. I have not been asked to interview for either. Sometime amid all this I also interviewed at the California State Library. Within a week, I received a letter saying I didn’t get the job. As is common in state service, I suspect they already knew who they intended to hire.

Since I am creating a litany of job-market lamentations, I suppose it is only fair to include the one about New Mexico. I did a phone interview for a position at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. They called my references and decided they wanted to interview me in person. Only when my librarian mentor, Kathleen, told me that it was a paraprofessional position did I realize why I was seen as such a good candidate—and also why the pay was so low. I declined a second interview.

At this point, I re-evaluated my application carpet bombing strategy. I realized that I could not afford to take a job that paid less than $40,000 (or more than that, depending on the location). I also realized that I did not want to move somewhere that I would want to leave immediately because one day I would like to stop living like a gypsy, make friends where I live, and buy a house (in any order). I narrowed my parameters for job searching. While I limited my scope geographically, I expanded it in terms of work type.

By December, I realized that I had about a year of freelance writing experience. This, I reasoned, could help me get a full-time writing job. Despite numerous applications, I don’t have a writing job beyond the ongoing part-time gigs I already had. I nearly got a junior technical writer position in Seattle, which is exactly what I want if I can’t get a library job, but it fell through when I told the recruiter I would need a week or two to move. He said that they needed someone sooner. I revised my stance and told him I could move immediately, but a week later, I found out that they had hired someone else. How dare I not be available to start a contract position with three-day’s notice! It is really my own fault I don’t have a proper career.

Since then? I continue to apply. Every weekend I send out at least five applications, but some weeks it can be as many as 20, depending on what’s available. I have about eight active job alerts from ineed.com and myriad alerts from other services that occasionally surface in my inbox. I check LinkedIn weekly. I browse INALJ (I Need a Library Job) and the ALA JobList, plus several library job-related Twitter feeds. I now have my resume listed on Mensa’s job board, for what that’s worth. I check certain organizations to find out, specifically, if they are hiring. I browse through a list of every librarian job in the country that has been posted in the last week. And I do this EVERY WEEK. It is exhausting. It is like running a marathon except instead of being done after 26 miles, you will be done when you reach some as yet undetermined distance. You don’t know what it is. You get tired and want to quit, but then you remember that the end could be just another mile away and you wouldn’t want to have stopped when you were so close. So you keep running.

But the final indignity, the last straw, the gust of wind that tipped me over the edge this week was back here at my stupid state job. I treat state work as a tertiary career plan. If all else false, my father reassures me, I can move up in state service (because it is full of complete idiots, he tells me). In February, I interviewed for a position that was in the next classification up from my current one (the state takes is classifications very seriously) and in the office where I work. It turned out that I was not yet qualified for this particular bureaucrat level, which was irritating, but something I could live with. Finding this out also brought forward the information that my experience doesn’t actually count as much as I think it does. One way to move up is to accrue a year of experience in my current class. Well, a year for me at my limit of 1,500 is only about 78% of a real year as the State counts it. Again, could have lived with this information, even though I was seething that no one felt the need to me. The hiring manager for this position told me I could have a different full time job, within my current class. They wouldn’t even need to interview me. This seemed like an appropriate consolation prize. It didn’t come out until this week that they were actually scheduling interviews for this position and that they “unintentionally mislead” me regarding my path to full-time, health insured bliss. I am scheduled to interview, but apparently there are some very competitive candidates, which I understand to mean “We like these other people more.” Even that would have been fine, had my administration had the emotional maturity to let me know this could be a problem in the first place. I can’t tell if they are being malicious or incompetent, but I am at a point where tolerating either is just too much to bear.

the California State Library building

California State Library, a magical place that provides jobs to all the worthy, newly-minted librarians

So, when I say that I am frustrated with the job market and that I just want to be a librarian or maybe a writer. When I say that I am a bit cynical, having a rough go, exhausted, or somewhat depressed and people respond with comments like:

“Have you tried the state library?”

“Have you looked at any of the UCs?”

“Is the Sacramento Public Library hiring?”

“What about volunteering?”

“Why don’t you talk to some people in the field?”

“Did you look online?”

I have a strong urge to kick the shit out of them, no matter how nice they are trying to be. What you don’t understand if you haven’t tried to get a job lately is that it is god-damned near impossible. I have done everything “right.” I have experience in more than one field (teaching, writing, and now … bureaucracy?), I have two bachelors degrees, a teaching credential, a masters degree, I have published academic work, I go to professional development, I participate in library organizations, I prepare thoroughly before interviews if I am lucky enough to get one, I have an active social media presence that promotes me as a person of note in my field, I apply for SO MANY JOBS.

So, when people try to “help” by offering the first idiotic thought that occurs to them, it is, to be blunt, fucking insulting. For the last year, getting a job has been my job. I have applied for things that I never would have imagined I would apply for. I have interviewed. I have networked. I am exhausted with my life. I would never have thought it would be so difficult. If I had a time machine, I would tell my 18-year-old self to get an associates degree, get a full-time job and get my education while I work because I would probably be better off right now.

Next time one of your friends or loved ones is telling you about their job search-related suffering, stop yourself. Choose your words carefully. Please don’t offer advice. Listen to what we have to say. Commiserate with us. Tell us that you support us and ask if there is any way you can help. Offer to take us out for frozen yogurt. But for the love of whatever god you subscribe to, don’t fucking make suggestions.

 

06 Mar

On Fluency: Spanish, BYU, and All the Words

My first Spanish class in college was during the fall. It was my second year at Brigham Young University (a year which was unexpectedly abbreviated due to having my “ecclesiastical endorsement” revoked for lack appropriate levels of Mormonality). I had taken some placement test that seemed remarkably easy, but it turned out that without taking a much more intense test, the best I could place was in the high-intermediate class. I had taken three years of Spanish in high school, but decided to roll with it.

At this time in my stint at BYU I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore, but I was telling people I was “taking time off” to evaluate my positions. Participation in Mormonism is not measured on a spectrum, but uses a binary. You are Mormon or not. Something is of God or of Satan. So, things were not going that well in terms of interpersonal relations. The problem with being halfway out of Mormonism at BYU is that there are so many ultra-Mormon things happening that everything begins to grate.

And so it was that I was in this Spanish class. It was, naturally, taught by a returned missionary and one of the requirements for the class was to get a hymn book in Spanish. I seem to recall buying a tiny one. It probably matched my scripture set. In BYU language classes, it’s customary to pray at the top of the class in the target language (as we did in my intermediate Arabic class, much to my annoyance—Arabic is not the language of Mormon god, in my view) and sometimes there are hymns. What better way to immerse yourself than with church? It really engages the students, I’m sure.

This class had one of those people in it, as all classes do. So self-important and self-assured, she would act the expert and make claims about things like always using the subjunctive mood at the appropriate times in English. Predictably, I found myself contradicting this girl with frequency. What can I say, it was a rough time and there was little to lash out at. My anti-prescriptive grammarian nature obligated me to that I tell her that it was highly unlikely that, were she to even use the subjunctive in English, she would always apply it where prescribed. She didn’t like that.

cover of the

The offending textbook

The worst of her pronouncements, and the one that I remembered today which spurred this post, was the time we had a chapter’s worth of vocabulary about banking. I won’t defend banking vocabulary as interesting. It’s hard to make much out of terms like ‘checking account’ or ‘mortgage’, but I will defend the importance of such terminology. If you want to be fluent in a language, well, you better know how to get money to and from the bank.

So when she indolently raised her hand and asked “Why do we need to know words about banks? I mean, seriously?” I obviously could not ignore it. “Are you serious?” I called from my back-of-the-classroom perch at the very moment the thought entered my mind. With my now much-improved swearing skills I might have said “Are you fucking serious?” because that’s the level of ridiculous it was. I probably also would have rolled my eyes and mentally appended “This bitch,” but I still had a lot of catching up to do with the vulgarisms of English.

This Bitch (I wish I remembered her name, but for narrative purposes, we’ll go with the aforementioned) was stunned. She turned around to look at she who would dare issue a challenge to someone righteous enough to sit in the front row. I, probably really assholishly, said, “Do you think you won’t ever need to go to a bank?” We engaged in mutual scoffing and class continued. I think our instructor ended with a scripture about Joseph Smith’s first vision. Typical BYU.

What I like about this story (other than everyone, myself included, being a bitch) is that even though I had only just started studying linguistics, I feel like I had a pretty good attitude about fluency. In fact, my basic attitude still hasn’t changed. For me, the goal is to know as many words as possible. Duh, that’s being fluent. However, I will say that I have added some depth and contour to my opinions in the intervening eight years. Banking terminology is pretty essential if you want to be a functioning adult in a society. If you ever moved to Ecuador, you would probably have to deal with money and the bank at least once in a while. I mean, if you wanted to be able to eat and stuff.

But here’s the thing about fluency that a lot of people miss: you don’t know every word in your native language. If someone asked you to explain how the brain works, you might not have the terminology to do it, unless you’re a neuroscientist, psychologist, etc. That’s okay because you can live your life without ever having to understand your brain (if you like to live ironically). The same is true when you learn another language. You probably won’t have to discuss the intricacies generative grammar or economics. So you can be fluent and still not have all that terminology. The goal is to have a general lexicon on which you can build. As such, if you want to learn how to talk economic theory, you have the words in your brain that let you understand the definitions. You don’t have to know everything.

But banking? Every bitch is going to need to bank.