Archive for May, 2010

I am a Jedi Master of Professional Writing

Posted in About Me with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2010 by Jessica Lada

The fifteenth of May, 2010, I graduated with a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Oklahoma.  The next day I took off in an 18-wheeler with my fiancé and was pretty much off the grid without internet.  I’ll try to fill the gap, starting with commencement itself.

My mom, dad, fiance, and brother in front of the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

I’m not one to preen in the mirror and obsess over outfits, but it took me a good hour the night before commencement to choose what to wear.  Not because I needed to find the perfect little dress to wear under my gown (like anyone can see what you’re wearing anyway) but because I had to find a way to hide my lightsaber.

Yeah, that’s right.   Lightsaber.

The week before commencement, one of my friends pulled me aside at a party and said, “Dude, have you heard about the flash mob at graduation?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Well… you should go buy a lightsaber.”

“Oh hell yes.”

Toys R Us had two pretty awesome ones.  One was a foot long, a couple inches across, and spring loaded.  The other was two feet long, not spring loaded, smaller around, lighter, and had better sound effects.  Naturally I bought one of each.  What’s the point of having a lightsaber if there’s no one to do battle with?

In the days preceding commencement, we all schemed and plotted and laughed and then eventually people started to chicken out.  I saw the flash mob dwindling around me and I thought about backing out too.  I’m shy by nature.  I don’t like people looking at me and I don’t like feeling stupid and embarrassed.  While normal people have nightmares of showing up to school naked, I was now having nightmares of being the only person to jump up and whip out a lightsaber during graduation.  I texted my friend and fellow writer, Marisa.  It went like this:

ME: Hmm… so I dunno if I’m going to do the lightsaber mob now since so many people are backing out.

MARISA: I know. I’m worried. But I’m going to bring it, I think, and see if anything happens.  Ben is still in.

ME: Okay, so at least there would be three of us together…

MARISA: Like the three musketeers of bad ideas…

ME: EXACTLY like that.

MARISA: Let’s make shirts!

ME: With stick figures.

MARISA: And light sabers.

ME: Drawn by that xkcd.com guy.

MARISA:  Baller.

I almost backed out again, right before leaving for the ceremony.  I am such a wuss.  I sighed and paced around and then my brother, ever helpful, offered advice.  “Remember,” he said. “Do or do not. There is no try.”

That did it.  There’s nothing like a Star Wars quote to encourage mayhem.

I chose the lighter saber without the spring loaded action as my weapon of choice the day of commencement.  That brings me back to how on earth you hide the lightsaber under the robe.  My friend Ben had it easy because, of course, he’s a dude.  The saber just went in his pocket, no problem.

Marisa took another tactic.  Her lightsaber was el cheapo and tiny, so she stuck it in the “pocket” (the little dangley bit that hangs off each sleeve of a Masters gown) of her sleeve.  When professors and other students asked what the heck was weighing down her sleeve she deadpanned, “Oh, that’s my Sprite bottle full of vodka.”  Everyone laughed.  I’m disappointed she didn’t just say, “Oh, that’s my Lightsaber.” It would have gotten the same reaction.

The Three Musketeers of Bad Ideas: Ben, Jessica, and Marisa.

My solution was to wear a super-tight, skinny belt and tuck the saber inside it, strapped to my hip and tucked under my arm.  It was less comfortable than I had hoped, but it worked.  I carried my Master hood and hat to block the slight bulge until we lined up to process into the ceremony.  As we filed out of the holding area someone shouted, “Robes open!”  And that’s when I saw the hoard of security officers.

I turned to Marisa, panicking.  “Crap, crap, crap!”

“You’re cool, dude. You’re cool.  Just keep walking.”

Profanities and fear ran through my inner monologue and I unzipped my robe and held the right side open.  I held the other side tight over the lightsaber and folded back just the edge.  I prayed the guards would notice my awesome boots or just about anything else but the weapon.

I made it safely past security without being searched, reprimanded, or passing out, and then we got to our seats.  There we were, the triumvirate, sitting in the very front row, directly in front of the podium. The Dean made his welcomes and thanks and then told everyone that the entire ceremony was streaming LIVE online and would be archived for posterity.

Hell.

People spoke at length and after 45 minutes of me flipping out silently the outstanding senior got up to give her speech, which turned into a blur of noise in my head.  But then she said, “For pretty much any event, you can find a Star Wars metaphor.”

My heart started trying to fight its way out of my chest from the inside.  I was shaking.  I slid my saber onto my lap under the robe and clutched it for dear life.  Onstage, the girl started talking about Luke Skywalker and how when he was our age he joined a rebellion.  I looked left at Marisa and right at Ben.  We were all in—sink or float.

“Take a chance. Take a risk.  Now is that time in your life to take that chance and try something crazy.”  Here I am about to get a Masters degree with a lightsaber under my gown.  I think that counts.

She concluded and said “May the Force be with you.”

Applause.

Wait, wait, wait…

And then from an iPhone a few rows back I hear John Williams’s iconic and triumphant fanfare that opens the Star Wars theme.  I whipped out my saber with a flick of my wrist and it gave a proud hum and I battled.

This is the photo and headline the school chose for their link to the archived commencement video. http://www.ou.edu/gaylord

The crowd applauded, we sat down again, and I could breathe again.  We walked across the stage and got our hoods and diploma covers and then we talked, heckled, and texted as the rest of the graduates did their thing.  We were Masters.  Jedi Masters.

After the ceremony I met my proud parents, gave them big hugs, took lots of photos, and introduced my family to my friends and professors.  Someone asked, “Are you all going over to the journalism building for the reception?”

“Oh, heck no,” I said.  “We’re going to see Iron Man 2.”

____________________________________

To witness the epic battle, jump about 47 minutes in: http://gaylord.ou.edu/convocation/

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Okay, here’s a slightly longer tornado story…

Posted in Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on May 11, 2010 by Jessica Lada

Yesterday, May 10th, 2010, the storms were developing so quickly, there often wasn’t much warning about where the tornados would pop up.  Usually when you look at a radar of thunderstorms, there are lots of storms and only a few rotations. This was different.  Every spot that popped up on the radar had MULTIPLE rotations.  It was crazy.  So when they said “storm heading toward Norman,” I wasn’t paying much attention.  The weather men warned about a storm heading toward Norman, but they indicated one between Norman and Moore also.  I didn’t realize they were separate rotations.  It was hard to keep track.

I also blew off the warning because nothing ever hits Norman.  Seriously.  There’s ancient Indian protection from bad weather, the tornados are scared of Barry Switzer, we’re on top of a hill that diverts tornados around us, and the National Weather Center is here, so that means we’ll never have any interesting weather ever.  (If you aren’t from Norman, Oklahoma, you probably think I’m kidding.  I’m not.  I’ve actually heard each of those things as explanations for why we don’t get severe weather here.)

Gale-force winds hit my house suddenly, buffeting the trees in my yard.  We’re the first line of houses in this area, so we got the wind before it was turned into full-fledged tornado.  You might think I would have taken cover or rushed to the window to see what was going on.  Instead, I decided it might be a good time to put on some shoes and real pants in case it actually turned into an emergency.  Not that I have a storm shelter anyway.  The lights flickered and the power went out.

The wind passed quickly (because all of the storms were moving fast today) and my favorite mocking bird, Pat, returned to the yard looking for food.  I figured Pat wouldn’t be out flying around if severe weather was still headed my way.  My brother and I decided to head to a local bar so we could keep an eye on the radar and grab some dinner.  When we left the house we realized things were a lot worse off than they were at our house.  HW-9 was barricaded and a phone pole was broken and leaning over.  Police were diverting all the cars and detouring them off the highway.

One of many power poles broken near Classen and HW-9 in Norman, OK.

When we arrived at the bar and started watching helicopter footage of the tornado damage.  It wasn’t until they mentioned an intersection a mile from our house that we realized the destruction was caused by the same wind we’d experienced, only since then it had turned into an actual funnel.  It was surreal to see landmarks we recognized blown over.  We had no idea until we saw it on the news, and it was within spitting distance of our house.

Sometimes the big tornadoes touch down in areas where there’s nothing but trees and fields and we don’t notice them.  Sometimes the little tornadoes touch down in the middle of towns and neighborhoods and families.  This is the closest I’ve ever been to a tornado, and I’m incredibly glad it wasn’t bigger or closer than it was.  My power’s back on, but there is massive cleanup going on still.

TORNADO APOCALYPSE 2010!

Posted in Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2010 by Jessica Lada

Today has been a very interesting day to live in Oklahoma.  It’ s a strange thing to look at the radar and see 1/3 of the state covered in tornado warnings.  Not tornado watches–tornado WARNINGS.

A tornado touched down about a quarter of a mile from my house and flattened fences, houses, and telephone poles.  I could tell a long, drawn-out, exciting story about it…but I’ve already told the story several times.   Everyone wants to know if I’m okay.  YES, I’M OKAY.  Our house is fine and we are fine, but we have no power.  OG&E is saying it may take several days to get power back up and after seeing footage of the demolished power poles and towers, I’m not surprised.  We had 100 mph straight-line winds, but we were the lucky ones.  The tornado grew after it buzzed our house.  It leveled brick homes, smashed sheds, and blew vehicles off HW-9.

A Love’s truck stop in Choctaw was basically leveled.

This photo was posted on KFOR.com earlier with the caption "Choctaw Loves tornado damage." No I'm not kidding.

A puny tornado isn't enough to stop a determined cashier from doing her job. Photo posted on KFOR.com

All this during “TORNADO WEEK” as every news station in Oklahoma takes the time to simultaneously remember the May 3rd, 1999 tornado that wiped out most of Moore, OK and also scare the crap out of viewers by showing out of context tornado warnings.  But today the hook echoes were real and so was the damage.  Here’s hoping everyone out there is safe tonight.

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2010 by Jessica Lada

–Originally posted at blogcritics.org


Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy is filled with gripping plot hooks, inventive and compelling characters, and intriguing conflicts.  The main characters, Stephanie and Skulduggery, make a captivating and often hilarious team.  I was itching for a sequel long before I got to the end of the book.


In modern-day Ireland, Stephanie Edgley’s uncle Gordon has just died.  At the reading of the will, twelve-year-old Stephanie is surprised to inherit nearly the entire estate.  She’s even more surprised to meet a witty detective named Skulduggery Pleasant, who also happens to be a sorcerer and a skeleton.  After surviving a few attempts on her life, Stephanie joins Skulduggery in a quest to solve her uncle’s murder.

Each character has such a unique voice and personality that attribution isn’t even necessary during dialog exchanges.  Stephanie and Skulduggery have a quick and witty rapport and complimenting personalities.  Even uncle Gordon, who is dead from the very first line of the book, has a unique personality.  Through only third party recollections and the words of his last will and testament, Gordon is the coolest uncle ever.

The only flaw I encountered in the novel was the climax of the story.  Stephanie drives the action through the entire story but when we get to the climax, she turns passive and winds up getting rescued.  The protagonist of a story should never be a bystander during the climax, but at that point I was so hooked by the story I didn’t care.  A swat team led by Bruce Willis and Wesley Snipes could have busted through the wall and I probably would have bought it.  Landy answered the story question and wrapped up the current plotline nicely, but left plenty of enticing potential for future stories.  I’m not going to get tired of these characters anytime soon.

Skulduggery Pleasant is a book for anyone who has ever walked through the winding, twisting house of a relative and imagined hidden passages tucked around the corners.  Landy seamlessly weaves magic into the modern world to create a setting and tone that’s a little bit like the Dresden Files for kids.   So far there are four books available in the series, the fifth is slated for September 2010, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was a movie soon.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2010 by Jessica Lada

Originally posted at blogcritics.org

The Giver by Lois Lowry was assigned to every other English class in high school except for mine, so it seems, and I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it.  I knew the author’s name and read her Newberry Medal winning novel, Number the Stars many years ago.  I expected a poignant and provocative story, but I was surprised by the intricacies of the story world she created in The Giver.

Also a Newberry Medal winning novel, The Giver introduces the viewers to a seemingly utopian society through the eyes of twelve-year-old Jonas.  Things are orderly and simple.  Each person has a distinct place in society and clear-cut duties.  The rules are simple and everyone obeys.  But Jonas unfolds the community before our eyes, the vision becomes flatter, starker, and dystopian.  When Jonas turns twelve, he gets his assignment.   He is to become the Receiver of Memory.  We learn that all memories of anything OTHER or ELSE belongs solely to the Receiver of Memory.  Now the former Receiver becomes The Giver and starts handing over memories to Jonas, one by one.  Jonas learns of snow and sun and love.  It’s a little bit of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” with “The Matrix” thrown in for good measure.

Lowry paints the outlines of this world by describing the structure, how things work.  But that is only the first half.  Then she fills it in not by showing what is there, but what is not.  The community is vivid in its emptiness, in its lack of things.  And by doing so Lowry points out the most important parts of humanity.  She shows us the things that make life truly meaningful and enjoyable, but she doesn’t beat us over the head with it.

Lowry could have taken the ideas and pushed each to the extreme, beating the readers over the head with her point, but instead she took a much gentler approach.  This isn’t like the third installment of “The Matrix” when Neo gets blinded and dies and you can almost hear the Wachowskis shouting, “Get it?  Because he’s Jesus!” in the background.    I know.  I want to forget that movie too.  But remember “The Matrix”, the original that was so full of nuance and delicious ambiguity?  This is more like that, but without the black leather, dark sunglasses, or the best shot of a helicopter flying into a building ever.   Lowry presents her ideas in a clear and understated way and then steps back and lets them sink in.  This isn’t shock and awe, but the point definitely comes through.  A lesser author could easily have taken the idea to a place of disdainful finger-wagging.  I find myself wishing the ending had been clearer, but that would have destroyed some of the nuance I was just lauding.

The story isn’t full of action or drama, but it doesn’t need it.  It’s a coming of age story that doesn’t just deal with a boy learning who he is, but learning what it means to be human.  For science fiction and fantasy lovers alike, the story world here is nothing to scoff at.  Among fictional visions of the future, The Giver doesn’t usually stand alongside Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, but perhaps it should.  In its own quiet way, The Giver makes a potent statement about the world and all our human flaws and strengths.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2010 by Jessica Lada

–originally posted at Blogcritics.org

Despite a twelve-year-old protagonist and utilization of many fairy tales, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly should not be mistaken as a children’s novel.  It’s sort of a coming of age story, but from the angle of an adult looking back at lost innocence rather than the angle of a child looking forward to gained independence and strength.

Set in England at the beginning of World War II, the twelve year old protagonist David has just lost his mother.  His father soon remarries and gives David a half-brother.  David sees these new additions as interlopers and he turns to the stories on his shelves for solace.  The books whisper to him and he occasionally blacks out.  Eventually, he retreats into the world of the stories and his imagination.  For much of the book it isn’t clear whether these happenings are real or imagined.

It’s strange to read about a hero who is so internalized.  David’s path is often dictated by those around him rather than his own actions, and he more often stifles his thoughts than expresses them.  The book can’t quite decide what kind of a book it wants to be—whether it is an internal, psychological, literary sort of novel; or whether it is an action-filled, myth-bending, children’s fantasy novel.  In the end it’s both and neither.   Perhaps Connolly did too good of a job conveying David’s confusion about his state of mind and passed that confusion onto the readers.

Many parts of this novel are brilliant.  The twist of the communist dwarves was unexpected and amusing, but I wish it had integrated better into the story as a whole.  As it was, the tone stood out from the rest of the book.  It was a Tom Bombadil sort of interlude—entertaining, but not absolutely necessary–with tinges of Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegle and Monty Python’s repressed Dennis.  Connolly did a nice job of putting new twists on old fairy tales and lore.  The more liberties he took with the legends, the more successful he was.  The thing that disappointed me most was that the father’s profession didn’t tie into the rest of the story at all.  But maybe it’s just my interest in that part of history shining through.

The Book of Lost Things wasn’t what I expected when I picked it up, but I enjoyed the surprises.  It breaks the rule that the main character of a novel dictates the age of the readers, and rightfully so.  Anyone who enjoyed the films “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Brothers Grimm” would enjoy this book.  If Connolly can make fairy tales this creepy, I can’t wait to read some of his thrillers.  But I have to say, I’ll never look at Red Riding Hood the same way again.

Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2010 by Jessica Lada

I had a copy of Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett on my shelf a long time and kept putting off reading it.  I didn’t have a good reason for avoiding it except that the cover says “Terry Pratchett” but has a space ship rather than an ogre or a wizard or Death on it.  Now I can safely say this book is a perfect reason why authors shouldn’t be pigeon-holed.  Pratchett doesn’t just write satirical fantasy for adults featuring bumbling wizards and trolls whose knuckles make bink-bink noises.    He also writes children’s books about video games and aliens, and he pulls it off splendidly.

Set in England during the Gulf War of the early ‘90s, when video games still looked more like games than real life, Johnny Maxwell has a lot on his plate.  His parents might be splitting up, there’s a war on, and most importantly he’s trying to beat a game called “Only You Can Save Mankind.”  But when he’s about to blast the alien spaceship, the aliens surrender to him.  And when Johnny falls asleep at night, he wakes up in the game.  When he dies in the game, he just comes back again.  But the dreams make him wonder, what happens when the aliens die in the game?   This book is only part one of the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy.

The story caught my attention immediately; it reminded me of “The Last Starfighter” in a good way.  Johnny’s playing the sort of game I remember from when I was a kid.  I’d play for hours on end and I can’t count the times I continued playing even in my dreams.  Johnny makes a compelling and likeable hero, despite his nerdiness.  As a trademark, Pratchett packs a punch even with the secondary characters.  This book is no exception and David’s friends add surprising depth and realism to the story.  I think I remember these kids from middle school.

I read the entire novel in one sitting and wished I had the remaining two books of the trilogy.  I also had an itch to dig out my Commodore 64 and play some old-school video games.  (And I kinda wish “Only You Can Save Mankind” was a real game.)  This novel reminded me how great Pratchett is at creating distinct and vivid characters in a very efficient way.  He isn’t just fantastically funny; he also tells really well-crafted stories that poke at your emotions and vices in just the right way.   No matter your age, if you like humor, video games, aliens, or geeky characters, you’ll love Only You Can Save Mankind.

–originally published on Blogcritics.org