The Best Book You’ve Ever Read?

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the question, “What is the best book you’ve ever read?” Or, what are your favorite books? The books that really stick with people as favorites tend to be exceptional.

I posted a “name this novel” on Facebook:

I suppose it is because I have lived a rather restricted life myself that I have found so much enjoyment in remembering what I have learned in these last years about brave people and strange scenes. I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging and black stockriders, of Cairns and Green Island. Of a girl that I met forty years too late and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again that holds so much of my affection.

I was surprised that not one of my friends answered it.

The quote is from A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. A reviewer wrote, “Probably more people have shed tears over the last page of A Town Like Alice than about any other novel in the English language.” I do, every time.

Alice, originally published in 1950 under the title The Legacy in the United Kingdom, is a Second World War history, a romance, and an adventure novel all wrapped up in 277 pages. And don’t let the fact that it is part romance deter male readers; you will not regret picking this one up.

The story opens in the 1930s when solicitor Noel Strachan is called to rewrite the will of a client into a trust for his nephew or niece. Then we move to the post-war years, when the client has died, and Noel must track down his surviving heir. Jean Paget, anonymous short-hand typist, comes in to quite a bit of money. And what does she want to do with it? She wants to go back to the far east, to Malaysia, to build a well.

(Let me warn you now that there are some “spoilers” in what I write next, though I hardly think of them that way. The beauty of this novel is not in how it surprises you. It is in how the story turns whether you are reading it for the first time or for the tenth. But just in case, let me insert a photo so you have a chance to turn away now.)


And thus we enter the first part of the novel which is Jean’s experiences during the war years, as a prisoner of the Japanese, marched from place to place with a group of women and children. Half their number die out on the roads. Along the way, she meets an Australian prisoner, Joe Harman, a cowboy/cattle rancher, who steals to help the group of women, for which he is eventually tortured and killed.

After Jean gets to Malayasia and builds the well, she discovers that Joe has lived, grievously wounded, perhaps permanently crippled. She heads to Australia to find him.

Meanwhile, guess who shows up in Noel Strachan’s office looking for her?

The final third of the novel is the story of how Jean goes about trying to make the remote outback town where Joe lives into a suitable place for a woman to live, stay, and raise a family.

I have spent the winter writing down this story … And, having finished it, it seems to me that I have been mixed up in things far greater than I realized at the time.

The beauty of this novel is in how Shute makes it happen. He writes about ordinary people who have an extra-ordinary sense of right and wrong. They simply go forth and do the job that is in front of them to do.

If you are a fan of World War Two lore, you may, rightly, object that women prisoners were never marched from place to place in Malaysia. In the words of Nevil Shute himself:

…and this is true. It happened in Sumatra.

After the conquest of Malaya in 1942, the Japanese invaded Sumatra and quickly took the island. A party of about eighty Dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women, and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive.

In 1949 I stayed with Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Geysel-Vonck in Palembang in Sumatra. Mrs. Geysel had been a member of the party. When she was taken prisoner she was a slight, pretty girl of twenty-one, recently married; she had a baby six months old, and a very robust sense of humour. In the years that followed, Mrs. Geysel marched over twelve hundred miles carrying her baby, in circumstances similar to what I have described. She emerged from this fantastic ordeal undaunted, and with her son fit and well.

I do not think I have ever before turned to real life for an incident in one of my novels. If I have done so now it is because I have been unable to resist the appeal of this true story, and because I want to pay what tribute is within my power to the most gallant lady I have ever met.

90% of Success

Monday, first day of class, one of the points I hammered was that 90(+)% of success is showing up on time prepared for whatever activity it is that you are about to undertake.

Today I gave a quiz and maybe brought this lesson home for a few of my students.

They did know that a quiz was coming today. And they did know what it was over (had they bothered to check). And they did know (if they bothered to check) that I told them to know their section number to prepare … actually, they should have just known that. I put it on the board on Wednesday.

Question one: Write your name in the upper right hand corner. Below your name put your UIN (University Identification Number). Below the UIN put your section number. (3 points on a 10 point quiz).

Most seemed fine, a few seemed put out that I required the UIN and section number, and yes, there were a few students 10 minutes late to class when I gave a 10 minute quiz at the beginning of the day. Whoops!

“Can I come by your office later and take the quiz?”


90% of Success is Showing Up on Time and Being Prepared for Whatever Activity It Is You Are About To Undertake.

I solved the quiz problems in class immediately after giving the quiz. If you got them, you know you are right. And if you didn’t, then you hopefully learn something immediately, and in such a way as to embed the lesson on your memory.

Which is why I won’t generally give make-up quizzes. We take a quiz. We solve a quiz. I drop the lowest two in case you are absent, or have a bad day. But I don’t give make-ups.

There might be a side-benefit to the day’s lesson. A few might now be convinced that the nice lady who teaches their math class really is prepared to enforce logical consequences and will actually allow them to suffer now rather than suffer later. (We sometimes are under the impression that the nice lady is going to succumb to begging and whining. We are always disappointed and surprised when it doesn’t work that way.)

The Next Best Thing

The next best thing to having children has to be having students. The best-best thing is that you never need to change their diapers! Although college students will attempt to fertilize you from time to time, it is usually with words and not with actual natural organic matter.

I had a good first day. I only forgot a few little things, and you know what? Probably best not to do everything at once.

I got to class early enough to get the computer setup and ready, then, even in my big class, I had plenty of time to walk around and greet (with a handshake) everyone who was there a few minutes early and give them 4×6 inch note cards for the getting-to-know-you assignment. That sort of personal attention really can make a difference, and greeting about 75 of my 100 students got done in 10 minutes before class.

Most of the students are signed up for Piazza, and they’ve already been asking and answering questions there. Seeing good community spirit develop so quickly always warms my heart. And there’s an added benefit that this will hopefully reduce the clutter in my inbox, in particular, minimizing the number of times I have to intervene and help out with logistics and straightforward questions. I love working with students, but it is easy to get overwhelmed with email asking the same question over and over again.

Lots of students seemed happy to meet me and happy to be there. A happy, productive environment is definitely one of my goals since it makes learning easier. We’ll see how we fare after the first exam.

I felt like my big message for them for the day was 90% of success is showing up on-time and prepared for whatever activity it is you are about to undertake. Be prepared, be on time, do the work that is in front of you to do, and let the rest take care of itself.

A tangle with grief

“Grant us, in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word.” — Lois McMaster Bujold from Paladin of Souls.

I went to a bicycling event this weekend. The last time I went to it, two years ago, it was with someone that I cared for very much. He had just moved here after completing his degree and we had managed a cross-continental separation for two years. I was full of hope for us, that my hopes to find a life-partner were being realized.

This past spring, we split up, under circumstances that were considerably less than kind to me.

This past several weeks, things with him have been flitting in and out of my attention, usually when I’d rather they left me alone. Grief stirred up at bad times, and too many of them.

I’d hoped for a good trip to replace my old memories with some good ones, but that wish wasn’t granted.

I found myself sitting alone on Friday night, face distorted in a rictus of pain, trying not to scream or cry out loud, since I was indoor camping, and others were about. I finally took some anxiety medication in the hopes that it would help, and my one small gift was that it did take enough of the edge off that I could pull myself together, clean out my nose and clean up my face, write to try to do something with all the jacked up emotions, then read and eventually attempt to sleep.

I wonder if anyone noticed. I think some walked by and could have, but my eyes were shut as I tried to breathe through the pain. Someone did inquire solicitously about my ride the next day. Maybe. Maybe not.

The line-up for the ride resulted in more of the same, but I managed to pull together again before I had to start pedaling. My ride was mostly solitary. But, fortunately, calm.

I hope that I was processing grief. Getting it out. Putting it away, at least, in part. Getting through it.

I dread more. I am not sure how much more of that I can take.

Surely by now I am an expert in that kind of grief. Relationships end, and it is time to pick yourself up and move on. Somehow, when I was small, I never thought I would have to spend my life alone, but every passing year, that looks like a more and more likely present and future. How do you face this with courage?

None of the stories you read as a child prepare you for this. Little girls grow up and meet men of character and get married and have families. That’s what I wanted for myself too. We don’t flounder and flop around year after year after year after year looking and hoping, or trying to look and trying to hope. There is no script for this outcome. I have to write it myself, and I don’t know how.

Or maybe I do. One foot in front of the other, one step, one task, one day at a time. Breathe into the pain. Breathe into the loneliness. Make myself like a fountain, giving what I want to find, keeping nothing for myself, since these gifts cannot be hoarded or saved for later. I do not get the choice in what I find from others. The only choice I have, anyone has, is how to treat everyone else, and how I react to what I am given.

It all seems empty. But at least for this moment I have calm.

We value good teaching

It’s a busy week, but the basic paperwork and websites for my classes have been completed, the students have been emailed, and homework has been assigned. Before the first day of class? You betcha! I figure the only way I have to warn them that my classes are work is to assign some work due on the first day of class.

As a small distraction from all those logistics, I helped facilitate two teaching programs this week.

The first was about Piazza which I and another instructor use to promote discussion outside of the classroom. In particular, we like it when students answer each other’s questions. We also like reducing the number of times we have to answer the same question (reduction to zero is a bonus). Piazza was created by a woman entrepreneur, Pooja Sankar. Quite a role model for our women students.

The second was on the theme of getting the semester started off on the right foot, and, given that there are always a few new instructors around, advice for new instructors. I think the experienced instructors enjoyed sharing some best practices, and maybe even picked up a few good tips. I think the new instructors were exposed to a great deal of community wisdom, and heard about some valuable resources. And they have some ideas of people to approach if they have questions later.

But maybe the most important outcome for me is promoting teaching as a community value in our department. It gets lip service, but often not much else. Holding an hour long workshop or two and having faculty show up is something concrete that says that it matters.

They’re back!

My college town is nice over the summer. Rarely a line at the grocery store, and no problems parking. Traffic? Schmaffic. No need to fuss over that. You can go to whatever popular restaurant you like and expect to get seated promptly.

Suddenly it is over. The streets are full of cars, intersections are backed up. God help me if I want to go to the grocery, or, even worse, that den of iniquity known as Walmart.

Times like these make me glad I am a bicycle commuter, a natural avoider of the worst of the traffic.

I feel not really close to prepared for the new semester, but I will surely have something ready when I need it to be. I care about my students too much to do otherwise. Right now I dread getting prepared for Monday, but I am happy to start a new semester, meet all my new students, and see what hope and possibility is ahead.

Let me do a good job with them. If there is one thing I care about more than anything else, it is providing a healthy, happy environment in which even a scared student can find the courage to learn.

Beautiful bicycling

It was a beautiful weekend for bicycling. Cooler, clear, light winds, from a less-common direction, which got us out on routes we don’t often get to do.


Saturday we started late and sought cheeseburgers from a small country store. Delicious, and worth the warm trip home. Eased by a tail wind.


Sunday, a guest joined me on the tandem, and we met with friends and had a nice ride. Faster than I intended; that tandem can move.


Sometimes you just have to be grateful for what nature hands you.



Some days are not what you want them to be.

I was up with anxiety in the middle of the night.

I woke up anxious this morning.

Anxiety is not the world’s best productivity tool for me, although it is one hell of a good tool for getting out of bed in the morning. I flit from one thing to the next without really accomplishing anything. If I’m not sucked deeply into a book, I can’t even really read.

So the day has gone so far. I took some more medication, and maybe I am settling down now. With the bad taste in my mouth from an unsatisfying and unproductive morning.

For me, anxiety is this uncomfortable feeling in my stomach and chest. When it is bad, it is a sense of impending doom. When it is mild, it is merely uncomfortable.

Anxiety is a very functional emotion in the correct circumstances. It evolved long ago, and it is awesome for keeping someone alert and on guard. If I needed to be alert for animal or human predators coming to get me, anxiety would be my best friend for vigilance. In the modern world, where much of what we need to do involves calm and concentrated effort, in particular, blocking out everything around us and only paying attention to the task at hand, anxiety is a substantial foe.

What have I learned about dealing with anxiety?

First, acceptance. You cannot will it away. You cannot think it away. For some, cognitive approaches work well. I am not one for whom this is so. Do the thoughts cause the anxiety or the anxiety the thoughts? I think it is a circular system. That said, being meticulous about finding things to be happy about and to be grateful for will help improve your mood, even if it does not take away your anxiety. Be mindful and generous and count your blessings.

Second, treatment. There are medications you can use. Finding the right one can be hard, but they can be a lifeline. They have been for me. Talk to your doctor. It would be great if you could talk to a psychiatrist, as they are the real expert in treatment of these problems … but I haven’t figured out how to make that happen yet. Too many people with far more serious psychiatric illnesses than mine, and too few doctors to treat them.

Third, compassion. If I must live with this, the one thing I can do is use it to help others. In particular, students with test anxiety or math anxiety or however it comes about. I can be a role model of someone who handles it reasonably well. I can provide acceptance, acknowledgment of the real difficulties involved in dealing with it, and some ideas of ways to cope.

Fourth, awareness. What situations and people are healthy, productive, warm, accepting, make you feel good? Spend more time in/with them. What situations and people do the opposite? Spend less them in/with them. And be aware, very aware, when you see behavior in others that gets to you, that their behavior is a reflection on who they are NOT on you or your actions or your character, and two, you cannot change another’s behavior, you can only modify how you react to them and whether you interact with them in the first place.

If you suffer from anxiety too, I wish I could make it better. Since I can’t, take meticulous care of yourself. You are worth it. Hold your head high, even when you feel that it is beating you down moment by moment.

Project Euler

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to do with an honors class I am teaching in the fall. The three things you can give a student that will help them most in the future are: good communication skills (make them write, make them give presentations), programming skills, and work on decent-sized projects that go beyond the routine weekly homework. These are discussed in this Washington Post article: Starting College? Here’s how to graduate with a job.

I’m getting burned out on teaching large projects and lots of writing. That’s not appropriate for this class anyhow. But I could throw in some programming problems. And we might do a small project with some writing/presentation. Or we might not! #1 Rule for the Moment: take it easy on yourself, Dr. Jinx. You have a lot of irons in the fire, and you work too hard.

One of my students recently pointed me to the Project Euler ( website, which is a compendium of nice problems requiring programming and basic mathematics to solve. I am sure friends into math and programming have mentioned this site to me in the past, but I didn’t have the motivation to go check it out.

There are several small problems early on the site that I can use for my students. Then they get more interesting/harder. What I wasn’t expecting was how much fun I would have solving these.

I’m 21 problems in. The problems are getting harder. I am building a small library of general-purpose tools to make solving them easier.

I worked in software for 10 years, and when I got out, I questioned myself on many counts. Did I really like doing math, or was I just sucked in because I was one of the few women who could, and I seemed to be reasonably good at it? Did I really like programming, or did I just get sucked into it, too? While it seems possible that other paths might have been good ones for me, it also seems that I got a first-hand look on how environment can deeply effect your enjoyment of things. A poisonous environment can cause you to start to dislike and feel incompetent at activities that you are actually reasonably competent at and enjoy.

The number one advice I tend to have for students is to find people and environments that make them feel good about themselves and spend more time in them. I wish I had gotten and taken that advice myself.

Whether you are a supervisor or a teacher or a Ph.D. advisor, good advice to keep in mind is to put some thought into keeping the environment supportive and healthy. While yes, whatever you are doing is work, if you can make work fun, you win. Your employees and students will work hard and happily for you in that case.

So Beautiful

The first time a man talks about meeting his wife, he almost always … always? says, “She was so beautiful.”

The first thing. The most important thing about women, it always seems, is our looks.

Never, “she told a joke, and it was so funny I laughed until I had tears running down my face, and that’s when I knew I wanted to marry her.”

Never, “she presented the most elegant explanation of why the fluid flow should behave that way, and I knew I was in love.”

Never, “She broke the stack of three boards with a flying side-kick on the first try. I had to go meet her.”

Never, “I heard her reading a poem that she wrote, and I was entranced.”

Never, “She was so kind to me when I first arrived …”

Do we women talk about men the same way? I know I have dated men who, on first (and even second) appraisal, were not particularly attractive, though they grew to be attractive to me because I cared about them. And while sometimes, yes, it is looks that get us interested, often it is something else, something more meaningful about him that makes us first want to know more or fall in love. Or so I think. Am I wrong?

And how many times have we had a lover tell us that if only we were prettier, then they’d love us more/want to marry us?

I swear if a man ever dares say that to me again, I am going to throw him out of my life so hard he bounces on the way out.

Why is it always the first thing we care about with women is the way they look? Aren’t we capable of anything deeper?

I want to tell the young women in my life that, “You are so much more than that.” But there are days when I am afraid that to the external world, it just isn’t so.

Is it any different in the LGBT community?

Will it ever be better in society in general?