Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cannonball Read #50: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

NB: I originally planned to review only new books for this project and to avoid re-reading books. However, I have re-read roughly 20 books during the same period and after reviewing other Cannonballers' catalogues, I think I may have missed the point of the Read itself which of course is reading, period, not limiting oneself to new literary adventures. Considering not only the conglomerate nature of the project at its outset but the community that sprang up around it, I've decided to review the re-reads I have enjoyed in the past year as well, playing some catch up over the winter break. Now of course, I did not manage to make the 100-books-in-a-year goal, but I think in a year that involved a wedding, work and a full-time school schedule, pounding out seventy-ish books is pretty damn good. The second round of the Cannonball Read has started with a reduced book requirement - a book a week - and I hope to pick that up, turning my own participation into a kind of mutant extended Cannonball Read of 152 books in two years.

On a happier note, I was thrilled to have my review of The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay be named the number one Cannonball Read review of 2009. That's pretty cool.

I love studies on environmental factors for development. Taking them all at face value is dangerous because there are plenty of logically-blindfolded leaps being made, but I think it's always worth thinking about what makes a person how they are. However, I do not typically think about gender as a whole as something one becomes, and Simone de Beauvoir put forward this idea in The Second Sex, and it's really an interesting concept. For Beauvoir, sex and gender are separate - sex the biological fact of a person and gender the panoply of social and behavioral mores that we gather as we grow.

We're at an extremely exciting time in history, but it's a scary time, too. Society has reached a point where people are generally open to equality of opportunity between the sexes. Our politics have had to make room for non-traditional families - be they divorced couples, gay parents, common law couples, etc. - and this requires that we deal with them legally. As technology and social development lets us do more, it becomes increasingly important to stop and take time to consider what makes us who and what we are. It's fairly easy to think about the dynamics that we choose consciously - our careers or hobbies or clothes - but we rarely consider those defining characteristics that provide lifelong context for us. What makes us American and what does that mean beyond a Social Security card? What makes us men and women? What does being black mean, or being a WASP? When we forego these considerations, we allow too much to be shoved under their banners and aren't able to clearly articulate our own being. It sounds like a really cerebral, theoretical thing to worry about, but when you consider how many of our problems stem from a lack of clarity and conviction in our principles, it becomes a little more real.

It's tough to give Beauvoir a free pass as The Woman With The Answers, but her analysis gives us a good look at an unusual approach to sex and gender. I think the most important aspect of her thought is the work she does to break the female identity away from being simply not-male. The attempt to define each sex and gender separately and on their own merit is a worthy experiment and may be the key to breaking the male/female binary and the rampant stereotypes that have sprung out of it. It's at least a fascinating look at what shapes us from a brilliant thinker. It's easy to see why this book had the revolutionary effect it did on the feminist movement.

705 pages

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

High School Seniors of the World, Relax

I was talking with a friend of mine about college as part of my ongoing plan to convince everyone I enjoy to move to my immediate area and I realized as I was talking to her that the bulk of high school guidance offices are failing students as they work to get them in to colleges. It's certainly not intentional and there is a lot of stuff that these offices are doing right, but I think high school kids are applying to colleges without really understanding what they do and don't need to have figured out, and doing so with far more anxiety than is necessary. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on college that I hope will help.

Not everyone needs to go to college. I hate this whole "Every Kid Should Go To College" culture for many reasons. Making everyone go to college cheapens the actual value of a college degree; as we learned in The Incredibles, "when everyone's super...no one will be." Not everyone is cut out for college work and when you force everyone to go, it means that those people who can't hack it will need somewhere to buy degrees. A college education is not supposed to be on your schedule, or happen in your pajamas. A true education should develop your mind and consume your life - your life should be about your education, not the other way around. If you only want to apply your training to a certain part of your life, then you should go to a training program or vocational school to develop those skills, not waste your time, your professors' time and your classmates' time with classes you don't want or need. Secondly, the push for college makes high school be about college, which is insane. Memorizing dates and passages isn't the most important part of high school - the social development you learn there is far more important and will last much longer than most of what you do in high school - but you should be able to read, spell and add into the bargain. High school now is all about getting kids into college, and the bottom line is that not every kid is going to go to, need or want college. High school education should be appreciated on its own merits, not used as a stepping stone for some higher ideal.

Perhaps most importantly, you do not need to go to college right out of high school. I think that success in college requires at least one of the following things: an appreciation for learning qua learning, a career you have in mind and are willing to work for, or a desire to undertake an academic challenge. Without any of those, you're likely to be unhappy and to fall short of your potential. Go be amazing somewhere else, somewhere you can be who you are and be brilliant at it. College isn't a guarantee and it can't make you love it. Take time off, work, travel, figure out what you think you'd like to do or what you don't like to do. It's okay to do that stuff, and frankly a better use of your time if you're not sure about college.

All that being said, here are a few things to keep in mind if you do decide to go to college.

1. Pick something and go with it. It can be really daunting to look at those giant books of college listings. The analyses of the schools encompass so many things that it seems impossible to figure out where to start. Start with the one thing you care about and go from there. Remember that it doesn't have to be a Serious Academic Consideration...if you don't want to go to a school in a city, knock all the city schools off your list. Sure, there are great schools in cities, but there are great schools in East Jesus Nowhere, PA too. Yale might be one of the best schools in the world, but if you hate being in New Haven (and who wouldn't? Sorry Yale.) then you're not going to get the most out of your college experience. Pick something you care about and roll with it.

2. Finances should never be what stops you from applying to a school. Yes, college is expensive, but there are two things to consider. The first one is the staggering amount of money floating around out there to help you. What you need to do is find it and apply for it. Send in an application to every scholarship fund and grant program you can find. Make those applications great ones - edit them, take the time to format them, and let yourself shine through them - and ship 'em out. The money is out there, even if it's occasionally hard to find. It's worth the effort if you want to go to college. Second of all, you need to accept that debt is a part of life. Of course you don't want a lot of it, but you're going to have it for something, and it may as well be college. A friend of mine was telling me about how she wanted to go to Paris and teach, but she had student loans so she was thinking about staying and working for a while to pay them off. I pointed out that a year of work wasn't going to pay her entire college loan load off, and more importantly that even if she DID through some miracle manage to do it, there would be more debt someday. If it's not college, it's a house. If it's not a house, it's a car. If it's not a car, it's a credit card. Debt comes from everywhere and while you shouldn't carry a huge amount of it, you should be able to appraise the value of it - some things are worth eating Ramen as an adult, you know?

3. You do not need to know what you want to do for the rest of your life. A lot of kids wind up depressed in college, and I have to assume that it's connected to this pressure to know exactly what you want to do on the day of your high school graduation. If you do, great - a friend of mine who I have known since I was six months old told me in fourth grade that she wanted to be a physical therapist and that's what she's doing today. However, that kind of clarity is very unusual in an 18 year old. Here's something that you might not know: pretty much every college has a core curriculum that every student has to take. It's usually broken into subject areas and you have a couple narrow choices to fulfill a list of requirements. Those core classes will probably annoy you at some point in your collegiate career, but they can also help you try some things to figure out what you'd like to major in. You don't usually have to pick a major until sophomore or junior year, and even then, you can always change it. There's a trade off, of course - a major demands that you take certain classes and you'll need time to get them all in - but you should never feel locked in. Do your core classes first (this will also help you avoid being the Lone Senior in English Composition 101, a.k.a. "English for the Marginally Sentient.") and see what you like.

Just remember, it's never too late to try something new, and that can mean changing a major, changing schools, dropping out of school, working for a couple years, whatever. If you're not happy doing whatever you're doing - and that is a broad happiness; no one is happy during exams - reexamine it. I was at American University in a program that didn't resonate with me and left with a 1.08 GPA, which is about .08 above "narcoleptic." When I went back to school at Assumption, where their program is more theoretical, I knew I was in the right place and my GPA is currently a 3.45 (and 3.5 in my major). If you don't love it, you won't thrive, and everyone deserves to do well in life.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Service Interruption

Dear Red LG Shine Phone,

I would first like to say that I appreciate your service and general effectiveness over the course of our time together, to say nothing of your snazzy red cover that makes you easy to locate in my various cavernous bags. I particularly appreciate your camera, on which I took all of my pictures on Inauguration Day because I was not bright enough to check my camera battery the night before. I also like not having to carry an extra mirror, because I broke my Girl Pilots of the Ferry Patrol mirror in the process of schlepping it around and that made me very sad.

The thing is, sometimes we have to criticize those we love, and this is one of those times. I don't get why you have the world's shittiest toggle where there clearly should be a trackball. Seriously, if your hypersensitive click sends me to the AT&T Useless Cell Phone Miscellany Mall or cellular video one more time, I am going to hurl you into the nearest brick wall with all available force until you smash into tiny, tiny pieces. I also want to have a little chat about your low battery alerts. The most energy-consuming function of a cell phone is lighting up the screen, but when you get low on battery, you LIGHT UP EVERY FIVE GODDAMN MINUTES TO TELL ME MY GODDAMN BATTERY IS LOW. Does this seem reasonable to you? All it really accomplishes is ensuring that the battery will be dead by the end of the day. I swear that if I wind up hanging by my seatbelt upside down on the side of this deathtrap of a road that I work on, I will escape and march directly to LG headquarters and set the damn thing on fire so it cannot produce any more deranged phones like you with shitty toggles and excessive battery waste.

In conclusion, it's been a nice run, and I hope you won't take it personally when I replace you with an iPhone in July when my contract comes up.



Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cannonball Read #49: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Ann Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a beach or commute book. You'll see the big surprise coming well ahead of time, and it's not what I would call a particularly original work, but for all of that, it is a sweet and engaging book.

The novel is really a collection of letters and telegrams between the various characters therein. The main character, Juliet, is a war writer post-war, and is unsure of her next projects. She is tired of the war and tired of her routine, but when she stumbles into the stories of the people on the island of Guernsey, she finds new vigor and begins to chart a new path for herself. The letters between the characters do a wonderful job of character development and highlighting the progress of new friendships. During the Nazi occupation of Guernsey, the island's inhabitants had to find ways to forge on and live a life as normal as possible. One of the ways they did this was through a literary club they put together after being caught breaking curfew. The club was a simple patch on a sticky situation at first, but after a while, the members began to truly know and enjoy each other.

I feel like this book is a collection of characters clumped together. Since it's all letters and telegrams, there's no backdrop for the story. You get little dribs and drabs of the environment, but it's never fleshed out enough to really give the story any kind of emotional context. I think a change in format would go a long way in improving it.

I'll be honest with you...it's taken me the better part of two weeks to write this review because I just don't have that much to say about it. It's a perfectly fine, cutesy little read, but it's the whitest of white bread. Borrow a copy from someone and take it to the beach.

290 pages