Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women's History Month March '11

I already posted this on Facebook, but I was invited to speak at a women's history month event along with three other women today.  One of them gave a great speech using the idea of foundation and building a sky scraper as a metaphor, listing various women's contributions as bricks.  It was very well done, and she added a nice personal touch by incorporating her mother and daughter as bricks, thus making her one of the three generations of women serving in the military.  The following is the speech I gave (I took out my unit info since I don't want people to find my blog while searching for my unit):

I am incredibly honored to be here today for Women's History Month.  I never would have expected to have this type of opportunity this early in my career.  This year's theme for women's history month is "Our History is Our Strength."  As a history, and gender and women's studies major, I have always believed that history and context are very important so I relish this opportunity to discuss some of that context, and the long history of women in combat.

Right now, women make up about 14 percent of the Active Duty Army.  Almost 11 percent of senior NCOs and nearly 14 percent of field grades and above are women.  In 2008 GEN Anne Dunwoody became the first female four star general.  SGT Leigh Ann Hester and SGT Monica Brown were the first two women to receive Silver Stars since World War II while serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, respectively. 

While women's official integration into the United States Army is rather recent, it is not hard to find women warriors throughout history.  Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca all rallied and led their people against the Roman Empire; Joan of Arc led the French during the Hundred Years War, and these are only a few names that have made their mark on history.  Boudicca, for example, was forgotten until Roman history texts were rediscovered in the Renaissance Era.  It is impossible to say how many other women have been lost to time.  Women's current service in the military is a continuation of this woman warrior spirit.

Within the United States, women were there from the beginning – during the Revolution, women acted as nurses, seamstresses and cooks, roles that would much later fall under the Army's sustainment branches.  Some helped their husbands at war, and in the well-documented cases of Margaret Corbin and Mary McCauley, better known as Molly Pitcher, even took their husbands' places at the canons.  Women's roles during the Civil War were similar, and many women made a name for themselves due to their selfless service in the medical field.  Women enlisted disguised as men in both wars, though this habit would end with the implementation of physical exams.  In World War I, over 21,000 women served in the Army Nurse Corps.  An additional 230 women served in the Signal Corps though it would not be until 1979 that their military status was recognized.  Additionally, women served as civilian cooks, clerks, seamstresses, and phone operators.  In some cases, this simply meant women continued to serve in traditional women's roles; in others, this was also a revolution as formerly male gendered occupations, such as clerks and typists, came to be associated with women.

However, it would be World War II that saw the creation of the Women's Army Corps, originally the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, creating a space for women in the Army.  The women served in many of the roles they had filled during previous wars but now they were actually part of the military and had a larger variety of options within the support areas.  In 1948, President Truman signed legislation that made the WAC a permanent part of the Army.  In 1978, the WAC was dissolved: with women's assimilation into male units and training, it had served its role.

That is some of the context and the history but what does that really mean?  Well, let's take me for example.  I'm a company commander in the ___ Brigade Support Battalion, ___ Infantry Brigade Combat Team.  I signed my ROTC contract at 18, and graduated from the University of Illinois in May 2006, receiving my commission through the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps.  It is only since 1976 that women have had the same minimum enlistment age as men – 18 without parental consent, 17 with.  The first woman graduated through ROTC in May 1976.  I attended the same Basic Officer Leader Course and Transportation Basic Leadership Course as my male counterparts.  It wasn't till 1977 that combined basic training for men and women became policy.  My first duty station was a three year overseas assignment at Grafenwoehr, Germany where I was a Transportation Platoon Leader.  It was in 1976 that single women's overseas assignments were changed from 24 to 36 months to equal their male counterparts.  I receive the same pay benefits as any other man who has completed the same schools and assignments as me on a similar time line.  I have government life insurance.  During World War II, the WACs had the same basic pay as male Soldiers but didn't receive overseas pay or the option for government life insurance.  If I got pregnant today, there would be no question about my ability to stay in and do my duty.  It wasn't until 1975 that the military eliminated involuntary discharge of women because of pregnancy and parenthood.  There is a chance that if I do well and stay in long enough, I could be promoted to general officer.  It was President Lyndon B. Johnson that removed promotion restrictions on women officers in 1967, making them eligible for general officer rank.  Without the women before me, my Army career thus far would look very different.

It is only when looking at where we were that we can truly understand how remarkable the changes have been.  The women that came before us faced great challenges, and their struggles and professionalism paved the way for us.  I'm sure many of them could never have predicted their impact or expected to change the status quo.  We, too, can pave the way ahead and open doors for the future women Soldiers by always striving for betterment, going above and beyond, and exceeding expectations.   There are still many mile stones left, but this is the month to celebrate the road so far, and draw inspiration from it.  These past ten years have showcased many women's achievements and opened doors, and as excited as I am about this, I look forward to a future where we no longer talk about "firsts" because these achievements have become the norm.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book 22: Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

One thing I really liked about this novel is that for once the back of the book didn't give too much away. It simply stated that it was about two women who had met two years previously in a life changing event, and were about to meet again. Granted, if it hadn't been for the fact that this novel was on several bestseller lists, and I kept seeing it everywhere, this might have been too vague of a description to interest me, but as it was, it actually worked.

The story has two narrators with alternating chapters: Little Bee and Sarah, the two women described on the back. Little Bee is a refugee from Nigeria, and Sarah is a British woman who once spent a holiday in Nigeria with her deceased husband. While some novels would spend the majority of the novel trying to hide their relationship or some huge twist, that wasn't really the case here at all, another point in its favor. While the author doesn't come straight out in the first chapter or two and reveal their past relationship, he reveals it early enough so that the reader doesn't spend the rest of the novel racing through the novel to discover what happened. Instead, by revealing their link fairly early, he allows the story to focus the relationship between the women and its development.

Little Bee has spent the past two years at refugee detention center waiting for her request to be denied or granted, and at the very beginning of the novel is released. However, things seem slightly off, and her and the other three women's release may have actually been a mistake. Still, Little Bee has one advantage over her fellow refugees: she actually knows someone in England. Sarah is in her early thirties, has a 5 year old son named Charlie that refuses to wear anything but his batman costume, and she is about to bury her husband. It's a weird time for her to say the least because she and her husband have long been distant, not the least of which has to do with an incident from two years ago. Sarah is having a bit of midlife crisis as well: she runs a fashion magazine but especially now that the magazine has become more established, she is disappointed with its direction. Originally she wanted to run a magazine that was different from the average woman's magazine, one that actually focused on issues and not just fashion, but she now finds herself choosing articles about great orgasm or vibrators over articles about women in Baghdad etc. It is at this point that Little Bee comes back into her life.

Cleave uses this novel to explore the conditions of refugees in England, though I'm sure their treatment is comparable in other Western countries, and bring awareness to continuing issues in countries that now are considered relatively safe. As a refugee from Jamaica tells Little Bee early in the novel, people don't believe that they really need asylum from their countries and their requests tend to be denied. There were also quite a few pieces of humor mixed in. Little Bee explains that she was so afraid of certain situations that she would always plan her suicide and escape route whereever she was. She also applied this to historical situations, stating that the best way to commit sucide in under Henry VIII's reign would have been to "marry Henry the Eighth" (49). Sarah is a flawed character, but her struggles with her identity and her flaws make her very relatable. After all, how many people wanted to change the world at one point only to end up in successful career that really was simply going along with the status quo? And yet, despite all her flaws, she is still willing to do much more than many others. The novel doesn't offer simple answers or even a happy ending, though one could see a certain hopefulness in the bond these women develop - however, I don't if it's enough to make a difference.  I can't say I quite believed the ending, or at least a certain part of it, but overall, I enjoyed the novel and the characters.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Book 21: The Great Hunt

When I first started reading this series a few weeks ago, I made the mistake of reading a few of the novels before getting around to the reviews because I wanted to know what happened next.  However, now I have to write reviews on those earlier books even though my opinion is now very much shaped by events that occur later.  The further I get into the series, the more irritated I get with Jordan's portrayal of certain characters.  However, this was not an issue while reading this novel, so I will focus as much as I can on just this novel without letting my opinion be colored by later novels.  However, there will be spoilers for The Eye of the World so be warned.
While I enjoyed The Eye of the World, it felt slightly derivative to me - as the first of the series, it began with the quest and upheaval of the young hero, much like most familiar epic fantasy stories.  That's not to say that Jordan didn't have his own take on the whole thing, but it just felt like yet another hero's quest.  The Great Hunt is the novel that really got me involved in the series.  The novel begins in the northern kingdom of Shienar where the previous novel left off.  Mat is still bound to the evil dagger, and has to be taken the White Tower to have the link completely severed before it destroys him.  However, during a raid by darkfriends, the Horn of Valere and the dagger are both stolen, and Fain, formerly imprisoned in the dungeon, escapes.  Rand does not want to accept the fact that he is the Dragon Reborn and chooses to join the hunt for the Horn and the dagger.  Perrin and Mat come as well, since Mat will die if they cannot recover the dagger.
While this is going on, Egwene and Nynaeve finally arrive at the White Tower to receive training as Aes Sedai.  They also meet the heir to the throne of Candor, Elayne, while there and the three of them form a quick and strong friendship.  The three of them have the potential to be the most powerful Aes Sedai in years with the proper training.  Min also is a part of their group though her power has nothing to do with the One Source.  She has the ability to read people's futures and auras, and she and Elayne had initially been introduced in passing in The Eye of the World.  However, they do not spend the entirety of the novel in the tower, learning their lessons: circumstances arise, and the women find themselves in the same part of the realm as the men on the quest for the horn.
This novel introduces the Se'anchan, a nation from across the sea that has figured out a way to harness the One Source and use women that have the ability to work with it as slaves.  Additionally, the Children of the Light, who are rather similar to an inquisition, play a role in this novel (Perrin made enemies of them earlier), and all these forces find themselves colliding in one place.  The prologue also shows that some of the Aes Sedai have turned to the dark side since a few women with the serpent ring are observed at a gathering of darkfriends.  While this becomes an bigger issue later in the series, it can already be seen here: the characters really do not communicate.  Many of these people supposedly grew up together, and are supposed to be best friends, but Mat basically refuses to talk to Rand because he is the Dragon Reborn and can channel.  Perrin does not tell any of his friends about his newly discovered ability to commune with wolves, though that is partially because he keeps trying to deny this ability to himself, much like Rand tries to pretend that he cannot channel, and that he is not the Dragon Reborn.  Still, I wish Perrin would just embrace the wolf side instead of fighting against it as much as he does - he is definitely one of my favorite characters in this series.  I quite liked that Jordan gave the women an important role in this series, and at this point, they have a much better grasp of their powers than the men, which I like.  Additionally, the women together save themselves rather than relying on men to come to their rescue.  While I definitely believe that Morgaine has good intentions, she remains so cryptic that none of the characters trust her.  I'm not sure if I'm more annoyed with her for not opening up more, or with the others for not trusting her intentions.  Actually, I think I'm more annoyed with the others.  This novel shows how complex and varied Jordan intends his world to be, and this novel made me very interested to see where it was going, how everything was going to relate and what the solutions might be.  Similar to George R.R. Martin, there are so many factions that it is impossible to see them standing together to fight the evil on the horizon.

Book 20: The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell's novel After You'd Gone completely blew me away. I just loved how detailed the author was, how authentic the emotions seemed, and the non-linear structure. Her novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox didn't reach me the same way, but it was still a well-written story. Her novels may not have the most original ideas or be non-predictable, but her characters seem relatively real. The first novel was about love, loss and romantic relationships while the second dealt more with mothers and sisters (not that the mother-daughter relationship didn't play a role in the first but in that case it was more from the perspective of the daughter). Based on that, it is easy to think that the ideas may be related to what the author herself was currently going through - dating and marriage vs. motherhood, though I don't know what her biography is.

While The Hand That First Held Mine didn't capture me as much as After You'd Gone, I liked it more than I did The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. In fact it deals with all the themes of the previous two relationships: there is both the romantic relationship with the strong woman character as well as a look at motherhood, and different mothers.  The novel is set up as two interweaving stories, and flashes back forth between Elina, a new mother who almost died during childbirth, and Alexandra "Lexie" Sinclair.  Due to the extreme bloodloss during her labor, Elina is feeling especially disoriented as she adjusts to motherhood, and keeps losing chunks of time.  Her boyfriend Ted was so traumatized by almost losing her that he will not talk to her about what happened to fill in her memories.  Being around his new son also causes Ted to have odd flashbacks and memories from his childhood that don't quite fit.  While Elina's narrative takes place in the present, Lexie's story begins in the '50s in England after she has completed school and returned home.  Lexie does not fit in at home, and moves to London, becomes involved in the art scene and Soho, and falls in love.  Her character is very matter of fact about things in a way that seems almost unreal but she was without a doubt my favorite part of this novel (although I enjoyed Elina's dislike of her controlling, snobby mother-in-law).
Lexie's life leads her too many places she wouldn't have expected.  She works at an art magazine, becoming a writer, and falls in love with Innes Kent, the magazine's owner.  However, the novel constantly hints that there is not a happy ending in store for her, stating that her face would never be lined with age.  Since I have yet to read a novel with two story lines that don't end up connecting in some way, it is not difficult to guess what the connection between Elina and Lexie might be, but honestly, it doesn't matter.  The story wasn't engaging because I was trying to guess what was going to happen; I kept reading because I liked the characters, I wanted to see how they reacted, and I wanted more of Lexie.  Lexie was definitely more relatable for me since I'm not a mother, and much of her story is about a young woman discovering her potential, a new city and life.  However, the novel also shows how secrets can destroy lives.  At one point, Innes tells Lexie that young people like her always think the truth is so important even if it is painful, but it is exactly Innes's decision to withhold certain information that creates a lifelong enemy for Lexie, and causes some of the heartache later in the novel.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shakespeare and Movies

I'm currently about ten or eleven book reviews behind, but I don't want to write one right now.  There was recently a list of Shakespeare adaptations on Pajiba, and it kind of put me in the mood for some Shakespearian films.  I hadn't seen Baz Luhrman's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in ages, but I quickly procured a copy to watch.  I remember loving this when I first saw this - I was in junior high (I watched it shortly after seeing My So-Called Life for the first time, and Claire Danes was definitely the main reason I wanted to see it), and I had it on VHS.  However, I also remember that I stopped in the middle last time I tried watching it because it was too ADD.  Rewatching it almost ten years later was definitely interesting.
I never have thought that Romeo and Juliet was a great love story - as much as I love the language, I felt like both of them were spoiled brats.  Juliet just wanted to get away from her parents, and Romeo's feeling were inconsistent at best given that he was enamored with Rosaline when he went to the ball, only to fall for Juliet.  However, rewatching this movie as an adult actually put that in perspective - they were teenagers.  Of course that's how they would act - I couldn't believe how young Claire Danes and especially Leonardo Dicaprio looked!  It made me feel old.
I was kind of amused by all the supporting actors in this as well - when Juliet rejects Paul Rudd's Paris, I just wanted to tell her, "go with Paul Rudd; Leonardo might be hot, and I get the appeal, but watch his other movies, he has some serious wife issues.  Life with Paul Rudd would be much more fun."  And I couldn't believe that Mercutio was played by Michael from Lost.  I kept waiting for him to start yelling for Walt.  Really, that seems to be his sole function as an actor: walk around yelling loudly while also pouting.
I had a few of my usual reactions to this film as well, such as questioning why Juliet would be so quick to threaten suicide rather than maybe running away.  I also think Luhrman's decision to have Romeo hang out in a trailer park was odd - his family owns half of Verona, and his father couldn't spring for a nice penthouse somewhere out of town once his son is banished to a "fate worse than death" as he so dramatically puts it?  Mostly though, I really would like to know how that priest even got a job.  Because, seriously, he was rather incompentent with delusions of grandeur - "I can heal the rift between two families after decades of feuding" - yeah, okay, good luck with that.  You might actually want to tell them what you did then.  Or then when he was so worried about whether or not Romeo got his message?  Maybe he should have just hung around Juliet's tomb to see if he would show up, and fill him in then.  Of course, the priest's incompetence is even more pronounced in the actual play version: as I recall, he walks into the tomb to find Juliet alive with a dead Romeo, tells Juliet they can hide her in a nunnery, and walks back out to take care of some business arrangements, leaving an over-emotional teenager alone in a tomb with a pile of bodies.  Genius plan.  She had definitely killed herself by the time he got back.  Speaking of Juliet's death, she was very selfish in the movie: she wakes up to find her lover dying and her first reaction is to chastize Romeo for not leaving her some poison - very thoughtful.  Exactly the type of person I would want around to comfort me.
Of course being Baz Lurhman, the music played a huge role in the film, and I liked the music much more this time around - my tastes have definitely changed over the years.  I still liked the movie but it and the soundtrack all felt very '90s.  There are several shots of stages throughout the film, and while I realize this was as a tribute to the fact that this is a play, it also made me think of his film Moulin Rouge.  The movie didn't resonate with me as strongly as it did when I was a teenager.  On the other hand, I actually enjoyed 10 Things I Hate About You more when I recently rewatched it but that may have to do with my changed view of Heath Ledger.  And JGL.