Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Middle of the Road Dystopian

The Girl in the Road
by Monica Byrne
Published by Crown

Reviewed by Amanda
2 Out of 5 Stars

Set in the not-too-distant future, The Girl in the Road focuses on the brutal journey of two women fleeing from violence in patriarchal cultures: Meena, a young woman from India, and Mariama, a girl enslaved in Africa. Told in alternating first person narratives, their stories converge by the end in not entirely surprising ways due to the symbolic overlap we see in each of their tales. Both have been attacked by snakes, both show signs of mental illness, both have suffered tremendous loss, both encounter words and images that have a spiritual significance to them alone, both are journeying toward a future they hope will be better.

In Mariama's story, she flees her home after finding a light blue snake in her bed. Heeding her mother's advice, she decides to flee and becomes a stowaway in a caravan transporting oil to Ethiopia. During this time, a beautiful woman named Yemaya joins the caravan and Mariama adopts her in her mind as a mother/lover/goddess figure. Born into a life of poverty and subservience, and bearing witness to her mother's repeated rape by their owner, Mariama is a surprisingly driven, courageous character, but her childlike naivete and bluntly sexualized view of the world are a dangerous combination in one so young.

In Meena's story, she awakens to find that a snake placed in her bed has bitten her; she immediately assumes someone is trying to kill her and flees India for Ethiopia, the place where her Indian parents were brutally murdered before her birth. She undertakes the dangerous journey across "The Trail," a bridge consisting of "scales" that runs from India to Djibouti. The bridge is intended to harvest wave energy and to cross it is an illegal, dangerous act. As Meena's trek goes on, she begins shedding that which is inessential and facing the truth from which her traumatized mind has been shielding her.

There is a lot to like about The Girl in the Road. The futuristic setting is at once recognizable and alien, but doesn't overshadow what is essentially an emotional and spiritual story about violence and healing. The world of Meena (which is set a few decades after the story of Mariama) is a racial, cultural, and sexual melting pot, and reading a book with characters from diverse backgrounds was a pleasure. Byrne's prose is lovely and minimalist, and her inclusion of Indian and Ethiopian cultures is seamless.

However, there was a lot that I did not enjoy. First off, the persistent phallic imagery, both the snakes in the bed and The Trail itself, is fraught with psychological and symbolic implications that had me expecting the big reveals in the end. I'm not a prude faulting an author's use of phallic imagery; rather, my complaint is that it lessened the suspense toward the novel's end because it seemed a little heavy handed. I was also disappointed that, in a novel that initially challenged the stereotypical view of transsexuals, it ultimately bolsters that stereotype.

And then there was THE SCENE, a scene that has apparently generated a lot of debate. **Since discussing the scene in question involves spoilers, I'll post it for interested parties in the comments section below.  Be forewarned.

I do want to make it clear that this scene is not responsible for my 2 star review. The disappointment I feel stems from the book blurbs leading me to believe that this is a sci-fi action/thriller. This is certainly a very different reading experience than the one I thought I signed up for. In addition to my misguided expectations, this is a novel of unlikable characters that engendered my sympathy, but not my empathy.


Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive PoliticsUnreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics by Michael Wolraich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Here is the thing you must bear in mind,” Roosevelt retorted indignantly, “I do not represent public opinion: I represent the public. There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public and the public’s opinion of those interests.”

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The Standpatters were relieved to discover that Teddy’s Big Stick talk was mostly just a lot of swinging and missing.

Theodore Roosevelt made a promise, hand raised, that he would not run for another term after he won election in a landslide, in his own right, in 1904. It wasn’t long before he was wishing he could cut off that offending hand of promise and run anyway. He liked being president. He was an ebullient, bellicose, expansive personality who couldn’t stop talking and flashing those large brilliant white chompers that could be interpreted as a friendly gesture or as a menacing, clownish show of aggression.

”Theodore Roosevelt tended to dominate whatever he participated in. His children joked that when he went to a wedding, he thought he was the bride, and when he went to a funeral, he thought he was the corpse.”

The Republican party didn’t really know what to do with Roosevelt. He was a problem from the beginning because of his charge ahead attitude, but also because he was so popular with their constituency. To satisfy his ambition, and to get him out of the way they put him on the ticket with William McKinley. When McKinley is assassinated “The Problem” is elevated to the highest position in the land. If you believe in fate or destiny than Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency is certainly a good example of predestination.

The Stalwarts who were also called the Standpatters dominated congress. As their name implies they were perfectly happy with the state of affairs and were not interested in phrases containing words like change or progression. They girded their loins expecting a fight with the progressive talking Roosevelt.

”But the blows they anticipated never arrived. For all his talk of big sticks, Roosevelt proved more agreeable than they’d anticipated. ‘With the first year of administration the uneasiness was relieved,’ Cannon reflected. ‘Roosevelt, business found, had a bark that was considerably worse than his bite, although often his bark was annoying enough.’”

They could afford to allow him to rail against the establishment all he wanted as long as he didn’t do anything about it.

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The public found Taft’s smile almost as endearing as Teddy’s.

William Howard Taft was Roosevelt’s chosen successor. The Problem With Taft, which became a constant refrain during his administration, is that he wasn’t Roosevelt. He didn’t even want to be President. He had his eye on the Supreme Court even before he was President. His main strength during his administration was bringing antitrust suits against monopolies. The billionaires like J. P. Morgan found monopolies to be very profitable. ”They offered economies of scale and avoided the chaos of ‘ruinous competition’.”

I do have to give a tentative nod to Morgan for shoring up the banks with his own money and strong arming others to help as well during the Panic of 1907. The US was short of cash, the stock market went to pieces, there was a run on banks for what limited cash there was available, and if not for Morgan and his friends the United States would have seen some really dark days.

Roosevelt decided to escape to Africa to let Taft find his political legs, and give himself a much needed vacation. A vacation for Roosevelt generally involved shooting as many animals as he could track down. He shot nine Rhinoceros of a nearly extinct ( extinct) breed of the species on this one trip. How many Rhinos does one need to shoot to prove one’s manhood? It would make me a little queasy to build a mental mound of all the animals Roosevelt shot in his lifetime. To balance the scales he did expand the National Parks service exponentially as President. If he had not done this certainly a lot more natural wonders of this country would be bristling with oil wells, be littered with scrap heaps left over from strip mining, and be grazed to desert conditions.

See even when I want to talk about Taft I end up talking about Roosevelt.

Roosevelt returns to America still chafing over his promise not to run for president again. While he is struggling with how to break his promise to the American people a man from Wisconsin by the name of Robert Marion “Fighting Bob” La Follette has been starting to make waves not only in congress, but also within the Republican party. He is credited with being the first to use the term PROGRESSIVE. The press loves him, for a while, he is a quote machine and he is a natural at stirring a crowd into a frenzy not unlike his fellow Republican Roosevelt. There were a lot of changes that still need to happen in this country leading up to 1912, so there was plenty of issues to rouse the public to action.

--Women still need the right to vote. By 1912 only three states allowed women to vote: Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado. The West was quickest to adopt the suffrage movement for several good reasons beyond it just being the right thing to do. The most interesting reason was that they were short on women. They wanted to attract more women from the East to the West. A much more creative way to steal women than gunnysacking them and running for the hills.

--Child labor laws still needed to be addressed. Albert Beveridge from Indiana thought it might take five years to fix this problem. It took thirty. States that wanted to address this problem could not unless other states around them also agreed to adopt the laws. If they set child labor laws without compliance from their neighboring states industry would simply move across the state line.

--The railroads were steadily raises prices because they were controlled by a handful of billionaires. It was proving to be a hardship for people who needed to use that mode of travel.

--A set work week for labor. ”He (Roosevelt) believed the industrialist had brought enmity upon themselves by ignoring and mistreating the workers. The only way to protect the rich from the violent impulses of the mob was for the government to gently correct society’s imbalances.”

Talk about meaty (The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair forced President Roosevelt to investigate the meat packing industry.) issues for a much needed progressive movement. Roosevelt had some of these ideas in his head, but it was La Follette who brought most of them to the forefront of the public consciousness and gave the issues urgency. With his old friend and now most despised enemy, Taft, allied with the Standpatters it only made sense for Roosevelt to embrace the fever and excitement surrounding the Progressive movement. When he loses the nomination for the Republican party he forms his own Bull Moose party; and in the process, tears the Republican party to shreds.

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Fighting Joe relegated to the bench after Roosevelt enters the race.

La Follette is the man on the outside looking in. His quest to achieve the Presidency is shattered by the popularity of Theodore Roosevelt. On the other side of the aisle it takes 46 ballot initiatives for Woodrow Wilson to win the Democratic Nomination for President. By splitting the Republican party vote Roosevelt assured Wilson of victory.

The Progressive movement of the Republican Party splintered the party. The people who stayed were the stalwart conservatives. Democrats embraced many of the Progressive ideas and suddenly the old Standpatters were finding it difficult to quell the uprisings. Unfortunately it took until after another Roosevelt is elected president before most of the progressive changes that insure most of us a certain standard of living were enacted. This book was a fascinating read that crystallized a lot of scattered thoughts I had about this era in American politics.

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”Uncle” Joe Cannon

The dominance of the Speaker of the House Joe Cannon (1903-1911) starts to erode as more and more of these progressives are sent to Washington demanding that the power be shared. I’m sure he had many of the same gaseous looks on his face as does our current Speaker as he deals with the recalcitrant Tea Baggers. There are certainly parallels with the politics of the early 20th century with the politics of the early 21st century. It is interesting to me that the Republican party splintered to the left in the early 1900s and has splintered to the right in the early 2000s. Either way it is going to be very difficult for them to nominate a moderate enough candidate that satisfies the base and can attract enough votes from the middle to win a presidential election. In talking with some of the fervent members of the far right they are content with holding congress and feel if they can do that they don’t care who is president.

There is some logic to their thinking, but Presidents build parties and the natives become restless if your only goal is to block not to enact. It only makes sense to me that the Republican party will have to splinter again in the near future forming a party with a more moderate agenda. This new movement, a matter of when rather than if, would also provide a home to all those Republican leaning politicians that want to have aims beyond just obstructionism. As always I will be watching from the sidelines we go again.

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