Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Martha and George drunkenly return from a faculty party held by Martha’s father, the college president. Martha announces they are expecting visitors, a new faculty member and his wife, Nick and Honey. Exasperated, George wonders why they had to come over at 2:00 a.m. after a party instead of another day, but Martha insisted her father told her they should take care of the new couple. George and Martha play verbal games with each other, and their guests, that involve cruel teasing and doublespeak as they each try to exert power and gain control of the gathering, Martha with an antagonistic, flamboyant style, and George in a passive-aggressive, cynical manner. Nick, handsome, fit, and nearly twenty years younger than George, an ambitious professor in the Biology Department, threatens history professor George has plateaued in his career and who describes himself as fading into the background. As they divulge their pasts and reveal their desires, the quartet face uncomfortable and shocking truths.

Reading the play was captivating, almost in the way that watching a disaster unfold is mesmerizing. The dialogue is clever and cutting, and the stage directions succinct and apt. The characters, particularly George and Martha, are so complex and multifaceted, they are fascinating. Albee uses language interestingly, for example repeating certain phrases to underline circularity or using all caps for emphasis. Although a few references, like refusing to surrender Berlin, have less impact now, the subject matter is as relevant now as it was when the play was first performed in the 1960s. What really made the play spectacular in my opinion was the layers of meaning and the artful use of symbolism.

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Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

broken angels - richard k morgan.jpgThirty years after the events of Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has taken sides in a war on Sanction VI working as a lieutenant for the Wedge, an elite and brutal mercenary army. Yet his thin allegiance frays when pilot Jan Schneider bluffs his way onto a highly secure hospital ship and dangles an opportunity Kovacs can’t ignore. An exorbitant payday to secure a Martian ship in deep space, the gateway to which was discovered by archeologue Tanya Wardani. All they need to do is form an alliance with an untrusty corporate executive, operate in an area full of radiation, steer clear of nanotechnology with unlimited evolutionary power, and steer clear of the fighting forces that have made the location of the gateway a key strategic acquisition. With his Envoy training and a new sleeve maximized for war, Kovacs leads the expedition and tries to maintain its safety while they grapple with the ancient puzzle opening the gateway and the mysteries beyond it.

Kovacs is as sardonic as in Book 1, and despite his training often defaults to violence, so it is interesting to watch him navigate the events of the novel. He just can’t keep himself from making bad situations worse, it seems. How can he lose control so often when he is supposed to have so much self-control? More background on Martian society and what Earth colonization owes to it is included in this book, and the setting, Sanction IV, a war-ravaged planet, provides a different perspective on the corporations and the Protectorate, the ruling government.

Though I thought this would be a heist novel, it isn’t, though it does have a captivating story that kept me engaged. Some aspects of the novel were less appealing. Characters like Jan Schneider were thinly developed. Kovacs seemed at times to pine for Detective Kristin Ortega which seems unwarranted given how Altered Carbon ended their relationship. The resolution of one story line came completely out of the blue for me, and it didn’t seem to be an organic development. Finally, Morgan used a device to indicate pauses in character’s speech that was very annoying and overdone, for example, “You seem. Close to her” or “Well, he’s not a. Bad looking. Guy for a. White boy and. Wardani, well. She’d probably. Take whatever. She can get.”

It’s hard not to compare the book to Altered Carbon, though the two are so different, comparisons are almost unfair. In fact, besides the introduction to Kovacs, the Envoys, Quellism, sleeves, and needlecasting, Book 1 has little to do with Book 2. Kovacs is the only returning character. If readers approach Broken Angels expecting a second Altered Carbon, I think they will be disappointed. However, it is a solid read with an unpredictable plot and a charismatic narrator.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

VoxIn the not-too-distant future, Sam Meyers, advised by the fanatical Reverend Carl Corbin (leader of the Pure Movement), becomes President. Just a year into the Administration, they had systematically disenfranchised women. Women were no longer allowed to work, their passports were invalidated, premarital and extramarital sex were illegal, LGBT and other undesirables were put into labor camps–and women were fitted with word counters. These counters monitored women’s speech, and if a woman uttered more than 100 words in a day, she was shocked with an electric current that increased with the number of infractions.

Dr. Jean McClellan, previously a preeminent neurolinguist, was lured into the President’s service when his brother and key adviser, Bobby Meyers, suffered a skiing accident and developed aphasia. While Jean worked on a cure, she–and her daughter Sonia–were exempt from wearing the word counters. In a state-of-the-art lab, reunited with her previous team, Jean wrestles with the implications of her work and the fact that when it concludes, she’ll be subjected to the word counter again. Her estranged best friend from graduate school, Jackie Juarez, previously active politically but now assumed to be in a labor camp, became the voice of Jean’s conscious asking Jean what she would do for her freedom. Jean pushes herself to the limits of what she will do not just for her own freedom, but for that of all women in the United States.

The book has an interesting premise and draws from the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Future Home of a Living God. In flashbacks, Jean considers how the government laid the foundation for such widespread oppression–for one by requiring a religious class in high schools that taught the “proper” realms of men and women–and how she was complicit for failing to become involved politically. She also traces how men respond to their new power, often through reflections on her husband, Patrick, who doesn’t believe in the Pure Movement but who is willing to keep Jean’s books locked up and prevent her from using the computer, so far as telling her that things aren’t that bad. How a class of people might react to newfound power is an interesting component of the book. Jean’s son, Steven, becomes a true believer in the Pure Movement, and it is revealing how she struggles in her relationship with him.

The society under Meyers is harrowing, and, like many of these dystopian novels, not impossible to imagine. Especially in the last half of the book, I was compelled to read to find out what would happen. Diminishing my enjoyment of the novel, though, were frequent plot holes, unconvincing twists of logic, or simply confusing passages. I also didn’t like the writing style which to me was too conversational and casual. That said, I do think readers who are fans of this genre will enjoy Dalcher’s addition.

Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn BrighterGirls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poornami and Savitha meet soon after Poornami’s mother dies of cancer. It seems her father views this as little more than an inconvenience. Poornami won’t be able to marry until a year after the death, and the loom Poornami’s mother operated stands empty, reducing the family income. Poornami’s father decides to hire a laborer, and Savitha, near Poornami’s age, joins the family business. While her father and Savitha weave the saris for which their region is known, Poornami spins cotton thread. As part of her wages, Savitha receives meals at the family home, but she and Poornami are only allowed to eat after the patriarch. Sometimes, he takes seconds, leaving very little for the teenage girls to share.

Immediately, the girls develop a strong bond of friendship, with Poornami in awe of Savitha’s zest for and enjoyment of life, and Savitha telling Poornami that everything is bland and colorless except her. They look forward to seeing a movie for the first time together, and Savitha starts staying at Poornami’s during the night so she can work on an indigo sari for Poornami while still completing her tasks for her father. Poornami even sabotages a meeting with a potential husband because he lived too far away for Savitha to visit. But after a harrowing ordeal, Savitha leaves the village, taking only the half-finished sari, and Poornami, alone, marries into a family that values her only for her domestic labor. So begins Savitha’s quest to find freedom and Poornami’s journey back to Savitha.

The women encounter domestic abuse, prostitution, human trafficking, poverty, and sexual violence as they struggle to maintain the internal hope–the light that burns inside–that allows them to press forward despite the numerous setbacks and overwhelming odds. Although some of the men with which they cross paths are kind, or at least helpful, the majority are predatory and treat the women as objects or investments giving them the feeling they are owned and have little agency, though both of them in turn use men, and Poornami is particularly adept at reading people and manipulating the men around her. Still, these moments are few.

About halfway through the novel, the setting moves to Seattle, and it is interesting to read how Savitha and later Poornami react to America. At one point, Poornami reflects, “What a mysterious country, she thought, how small for all its vastness.” The move also complicates Savitha’s efforts to escape her bonds since she is unable to speak English, and, even when people might be trying to help her, she can’t understand them. One moment of clarity comes when a character points a gun at her forehead. “”Now she understood. The whole night now a violence of understanding.”

Overwhelmingly, this is a novel of false starts and setbacks, and when Savathi finally realizes that “all the beacons of the world, standing all in a row, couldn’t save her,” it’s easy to understand her hopelessness. In fact, it was hard to imagine how the characters maintained a drive to press forward when they faced so many obstacles. There were times I had to put the book aside because the pain and devastation were so completely relentless. With a somewhat ambiguous ending, there’s nothing to halt the despair. So while the novel is well-written, it is difficult emotionally. I found the book valuable for the depiction of the oppression of Indian girls and women, particularly of a particular social class but I questioned if the presentation was the most effective possible.

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We Are Not Yet Equal

we are not yet equal.pngIn 2016, Carol Anderson shocked readers with her book White Rage which revealed the insidious and often hidden racism underlying laws and institutions in the United States. Here, she and Tonya Bolden have adapted the book for a young adult audience. The well-written and engaging book begins in the aftermath of the Civil War and continues through the Obama Presidency and traces the lost opportunities for providing equality to all. Over and over again, the United States reaches a fulcrum, a moment in history, where inequities could be redressed: the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Era, the Obama Presidency. Rather than use those watershed moments to boldly and justly address past wrongs, the government, supported by a large swath of white citizens, undermines the gains to maintain the status quo of white supremacy.

For example, instead of holding Civil War rebels to account, the federal government under Lincoln and Johnson prioritized reunification. Oppressive Black Codes went unchallenged by the federal government. Johnson in particular stymied efforts of Congress to redress the evils from centuries of slavery. Though Congress overturned his vetoes of legislation of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, Johnson’s pardon of Southern rebels meant that their elected representatives were leaders from the Confederacy. Poll taxes and unfavorable decisions by the Supreme Court undermined efforts to provide rights to blacks.

After reading this book, I feel completely and utterly gutted and outraged at the lack of justice and compassion reflected in the actions of the country’s leaders, lawmakers, and many citizens. Although there was a time that new racism was disguised by an ideology supporting color-blindness, under Trump, spewing hate based on race has become acceptable once more.

I learned so much. While I knew that Southern states were resistant to the Brown decision, I didn’t realize the lengths to which they went to prevent integration. Several students were without education for years while local and state governments delayed implementation. Though I was aware of the challenges to voting rights through voter ID laws, many of the specific examples presented here were new to me.

Sadly, I became disillusioned with Presidents Lincoln and Eisenhower, Lincoln for failing to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War and Eisenhower for failing to use the power of his office to enact the Brown decision. Nixon and Reagan’s racist policies disguised as tough-on-crime stances were not surprising. I also didn’t know the extent of the Supreme Court’s role in undermining progress. With some exceptions, like Brown, their rulings weakened protections of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, undercut the Voting Rights Act, and rang a death knell for affirmative action.

I regret not reading White Rage before We Are Not Yet Equal because I can’t compare them. I can attest that the latter is an important stepping-stone to dialogue on ways to halt this chain of oppression. Although written for a young adult audience (and seems appropriate for such an audience in terms of content and language), adults will find it enlightening as well. The material presented in the book is important and necessary.

Although I have few criticisms of the book, I did find the chapter on the Voting Rights Act more technical and less engaging than the other chapters, though the information was important. I thought the weakest chapter was on Obama’s administration. Though it related the rancor and disrespect Obama faced, it seemed to be less grounded in research than the rest of the book. Perhaps my biggest complaint though is that there is no guidance on where to go from here. The author ends with hope that knowing about white rage can lead to a challenge of its racist consequences, but offers nothing beyond that. Maybe it will be the subject of her next book–and I would definitely read it!

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. for an advance reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.