Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Cannonball Read 4”

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #51: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

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Katherine Boo is a journalist who has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and various writing awards, including the 2012 National Book Award for non-fiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers. For this work, she spent 4 years gathering information on the slums of Mumbai, particularly the Annawadi slum near the airport. Her question in approaching this research was, “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?” Boo has frequently covered poverty and the attempt to rise above it in her highly regarded research. Far from a dry, tedious study of poverty and opportunity, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like a novel. Through her extensive interviews with residents of Annawadi and access to public records such as police, hospital and education records, Boo paints a detailed picture of the rise and fall of particular families and individuals against the backdrop of government corruption and a booming Indian economy that goes bust in 2008. In the e-book form, readers can also see short videos of Annawadi and its residents.

A few families and individuals dominate Boo’s research. The Husains are at the heart of the story. They are a Muslim family and therefore part of a minority, and the fact that they have become successful trash pickers makes them the object of envy and resentment. Eldest son Abdul (a teen) more or less runs the family business alongside his mother Zehrunisa. Abdul is a quiet young man without many friends, but as we discover throughout the story, he wants to be a good person and do the right thing. He understands that his family’s success could be the cause of trouble for them if they are not careful. Their neighbor Fatima or “One-leg” is a disabled woman married to an alcoholic. Her disability makes her an object of derision, and Fatima resents the way her neighbors treat her. Desiring to be valued, she takes in a variety of lovers but is mocked all the more by her neighbors for this. Asha is a savvy, ambitious woman who aspires to become the slum lord and then to move beyond the slum to the “over-city.” She tries to use the corrupt governing system to help herself and her family. Among the residents of Annawadi, Asha is recognized as the person who can get things done or make problems go away. She has important contacts among the police and in her political party. When an argument erupts between Fatima and the Husains, trouble rains down upon both families. Boo then exposes the corruption among the police, in the judicial system and in the hospitals that deal with the poor. As Boo writes, “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage …. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

Boo shows readers that the slum-dwellers are hard working and ingenious at finding ways to make money and at trying to rise up in conditions that militate against such success and mobility. Their very poverty, however, prevents them from working together to collectively improve their lot and leads to fierce competition. In some cases this competition leads to self-destruction and in others, it leads to improving your own situation only at the expense of others’ well being. Asha creates a non-profit that filters money away from legitimate programs and into her own pocket. She says, “How can anyone say I am doing the wrong when the big people did all the papers — when the big people say that it’s right?” Abdul, who wants to be a good person says, “I tell [Allah] I cannot be better because of how the world is.” In her afterward, Boo addresses what outsiders see as indifference toward suffering in the slums. She writes that the seeming indifference toward suffering and death, particularly among children, “… had a good deal to do with conditions that sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action.”

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo treats the residents of Annawadi with respect and compassion and gives readers a new perspective on poverty and the poor — a perspective that many politicians and policy makers in the West would benefit from considering.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR4 Review #50: Call Me Tuesday by Leigh Byrne

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Cannonball Read IV: Book #50/52
Published: 2012
Pages: 328
Genre: Nonfiction

This book is supposedly a “fictionalized account of a true story”, but is listed on Goodreads as nonfiction so I’m not sure EXACTLY what that means, but nonetheless, it’s a compelling novel about child abuse. Tuesday (named after actress Tuesday Weld) endures horrific physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her mother after the death of her older sister. Her sister had polio and died after complications from the Hong Kong flu.

Soon after her sister’s death, Tuesday’s mother receives a brain injury after a fall down the stairs. She’s never the same after that and blames Tuesday for killing her other daughter. Tuesday has a few younger brothers who are treated normally, so she just assumes that her mother hates her. She is always being “punished”, but never knows what she did to be in trouble. The physical abuse is horrific, but the mental abuse is awful as well. She is forced to stand facing the wall in the hallway whenever she is home. She is usually not fed dinner and if she is, her mother makes these disgusting concoctions to make her eat. She is not allowed to bathe and has to wear old, too small clothes to school so she gets made fun of.

Read the rest in my blog.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR4 Review #49: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

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Cannonball Read IV: Book #49/52
Published: 1962
Pages: 256
Genre: Japanese Literature

I picked this book up because it sounded really weird. A man named Niki is out collecting insects for his bug collection when he is kidnapped in this weird village near the sea. The sand dunes will destroy the city unless the inhabitants spend hours a day digging sand out from around their houses. This causes all of the houses to be inside of large holes in the sand that are impossible to escape from. Niki is left inside of one with a woman to help her dig the sand. People from above drop off supplies and water, so Niki and the woman are completely dependent on them to live. If they don’t dig, they don’t get supplies or water.

Read my thoughts in my blog.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR4 Review #48: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Cannonball Read IV: Book #48/52
Published: 1960
Pages: 323
Genre: Classic

This book is on ALL the must-read classics lists, so I figured I should finally read it. Well…this is why I don’t like to read classics. It wasn’t a bad book — in fact, it was beautifully written — but I was just BORED for most of it.

First of all, the plot (I actually went into this book fairly blind as to the plot. I know this book is a huge classic, but I never really knew what it was about.): It mostly follows two kids, Scout and Jem. They’re a brother/sister duo in 1930s Alabama who run into some obstacles when their lawyer father, Atticus, decides to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman.

Read what I thought in my blog.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #50: Never Fall Down – A Novel, by Patricia McCormick

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You think you never can get used to a thing this sad, kid dying, but you do. You think maybe you want to die also. But you don’t. You not living. And you not dead. You living dead.

This YA novel, nominated for a National Book Award this year, is a fictionalized account of the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a real person who survived the killing fields of Cambodia. Arn was 11 when the Khmer Rouge came to power. His family, like all the others in his town, was forced out of its home, separated and put to work in rice fields under brutal,  inhuman, often deadly conditions. Some 2 million Cambodians died under Khmer Rouge oppression. Arn’s story is both painful and powerful. The author worked with him in telling it and uses his voice (including grammar and syntax) to bring it to life. Despite the fact that this is youth lit, McCormick does not flinch from vividly depicting the horrors of the labor camps. Yet she also captures Arn’s compassion, intelligence and the strength that helped him to survive and then learn how to live again.

Arn was the sort of kid who just seemed lucky or perhaps had always been street savvy or world-wise. As a child before the war, he managed to get extra money for himself and his family by selling ice cream and gambling. He kept himself alive in the camps by learning to play an instrument and mastering songs that the band played to entertain the Khmer Rouge elite as well to cover up the sounds of death at the work camps. He marvels at his own unusual luck while he sees others dying horrible deaths, and like the other children, he learns not to show any emotion about it because to do so meant certain death for yourself. But Arn never lost his compassion. He tried hard to protect other kids and some of the adults around him.

The years of the Khmer Rouge regime brought death every day. Arn saw children fall down in the fields and never get up again. He saw prisoners brutally put to death by an axe blow to the skull and then he had to help push the bodies into burial pits. He saw Khmer Rouge slice the livers out of prisoners and eat them. He learns that even members of the Khmer Rouge live in fear because they could be denounced at any moment. Arn also learns that he is capable of killing. By the time the Khmer Rouge have fallen, Arn is about 15. He has found his way to Thailand and a hospital/orphanage for Cambodian children, and there he meets an American who takes him and others back to the US. But Arn still must come to grips with the killing fields and the horrors he endured, the horrible things he had to do to survive. The description of his first experience in the US as a high school student, taunted both by the white American students and by other Cambodians, is absolutely heartbreaking. But the story of how Arn uses his story to educate others and learn to live again is simply beautiful and brought me to tears.

Today, Arn is known not just for his story but for the great works he has done on behalf of children in war-torn nations, especially in Cambodia. While the details of the killing fields may be hard for teens to hear (they were hard for me and I’m 48 and have a background in Soviet history), imagine how hard it must have been for a child to live them. This is an outstanding book that educates the reader about a shocking and brutal episode in 20th century history, but also demonstrates the amazing resilience and indomitable spirit of one person who came through it. McCormick, whose previous works have likewise been nominated for National Book Awards and other prizes, does a masterful job of presenting this story in a way that is suitable for a younger reader without pandering or watering down the material. It is a great novel period. Read it.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR4 Review #47: Sister Sister by Andrew Neiderman

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Cannonball Read IV: Book #47/52
Published: 1992
Pages: 292
Genre: Horror

I picked up this horribly cheesy novel at the used bookstore for $1. It’s not worth even that probably. I actually forgot I even read this until I was looking through my Goodreadsaccount (add me!) and realized I never wrote my CBR review for it.

It was a pretty forgettable novel, so forgive me if this review is somewhat vague. The plot follows a school teacher who gets a really good paying job to teach a set of conjoined twins. The twins (named Alpha and Beta…seriously) are locked up in a lab and have never been outside their small apartment in there. They’re pretty much treated like lab rats.

Read the rest in my blog.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR4 Review #46: Hilarity Ensues by Tucker Max

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Cannonball Read IV: Book #46/52
Published: 2012
Pages: 448
Genre: Humor

Sigh. I don’t even know where to start with this one. I read Tucker Max’s first book when I was in college (roughly 5 years ago…eek!) and thought it was hilarious. The guy was an asshole, no doubt, but he owned it at least. The second book was okay. Funny, but it lost some the charm of the first book. This third book? Completely lost any charm that may have ever existed.

Read the rest in my blog.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR4 Review #45: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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Cannonball Read IV: Book #45/52
Published: 1910
Pages: 331
Genre: Classic

I decided that I need to read more classic novels. I read a ton, but have barely read any of the books most people consider classics. I went with The Secret Garden as my first choice because I remember reading it when I was little and really liking it. I also liked the movie that came out sometime in the early/mid 90’s.

The premise is probably familiar to most people: Mary is a spoiled English child who lives in India with her wealthy family until she is orphaned after a plague strikes the area. She is shipped off to England to live in her uncle’s gigantic mansion. I remember always wanted to have a mansion like that to explore. I kind of still do. Anyways, Mary is pretty much left on her own all day and she starts getting nosy. First, she discovers a locked garden that she is told is forbidden because it was her Aunt’s, who had passed away years ago. Then she discovers that she has a cousin who is kept secret and bedridden due to a mysterious illness that he may or may not even have.

Read the rest in my blog.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #49: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat is a work of historical fiction set in 1914, two years after the sinking of The Titanic. The Empress Alexandra, a luxury liner en route from England to the US, has sunk at sea for reasons unknown. After several weeks in a lifeboat, a few survivors are found, and after being saved, some are put on trial for murder.

Told from point of view of newlywed Grace Winter, whose banker husband has perished, the story recounts Grace’s troubled family history, the unusual circumstances of her courtship and marriage, and a mystery surrounding her presence in the lifeboat. Grace is one of the people on trial.

Is our narrator reliable? I always enjoy a story where I’m not sure. It keeps me on edge and makes me read closely. The pretense for the story is that Grace’s lawyer asks her to write a diary of her time at sea so that he can help defend her, perhaps present an insanity plea. Each chapter covers a day on the lifeboat, interspersed with Grace’s trial preparation. It’s easy to feel sympathy for Grace. Her father’s suicide and her mother’s rapid mental deterioration afterward led Grace and her sister to make quick important decisions about their own futures. But does Grace make an admirable decision? Given that it’s 1914 and women’s opportunities are limited, are we right to judge her? Grace seems to have gaps in her memories about the weeks on the lifeboat. It was a harrowing experience following a tragedy, and the survivors make difficult decisions to ensure their survival. Would we make the same? Is it fair to judge them? And again, is Grace telling the truth? She comes across to some as fragile and needing protection, but it requires great strength to survive, and Grace has demonstrated her own strong survival instincts prior to embarking on The Empress Alexandra. Is forgetting what is too difficult to process a sign of that survivor’s strength? Or is Grace dissembling?

Three pivotal characters who help drive the drama are Mr. Hardie, the only seaman in the lifeboat and a man who takes charge but seems to be hiding things from his fellow survivors; Mrs. Grant, a woman who emanates understanding and compassion as well as leadership, but also then becomes a rival to Mr. Hardie; and Hannah, Mrs. Grant’s right hand woman. Some of the decisions made in the lifeboat involve distribution of food and water and whether to link up with other lifeboats or assist those in the water. Ultimately, the passengers are forced to decide who should lead with deadly consequences for the loser.

The Lifeboat, in addition to being a riveting story, provides commentary on the lot of women in 1914. Viewed as the weaker sex and in need of male guidance, they must obey laws made by men and are judged by juries of men. Does the system work to Grace’s advantage because she can present an image of a traditional woman who needs protection and was easily led by stronger personalities? Did the system lead to justice in the end?

To the author’s credit, at the end of the story, readers might draw very different conclusions about the actions of the people in the lifeboat and of Grace in particular. The author doesn’t leave the reader with a strong feeling of one character’s guilt or another’s innocence. Instead, we are left with an unsettling feeling about what we might have done in similar circumstances. A good book.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#48: Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Care of Wooden Floors is a sometimes amusing, sometimes unsettling novel, with several tips of the hat to Edgar Allan Poe. The story’s narrator, an Englishman who is never given a name and whom I shall hereafter refer to as “N,” has just arrived in an East European country to stay at his friend Oskar’s flat while he’s in California. Oskar is a successful composer, fastidious and demanding, with high standards for everything — music, food, drink, living space. The man loves and craves order. His best known composition is based on the theme of tram schedules and he is working on a piece that will be an homage to the Dewey decimal system. His apartment is a newly renovated masterpiece with fine wooden floors. When it comes to things, Oskar demands and gets the best. When it comest to people, he is often disappointed. His wife has left him and returned to California to divorce him (the reason for his absence) and his friend, the narrator, is watching the apartment and cats while Oskar is away.

Why Oskar is friends with N is puzzling to both reader and narrator. N is not particularly successful at anything in his life. He wants to be a writer but is employed as a pamphleteer for his local council. His girlfriend has left him, his apartment is a dump. Oskar and N met in college and maintained a friendship, it seems, because N was the only person willing to put up with Oskar’s persnickety ways and Oskar has worked at maintaining the friendship over time despite his seeming disdain for N’s slovenliness and overall mediocrity. Their personalities are quite opposite. In telling N about his divorce, Oskar says, “People say, this is difficult, that is difficult. It is an excuse for failing, for doing something wrong. It is not difficult — it should not be difficult. As long as there are some rules, some agreements, people should know how to do things, then everything should be easy.” For N on the other hand, “Perfection is aggressive. It is a rebuke.”

When N arrives, Oskar has already gone to California and has left written instructions for N throughout the apartment, often in unexpected places, as if he knows in advance what N  is going to do. Oskar is especially concerned about his floors and has left explicit instructions to call him if anything happens. Naturally, something does happen and N does not call. N seems afraid of Oskar’s reaction but also welcomes the opportunity to put one over on Oskar by somehow hiding what he has done. N thinks he can fix the problems, but as he bumbles about, trying to salvage an increasingly degenerating situation, it is as if Oskar has anticipated every fumble that N would make and has a note waiting. This contributes to N’s frustration and makes him more adamant that he will not give in, he will not call Oskar.

In some ways, this story is like one of those contemporary Hollywood comedies wherein the “hero” is a drunken lout who, through carelessness and bad luck, has to deal with problems that get worse as he tries to fix them. N actually compares his situation to that of Wile E Coyote at one point. Since the narrator is indeed a drunken lout, and he is presenting from his point of view alone, the reader is not always sure if N’s version of events is accurate and truthful. And as story progresses, the reader knows something truly awful will happen. In fact a couple of really awful things happen, and the reader might start to wonder about the reliability and mental stability of the narrator.

Care of Wooden Floors is quite suspenseful and drives the reader forward to see what is going to happen. I was not wholly satisfied with the ending of the novel. I had hoped for something unexpected, even macabre, but the author gives us something worthy of a Hollywood comedy (and not a terribly funny one). Overall, it was an okay book and I feel bad saying that because I feel like I should have loved it. Just didn’t.

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