Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “corruption”

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


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.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #100: The Racketeer by John Grisham

I had mixed feelings about this one. To be honest, I have loved the majority of Grisham’s novels, and thought this would be another in his respected series of intense political/legal thrillers. To my surprise and initial delight, The Racketeer is a fun ride. It is written mostly as a first-person narrative by black disbarred lawyer Malcolm Bannister, who is half-way through a 10-year jail term he didn’t deserve, has already lost his wife to divorce and young son to a new stepfather, and is desperate to get out. Malcolm is smart, savvy, and has a sense of humor which seasons his narrative. Before many pages into the novel, we discover that a federal judge and his lover have been robbed and murdered, and that Malcolm knows the killer and is willing to barter his knowledge to the clueless FBI in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card. The deal is struck, the suspect is apprehended, confesses, is indicted, and Malcolm is whisked out of jail, given a new identity and face, and allowed to go his merry way.

This is where the story gets interesting, because Malcolm is not a jailhouse snitch and all is not as it seems. Rather, he has forged a clever–and ruthless–plot to get his revenge on the system that destroyed his former life. The story rapidly fills up with characters and complicated scenarios which require a careful eye to keep track of. Grisham’s talent is in keeping the reader fooled along with Malcolm’s targets, but his weakness—in this novel at least—is in offering us plot twists and characters which are so improbable as to be almost laughable. For example, girlfriend Vanessa appears somewhere along the way, virtually from thin air, and yet becomes an integral accomplice in the plot which our “hero” hatched at least two years earlier. Malcolm takes a thousand and one risks to make his revenge a success, and yet manages to sail through each without a hiccup. In the real world, he would have been back in jail before the novel hit its half-way mark. And Malcolm himself has somehow morphed from the simple, honest, even naïve attorney who got caught in a spider’s web at the beginning of the story, to a slick operator who knows his way around drugs, guns, fake identities, gold traders, money launderers, the film industry, and more. It is almost like the world suddenly becomes Malcolm’s plaything, and everything easily bends to his will.

In fact, things are so well-oiled for Malcolm that I almost found myself hoping that he himself was the judge-killer the FBI was searching for, just to throw a well-deserved kink into the too-slick story line. Alas, that was not to be. Don’t get me wrong. I was happily entertained with this fast-paced and cleverly-conceived, or should I say fast-conceived and cleverly-paced, novel. Just the sort of thing that Hollywood loves to churn out with big-name draws to cover for lack of depth. And, to be fair, Grisham did end his novel with a reference to the sort of corporate corruption that has become his bread-and-butter of late. Still and all, for the most part a forgettable story. I can only hope that Grisham takes a little more time with his next one, and gives his readership something more solid to bite into.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #70: The Innocent by David Baldacci

Baldacci’s latest thriller is a decent recovery from Zero Day, his previous most recent novel and an unexpected bomb, in my opinion (see my earlier review). The Innocent has likeable if unoriginal characters, an exciting if somewhat predictable plot, plenty of gore, a touch of romance, and just enough of a political tinge to keep it interesting but still politically correct.

Baldacci once again centers much of the action in the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area he knows so well, and builds his story around a U.S. government assassin who only questions his life and those who deploy him when he is ordered—but refuses–to kill his target, a working mother of two right in the nation’s capitol. She is not the drug cartel boss, terrorist financier, and so forth he usually is sent after, and besides, she has two cute kids. Trained killer Will Robie suddenly discovers he has a soft spot for helpless females, babies, and a smart-ass teenage girl he encounters running for her life. Robie and the girl end up going on the run together, trying to figure out who killed her parents and is after her, and who ordered him to do a bad hit and then tried to kill him.

At first, their two stories appear to be unrelated, but little by little, the clues, the victims, and the story lines cross, until it becomes evident that there is a huge conspiracy afoot, and the players are very high up inside U.S. intelligence, defense and law enforcement. The big disappointment to me is that, while Baldacci’s plot gave him ample ammunition for going after real corruption inside the U.S. political machine, something he has not shied away from in his earlier novels, he instead chose a more clichéd approach in The Innocent. And somehow, I managed to guess rather early in the plot who the ultimate baddie was, and that was a bit of a disappointment for me.

Nonetheless, as far as Baldacci thrillers go, this one had all the right stuff and I’ll confess that I mostly enjoyed it, despite the nagging feeling that I had already read the story–or seen the movie—before.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #29: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance is a novel set in India in 1975 during the rule of Indira Gandhi and her infamous “Emergency,” which was used to smash her political opposition and ended up terrorizing large portions of the population as well. As in his later book Family Matters, which I reviewed earlier for Cannonball Read, Mistry targets the corruption, the superstition, and the caste system which degrades his native country, but in A Fine Balance, his tale is also overtly political and unrelenting in its hostility to the Gandhi regime, while his later work is more personal and, perhaps, more subtle as well.

The plot of A Fine Balance centers around four individuals who come together in their difficulties, and ultimately lean heavily on each other for survival. Two are Untouchables, impoverished tailors—uncle and nephew—who had fled their village and its caste bigotry, only to end up living in garbage dumps and doorways in an unnamed “city by the sea,” which is presumably Bombay, today called Mumbai. The two tailors are hired by, and eventually permitted to live outside the home of widowed seamstress Dina, a feisty woman whose failing eyesight forces her to hire the tailors while serving as the “go-between” to a company that supplies the materials and the patterns for the dresses the tailors sew. And finally, there is college student Maneck, obliged to leave his village home and unhappily attend school in the city while boarding with Dina, his mother’s old childhood friend.

Each of these figures has suffered tragedy and disappointment, but together, they manage to draw out the humanity in each other. Dina slowly discovers that her Untouchable employees are, in fact, real human beings, and along with Maneck, they become the family she never had. But in the meantime, political anarchy, racism, forced sterilization, unimaginable poverty, and both personal and institutional corruption swirl around the little family, and our two innocent tailors stumble from one horrific calamity to the next while the reader cringes in horror at the repeated abuse and suffering they are forced to endure.

In addition to his four main characters, Mistry peoples his novel with many different victims of the social system he indicts, ranging from the legless beggar Worm and the half-mad Monkey-man, to the manipulative Beggar-master and the murderous hair thief. An amazing tapestry of Indian life is presented to the reader, but even with the bits of humor the author manages to weave into it, its colors are obscured by the filth–both literal and figurative–that is Mistry’s India . Reviewers have called A Fine Balance Dickensian for its unstinting portrayal of the hopelessness of the human condition in 1975 India. But I found that hopelessness also infected Mistry’s writing itself, for by the end, he offers no escape for either the protagonists of his story, or for his own poor country.

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