Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw-puller in India, is feisty and ambitious. He succeeds in his quest to get a job as a rich man's chauffeur, and we know from the beginning that he kills his boss and becomes an entrepreneur. This set me up to want to find out why he did it and how he got away with it. Balram tells his story in the form of a (very long) letter to the premier of China who is coming to visit Balram's city of Bangalore, ostensibly to find out how to bring technology and entrepreneurship to China. Balram begins by describing the paradox that is India—the high-tech outsourcing companies surrounded by slums with open sewers and contaminated drinking water. Then he proceeds with the story of his life, including his father's death from TB at a public hospital with no doctor. This sounds incredibly bleak, and it gets worse, but Balram's voice is laced with dark humor and sarcasm, and I found myself ashamed to be laughing. I love that Balram justifies the murder of his boss by observing that we often honor our murderous leaders with statues. The author seems to enjoy pointing up all the dichotomies that exist in India. For example, graft and election fixing are rampant in a country that considers itself a democracy. The rich are corrupt, while their poor servants are scrupulously honest to avoid the wrath of their masters. Sadly, the book offers no hope that India will ever be able to dig itself out of this situation, and certainly the author is not suggesting that the country needs more Balrams. The irony is that Balram escapes poverty by emulating the every-man-for-himself attitude of the men in power.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Three stories, their relative timeframes unknown, converge at the end, all involving lopsided pairings of a sociopath with his pathetic but sane partner-in-crime. Ryan is a twenty-something who has violently lost his hand in the first few pages. We find out later that he and his new-found dad Jay are identity thieves, changing personas as fast as you can say "passport photo." Ryan, presumed dead, by his family, feels a mixture of isolation and freedom when he reads his own obituary. In another track, Lucy is a money-hungry teenage orphan who has just run off with her charismatic history teacher George. She starts to become disillusioned, though, when they hole up in an abandoned motel in Nebraska, instead of seeking adventure and touring the country in George's Maserati. How, indeed, does a high school teacher afford a Maserati? We could feel sorry for Lucy if she weren't so superficial and spineless. The third story is of Miles and his quest to find his missing paranoid-schizophrenic twin brother Hayden. He cannot seem to proceed with his own life until he uncovers the secrets of Hayden's. Miles is a very forlorn character but the only one we really have any sympathy for and the one whose identity is really most in need of enrichment. He heads to the Arctic Circle after receiving yet another obscure postcard from Hayden. Perhaps this time he will find what he has been looking for, either his estranged brother or himself.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


It's a little juvenile, and it comes across as a sort of self-help book, but it has its appeal, especially if you're a car racing fanatic. Also, it's narrated by a dog, Enzo, who understands a lot more about what's going on than some of the people. Denny, his owner, experiences setback after setback, heartbreak after heartbreak, but keeps on trucking, so to speak, and doggedly, I might add. In fact, Denny is a little too perfect. Enzo expects to be reincarnated as a man with all of Denny's best qualities, including his love and aptitude for racing. In this life, unfortunately, Enzo can't speak, and that inadequacy, along with the lack of opposing thumbs, is a source of endless frustration for him. He's pretty much on target, though, in his assessment of the various human characters that populate the book; I love it that he dubs Enzo's in-laws the Evil Twins, a moniker that they richly deserve. Mostly, the book offers up car racing as a metaphor for life. Even though I thought the writing was pedantic (What can you expect from a dog?), I boohooed at the emotional ending.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Fat Ollie is a detective investigating the assassination of a local politician. He's an equal-opportunity bigot, and his novel, except for the last chapter, has been stolen from his patrol car. Yes, he's written a very short (30+ pages) novel, Report to the Commissioner, and has no backup copy, because he composed it on a typewriter. So there are two crimes being solved here, and how they become intertwined is hilarious. The transvestite prostitute, Emilio/Emmy, who stole the novel, doesn't realize that it's fiction and starts doing some sleuthing of his own to locate the people in the book. There's also a drug deal going down in the middle of it all, with some two-bit crooks who have no idea what they're getting into. Needless to say, this is not a thriller or a serious mystery. Fat Ollie's novel is included in its entirety and provides lots of laughs, especially as its author repeats himself to be sure that he's covered all the bases grammatically. And the protagonist of Ollie's book is a female cop, so that it's almost as if Ollie is channeling a woman in the book. It's a not-too-subtle parallel with the Emilio/Emmy character.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld imagines the life of Laura Bush with obvious fictional embellishments. The novel largely focuses on the conflict between staying true to one's principles and being a supportive spouse. Alice Lindgren is the stand-in for Laura, and Charlie Blackwell represents George W. Bush here, and the setting is Wisconsin instead of Texas. Charlie is a ne'er do-well from a rich and powerful Republican family with a mother whose nickname is Maj (short for Her Majesty). Alice has a middle-class background and leans left of center politically. The couple's political differences don't so much hamper their marriage as they have the potential to undermine Charlie's political aspirations. Plus, Alice has a few skeletons in her closet, and, of course, Charlie's transgressions are sort of swept under the rug after he gets religion. Alice makes the observation that it's much more difficult to be mildly famous, in which case people come out of the woodwork wanting a piece of you, than to be really famous, in which case you're totally insulated from all that. From my perspective, though, I realized that Laura Bush probably has had a much more colorful life than I have given her credit for, even if she didn't do most of the stuff in the book. Since my political leanings are more in line with Alice's than with Charlie's, I enjoyed the book. Your reaction may be different if you lean the other way, because certainly some of Alice's behaviors are very un-First-Lady-like.