Friday, July 30, 2010

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

A couple of years ago, after I'd started getting Hooked on Classics, I realized I'd never read anything by the science fiction authors H. G. Wells or Jules Verne.  Though I'm not usually a fan of sci-fi, I'm particularly interested in both of these writers because their works are such a reflection of the Victorian fascination with science and industry.  And since I was traveling (to California, not around the world, sadly), I thought that Around the World in Eighty Days would be a perfect vacation read, as it's a classic adventure story.  Though Verne is well known as one of the first science fiction writers, this book, which isn't science fiction, was and still is his most popular.

If you're not familiar with the story, here it is in a nutshell:  Set in 1872, elegant, unflappable Victorian gentleman Phileas Fogg is challenged by other members of his elite club to circumnavigate the world in 80 days.  He bets his own fortune that he can do it and rushes off with his new servant, Passpartout, a Frenchman who had been hired only the same day.  As Fogg and Passpartout race around the globe by ship, train, and some other unusual modes of transportation (which I won't spoil because they're nice surprises), they are pursued by a somewhat bumbling detective, Mr. Fix, who believes Fogg is a master criminal on the lam.

This book turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.  It's enjoyable adventure story and an easy read, so it was ideal for a vacation. It's one that children might also enjoy as well.  However, this book, like so many others, is a product of its time, and includes some racism.  Verne's depiction of Indians and Native Americans is pretty unflattering, and he even gets in some digs about Mormons. Also, the book tends to focus on lists of places he's visiting, and less about character development.  Phileas Fogg is pretty flat.

But I can see why it was so popular, given the fascination at that time with all the newfangled modes of transportation and romanticized ideas of traveling.  It's been remade and adapted so many times that I was surprised that the original story wasn't exactly what I expected -- and I'm a little embarrassed to admit that after all these years, I didn't realize that I've been saying Fogg's name wrong -- it's Phileas, with an L -- all this time I thought it was Phineas, with an N.  Also, there is no hot air balloon!  This was added to the 1956 film adaptation with David Niven, and so now most people associate it with the story.  As you can see from the illustration above, it's even on the cover of many of the editions, even though there is no mention of balloon travel in the entire story.

Besides the films and TV shows, people have also been recreating Fogg's journey for more than 100 years.  Michael Palin of Monty Python fame began his first travel series by recreating this journey -- if you haven't seen the BBC miniseries, I highly recommend it.  I'm going to have to watch it all over again and compare it to the book.  Around the World in Eighty Days also reminded me of a really old television cartoon I remember from my childhood; however, in that version, Phileas Fogg is racing around the world so that he can marry his sweetheart Belinda (her nasty uncle Lord Maze says they can't marry until Phileas proves himself worthy by completing the trip,  though he's sent Mr. Fix to thwart his attempts).  What I remember most about it is the theme song, which is now stuck in my head.  If you're interested in this obscure bit of pop culture, you can see a clip from the intro here.

I don't know if Jules Verne can be technically considered a Victorian author, since he's French, but the protagonist Phileas Fogg is definitely a Victorian gentlemen.  Therefore I am considering this as a Victorian book, and I'm including it as one of the books for Our Mutual Read challenge, (#10!) and I'll be cross-posting it on that blog.   My good friend Amanda at The Zen Leaf also reviewed this book.  To read her review, click here.  If you've reviewed the book and would like me to add a link to your review, please let me know in the comments and I'll add it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vacation Reading: The Results

Back from vacation, and I am exhausted!  Having fun is work.  Seriously, I have no right to complain -- ten days in Southern California!  Boo hoo!  I spent a lot of time with my brother and sister-in-law and their baby Luca, who is seven months old and in the running for the title of Cutest Baby On the Planet.  I also went to the San Diego Zoo, Coronado, and two days at Disneyland. Woo hoo!

In between all this excitement, I actually got a lot of reading done:  I ended up bringing seven books with me, three library books and four of my own, and I finished six of them!  I know, I swore I was only bringing owned-and-unread books, but in the end I caved, as all three of the library books were very thin paperbacks. 

Just for fun I decided to total the page numbers:  approximately 1,475 pages read!  Here's a list of the books I completed (reviews to follow shortly):

1. Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
2. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
3. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
4. Summer by Edith Wharton
5. Mixed Magics by Diana Wynne Jones
6. The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin

Looking back at the list, I just realized how well this list represents most of my favorite genres:  children's fantasy, classics, and food writing.  (No mysteries this time around -- well, there's always next year). 

I also broke my resolution to stop buying books -- Puffin Children's Classics were on special at Barnes & Noble, three for the price of two!  And I found a really cool book at the Hotel Del Coronado bookstore that I just could not resist:  Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West.  Time to plan some literary pilgrimages!

I had almost no time to blog or comment on other blogger's postings, so I apologize.  However, I'd like to thank Jane at Reading, Writing, Working, Playing for a Versatile Blogger Award -- thank you so much!   According to Jane, I must now share seven things about myself and then pass the award to more bloggers (it's supposed to be 15, but I need to start writing those book reviews so I'm limiting it to seven, which has a nice symmetry). 

Seven things about myself, some of which are pretty random:  

1.  I've visited 39 states in the U.S., and lived in five: Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Nebraska, and Texas.
2.  I've visited 14 foreign countries and lived in Japan.  
3.  I have a journalism degree, a culinary certificate, and a Master's in Library Science.
4.  I love period movies, i.e., costume dramas.
5.  I've eaten some really unusual foods, including ostrich, emu, kangaroo, and crocodile.  Probably the most unusual food I ever ate was deep-fried duck hearts.  We were in Beijing and it was the appetizer course at a Peking duck restaurant.  I was a little squeamish but I was starving.  They were delicious.
6.  I'm a lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
7.  In 2008 I went on 14 zip lines in one day in the mountains of Costa Rica.  I felt like Spiderwoman.

Now -- time to pass the awards forward!  I read quite a few blogs, and here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):

1.  The Zen Leaf
2.  Lakeside Musings
3.  Book Lust
4.  Things Mean a Lot
5.  Jenny's Books
6.  Rebecca Reads
7.  Pining for the West

Well -- time to start writing up all those reviews. 

PS -- I apologize for the tiny font size.  Somehow the whole thing has shrunk and I can't get it back to normal.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

I nearly gave up on this book at page 81.  Is it fair to begin reviewing a book when I've read less than 100 pages?  However, I did stick with it and in the end it was worth reading, if you like this sort of thing.   I read the first in this series last summer, and I found it to be an intriguing, fast read, even though some of the subject matter was a little icky.  Why must so many thrillers have sex crimes?  It's getting really tiresome.  I'm not against a good murder mystery, but it seems to me that they're getting more and more gruesome, like the authors are trying to top one another (I blame Patricia Cornwell, even though I stopped reading her books ten years ago).

I tried to summarize these books but just couldn't.  Basically, there's a Swedish investigative journalist, Mikael Blomqvist, and Lisbeth Salaner, the brilliant but troubled computer hacker he hires to help research a big expose.  Their lives become intertwined while exposing lots of financial, corporate, and political scandals.  Oh, and there are some unpleasant sex crimes. 

I can understand why the first book in this series was such an international sensation, and even the second had some good bits in it, though I didn't like it as much as the first.  (Though in retrospect I'm not even sure I liked it -- I just couldn't stop reading it and had to find out what happened, which probably doesn't even make sense).  I'd been on the waiting list for this book from the library for quite awhile, and I needed to read it before I went on vacation -- no way I'd have been able to renew it with another hundred people waiting for it).

But the first 100 pages of this book didn't seem to be going anywhere.  Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl in the title, is slowly recovering in the hospital after being shot and buried alive (!), and lots of people with confusing names are discussing what they're going to do about it -- journalists, cops, government types, and various criminal organizations.  I think the problem may be that it's been several months since I read the previous installment, and I was pretty confused.  Maybe I should have taken notes the first time around -- could it be a problem with the names, which are, of course, mostly Swedish?   But seriously, there are so many characters, and the names are really confusing.  And unlike many other series books, this book did not go back and remind the reader who in the heck all these people are -- it picked up immediately after the first book, assuming that either the reader had just finished the previous book or has a stellar memory (like Lisbeth.)  For example -- there are two bad guys in the same organization named Nieminen and Niedermann! I feel guilty about mixing them all up -- does this make me a stupid American?  [I felt much better after I read Nora Ephron's hilarious essay in the New Yorker, The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut.]

I finally got through this book by basically skimming all the parts where Larsson is trying to explain the history of the Swedish secret service/spy agencies with lots of political stuff, which I found really dry. (Since I skipped most of this I'm not quite sure if he's actually incorporating real political events in his book or just giving the reader some historical context.  There are actually endnotes.)  Anyway, the book really does get better when Lisbeth starts to recover and by convoluted methods is actually able to start hacking again while in the hospital under police guard.  She's not even supposed to have a pencil, but because she is a super badass and has friends who are willing to break lots of laws, she's able to hack into all kinds of secret files to create her defense, which is great because otherwise she'd have nothing to do while basically a prisoner in a hospital.   Larsson must have finally realized that she's by far the most interesting character, much more than the other one, the sexy investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (even though the requisite women are still  jumping into bed with him in a heartbeat.  Ho hum.)

Even though I'm disturbed by some of the misogyny in these books, I have to point out that there are some good strong female characters.  Even though yet another female character is subject to some nasty humiliation about her sex life (which I found totally unnecessary), Larsson introduces two new great characters, a tough but sexy secret agent, Monica Figueroa, and a tough, sexy security consultant, Susanne Linder.  And Blomkvist's sister has quite a big role as Lisbeth's defense lawyer -- she's also tough and brilliant.  (And since she's Blomkvist's sister, I assume she's also sexy).  If Larsson hadn't died so unexpectedly, I would have liked to see spin-off series with any of these characters.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Vacation Reads

So, I have started packing for my vacation which begins Friday, and, naturally, I already have a stack of books that I'm thinking about bringing with me.  Proof of my obsession with reading:  though I have not packed a single garment, I have no less than NINE books selected for my 10 day vacation.  Riiight.  Since I am not spending this vacation locked in a hotel room, I sincerely doubt I need this many, and must whittle the pile down to something managable.  But it's so hard.  I have so many unread books that I own, and I never feel like I'm making any progress.  I don't know why I persist in this fantasy that I will someday have read all the books I own.  Nevertheless, I'm making an effort.

At the moment, I have well over 100 books on my to-read bookshelf, probably closer to 150 if I include all the children's classics and the travel and food memoirs on my cookbook shelf.  I have resolved only to bring paperback books I own on this trip -- that way if they're lost in my luggage, I won't owe the library; plus they're smaller and lighter than hardcovers.  I've tried to select a good variety, and I'm concentrating on the books that have been around unread the longest. 

I'm thinking I could reasonably bring five or six books -- most of them aren't terribly long, and I will have at least six or seven hours to kill during travel time.  Last summer, I went to California for a week and brought David Copperfield and Dreiser's An American Tragedy with me.  Not exactly light beach reading -- though I seriously brought Dreiser to the beach. 

Anyway -- I'd love some opinions.  Which books should I bring and which should go back on the pile for later?  I know I'll have extras, but I get nervous if I don't have enough choices.  Here are the nominees, alphabetically by title:

1.  The Apprentice:  My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin.  A food memoir, yum.  Sadly, I'm not going to Paris. 

2.  Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber.  A literary romance about an Arab-American woman who works in a restaurant.  Middle Eastern food fiction, includes recipes.  I might actually be cooking, so this is a good candidate.

3.  Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag.  Pioneer fiction about Norwegian immigrants living in the Dakotas.  Given to me by my good friend Paul when he found out I was moving to Nebraska.  Ten years ago!  I think it's time I got around to reading it.  (In my defense, he also gave me My Antonia, which I've read twice and loved.  Willa Cather is awesome.)

4.  Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.  Short stories, always a good choice while traveling.  And I haven't read a single one of my Persephone books yet.  Might be too heavy for summer reading, though. 

5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.  Another Persephone classic, still sadly unread. 

6.  Perfume From Provence by Lady Winifred Fortescue.  Another food memoir -- the blurb compares it to Peter Mayle, but written fifty years earlier.  And it's illustrated by E. H. Shephard, who wrote Winnie-the-Pooh.  I bought this more than 10 years ago at the French pavilion at Epcot. 

7.  Stardust by Neil Gaiman.  I LOVE Anansi Boys, and I bought this after I saw the Stardust movie adaptation, which I really enjoyed.  However, I just finished a book of his short stories -- maybe I should save it since I've finished almost all of his works. 

8.  Summer by Edith Wharton.  I'm quite sure I'll bring this one because it's the August read for my library's book group. 

9.  The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.   I loved the Moomintroll books as a child so I just had to buy this when I saw it at Bookpeople, the best independent bookstore in Texas.  Plus it's short, only 170 pages.  With illustrations!

So -- I'm thinking three in my carry-on (must have choices!) and three in the suitcase.  Too many good books!  Sigh.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

This book is not very timely -- who wants to read about Christmas in July?  Well, it's usually mighty hot here in Texas, and every summer I like to fantasize about snow, wearing wool sweaters and drinking hot beverages next to a roaring fire, when in fact I am huddled under an air conditioner with a sweaty glass of lemonade, looking longingly at my yard and wishing it were 20 degrees cooler so I could sit outside and enjoy it. 

So Dickens and Christmas is just about as opposite of a Texas summer as I can imagine.  This book is a short biography of Dickens, focusing on how and why he wrote his most beloved work, A Christmas Carol, and its huge impact on Western culture, specifically how most people celebrate or imagine Christmas. 

It begins with Dickens reading in Manchester for a charity fundraiser.  He was at a tough place in his current work, Martin Chuzzlewit, and facing personal and financial difficulties.  Like today, most writers are only as popular as their last work.  Dickens was in debt and needed something inspirational -- his previous work, American Notes for General Circulation, was not well received, and Chuzzlewit, his latest serial publication wasn't nearly as popular as the books that made him famous. 

The book includes a short background of Dickens' career before A Christmas Carol, and gives quite a lot of detail about his publishing history.  it's pretty depressing that one of the world's most beloved writers made so little money from his own works, since countries didn't recognize international copyrights.  There were bootleg versions and lousy knockoffs published in England as well -- at one point, he sues a publisher for a cheap imitation of his work.  He won the lawsuit, but the publisher declared bankruptcy, so Dickens wound up having to pay court costs for himself and the defendant as well!  Talk about adding insult to injury! (He did put this experience to good use as material for Bleak House).

There's also a lot of background about how the Christmas holidays had fallen out of favor and were barely celebrated in the manner that most people imagine. Dickens himself was writing about an idealized holiday. The popularity of this book inspired people to decorate and start buying more Christmas turkeys, which quickly surpassed the popularity of the traditional Christmas goose. (I've tasted roast goose, it was pretty dry; I'm not surprised that most people prefer turkey). Prince Albert also contributed Christmas traditions, popularizing Christmas trees.

I don't know that this book has anything particular insightful or groundbreaking.  If you're a Dickens fan you probably know all about his sad childhood, how he skyrocketed to fame with The Pickwick Papers, and his unhappy marriage and divorce.  It does help give some context and background, and there's some interesting background about 19th century publishing.  Standiford recommends Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, (about 1200 pages!) which is sadly out of print, but I was intrigued enough to check it out of the library despite its length.

I'm also hoping that this book will inspire me to return to Dickens.  Reading his entire works is one of my lifelong goals, but I got discouraged with my most recent attempt, The Old Curiosity Shop, which I haven't touched in weeks. I started it and I found Quilp so repulsive I haven't picked it up again. 

This is book #9 for Our Mutual Read Challenge. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Great Husband Hunt by Lauren Graham

Several years ago I had the good fortune to live in Japan, which was great. However, one of the few things I really missed was good bookstores.  We lived on a military base, and the selection at the BX was pretty much limited to bestselling mass-market paperbacks and whatever Oprah was currently recommending.  And the library's collection was a little sad (too bad I hadn't gotten into classics yet, I could've finished the entire works of Dickens). 

Of course there was online shopping, but there's something so wonderful about just discovering an intriguing book.  So the result was that I became a book hoarder.  Any trade paperback I saw at the BX was snatched up, no matter what; I had to buy them right away, because next time they'd be gone.  So I ended up with a lot of books I might not have tried otherwise, and many of those books are still waiting to be read,  like The Great Husband Hunt, which was definitely an impulse purchase.  I finally grabbed it off the shelf the other day because I felt the urge for a light, quick read, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I was convinced this book was going to be fluffy chick lit (and I admit I have read my share).  I wouldn't classify with Sophie Kinsella or Emily Giffin (i.e., young singleton moves to the big city, works in publishing and finds a man to love her) but it's definitely not a heavy literary read.  There's enough substance here to merit consideration for a book discussion group (which I'm sure the publishers intended as they were thoughtful enough to include a Reader's Guide in the back).  Basically, this book spans most of the 20th century and is the story of Poppy Minkel, a young mustard heiress.  It starts in 1912, when Poppy's father dies on the Titanic.  The first line of the book is pretty intriguing: 

It was just as well I had ripped off my Ear Correcting Bandages.  Had I been bound up in my usual bedtime torture-wear, I would never have heard my mother's screams.

Fifteen-year old Poppy's ears are bound up nightly by her mother, one of many procedures she suffers in the hopes that she will actually catch a husband someday and not end up an Old Maid.  Poppy is the ugly duckling of the family, and spends her youth disappointing her mother and overly critical aunt.  Her life perks up when the U.S. is pulled into the Great War and everyone needs to do their part.  Poppy finally gets out of her sheltered New York apartment and gets a taste of what life is like.  When she comes into her inheritance at twenty-one, life really begins -- the roaring 20s, Prohibition, living as an ex-pat in Europe, and then the outbreak of WWII.  The story ends up in the 1970s, when she retires.

I found myself quite enjoying this book.  Parts of it are pretty funny, and I liked reading about life during the wars and Prohibition -- needless to say, it's pretty sanitized because Poppy isn't really exposed to the harsh realities of life for most people at that time.  But it was kind of fun to read about her life once she took control of her own life.  I was expecting more about her search for a husband, that's only a small part of the book. 

My biggest complaint is that Poppy doesn't really develop very much as a character -- she's pretty selfish and is a terrible parent.  She is pretty spunky and doesn't seem to give up, despite some of the setbacks she endures, and she's clever enough to reinvent herself.  (The author's notes mention that Poppy was very loosely based on heiresses Barbara Hutton and Peggy Guggenheim.)  However, it was interesting enough for me to finish and recommend with reservations.  It isn't great literature, and it isn't for everyone, but it wouldn't be a bad book on a long flight or by the beach.  It's definitely a step up from a lot of summer reads. 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Books I Will Never Read (and a Few I Love)

Inspired by Amanda, who borrowed the idea from Nancy at Bookfoolery and Babble (from whom I have borrowed this cute graphic, I hope you don't mind.)  Sadly, many of these books are on those Best Books in the World lists like The Modern Library Top 100, which I had at one point hoped to finish.  It's just not going to happen.

My personal list:

1. Ulysses by James Joyce.  I know, it's one of those Great Books.  I just can't do stream of consciousness.  I'd like to think I'm not too stupid, but I just don't have the patience.

2.  Anything by Thomas Pynchon.  Because my roommate after college implied that I wasn't cerebral enough to "get him."  Hmpf.

3. Don Quixote.  Sounds really boring, and reaaaallly long.  Sorry, there are too many good books I still haven't read to suffer through that.

4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Didn't like All the Pretty Horses, and it sounds just too depressing.  No thanks!

5.  Anything by Stephenie Meyer.  I have wasted too much time on her Twilight drivel.  I'd like those hours back but I guess that's too much to ask.

6.  Anything by Saul Bellow.  As a former Chicagoan, this is sacrilege, but I started Humbolt's Gift and found it pointless.

7.  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.  I read As I Lay Dying, which I found confusing at first, but once I figured out all the characters it was pretty enjoyable.   For the life of me I could not get past 20 pages of S & F.  Stream of consciousness plus the constant changing of narrators is just too much trouble at this point in my life -- I have so many books on my to-read list, I am just going to pass on this one.  But I admire those of you who have actually finished this and even enjoyed it.. 

8.  Tropic of Cancer (and Tropic of Capricorn) by Henry Miller.  Tried reading it after seeing Henry &  June.  There was so much sex and foul language in it, I couldn't figure out what the story was supposed to be about.  I know, it's a groundbreaking, important book, blah blah blah.  I'm not opposed to sex or swearing in books, but this seemed like it was just lots of sex and and language to shock people.

9.  The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.  Saw the movie in college, it was the most disturbing thing I've ever seen next to A Clockwork Orange.

10.  A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  See #9.

Now, so I don't feel like a complete idjit, I have to add a short list of some books that many other people hate that I have actually loved:

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck --  for years I had Fear of Steinbeck because of this book.  I could not put this down, thought it was fantastic.  Yes, it's depressing and parts are a little disturbing, but it was so worth it.

2.  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  Another one I was dreading.  Emma is a complete trainwreck, completely selfish and self-centered.  But fascinating.  Stayed up late reading it.

3.  Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  I was one of the few people not forced to read this in high school.  I am so glad I read it as an adult when I could appreciate it.  Ethan's another fascinating train wreck.  It's so bleak but I've read it several times and it's still one of my favorites.

4.  The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  See #3.  Not my first Wharton, but the one that made me a huge fan. Lily Bart is another heroine on a downward spiral, but I find her much more sympathetic than Emma Bovary. 

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Another book I somehow avoided in high school (my freshman English class watched the movie instead.  What a crap teacher).  The writing is so beautiful it's almost like poetry.  I'd love to hear it read aloud, must get an audiobook next time.

Does anyone else have a favorite book that everyone else hates?  What books will you never read?  I'd love to read your love/hate lists.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This is a tough book to review.  The White Tiger is the July selection for my monthly library book discussion group, and I knew hardly anything about it before I started -- just that it's set in India, and it's about a man who's telling his life story, and there is some kind of murder involved.  And that's OK -- sometimes I think it's better not to know anything about a book when you start.

This is not a flattering portrait of India.  One of the blurbs on the back says there's "not a whiff of saffron or saris to be found" and that couldn't be more true.  If the idea of India brings to mind beautiful view of the Taj Mahal or gorgeous women with hennaed hands and sparkly jewels, this is not the book for you, to put it mildly.  This is not romanticized at all.  If you have read Q & A by Vikas Swarup (also known as the movie title, Slumdog Millionaire,) that is a whole lot closer to what you should expect.

In fact, it reminded me quite a lot of Q & A.  Both of these books are about young men born into horrific conditions in India, and how they basically pull themselves up by their bootstraps and use their wits to survive.  The comparison pretty much ends there, however.  There's no dancing and singing and uplifting love story in The White Tiger -- just a lot more of the filth and horrific poverty and oh my God, the corruption of India.  If you are squeamish or faint of heart, you might not enjoy this book.  Like Q & A/Slumdog, there's a lot of description of the unpleasant living conditions in India -- the pollution and disease and lack of sanitation.  A few times I had to put the book down and take a break.  Not a book to read while eating.

Anyway, back to story. The main character of The White Tiger, Balram, is born into extreme poverty in northern India -- what he refers to as The Darkness.  According to the book, there are two Indias, The Light and the Darkness -- two different worlds depending on if you're rich or poor.  Balram's so poor, he doesn't even have a real name.  His family just calls him Manna, or Boy.  When he goes to school he's given a name by his teacher, but that's about all he gets from his school, since the teacher is stealing the school money meant to be used for books, uniforms, and lunches.  And Balram's family yanks him out of school when he's a teenager anyway, since he has to get a job smashing coal to pay for his cousin's dowry and wedding.  It seems like all the poor people in India are faced with this downward spiral of no choices, no opportunities, and no real government to look out for them.

Everyone has to hustle to get ahead, and Balram manages to learn how to be a drive a car, and eventually to get a job as a driver with a rich family, where he gets quite an education by keeping his eyes and ears open.  I really did feel sorry for Balram -- he does start out basically honest, and it seems like he's trying to resist falling all the corruption that surrounds him.  This entire book is filled with people either getting or taking bribes or favors, which I found so depressing.  However, I still kept turning back to it.  Balram is not a pleasant character, and does some terrible things to get ahead in life.  Really terrible, horrific things.  This story is one of those fascinating train wrecks -- I knew it would end badly, but couldn't stop reading because I had to find out what happened.

I don't know if I would have read this book if it hadn't been a book club selection.    Coincidentally, I read this just before Fingersmith, another book about criminals.  Ultimately, I think I liked it -- it gave me a lot to think about. It made me think about the choices people have depending on their circumstances.  As bad as the economy and my job situation are, I'm far, far better off than most people in India or in Victorian England.  How far would you go to get ahead in life?  What crimes would you commit to make a better life for yourself and your family?  I can see that this is going to make for a great discussion.  I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but it definitely gave me some perspective.