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Review: The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age by James Crabtree My rating: 5 of 5 stars Disclaimer: AR...

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India's New Gilded Age by James Crabtree
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.

Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is only mentioned briefly in James Crabtree’s excellent look at the super rich of India, The Billionaire Raj. I found this fact interesting because I request the book via Netgalley precisely because I have read and taught Boo’s book. Granted, Crabtree’s book is a study of the extreme upper class so slums really don’t enter into the book. Yet, and Crabtree knows this, it is impossible to read this book, in particularly the parts about buildings with private pools and indoor football pitches, without thinking of those slums were people lack clean water, secure housing, and light.

I’m talking about the Residence Antilia owned by Makesh Ambani. A rather unique house. The fascination with it does also include the fact that it does give one a great a view of the slums. Talk about looking down.

This is not to say that Crabtree’s book is not a must read because it is. Instead of focusing on the soap opera or crime story details of the rich, Crabtree looks at the society. Not only does Crabtree look at the rise of the monied class, but he also examines the work of politics and graft, thus making a necessary read with Boo’s book.
Additionally, it is quite easy to see connections to America’s current political environment. Some of what Crabtree describes is quite easily seen outside of India. It’s just that India juxtaposes the two more starkly. Such images of extreme wealth and the desire to expand and keep it, despite the situations of those around the wealth. It is also about the families that control the wealth and the politics that allows them to flee, or to travel, out of the country to exile. Crabtree also details why the situation continues. His book gives more depth to the reading of Boo.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir - Out in June

City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir by Paul French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom opens in 1935 at a club in the city of Shanghai. Jones is going to met a gangster, and, of course, the shit hits the fan. It is a Hollywood version of what Shanghai was like during the interwar years. Yet, there is some truth to it. The city did have Badlands, and there were clubs that not only hired but catered to expatriates from America and Europe. In his book City of Devils, Paul French presents the truth and while it does involve show girls there is a great more drugs, murder, and the looming threat of war.

French details Shanghai, in particular Joe Farren and Jack Riley, two men who were sometimes engaged in legal business and sometimes in not so legal business. Joe Farren started as a Fred Astaire or Vernon Castle type. Escaping Vienna and touring Asia with his wife and the dance troupe they eventually started. Farren is the dapper man, the married man with his wife Nellie. He does resemble, at least in French’s description.

Riley is more of a gangster type. American, blunt, and physical as opposed to dapper. But not stupid, not stupid at all. His washing up at Shanghai isn’t so much to do with his performance ability. The two men are sometimes partners, sometimes rivals, sometimes enemies.

In the story of the rise and fall of the two men, French also describes the imploding of Shanghai as an international colony forced upon the Chinese as well as the coming Second World War. It isn’t just crime that causes the problems but also the Japanese and the shifting of power.

At points, French introduces newspaper columns and Chinese views on what is occurring – either the view of the white men or the invading Japanese. It is those bits that are the most moving and wonderful because they move the book beyond a simple history of the underworld.

French writes with passion and vigor. His prose is quite engrossing, and he does the best he can with limited sources. What is most interesting (and hardy lest surprising) is that the women were harder to trace than the men. It is to French’s credit that he shows the women as more than just molls or enablers. In fact, a few of them are movers and shakers.

The book is both engaging and engrossing.

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: Dread Nation

Dread Nation Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, before anything else, if you called yourself a feminist and don’t see this cover and go ‘gimme’ you are not a true feminist. Woman, that cover. Whoever designed it – props. Major props and hopefully a large raise.

I first noticed this title last year because of the cover. It popped up on my GR feed. I don’t normally read much in the way of zombie titles –for a variety of reasons – but this looked awesome, though for some reason I thought the main character was going to West Point or something. Needless to say, much anticipated, so a great worry of please don’t be a letdown.

It’s not.

At first blush, Ireland’s book looks like a mash up of Huck Finn with Michonne from the Walking Dead (though the main character Jane uses sickles).

It is and isn’t.

It’s so much more. It’s true that Ireland seems to be drawing quite a bit on Finn, and Jane harkens to him, but Ireland also seems to be drawing on Kate Chopin.

And yet, it is so much more.

Jane is a young woman who is going to a school for girls. This school trains girls to kill shamblers aka zombie. All the girls at the school are black because the government has mandated that all blacks and Native Americans (I’m being polite, Ireland uses the correct term for the 1880s, coming from a white man) be sent to schools to learn how to kill the undead (slavery is supposedly illegal but Jim Crow and Reconstruction exist). In one swoop, Ireland combines residential schools and their abuses with Jim Crow and the use of Army recruitment centers in minority and lower income areas. She also works in medical experiments on minorities.

This isn’t your normal zombie book.

And that’s important because in North America most people disregard the connection between zombies and forced labor, a form of slavery that continues after the slave’s death. That’s the horror. Not the brain eating. It’s true that Cherie Priest set her steampunk zombie series in an alternate Civil War, but her zombies are more connected to drug use. Ireland’s use of zombies during the Civil War and Reconstruction is far more powerful and visceral. The sense of uncomfortable and not right is far stronger than, say, in the Walking Dead. In part this is due to how people use the zombie plague, but also because of the symbolism connected with zombies.

Jane is wonderfully drawn character though she is also the book’s major flaw. There are too many cases and situations where she is the only capable woman or girl. Or the smartest. This is a flaw that is all too common to a great many novels staring kick ass heroines. Unlike some people, Ireland does try to argument. Just when you think Jane is going to be a bit too princess perfect, Ireland seems to realize as well and someone else does something that earns Jane’s admiration. Jane does grow over the course of the novel, and she also is not the girl that everyone lusts after. So, she is almost too perfect, but that almost is important.

That, and Jane is a black woman in a time and place that sees as the lowest of the low. She must constantly downplay her intelligence (the use of reading in this book is absolutely beautiful) and constantly deals with insults. She has a sense of humor, but she is also, rightly, angry and struggling in an unfair, racist system. She grows over the course of the book, and her voice is a real one. Her voice, despite its use of 1800 terms, is also a very real, modern one when dealing with issues like slavery and killing.

There are more than a few scenes with connections to police shooting of unarmed African-Americans.

This book should be taught along with The Hate U Give.

And not because it is the first alternate history book I’ve read that gives us an alternate history Ida B. Wells.

Jane is surrounded by believable characters. I love Kate. I’ve always loved Michelle Sagara West and Kelly Armstrong because they showed women being strong in radically different but equally important ways. I have to add Justine Ireland. Kate is a wonderful character and her story arc is just as powerful as Jane’s. Ireland deserves a reward simply for what Kate says towards the end of the book about relationships. There does seem to be a hint of a standard YA love triangle, but romantic love is not the focus of the book. Jane’s potential beaux include an ex, Red Jack, who makes his way the only way he can, and Gideon who she is attracted to because of his smarts as well as his chest.

How cool is that?

The most powerful part of the story, however, are the parts of letters that head each chapter. For part of the book, the letter is one (or more) from Jane to her mother who lives at Rose Hill. In the last section of the book, the letter is one (or more) from Jane’s mother to Jane. The letters are powerful because of what they must say and what they can’t say, simply because both women know that the letters may be read by a third party. It is though Jane, who is bi-racial and her mother’s back story that Ireland deftly subverts the use of the mulatto, in particular the tragic mulatto, in literature.

In a world that never was, Ireland shows us the world that is and makes the reader confront it.

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one point in their book, Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn write, “There will be less [sex:] trafficking and less rape if more woman stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back”.

WuDunn and Kristof, a married couple, detail much of what are “woman’s” issues in the developing world. Their book focuses on sexual trafficking, micro finance, maternal health, as well as religion and education. The argument that they put forward is that developing countries need to emancipate women (and women need to free themselves) so that the country can develop. Kristof and WuDunn give a call to arms, not because of guilt, but because it is simply the right thing to do.

The thesis of the book is aptly illustrated though several stories of women who have succeeded, for the most part, despite the circumstances that they lived in. The first section of the book deals with sex trafficking and prostitution. Though the use of personal stories as well as statistics, they make a compelling case to illegalize prostitution. They examine and compare places were prostitution is semi legal to where prostitution was outlawed. (Sweden, for example, won’t charge the prostitutes but the johns). The primary focus of this section is the use of sexual slavery and child trafficking. Kristof tells a particularly chilling story of a border guard in India who will stop the import of pirated DVDS, but not of young girls that are sold into brothels. The guard sees such foreign women as less than Indian women. Kristof and WuDunn examine the cultural beliefs that led themselves to a tacit endorsement of such trafficking.

The human trafficking section gives way to a section about the use of rape as punishment, control, and a terror device. Included in this section is the story of Usha Narayane, a woman who lived in an Indian slum. She and her family were Dalits (Untouchables), and the slum was under control of a man, Yadav, a gangster who was able to terrorize the slum (though rape and sexual violence) because the police were paid off and looked the other way. Yadav attacked Narayane’s neighbor and Narayane went to the police to report it. Yadav and his men threaten Narayane at her family’s house. The thing is that Narayane’s was a well educated woman, as was her family; they were well liked in the slum. Narayane fought back and this inspired the others in the slum to fight back as well. They attacked Yadav who eventually turned himself into the police for his own protection. During what amounts to a pre-trial hearing, the women from the slum showed up and stabbed Yadav to death. Each woman stabbed him once. The importance of this story isn’t the revenge killing; in fact, there is a slight uncomfortable feeling in the retelling, but the fact that women can rise up and can effect change.

There is a more famous story told in the section on rape, that of Mukhtar Mai, the young woman who was ordered gang raped as punishment for an “alleged” crime of her brother. She ended up pressing charges, facing death threats, and persecution from the government. What is important about these stories is that Kristof and WuDunn never take them out of context. They are careful to keep the stories within a culture, while comparing it to Western way. In other words, they do not paint Mukhtar Mai as the definition of a Western feminist. The reader is told her whole story, including her becoming a man’s second wife.

The rape section also includes a good description of Rapex, an insert able vagina detintia, and its inspiration.

At one point in the first half of the novel, the authors seem to wonder if they are portraying men in too negative a light.

They’re not. This book is pro-women, but it is not anti-male.

Even if one were to disregard that one of the authors is a man, plenty of the stories about woman’s success also illustrate the support of men. Mukhtar Mai was supported by her father and brothers, Narayane and her fellow women also had the support of their male relatives, a young girl continues school after a rape that was suppose to end in her marriage because her father supports her. It is true there are some stories were the husband’s look bad (and strangely, these stories appear most in the section about women and business), but 95% of the stories show men in a positive light. Not as protectors or rescuers, but as supporters.

Additionally, Kristof and WuDunn keep the focus on what local people are doing. They focus mostly on the grassroots level. While they illustrate and call for Western nations to help in terms of donations, they do not present “the great white man coming to save the poor colored natives” approach that can sometimes appear. While they present Westerns (primary Americans and Brits) who have helped women in developing countries, Kristof and WuDunn keep the focus on what local women are doing. We are given, in brief, the story of a hospital founded in Africa to repair fistulas, but we are given, in far more depth, the story of a woman who went to be treated there and ended up becoming a doctor who now works there. Furthermore, they argue for cultural understanding as well as aid. In other words, they caution against going to X and demanding that it become Westernized.
The book is not designed to be a Hollywood happy ending book; the difficulties of aid are presented quite well. It does not bash one political party or the other, but instead calls upon the right and the left to work together. It is a call to arms at a governmental level as well as a grassroots one. Arguing, quite eloquently that in order to fight poverty and even terrorism, women should be emancipated.

Read this book now – just to find out how big the problem is. Some of the information is absolutely frightening.

(Incidentally, there is a section on Islam and the 70 virgins. The authors point out that some scholars think the word that some people means virgins might mean white grapes instead.)

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