Monthly Archives: June 2014

Review: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter

The Impeachment of Abraham LincolnIn this thought-provoking historical thriller, author Stephen L. Carter explores what might have happened if President Lincoln had survived the assassination attempt at Ford’s Theater that night. Would his contemporaries have viewed his actions during the Civil War with the same admiration as today’s historians?

As you can probably guess by the title, the short answer is no. When the novel opens, the President is facing impeachment on four counts: suspending the writ of habeas corpus, closing newspapers and confiscating copies of telegrams, failing to protect the freedmen of the south, and conspiring to impose a military government in Washington via a proposed “Department of the Atlantic.” It is not the defeated South or the opposition Democrats that want Lincoln out; instead, the Radical Republicans of his own party want him to clear the way for a leader willing to meet their high expectations.

Abigail Canner intends to do whatever she can to help the President in his time of need. A third-generation free black woman raised in Washington, Abigail has a formidable mind and a highly disciplined will. She has successfully graduated from Oberlin and intends to pursue a career in the law, a goal of unprecedent ambition. When she arrives at the law firm of Dennard and McShane, the attornies tasked with representing the President before the Senate, she expects to be employed as a law clerk. Instead, she finds herself dusting shelves and fetching books, her study of the law relegated to the moments she can spend reading in between her more tiresome duties.

As the case unfolds, Abigail finds herself caught up in a deadly game of political maneuvering, conspiracy and espionage. It becomes increasingly difficult for her to know who to trust and who to confide in, who wants to be her friend and who wants to use her as a pawn in a game she can only guess at. It’s a fascinating and suspenseful ride.

Despite some clunky exposition and a few instances of unnecessary repetition, this book was definitely worth reading for its thought-provoking look at post-Civil War American society. It also makes an interesting case study for the old adage about the perfect being the enemy of the good.

Genre: Alternate historical fiction / legal thriller

Read it if: You like John Grisham or Scott Turow and also loved the movie Licoln or that mini-series about John Adams; you are curious about the perspective of an educated black woman in the late 1860s; you enjoy endings that are not tied up too neatly.

Skip it if: You do not want to know what an ad hominem argument is; you find legal dramas boring; you do not like complex conspiracies and ambiguous endings.

Movie-worthy: Sure, as long as they used Daniel Day-Lewis and the entire cast of Lincoln.

Review: Third-Class Ticket by Heather Wood

Third Class TicketThird-Class Ticket describes the real-life travels of a group of more than 40 elderly Bengali villagers who toured India by train in 1969. Most of the travelers had never been far from their village; a few had gone as far as Calcutta. None could ever have imagined undertaking such a long and expensive journey.

The trip was conceived and paid for by Srimati Uma Sen, the wealthy woman who owned most of the land the village farmed. She died without heirs and decreed in her will that her villagers should see India in its entirety, to understand something beyond their own poverty, to visit the temples and palaces they’d only heard of in stories, and to teach their children of the world beyond their village. Many of the participants only agreed to the trip because “Uma-didi” had said they must do it, or because it was already paid for and there was no way to get the money back.

At this point you may be imagining, as I admit I was, a sort of Beverly Hillbillies episode featuring ragtag villagers gawping in the streets of Mumbai. Unfortunately, Third-Class Ticket describes a much more harrowing–and in some cases lethal–expedition. The train is paid for, there is money for food, yet the villagers must march long distances, struggle with cruel and indifferent authority figures, and overcome their own ignorance and advanced age to complete their journey.

Along the way, some villagers expand their understanding of what is possibl: Mutu, the village potter, and Rhunu, the wife of a farmer, are artistically inspired by the great artwork and the many sights they see along the way. Others rise to the challenges imposed by the trip and show qualities they had no reason to display in the village, where their places were defined at birth; Surendra, known as a quiet man who followed the buffalo and cultivated the fields, displays unsuspected leadership qualities and an innate ability to do what needs to be done in any situation. And there are some who sink beneath the weight of all they never did or saw in their long lives, all that was wasted and lost, all that cannot be changed.

The stories of these villagers are certainly compelling, but the author relays their thoughts and conversations as if they were characters in a folk tale. The author, a Canadian woman studying anthropology who met the villagers and traveled with them for some of their journey, published the book ten years after the trip took place and I had to wonder how she could possibly know what the villagers were thinking and feeling throughout.

At times, the account reads like a sadistic version of The Amazing Race, as the elderly travelers suffer one terrible event after another. It can be almost unrelentingly grim in parts. I found myself imagining what the book would have been like if it were written by Gogol and featured a group of serfs forced to tour Russia; at least then it would have been darkly funny.

Along the way, various people question why Uma Sen chose to spend her money on these old villagers.  I wondered the same thing myself. While a few may have learned and grown from the trip, a couple of the travelers actually died. Why didn’t Uma Sen spend her money to help educate the children of the village during her lifetime? Why didn’t she use it to alleviate the hard lives of the villagers, or to hire someone to teach them how to fix the broken pump? Bestowing a forced march on the village’s oldest residents hardly seems to be the best way to accomplish her goal of opening minds. I suspect teaching them all to read would have been more helpful.

The book makes clear that it’s not that simple, of course. The villagers didn’t value education because they saw it as diverting people from their true duties: farming, marriage, children. You can’t force people to value something if they don’t understand how it could improve their lives or the lives of their children. In the end, it appears at least some of the travelers have absorbed the lessons Uma Sen wanted them to learn. Maybe that means the journey was worth it.

Genre: Narrative non-fiction / Darwinian travel tale

Read it if: You would like to see late-60s India through the eyes of its villagers; you would like to develop a greater appreciation for the comforts and conveniences of modern travel; or you have to for book club.

Skip it if: You think it will be a lot like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, only with Indian villagers; you are easily depressed by poverty and ignorance; you are expecting Behind the Beautiful Forevers-quality journalism.

Movie-worthy: I’m sure it would make a fascinating and horrifying movie.

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Review: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Sacred Games

“A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a brand-new building with the painter’s scaffolding still around it.”

That’s the opening sentence of Sacred Games, and as first lines go, that’s a tough one to beat. At its heart, Sacred Games is a police procedural set in Mumbai. Inspector Sartaj Singh, a Sikh and the son of a police officer, investigates not only the startling death of poor Fluffy, but also the discovery of a dead gangster and a murdered woman in an underground bunker. Sartaj’s story alternates with that of the gangster, the notorious Ganesh Gaitonde, as he relates his humble origins and rise to power, and ultimately, the circumstances that led to his suicide.

Sartaj is considered relatively honest within the context of his fellow police officers, but he works within a system that is inherently corrupt. Bribes, payoffs, “encounters” that leave suspects dead–all are accepted elements of the criminal justice system. What differentiates Sartaj is that a spark of genuine kindness and compassion still survives within him.

Ganesh Gaitonde, in contrast, is willing to kill anyone who stands in his way or poses a potential threat, from the man who first employed him as a hired gun to the loyal retainer whose family connections make him suspect. Ganesh knows how to exercise power over men, how to win their obedience and earn their respect; yet as he relates his life story, it becomes obvious how insecurity and paranoia gradually gnaw away at him until in the end he might actually be insane.

It would have been possible to strip away hundreds of pages of this book, leaving only a taut thriller set in exotic locales. Instead, the author has chosen to zoom in on secondary characters, subplots, and dangling threads, bringing to life the human beings caught up in the cause and effect of corruption, injustice, violence and greed. In both the primary narrative and a series of “interludes,” Sacred Games offers glimpses of multiple facets of Indian history and society, from the violence of Partition to the sheltered life of an Indian diplomat’s child in Bethesda, from the simple one-room home of a police inspector to the posh and outrageously expensive apartment of a rising Bollywood film star.

And that’s why the book is so dang big, clocking in at exactly 900 pages in the hardcover edition. By the time I’d finished, I felt as if I’d had a long, gluttonous feast at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Mmmm, samosas!

Genre: Masala-flavored police procedural / thriller / gangster memoir with psychological depth

Read it if: Your favorite movie is The Godfather, you would like to know how to curse in Hindi, or you like big books (and you cannot lie.)

Skip it if: You would rather not know about the seamier side of organized crime in Mumbai, you don’t like reading fiction with lots of non-English words in it (there’s a glossary!), or you thought for sure Fluffy would survive.

Movie-worthy: This would have to be a mini-series, or maybe a series that takes place over a few seasons. It would be like The Wire in Mumbai or something. One movie would cover maybe the first hundred pages.