One-Minute Book Reviews

November 18, 2012

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ 2012 National Book Award Winner

A Mumbai slum dweller falls into a judicial Bermuda triangle after a neighbor frames him for a crime

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27

By Janice Harayda

In the United States, the word “corruption” has only negative connotations. But in India, Katherine Boo observes wryly, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty.

Boo doesn’t endorse that reality but suggests why it endures in this portrait of Annawadi, a slum of 3,000 people packed into 335 huts in the shadow of a sparkling blue-glass Hyatt near the Mumbai airport. The residents can’t count on improving their lives through education, because many public schools are shams, run by teenagers or unqualified teachers who bribed officials to get their jobs. Without education, slum dwellers are shut out of jobs, particularly if they are Muslims or low-born Hindus.

One of Boo’s sources who prospered against the odds was the slum boss Asha Waghekar, who traded sex with police officers for their willingness to fix cases of residents who bribed her to intercede. But Asha’s intervention helped little after an embittered woman with a deformed leg set herself on fire. Before she died, Fatima the One-Leg implicated three neighbors in her death: Karam Husain and his daughter Kehkashan and son Abdul, who supported the family by working as a garbage trader. The police learned quickly that the Husains were innocent but jailed them, anyway, hoping to extort payoffs for favorable treatment from their relatives. A judge absolved Karam and Kekashan of guilt, but Abdul fell into a judicial Bermuda triangle.

Boo finds the main narrative thread for her book in Abdul’s story and uses it to offer a much starker view of poverty than international relief agencies typically do in their pictures of hollow-eyed children and their assurances that pennies a day can change lives. She shows how corruption and destitution go hand-in-hand to a degree that may keep aid from reaching its intended recipients at all. In Annawadi, a government-sponsored self-help group for poor women foundered when Asha, the slum boss, siphoned off money from the program and lent it at usurious rates to destitute residents excluded from the program.

As she develops this bleak picture, Boo shows the exceptional courage and gift for reporting that helped her win a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post before she joined the staff of The New Yorker. She uses, less successfully, some of the techniques of creative nonfiction, such as claiming access to her subjects’ thoughts and submerging her voice and point of view in theirs. At times Boo tries to give the flavor of her slum-dwellers’ speech without quoting it directly by adopting their language: She uses “bitty” for small, and she writes of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced and of lake that “magicked into a thick mat of water-hyacinth weed.” Such language is more likely to come from from children or teenagers than from a writer for The New Yorker  and clashes with that of other passages in which Boo is clearly writing in her voice. Often she doesn’t identify the sources for questionable details and, as the New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted, appears not to have interviewed people whose version of events might have differed from that of her subjects.

Even so, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a welcome complement – and, in some ways, an antidote – to the brutal but ultimately romanticized portrait of India in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. “Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life,” Boo writes. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.”

Boo makes clear that among the Mumbai poor, instability does foster ingenuity, but it can also foster corruption – legal, moral, and political – among those who see no other way to improve their lives. Over time, Boo notes, “the lack of a link between effort and result could be debilitating.” One Annawadi girl told her: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.” The paradox of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it leaves you with little hope that things will change even as it persuades you that more books like this one might set changes in motion.

Best line: No. 1: “Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the 500-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. ‘Out of stock today’ was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.” No. 2: “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed here hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Asha clucked.” No. 2 “She’d started to be treated as a mattering person.”

Published: February 2012

Furthermore: The New Delhi bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal finds “sloppiness,” “caricaturing” Indians and other defects in “The Letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,” which argues that Boo wrote a good, not great, book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 18, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

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March 30, 2007

Gabriel García Márquez on the Difference Between Novels and Journalism … Quote of the Day #15

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Latin American,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Reporting,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:14 pm

Gabriel García Márquez on truth in fiction and nonfiction …

“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.”

García Márquez ‘s answer to, “Do the journalist and the novelist have different responsibilities in balancing truth versus the imagination?” Peter H. Stone asked the question in an interview with the Nobel laureate that appears Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by Frank Kermode.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This is one of the most perceptive comments I have read on the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. How many times have you read a newspaper article that had a small — even trivial — error that fatally undermined a good story? And how many times have you read a novel with a detail so wonderful that you forgave any defects in the book?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 7, 2006

Alex Kuczynski Lowers the Boom on the Cosmetic Surgery Boom

Filed under: Current Events,Reporting — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 pm

A beauty of a book about the dangers of trying to correct nature’s mistakes

Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery. By Alex Kuczynski. Doubleday, 290 pp., $24.95.

A radio station in Detroit had a contest called “New Year, New Rear” that gave the winner $15,000 worth of liposuction. A film executive’s wife in Bel Air had her genitals surgically altered through labiaplasty. An Irish woman died in Manhattan after a face-lift by doctor who sought publicity by giving interviews to Elle and Cosmopolitan.

How did we get to a point that all of this seems almost normal? What are the social, emotional, and medical costs of the cosmetic surgery boom? Alex Kuczynski gives fearless and persuasive answers in Beauty Junkies, a skillful blend of reporting, social commentary, and advice to people who are thinking of going under the knife.

You can argue with Kuczynski’s thesis that “looks are the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics.” You can argue with some of her conclusions, which reflect life in New York and Los Angeles better than in the Heartland (though the coasts are bellwethers for the rest of the country). And you can argue with advice such as: “Distrust doctors who are too tan.” If you’re having surgery, wouldn’t you prefer a rested doctor to one with a hospital pallor induced partly by too little sleep?

But Beauty Junkies is so well-written and –researched that it may stand for years as the definite book of reporting on its subject. Nearly every page has an “Oh, my God” moment. A study found that “overweight job applicants are judged more harshly than ex-felons or applicants with a history of mental illness”? Oh, my God. An urgent care center in Malibu gives Botox shots because wrinkles are now considered an “emergency”? Oh, my God. Kuczynski’s upper lip swelled up to “the size of a large yam” after a Restylane shot and took five days to return to normal? Oh, my God.

A Styles section columnist for the New York Times, Kuczynski shows a particularly admirable willingness to expose the conflicts of interest that abound in the portrayal of cosmetic surgery in “women’s magazines, men’s health magazines, and some city magazines,” the first line of information for many Americans about new procedures. The unpleasant truths include that writers and editors often get free surgery in exchange for writing “something wonderful about it.” One physician who has appeared in these magazines is “one of the most-sued doctors in the country, with a jaw-dropping record of 33 settled malpractice suits since 1995.”

The Devil Wears Prada startled many people with its fictionalized portrayal of all the editorial freeloading at women’s magazines, the fashion-and-beauty industry equivalent of a permanent Iran-Contra affair with regular arms-for-hostage negotiations. Beauty Junkies is much scarcier, because it’s true.

Best line: “In a city like New York, people like to talk about their addictive personalities, as if having an addictive personality were a mark of achievement.”

Worst line:The New York Times does not allow reporters to receive anything from any news source for free – no free face-lifts, no free shoes, not even a bottle of champagne at Christmas that costs more than $25.” So the editors of The New York Times Book Review pay for the hundreds of books they get every week? Or at least reimburse publishers for any that cost more than $25?

Recommended if … you’ve ever looked in the mirror and wondered if there could be any harm in smoothing out a few of those crow’s feet with a little Botox.

Editor: Stacy Creamer

Published: October 2006 www.alexkuczynski.com

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn more about her comic novels, The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

October 10, 2006

Igal Sarna’s Lost Israelis

A former tank commander explores the cost of exile with a style reminiscent of the early Joan Didion

The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle: Israeli Lives. By Igal Sarna. Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. Vintage, 210 pp., $13, paperback.

Igal Sarna is a literary journalist who has no precise counterpart in the United States, and not just because he served as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He writes about the hidden lives of ordinary Israelis with an insight and clarity that recalls both the high style of the early Joan Didion and the medical precision of Irwin Yalom, the author of a memorable book of psychiatric case histories called Love’s Executioner (Basic, 1989).

Each of the 14 essays in The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle profiles a person or group whose life has been cleft by tragedy — men and women uprooted by the Holocaust, beaten in Iraqi-ruled Kurdistan, and tortured in a Syrian prison. Sarna’s subjects came to Israel seeking new lives but were overmatched by war, loneliness, poverty or the harshness of the Negev Desert. Many committed suicide or became “shells of human beings,” casualties of social service agencies overwhelmed by the crush of refugees. The happiest is a 92-year-old Kurdish Jew who once used a hoe to kill a snake that had slithered into his home on a hill slope and still drinks tea flecked with the brown ants that infest his sugar supply. Sarna offers compassionate but unromanticized portraits of all of them and makes clear that their failings, if profound, were never theirs alone. The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle shows a side of modern Israel that few others have described with such poignancy.

Recommended if … you miss the glory days of “the new journalism,” or want to understand the long-term effects on the human psyche of decades of crises in the Mideast.

Best lines: “Faulty immigrant reasoning, and a desire to save money, made them decide to live in Beersheeba’s huge neighborhood of ready-made caravan homes, one of dozens of such camps set up all over the country in the 1990s to the house hundreds of thousands of newcomers from Russia. But whoever begins their life in Israel in a place of that sort seals their fate. The desert is a hard place in and of itself, and needs a lot of greenery to soften it form human habitation. The caravan neighborhood, where each home has just over 200 feet of floor space, is a merciless patch of desolation. The homes are made of cheap, graceless material and stand on bare earth that sends up a cloud of dust with each footstep. Electrical wires strech overhead, thin bars separating human from sky.”

Worst line: None.

Caveat reader: This review doesn’t assess the accuracy of the translation by Haim Watzman.

Published: October 2002

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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