It occurred to me today that in these past three years of MFA study, I've read a helluva lot. To keep track of it all, I've written short annotations on all the books and many of the essays. A bit dry and with a bent toward writing craft, nonetheless I wonder if these annotations might be useful to anyone. Here I offer up one of these annotations from a favorite book I read in my second semester.
Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New York: Random, 2014. Print.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, National Book Award winner and New York Times Bestseller, is a book-length narrative work of investigative journalism into the lives of the residents of one of Mumbai’s many undercities, Annawadi, and the corruption, pollution, and culture in which they live. Themes of the book include issues specific to India in the age of globalization - class inequality, the caste system, corruption in the Mumbai judicial system and in the local and international social service organizations meant to serve, dynamics between Hindi and Muslim residents, child labor, health and sanitary conditions of the slums – and universal questions of morals, values, basic human needs, hope, despair, and ambition. Katherine Boo’s writing is intelligent, thought-provoking, illuminating. This book came from her immersion in Annawadi over the course of four years, and relies on direct observation, more than three thousand official public records, and interviews.
While this story focuses on Annawadi, Boo underwent her study in the hopes of answering questions about the structure of opportunity in Mumbai, the government’s social and economic policy, and by what means a child might grow out of the poverty cycle in which s/he was born. Boo chose Annawadi because of its sense of possibility, due to its placement next to the airport amid surrounding wealth and corporate encroachment, and because its small scale allows door-to-door household surveys, which helped her differentiate between isolated problems and widely shared ones.
What makes this a phenomenal book is Boo’s exemplary storytelling. She opens the narrative in a moment of crisis for the central family, the Husains. The crisis serves as an immediate glimpse for the reader into the tight quarters, filth, and rampant multi-leveled corruption in which Annawadi’s residents reside. Couched within the narrative arc of the crisis - what led to it, how it plays out, the ultimate resolution along with its wide-reaching yet, for Annawadi, unremarkable residual effects – the reader gets an intimate view of individuals who live in the slum, their external and internal struggles, and their hopes and desires. The innovative way they strive, with whatever scraps of resources they have at their disposal, to rise beyond the walls of the undercity and into the middle class of Mumbai, brings a universal theme of overcoming adversity to an audience of readers who, ultimately, relate to the people living in this tragic poverty.