Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways's Reviews > Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
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Apr 09, 13

Read in April, 2012

Rating: four horrfied, repulsed, politically appalled stars of five

See the review on Shelf Inflicted!

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message 34: by Stephen (new)

Stephen This looks like a book I must read so that we can discuss.

I'll keep The Sociopath Next Door handy as well...just in case. ;)


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Heh.

Your humor does your libertarian-ergo-humorless heart credit.


message 32: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I am a political party of ONE and my platform is ever changing.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Stephen wrote: "I am a political party of ONE and my platform is ever changing."

It is the willingness to change that matters most in all aspects of life. Hard and fast rules are meant to be broken!

It's why I'm not religious, that....

I am eternally frustrated that the completely necessary economic liberalism that creates markets is ALWAYS shoved down the Body Politic's throat as being utterly, completely unfettered or else it's useless. Yeah? To WHOM? Regulation, taxation, and the other concomitant restraints on absolute freedom are NOT evil plots. They are the means to an end, one of simple human decency and kindness, that frankly one cannot expect individuals to sustain voluntarily.

This book made me so angry that I cried tears of outrage. I might hate the writing (and I do), but the story is powerful.


Arnab Das i couldnt agree with this review more. Katherine Boo's writing just doesnt work, for me at least. also, there is a certain sense of cashing in on India's poverty boom. as an Indian, the plight of my fellow countrymen does bother me, but to be honest, there's very little an ordinary citizen can do to change things. this is just a well packaged, and well marketed NYT bestseller (if it isn't yet, give it some time for it will be there on the charts pretty soon, good production rarely goes wrong these days). on the literary aspect of things, i would strongly recommend The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It's equally damning and critical of India and its bureaucracy and inherent red tapism, yet way more subtle and unique in its approach.

Loved the review though!


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Arnab wrote: "i couldnt agree with this review more. Katherine Boo's writing just doesnt work, for me at least. also, there is a certain sense of cashing in on India's poverty boom."

I am delighted that you liked the review, Arnab! I wonder if it is ever possible to tell a story such as this, about people far removed from the class that produces and sustains readers, without some sense of the writer cashing in. I can say that I think this cashing in, this particular case, did not feel cynical to me, and did not make me think that Boo was on the hunt for "an India story." She seemed, instead, to want to tell the story she found; she just chose a means to that end which was (in our shared opinion, it would seem) ineffective almost to alienation.

Arnab wrote: "...i would strongly recommend The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It's equally damning and critical of India and its bureaucracy and inherent red tapism, yet way more subtle and unique in its approach."

Oh dear, oh my...I so disagree with you...to me, The White Tiger felt precisely that cynical and manipulative way that Boo's book didn't feel. It felt as if Adiga grafted a story onto a sense of outraged, frustrated, annoyed love for his countrymen and used that fake story to bash me-the-reader with his outrage.

Still and all, thank you for stopping by to comment on my review!


message 28: by sckenda (new)

sckenda I put this in my queue after seeing Boo on The Charlie Rose Show a few weeks ago. Since I already care and do not need to be persuaded, do you think I would be better off reading one of the works of Indian fiction that you have already recommended to me?


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Yes. I don't think this book will do anything positive for you, given your extant social conscience and your functioning moral compass.

Read the new Paul Krugman book on the current depression if you want some economic-justice jump starting. I myownself don't think Boo's writing is anything at all to write home about, and so can't see an upside to you giving it eyeblinks.


message 26: by Mark (new)

Mark Thanks for review Richard and i have no doubt that you are right to challenge and call out the oppressors and the insensitive and the self-satisfied of the world which, as you quite clearly point out, actually is probably most of us. However my question, and it is a genuine struggle for me, is where do you think people should go with the inevitable feelings of guilt and powerlessness and maybe even self-loathing this engenders?
It is one thing to write so as to make people recognize the horror of a situation but quite another to hold forth in a 'i am a good person who sees what so many others don't see and the world is a nasty place' type way but most of us think like that don't we and so don't these writers need to enable their readers to take that somewhere and do something constructive with it or otherwise it is just, if you'll pardon the crudity, pissing in the wind and Boo makes herself feel all noble and insightful and as if she is trail blazing when all she and her ilk are doing is loading people with burdens they can do nothing with.
i am not saying the burden does not need to be carried but this sort of book, which i have to say i haven't read so perhaps I am crapping on misunderstanding it, often seems to load it on shoulders and then 'does not lift a finger to help people carry it'. Cruel and self-righteous it seems. Am I making sense ? The challenge is good but does she take it anywhere ?


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I'm glad you liked the review, Mark. I think the book makes important points, and while I agree that anything which points out injustice can and should trigger guilt in those who profit from the injustice and do nothing to change it, I don't think it's the writer's job to tell the guilty-feeling what to do to ameliorate those feelings.

If something makes you realize that you benefit from an unfair or unjust situation, do something about it. No good saying "but what?" and then going on with your life. You know your circumstances best, and Boo doesn't know you from a hole in the ground. What do you have to give? Time? Money? I'm too busy and I'm too poor are the ordinary responses to those questions.

Give it anyway.

Agreed that you can't help these specific people, or maybe even people in India, but you can do something in your own community, and that is a good use of the feelings Boo's book dredges up. Start there.

She doesn't need to take anyone anywhere. She just needs to motivate them to take themselves somewhere.


message 24: by Mark (new)

Mark She doesn't need to take anyone anywhere. She just needs to motivate them to take themselves somewhere

But I think that was my point. Where is that somewhere ? Surely anyone with an ounce of humanity is going to feel guilt and be aware of the sufferings in the world because we, who live in the West, have a standard of living whch is far and beyond what is fair, equitable or even sustainable. However, doing good in your local community is not going to ameliorate or alter the horrendous living conditions of the oppressed millions elsewhere in the world. Therefore that is an unanswerable guilt for millions of people. I think she does need to do more than simply load on more of the same. This sort of book sounds a little like those back-slapping, self congratulatory television raisealotofmoneeyathons where celebrities and other such people show how incredibly aware and noble they are by having themselves filmed tearfully standing in a horribly run down mud village somewhere. the unspoken message being 'I am humane and caring etc etc'

If it is agreed, as you say, that you can't help those specific people in India or wherever then the book seems rather ghoulish to me. If however the book and the feelings it engenders is supposed to achieve something and not just to be some form of exercise then she and writers like her do have a responsibility above and beyond getting her book published.


Zignorp I know what you mean about the writing, but I did like the chapter at the end where she draws some conclusions, thought it was pretty thought-provoking.


message 22: by Ann (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ann Spivack I disagree about the writing. She is a very careful, precise writer, but in a way that's necessary to relate such heartbreaking events. She's a trustworthy narrator, because she's not emotional. Reading her author notes about how she interviewed 168 people about Fatima and what happened to her makes me admire her so much for her careful, reliable writing. She spent years and years researching this, not because she was looking for the best-selling money train, but because she felt the story needed to be told.


message 21: by Mary (last edited Nov 19, 2012 09:53AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary I really thought this was a well-written book, and have to disagree about Boo's prose style. The author's note at the end was very affecting and shows that she is every bit as outraged as you are, and yet a histrionic style wouldn't have worked. The lives are so very desperate that her more reserved style is the better approach, so that we don't get overwhelmed by the misery.

(I thought 'The White Tiger' was brilliantly written as well -- Aravind Adiga's satirical, knife-sharp indictment of global eat-or-be-eaten capitalism.)


message 20: by Tanuj (new)

Tanuj Solanki I hate this woman's writing. It feels so chilly and so removed from the subject that I can't believe how much praise this aspect of the text has received.

Annawadi is 5 kms from my house. The reportage is great, evocative, almost calling to action. But, sadly, I couldn't stand the text to finish the book.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Tanuj wrote: "I hate this woman's writing. It feels so chilly and so removed from the subject that I can't believe how much praise this aspect of the text has received.

Annawadi is 5 kms from my house. The repo..."


I relate to your issue with the writing, obviously, but I think the story getting out there in the world makes up for its infelicities of style.


message 18: by Genine (new)

Genine Franklin-Clark Maybe better to read Rohinton Mistry's novel, A Fine Balance? It has all the heartbreaking misery and lack of caring from the "upper class", but is beautifully written. And has glimmers of humanity, needed to maintain sanity, or to keep from falling into the slough of despond.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways It's a very good read, no matter what. It still doesn't do what this book managed to do, though. Especially now that it's won a National Book Award.


message 16: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary It was well worth reading before it won the award, too.

I have difficulty understanding the mindset of giving up on a nonfiction book because of stylistic quibbles. A book would have to be very poorly written or virtually incomprehensible to me before I would quit reading it, if the information was worth learning. I have had similar discussions with friends over many years -- people who have left movies mid-viewing or stopped reading a book when the information was painful or irritating for them to absorb. I would rather learn about what is going on in the world, and learn about other realities and experiences, however difficult. It might take me longer to make it through such a book if the style didn't compel me to read it quickly, but I just hate to give up. In these cases reading someone else's book, for example the novel suggested above by Genine, might add to the understanding and complement it with another perspective.

Tanuj's comment, above, made me wonder if her proximity to Annawadi and the potential psychological discomfort produced by reading about people so close to home might be more of a deterrent than Katherine Boo's "chilly" prose style.

Thank you Genine for making me aware of 'A Fine Balance' -- I'll put it in my 'to read' queue.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways It's always possible that proximity to a subject presented in a critical and unflattering light will cause discomfort.

I tend not to understand the compulsion to finish infelicitously presented books, no matter how informative they might or might not be, unless one's employment or school grade depends on acquiring and demonstrating mastery of the topic at hand. Life is too short not to enjoy the learning that makes it a richer experience.


message 14: by Mary (last edited Nov 19, 2012 09:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary Maybe I have a lower bar for enjoyment of learning than most :) but I didn't find this an infelicitously presented book, quite the contrary.

And my daughter read it over my shoulder on a bus ride (she hadn't brought a book with her) and quickly got enthralled by the storytelling -- she read it in two days.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Mary wrote: "Maybe I have a lower bar for enjoyment than most :) but I didn't find this an infelicitously presented book, quite the contrary.

And my daughter read it over my shoulder on a bus ride (she hadn't..."


Proof positive that taste is unique to the taster.


message 12: by Rori (new)

Rori I love this review. Have you ever looked at Mumbai on Google maps? I did when the company I worked for was in process of outsourcing everything to there. I was staring at it, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, all the blurry grey areas were. When I realized those were the slums, I sobbed. And yes, we stuck the people who were there giving away our jobs in the Leela, where the equivalent cost of 3 nights of rooms were about what they were going to pay the people who were taking the jobs... I am not the same person I was before this happened.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Outsourcing and its causes have radicalized me, Rori. It isn't simply the wrongness of taking rents from an economy being destroyed by the practice, it's the cynical viciousness of "thinking global."

Who cares about the existence and health of the middle class in the EU or the US? There's an entire two-billion-person English speaking world that needs a middle class built, and it costs next to nothing to do it! So lift half a billion into middle-class lifestyles and there's the US replaced with some to spare; sell the rest to the half-billion middle class people in China, there's the EU replaced; the corporation keeps making money and is not legally (or morally, since non-humans by definition can't have a sense of morality) responsible for the havoc left behind.

And the other billions in India? Fuck 'em. They'll buy into the dream of upward mobility just like the Murrikins did.

This is what the corporatchiks see, and they aren't human enough to see the wrongness at its core. I hate it. I hate that empathy is absent from so many people. I don't know what to do to fix it, either. Religion sure isn't the answer, since so many people kill in its name, and those who don't kill bodies kill the souls of their children and themselves.


message 10: by JS (new) - rated it 5 stars

JS Found Dude, I loved her writing. It was one of the best things about the book. She writes as if the story is a novel and the people are characters. She gets in their heads and tells us their thinking. She is a keen observer of irony and absurdity, symbolism and thematic parallels. The writing was graceful. It propelled the story and didn't have needless words. It was flowing. It didn't editorialize. Through the unperturbed writing, I got angry with these peoples' situation.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways JS wrote: "Dude, I loved her writing. It was one of the best things about the book. She writes as if the story is a novel and the people are characters. She gets in their heads and tells us their thinking. Sh..."

So we'll need to agree to disagree about the writing, then.


message 8: by Chance (new) - added it

Chance Maree This review is quite fascinating, especially the love/hate aspect that caused Richard to buck and churn while awarding 4 stars. Readers should be able to add color to the stars. Some stars could be gold, and others more tarnished silver looking and others, brown perhaps....


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Chance wrote: "This review is quite fascinating, especially the love/hate aspect that caused Richard to buck and churn while awarding 4 stars. Readers should be able to add color to the stars. Some stars could be..."

Oooo! I sense Otis and Co. having collective fantods at the mere notion, since we can't even get half-stars, but I luuurrrrve this idea!


Pinks2000 I read the book after an eye opening and perplexing trip to India. This book helped me digest much of what I saw, including the area around the Mumbai airport. I truly enjoyed and appreciated her style. It was very obvious that this style was carefully considered and chosen. It would be incredibly easy for this story to slide into an editorial of sorts, and she seemed to be doing her utmost not to editorialise.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Pinks2000 wrote: "I read the book after an eye opening and perplexing trip to India. This book helped me digest much of what I saw, including the area around the Mumbai airport. I truly enjoyed and appreciated her s..."

I don't know how Boo could possibly have remained truly neutral, as in unfazed, but she was quite clearly making an effort to keep her tone even and uninflected. I thought it was artificial, and came across as cold and flat.


message 4: by Praj (last edited Apr 07, 2013 01:41AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Praj Wonderful review, Richard.

Katherine Boo appears to be confused in her own personal quandary of being politically and socially safe as well as being accepted without any controversies.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways The eternal problem of privilege: how to report on want without sounding condescending. She did her dead-level best, and seems to have brought it off. I just don't respond well to her style for doing it.


message 2: by Paul (new)

Paul Excellent review; especially poignant with the passing of Thatcher whose policies embodied some of the evils portrayed


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Which is why I put it up again exactly, hoping someone would get that!


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