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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
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Books We're Reading > Feb 2013: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

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Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
Hello Everyone!

This is the thread to discuss Feb 2013's selection, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo. From the book's description:

"From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl“—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget."

What did you think?


Dyanne (TravelnLass) What do I think? I think... it a fine choice (and one that several here have commented favorably about.) But... I just hope that in future months we follow the complete process of a club-wide vote. What can I say? I guess living in a communist county, I'm especially keen on democracy. ;)


Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
Yes, and sorry about that Dyanne. Actually I just figured out today that's it's actually really easy to do a poll in a group... I'm still figuring out Goodreads, but I'm going to dig around some other groups and see how they do it.


Scyi Norgaard In my old Book Club each member got to choose a book and there was no discussion as it caused a lot of issues. It made everyone feel involved; however, there are a lot of members in this group! I'm looking forward to reading both books that have been chosen so far.


Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
Thanks Scyi! Yeah, I peeked at a few other Goodreads clubs to see how they do it... I'm definitely open to suggestions. In other groups sometimes they have additional selections each month, so say, you love Eat Pray Love, you could be the moderator for the discussion on that book, and Goodreads lets me select a user for each book we read for that purpose. So that's one thing we could potentially do.


Glenn Dixon (dixonge) Wow. I can't believe I just read the whole thing! I found it fascinating, and well-written. I purposely tried to ignore some of the negative reviews I saw, keeping an open mind, and now I'm going to go back to see some of them and will probably comment separately...


Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
Okay cracking open (well, it's a Kindle, so sliding on & selecting open) Behind the Beautiful Forevers tonight... have absolutely no expectations about this book except knowing it won some awards and the author is journalist for the New Yorker. Here we go! Who else is reading?


Sarah Somewhere (sarahsomewhere) | 12 comments Hi guys, not sure why but I have found it difficult to get into so far. Not a reflection on the author at all, who is obviously great at what she does, but more to do with me not being in the mood for this type of story and therefore a terrible book club member!
I rescued a battered copy of 'A Year In Provence' from the recycling bin the other day and have found myself reading that (!).
Bad book club member!


Roy | 22 comments Mod
I too am having difficulty getting into it. It keeps putting me to sleep. On the plus side its A very interesting style of writing, sometimes almost poetic.

Sort of cliche' starting the book in the middle of an exciting action scene (Abdul hiding from police) and the rewinding to the rest if the story. Really? Is this the only trick writers know to to "hook" the readers? I'll give it a few more chapters and see what happens if I have nothing better to do.


Sharon Gourlay | 11 comments I am also finding it impossible to get into which is a shame as I'd probably like it. It's due back at the library next week so not looking good. Keeps making me think of a book called shantaram about an Aussie guy who escapes prison here and runs off to Mumbai and live in a slum, among other things. Such an awesome book which I recommend but this books keeps making me want to re read that for some strange reason rather than persist with it


Michelle | 2 comments I read the entire book in one day and found it fascinating. I didn't find it hard to get into probably because I enjoy non-fiction/ memoir type books and learning about how others live around the world. I can see how it might be tough though; the subject matter can be a bit heavy and sad at times


message 12: by Jill (last edited Feb 12, 2013 06:31AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Dobbe | 4 comments I think that this is the type of book that is much more interesting when you have been to India and have witnessed firsthand the people and the poverty that exists there. At least that's the way it was for me and I really enjoyed the book.


Lauri (laurit) | 4 comments This isn't really pulling me in... There are so many characters and I am having a hard time getting connected to any one of them. I start to care about one then we jump to someone else and their story. I also am the kind of person that tries to solve a problem when I come upon it... so I find I am trying to solve India's poverty problem (not a good thing to have on your mind before bed). Then I find I am sad, then mad, and ultimately I am just frustrated for all of the above reasons. I don't think you need to be "comfortable" with every subject matter you read about - and I am ok with reading books that make me squirm a little but I just can't get into this one (I'm about 55% done with it) and I just keep reading because it's for the book club.

Perhaps if I had been to India...I would feel differently.


Sharon Gourlay | 11 comments I have been to India, hasnt helped me.

I am a bad book club member and gave up :(


Sarah Somewhere (sarahsomewhere) | 12 comments I'm confused - this book reads like fiction to me. Some of my favourite novels are set in India - my favourite book of all time is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy - and it is one of my favourite countries in the world to visit (I recently drove across it in an auto-rickshaw). Yet I just can't persevere with this one. It's not doing it for me, and perhaps an India overload is to blame, but I'm out. Reading 'Wild' was such an awesome experience, I looked forward to it every night, but I'm just not finding an 'in' with this one. I look forward to reading some more reviews though!


Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
I'm still plugging along but wow, I'm a little daunted after reading everyone's updates! I will try to finish it though, I have heard from others that if you get past the beginning it's actually really good. Or maybe they are just sadistic and want to make me suffer! I'll let you guys know what I decide. :)


Roy | 22 comments Mod
I WILL finish this book. It won't be fun but I will. I'm at 40%. I stopped trying to keep the characters straight. I'm just reading it. Turning pages. Pushing on. Lets hope next month's book is more enjoyable. I've never been to India but would love to go. It's on my list.


Patricia Sands (patriciasands) | 8 comments I'm struggling with it too. I love stories set in India but this book just isn't doing it for me.


Emma Healey | 3 comments I finished this book a week ago but have only just got around to writing this. I really enjoyed this book. It made me squirm in places, especially when Asha denied Mr Kamble the loan for his heart operation and Fatima's melting body was on view for all to see. I have always been fascinated with slum life so I guess that helps, and I found this to be more realistic than some of the far-fetched tales that happened in Shantaram - which was also a great read but serious poetic licence was used there. Little Sunil was my favourite character, it was nice to know that something so normal in a pre-teen as worrying about your own growth can still prevail in such conditions. I think the author did a wonderful job, and although I wish it was a work of fiction I do hope this story will shine some light on the blatant corruption that widens the gap between haves and have-nots in India.


Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
Got to about 50-60% done last night I think it really picked up after the first third. I think the book is well written but I felt like I was waiting for something to happen for way, way too long. I know she had to explain some of the slum dynamics and personalities at play but I didn't feel really connected to anyone until she got back to the main storyline. It's much better now... so we'll see.

The way she wrote it gives me pause, I mean she's not in the story! Where is she? How did she pull this off? How much of this did she see? How can she know what people thought/felt? Doesn't it seem out of character for most of these people to articulate their underlying concerns, above and beyond what they directly communicated (eg. Asha offering help to the family but thinking she needs to be more direct with them because they don't seem to get that help comes with a specific price tag -- did she say that in an interview? It seems crazy that she'd be so candid with an outsider about her motivations, when she doesn't even acknowledge them openly to others in her dialog).

I need to finish it -- maybe she addresses some of these things, but I'm still not sure how I feel about the omniscient narrator in a non-fiction book.


Glenn Dixon (dixonge) Christine - she answers those questions in the epilogue/afterword. Just go with it for now! :)


sarah  corbett morgan (scmorgan) I second Glenn's comment. ;-)


Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
Okay just finished it! WOW.

I spent three months living in India and got to know a lot of the workers at a single beach shack that we frequented (my husband was traveling around India so I would go there with my then 14 month old to work and I got to know those guys pretty well). It's a similar story to the slums in some ways... everyone was trying to get ahead, the one guy who I talk to the most had graduated from high school with his degree and headed off to Mumbai to make his fortune. His father owned a small shop in New Delhi but had just given up working. For the first two years he worked as a tea wallah on the street and slept on the curb at night. After that he moved into hotel work, finally making it to the beaches of Goa as something of dream job, where they still all slept on the shack floor at night and showered behind the kitchen before the tourists came but they made some serious money from tourists -- compared to other work in India. He sent all his money home and paid for two of sisters to be married. In the off season he went north to a different resort town near the Himalayas and his main goal in life was to open his own restaurant in New Delhi. I still keep in touch with him on FB.

This story though, wow. I'm glad I kept with it, because she does explain her methods well. And it was fascinating to see how everything played out. Today I ran across another story about three sisters (11, 9 and 6 years old) being raped and killed in India, and the police chief being fired for failure to investigate (after the public protested). I'm curious to know what Katherine Boo has to say about the current spirit of change that's sweeping India right now.

I did feel like there was a lot of hope when I was in India, but I was in the very wealthy Goan state (by India standards) where everyone seems to be from somewhere else. But does this book make me feel hopeful? I really don't know. How do you even begin to address all the issues? Corruption, health care, sanitation, living standards, jobs, the police and judges, the doctors accepting bribes!

This book was really informative, but definitely not a travel memoir! If you go to India, you don't see this (you do see the poverty, yes) it's really remarkable to get the stories like this. You might be in New Delhi and see a man dead on the street, but no one is going to talk to you about it, even if you ask. What she did was really amazing. I'm glad I read it!


KT (corgisaurus) | 3 comments I really liked the book, as much as I could like something that was so heartbreaking. There were a few nights I had to put it down because it's just so sad. I definitely saw the life and death in this novel, but the hope? Not so much.

The corruption is what stood out to me most - how hard it is to live when you can't trust the police, doctors, or even charities. I had heard about the corruption of Indian charities and wondered how someone from the slum could harm those that were doing just as poorly as themselves. It became clear when one of the characters explained that corruption is not about morality in the slum, it's about survival. How do you help those who are most at risk for being exploited and corrupted? I wish the book had answered that question, but I suppose there may not be an answer.

This was very different from something I'd typically pick up, but I'm really glad I had the chance to read it.


Jess | 4 comments I did like the book and found it a pretty easy read.

I agree that it reads like fiction which I think is part of the book's strength - you feel like you're reading a story and although I knew it was non-fiction going in, you almost forget that while reading it and then at the end when Boo explains her extensive information gathering techniques, interviews etc you are shocked back into the fact that this really happened and countless similar 'stories' are happening right now in many different places.

I think the omniscient narrator added to the fictional feel the book has and also set up a disconnect between the readers and the people of Annawandi. The narrator, the person we could probably most identify with, is an emotionless story-teller. I'm a pretty emotional person, particularly when reading books, but when Kalu, Meena and the man by the side of the road died I didn't feel upset... life just goes on in Annawandi and their lives are judged to be insignificant in the broader sense but as Abdul points out a bad life is still a life and it matters, if only to the person living it. And, of course a glimpse of their lives are in the pages of Behind the Beautiful Forevers.


Kathe | 4 comments Am planning to begin The Beautiful Forevers in a day or two...
FTF book group will read it for March meeting.. have heard much about
it, read quite a few reviews.i have read posts so far...anticipate it being a great choice..


Lewis S | 3 comments I didn't know the book wasn't fiction until I reached the afterword, because although it seems very real it's just written in a fiction style.

I felt that to start with life doesn't seem to bad for the characters, they have hope and can sense a better future, but as it goes on, wow it just hits you for six.

I couldn't get over the level of corruption in everyday life in the book. I know there's a lot of pressure on the Indian government to redress that but I just don't see how they can. Anyone who comes from the position of having to give bribes to being in the position to take them is surely going to feel like they're owed? It makes you feel very helpless too, that all the things set up as charities are just shams. Is there any point giving money to charity?!

It's a fascinating book and I'm glad I read it. Will be recommending to friends.


Patricia Sands (patriciasands) | 8 comments I'm feeling like a wuss for not persevering so I've made a promise to myself to give it a go when I'm not jamming it between half a dozen other books, etc. It sounds like the research and true life experiences are too important to pass by.


message 29: by Roy (last edited Feb 24, 2013 01:03PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Roy | 22 comments Mod
I heard this at Church today: "We lose our hope, we foster a survival spirit." Seems to apply to the citizens of Annawadi.


Frances Schagen | 2 comments I couldn't finish this. I took it back to the library today.

I loved Shantaram and just like others' this book made me want to reread that. I can't wait until they make it into a movie.

I found this book too small. My life's focus right now is community-level big, so I'm having a hard time getting into this.

It's rare for me to abandon a book half-read, but I just feel relief at this point.


Sharon Gourlay | 11 comments They are no longer making shantaram into a movie :( after starting this book, I looked it up lol


Roy | 22 comments Mod
I finished the book!

I think my favorite part of the book was the Author's Note at the end. It's the part that made the most sense. Not that I can't fathom abject poverty and squalor as I've seen and lived in my fair share of underdeveloped regions. It was the writing style. It's just an art form that I can't get in to. You like Picasso, I like Van Gogh.

It felt like fiction although I knew it wasn't. I had a hard time connecting with the characters. They had enough like-ability but didn't seem to me to be fully developed. That may be in part because the residence of Annawadi's true selves got lost in the translation literally and figuratively and also perhaps they were not accustomed to bearing their souls to interviewers. You have to either be humble or embarrassed to tell your "story" in these circumstances.

As a reader you either loved or hated this book. I found it painful to read. I'm like Abdul in this sense (unwilling to dwell on unhappy memories) He said, "I want it to stay forgotten."

I'm glad their story was told. It needs to be told. I just hope the right people are paying attention.

"Now what? What's next?" asked the judge.


message 33: by Alison (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:41PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alison Gresik (Alison_Gresik) | 9 comments Picking up this book and expecting a travel memoir threw me off! I kept waiting for the author to enter the story until I finally realized she wasn't coming. But that choice, not to insert herself, seems really important. True, it doesn't give us white Western readers a character to identify with, and perhaps that contributes to the distance or "hard to get into" thing that people have commented on. But keeping all the focus on the residents of Annawadi was a respectful choice, and the best one if Boo wanted to avoid the white saviour/appropriation pitfall that she mentions in the afterword.

I found the writing exquisite, and Boo's prose carried me through the early chapters as I was getting oriented to the multiple characters. Someone mentioned that opening on a dramatic event and then backtracking is a tired technique, but I felt Boo really carried it off--following Abdul's experience as the book opened meant that the narrative could delve deep into Fatima's perspective later without slowing down the pacing or jumping around too much.

I was in awe, reading the afterword, of Boo's reporting skill. I'm really grateful that she took on the challenge and that the people she met in Annawadi were willing to let her record their lives and thoughts. These are indeed stories that are not available to the typical traveller, and they're important ones to hear.

The truth that stood out for me came from Sunil in Chapter 13: "Sunil thought that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly--the kind that could be ended as Kalu's had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he'd come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy's life could matter to himself."

Great choice, if unconventional for a travel reading group!


Lewis S | 3 comments @Alison, great appraisal, well done. Totally agree with all your points. Wish I could have put it as well myself!


Laurel (goodreadscomLRobbins) | 3 comments I enjoyed this book, but also had difficulty getting into it. As others have already commented, I also found the multiple characters confusing and disconnected at times, but I did feel like Boo took me to the slums and that I was really there.


Beth | 8 comments I really liked this book. I didn't have too much trouble keeping track of the characters. But the ending left me hanging. I guess somewhere, secretly, I was hoping for a happy ending a la Eat Pray Love and the house Gilbert bought for her friend in Bali.


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