Books on GIF #22 — 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by Katherine Boo


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers,' by Katherine Boo.


This is an amazing book, and anyone who cares about the world and excellent journalism should read it immediately.

I first noticed it on a shelf in Powell's, a bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that's among the best I've ever been to. But I didn't pick it up then, opting instead for works by Joan Didion and Thomas Mann.* I would buy it later as a gift for Donna, and I borrowed it from her when we were stuck in Mexico, and I had run out of books that I had packed.**

Boo reported 'Beautiful Forevers' over several years in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport and a lake of sewage, and that world comes to life vividly through the several characters she follows. There's Abdul, an enterprising teenage junk dealer, who ends up in harrowing trouble with the law. There's Asha, who uses neighborhood politics to climb the social ladder. There's Kalu, the thief whose life ends tragically. And there are many others who are equally unforgettable. Here is nonfiction at its absolute best.

In my review of 'Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,' I mentioned the distinction between 'showing' and 'telling' in journalism. 'Barbarian Days' was all tell; you had to rely on the author's say-so as to whether something important or meaningful was happening. Boo's book is all show. You are immersed in this world and really connect to and empathize with the people she encounters. And their stories tell a larger one about the dark side of globalization and

The overall tone of 'Beautiful Forevers' is hopeful, but it is unflinching, intense and heartbreaking, and can be downright depressing. But it is the type of journalism and storytelling that all of us in the news business should aspire to do. Even so, you might need a few of these before you reach the end.

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,' by Katherine Boo, was published in 2012 and 2014 by Random House. 256 pages. 

What's next? Books on GIF will be attending the 'Gender in Book Criticism' panel this Friday, Oct. 28, at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.*** The discussion will be on why more books by men are reviewed by literary publications and why most of them disproportionately publish criticism written by men. The panel has got me thinking about my reviews. Including the one above, 10 of the 21 Books on GIF newsletters have featured women authors. Not bad, but still not great. I will endeavor going forward to make that balance at least 50-50.

In the coming weeks I'll review 'A Little Life,' by Hanya Yanagihara, 'Grand Hotel,' by Vicki Baum, and 'The Sympathizer,' by Viet Thanh Nguyen, among others.

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Thanks for reading!****


* To the best of my recollection, here's what I did buy at Powell's. From Mann: 'Death in Venice.' From Didion: 'Salvador' and 'Play It As It Lays.'
** This is the same trip where I found 'The Right Stuff' in that makeshift bookstore inside a man's home on Isla Mujeres. Click here to read my review of that book.
*** Hat tip to Donna for flagging this event.
**** Thanks especially to Donna, who copy edits these reviews!