Friday, March 30, 2012

Truth in Journalism

Truth isn't just stranger than fiction; it's far more powerful and moving. At least that's how I felt after reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity. Boo, formerly a Washington Post journalist and now a New Yorker staff writer, lives part of each year in Mumbai with her Indian husband. Determined to present a portrait of slum life more nuanced than that of “Slumdog Millionaire”, she spent three years in Annawadi, a squatter settlement of three thousand people crammed into and around 335 huts, located next to a lake of sewage in the shadow of the Mumbai airport and vast luxury hotels.

Boo might have chosen to write a book packed with sociological statistics and economic analysis, but instead she does something far more effective; she simply tells a story. Or rather, she lets the people she comes to know tell their own stories. She focuses on Abdul, a teenaged boy who supports his family of eleven as a garbage trader (a position which places him higher on the economic ladder than the scavengers who bring him their goods), and Asha, a thirty-nine-year-old mother whose ambition is simple: “For the overcity people who wished to exploit Annawadi, and the undercity people who wished to survive it, she wanted to be the woman-to-see”. Working within a system of byzantine politics and rampant corruption she attempts to build a better life for her daughter. A single impulsive act has a profound effect on both of these families.

Boo's book reads so much like a novel (reminded me of Dickens) that I kept having to remind myself that these were real people. Please don't be put off by the subject matter. I'm sure you will find this book as compelling, powerful; and inspiring as I did.

PS: You might enjoy this Fresh Air interview with the author.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Words, Words, Words

I've hosted some dinner parties that didn't go smoothly, but nothing to compare with the scenario presented by Ali Smith in There but for the. Between the main course and dessert, one of the guests goes upstairs, locks himself in the guest room, and refuses to leave. Awkward!  But when the snarky dinner table conversation is described it crossed my mind that I too might have headed for the guestroom to escape it.

The guest's name is Miles Garth, the hosts had never met him before that evening, and no one seems to know much about him. In the novels four sections, “There,” “But,” “For” and “The,” Smith tells the stories of four characters whose paths have crossed somewhat tangentially with Miles. We learn a little about him – he seems to be a kind and gentle soul, if somewhat enigmatic.

This novel is not for those who like linear narratives. The sections each jump right into the middle of a story, and it takes a while to sort out the various connections. In some ways the book is like a puzzle, and the section that opens the book can be understood only at the end of the story. Smith's writing is clever and witty, but can also be tender and touching. It's clear she loves language and she challenges the reader to slow down and enjoy it. One character who embodies this love of language is Brooke Bayoude, a “preternaturally articulate” nine year old who is present with her parents at the dinner party and later forms a special bond with Miles. Unfortunately I occasionally found her just a little too articulate to be believed, and I felt Smith's wordplay was trying too hard.

In the end I felt exhilarated, amused and entertained but also a little dizzy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Worth a Second Look

I'm taking another run at Denis Johnson. I tried before with “Tree of Smoke” and I just couldn't get out of the starting blocks. Maybe I just wasn't ready to tackle a Viet Nam novel, and somehow it seemed so very male. I gave up early. But I always feel a little guilty when I abandon a book. So when I saw Johnson's new novella Train Dreams (short read!) I decided to try again. I'm so glad I did.

The story is simple (and still quite male) – it follows the life of Robert Grainier, an orphaned boy who works on logging crews in the Northwest in his youth, loses his wife and child to a wildfire, and lives out his life in a remote cabin in Idaho where his only company is wolves, coyotes and the sound of the train's whistle as it passes through the valley two miles below him. He makes a modest living using his horse cart for hauling, and rides the train to Bonners Ferry when he's in need of supplies or human contact.

Doesn't sound like much of a story? In Johnson's hands it becomes a spare, honest portrait of a man's life. Grainier's existence is basic, but his connection to nature is powerful and profound, and Johnson slips effortlessly from the simple declarative sentences that describe Grainier's unadorned life, including the occasional humorous encounter with an odd assortment of characters peculiar to the isolated West, to the evocative dream-like descriptions of his experience of the force and mystery of the natural world.

You can read this entire book on a plane ride or on a rainy afternoon. I hope you will find it as powerful and absorbing as I did.