Monthly Archives: March 2012

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’, by Katherine Boo

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Guest Post by Dirk Booy: A very thoughtful colleague of my husband’s recommended a book that he knew both of us would like.  Well, it was immediately purchased on the Kindle, but Dirk got to it first, and read it on his iPad. Since it is about a topic that is of great interest to him in his life and work, I knew that I would covet his opinion. Here is Dirk’s reaction and I hope to read it myself sometime very soon, and perhaps add a postscript. Thanks so much for the suggestion!

As a development worker, I’m sensitive to the way some authors write about the poor. At times they are depicted as ‘noble peasants’ who can do nothing wrong and at other times the poor are lazy souls waiting for the next handout. Rarely do I find an author like Katherine Boo who so
truthfully captures the complex lives of the poor in her book Behind the
Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Her true
story follows the lives of a number of slum dwellers close to the
international airport in Mumbai and captures their daily struggles in such
a way that both educates the reader but also helps us to see them as
neither ‘mythic nor pathetic’.

Boo’s narrative reads easily and draws the reader in quickly. Essentially
it is the story of one family’s struggle for justice after being falsely
accused of murder. As the story progresses, we are confronted with some of
the harsh realities of life in a Mumbai slum. The author deals with some
difficult questions like why the poor are often hardest on themselves and
why ‘the system’ is so corrupt. Although no real answers are given, it does
help the reader to at least understand the complexities of poverty.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is a great read and I personally found it
both entertaining as well as highly informative.

‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund de Waal

Netsuke: A carved button like ornament, esp. of ivory or wood, formerly worn in Japan to suspend articles from the sash of a kimono.

This book is about so many things…family memoir, inheritance, art history, people and culture, real life adventure, the sadness of war, travelogue…. all wrapped into a very compelling story for non-fiction. Before picking up this book I had never heard of netsuke so I really learned something about these intriguing sculptures and all of the places and times in which this particular collection lived.

The story begins with the author’s Uncle Iggie and his 264 netsuke on display in a glass vitrine in Japan.  Then it goes back and traces how these items were acquired and the remarkable story of the collection and its owners.  De Waal (who is an accomplished potter himself), in telling about the amazing survival of this unique collection,  lovingly crafts an amazing history of his family. He is eloquent when he talks about the fascinating ways in which they and also we, acquire things and how we pass them along to others or future generations. Veronica Horwell puts this aspect of the book beautifully, in her review in The Guardian (Sat. 26 June 2010). “If you have ever cleared a house after a death you will recognise this feeling, that each handmade thing matters of itself, even when mortality casts it loose sequentially from maker and owners; the sense that responsibility for the present of an object is also a duty to its past, and an obligation to its onward transmission.”

Even though there are many pictures and maps in the book, oddly there are no pictures of the netsuke themselves except for the ‘hare with the amber eyes’ on the cover. De Waal does describe some of them and he does such a good job, I can see them in my mind’s eye. Perhaps it was his intention to allow the reader to imagine. However, they can be seen on de Waal’s website and my guess is that with the resounding success of this book, future publishings will include some photos of these amazing sculptures, none of which is bigger than a matchbox.  I think my favourite is the turtles. I wish I could hold one in my hand or keep one in my pocket too. They are unusual and beautiful. Here is the link to the website:

Netsuke Gallery

‘The Forgotten Affairs of Youth’ by Alexander McCall Smith

     It was at a reading conference that I heard someone said, “Everyone needs  a series occasionally.” And this week was one of those times when I needed a series. The relaxation of picking up a book where one is already familiar with the characters was just what was needed for a bone weary soul. In the same way that comfort food is not necessarily as nutritious or healthy as what our steady diet should be, nevertheless, there is a place and time for it. Bring on the chocolate and the series! Rest for the weary and pleasure for the soul!

Set in Edinburgh Scotland, ‘The Forgotten Affairs of Youth’ is number 8 in the Isobel Dalhousie series. If you are unfamiliar with the series, begin with the first ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’. The author is a Professor of Medical Law and no slouch. Though the reading seems light and easy in this series, there are weighty philosophical matters dealt with and moral and ethical issues galore. Isobel Dalhousie is a nosy Scottish philosophy editor who dabbles in sleuthing and other people’s lives. Her love life is a nice side plot and in this instalment, for those who are familiar with the series, something significant happens in that regard. I wonder if there will be another in this series, it felt like the final chapter to me.

Alexander McCall Smith’s books are a breath of fresh air no matter which of his series you delve into. There is charm and warmth. But also permission to enjoy human nature at its most recognizable and imperfect. Because that is what life is like.  Why not relax into a series, it’s ok. It’s good for you.  Check out the author’s website, it’s worth a visit. He has several to choose from.
Alexander McCall Smith Website