Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Katherine Boo on her Amazing Mumbai Book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers"

(Published in the Newark Star-Ledger in April 2012)

In 2007, the New Yorker writer Katherine Boo started three years of visits to the Annawadi slum in Mumbai, India, interviewing residents in the small shantytown behind the city’s gleaming airport and near several luxury hotels. Boo’s resulting book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”(Random House, $27, 288pp.), is a breathtaking work of great reportage, full of lush images and nuanced characters.

Boo focuses on Abdul, a teenage garbage broker who supports his family of 10, and introduces readers to Kalu, who braves the barbed wire of the Mumbai airport to raid the recycling bins. Boo also explores the changes to Asha, a woman from the impoverished countryside who becomes a small-time political activist immersed in bribery and fraud.

The community of 3,000 is rocked by the suicide of the one-legged Fatima, who Abdul is falsely accused of murdering. Abdul’s trip through the Kafkaesque Indian court system allows Boo to examine how individual initiative can easily be crushed by cruelty, corruption and indifference.

Boo, 47, splits her time between Mumbai and Washington, D.C.  She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from Portland, Oregon.

Q. How did you wind up finding the Annawadi slum?

A. As a point of principle, I don’t use fixers. I found Annawadi on my own in November 2007. I went with a man who was monitoring a micro-lending scheme in Annawadi. Asha was there.

Q. The center of the book becomes Abdul, who is falsely accused of murder. How did you bond with him?

A. For months, I just watched him work, sorting garbage. His father would be coughing in the hut, and his brothers and sisters would be running around. He started telling me his views on the value of life.

Q. The book opens with a mesmerizing image of a terrified Abdul hiding from the police in his rat-infested garbage storage area. How did you create the vignette?

A. I was with Abdul before Fatima set herself on fire. I had videotapes of where the garbage was stored. I reported from Abdul’s perspective, from that of a small Nepalese boy (a witness) and I had police documents. I reported from Fatima’s hut, as well as the hospital.

Q. Asha goes from being a no-show schoolteacher to becoming a semi-ruthless powerbroker in the slum. How did she evolve for you?

A. Asha comes from a region in India that is the shorthand for hardship and poverty. Her husband is a drunk and she’s got three children. He always seemed to be passed out. She could have gotten a job in a factory, but she’s smart as hell. The local corrupt politician was able to notice her intelligence and uses it. I am not trying to sentimentalize her, but over the course of the book, I hope the readers will understand the choices she’s made.

Q. Despite the poverty and fist-to-mouth existences of most of the people in Annawadi, you present a balanced portrait. The street children have witty commentaries on the wealthy people in the nearby hotels and women dress their best for festivals. Why was this so important?

A. That’s part of the problem with how poverty is written about. We think that people will only care about the poor if they are sitting around, sad-faced and miserable. I wrote about this moment when there was a break in the rain and the kids took a busted inner-tube and started playing ring toss with the flagpole. It was mayhem and joy.

Q. Did you ever feel the need to intervene when you witnessed violence?

A. There were certain incidents when I did intervene. I am not physically strong, but I’d use my video camera and start yelling. There was an incident where men were evicting a widow, pulling her out by her hair and throwing her possessions in the sewage lake. I created a distraction.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Benjamin Busch on His Gritty Iraq Memoir "Dust to Dust"


In his memoir “Dust to Dust"(Ecco, $25.99, 320pp.), the artist and filmmaker Benjamin Busch chronicles his childhood in upstate New York, his experiences in the Iraq War as a Marine and the death of his parents. Busch has thrown out the traditional chronological memoir form to break his life down into elements, including water, arms and soil.

When Busch was six or seven years old, his parents did not buy him a toy rifle, so he made his own. His rural childhood consisted of building wooden and stone forts. Despite being a studio art major in college, Busch joined the Marines. He served as an officer in South Korea, then went into the reserves. In 2003, he was in Iraq and by 2005 was fighting insurgents and dodging IEDs as a civil affairs officer in Ramadi. Not long after he returned stateside, his father Frederick Busch, the famous novelist, died suddenly of a heart attack and his mother died the next year of cancer. Through his nontraditional memoir, Busch has written a beautiful and powerful meditation on combat, profound loss and mortality.

Busch, 43, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in Iraq. He is also an actor, having starred in acclaimed miniseries "The Wire." Busch spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Michigan.

Q. You structure your memoir with nine chapters broken down into elements like “Blood,” “Bone” and “Metal.” Why?

A. We are so used to a memoir taking a particular form. It usually begins at a certain point and progresses to a natural conclusion later in life. I wanted my narrative to reflect as closely as possible the way I remember. It’s not a linear progression from youth to later times. I jump around when I think and I cue onto certain subjects. I knew I couldn’t do a memoir that began in one spot, referenced these things in chronological order and then just ended.

I divided the chapters into elements and then did these short progressions, usually from age six or seven, when I had my clearest first memories. Things then progressed chronologically in each chapter.

Q. In the chapter “Bone,” you go through a horrible high school football injury, then move to exhuming bodies from a mass grave in Iraq. At the end of the chapter, you are digging up old bones of slaughtered animals on your Michigan farm. What holds these pieces together?

A. My eye is in some way the constant and in spite of environment and circumstances, I still key in on very particular things. Even in war, I still noticed the soil, the Euphrates River. I still noticed the foam on the water, like I noticed things when I walked down the railroad tracks with my mother as a child. I allowed my eye to be the unifying voice. The voice ends up being visual. If I do this right, the reader should get a clear image of what I am seeing.

A. During officers’ training for the Marines, your class was surprised with a slideshow of the bodies of dead Marine lieutenants from Vietnam. What was your reaction?

A. We didn’t expect it, so it was more immediately chilling. I was happy they did it. It was not gleeful excitement, but I was looking at my future. The dead men were 23 or 24, second lieutenants and first lieutenants. No experience. Why it was a brilliant move was that it was a simple introduction to undisguised mortality. Staring at the images, I thought I was prepared for this.

(Benjamin Busch in "The Wire.")

Q. Do you see this book as a memorial to your parents and those you lost in Iraq?

A. Yes. This book is so much about memory, so much about observation and the brevity of everything. It is very much about aftermath. We struggle to ignore the fact that we are mortal beings.  I hope readers will take in the outcry to preserve what is truly us.

(Originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2012)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Craig Taylor's Magnificent Oral History of a City in "Londoners"


In his new book “Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now--As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It”(Ecco, $29.99, 448pp), the Canadian journalist and playwright Craig Taylor has written a scintillating oral history of his adopted city. Taylor went both high and low, speaking with cops, a cyclist, a city planner and a dominatrix among many others, exploring the social fabric and varied cultures of a vibrant city.

Taylor met a wide spectrum of Londoners, from a recent immigrant from Iran to a driving instructor, a street photographer and a singer who become a plumber. Using long-form interviews, Taylor captured the personality of Raymond Lum, a formally homeless ex-convict who tells how he moved to London to make a new start. Transsexual squatter Sarah took Taylor Dumpster diving for his supper. In roughly 90 interviews, Taylor asked his subjects to soul search on what it means to be a modern Londoner, while creating an impressive oral history in the tradition of Studs Terkel.

Taylor, 35, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from London.

Q. What drew you to writing an oral history of London?

A. I had been doing interviews for The Guardian. A lot of my writing was very condensed and the interview subjects would get these brief little bursts. I knew there was more to be said, but I had no idea it would take five years.

Q. How did you approach people for interviews?

A. I downloaded a list of the verbs in the English language and pulled out the ones that applied to London--earning one’s keep, feeding the city, keeping the peace. I started using these as a framework, looking for people who enacted these verbs. I could approach people, saying “I’m doing this project. You seem to be embody this verb.” It was easier that saying, “Could you tell me about your hopes and dreams?”

Q. You are Canadian. Did you benefit by being an outsider to London society?

A. It was helpful, I was allowed to ask seemingly stupid questions and I could dodge the normal things people do when they meet--where did they go to school, how they define each other.

Q. One of the great characters in the book is Smartie, a working-class ex-financial worker, ex-d.j. and present London cab driver. He’s a Rosetta Stone for London. Were his stories true?

A. The book wasn’t really about the “true facts” of London, but how people perceived the city. Smartie is like many of us, who may embroider parts of their story. The fact that he’s touched on so many levels of British life was fascinating to me. He spoke well and had a great knowledge of many parts of the city. Instead of saying something hackneyed about soccer hooligans, Smartie was able to talk about hooligans and how fashion worked in other groups.

Q. You had to cut the interviews down from 200 to about 90 in the final book, but kept the long interviews. Why?

A. The length was pretty organic. We wanted to allow the people to talk, not just about a focused part of their life, but to revel in their language, their cadence. I wanted some sections to be quite long, like a short story.

Q. What were your influences on your oral history?

A. My influences developed by reading the people who had done these histories--Ronald Blythe, Studs Terkel. Then there was a certain approach to journalism, like (New Yorker writer) Joseph Mitchell, who let people speak at length. I am less and less comfortable with the editorializing I see in journalism, the judgments that journalists make when they profile people. Class is such a tricky thing in England. It is better to have people introduce themselves. You can figure out who they are in a way that is more interesting.

(This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2012

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Joseph Epstein Explores the World Behind Our Backs in "Gossip: the Untrivial Pursuit"

In his witty new book of essays “Gossip: the Untrivial Pursuit”(Houghton Mifflin, $25, 242 pp.), Joseph Epstein gleefully tackles the taboo subject of what we say behind other people’s backs.

Epstein explores the social and even biological benefits of gossip and writes about the great gossips of history—the vicious Louis de Rouvroy in the 18th century court of King Louis XIV, the all-powerful columnist Walter Winchell and even the editor Tina Brown. Epstein examines how Tom Wolfe destroyed the composer Leonard Bernstern’s public image by making him look like a buffoon, how the media consciously mixes gossip and news with putrid results and how the Internet is “a vanity press for the demented.” For Epstein, the joy in gossip is exposing individuals’ crude contradictions and pummeling false pieties, though gossip trashes marriages and cuts down social rebels. He quotes one ruthless trafficker in gossip as saying hypocrisy “is the only modern sin.” Epstein’s gossip runs thick, but the book’s insights are penetrating and diverting.

Epstein, 73, was the editor of The American Scholar. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Evanston, Illinois.

Q. You admit to enjoying gossip, as well as receiving and transmitting gossip. Why did you want to write about it?

A. Writers are always looking for good subjects. I came to this book because I was asked to give a talk on celebrity at the University of Virginia. I realized that without gossip, celebrity almost doesn’t exist. More of the world is now gossip. More of journalism is now gossip. There has been a shift in decorum. People now give details they wouldn’t give before.

Q. You note that there are intense social benefits from gossip. What kind of gossip do you enjoy?

A. Vicious gossip doesn’t interest me. There is gossip that details people’s foibles, hypocrises and pretentions. That to me is the most delicious gossip. I don’t know if I’ve committed any vicious gossip in this book. I did not write this book saying, “I’m going to get that S.O.B.”

Q. Where does the viciousness of academic gossip come from?

A. There is that famous quote, “Why are academic arguments carried out with such intensity? Because the stakes are so low.” When I worked at Northwestern, I noticed the petty rivalries. In academics, the pretention rates are very high. There is a high degree of disappointment among these characters. They were so good at school.  They thought they would create great books and become inspiring teachers, then neither happened.


Q. You hammer a recent past president of the National Endowment for the Arts as a power-grabbing, middling poet. Why?

A. I don’t hate him. What I was doing was skewering his pretentions.  I met him for lunch when he was up for the job. “I have this Jeffersonian sense of public service,” he said. Complete bull.  He was really saying, “I want this job for it will give me power and advance my career.” I would have had much greater regard for him if he had said that, instead of putting Jefferson on his side.

Q. You also take the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross apart for exposing her five-decade affair with the married editor William Shawn. Do you think Ross’s motivations were revenge?

A. I think she was morally clueless, especially with Shawn’s wife and children still being alive. It’s “Look at me, I’m still alive. Look at who I’ve been bonking with gusto.” This goes back to decorum. Fifty years earlier, her book would not have been published. Her book was the betrayal of all betrayals, for Shawn was a great editor who specialized in not being known. The nature about what we gossip about has changed greatly.

Q. With gossip flooding into the mainstream media, do you think that modern journalism has been irreparably corrupted?

A. I don’t think it is irreparably corrupted, but it is widely corrupted.