Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Coyote Lost at Sea by Julia Plant

”People say you go out there to beat the ocean, like some macho thing. You don’t beat anything, you just live with it. It’s a rhythm.”

Mike Plant died crossing the Atlantic in November of 1992 on a new racing yacht commissioned to compete in the Vendée Globe Challenge, a race of solo circumnavigation of the world. The race was a relatively new one in which the participants leave from France and essentially circle Antarctica, no stops allowed. Plant had done it before, in 1989-90, but this time he’d intended to win. He was a fierce competitor and a man who presented a face of unshakeable, and perhaps unwarranted, confidence to the world. But he answered to the "the sun, the rain, and the wind."

The story of prior races and the creation of Coyote, the 60-foot single-hulled sailing vessel Plant commissioned for speed is riveting and revealing. Despite our imagining the sometimes grim realities of solo sailing around the world in the cold weather of the southern seas, we are not likely to be prepared for the difficulties of designing and building a completely new-style racing vessel in a matter of months. In cringe-producing detail Julia Plant describes and underscores these difficulties and shows us how it might be possible for a new racing ship to break apart in heavy seas.

Undaunted by the difficulties of attempting to design a completely new racing vessel from scratch with little funding, Mike Plant went with his instincts. He wanted to beat the French, who were leaders in this type of sailing, and who designed ships that often sacrificed safety for speed. The only requirement was that the boat be 60 feet or less in length and monohull. Coyote had an 85 foot mast and 250 lbs of sail, described here by sailing journalist Herb McCormick:
Coyote was an extreme design with exaggerated dimensions. At 60 feet overall, she sported a plumb bow, a startling-looking 19-foot beam, and twin rudders. Her hull was a broad, Airex-cored, shallow dish with a displacement of only 21,500 pounds—5,000 pounds lighter than Duracell [an earlier boat].With upwind and downwind sail areas of 2,600 and 4,700 square feet respectively, she carried an impressive power plant…It was a ton of sail even for an experienced solo sailor.”

This was the thing: Mike Plant wasn’t all that experienced a solo sailor, at least at distances like these. The only way to get experience at solo circumnavigation, however, is to do it. He’d done it a three times before, but really, he was just confident of his ability to troubleshoot his way out of difficulties. And he usually succeeded.

Mike Plant grew up in Minnesota along the banks of Lake Minnetonka, near Minneapolis. He was competitive and physically gifted from an early age, leading him to accept challenges good sense might have rejected. Julia Plant characterizes her older brother Mike as special in many ways, but especially in his outsized appetite for adventures of his own making. He was considered a troublemaker early on and battled alcohol addiction his whole life. But he seemed to find his passion in battling the elements on the ocean, where in his thirties he took to ocean racing, specifically solo circumnavigation.

His career was short. Five years later, he was dead.

Julia Plant takes some time at the beginning of this book to share her early reminiscences of Mike, three years her senior. In retrospect this section is helpful to give one a fuller picture of the man, and how his decision-making process worked. No one could possibly dispute his courage and drive, considering his willingness to take on such an adventure. We might question his preparedness. None of us can know everything, and certainly hindsight gives us insights Mike couldn’t possibly have had. In the end, we must simply take the man for what he dared to do.
“It’s [solo circumnavigation] sort of like driving around Canada in the winter for 30,000 miles naked. If your car stops, you freeze to death.”

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“Time became more important the closer to death one was, so an extra few hours to make peace with the world were worth more than years.”
This is Marra’s debut novel, and in it we see his queerly outsized talent and deep knowledge of human motivation and possibility. Where did he get the knowledge from which he created this book, and how did he come to know it? In what he calls his Bibliography, Marra credits Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, Åsne Seierstad’s The Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War, and Allah's Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya, New Edition by Sebastian Smith for giving him much of the background he needed to imagine this place, in this time, a ten–year period between 1994 and 2003.

Constellation immerses one in the East—at no time does one image oneself to be anywhere but in that place east of Europe and west of the Caspian. I suppose everyone will have familiarized themselves with Chechnya now, after the 2013 Boston Marathon, but it is north of the Caucasus Mountain Range that separates Russia and its “rind of former republics” from what westerners term The Middle East. It has been the site of grim partisan wars, by hand and in person, back when one actually had to show up to kill another.

This hard-hitting novel shows us the broken families littering the landscape there, some forced into unseemly alliances with enemies, and the nearly limitless capacity of humans to inflict pain. But still there are some among the legion who are broken, who retain a measure of humor, dignity, and goodness that they share with other good souls. They recognize one another, these folks who hold themselves aloof from the cruelty, and it is because of them that we can even dream of a day when the sun shines on a peaceful patch of land where they can grow the food they need, play chess in the shade of a large tree, make music and make love and laugh without fear.

Marra gives us all this—what is there and what is not yet there—through the depth and strength of his writing of a people, place and time. His descriptions linger in the memory and stop the eye on the page. The Russian doctor, Sonja, was “a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside a set of unattractive but very white scrubs.” She returned to Chechnya from a safe place in London to find her beloved sister Natasha. “Though she was the elder, Sonja was always thought of as Natasha’s sister, the object rather than the subject of any sentence the two shared.”

She met Akmed, a better portraitist than he was a doctor, who helped her in the hospital and in life. In the midst of the betrayals and the shortening life horizon, for a brief moment “the circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed.” But that moment passed and Havaa, beloved daughter of Dokka, remained, the daughter upon whom everyone’s hopes were pinned.

The “Constellation of Vital Phenomena”, gotten from an ancient medical text, is a term to describe life and in this definition consists of “organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, and adaptation.” Couldn’t the very same words be used to describe any work of art in the process of construction, like for instance, a novel?

This is an extraordinary piece of work, especially for a newcomer. I challenge you to forget this book, and your first up-close glimpse of that place called Chechnya. It distinguishes itself by its subject and the incisiveness of the writing. Despite the horror, or perhaps because of it, one wishes to see the place, to care and bear witness for the folks that stood up for their most basic rights—to live in peace, if not happiness.
“Not knowing what to do, [Kassan] walked back and forth [in the snow], urging the dogs to do so likewise, turning the snow into a riddle no one could solve.”

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Friday, April 26, 2013

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
”…when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book…”

One feels a part of this story, the way Mohsin Hamid tells it. There is an immediacy and directness to his second-person narrative that entirely works in involving the reader. This book began to get widespread attention before it was even published, but not one of the reviews and interviews gave me a sense of the exhilaration I felt while reading. For one thing, I had the sense that the author threw out more than he put in—it is not a big book in terms of words. But the author’s daring use of language, structure, second-person narrative, character and plot involved the reader to a great extent, and we are complicit in outcomes. We recognize and validate the characters.

Spare and propulsive, this is the story of a young man growing up in a large South Asian city:
”Your city is enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached tropical island republic…A limited access road is under construction around the place, forming a belt past which its urban belly is already beginning to bulge…Your bus barrels along in the shadow of these monuments, dusty new arteries feeding this city, which despite its immensity is only one among many such organs quivering in the torso of rising Asia.”
The young man in our narrative has the wild uninhibited entrepreneurial energy that is forced upon bright young things struggling to find a way to live in a place of too many with too little. Innovate, or die.
“You have used the contacts with retailers you forged during your years as a non-expired-labeled expired-goods salesman to enter the bottled-water trade. Your city’s neglected pipes are cracking, the contents of underground water mains and sewers mingling, with the result that taps in locales rich and poor alike disgorge liquids that, while for the most part clear and often odorless, reliably contain trace levels of feces and microorganisms capable of causing diarrhea, hepatitis, dysentery, and typhoid. Those less well-off among the citizenry harden their immune systems by drinking freely, sometimes suffering losses in the process, especially of their young and their frail. Those more well-off have switched to bottled water, which you and your two employees are eager to provide.”
We watch as our entrepreneur grows his business, losing members of his family along the way, all the while we are keenly aware of the language that carries a lilt even in its exquisite fluency: “…emotionally you stagger about this new reality like a sailor returned to land after decades at sea.”

Moments of business success are punctuated with reminders of its mixed blessings: “As you drive off under a beautiful, orange, polluted sky, riding high in your SUV above lesser hatchbacks and motorcycles, you start to hum…Below your feet is the ever-dropping aquifer, punctured by thousands upon thousands of greedily sipping machine-powered steel straws.”

This book thrilled and energized me, and gives me infinite hope for the future while at the same time giving pause:
“…Meeting with a keen young repairman arrived to fix your telephone connection, or speaking with a knowledgeable young woman behind the counter of a pharmacy, you are pricked by a lingering optimism, and you marvel at the resilience and potential of those around you, particularly of the youth in this city, in this, the era of cities, bound by its airport and fiber-optic cables to every great metropolis, collectively forming, even if tenuously, a change-scented urban archipelago spanning not just rising Asia but the entire planet…But what you [also] sense, what is unmistakable, is a rising tide of frustration and anger and violence, born partly of the greater familiarity the poor today have with the rich, their faces pressed to that clear window on wealth afforded by ubiquitous television, and partly the change in mentality that results from the outward shift in the supply curve for firearms.”
I really loved this book. I loved its humanity and I loved its involving me in the human drama unfolding, for I am involved, I am responsible, this is my world, too, and Hamid made me feel these are people just like me who live elsewhere in different conditions. I thank the author for bringing this home with such sophistication and style.
“As you create this story and I create this story, I would like to ask you how things were. I would like to ask you about the person who held your hand when dust entered your eye or ran with you from the rain. I would like to tarry here awhile with you, or if tarrying is impossible, to transcend my here, with your permission, in your creation, so tantalizing to me, and so unknown. That I can do this doesn’t stop me from imagining it. And how strange that when I imagine, I feel. The capacity for empathy is a funny thing.”

A word must really be said about the hardcover production of this book by Riverhead Publishing, a division of Penguin: it is a very beautiful book. I wonder if, in this age of digital publishing, publishers are taking more time to create exquisite paper objects or if I am just noticing now after a few years of wrangling with digital readers. But I submit that some books are more gorgeous than others, and this particular hardcover has clear type with plenty of white space marching over creamy pages. It is a Rolls Royce reading experience. Thanks to Riverhead for showing me that there really is a difference in print copies.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal

The Golden Scales: A Makana Mystery
"The light sand swirled across the bare tarmac like smoke, as if the wind were intent on swallowing up the road, wiping away man’s futile endeavors to tame nature and return this place to the wilderness it was meant to be.”

This quote comes in Chapter 33, but in some way it carries with it the sense of the whole novel. “Off to their right was evidence of what the future held in store for the city as it expanded, growing like some unsightly tumor into the unblemished desert. Clusters of buildings scattered along the roadside provided housing for workers employed in the isolated industrial complexes build by the government to relieve pressure on the capital. Eventually all these dots would be joined up into one big sprawl…the warm desert air blew through the open windows, bringing with it the scent of lost kingdoms…”

A luxury housing complex was being built in the desert, meant to be self-sufficient with golf courses, and swimming pools, surrounded by perimeter fences and security guards, but “The wind had picked up and sand had built into drifts that covered the road almost completely in places...the ochre landscape featured windblown and withered palms with fronds snapping in the air like switches, and the barbed wire hummed in the air as if charged with electricity.” Sounds a little like the uncompleted basement tombs that crater previously undeveloped Irish seaside vistas described by Tana French in Broken Harbor. Overbuilding and underthinking: two common characteristics of unreasonably optimistic real estate financiers around the world in the last decades, even in Cairo.

This is a politically astute, perceptive, and atmospheric thriller police procedural mystery set in Cairo. One actually wants to shade one’s eyes from the sun, and spit the sand from one’s tongue. The mystery is bi-fold and the two pieces appear connected. A British woman is tortured and murdered, and a famous soccer star goes missing. Various moneyed factions are warring for turf, the Islamists are seeking control over the more secular police force, and the foreigner is the daughter of a member of Britain’s House of Lords. Bilal uses a big canvas and paints Cairo as the international city it is. Asking around yields tiny clues that finally add up.

If I had any complaint, it would be that there were too many words. But I like the view we get of modern Egypt and its stressors, the food, the desert. I look forward to more of Parker Bilal. He writes with sophistication, assurance, and deep sense about living on earth.

Parker Bilal, pseudonym for Britain-born Jamal Mahjoub, has written several novels before this popular series, among them Travelling with Djinns ( Viajando con djinns) and The Drift Latitudes as well as historical novels about major moments in political or scientific upheaval. He is not a lightweight. There is depth in his portrayal of a Sudanese national in Egypt as the key character for this series. This is the first of a series, so you may want to start here, or try one of his stand-alone novels.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

GIVEAWAY --ends April 22, 2013


Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution

by Nathaniel Philbrick

due out April 30, 2013

cover Bunker Hill: width=

I am thrilled to be able to offer a hardcover copy of BUNKER HILL to interested readers of this blog! You are welcome to fill out the secure form below with name & email address and I will choose among interested readers using Random.org on April 22nd. I look forward to reviewing the book along with you, so watch this space for further comments.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution. The timeline of this book is a mere three months, from April to June 1775. Tensions up and down the eastern seacoast were high and rising throughout the winter and spring of that year. Those of you who read the recently published young adult offering called The Portsmouth Alarm will know that arms caches were being raided by both sides for months. Philbrick gives a day-by-day accounting of the rise in tension in Boston during the spring of 1775, beginning when patriot residents began evacuating Boston in April.

Prepare yourself for immersion into America's history as it played out in Boston, the seat of the America's revolution. Many of you will be familiar with Philbrick's style: to take the raw documents and the earlier work and commentary of others to create a fascinating and thoroughly readable in-depth view of a battle. The insights he offered in The Last Stand, the story of the Battle of The Little Bighorn, added immeasurably to my interest and understanding of the time. Now, closer to home, is BUNKER HILL. Please join me in giving an enthusiastic welcome to the latest addition to the history of our war for nationhood. Watch the trailer and sign up for the chance to win! Giveaway ends April 22nd.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash

Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories

”Water has its own archeology, not a layering but a leveling, and this is truer to our sense of the past, because what is memory but near and far events spread and smoothed beneath the present’s surface.”

The gorgeous hardcover edition of a new collection of stories by Ron Rash produced by Ecco Books made me pick it from among the mass of new books on a shelf. I’d never read anything by Rash before, but I so regret the lack of attention that enabled me to overlook this master until now. I exhort you: do not make my mistake. Do not miss this!

Ron Rash brings us news of the Blue Ridge backwoods almost untouched by our quickening lifestyle and fulsome economy. The timeframe is extended: we move from the Civil War through the 20th Century, but we see daytime TV now and the characters who find it fascinating. His stories are gems of economy--he paints a picture, and then quietly and inexorably ratchets the tension. Our brains toil away at resolution, but Rash often surprises us, jolting us with a solution that demonstrates our naiveté and gullibility.

This stellar collection of stories from America’s Appalachian Mountain region carries with it the whiff of woodsmoke, the clang of metal in a bird-silent wood, and the chill of an unsmiling blue eye. There was an elusive taint of bitter iron on my tongue after a few of the stories. The following quote, from the story “Night Hawks”, is an example of Rash’s grasp of quietude (as one reviewer called it), and alienation:
”Often she felt like an inmate pressing palm to glass and yet feeling no warmth from a hand less than an inch away.”

Another reviewer showed us the Frost poem, the reference to which this title refers, but one cannot help but try to make sense of the title for ourselves, just as it is, with no more knowledge behind it. And in this way we receive confirmation for what we suspect: that beauty, wealth, things that money can buy, are only transitory. Life itself is transitory.

My favorite stories are the first and the last. In the first, “The Trusty”, Rash caught me out completely—it was like an O. Henry celebration. In the last, “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out”, the writing is so quiet and so generous and so wise, it is like a benediction.

This is a book you may well want to own in paper. Great literature should be visible and accessible on our shelves and publishers create beautiful volumes as a testament to great literature. This one is printed like a collection of poetry. It is slim. Even the spine is gorgeous. But don't pass it up if all you can find is an ebook.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Ladder of Angels by Brian Thompson

Ladder of Angels

When I was reading the Afterword of John Harvey’s latest book, Good Bait, I saw a reference to Ladder of Angels, which Harvey called one of the greatest British crime novels of the last twenty years.

Harvey mentioned the title again in an interview with a Swedish blogger on crime books. I was pleased to find the title among the offerings of my local library, though by the time it came in, I’d forgotten where I’d come across the title.

Sometimes when reading about families that have some awful abuse happen to their children, authors seem to skip over the outrage and the horror and get right to sorting it out from a law enforcement point of view. This book takes a different tack altogether. The detective once “worked for the police,” but doesn’t call himself a policeman. He has a loopy sense of British humor—I guess that is to be expected—sarcastic and somewhat humorous if one likes constant and confusing snide references. I am reminded of Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller.

But this detective has a sense of outrage that I appreciate. He knows that rarely are we as sophisticated as we think when it comes to actual crimes (as opposed to paper or celluloid crimes) and he shares our sense that a young girl, no matter how she protests, is still a young girl with a lot to learn. His words remind us who we really are as parents or college students and how we really live:
"Here’s my opinion on your daughter…You have a kid who was badly done by. She should be at Oxford, breaking the heart of someone else’s kid and experimenting with sex and ideas and clothes. Writing long essays in backward sloping handwriting and rubbishing films and novels. That’s what she should be doing. But other things happened to Melissa and she’s out there somewhere skating on thin ice."

And Thompson catches those moments that define a relationship or a personality: “You sometimes look into other cars on the motorway and see mute couples, just driving, as though all talk had long ago been exhausted. That’s how we drove back to Hertford.”

Best of all, he has a set of marvelous female characters, some of whom share their sexual charms casually, perhaps even for money. But none of them are evil, and they perceive some of the same moral constraints and needs and desires as any of us. The daughter and the center of the investigation in this novel, Melissa, is a case in point. The moment she appeared, the novel took on intensity, direction, and mass. The author clearly admires her. She is one of those cuddly bear cubs--one swipe of their tiny bear paws could maim or even kill: “Some people are there to eat the world…Whatever’s in their way, they just gobble it up and spit out the bits they don’t like. I think [Melissa] may be the same.”

Melissa is a character who had something bad happen to her. So, innocence gone, she threw herself into using every bit of her perception of people’s needs to 1) make money, 2) manipulate the people that loved her. She wasn’t going to be a victim—she just resented being pushed into adulthood ahead of time. But if others weren’t going to protect her from the world, she’d do it herself. She simply took control. But as the book progresses, we realize that she really is only a child after all, and still needs the support and love of her parents, as we all do.

I like the humanity of this author, who points out our vulnerabilities, and makes us realize that there really are decent folk out there. There is evil, too, but those folk are in the minority.

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Mad Dog & Englishman by J.M. Hayes

Mad Dog & Englishman: A Mad Dog & Englishman Mystery

Kansas, really? This murder mystery is set in Kansas, and not a city either. It is set in the plains of Kansas, so flat and dry a stand of trees rises like a heat mirage and the wind is an ever-constant companion. J.M. Hayes, Arizona resident, grew up in Kansas and has managed to escape our notice for a long time. He is possessed of a keen eye, a coruscating sense of humor, a literate pen, and a devilish sense of the absurd. When reading this story I had to slow down. He is liable to turn suddenly in a direction I hadn’t anticipated.

The group of characters Hayes created stand on their own, and from this novel he has created a series. I liked the unfamiliar setting and the doses of history and local culture. He has teenager-speak and cadence just right and a lame police station with plenty of questionable characters and pistols full of blanks.

What I didn’t particularly like was mixing the absurd with the painful reality of the mystery: dismemberment murders by slashing razor blades, rampant sexual abuse of entire families, chasing down a black man simply because he is black, little-old-lady suicide by shotgun—I mean, really, is this meant to be funny? It is hardly the stuff of a lighthearted read.

Take the first suspect, for instance. A man, a reverend in fact, is slashed and genitally dismembered in the morning. When the town deputy goes to his house to look for clues, he happens across an unfamiliar black man, who he immediately decides must be the killer. He chases him across field and river, finally cornering him in an old barn, only to discover he is a professor of history at a nearby university whose car had broken down on the highway several miles out of town. Funny? It is meant to be, judging from the telling and the character of the deputy. It is edgy. True-to-life? Unfortunately. The reverend, we learn later, is a child molester. Unfortunately, we know this could also be true-to-life. We sense the author using a razor on us for our societal ills.

The setting in the fields of Kansas make it logical and perhaps necessary, I suppose, to place the final scenes in a grain silo, necessitating this paragraph in the middle of mayhem:
"Municipalities tend to have the larger elevators, and it was with this hope in mind that the beast of Buffalo Springs was built. It was 408 feet in length, 48 feet wide, and 90 feet high at the roof, or 110 feet at the roof of the head house. It was a monolith, formed by one continuous pour of concrete that took almost two weeks and involved 250 workers. It contained 36 circular bins, 17 star bins and 35 outer bins, so that only one empty space between the work floor and the distribution floor was unavailable to store grain. That space contained the preferred route for humans to travel to the head house and the distributing floor. The fastest, if not necessarily the safest, was by way of a pulley in the head house and was driven by an electric motor on the work floor. On an adjacent wall there was a runged ladder, positioned in case of a power failure or failure of the mechanism. There was also a circular metal staircase in that unused bin, the safest route, but a slow and tiring one….the fourth and last way to and from the top…"
You get my point I think. Too many words? It’s kind of interesting, but…perhaps we could have learned something about silos before the events in the final chapter required us to use our knowledge.

I’d like to have another look at the books this author has written. There are many things about this book that indicate the author is a thoughtful, learned man with a deep vein of humor and a clear eye for grim realities. And the setting and characters are unique. I am reluctant to pass up the chance to use my new knowledge of grain silos on another of his quirky mysteries.

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

This is a difficult book to read. I actually think we might get more out of it on a second, deeper reading, once the horror of the subject matter has been fully revealed and we have braced ourselves. Boo is very matter of fact about the most stomach-churning realities of life in a Mumbai slum and after listening to Sunil Malhotra, the reader of the audiobook, relate all this in several hundreds of pages and hours of listening, one begins to wonder why Boo wrote it this way. Life is so miserable that one wonders how these people live. By the end of the book, we know that many of them do not, in fact, live. They die, often by their own hand, often from disease, or congenital deformities, or perhaps they are killed by the carelessness or blind revenge of others.

The story was one long saga of life in one particular slum near the Mumbai airport, Annawadi, from 2007-2011. Of course I wondered how Boo managed it—to view with such depth the inner and outer lives of slum dwellers. At the end of the book, Boo gives us an Afterword that explains her thinking for arranging the mind-numbing information in the way she did. “Statistics have a tenuous relation to lived experience.” Boo decided she “would follow the inhabitants of a single unexceptional slum over the course of a couple years and see who go ahead and who didn’t and why, as India prospered.” She used thousands of government documents, endless interviews, and newspaper reports to create a window into a world none of us will ever see.

The families she followed were not passive, but ingeniously devised ways to manage their lives in an unequal society that used bribes and intimidation to keep lower caste and low earners in a position of abject poverty. The people she talks about are real, and the events are real. Boo says that she is
“continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even those in situations so desperate that selfishness would be an asset. Children have little power to act on those imaginations and by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away when a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. So how does that happen?”

This is a remarkable document, and it is important. But it is hard to read or listen to.
“It is easy from a safe distance to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people rely on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be. All those invisible individuals who everyday find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted, slab in hand, one July afternoon when his life exploded. If the house is crooked and crumbling and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

A note on the audio production: Sunil Malhotra does a remarkable job of presenting with restraint and a reporter’s sense of distance a non-fiction piece describing despicable living conditions. Boo and her team are remarkably equable when raising issues that make us squirm with discomfort. Sunil's ability to convey different Indian accents within a sentence of one another alleviates the inevitable confusion that comes when a group meeting is described. Altogether, it was a remarkable piece of reportage by a number of dedicated individuals, all of whom should be rightly proud of this ground-breaking work.

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