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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo:

In which John kicks off the Nerdfighter Book Club's discussion on Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers. He considers the role of luck, global capitalism, and the hierarchies of poverty. I look forward to hearing all your thoughts about the book and continuing the discussion in comments!
Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. It's actually Saturday, but Tuesday-me will be on vacation so you're stuck with Saturday-me, a.k.a. The-Fault-in-Our-Stars-movie-came-out-in-America-yesterday-me, a.k.a. the tiredest me I have ever been.

So okay just briefly, at the moment it looks like The Fault in Our Stars is going to be the number one movie in America this week, beating out movies that cost like hundreds of millions of dollars to make. The reviews have been amazing and according to Rotten Tomatoes, 93% of people who've seen it liked it, so just real quickly: YEEEEEEEEES!

Okay dramatic tonal shift, let's begin to talk about books that are not yet movies, but should be. I'm speaking of course about Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the book that we're reading this summer in the Nerdfighter Book Club. I wanna start our conversation about it today by talking about the first four chapters. So in this book we meet a bunch of people who live in this slum in Mumbai called Annawadi. Now those of us who don't live in slums tend to imagine those who do rather monolithically, but it slowly becomes clear that there's a lot of diversity in class and status in Annawadi. Right, like the life of a malnourished garbage-picker Sunil is very different from the life of Ahmet who buys and sorts that garbage, and very different from Manju's life, who's aspiring to become the first resident of Annawadi to graduate from college. So that's the first and easiest level of complexity that's added to our understanding of life in places like Annawadi. Not all poverty is equal and not all people living in poverty are identical. But it becomes much more complex, like we think of government corruption as a cause of poverty, right? And it often is. But for Manju's mother Asha, it's also a way out of poverty. We think of empowering women with loans from microfinance organizations to be an engine that can drive social and economic change in communities, and it can be. But Asha hoards and abuses microfinance-loans in order to get ahead.

I should add here for all the Nerdfighters who give loans via Kiva, that that's why Kiva didn't work in India until very recently and now does so only with, like, crazy lots of restrictions.

But anyway, the complexity that's most striking to me is that we all think of funding schools as being good, and it is. But Manju goes to a charity-funded college were one can graduate basically by reading CliffsNotes. Although to be fair, that's also the case with some American universities.

For me, the brilliance of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it refuses to allow those of us who live in the rich world to hide behind shields like microfinance and charity.

In one of my favorite passages, a kid says, "Everything around us is roses, and we're the shit in between."

Boo goes on to write about pink condominiums and glass offices shooting up all around Annawadi, a clear metaphor for the roses. The implication here I think is that without manure, roses can't grow. In order to have all of our inexpensive consumer goods, the rich need the poor, and we need them to stay poor. That's a very discomforting thing to consider, but we shouldn't look away from it. But then again, as Boo points out, almost no one living in Annawadi is actually poor, at least according to official definitions.

Sunil the garbage-collector may have to take puffs off of discarded cigarettes to ward of hunger pangs, but he still lives on more than $1.25 a day.

And when we say that a hundred million people have emerged from poverty in India in the last few decades, we're talking at least in part about residents of Annawadi. By many measures, life is better for people living in Annawadi than it would be without global capitalism and this fantastic growth of the over-city. This is a book that resists reductive readings. No matter your ideology, it gets challenged.

Okay one last thing: it seems to me that in the first 100 pages, the greatest mover of the narrative is not like corruption or discrimination or ambition or any of that, but luck. Or fate, I guess, depending on your worldview. But I mean the chance of having your hand cut off while working as a kid at a recycling plant or having a bum heart or an alcoholic parent or being falsely accused of assault. As Abduhl's father says, "Your little boat goes west, and you congratulate yourself. 'What a navigator I am.' And then the wind blows you east."

So Nerdfighters, I'm interested in what you took away from the first four chapters of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but I also wanna know what you think of luck.

Like how do you make sense of a world where luck plays such a huge role in your triumphs and tragedies?

Thanks for reading the book with me.

Hank, I will see you on Friday.