Monday, April 22, 2013

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.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ayun Haliday on the Horror of Odd Jobs

The Denver Post

No more odd jobs for Ayun Halliday

July 10, 2005

By Dylan Foley

Special to The Denver Post Ayun Halliday proves that being a slacker doesn't end at 25. In her new memoir, "Job Hopper," the actor and writer details some of the dozens of jobs she had in a 10-year period in Chicago, from nude model to failed cocktail waitress and illegal massage therapist.

Halliday's tale is no sob story. Halliday makes merciless observations on her bosses and herself as a rebellious employee. As a waitress, she eats the forbidden tiramisu at an Italian restaurant and in her essay, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," she details her work at a costume shop and how she borrows the owner's pride and joy, the wedding dress from "Brigadoon." All the while, Halliday pursues her dream of becoming a big name in the small alternative theater scene in Chicago.

"I had made the grand decision at one point to drop out from being an actor to pursue a more lucrative career as a poet. I auditioned for the Neo-Futurists (an alternative theater company) one dark and stormy night in 1988, and that was why I continued acting."

Halliday, 40, is a columnist for Bust magazine and author of two previous comic memoirs.

After quitting a job, Halliday would take her dreams to the classifieds. "The thing that all my jobs had in common was I found them through the classified ads," she said. "I would open up the ads in The Chicago Reader and would think, 'I'm going to get something great this time.' Now at 40, I still read the classified ads and I think, 'These jobs are bad."'

Despite rarely making more than $6 an hour in 1990s Chicago, Halliday's dreams of becoming a big actress seemed ironclad. "I was clinging so hard to the Neo-Futurists," she said. "We had had a certain kind of success. We had packed houses. I didn't want to be a movie star, anyway. I wanted to be a famous downtown Chicago actress."

Despite being the eternal short-term employee, Halliday still yearned for community. In one moment of high comedy, she winds up with a bunch of office workers who are obsessed with the cartoon character Garfield.

"Temping was my attempt to go straight, to buckle down and to make serious money," she said. "It turned out that I don't fit in with people who get a big bang out of Garfield. There was nothing wrong with it, but I felt like a Martian dropped into their midst. Here I was, an actress and I couldn't even successfully fake it. When I left the office, one of the women said to me, 'I know I'll see your name in lights one day, Pam."'

Many of the bosses depicted by Halliday are absurd, but she often knocks the stuffing out of herself as a subversive employee, even feigning illness for personal gain.

"I wasn't so much motivated by the idea of sticking it to the man, but sometimes it was like, 'Gee, they have all these office supplies. I need these,"' Halliday explained somewhat sheepishly. "Often these jobs weren't stimulating enough. If something came along, like going to a Grateful Dead concert with a friend's boyfriend, I would suddenly dislocate my knee. Then I'd feel guilty afterwards, so I'd wear a knee brace for days."

In the end, Halliday is saved from a life of human bondage to low-paying jobs when her husband, Greg Kotis, wrote the unlikely smash-hit anti-musical "Urinetown."

"It felt like grabbing the brass ring when you didn't mean to," said Halliday. "Then it's like, 'You better lay another golden egg, my friend.' People ask, 'Aren't you going to buy an apartment?" I say, 'No, we spent it all buying take-out sushi."'

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY.


Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante

By Ayun Halliday

Seal Press, 256 pages, $15

Thursday, December 13, 2012

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.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

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)