02.17.12

This Week’s Hot Reads: Feb. 15, 2012

This week: A Pulitzer Prize winner takes us inside a Mumbai slum, a haunting (literally) short-story collection, Granta’s latest issue, the riveting history behind Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting, and an antic, hilarious thriller.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
By Katherine Boo

An insightful chronicler of America’s poor, writer Katherine Boo takes us to India in her extraordinary first book.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, 242 pp. Random House. $28. ()

In this masterful work of narrative nonfiction, Pulitzer-Prize winner Katherine Boo takes us inside a Mumbai slum to examine the harsh socioeconomic realities for those living on the outskirts of India’s most glamorous city. Behind the Beautiful Forevers introduces Abdul, a Muslim teenager and garbage trader, and the other slum dwellers of Annawadi who talk of better lives “casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.” Yet, as Boo writes, “for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge.” While one college-attending slum dweller—the settlement’s “most-everything girl”— pores over Mrs. Dalloway, her close friend consumes rat poison to avoid an arranged marriage. After Abdul’s troubled neighbor sets herself on fire, rickshaw drivers anxious about “potential damage to seat covers” refuse to drive her and her husband to the hospital. But Boo deftly chronicles these atrocities, reflecting on how the political and socioeconomic injustices in India translate in other parts of the world (“what was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too”). Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an astonishing story of a resilient community’s determination to find opportunity in corruption. 

Stay Awake
By Dan Chaon

Chaon forces readers to literally Stay Awake in his new collection of haunting short stories with a horror bent.

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Stay Awake, by Dan Chaon, 272 pp. Ballantine Books. $25 ()

Dan Chaon’s intent in his chilling new short-story collection is clear. In the opening line, “Gene’s son Frankie wakes up screaming.” We learn that Gene is a UPS deliveryman trying to escape his past, and his son’s bloodcurdling screams are reminders that “something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, is growing near.” In these haunting tales, Chaon writes about the tragic fallout of broken families; the loss of a child, parent, or spouse often drives the narrative. In one story, a foster child moves in with a couple and sleeps in their dead son’s bed. As he grows older, his traumatic childhood catches up with him, chipping away at his grip on reality until his demons come eerily into view. Chaon excels at inciting a gripping sense of foreboding; just as the reader realizes there’s a monster in the closet, its shocking revelation only stirs the imagination further. While the notorious severed hand from his 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, is absent from this new collection, the author’s fans will delight in discovering a few stray fingers and other signature motifs.

Granta 118: Exit Strategies

In the celebrated literary journal’s latest issue, eighteen works of fiction, poetry, memoir, reportage, and photojournalism explore the theme of human extrication.   

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Granta 118: Exit Strategies, 264 pp. Granta. $16.99. ()

How do we move on from heartbreak? How do we get out of what we got ourselves into, and how far should we go to escape? These are the Exit Strategies explored in the latest issue of the English-speaking world’s premier literary journal. Alice Munro takes us inside the deteriorating mind of an elderly woman as she searches in vain for a doctor whose name and address she cannot remember. Claire Messud chronicles her journey to reclaim her father’s past in Beirut as he lies dying in a hospital in Connecticut. John Barth contemplates never writing fiction again. The pieces illuminate the many factors that prompt people to move, from the personal to the environmental (as in Stacy Kranitz’s remarkable photo-essay of sinking homes on Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles). While some departures are voluntary, others like Aleksander Hemon’s family’s escape from the Bosnian War, are enforced. Though many works reflect on the past, on the many entanglements in our lives, the best elucidate how the biggest trap is often our memory—and how moving on ultimately defines and redeems us. 

The Lady in Gold
By Anne-Marie O’Connor

The riveting social history behind Gustav Klimt’s most-famous painting.

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The Lady in Gold, by Anne-Marie O’Connor, 295 pp. Knopf. $30. ()

Family drama, the art business, Europe at war, and a potential affair between a painter and his model are a few of the twisting plots in The Lady in Gold. Anne-Marie O’Connor delves into the story behind Gustav Klimt’s early 20th century “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” one of the most emblematic paintings of its time. We are introduced to the dazzling Miss Bloch-Bauer, a Viennese Jewish socialite the daughter of a wealthy banker and art patron, and to Klimt himself, the son of a failed gold engraver who was shunned by arts bureaucrats. Sixty years after it was stolen by the Nazis, Klimpt’s portrait sparked eight years of litigation between the Austrian government and the Bloch-Bauer heirs, until it was retrieved by one of her distant relatives. But by then, “Adele was no longer a beautiful enigma,” O’Connor writes. “Vienna, too, was being stripped of mystery, as Adele and Klimt’s other stolen women changed the city’s relationship with its past.”

Wild Thing
By Josh Bazell

A raucous, witty new novel from Josh Bazell.

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Wild Thing, by Josh Bazell, 388 pages. Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. $25.99 ()

How’s this for high concept? A former hitman for the mob becomes a medical doctor on the run from the mob. That was the premise of Josh Bazell’s hilarious debut novel, Beat the Reaper, which he has followed with the even more antic Wild Thing, wherein Dr. Pietro Brnwa goes off to find (or discredit) a monster living in the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota. His partner in this adventure is Dr. Violet Hurst, a sexy, tart-tongued, paleontologist. Their exchanges, as they encounter meth lab hooligans, nefarious tour guides, and suspicious locals, are the sparks that drive this story, which is really a very thoughtful examination of the collision of rationality and superstition. At one point, Brnwa asks Hurst, “I thought you would have liked shows with logical explanations.” “Are you kidding?” she says. “Nobody does. It’s like that piece-of-shit Wizard of Oz, where the wizard turns out to be fake even though the whole thing’s a dream anyway. Who has a dream about a wizard who turns out to be a fake? Nobody.” Comes with the funniest footnotes and appendix (no kidding) ever written.