Novel Ideas - The Missourian: Features People

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Posted: Saturday, February 18, 2012 12:30 am | Updated: 11:02 am, Tue Feb 21, 2012.

It's difficult to understand the kind of abject poverty author Katherine Boo writes about in her heartbreaking, but impossible to set aside first book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."

This important work of nonfiction is personal, honest and sensitive. From November 2007 to March 2011, Boo researched the lives of individuals living in Annawadi, a squalor of slum huts located within sight of the Mumbai airport where high-rise hotels provide getaways for the affluent. It's this disparity between rich and poor in such close proximity that's disturbing.

The result of Boo's research is a true account that reads like a novel as Boo investigates the struggles of slum dwellers. Abdul Houssin is a teen with high morals who provides for his family by collecting and recycling trash, anything from plastic bags to bits of metal. In his family, there are many mouths to feed, and Abdul willingly assumes responsibility. The Houssins are trying to save money in hopes of leaving the slum until tragedy strikes in the form of a crazed neighbor who accuses Abdul of a crime he hasn't committed after she douses herself with kerosene and sets fire to her body.

In the slum, superstition runs rampant, political corruption is the rule rather than the exception, judges and lawyers spout empty promises, and police unmercifully beat those picked up for crimes, even children.

Asha, a powerful woman in the slum, is determined to be slumlord, even if it means jeopardizing her children's futures, including that of a daughter on track to be the first girl in the slum to graduate college.

With clarity and respect, Boo relates these stories, as well as following the paths of others, including two of Abdul's friends who fall victim to suicide and crime.

"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is gut-wrenching, but well done, and so thought-provoking it's certain to prompt discussion and a clearer understanding of the many facets that keep the unfortunate enslaved in a life they yearn to escape.

***

Author Robert Harris prefaces "The Fear Index" with a quote from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Shelley's cautionary words warn that man's knowledge not outpace and overwhelm his "nature." But that's exactly what happens in "The Fear Index," a fast-paced novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat and provides food for thought regarding technology that "takes on a life of its own."

One can't help but sympathize with Dr. Alexander Hoffmann, a brilliant physicist, quirky and bordering on genius. Someone is trying to drive him to the brink of insanity as he endeavors to run Hoffmann Investment Technologies, a highly successful hedge fund he founded, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Hoffmann lives there in a mansion with his English artist wife, and both benefit from the billions he makes, but question the wisdom of doing so. Amassing a fortune wasn't always important to Hoffmann, but it's the lifeblood of business partner and friend Hugo Quarry.

The key to Hoffmann's success is computer-generated artificial intelligence he creates that's highly accurate in predicting the buying and selling of stock for an array of high-class investors.

Though Hoffmann is driven and bright, he's haunted by a nervous breakdown he suffered in the past, a past that haunts him when a rare, first edition book by Charles Darwin is delivered to his home. Though Hoffmann knows he didn't order the book, an email later shows that he authorized a significant transfer of funds to purchase the volume.

The evening the book arrives, an intruder breaks into Hoffmann's home, knocking him unconscious, but robbery isn't a motive. An MRI shows suspect areas in Hoffmann's brain, possibly early dementia. This symptom coupled with the previous breakdown, plants seeds of fear in Hoffmann's mind about his mental health as the crazy cards stack up against him.

Hoffmann attempts to discover who's behind the evil stalking him, and finds himself embroiled in a scheme that could ruin his hedge fund and spell disaster for countless others.

Thinking caps are required for this thriller, but even if some details are too difficult to absorb, the action and mystery will pull you into this smart, sophisticated read.

***

Born with a malformed heart that required two open heart surgeries before age 4, Damon Weber held his own until he was 12. Only a few mysterious symptoms offered a clue about PLE, a disorder that made it impossible for his body to retain protein. With this diagnosis, Damon, his parents and two younger siblings enter a horror story of failed procedures, a plethora of drugs, side effects and anxiety that turn their lives upside down as they struggle to retain some semblance of normalcy.

So begins "Immortal Bird, a Family Memoir," by Daron Weber, a father's touching tribute to a young boy with red hair and a can-do spirit that inspires all who know him. His story will inspire readers too and leave them teary-eyed.

Damon's father realizes there might be a problem when he notices that Damon has stopped growing. That coupled with another issue sends them to the doctor. Upon examination, it's discovered that Damon has an enlarged liver.

Damon's parents are told that a procedure he had years ago sometimes spawns PLE, a serious illness that affects about 10 percent of children. More treatment is required to right the problem, and if that fails the only other option is a heart transplant.

For the next four years, Damon's parents become his confidants and advocates, educating themselves as they travel from hospital to hospital in their attempt to get Damon the very best and most advanced care. All the while Damon retains his cheerful demeanor, despite encroaching and increasing exhaustion that finally necessitate a heart transplant.

"Immortal Bird" is a father's tribute to a son he admires, a father, who himself, never gives up, despite abundant complications and problems in the world of health care. It's also a memoir of love, the bond that makes it possible for the family to steer through the rough waters of a child's failing health.

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