Ambiguous Victories and Real Progress: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

In which John continues the Nerdfighter Book Club’s discussion of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Are there unambiguous victories? How should we approach our understanding of and relationship with charities domestic and international?

Book Review: A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes, #1)

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Genre: Mystery

"There was only one student in the room, who was bending over a distant table absorbed in his work. At the sound of our steps, he glanced round and sprang to his feet with a cry of pleasure. ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found it,’ he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in hand. ‘I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by hemoglobin, and by nothing else." Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features." (Ch. 1, pg. 7 “Mr. Sherlock Holmes”)

This was my first time reading A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. This book has Watson meeting Sherlock Holmes for the first time and joining in as Holmes works to solve the murder of a man in a locked room with no physical marks on his body. I have loved the character of Sherlock Holmes for a while, and I’ve enjoyed his short stories because his way of gathering information and solving crimes through deductive reasoning has always been fascinating to me. When I first started reading Sherlock Holmes stories, I didn’t always pick up on the fact that he doesn’t always have the best people skills and can come across as a bit of a jerk sometimes. These aspects of his personality were more apparent to me in television adaptions, and I believe the reason it wasn’t so obvious to me in the books is because they are written from Watson’s point of view. Watson can’t help but write about Holmes in a favorable view. It speaks to Watson’s character as much as it does to Holmes.

A Study in Scarlet is split up into two sections. The first half focuses on Sherlock (and the police) gathering clues to solve the murder and catch the murderer. The second half opens in the American West and gives us the backstory of the victims and killer. While I did end up getting pulled into the second half, it was a little confusing at first because the connection to the mystery itself wasn’t apparent at first. I still liked the book as a whole and enjoyed reading it. I always love the end of Sherlock Holmes stories when Holmes reveals to Watson how he solves the mystery.

Overall rating: A-


1. There is no “lax enforcement” on the U.S./Mexico border.

2. The migration of children and families didn’t just start recently.

3. The recent increase in the numbers of child migrants is not just a response to gang violence, although this is the most-cited cause in U.S. media coverage.

4. The failure of Central America’s economies is largely due to the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements.

5. When governments or people have resisted NAFTA and CAFTA, the United States has threatened reprisal.

6.  Gang violence in Central America has a U.S. origin.

7.  Moreover, U.S. foreign policy in Central America has actively led to the growth of gang violence there.

8. Kids looking for families here are looking for those who were already displaced by war and economic crisis.

The US plays a much bigger role in Central American/Mexican migration than our media lets on!

Book Review: The Boomerang Clue


The Boomerang Clue by Agatha Christie

Genre: Mystery

"Bobby got up quickly and came toward the man. Before he got there, the other spoke. His voice was not weak— it came out clear and resonant. ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ he said. And then a queer little shudder passed over him, the eyelids dropped, the jaw fell. The man was dead.” (ch. 1, The Accident)

I had never read an Agatha Christie novel before, and this was the the only at my library at the time, so I decided to check it out. This book was originally published as Why Didn’t they Tell Evans? and was changed to The Boomerang Clue in US editions.

The book opens with Bobby Jones, one of the main characters, golfing with a friend. He thinks he hears a shout; after hitting his ball near the cliff, he looks over the edge and sees someone lying on the ledge. They climb down, and his friend, a doctor, checks on the person and concludes that he will soon die. Bobby stays with the man while the doctor goes for help. For a moment, the man regains consciousness, asks “Why didn’t they tell Evans?” and dies. Bobby pulls out a handkerchief from the man’s pocket to cover the man’s face and finds a picture of a woman as well. Another man comes along, and Bobby leaves the stranger to wait for the police with the body because he had to play the organ for his father during church.

The dead man’s sister later identifies him, and she visits Bobby to see if said any last words, which he can’t initially remember. Someone later makes an attempt on Bobby’s life, so he and his childhood friend, Lady Frances, decide to investigate.

I found the mystery interesting enough to finish the novel, but sometimes, it felt as if there were a few too many plot twists. Sometimes it was a little hard to keep track of the different parts of the mystery as well as the different characters that were introduced. I do like the use of red herrings to keep the reader from figuring things out too early on as well as the way Christie started revealing the actual parts of the puzzle towards the end of the novel. I did feel, however, that the final chapter was a bit forced. All of the questions a reader might have had at the end are neatly summed up in a letter one of the villains sends to the main characters explaining everything. It’s just hard to imagine someone like that would bother doing that. Still, it was an enjoyable read. I would like to give some of Christie’s other books a try, especially her books featuring her famous detective Poirot.

Overall rating: B

Book Review: Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Genre: Fiction

"The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect or developing slowly toward perfection. No, the world is perfect at every moment, all sin already contains grace, all youngsters already contain oldsters, all babies contain death, all the dying contain eternal life." (p. 125)

This is a book that I have wanted to read for a little while. I’m quite interested in the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. This book tells the story of Siddhartha, a boy on his own search for ultimate reality as he goes through his life. He meets the Buddha, but decides to continue on his own because he wants to find what the Buddha himself found on his own quest. I felt like I was traveling along with Siddhartha on his journey as he went through many different experiences. Siddhartha turned from trying to find a teacher, and instead searched for his own path. He eventually came to the conclusion that wisdom cannot be communicated, even though people can find it and live it. He also says that he has learned to “let the world be as it is, and to love it and to belong to it gladly.”

I honestly hate the idea that the world is a terrible and broken place and that people are first sinful and bad. I like a lot of what Siddhartha discovered for himself about being in the world and how everything is really connected. I also like that he was so desperate to find his own reality, that he didn’t ever stop searching until he found what he was seeking. 

Overall rating: A

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage - Carl Sagan

Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

This is such an incredible television series! Carl Sagan himself is such a wonderful speaker, and he really makes you think as he talks about the vastness of the universe and just how short a time human beings have been around in the grand scheme of the cosmic calendar. There is something so calming about hearing Carl Sagan share this information. It doesn’t even feel like a lecture; it’s more like he’s telling you a story. I’m looking forward to watching the following episodes. P.S. if you do decide to watch this, just skip to 2:00 minutes in because that’s when the episode actually starts.

Our Old Friend Complexity- Behind The Beautiful Forevers (Vlogbrothers)

Description from YouTube: “In which John kicks off the Nerdfighter book club’s discussion on Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. He considered the role of luck, global capitalism, and the hierarchies of poverty.”

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers


Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Genre: Nonfiction

"The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall’s length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER  BEAUTIFUL FOREVER  BEAUTIFUL FOREVER." (Ch. 3- Sunil)

I was introduced to this book as part of the Nerdfighter Book Club. Although I enjoy non-fiction, I don’t read it very often, so I was glad to have the opportunity to read this book. Behind the Beautiful Forevers tells us about the lives of some of the people who live in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum located next to the airport. The author of the book actually lived near the slum long-term and interviewed the different people featured.

I appreciated that Katherine Boo did her best to present objective perspectives into the lives of the Annawadians. The book opens up in the middle of events: one of the residents has accused another family of setting her on fire and the police are coming to arrest them. The next chapters flash back to several months before the foreword, and we learn about the different residents and their motivations for why they do what they do. For example, Fatima, the woman who accuses Ahmed and her father of setting her on fire, may seem like a villainous person at first, but as Boo digs deeper into the lives of the Annawadians, even Fatima becomes a more complex person.

None of the people living in Annawadi are saints or bad people. They are just doing what they need to do to survive. This is a book full of complexities. This is an important book because it offers a perspective into the lives of people that readers of this book might not otherwise be exposed to. 

Overall rating: A

 A PDF with information about Esther Day (the pdf is from the Harry Potter Alliance)

Book Review: Red Dragon

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Genre: Thriller

"A few neighbors drove by, looking at the house quickly and driving away. A murder house is ugly to the neighbors, like the face of someone who betrayed them. Only outsiders and children stare. The shades were up. Graham was glad. That meant no relatives had been inside. Relatives always lower the shades." (Chapter 2, pg. 12-13)

This novel is the first book where Harris introduces the character of Hannibal Lecter and is the book that precedes The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve been wanting to watch the Silence of the Lambs movie, so I decided to read the book series before.

When I started reading the book, I was surprised to find that Hannibal Lecter actually plays a pretty minor role in the book. Will Graham, one of the main FBI protagonists, caught Lecter a few years previously, and has now been called out of early retirement to help the FBI track down a new murderer who seems to kill people based on the cycles of the full moon and who calls himself the Dragon.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. I was able to read it in less than three days, and the book did a good job of holding my attention. I enjoy watching police procedural shows, my favorite being Criminal Minds, and reading this reminded me some of an episode of one of those shows. The pacing of the narrative kept the story flowing and left me wanting to know more about the murderer, more about the FBI’s investigations, and more about the protagonists themselves, particularly Will Graham.

The story didn’t only focus on the FBI investigation into the Dragon’s murders, but it also had chapters from the perspectives of a reporter, the killer himself, and Will’s family. The different perspectives provided a good balance to the story. The chapters from the killer’s perspective definitely creeped me out in ways the chapters that followed the investigators did not. I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series, especially since they should include some more about Hannibal Lecter :)

Overall rating: A