New Records in Non-fiction

This February, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer Katherine Boo will come out with a new book based on three years of reporting inside a Mumbai slum, called “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” Even if this doesn’t sound like your usual cup of tea, take this as a tip: you’ll probably be hearing a fair bit about this book.

It’s not only the most gripping account of the “New India” you’re ever liable to read, it’s also a work that sets a new bar for what narrative non-fiction and determined, humane reporting can do—like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile.

To give just a brief taste: Boo’s account is set in a makeshift settlement called Annawadi, and her characters derive their opportunities, their plans, and their view of the world from the slum’s location–next to the Mumbai airport and across a lake of sewage from several luxury hotels, “from the top-floor windows of which Annawadi and several adjacent squatter settlements looked like villages that had been airdropped into gaps between elegant modernities.”

Boo is a staff writer at the New Yorker. She is also an alumna of the Washington Monthly. As a reader, you probably come to the Monthly for the daily dose of sanity you receive from this site, or for the deep-dive feature articles we publish in the magazine. As writers and editors, many of us who work here have come for the same reasons, but also to stand on the shoulders of giants: former staffers like Boo, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Jason DeParle, Taylor Branch. The list goes on.

Boo’s writing speaks for itself, but a few awards speak for it too. There’s that Pulitzer. Then there’s the National Magazine Award she won in 2004. And that’s not all. Years ago, I had a job that involved doing a bit of research for Boo. One day I was on the phone with her when she had to jump off the line because another call was coming in. It was the McArthur Foundation, telling her she’d just been awarded one of its “genius grants.”

For Boo, that all started with the Washington Monthly and the magazine’s founder Charles Peters, as she describes in an email she sent us recently:

One morning, unemployed and living in my parents’ basement, I heard Charlie Peters talking on NPR about social class, the decline of civic space and lavish skyboxes in baseball stadia. It was all so deeply unfashionable and true that I felt I had to write for this guy. A few months later, he published the first piece I’d ever reported. Of all the things I admire about the Washington Monthly—editorial integrity, the understanding that idealism doesn’t have to be humorless, the ability to distinguish between what seems important and what really is important—the resolute unfashionability is right up there.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. If you value this kind of work, not to mention the daily dose of fresh thinking you get from this blog, now’s your chance to support it. We’re in the midst of our annual year-end fundraising drive, so click here and toss in a few bucks—$10, $20, $30, $50, whatever you can afford. Donations to the Monthly are tax-deductible—we’re a non-profit outfit, and really appreciate and rely on the help we get from readers to continue to do what we do.

John Gravois

John Gravois is an editor of the Washington Monthly.