A beautiful surprise

51fb-u69shlBehind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (2012)

Opening line: “Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station.”

This one was tough. It took me like 6 months to read, because I could only take so much at a time. And I was just reading it. It’s unimaginable to be living it. But this incredibly researched piece of stunning non-fiction absolutely deserves it’s National Book Award (and the four other awards it won).

Author Katherine Boo married into Indian culture and became fascinated by the startling clash of affluence so close to extreme poverty that she saw in Mumbai, particularly in the Annawadi slum on the other side of the road from the Mumbai airport. For years, Katherine spent her days among the residents of this slum, chronicling their struggles and successes, their joys and pain, their complications and hopes. While obviously life in the Annawadi slum is horrendously difficult, what this book does so well is show us privileged white Americans that that’s not all it is. Katherine profiles several Annawadian families over these 250 pages, including a family with a productive garbage picking business, a young woman who hopes to become the first female college graduate from Annawadi, and her mother who plans on taking on the roll of the “slum-lord” of the community. It’s not about feeling sorry for these people. It’s about seeing their strength in spite of and because of their surroundings. It’s about noticing their humanity, recognizing pieces of them that are in all of us. It’s about realizing our complicity in creating a world where realities like these exist.

That’s not even to mention her writing, which is SO DAMN FANTASTIC, it’s breathtaking.

Everyone should read this book, but be wary of when. This is not a quick or enjoyable read, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look again. But oh-so-worthwhile.

2.5 star

 

A Rom-Com, of the intellectual and relatively depressing variety…

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

Opening line: “To start with, look at all the books.”

It’s hard to deny my attraction to a book that begins this way. A coworker of mine several years ago told me that as a former English major, I should definitely read The Marriage Plot. She was right — it’s got the fixings to a novel I should love: literary references out the wazoo, multiple character perspectives, a sense of epic storytelling (crossing time periods and oceans), and a complicated romance.

Madeleine Hanna is an English major working on her thesis about the “marriage plot” of literature’s great novelists, like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontes. But while her intellectual mind is caught up in the romantic structure of the page, her real life romance is much more complicated, featuring two very different gentlemen. The first is Mitchell, who was “friend-zoned” freshmen year but still holds a torch for our heroine, while the second is Leonard, a mysterious biology student who intrigues and enchants Madeleine like no one has before. And while this might sound like the makings of a very common modern-day marriage plot, Eugenides does what he does best by complicating things with intense, intricately-crafted characters. Mitchell heads off to Europe and India after college with his roommate to figure out what the hell he’s doing with his life with or without Madeleine, while Madeleine and Leonard deal with Leonard’s apparent bipolar disorder, or as it was known in the 1980s when this tale is set, manic depression.

I liked this book. I wouldn’t stretch it to love, but, like I said before, what Jeffrey Eugenides does, he does well (see my review of his previous book Middlesex). I admire his character development, the vastness of his landscape, both in terms of time and place, and his way of piecing together stories in a way that adds depth and intrigue.

1.5 stars, edging to 2.

One for All Season(ing)s

Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie (2002)

Another book in my Postcolonial Nationalism and Feminisms Lit class, Salt and Saffron could be described as a modern Pakistani Romeo and Juliet, but it is so much more than that. The story follows the dramatic saga of the Dard-e-dil family, an elite family of story-tellers with young, American-educated Aliya narrating her return to Pakistan. On the plane ride home, Aliya meets attractive Khaleel. When Aliya learns that Khaleel’s family is from the wrong side of town, however, she is immediately unnerved despite her attraction, and spends the rest of the novel trying to reconcile her prejudice.

We learn that Aliya’s aversion for a romantic relationship with a man of lower class stems from family opinion, and is particularly stinging due to her aunt Mariam Apa’s desertion  in order to marry the family cook. Aliya and Mariam, according to family lore, were a unique pair–one of the family’s cursed “not-quite-twins.” The Dard-e-dil family is plagued we these “not-quites,” including her grandfather and his two brothers, who were born just before midnight, at midnight, and just after midnight. One misunderstanding after another ends up tearing the adult triplets  apart, mirroring the historical Indian-Pakistani partition of 1947, permanently dividing the family. Several years later, Mariam and Aliya, though of a different generation chronologically, were “born” into the family on the same day, as the day of Aliya’s birth was when Mariam, the daughter of one of the triplets, first came to live with them.  Mariam Apa is draped in mystery. The family was unaware of her existence until that very day, as her father had left years earlier without a trace. Also, she has a habit of only speaking to order the family meals for the day, only speaking to the family cook.  Aliya, however,  manages to communicate with Mariam Apa without using words due to some “not-quite” connection, which sends her into a bit of an identity crisis upon Mariam Apa’s desertion. On returning to Pakistan, Aliya sets out on a quest to uncover the secrets entrenched in her family, collecting story after story, because until she does so, she will be unable to crack her prejudice against Khaleel’s background and find an inner peace.

Part history, part mystery, Salt and Saffron had me devouring its pages, so much so that I chose to sit and finish it in the library after work instead of wasting the seven minutes it would take me to walk home first. Though it gets a bit tedious at times, sifting through the history of her family, Shamsie keeps it rolling with Aliya’s sharp humor and exciting twists in the plot that the reader learns right along with the narrator.

2 Stars

Save the Best for First

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy (1997)

This novel came to my attention in my senior seminar course, “Third World Feminisms and Nationalism,” although it’s been on my book shelf for several years, now. I have a bad habit of buying handfuls of books before I have time to read the last stack, but I’m guessing many of you do, too, if you’re reading this blog. This book actually came from my sister, though. I had bought a copy with a Christmas gift card, after reading a chapter from it in my Indian Literature class a couple years ago, but she let me have her copy instead, which meant I got to pick out something new! Thanks Kate!

This is the story of Estha and Rahel, the two-egg twins of Ammu, and an event that changed their lives permanently and irreversibly.  Set in the village of Ayemenem, in the southwest region of Kerala, India, the story jumps between two times, a two-week period in 1969 when the twins’ half-white British cousin Sophie comes to visit, and then 23 years later when the twins have returned to their home. Though told in the third person, most of the story is seen from the eyes of Estha and Rahel, young children in the 60s, filling the text with their playful language and innocent thought processes, despite the seriousness of their surroundings.

At the heart of this novel are the complex issues of India’s caste system, the Love Laws, which “lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much”, and the outspoken voices of communism.  Roy builds a elaborate narrative using this foundation of history that kind of makes me want to read it again right away, so as to pick up on more that I was able to the first time around. What’s more, is that she uses her background of architecture to build her novel, deliberately designing its structure, placing glimpses of events to come throughout the text, seemingly given stuff away right from the beginning, and systematically switching between time periods each chapter. The reader learns right from the beginning, for example, that Sophie Mol dies at the end of those two weeks in 1969, a point that might be at the climax of most stories. Instead, the novel’s about what happens leading up to that point, and how the family is still feeling the effects of the tragedy two decades later.

Though the story is heartbreaking, Roy’s enchanting use of language (a reclaiming of English as no longer the colonizer’s language) and breathtaking descriptions kept me thinking about it while I was washing my hair or folding the laundry, anxious to get back. And what truly secured it as one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time was its ending. One of sweetness, one of hope.

3 Stars