BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

BTBF Flat

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo

Well, it’s official. I will not be asked to serve on the National Book Award committee anytime soon. I know you’ve been wondering. In fact, when it comes to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, not only am I in disagreement with the National Book Award judges, but I’m also in disagreement with just about every literary award committee on the planet, not to mention every reputable publication that bothers to put out a Best Books of the Year list.

By now you’re probably braced for what I’m about to say: I did not enjoy this book. Now I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, given that it came out a couple years ago and all the hoopla has moved on to other titles. And perhaps the fact that I didn’t rush out to read it right away was an indication, but when Supportive Husband procured a discounted copy a while back, I was more than happy to add it to the pile.

I’ve written previously about the conundrum of deciding when to put a book down and generally speaking, I’ve gotten a lot better about acknowledging when I’m not enjoying something. Yet I still found myself plowing my way through this one even though it wasn’t speaking to me.

I think there were two main reasons for this: 1) the overwhelming acclaim the book and its author have received and 2) the subject matter. Regarding the acclaim, I like to think that by this stage in my increasingly long life I’ve managed to develop a decent amount of critical thinking and feel confident enough in my own judgment that I am free to like or dislike things, regardless of others’ opinions. It looks like I might still have a cool kids complex. The cool kids just so happen to be The National Book Award, The New York Times, The Guardian and other snooty literary bodies. As for the subject matter, I don’t know a lot about India and I definitely know less than that about the slums of Mumbai, so Boo’s book seemed like a good educational opportunity.

And besides, isn’t there something politically incorrect about not liking a critically exalted piece of journalism about people living in a level of poverty that is almost beyond my ability to comprehend? In other words, by rejecting the book, am I rejecting the people it depicts or the issues it raises? The obvious answer is no. What I rejected was the storytelling. It simply didn’t compel me. I wasn’t invested in the people or situations being described because of how the author described them.

But think about it. Are you ever swayed to forge ahead with a book you’re not really enjoying because a lot of smart people liked it and you figure maybe you’re just not getting it? Do you ever read things because it feels like the “right thing to do?” Or because you feel a little bit guilty about everything you have and perhaps reading about those with less somehow relieves that burden? Do you ever feel a certain socio-political pressure in your reading choices? Or perhaps you avoid unpleasant topics altogether when it comes to your reading/leisure time – I can respect that.

(For an amazing piece of journalism that touches on similar themes of poverty and opportunity but had me riveted throughout, check out Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family.)

 

MY MISSPENT YOUTH

my-misspent-youthMy Misspent Youth
by Meghan Daum

Between those social-media-loving Millennials living in their parents’ basement and penning award-winning HBO dramas, and the whiny Baby Boomers fueling demand for films like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it’s easy to wonder what happened to the voices of Generation X.

We’re the original latchkey kids, old enough to remember the dawn of MTV and the Internet, we’re the country’s most-educated generation and many of us bought our first house right before the market crashed. Like every generation, we’ve got something to say. So where have we been?

If we’re Meghan Daum, we’ve been here all along, writing candid and insightful work about our experiences as someone who “exerts a great deal of energy trying to get my realities to match my fantasies, even if the fantasies are made from materials that are no longer manufactured, even if some governmental agency has assessed my aspirations and pronounced them a health hazard.” Upon reading those words in Daum’s 2001 collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, the question I had to ask myself was: where have I been?

That excerpt quoted above is from the eponymous essay of the collection, which details Daum’s experience moving to New York as an aspiring writer fresh off the MetroNorth from Vassar and the years she spent in the city, living beyond her means as her writing star rose. In her funny, self-deprecating and straightforward way, Daum faces up to the superficial trappings that often lie at the root of our motivations.

It is just these sort of trappings–from those ubiquitous tote bags of the 1980s that read “Music Is My Bag” to wall-to-wall carpet to fantasy gaming to being a shiksa—that intrigue Daum. In the book’s foreword, she explains that the collection “concerns the tendency of contemporary human beings to live not actual lives but simulations of lives … operating at several degrees of remove from what might be considered authentic if we weren’t trying so hard to create authenticity through songs and clothes and advertisements and a million other agents of realness.” The trend now is to blame social media for encouraging this sort of inauthentic or double life. But Daum wrote those words before social media existed. She knew who the real perpetrators were – us.

This universal quality is one the of the best aspects of Daum’s writing, but I’m also sticking by my assertion that the details of her specific experiences can’t help but be shaped by the time in which she’s lived. We graduated from college during the peaceful and prosperous Clinton administration, we were operating with what was at the time a reasonable amount of optimism; the fact that same optimism might now be categorized as poor judgment is another matter.

Also in the book’s foreword, Daum writes about how there was a time when the “glossy print publications” for whom she wrote would frequently ask her to write fluff pieces about the mores of Gen X, but these requests eventually tapered off when it was determined that our particular age group didn’t occupy enough market share (this was when we were in our 20s, now that we’re old established, we occupy a lot of market share, baby). A page later, she gives the disclaimer that the term “Generation X” would not appear again in the book. Her desire not to be pigeonholed is fair enough, but reading this collection 15 years after its publication, I can’t help but note how well Meghan Daum managed to chronicle the experiences of our generation, call it what you will.

ME BEFORE YOU

Me B4 U

Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes

When I ask my friends and family what they’re reading, the answers tend to vary as much as they do. But in the past year, one book kept coming up in conversations: Me Before You, which, it turns out, owes much of its success to just this sort of word-of-mouth promotion.

A couple of you warned me that while you liked the book overall, the writing isn’t exactly notable. And I agree that the narration is clunky at times, but I’ll tell you what my biggest complaint about this book is: its book flap. It’s like one of those movie trailers that leave you feeling like you’ve already seen the entire film. But you go to see the movie anyway and then you end up blaming the writer for making something so predictable. In this case, the book flap description takes us right up to the penultimate scene in the story, at which point we’ve already guessed what the final scene will be and while it’s a lovely one, I can only imagine how much lovelier it would have been had I not seen it coming a mile away.

For those of you who have not yet read this book or the flap inside its cover, I’ll try to give you an inkling of the plot without spoiling the whole thing. Me Before You is a love story between a sheltered young woman in a small English town and a slightly older quadriplegic man. The British class system is examined, as is the meaning of life; a great setup and, despite my minor frustrations along the way, I was compelled. I worried about the characters while making dinner and realized that I’d only pick up the book when I knew I’d have a good chunk of time to read because it would be too hard to put it down again.

The book’s working-class heroine narrates most of the story and though I didn’t love that aspect of the writing, after a while, I kept hearing the voice of Downton Abbey’s assistant cook, Daisy, in this narration. You can blame this on the show’s recent season premiere and my lack of imagination, but once Daisy had entered my subconscious, it occurred to me that I was enjoying the book in the same way I enjoy Downton. While both have some heavy-handed and repetitive themes, in each case the characters keep me coming back for more. Beyond the pretty clothes they wear against pretty backdrops (also big draws), Downton’s characters often get in some good lines. And a witty retort does it for me every time.

Me Before You has its own fair share of witty retorts and enough snarky dialogue to endear me to the characters delivering it. With a plot that could easily veer into the melodramatic, the wry humor of the story’s characters gives it the balance required to be moving without becoming overly sentimental. And in its sometimes clunky but nonetheless gripping way, it manages to make you think about what it means to live and to value each day. Thanks to everyone who recommended it to me.