FAMILY LIFE

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Family Life
by Akhil Sharma

Around this time last year, when his semi-autobiographical novel Family Life was published, Akhil Sharma wrote an essay for The New Yorker about the 12 years and 7,000 pages he spent working on this book, a book that ended up being 218 pages. While I wasn’t planning to spend 12 years contemplating what to write about this book, I will say that my thoughts on this one haven’t flowed with the same ease as they often do here.

The word that keeps going around and around in my head is: sad. This is undoubtedly a sad story. The entire book revolves around the consequences of a diving accident experienced by the narrator’s older brother a couple years after their family immigrates to the US from India. The accident leaves the older son brain-damaged and with few resources to care for him, the entire family is thrown into turmoil. What makes the story even sadder is that it is based on Sharma’s own family, who experienced a similar tragedy when he was a child.

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Last weekend, a couple friends asked how I liked Family Life so far. I was about 2/3 of the way through the book and I commented on how very sad the story was, but that I felt I’d just reached a point where a glimmer of hope was starting to shine through. Wrong. It turns out that glimmer is quickly extinguished and the story continues on with more heartache. It probably sounds like I didn’t like the book. Sometimes “like” and “dislike” can be clumsy terms and neither really get to the heart of it. Here’s the more accurate synopsis: I was compelled. Despite the sadness.

When I hear someone say, “I don’t like sad stories,” my head explodes. It boggles my mind to ponder what kind of stories this person could possibly be reading that omit any references to disappointment, loss, heartache, or general tragedy. Without conflict, our stories wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Perhaps what these anti-sad story people mean is that they need their redemption and catharsis.

For those folks and some of you who may be on the fence over this sad issue, here’s a semi-spoiler alert: with the exception of the little glimmer of hope I mentioned about 2/3 of the way through, it is not until the very last line of Family Life that even the possibility of catharsis is presented. From a technical and structural standpoint, I found it deeply admirable that Sharma pulls this off so successfully. It’s definitely a “cool move” as one of my writing teachers used to say.

There’s no pandering here, there are no tidy little bows. It seems that working through 7,000 pages of material (man, I hope he can pull another book or two out of all that) left Sharma with a solid sense of integrity about how he was going to tell this story. And for that, credit is due. I can’t help but think, though, that perhaps for all his cool writerly moves, the result is something cold.

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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.)