this book is beautifully researched and just a gem. the introduction is a good and interesting contribution to queer studies, with an interesting anal...morethis book is beautifully researched and just a gem. the introduction is a good and interesting contribution to queer studies, with an interesting analysis of the "sister arts" of the 18th century (poetry, painting, and then landscape) as they were appropriated by women (nice pun ensues) to be 1. reinvented, 2. used to "make love" to each other and 3. used as ways for women to form their own creative circles. in great queer fashion, women reinterpret the sister arts to include shell-painting or shelling, collage, needlework, art collecting, gift-giving, flower collecting (live or in herbaria), and all sorts of inventive lovely things. some of these women are aware of encroaching upon male territory (not with the needlework, but definitely with the garden design), but do it anyway, because they love it and because they have each other as champions and supporters. the parminter cousins, who managed to escape marriage and spend their lives lovingly and happily together, even designed their own home and had it built. they made sure to include in the design almshouses for elderly "spinsters" (a term proudly reclaimed by queer feminism) and a school for girls, and these almshouses stayed in use until recently. how awesome is that?
unfortunately, with few exceptions, the beautiful gardens designed in this booming time for garden design by english women were left to die, whereas gardens designed by men are the lovely gardens we all know and frequent. oh well.
i had never quite thought of it even while being aware of various of its texts, but there is long-standing tradition of friendship-theorizing which, again, concerns only men. male friendship ennobles the soul, promotes virtue, etc. (there are two strands of it, one originating with cicero and one originating with aristotle, but i don't quite remember the distinct features of each now). of course, female friendship has no place, zero place, in this big friendship studies tradition. moore, and doubtless others, rectify this a little, but this book is obviously just a beginning. moore in particular focuses on the erotic features of female friendship -- with a nice if brief detour into queer melancholia, the queer elegy, and the queer monody (107 ff; the chapter on the fierce anne seward is my favorite).
so there are several traditions these women break into and make theirs: garden design, friendship literature and art (letters, diaries, journals, works of art dedicated or addressed to friends), and botanical drawings (drawing flowers in a way that their center faces the viewer was considered too risqué for women, especially after linneaus came around and decided to catalogue flowers and plants according to their reproductive apparatus).
i found it lovely to see how these women managed to stay deeply close, and often live together, sometimes through marriages, sometimes between marriages, sometimes dispatching with marriage altogether (hence the respect of and attention to the "spinster"). and i find it so profoundly interesting that, whereas amorous exchanges between men and women would unproblematically be read as romantic, amorous exchanges between women are looked into with a magnifying glass, with endless questions about "how far" the woman in question went with each other. but what is romantic love? when two women miss each other madly when they fail to see or talk to each other for a week, or mourn each other desperately when one of them dies, or delight in each other's company so much that all of their art is a song of love to the other -- do you really need to know whether there was "genital contact?" (less)
the best part of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is katherine boo's afterward. in a small explanation of the work that went into the writing of the book...morethe best part of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is katherine boo's afterward. in a small explanation of the work that went into the writing of the book, and an über-eloquent, beautiful reflection that touches on hope, ethics, gender, and survival in relation to globalization, she gives the book a depth you wish you had been offered at the start. so i'll agree with my friend peter and his guarded critique of Behind.
this slice (four years of painstaking reporting) of the story of a single slum in mumbai is entirely heartbreaking, and sometimes while listening to the beautiful audio rendition of sunil malhotra i had to turn off the player and give myself a break from the relentless misery, bad luck, and corruption.
the corruption of those in power is what'll get you most. it's appalling and hugely responsible for the unnecessary portion of these people's misery. as boo points out at the end, goodness gets ground out of existence when it is practiced not only at huge personal cost but also at the risk of landing you into a world of trouble. the annawadians' lives are a constant, attentive, never-let-down-your-guard negotiation of the mycrocosms of power that rule the social compound and affect individual lives in often very dangerous ways.
as i was reading this i kept thinking, if i had a million dollars and wanted to spend it to relieve the suffering of the annawadians i'd be terrified. outside intervention, it appears, can just as easily wreak havoc as help. having just read Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil, set in afghanistan and centered around the various boygames superpowers played/are playing on, with and in the region and its inhabitants, i want to scream to the west, leave these people alone!
and then i thought, having read this, would i go to india as a tourist? and that's a tough one to answer, because the idea of sitting in a nice hotel (let alone landing at mumbai airport, one of the evil protagonists of this book) surrounded by abjection doesn't enthuse me in the least bit. at the same time, tourism and the discards it thoughtlessly and inevitably leaves behind are the life blood of this particular slum's economy. not only that: tourism is essential to this as well as many other national economies. what is the responsibility of the westerner toward the countries that rely on her traveling so vitally?
when i started listening to this book it was hard not to think of it as a novel. the only trait that gave it away as a work on nonfiction was the almost absolute lack of sentimentalization (i'd say absolute, but that cannot possibly be true; still, boo is nothing if not rigorous). you have a complete sense (which the “afterward” confirms) that every word is the result of rigorous research. there are no suns rising that have not been witnessed.
its novel-like feel, combined with its lack of sentimentalism, kept me strangely detached (the detachment came unglued as the book progressed). this is why i think that the book might have benefited from the author's presence in the text, in some way, or at least from a careful introduction. but these are difficult stylistic choices and i am glad i was not the one to make them.
i don't want to orientalize annawadi any more than i think katherine boo would like me to do. in fact, her writing seems to be constantly intent on warding off the temptation to orientalize. there is a poor, historically african american neightborhood at almost walking distance from the well-off, mostly white and latino neighborhood where i live. lately, the city of miami decided that the coral gables trolleys were too unsightly for the city of coral gables (another wealthy neighborhood at walking distance: our neighborhoods are small) to host while not traipsing up and down its verdant and carefully tended avenues, and moved their garage to this small residential neighborhood. squeezed by gentrification, the exploitation on the part of the city government, and a general desire to make it go away, a neighborhood that was founded in the 1880s by immigrants from the bahamas is on the verge of extinction. the miami heraldreports that "Many descendants of those original immigrants still live in the bungalows and shotgun houses that dot the neighborhood."
we truly don't need to feel all chewed up about annawadi. we should reserve our moral heartbreak and desire to do good for the communities in our midst that are not reaping the benefits of this dramatically evolving world. i do not know how to do this. money is one way, for sure. there are others which may or may not be available to me. but here's something that is true just about anywhere: the powers that be (the us of a has its own form of tremendous corruption) do all they possibly can to keep us apart. this is the takeaway message of Behind the Beautiful Forevers and this is the challenge we need to take and overcome, in order to stay human.
so i told myself that i'll never write a negative review of a book by a living writer unless said writer is super duper famous and therefore unlikely...moreso i told myself that i'll never write a negative review of a book by a living writer unless said writer is super duper famous and therefore unlikely to care about my puny review (see for instance Haruki Murakami, whose 1Q84 i was ready to throw out of the window with olympic passion, or John Green's insufferable The Fault in Our Stars, or David Levithan's equally insufferable Every Day -- i treated the last two with much more moderation than i treated IQ84, because i didn't want to hurt readers' feelings, but i got hate comments anyway). so i'll limit myself to saying that this book, which i listened to in audiobook, kept me entertained engaged for a good long time, and for this i'm grateful. i'll also say that
1. i didn't learn one damn thing, and i don't even know that much about black life after reconstruction and during jim crow
2. the stories of the three chosen protagonists are meant to be exemplary but really aren't (this is one of the main reasons i am angry at the writer: tell us the stories for what they are, but don't elevate them to some sort of representative status they are just too particular to have)
3. the work of oral history is remarkable and loving, so kudos for that
4. i'm not sure why wilkerson feels the need to repeat the same things over and over. i, for one, remembered them well and felt annoyed at being treated like i couldn't retain a simple piece of information from one chapter to the next
5. it's really all about the men, except a kind of apotheosis of the one female character in the epilogue (also meant to be paradigmatic, but in fact just a product of life circumstances).
i'm really happy so many people read and liked this book. this piece of american history needs to be known by ALL, so that we can understand the predicament of racial tension and abysmal racial injustice in our modern cities and societies. wilkerson makes some moves toward explaining all this, but falls far short. that would have been really interesting. it could easily have been a 200 page book. (less)