June Book Club: Behind The Beautiful Forevers

Pardon the multiple postings for today but I decided to update my book club news, since I haven’t posted anything on that topic since May’s THE ARCHITECTURE OF HAPPINESS.

For June, I picked a heavier book – based on subject, not weight – BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by Pulitzer winning author and journalist, Katherine Boo.

As you all may have figured out, I like to make each book club a mini party – with themed decorations and food. And, since this book is set in India, I had a field day! A quick trip to a local Indian store provided the treats. I also got the exact biscuits that were mentioned in the book. Luckily for me, they also happen to be some of my favorites!

We had a great discussion of this very painful-to-think-about subject. As some of you may know, Behind The Beautful Forevers is the result of three years that journalist Katherine Boo spent talking to some of the inhabitants of a horrific slum in Mumbai. The book is powerful, written as a very readable narrative, and will leave you thinking of the brutal topics for a very long time. I still haven’t decided what my take-away from this book is. I’ve vacillated between feelings of inspiration and hopelessness. On the one hand, despite the horrific conditions (living on open sewage, having to fight for everything they can) the inhabitants still feel a sense of hope and ambition, have dreams of a better life, celebrate birthdays, and even smile from time to time. Now, isn’t that a great testament to the resilience of the human spirit? On the other hand, at every step, they are also torn down by their own jealous neighbors, have to battle corruption and brutal authorities, and for every step forward, are hurled maybe five steps back. And that’s where my hopelessness comes in from this book: it all seems arbitrary, who succeeds and who fails. Hard work and honor are not always rewarded. And the biggest obstacle to these poor people was not the rampant TB, starvation, or floods – it was the brutality of other men.
I look forward to seeing how these ideas simmer and stew in my mind – because as hard as thinking about subjects like this is, I think it’s worse not to think about them at all.

The Magic Of Reading

Yesterday was World Literacy Day and, as of 2015, there are 1 billion illiterate adults in the world (UNESCO).Reading is something most of us take for granted. It is vital for improving our standard of life, staying informed with politics and current events that can impact us directly, and knowing how to improve and maintain our health. It is heartbreaking that this number is so high. Maybe not as vital to life as the previous reasons – but just as important to quality of life – is that books also have a way of stimulating your imagination and your dreams, and exposing you to perspectives that you may not normally be exposed to.

Books have given me some of the most wonderful memories of my life. Wherever I was, however young I was, there was a book to capture that particular time and place. My childhood was spent voraciously wolfing down every volume of Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys I could get my hands on. Even earlier than that, was Enid Blyton – especially The Famous Five and The Naughtiest Girl In School. Georgette Heyer reminds me of my best friend in high school, whose mother introduced us to that author. Tintin and Asterix will forever remind me of traveling to India with my family – my dad would always buy me one of those comics for the trip.

My summer vacations, spent with family in India, brought me many more, very dusty bookshelves to raid and that was when, at the age of 10, I first discovered the plays of George Bernard Shaw – who remains one of my favorite writers to this day. I remember reading Pygmalion for the very first time, lying on my aunt’s bed, a hot Indian afternoon, with the window open right next to me. And outside that window was a sapota (sapodilla) tree with the sweetest, ripest fruit you could imagine. Every now and then, between Acts in the play, perhaps, I would reach over and pluck a sweet, sticky snack. It’s one of my fondest memories of childhood.

May Book Club: The Architecture of Happiness

For those who don’t already know, I host a nonfiction bookclub, called True Grace, at a local bookstore. I have varied interests so the subjects and books that I’ve picked so far have been equally diverse. From digital culture to botany. Last week, we ventured into architecture and philosophy with The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. A beautifully-written, intelligent, and elevated book which is part walking tour of architectural history and part meditation on the nature of beauty and the meaning of shape. I particularly enjoyed the passages where he gave examples of how much we personify objects and symbols – from typeface to furniture.

As for the bookclub, we had about 10 people that night, butterfly sugar cookies, and I raddled off some Advanced Reader copies of new nonfiction titles. We also had a special guest – a local retired architect who I had invited to join in the discussion. He and his firm were responsible for designing many of the important buildings in the city and he, personally, was awarded the American Institute of Architecture’s Lifetime Award for Contribution to Design.
It was wonderful having his expertise present during the meeting since the book, although appreciated by all, was of a subject that was a little tricky to analyze and discuss. Our guest was able to share many insights and answer our questions – so much so, in fact, that I’ve been approached my book club members since then to set up a second group discussion of this topic.

My overall impression is that I enjoyed this book and learning about the different architects and styles and it is definitely something that I will continue to read and study (as you can see by all of the post-its and notes above.) I didn’t, however, agree with everything he said, for example the theory that you can only appreciate the beauty in buildings and windows and doors if you’ve experienced the sobering effect of misery and heartache. I know that I found myself in awe of the ancient temples and forts of India when I was just eight years old, without a failed marriage under my belt. However, in general, the writing stimulated a great deal of thought- I found myself looking at buildings in different, deeper ways – asking myself what emotions architecture is designed to inspire in the viewer. How do the colors, the shapes, the level of ornament make us feel now and make us aspire to later. Is who we are as a community determined by the state of our city planning it is it the other way around? What does the way we chose to live say about who we are as a people? So many things to think about the next time we are commuting through our neighborhoods.