Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Non Fiction

Behind the Beautiful Forevers – The Great Gatsby and a Mumbai Slum


Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the sort of book that illuminates a very small section of our ever surprising very large world. I haven’t read any other books about India, nor do I know anything about its slums, other than a stock catalogue of images you’d probably see on a charity advert. Rather than regurgitate these images of poverty, Katherine Boo focuses instead on India’s socio-economic status and asks what opportunities are there for people without status or privilege to work their way out of poverty?

I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers a couple of weeks ago, because it was chosen by John Green to be a part of the Nerdfighter Book Club. A good rule of thumb: If John Green mentions a book on one of his videos, it tends to be worth reading. Katherine Boo’s book about Annawadi – a slum that skirts the edge of Mumbai’s airport – has the additional acclaim of being shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. Now that is a prize that always has an interesting shortlist.

The title refers to a long run of billboards that run along the edge of the airport in Mumbai like a perimeter fence. The adverts are for Italian tiles that will be Beautiful Forever. Like the ever watchful eyes T. J. Eckleburg in the Valley of Ashes, the Beautiful Forevers are all that separate glittering new high rise hotels from the trash collecting entrepreneurs and slum lords of Annawadi. Here capitalism is king – money is what you need to get on. Entrepreneurship and education are ways to do it. Corruption is another.

Of course it is important not to judge other societies by Western standards, but as a western reader this is a perspective that I cannot escape writing from. My mention of The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s metaphors come from my own opinions as regards to morality, money, life and the construction of stories. In our own society, corruption is perhaps no less prevalent but morally wrong. Look at the coverage of business tax dodging, for example. The media’s condemnation of such practices is often to reference how x amount of £ could be spent on healthcare or schools or protecting vulnerable people. However, who can really say what they would do in such a situation? Perhaps you would exploit those same loopholes if you had a fancy advisor and a lot of cash. Either way, Gatsby is new money, but it is dirty money. Money made through morally questionable means. In Annawadi, corruption is something more ordinary. Corruption is a way of making money and it is just another potential path to social mobility.

All in all, it feels important to look at the parts of the world that are out of reach. Being part of a family, a generation, a country, are all specifics. Thinking bigger for a moment, I wonder whether we are struck by stories so foreign in order to better comprehend what it is we are collectively capable of achieving.

I’m going to end this post with the passage of Behind the Beautiful Forevers that has kept me thinking since reading:

Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him – the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu’s death. If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of.
He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals.



How wild it was, to let it be.

The wild brings out an innate reaction in us – to be completely within nature, to lose ourselves, to philosophise about finding our way. The natural world and literature often travel together, but the best literary journeys are those with a formidable, sublime beauty. Those that are great and terrible.

So it goes with Cheryl Strayed’s solo epic trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. She leaves with little experience or planning, armed with books for solace and the need to be alone. The book begins with heart stopping grief – her mother dies unexpectedly, a few weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Strayed’s words here cannot contain the incomprehensible, gut wrenching loss she felt; they were unbelievably moving. I sobbed in the bath. The crux being, how can you survive without your mother? How can you be yourself without her?

Walking is not a simple activity here. Walking is a brutal, blistering, toenails dropping off kind of drudgery. Days are counted in miles, in footsteps. The walk itself is the goal. The trail becomes her life. I love an epic journey, the mundane made uncultivated. I love the numbers game – steps, miles, kilometres, pennies, meals, and hours. I want to know how life is divided and measured. What is worth our time? What is authentic?

When Strayed finished walking and mused about it’s meaning, she obviously didn’t know how her life was going turn out. She didn’t know that she would be writing about the hike, a decade or so later, and what the journey would mean to her when she did – To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was. The meaning of those long summer footsteps was intangible, elusive, but real nonetheless. It was wild.

I will end this with a few lines by William Butler Yeats:
now there’s a pretentious sentence…

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core

The Lake Isle of Innisfree


Of course, I also have to read. The best, and the worst thing about this book is the craving I now have for more. I essentially want to read this book over and over again. But instead, I will try:

  • Into the Wild, John Krakauer
  • Tracks, Robyn Davidson
  • Island Summers, Tilly Culme-Seymour
  • Consolations of the Forest, Sylvain Tesson

Let me know of any travel writing or great literary journeys you have read and would like to pass on.

New To My Bookcase


I went to a book fair today and here are my spoils: Cousin BetteSelected PoemsLady Chatterley’s Lover and French Life and Ways. I am particularly pleased about the Ted Hughes collection because it has my favourite poem in it.


A cover shot of Lady Chatterley’s Lover has to be included because it is so iconic – I am really pleased to own a copy. French Life and Ways is a fun purchase: published in 1906 it is a series of conversations written in French and English. Basically it is a phrase book, but not like one I’ve ever seen before. It is very lyrical, very old worldly, very amusing and pretty much a piece of social history. I suppose I don’t technically need to know the proper way to ask for tea in a salon, or which seats in the theatre will have their views blocked by ladies’ hats, but I want to know all the same.


In the last week – not at the fair – I picked up some more classics: The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A SelectionWar and Peace (I want to re-read this and my other copy fell apart), A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. In conclusion, my Classics Club list has crept up to over a hundred!


I also got Night Walks, Wigs on the Green, Any Human Heart and Vanished Kingdoms.

What a week! In reading news, I’m still managing to keep to my Clarissa Schedule and have finished the second week’s pages but am holding off on a post about them until I get to the end of the June letters.

Happy December everyone!

Nabokov’s Daydreams

The Enchanter is a book that I really like in theory, although not quite so much in practice. In theory it is a reader’s declaration of love for her favourite writer. Lila Azam Zanganeh writes about the man she imagines Nabokov to be: Daydreaming about his marriage, hobbies, and inspirations. She gets to the heart of his writing – the language, and his philosophy – the pursuit of happiness. What let this book down was that it was a little too jumbled, an experiment of different styles is OK but this didn’t quite work. On the other hand, it was great because it is all about a reader’s admiration for their favourite author. About how you can appreciate books  outside your generation, country or even language, because they are beautiful.

What the book did convince me of was that I should read more Nabokov. I loved Lolita when I read it a few years ago, so I think I’ll start by re-reading that. From Zanganeh’s witterings about his other books the one I think I’d pick next is Ada or Ardor. And look how nice the Penguin cover is…

If you were to write a book, a love letter of sorts, to a writer, who would you pick?

The Silent Twin

A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

I have been meaning to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for a long time. It was an experience much heightened by reading it alongside the autobiography Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. Oranges has always been read as a story based on Jeanette Winterson’s life, a parallel that seems unavoidable when you call your main character by your own name and give her an upbringing very similar to your own. Winterson refers to her autobiography as Oranges‘ ‘silent twin’ and I read it as a way to compare fiction with fact. I enjoyed reading the two books together and think I got much more from them than if I had read them individually. Actually, I find it hard to separate them now.

These are stories from a specific time. Accrington in the seventies sounds more like the 1940s – I thought the descriptions of daily life were completely fascinating because what was only forty years ago seems so alien now. The religious upbringing and church community had the same effect. In her Introduction to Oranges Winterson says she doesn’t agree with the assumption that women’s writing is constrained to their experiences. Whilst the story of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is influenced by her life, she is also quite experimental. The Bible is muddled up with  fiction, biography and altered personal history.

If I had to choose a favourite, I think I would pick Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and not just because truth is stranger than fiction. It is written with the hindsight of age and with the freedom must have arisen from the death of her adoptive parents. I assume Winterson chose not to write or publish a memoir whilst her mother and father were alive, but perhaps this is nothing more than an assumption on my part. I think writing about what was (to outsiders at least) a cruel and unusual upbringing must have been easier when it was hidden behind the label of ‘fiction’. It must be hard to bare all when you are very likely to offend real and named family.

I also loved Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? because Jeanette Winterson is a reader. In her childhood reading represented passion and exploration. I talked about how this past fortnight has reminded me that reading is about adventure and doesn’t always have to be prescribed or studious. Reading Jeanette Winterson was well suited to this mindset:

It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are.

Goodbye To All That: War Books [5/15]

I am so pleased to have finally read this book, I loved it, and reading it after All Quiet on the Western Front was perfect timing. Robert Graves’ autobiography is totally gripping and completely different to what I was expecting – Goodbye To All That covers the horrors of war in a really cold, detached way. The opposite of Remarque’s emotional prose, but just as moving. A real testament to how good this autobiography is: even the beginning was interesting. Normally, I’m not a fan of the first few chapters of biographies, but Graves writing made me interested in everything he had to say. His childhood seemed to be a quintessentially English upper class one, although a boys boarding school seemed to be not without its own problems! This was so readable because of the immediacy, his memories are very clear and honest.

Graves spent his army life as an Officer, mostly at the front, until he was wounded. There are the horrible scenes you would come to expect in a truthful account of the trenches but the part that separated this for me was his thoughts about the continuation of the war past 1916.

We no longer saw the war as one between trade-rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.

What has made this book stand out from the other war books I have read so far, is that the book continues after the war. I suppose because there was a future for Graves, although it wasn’t the one he may have thought about as a young man prior to his army life. I really enjoyed reading about his marriage to Nancy, a feminist quite ahead of her time! His life as a poet also meant he was meeting a lot of writers who we now regard as iconic, like Siegfried Sassoon, T. E. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. A really sad part towards the end is when Graves mentions losing his son in the Second World War. As his generation becomes the elders, his children suffer the same horrors.

Now the Sun is Finally Shining, How About Some Books About War?

After my Tudor reading, I fancy a mini reading project based around War literature. There are obviously lots of brilliant books about a lot of wars around the world so I’ve narrowed my selection down to books written about WWI and WWII, as I find this period of history interesting.

I’ve picked eight books that are all on my Classics Club list. Two birds, one stone and all that, and this way I can also stick to my attempt to stop buying new books and read the ones I already have.

  • Faulks, Sebastian, Birdsong
  • Gibbons, Stella, Westwood
  • Graves, Robert, Goodbye To All That
  • Grossman, Vasily, Life and Fate
  • Hemingway, Ernest, A Farewell to Arms
  • Nemirovsky, Irene, Suite Française
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, Cat’s Cradle
  • Wells, H. G., The War of the Worlds

And will add to this list some novels written recently:

  • Beauman, Ned, Boxer Beetle 
  • Hollinghurst, Alan, The Stranger’s Child
  • Kerr, Philip, Berlin Noir
  • Littell, Jonathan, The Kindly Ones
  • Young, Louisa, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You

So, thirteen books, six about the WWI and seven about WWII. I could read them chronologically, I could read the modern novels separately, I might read the two science fiction novels together. I’m not sure I’ll manage to read all of these in a row – I have an unspecified timeframe, but as you know I chop and change what my reading plans are whenever I feel like it. But if this works, I have similar lists for projects that I could start. I’m looking at you, gigantic stack of Edwardian novels…

The books have been moved to their new home – in an oppressive stack next to my bed. I’m feeling quite enthusiastic – it’ll be brilliant to have read all of these books. I am also quite curious to see if any of them will replace my current (I’m not sure ‘favourite’ is the right word) most admired war novel: All Quiet on the Western Front. If any of them even come close, I’ll be onto a winner because that book is truly astounding. Actually, make that fourteen books because I’ll have to re-read this one too.

Edit: I’ve just managed to get hold of a copy of Regeneration by Pat Barker so now there are fifteen books!

Cleopatra (Coming at Ya)

Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff

Overall this book was a chore. Which also makes it disappointing as I’d been eagerly awaiting starting it. I don’t read much non fiction compared to fiction, but even so this was hard going. Stacy Schiff is a good writer, but not a particularly clear one. I do like how honest she was about when there was evidence for things and when there wasn’t, and she was clearly very taken with her subject. I think I learnt a lot about Cleopatra, and a bit about the ancient world which was fascinating. It just didn’t do anything for me.

The War at Home

Any cultivated Greek, Cleopatra included, could recite some part of the Illiad and the Odyssey by heart. The former was more popular in Cleopatra’s Egypt – it may have seemed a more pertinent tale for a turbulent time – but from an early age she would have known literarily what she at twenty-one discovered empirically: there were days you felt like waging war, and days when you just needed to go home.
Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra

Howards End is on the Landing

Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill

Susan Hill owns too many books. She hasn’t read them all and she hasn’t re-read as much as she’d like to. One year = forty books she already owns. This book is a memoir of reading through her bookshelves. I love books, I love this idea. I just need to get a very small negative out of the way first: I really like Susan Hill’s writing, but it turns out she is a bit snobby (too much name dropping and bragging).

So anyway, the good stuff:

  • This is a book lover’s book. If you like collecting books, arranging books, book covers, fonts, lists of books, looking through other people’s bookshelves, reading about things you’ve read, reading about things you haven’t, picking your favourite books… then this book is for you.
  • She covers lots of interesting thoughts about reading: how quickly you should read, whereabouts, books of your childhood, reading an author’s entire works, giving merit to ‘unreadable classics’, what to do when you just don’t like an author you ought to, and so on.

My favourite thing about Howards End is on the Landing happened whenever Hill talked about P G Wodehouse or Nancy Mitford. I had the same feeling I used to get whenever I read my Mum’s books as a child. They always felt a bit secretive or foreign and reading them was so much more a joy because of that.