Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: John Green

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.

The Weekend When My Boyfriend Decided I Have Emotional Problems

I have had the best and most awful weekend. As previously mentioned I spent quite a bit of time on Friday weeping about Jean Valjean. A completely legitimate activity, I’m sure you’d agree. On Saturday evening, Apocalypse Now was on TV, which I accidentally also cried at. This is much less legitimate, but I will try to excuse myself on the grounds that (a) I haven’t seen it before and (b) I’m clearly still very upset about Jean Valjean.

But then came Sunday and I read this:


And I felt ALL OF THE THINGS. I started off laughing out loud, quoting bits, being impressed at witty dialogue. Then I moved onto bawling. Yes, I knew it was coming – cancer teens falling in love is always going to end in tears. So many tears. And then I spent the next four hours watching John Green videos on youtube and now I must proclaim that John Green makes me feel like a teenage girl about how much I love him.

I read this in a few hours, it is clever, powerful, emotional and thought provoking about situations I don’t spend much time thinking about. Here are some snippets that (hopefully) might be interesting:

  • The Fault in Our Stars has a fictional epigram like The Great Gatsby
  • There is a hamster called Sisyphus (check your Greek mythology – I didn’t have to, my brother explained it)
  • The title is taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings”. This is interesting by itself as usually when people talk about a fault in the stars, they mean it as though there is some predestined flaw that prevents something from happening. Obviously the words with the rest of the sentence mean something else altogether.

So yes, this is a book technically for teenagers. However, when I was a teenager I found books with this irreverent, witty, Dawsons Creek style eloquent chatter unrealistic and a bit intimidating. I wanted to know about things and be able to talk about them profoundly and have original thoughts but instead, along with pretty much all real teenagers I was jumbled up and shy and read a lot of books. Luckily for me, I’m not a teenager anymore, I’m fully fledged into my mid twenties and whilst I am still shy, I can get my words out. (Plus I now have the option of writing them down and putting them on the Internet.) My point is that I enjoyed John Green’s punchy style because I know teenagers don’t really talk like that but I also know that they’d kill to be able to. If this kind of dialogue and typing in capitals when EXCITED  irritates you (an understandable opinion, but not one I share) then you probably won’t enjoy this book, even with its aforementioned cleverness and importance.

On a slight side note, if you were a teenager like I was and have retained a massive part of your introvertedness then I would also recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet. I read it towards the end of last year after reading Lucy’s excellent review and it is brilliant. I’m not sure why I never got around to writing about it in a separate post – perhaps I will. It is all about how introverts are sidelined in business and school environments because of our culture’s exaggerated worshipping of the gift of the gab. It is thoughtful, rang true and has encouraged me to be a tiny bit braver.

I won’t lie, I’m about to leave the house and I fully intend to come back with another John Green book. So as to not completely lose the tone of Charlotte Reads Classics let me assure you that I am currently reading The Great Gatsby (albeit because John Green mentioned it in one of the million videos I watched yesterday) and still have a post about Ethan Frome to write.

There will be classics again, I promise!