Category Archives: New York Times Notable

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Non-fiction? What?

So I haven’t read a non-fiction, non-parenting book in years. Actual years. (Which makes me feel a little sheepish for the grief I give people who don’t read a single novel in a year, or the scorn I (privately?) feel for those who shrug novels off as ‘just made up’. Not sheepish enough to change my view, obviously, as these non-novel people are clearly Bad). But I kept seeing Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity on best-of lists, and, more promisingly, described as ‘novelistic.’ So off I went and read it. Continue reading

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Filed under Bestseller, New York Times Notable, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

Two Books to Close Out 2019: For *sigh* 36 Total (The Perfect Nanny & Marriage Material)

Folks. Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny is not good. Why are people continuing to suggest other people read this book? Why does my normally very reliable best of the year from the New York Times include this title? I can only imagine it’s because people like the macabre and they like admiring people with nice things? Or they like the never-ending question of whether women who work and have children are to blame for everything bad that ever happens to their children (spoiler the answer is almost always ‘yes’).

The book opens with the death of two children (yeah, so if that’s not going to be your plot comfort cozy, best to avoid) at the hands of their Perfect Nanny. What unfolds then is the slow unfurling of how the nanny is not-so-perfect, and the cues that were very clear to the parents, but how the parents, too tired and too selfish, continue to overlook these Warning Signs so that their lives can continue to unfold with late night dinners and No Worries Because Nanny.

The nanny herself gets rendered as utterly pathetic (which is probably fitting someone who murders two children? except for character nuance?) because of her loneliness, poverty, utter lack of self-worth, ugliness, desperation. Her redeeming moments are those where she loves and plays with the children, and so I suppose we are meant – as the parents do – to overlook the rest because she is so good with kids.

I don’t know. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for child murder? Or the unnuanced portrait of the nanny as Monster. Or the slippery line of blaming the mother for her ambition and desire to do things other than parent. But other people have liked this one A Lot, so you’ve probably read it already and have other opinions. Do tell.

For something completely different and delightful, I offer you Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material  (not to be confused with the super creepy looking 2018 movie). No this 2013 gem is funny, smart, generous and playful. It follows Arjan Banga, an Indo-British twenty-something as he grapples with the death of his father and having to take over the family business of running a corner store. In alternating chapters we also follow two sisters, Kamaljit and Surinder, as they grow up in (we later learn the same) corner store: both trying to sort out what it means to be British and Indian and Sikh in a political and cultural moment (and small town) where everyone around them wants them to be one thing and not the other.

The novel traces themes of family, belonging and racial and cultural identity with a truly impressive balance of sensitivity and humour. It’s a delightful book where you never feel like you’re reading a book about Identity, but instead that you’ve slipped into something like a romantic comedy, except all the characters are interesting, the writing is fresh and sharp, and the themes are complex enough to not feel overplayed. I hope you missed this novel in 2013 so that you can discover it now and begin your 2020 with a hopeful and kind novel and not with Twitter or Facebook. Do yourself a favour. Read a book. Ideally this one.

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Filed under Bestseller, British literature, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Underground Railroad: Twice More

It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.

Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.

The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.

Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.

So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Witch Elm: So. Slow.

Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.

Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).

I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Mystery, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner