a fine balance (audio)

I’m not sure why, but I felt like re-reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry recently. It was available on audio at my library—one of the best ways to re-read a book! From Goodreads:

With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.

The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers—a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village—will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.

As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.

I first read A Fine Balance in 2012, and absolutely loved it. This book has stayed with me since then and I’m sure I’ll revisit it again in the future. Aside from noting the excellent narration by John Lee on this audiobook version, I’m not sure I have much more to add to my 2012 review, although I think I’d be more casual with my language in a blog post these days:

This book is dark. The characters are destitute, piteous… yet not without hope, not entirely humorless. There are moments of tragicomedy, moments of beauty, moments of love. The four protagonists’ relationships are truly moving and wonderful by the end. You feel so deeply for them—going through so many trying hardships—I was distressed and terrified for them during several scenes. The characters face the inexplicably unjust events in their lives with dignity and courage, though.

Mistry’s prose is delicate and polished, visually and emotionally evocative, and left me breathless at the end. The scope of A Fine Balance is staggering and broad, but the stories of the characters are intimate and complex. At times while reading I found myself thinking a scene here or there, or seemingly random minor characters were perhaps unnecessary, but everything is needed and comes together by the book’s conclusion. Not one thing is superfluous.

While not a pleasant or light read, A Fine Balance is important for its portrait of political/socioeconomic austerity and the depth and substance of the human spirit. The characters became very real for me, and I thought about this story for days after finishing. It is a heartrending, beautiful work and I will definitely follow this author.

It was as good the second time through. I remembered most of it, but I still enjoyed experiencing this story again. I only regret I haven’t read any more by Mistry! I still have a copy of Family Matters on my shelf, waiting to be read.

Listened to audiobook in August 2017.

reading recap: august 2017

August was a good month! I went to Thailand, had a friend visit here in Singapore, saw Kronos Quartet for the first time, finished my first-ever commissioned drawing, and read seven books:

  • Difficult Men (audio) … Brett Martin, read by Keith Szarabajka
  • The Monster of Florence (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Dennis Boutsikaris
  • The Fact of a Body (audio) … Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, read by author
  • Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
  • A Fine Balance (audio) … Rohinton Mistry, read by John Lee
  • It (paper and audio) … Stephen King, read by Steven Weber
  • Flowers of the Killer Moon (audio) … David Grann, read by various

I still want to start moving away from so many audiobooks for a while and focus back on paper soon. It felt great to read a couple books on paper this month (well, one and a half—I went half-audio, half-paper with It). I think I need to just slow down and set aside some time every day to sit with a physical book. My visit home in June–July, the Thailand trip (where I met up with a bunch of old friends from Kansas City), and another friend coming here to Singapore way overstimulated me and now I’m having trouble sitting still!

All the non-fiction I read this month was great, but my favorites were the novels A Fine Balance and BorneA Fine Balance is one of my favorite books anyway—I read it on paper in 2012 so this time on audio was a re-read. It’s just a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Bleak, but I loved it. I’m not sure I could write a better review now than I did in 2012 (link), but the audio was just as good. I really enjoyed Borne for it’s straight-up weirdness. I really liked VanderMeer’s Annihilation so I had Borne on on my radar when it was announced. Post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a building-sized flying bear? Yes. Yes, please. It was strange and fantastic.

I finished IT just in time! I’m looking forward to seeing the first movie when it comes out soon. To get prepped, I also re-watched the 1990s miniseries version. Just terrible! Except for Tim Curry, he’s perfection as Pennywise, but other than his performance that version can go float in the sewer. Yikes.

My non-fiction reads were mostly about murders, and one about TV show production. I recently started re-watching The Sopranos again, so Difficult Men was a great companion to that, but it was more about the creators of The Sopranos and shows like it rather than what I was expecting, the rise of the anti-hero protagonist in popular media and culture. That’s okay, it was still an interesting behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite shows. The Monster of Florence and The Fact of a Body were similar in that they were investigations into mysterious real-life murders, while weaving in the authors’ personal stories as well. Flowers of the Killer Moon was my favorite of these non-fictions from August. It was also an about true murders—the 1920s killings of members of the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma, and how the FBI arose from the investigation of these murders. I enjoyed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z a few years back so I was excited to read this one, too, and it was just as compelling as Z. The amount of American history left out of the history books and our general educations is staggering, and Killer Moon is just one more example. We need these books and acknowledgement of our true, shameful past in America.

For September, I’m going to get through my Best Friends International Book Club’s current picks (A Colony in a NationThe New Jim Crow, and Bitch Planet, Book Two), as well as Killing Pablo (too late for the release of Narcos season 3 on Netflix, but it’s a real page turner! I’ll be through it quickly) and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal and loaned to me by a friend here. On audio, I have to finish up ZeroZeroZero (also a good companion to Narcos and Killing Pablo), and I just got The Heart’s Invisible Furies off hold. It’ll be another good month, and I’m sure I’ll surpass my Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year.

monthly recap image

behind the beautiful forevers

Two years after it first came out I finally got around to reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a fascinating, heartbreaking exposé of a Mumbai slum and its residents. Edited from Goodreads:

A bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects people to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of uncompromising reporting, carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.

I’m embarrassed this took me so long to get to, and then so long to read. I think I was just too busy this past month, because a book like this is right up my alley and wouldn’t normally take me so long. When I was able to catch moments with this over the past month I was spellbound. Boo crafts this narrative non-fiction with compassion, grace and objectivity, exposing what life is like for these hardworking individuals at the bottom of the ladder in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, taking into account social and economic context. Annawadi could be any slum in any large city in the world with substantial economic inequality.

The families on these pages came alive to me, especially the children. Education is basically nonexistent. They compete with each other in garbage trading to scrape together a little money for their families. They endure beatings and witness suicides, often contemplating it themselves. But some we learn about in Beautiful Forevers are tenacious and hopeful, striving for a better life.

The struggles of Annawadi’s residents are wide-ranging, from unemployment to addiction to disease to suicides to corrupt police and government to fear of their homes being bulldozed. The fact that they are fundamentally no different from anyone else—needing to provide for their families, hopes and dreams for a better future for their children—is made crystal clear. Beautiful Forevers is a powerful, tragic, affective glimpse at the daily lives of these spirited people in abject poverty.

Read from June 18 to July 26, 2015.