Adventures in Reading

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I confess: I had never read Jhumpa Lahiri. I have never delved into Interpreter of Maladies or The Namesake (though I did enjoy and appreciate the film adaptation). Even though Lahiri had the Pulitzer I still found myself feeling distant from her works. And then I stumbled across an advanced reading copy of Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth and as so few ARCs come my way I decided it must be.

Unaccustomed Earth is Lahiri’s second collection of stories and exclusively focuses on second generation Indians and Bengalis. The title of the book (and first story) is from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story The Custom House and refers to generational growth on new soil. Some of the collective themes that thread through the stories include family, migration, and Indian and American relationships.

“Unaccustomed Earth” is the story of Ruma settling in a new city with a new family and considering inviting her now widowed father to live with them and “Hell-Heaven” is the story of an Indian wife’s love for a man she meets and is accepted into the family. “A Choice of Accommodations” is a couple attending a wedding and reflecting on their relationship and “Only Goodness” explores Sudha’s relationship with her family and particularly her alcoholic brother. Finally, “Nobody’s Business” is a roommate in love with a woman and watching her in a destructive relationship.

The second part of this collection are three interrelating stories “Once in a Lifetime,” “Year’s End,” and “Going Ashore.” These stories explore through alternating perspective the connection between Kaushik and Hema and where their lives overlap from childhood through adulthood.

Roughly half way through the collection I read a review of the book in a local newspaper and it was interesting but I disagreed with much of it. Which I suppose goes to show that reviews can be enjoyable and even informative, but ultimately you should read a book and make up your own mind. Of all the stories I most disliked “A Choice of Accommodations,” which was still an enjoyable story. Most of Lahiri’s short works are roughly fifty pages but I felt that this story was stretching it… there simply wasn’t enough present to maintain my interest.

Now in the review I read the second portion of the book was disregarded and I it made me wonder how quickly the reviewer had read the book. I took roughly a week to finish this collection while the reviewer was assumedly under some deadline and I can understand that if you read straight through it would be easy to be dismissive of these three stories. These stories are written in a more flowing and less determined style than Lahiri’s previous tale, but because of the length Lahiri allows the characters to take time to develop and come to terms with each other.

The review wrote the conclusion of this three story narrative off as being too convenient or easily playing with one’s emotions as the typhoon that resulted in such great loss of life and damage in southeast Asia is concluded. Personally, I disagree. It’s no secret that Lahiri writes about Indian characters and I would find it awkward if she would never mention such a serious and important event in modern Indian history.

Unaccustomed Earth is a breathtaking collection and certainly enough so it prodded me to obtain a copy of Interpreter of Maladies.

And more reviews from 1morechapter, Feminist Review, Book Addiction, and Short Story Reading Challenge.


The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation by Elizabeth Berg

On a rainy afternoon I decided to indulge and read an entire short story collection rather than sampling only one story. I settled in with The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation the latest collection from Elizabeth Berg. This was my first time reading anything by Berg and I found the collection humorous, thoughtful, and nice.

The thirteen stories scrutinize mostly middle-aged-women’s relationships with food, body image, aging and family. Berg writes the stories warmly and with feeling that often extend a soft, though none too subtle, punch. In the title story a woman breaks from the bonds of Weight Watchers and point counting to indulge in a day long gorging spree but realizes after this that she feels no better, and in fact is left “hollow eyed,” about herself. Juxtaposing this story is “The Day I Ate Nothing I Even Remotely Wanted,” which despite the control the narrator has over her eating leaves her no more happy. And in “Double Diet” a married couple diet together and the husband points out his wife’s issue of rewarding herself with food.

Berg is not delving into radical territory here but she is also not afraid to address the hostile yet dependent relationship many western women seem to have with food. In “Full Count” a child Janey is called “lard ass” by her cousin and Berg concludes the story with the suggestion of Janey’s weight related problems to come in life. Accompanying these more problematic food stories are tales such as “How to Make an Apple Pie,” which is a letter passing along a recipe and a good deal of life’s anecdotes and also the tale “Truth or Dare” where food allows for a communal relationship between three women.

Aging is also of great interest in this collection and Berg allows her characters to have their existential crisis but with a gentle hand they always find a solution. In “Mrs. Ethel Menafee and Mrs. Birdie Stoltz,” Birdie is dying of leukemia and distant from her friend of more than fifty years Ethel. Berg allows Birdie the space to begin understanding what the end entails, but the story concludes as the two older women honestly speak to each other through humor and dolls. “Rain,” the most melancholy story in the collection, is of a woman reflecting on her life as her male friend gives up everything for a life self-sustenance and later finds he has a brain tumor.

All of the stories deal with relationships but stories such as “Returns and Exchanges” and “The Party” explores more particular dynamics of relationships. In “Returns and Exchanges” and attempt to rekindle a past love leaves a wife more in love with her husband and “The Party” seeks to define the assertion and power some men have over some women. “Over the Hill and Into the Woods” allows a woman to redefine her self away from her children and “Sin City” sees a widow rediscovering life after a weekend’s splurge in Las Vegas.

At work this collection is currently being marketed as a great Mother’s Day gift, and this perhaps more aptly describes the collection than I have to this point. Berg is not an edgy writer but she is a comfortable author exploring important and day-in-the-life-of themes that effect women in particular. The stories are often fun and light but Berg delivers important questions that encourages the reader to consider are you living the life you want to live and how you want to live it?

Other opinions: Short Story Reading Challenge.