Adventures in Reading


Fiction: Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

“Secrets are my currency: I deal them for a living. The secrets of desire, of what people really want, and of what they fear the most. The secrets of why love is difficult, sex complicated, living painful and death so close and yet placed far away. Why are pleasure and punishment closely related? How do our bodies speak? Why do we make ourselves ill? Why do you want to fail? Why is pleasure hard to bear?”

I picked up an advanced reader’s copy of Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You on a whim and found myself quite pleased as I became increasingly drawn into the narrative. Jamal, the son of Pakistani immigrants, is a psychoanalyst in London and now at middle-aged with a son and a divorced wife. Jamal has a secret in his past and when he faces a long lost love he’s forced into concern over past actions. In a novel of increasing complexity and layers, Jamal’s life comes to a near absurd stage as his past, present, and future collapse in on each other.

Kureishi’s work is one of the most beautifully textured novels I’ve read in a long time. The author moves back and forth easily through the decades utilizing complex ideas of psychoanalysis, politics, etc. to give his characters a rough edge. Like Nelson Algren’s novels, Something to Tell You is peopled with characters (directors, prostitutes, welfare mothers, and even a visit from Mick Jagger) you won’t always like because they can be mean, vindictive, selfish, and careless. But throughout the book these characters passions and problems provide for rich and stirring reading. In the reader/character relationship you get to become the analyst and watch all of these characters queuing for the figurative couch.

The energetic plot has made me want to pick up Freud and it’s a valuable depth in a book that encourages the reader to expand horizons and in a minor way to step into the text. Kureishi previously published The Buddha of Suburbia and is also has two movies My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Some stuff on Kureishi from the Bookninja and another take from Asylum.

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Fiction: Brick Lane by Monical Ali

I was at an awards dinner recently when a professor mentioned Brick Lane and I interjected, “Oh right, by Monica Ali.” Brick Lane is one of those books that I have intended, and meant, and had all the best wishes to read, but alas it promptly found a home on my shelves and started to collect dust. At least until this dinner and then I promised myself that I would get around to reading Brick Lane before the summer was out.

Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen, a girl from a Bangladeshi village that has an arranged marriage and finds herself in London. Nazneen’s life is interwoven with the fatalism her mother so strongly believed in. When Nazneen was born she was ill and wouldn’t eat, but her mother refused to take her a hospital and swore fate would decide whether Nazneen lived or died. This fatalism follows Nazneen to England and pursues her for much of her life. In contrast, is Nazneen’s sister Hasina. The reader learns of Hasina through Nazneen’s flashbacks and from letters the two sisters’ write. Hasina never relies on her fate and as the more impetuous of the two sisters, she arranges her own marriage and ran away from home.

Nazneen’s story almost entirely unfolds in the small apartment her and her husband Chanu share. Through the birth of three children and the death of one, through her husband’s loan problems, to Nazneen’s affair with a younger man, specific poignant issues move the story and develop the relationships between the characters.

One thing about Brick Lane is that I never really felt as if there was any movement of time. Obviously there was, by the end of the novel Nazneen has had three children and the oldest surviving child is in her early teens. Much of the novel’s time is ushered through a series of letters from Hasina and the reader is kept aware of time from the dates on the letters. But the reader actually experiences very little time in the book. Four three-fourths of the book, Nazneen remains very much the same as she did when she first arrived from the village. There are small suggestions of time, such as the apartment accumulating furniture, but perhaps these were simply too subtle or at least did not greatly effect the characters.

I can’t help but compare Ali to Jhumpa Lahiri if only because they have both written on immigrants from a similar area of the world, but another terrific author also born in Dhaka, Bangladesh is Tahmima Anam. Anam’s first book A Golden Age is “set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence” and is a superb novel too.

P.S. Roger Ebert recently posted a review of the movie, which also has some great additional information about the novel.



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.