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.


Short Story Marathon

When I have the opportunity, I try to browse and update my links list as regularly as possible. However, as I am still without the Internet at home it’s an anticipated rarity to find the additional hour or two that allows me to sink my teeth into my fellow blogger’s writings. What has caught my attention most recently was a review by Book Nut in regards to Jhumpa Lahiri’s last collection of short stories: Interpreter of Maladies. Specifically what toyed with my interest was Book Nut and her commenter’s experiences with short stories.

I for one adore short stories. There’s just something about them… I confess that I often find myself in a small crowd, if not entirely alone, after admitting this. In my experience, many people find short stories unsatisfying, too brief, and/or lacking the wave of familiar novel plot development [1]. ‘Til now my usual comment has been that short stories seem to be for some people and not for others. With this recent post I have found myself with a particular interest in short stories and have finally stumbled onto (what I believe is) a solution for my reading block: a short story marathon.

I’m going to try and read one and only one short story in roughly a day. I will take my time with it. Like a cup of chai tea, I will breathe in the aromatic warmth, sip it slowly to tango with my taste buds, and a la Folgers savor it to the last drop. (And then manifest a way to regurgitate it and read it again.) In addition, I raided my university library for criticisms, discussion, and other related matters on the short story as a form of writing. Kicking off this marathon I have What is the short story? by Eugene Current-García and a delightful (and long) quote from Washington Irving “on style and purpose in the short story”:

I fancy much of what I value myself upon in writing, escapes the observation of the great mass of my readers, who are intent more upon the story than the way in which it is told. For my part, I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment, and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly, yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole, –these are among what I aim at, and upon which I felicitate myself in proportion as I think I succeed. I have preferred adopting the mode of sketches and short tales rather than long works, because I choose to take a line of writing peculiar to myself, rather than fall into the manner or school of any other writer; and there is a constant activity of thought and a nicety of execution required in writings of the kind, more than the world appears to imagine. It is comparatively easy to swell a story to any size when you have once the scheme and the characters in your mind; the mere interest of the story, too, carries the reader on through pages and pages of careless writing, and the author may often be dull for half a volume at a time, if he has some striking scene at the end of it; but in these shorter writings, every page must have its merit. The author must be continually piquant; woe to him if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sure to pounce upon it. Yet if he succeed, the very variety and piquancy of his writings –nay, their very brevity, make them frequently recurred to, and when the more interest of the story is exhausted, he begins to get credit for his touches of pathos or humor; his points of wit or turns of language. I give these as some of the reasons that have induced me to keep on thus far in the way I had opened for myself… (Italics are mine.)

[1] I probably have left a great deal of other comments off this list, but I’m only getting started!

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