Adventures in Reading

Revisted: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

In high school I switched English levels, which left me lacking in a lot of classic high school reads. This includes authors from Twain to Salinger and just about every generic book that someone says: “Oh, I read that in high school.” This weekend I finally gave in to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter and it was brilliant. His short piece The Custom House precedes the story and it was so descriptive and funny and that’s certainly one adjective (funny) that I’ve never heard paired with Hawthorne. Most everyone seems to be familiar with the plot (especially after the 1995 film) and it all together is a rather simple story line: a married woman whose husband has disappeared has an affair and becomes pregnant. She’s forced to wear the letter A in scarlet on her bosom as punishment. From here some fabulous ideas of witchcraft and black magic pepper the story and leads to a great ending.

Over the years I’ve been slowly reading the multitude of books everyone else read in high school. For example, I still have yet to read Of Mice & Men and people accuse me of being a bad English major for this. (To which I reply that I’ve read the likes of I Am A Cat, Gargantua & Pantagruel, and Tristram Shandy and these are only a few of the titles that I can boast!) But I really enjoyed The Scarlet Letter and most recently was interested by Hawthorne’s essay on his own writing.


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.

Nathaniel Hawthorne on Himself

Following Edgar Allan Poe’s remarks on the short story and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in What is the short story? by Eugene Current-García and Walton R. Patrick, is an introduction and a preface by Nathaniel Hawthorne for his own literary works. Though perhaps with a dab of sarcasm or bitterness, Hawthorne appears excruciatingly modest and apologetic to the point that he is almost suggesting alternative titles to his audience. In the author’s preface to the 1851 edition of Twice-Told Tales Hawthorne elaborates that:

“They [the stories] have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade–the coolness of a meditative habit, which diffuses itself through the feeling and observation of every sketch [1]. … The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages.”

While I have not read Twice-Told Tales, I have read The Scarlet Letter and The Scribner’s Tale (I believe it’s called) and adore them both. From the author’s introduction to “Rappaccini’s Daughter” there is an excerpt I found significant in response to the short story: “Occasionally a breath of Nature, a raindrop of pathos and tenderness, or a gleam of humor, will find its way into the midst of his fantastic imagery, and make us feel as if, after all, we were yet within the limits of our native earth.”

First, “a raindrop of pathos” is a fabulous saying. Secondly, I’m not precisely sure what Hawthorne is getting at, but I think the gist is Hawthorne saying at times in his collection is an emotional appeal that makes the reader feel “within the limits of our native earth.” Admittedly it’s the final portion of this quote that’s stopping me… I read it in an uplifting manner but undoubtedly it has an additional Romantic/Transcendental/Naturalist/etc. meaning

In the preface, Hawthorne also addresses that “They [the stories] are not the talk of a secluded man with his own mind and heart … but his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an intercourse with the world…” This quote seems equally applicable to all forms of art (written, visual, etc.) but in consideration of the previous quote I have been thinking of the introduction of a fragment of pathos in a story to introduce discussion.

[1] If you recall from my post of “The Voyage” by Washington Irving that the story was from a collection titled The Sketch Book. The sketch book is in reference to drawing where an artist quickly (and sometimes haphazardly) creates a representation of, well, whatever for further consideration at a later point in time. According to the introduction of my copy of Irving, some literary books that also included illustrations called themselves “sketch books” but Irving I think was the first to apply the term to an entire set of the written word.

This seems to explain why in this period short stories, prose tales, etc. are at times referred to as “sketches.” However, I would like to think that this evolutionary branch of “sketches” and “sketch book” also moved away from the idea of a work being unfinished (and I’m sure Irving would agree).