Adventures in Reading


Fiction: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

“You be lookin’ pretty junky with a Night of Joy broom stickin out your ass,” Jones said very slowly. “Night of Joy broom old, they good and splintery.”

The Pulitzer Prize-Winning A Confederacy of Dunces existed in my peripheral vision for some years. At some point I must have read the introduction and learned that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and some years later his mother plagued a professor at a local college to take a look at her son’s manuscript. If we celebrate Mother’s Day for no other reason than to celebrate Mrs. Toole’s efforts it is a worthwhile holiday. Before I proceed, I confess that nothing I can say will do this book nearly enough justice.

A co-worker persuaded me into picking up the novel and I downed it over a few days full of snorts, guffaws, and raucous laughter as I shared inappropriate quotes with anyone in hearing distance. A Confederacy of Dunces follows an amusing entourage of New Orleans inhabitants and perhaps most remarkably Ignatius Reilly. Ignatius is a delightful result of the world of academy and has returned to the common people of New Orleans. A Confederacy of Dunces pursues Reilly through the echelons of the city as he seeks employment ranging from file clerk to hotdog vendor. Along the way he attempts various radical liberation movements to unsettle his New York City girlfriend Myrna Minkoff.

Toole’s title was taken from a Jonathan Swift quote: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

While reading A Confederacy of Dunces it continually put me in mind of classics such as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and of course Joyce’s Ulysses. All great adventure novels with the central idea of a man pursuing life and various philosophical ideas. Toole’s New Orleans is as meaningful as Joyce’s Dublin. Toole’s novel covers such a breath of material but still remains a hilarious and energetic read. I seldom say this, but truly, A Confederacy of Dunces is a book everyone ought to read.

Conclusion: A definite keeper.



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.