Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

816851Fiction — audiobook. Read by Matilda Novak. HighBridge, 2005. Originally published 1999. 6 hours, 15 minutes. Library copy.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, Lahiri’s collection of nine short stories address the conflict between one’s identity as an Indian and the America in which the individual now lives. This common theme connects all nine of the stories irregardless of the exact identity of the central character (male or female, Indian or Indian-American or white American) or the location (Boston, New England, India).

In “Mrs. Sen’s”, the title character’s husband insists she learn how to drive following their move from Calcutta to Boston, but she is resistant to the idea insisting her husband can drive her where she needs to go. Her fear leaves her unable to travel to the fish market, which is the one place in the city where she feels connected to her past life in India.

In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, the young, female American-born narrator struggles to understand why her parents no longer consider Mr. Pirzada as an Indian after the geopolitical boundaries of Pakistan, East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), and India shift. To her, Mr. Pirzada still behaves in the same un-American ways of her parents — he takes off his shoes, he eats with his hands, he speaks the same language — and his identity is not tied to these changing borders.

In “This Blessed House”, a newly married couple named Sanjeev and Twinkle find Biblical statutes hidden throughout the house they just purchased in Hartford, Connecticut. Twinkle wants to display the Virgin Mary in their front yard just as many of their neighbors have done, but Sanjeev is uncomfortable with the idea and repeatedly reminds his wife that they are Hindus not Christians.

And in “The Third and Final Continent”, which was my favorite story in the collection, a young man moves from India to London then finally to Boston where he rents a room from a 103-year-old woman. The pair end up forging a friendship because both of them are unaccustomed to life in America today. The quiet and subtle way this friendship is established is rather remarkable given the shortness of the story, but it speaks to how deceptively straightforward Lahiri’s writing style is. She rarely employs overly descriptive adjectives or bothers with complex sentences yet her stories manage to carry such heavy and difficult questions of belong and identity and grief with ease. You can’t skim or tune out the audiobook, which was so nicely narrated by Matilda Novak, least you miss a short yet important sentence.

The final story in the collection also echoes the stylistic choices of the very first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter”. In that particular story, a married couple by the names of Shukumar and Shoba begin to pull apart from one another following the birth of their stillborn baby. Shoba comes up with a “game” for them to pass the time together in which they take turns confessing a secret to one another. If the game is meant to draw them together, it only highlights their distance and how entrapped in their own grief each of them is.

The distance between the characters is amplified for the reader by the way Lahiri choose to tell their story. While the story is told by a third person narrator, the story is titled towards Shukumar’s point of view. His wife’s story and her grief are expressed through his eyes, which removes the reader for what should be palpable grief and keeps Shoba just as much of a mystery for the reader and is she for Shukumar. This stylistic choice is often repeated in the other eight stories helping to develop the same longing to belong and understand for the reader that Lahiri’s characters experience.

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Fiction — print. Vintage, 2008. Originally published 1987. 324 pgs. Library copy.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, this tale focuses on Sethe, a young salve who escaped to Ohio to join her mother-in-law (although her marriage to Halle was not legally binding) and her three other children, and the young daughter named Denver that Sethe was pregnant with during her escape.

Eighteen years after her arrival in Ohio, she and her youngest daughter, Denver, live together in the house at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati that is haunted by Sethe’s two-year-old daughter. The unnamed daughter is referred to as ‘Beloved’ after her death because that was the only word from the preacher’s sermon at her daughter’s funeral and the only word the funeral home would carve into the stone in exchange for sex.

The death of Beloved has marked every aspect of Denver’s life isolating her from the community at large, especially after her brothers, Howard and Buglar, escaped from the house and her grandmother, Baby Suggs, passed away. Largely housebound, Denver is unprepared for the arrival of two new people in their lives: Paul D, a former slave who knew her mother from their time together at Sweet Home, and a young woman who calls herself Beloved.

“Beloved. You are my sister. You are my daughter. You are my face; you are me. I have found you again; you have come back to me. You are my Beloved. You are mine.” (pg. 255)

Paul D is able to chase the spirit of Sethe’s eldest daughter from the home allowing Denver to finally leave the house at 124 Bluestone Road, but the supernatural presence returns when Beloved arrives and charms Sethe and Denver with her presence. As Paul D grows closer to Sethe and warier of Beloved’s presence, the black community of Cincinnati informs Paul D of how Sethe’s daughter died, of how Sethe tried to murder all four of her children in order to keep them from being returned to their owner at Sweet Home. Horrified, Paul D leaves the home allowing Sethe to become lost to the idea that the young woman named Beloved to actually her daughter returned to her at the expense of both herself and Denver.

In her preface, Morrison says she was inspired to write this book after reading an old newspaper article about an escape slave who murdered her child to prevent the her child from being returned to their owner under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required people living in “free states” to return all runaways to slavery. She explains both in the preface and in the text how slavery fractured familial relationships, how it left women like Sethe with few options to keep themselves and their families together.

Going into the story with this particular idea in mind did ruin Paul’s revelation of what Sethe did, but it also allowed me to see the forest amongst the trees, so to say. I could have easily become bogged down in Morrison’s prose, in the magical realism (which is rarely to my own taste), and in sudden shift to stream of consciousness more than halfway into the story. But I also knew I should be focusing on the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, on the guilt that accompanies hindsight, and on the everlasting mark of both slavery and murder.

On those three points, I adored this book for what it had to say. Slavery and murder are despicable evils in this world, but given the choice between the two – given the only choice one has – how can Sethe choose life in slavery over murder? She knew what that life would be like – how it would deprive her children of a family or the right to marry, how it cause them immense pain and suffering, how her daughters would be expected to bare children with a man chosen for them knowing they would be unlikely to see those children grow up.

We see the loss of her child haunt her after the fact in part because she and her three remaining children were allowed to remain free, but her actions cost the life of her beloved daughter and, eventually, the right to be in the lives of her sons. Yet she does not feel guilty about what she did even telling Paul D point blank that she cannot be faulted for “trying to put my babies where they would be safe”. She had already lost her husband, who failed to show up when it was time for them to escape from Sweet Home together, and she had already been brutalized by her new master, who had forcibly taken her milk from her that she had been trying to save for the unnamed infant upon their reunification.

And, of course, her decision cost her remaining daughter a happy and productive life as a member of Cincinnati society. Denver is an outcast because of what her mother did. She is forgotten by her brothers in their attempt to escape their mother and the haunted house, and her grandmother spent most of her remaining years keeping Denver close in order to prevent her mother from having the opportunity to kill her like she did Beloved. She never really has the freedom her mother was trying to afford to her, which is a tragedy in its own right.

I still cannot claim to be a fan of Toni Morrison’s writing, but I can say that I am a fan of what this book has to say and the viewpoint it offers to its readers. (Although, I admit that “fan” is a rather awful word to use in connection to the horrific tale told in this novel.) Another book I’m glad I added to my Classics Club list as I would not have picked it up otherwise.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Roots by Alex Haley

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Avery Brooks. BBC Audio, 2007. Originally published 1976. 30 hours, 7 minutes. Library copy.

Subtitled “The Saga of an American Family”, Haley’s book begins in the eighteenth century with the story of Kunta Kinte, a young African male of the Mandinka people captured from present-day Gambia and sold into slavery in 1767. The story progresses through the lives of seven generations of Kunta Kinte’s descendants and is largely based upon the stories passed down to Haley by his Grandmother Cynthia, whose father was emancipated from slavery in 1865.

There is some debate whether or not Haley’s book should be shelved as fiction or nonfiction but, regardless of genre, it is clear why this sweeping saga won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The beauty of this story lies in its presentation of people — their emotions, the intimacy of their relationships, the horrors of their situations — and the way these characters are determined to keep their family together in memory when slavery kept them physically separated.

It is difficult to image these characters were singularly created by Haley; they seem to mirror real people in a way not always found in a novel. What happened to the characters may appear to be overused tropes in literature, but the characters themselves are so beautifully written that they transcend this charge.

I listened to the audiobook and so I cannot back this statement up with page numbers, but it felt as though much of the story was focused on Kunta Kinte’s life with his grandson, Chicken George, receiving a fair amount of attention compared to Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy. It felt very much as though she was the medium between the two man who interested Haley the most, and this feeling as well as the rushed presentation of the connection between Chicken George and the author would be my only complaints about the novel as a whole.

That said, the time spent detailing Kunta Kinte’s life in present-day Gambia — his culture, his family, his traditions — and his adjustment (for lack of a better word) to slavery in the United States contained some of the most emotionally evocative passages in the book. At no time did I feel impassive as I listened to the seemingly indescribable fear and sense of loss Kunta Kinte experienced as he was transported across the ocean in chains, renamed “Toby”, or forced to abandon his religion and his language.

Admittedly, I avoided this book for so long because of its sheer size — 729 pages in paperback — and I am glad I turned to the audiobook, which is a little over thirty hours in length, narrated by Avery Brooks to help me overcome my timidity towards the novel. Brooks’ voice is just lovely — deep, warm, infused with emotion as just the right moment — and his narration added to my love of the characters and the story they reside in.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Lorna Raver. Blackstone Audio, 2008. Originally published 1920. 11 hours, 46 minutes. Library copy.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (the first ever awarded to a woman), Wharton’s novel follows a young lawyer, Newland Archer, as he moves about the elitist social circle of New York City and prepares to marry May Welland. Before Newland and May’s engagement is announced as the triumph it is, Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, returns to Manhattan introducing scandal to their circle for Ellen has separated from her abusive husband. Ellen’s disillusionment with the society in which she, Newland, and May were raised begins to trouble Newland, and he finds attraction to Ellen growing even as society champions Newland and May’s marriage as the pinnacle of good breeding and fortune.

Society – its conformity, ritual, and rules – is the main character of this novel and Wharton’s presentation of society rather than the characters of Newland, May, or Ellen is the thought-provoking aspect of this novel. Without society’s rigid structure, Newland would not worry about upsetting the status quo by following his heart, May would not entrap (for lack of a better word) her husband consigning both her and their children to life filled with resentment, and Ellen would not consider trading away separation from her abusive husband as the lesser of two evils. Without society’s rigid structure, the action of the novel might be less subtle and the details not so rich.

The manipulation of society’s rigid structure by Ellen, May, and Newland to meet their individual goals twists the novel into an entirely different interpretation. At a cursory read, the novel seems to be arguing against the constraints put upon people by society. Yet, as I pondered the characters and their scant actions, the novel also demonstrates the resourcefulness and meanness (for lack of a better work) people develop and internalize when consigned to such situations. May is presented as the villain or, at the very least, culpable in Ellen and Newland’s unhappiness due to her gentle (read: stupid) nature. Yet May sees her marriage to Newland for what it is – a means for entrance into the highest echelon of society – and carves out a modicum of control in order to keep that together. She plays the few cards she has and wins, at least in society’s view.

Unfortunately, the intense focus to details rather than action works against the novel from an audiobook standpoint. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration to catch all the details, to understand exactly why Newland is so resign in the face of so much desperation, and I was forever missing what originally appeared to be minute details forcing me the rewind again and again. The narrator, Lorna Raver, was also very easy to tune out – whether this is due to the intonation of her voice or the structure of the novel, I cannot ascertain. Oh, how I wish I had read rather than listened to this novel so as not to taint my appreciation.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

I received Boo’s book for review from the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing. I read the book in a single sitting on a flight across the United States back in January. My hope had been to post about the book before it on sale on February 7, 2012 but, alas, I missed my own deadline.

Subtitled “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” Boo’s book is based on three years of reporting and follows families in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement located near the Mumbai airport and a ring of luxury hotels. Abdul is a Muslim teenager who sees a way out of the slump in the recyclable garbage that wealthy people staying the hotels throw away. An alternative route to the middle class through political corruption is being chased by Asha, a woman who hopes her daughter will be comes the slum’s first female college graduate. But then Abdul is falsely accused of a horrific crime and the economic prosperity he has built up for his family is threatened, throwing them back into the cycle of poverty.

Narrative nonfiction is not my cup of tea. I often times find this particular genre lacks the poetic nature of fiction, making the language feel sharp. Furthermore, because it is not fiction, these genre lacks the ability to immerse the reader into the story due to a distance the author sets up between herself and the people she is trying to turn into characters. Yet it does not emulate the authority of nonfiction, and I can never tell how much of the novel is stretched and how much is based on reality. Admittedly, I had no idea Boo’s book was narrative nonfiction until I began the novel and I probably would have passed on the book based on this fact had I known.

However, I am glad that I did ask to receive a copy. I certainty turned the last page with a greater understanding of the inter-workings of India’s slums and appreciated the opportunity to understand an often stigmatized section of society. Poverty, religion, and caste collude to build up a racist society that sets people on a trajectory of poverty and hardship from birth, but it was interesting to see that a place devoid of hope actually contains promise. And then a corrupt society moves in to squash any hope Abdul and his family has. So tragic.

There is no sugarcoating on the part of Boo, and I appreciated her ability to present the story in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. But the set up from the overall tragedy drags on for pages and chapters longer than necessary. The story is more setting-based than character-based.

The afterward goes on to explain how the point of this book was to show how the slum-dwellers/poor continue to worsen their situations by picking on and tormenting each other rather than focusing on their larger problem. But I think she misses the mark; in a society constructed around pitting people against over and finding self-worth through race, religion, caste, and monetary standing, how can you not expect people in the lowest caste to try and elevate themselves by putting their neighbors down?

Book Mentioned:

  • Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity. New York: Random House, 2012. Print. 368 pgs. ISBN: 9781400067558. Source: Review Copy.
Book Cover © Random House. Retrieved: February 17, 2012.