Monday, January 31, 2011

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

The first time I heard of Jhumpa Lahiri was when one of the members of my book discussion group selected Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri's debut story collection, when it was his turn to choose the book and lead the discussion. The book had recently come out in paperback, and had also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I read the book and enjoyed it, and it was a good choice for our book group, but I didn't think much about it after the meeting. I mean, I admired the writing, and I did keep the book, but I tend to like novels better than stories. I love losing myself in a wide expanse of narrative! A year or two ago, I finally listened to the audiobook of The Namesake, Lahiri's full-length novel, and it did not disappoint.

Lahiri's writing is always sharp and perceptive, so beautiful, yet so wise. It's true that the novel, and many of the stories, feature Indians who have emigrated to the United States, and their Indian-American children. Her writings explore the complexities of family, home, love, and loss, through the kaleidoscope of her own heritage. Nearly all adolescents rebel against their parents, believe that their parents don't understand them, and are embarrassed by their parents with some regularity. These things are all present in Lahiri's work, with the additional layers of meaning and complication that a "clash of cultures" can bring, when parents are traditional, and their growing children embrace American "consumer culture" as part of their struggle to fit in.

Over the past few weekends, I listened to Lahiri's second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth. They were longer than those in her first collection, and I found this difference very satisfying. Most of her characters are well-drawn, "round" as opposed to "flat" characters, and once I got into each new story, I liked spending more time with them, getting to know them better, than if the stories had been shorter. Part One has five stories, and covers a little over 200 pages. There's a grown daughter mourning her mother's death, and trying to reconnect with her more-distant father. An older sister introduces her teenaged brother to beer, and he ultimately becomes an alcoholic. A husband and wife attend a weekend wedding, expecting a mini-vacation away from their kids, but nothing goes as they'd planned. Bengali immigrants and Bengali-Americans are central characters in all five stories, but the themes are universal.

Part Two, called "Hema and Kaushik," contains three interlinked stories, totaling about 110 pages. As I listened, they seemed more like chapters or sections of a novella. I loved how long it was, because as it seemed a section was coming to an end, I wasn't ready, I wanted MORE -- of those characters, and of their stories. Lahiri gives the reader everything, until there's no more to tell. The "Hema and Kaushik" stories are a masterpiece, nothing less. My chest ached as the tale progressed, the shifting perspectives indicated by the alternating narrators -- first her view, then his, then hers again, back and forth until the end of the book.

I finished listening to Unaccustomed Earth yesterday afternoon, and as I wandered around my kitchen and living room, I had two thoughts. First, I asked myself, When will Jhumpa Lahiri have another book coming out? (I don't know, but I hope it's soon!)

Second, I thought, If she keeps writing this well, and publishes a book every few years, she will win the Nobel Prize. That's my prediction. Now, if you haven't yet read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri, go get started!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reading Challenges for 2011: only two

In my somewhat delayed wrap-up post for my 2010 reading challenges, I said that I planned to participate in two of last year's challenges again in 2011. One of them, the Persons of Color (POC) Reading Challenge, is up and running, but the other one, Read Your Own Books (RYOB), doesn't seem to be offered for this year, so I found a replacement.

I'm going to sign up for Level 3 again, between seven and nine books. I really think I could have completed the challenge in 2010 if I hadn't gotten Horner syndrome, and also (starting with those couple days in the hospital) spent several weeks taking a medicine that made my brain fuzzy and made it almost impossible to read. I'm off to a great start for 2011, in carving out time to read, and I'm going to make a concerted effort to have more authors of color on my radar, so when I finish a book and don't have the next one already lined up (usually the selection for my book discussion group), I'll scan my TBR Mountain for authors of color first and see what grabs my attention.

For the RYOB Challenge last year, I'd hoped to read thirty books that were already in my TBR Mountain on January first. About a week ago, searching for a replacement for RYOB, I found the Off the Shelf Challenge, hosted by Bookish Ardour. I'm glad that there's a 30-book level, because that seems like a reasonable goal for me again -- and as I said above, if I can maintain a reading pace close to what I've done these last three weeks, I'll make good progress. Level 4 is 50 books, which I haven't reached in any of the last three years (2008 is when I started keeping track), so I'm selecting Level 3, "Making a Dint," which is 30 books.

Sometimes other challenges pique my interest -- I did look for another poetry challenge for 2011, but didn't find one -- but these two are all the commitments I'm planning to make. Reading more of the books I already own is a goal that just makes sense -- plus it's really convenient and doesn't cost anything! Reading more books by persons of color exposes me to different perspectives, enriching not just my reading, but my ways of thinking, my whole interior world.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A nip here, a tuck there, thanks to Bloggiesta!

Jeff and the boys are at basketball practice, and I confess that the 9-to-11am Saturday morning practice is starting to spoil me. They leave around 830am, don't get home till about 1130am, and I have three glorious hours to do things like play around on the computer or read. This morning, I've been tweaking my blog, thanks to Bloggiesta.

Bloggiesta is an event hosted by Natasha at Maw Books. It's a kind of blogging marathon -- and participants might catch up on reviews or other posts, or write a few extra posts ahead of time for "a rainy day" -- but it's also an opportunity to spiff up your blog, add new buttons, update the blog roll, find and fix (or delete) broken links, organize your feed reader, and get tips from other bloggers, either on their blogs, or by chatting with them on Twitter. It's all about improving your blog, helping and learning from each other, and improving all the tasks and processes related to your blogging experience. (For book bloggers, updating their book info in LibraryThing or GoodReads counts!)

I did some laptop stuff last night, not specifically blog-related, but I did work on the Evernote account I created last week. I hope to fill that with quotes and other good pieces of information or pearls of wisdom that I want to remember and keep on hand. So, there's at least a desire and intent to get a little more organized. (I also deleted some super-old messages from my Gmail account, and THAT felt good.) This morning, I spent about 90 minutes tweaking some little things on my blog, and reading other bloggers' advice and suggestions. I added a copyright blurb to my RSS feed posts, and added a subscription to my own blog in Google Reader, since I had no idea what it looked like before. (Good news: it looks okay!) I switched my comment notification from the home e-mail account to Gmail so I'll usually see them sooner. I put a Creative Commons license in my blog footer. I modified the LibraryThing widget in my sidebar, and tweaked my "Friends & Favorites" list.

It's nearly 1030am now, and I'm thinking if I get on the treadmill soon, I might be able to "buy" some goodwill from Jeff and the boys, and get more time with the blog later today or tomorrow. Now that I'm looking at it closely, there's definitely more I'd like to do -- update the Blog Roll tab being first, and writing posts for the two challenges I plan to join this year. (I did add buttons for the challenges this morning -- yay for me! -- but that doesn't make it official.) I'm going to add myself to the list of Bloggiesta participants, and cross my fingers I can get another couple hours for blog cleanup this weekend. To the other Bloggiesta participants: Ole! And happy blogging!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Let's Take the Long Way Home: a Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

Yesterday morning, I woke around 4am and couldn't get back to sleep. By 445am, I'd decided to get up and start my next book. I'd first heard of Let's Take the Long Way Home in late summer or early fall, on an episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, in which Michael Kindness gave it a glowing recommendation. I remember I was walking toward my mother-in-law's house as I listened -- specifically, in the area of 29th and Gage. He said it was Gail Caldwell's memoir about her friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp -- and I was instantly alert, because a few years ago, I bought, read, and loved a book by Knapp called Appetites: Why Women Want. I recognized Caldwell's name, but wasn't familiar with her. It was the chance to learn more about Knapp that drew me in, as well as Michael Kindness saying that the book was a picture of how full and all-encompassing a friendship between two women can be, and also explored the dark corners of addiction. Both Caldwell and Knapp were alcoholics, though both were sober by the time they became friends. After the podcast, Caldwell's book was quickly added to my "must-have" list.

So, I started reading it yesterday, obscenely early in the morning, and got about thirty pages in before work. I didn't read at work, but made some more progress on it last evening. Today, Saturday, I did some reading this morning, then cleaned the kitchen, and eventually got back to the book. This afternoon, I finished the book through copious tears. I was up in the bedroom by myself, while Jeff and the boys and Grandma watched the KU game in the living room. At one point, Jeff came up and suggested I stop reading for a while and do something else, and I said no. When he asked why not, I sobbed, "Because I don't want to!" I felt justified in this decision: three-day weekend, kitchen already cleaned, end of the book coming ever closer. Jeff said he didn't understand, and I agreed, he didn't.

Since I read it so quickly, and finished it during a weekend where I have some extra time, I thought, "I need to post a blog about it, I need to write a review." But then, the idea of writing a review of this book seemed akin to reviewing pieces of Gail Caldwell's life -- some painful, mainly her battles with alcoholism; and many precious and beautiful, memories of her friendship with Caroline, and the bonds both shared with their beloved dogs. Truly, the writing is so honest and raw, that the book feels alive, and lived in -- not just recounting parts of Caldwell's life, but opening the door on those scenes, and letting the reader into them. That's the best review I can give of Caldwell's memoir: I felt like I was living it with her.

Though Gail and Caroline first met at a party, it was several years later, when they happened to run into one another at a pond in Cambridge, Mass., that they began their friendship. Both single women who were independent and used to solitude, both childless, each had acquired a dog who became companion, child, best friend. When they met that day at the pond, Gail knew Caroline had been doing a lot of public appearances to promote her recently published memoir, Drinking: a Love Story. Caroline later said she was relieved that Gail "was more interested in her dog than her book sales" and Gail writes, "We were like new moms in the park, trading vital bits of information about our charges that was enthralling only to us" (p. 17).

They bonded over this shared love of their dogs, and began walking together, a “pack of four,” every day. Caldwell writes:

We ran the dogs for hours in those woods outside of town, and in other woods, searching out gorgeous reserves of forests and fields all over eastern Massachusetts. We walked the beaches that autumn, and the fire trails in winter, carrying liver snaps for the dogs and graham crackers for the humans. We walked until all four of us were dumb with fatigue. The dogs would go charging through the switchbacks while Caroline and I walked and talked – over time so much and so deeply that we began referring to our afternoon-long treks as analytic walks.

“Let’s take the long way home,” she would say when we’d gotten back to the car, and then we would wend our way through the day traffic of Somerville or Medford, in no hurry to separate. … Then we would go inside our respective houses and call each other on the phone.
(p. 19)

One of my favorite scenes in the book occurs after Gail purchases her first house. Caroline had gone to open houses with her, helped her weigh the pros and cons of different locations, and offered suggestions as needed. When the purchase is made and Gail arrives at her new house,

I was standing on the front porch of what was now my house, fiddling with the keys, dumb with fatigue and vague apprehension. Inside lay a near gut job of months of renovation. I heard someone drive up behind me and turned to see Caroline and Morelli [Caroline’s boyfriend, and later her husband] at the curb in Caroline’s Toyota RAV, both of them grinning and waving at me to wait up. I got the door unlocked just as Caroline vaulted up the front steps. And while Morelli held on to the dogs and laughed, she picked me up – I outweighed her by ten pounds – and hoisted me, like a sack of grain, over the threshold. (p. 118)

Caroline was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the spring of 2002. She was hospitalized with a second bout of pneumonia when they found the cancer, which had metastasized to her brain and liver. She went home when she was strong enough, and she and Morelli got married. Soon after, Gail had an engagement to speak at a commencement in Texas, and reluctantly left town for a four-day trip. While she was gone, Caroline suffered a series of bleeds in the brain, and could no longer speak. Gail cut her trip short to get back to Massachusetts. Caldwell writes,

We had spent years talking – talking when other people would have given up, teasing apart feelings and conversations and the intricacies of daily life. Now she couldn’t talk anymore and so I didn’t either; our narrative became a choreography of silence. I would spend hours at the end of her bed, not knowing much of the time if she even knew I was there. But Caroline and I had begun our friendship with a bond devoted to the elegant truths of nonverbal language: the physicality and hand signals and eye contact that dialogue with an animal entailed. When she had first fallen ill, I had brought to the hospital a T-shirt that she loved, from the Barking Dog Luncheonette in New York, with SIT! STAY! written on the back. I knew all about sit-stay, and how straightforward and essential it was, and so that was what I did. I sat and I stayed. (p. 141-142)

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is beautiful, and heartbreaking, and I love it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The last 2010 reading round-up

Yes, the year 2010 is done, and I feel like all the bloggers I follow have written their Year in Review posts, with lists, stats, and general thoughts on their reading for the past year...and I'm finally just starting mine. But in the space of life, what's a few days' delay, really? Not much.

I joined three challenges for 2010, and I "failed" all of them.

For the RYOB (Read Your Own Books) Challenge, I hoped to read thirty books that I already owned but hadn't read. I was pretty strict with myself on this one: they had to be books I'd acquired before 2010, books that were already tagged "tbr" in my LibraryThing catalog when I wrote my blog post about the challenge on January 6. I used the tag "RYOB 2010" in LT to track my progress, and I only read 23 of those tbr books this past year.

If I'd counted books I purchased during 2010 and then read, however, I'd be pretty close to my goal. Books like The Passage, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Push, and The Zen of Eating were purchased this past year and read within a couple months. So I didn't do too badly, overall. I'm planning to participate again in 2011, and already have an "RYOB 2011" tag in LT.

For the POC (Persons of Color) Reading Challenge, I planned to read between seven and nine books written by persons of color, and/or featuring characters who are persons of color. I ended up reading only six books written by persons of color, although I did listen to the audiobook of The Help as well. This challenge finally got me to read the two Zadie Smith novels that were waiting on my shelves, and I've since purchased The Autograph Man and hope to read that in 2011. I checked out Smith's essay collection, Changing My Mind, from the library during the summer, and it's not included in my count as I dipped in and out and skipped around and didn't read the whole thing, but I've just fallen in love with Zadie Smith's writing this year, thanks to the POC Reading Challenge. I will join again for 2011, and I will do better!

My third challenge was the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Poetry Challenge. I hoped to read eight books of poetry, and only read six, and didn't read two books that were "connected" in some way (author, theme, etc.). I don't feel too badly about this one, though, partly because the main website for the challenge wasn't updated throughout the year. It's hard to be motivated about a challenge when you aren't connecting with others who are also involved, and when the person(s) hosting the challenge are absent from the challenge's website. Something like RYOB doesn't need to be as social, it's mostly just me and the books in my house, but for most challenges, there's gotta be something more, and I just didn't find it in this one. I might join a different poetry challenge for 2011 if one catches my eye.

I have to stop here and say, I'm so thrilled that Kyle's basketball practice runs from 9am to 11am, and that Jeff took Ryan along as well. It's 1035am, and I can probably finish this (gigantic) post before they get home -- hooray!!! And now back to the blog post already in progress. ;-)

My reading slowed down a lot in the last few months of the year. During the weeks when I was taking Topamax (late Sept. and much of Oct.), it was very hard to read anything, and I'm so glad that migraines weren't my main problem, so I was able to stop taking it. Any medication that makes my mind too fuzzy to even READ is simply not worth taking. Between the illness and doctor visits, all that uncertainty, it was often hard to focus on my reading. I think I could have gotten at least two or three more books read this past year if I hadn't developed Horner Syndrome, and spent those weeks on Topamax. In 2011, I resolve not to take medications that keep me from reading! :-D

Finally, the list of books I finished in 2010. I hoped to include The Sparrow on this list, and a second listen to the audio of The Help, but I didn't quite make it, so those will be my first two for 2011. The ones I enjoyed most are marked with an asterisk.

1. The Book Borrower by Alice Mattison, audio, Jan. 3
2. Against Love Poetry by Eavan Boland, Jan. 5*
3. The Children by Edith Wharton, Jan. 25
4. Once upon a Time When We were Colored by Clifton L. Taulbert, Feb. 10
5. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, audio, Feb. 10*
6. The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance by Audre Lorde, Feb. 14
7. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, Feb. 27
8. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, print & audio, March 13
9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, March 14*
10. Welcome to My Country by Lauren Slater, March 18
11. The Keep by Jennifer Egan, audio, March 31*
12. King Dork by Frank Portman, April 17*
13. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing edited by Kevin Young, LT Early Reviewer (LTER) book, April 19*
14. Versed by Rae Armantrout, April 25
15. On Beauty by Zadie Smith, audio, April 25*
16. A Worldly Country by John Ashbery, May 2
17. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, May 6
18. Jack in the Pulpit by Cynthia Riggs, audio, May 9
19. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald, edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, May 19 (LTER book)
20. March by Geraldine Brooks, started in audio but finished in print on May 22
21. The Nerve by Glyn Maxwell, May 30
22. Candide by Voltaire, June 5
23. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, audio, June 26
24. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, audio, July 1*
25. White Teeth by Zadie Smith, July 4
26. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, July 11*
27. E. M. Forster (a Brief Lives biography) by Richard Canning, July 18 (LTER book)
28. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Aug. 1*
29. The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, Aug. 3*
30. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, Aug. 21, audio*
31. The Passage by Justin Cronin, Aug. 25*
32. Nightwork by Christine Schutt, Sept. 3
33. Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, Sept. 10*
34. The Giver by Lois Lowry, Sept. 16*
35. Great House by Nicole Krauss, Sept. 26 (LTER book, ARC)
36. The Reef by Edith Wharton, audio, Sept. 27
37. The Zen of Eating by Ronna Kabatznick, Oct. 9*
38. The Bridge of Dreams by Robert N. Lawson, Oct. 28
39. Fury by Salman Rushdie, Nov. 14
40. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, audio, Nov. 14*
41. Push by Sapphire, Nov. 20
42. A Pound of Paper by John Baxter, Nov. 28

As I look through the list, I wish it were longer, but mostly I think, Man, I read some really good books last year! I hope 2011 is more of the same: good books, but more of them! ;-)