Friday, August 5, 2016

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumba Lahiri is a Bengali-American writer with four widely admired works of fiction to her name.  She has won the Pulitzer Prize for her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies.  Her works are sensitive portrayals of the struggles we all go through in our daily lives.  In addition, she has won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, among several others.  In 2014, she won a National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama.  Jhumpa won a major Italian Literature Award for In Other Words.

The book has an interesting premise and structure.  The left hand pages are all in Italian with the right side in English.  Years before I ever heard of “bucket lists,” I made a note to myself that I would love to learn Italian well enough to read Dante in the original language.  I tried a few self-study books and tapes, but I made little to no progress.  I shelved the idea for my retirement.  Jhumpa has taken a risky and bold step by moving to Italy and immersing herself in the language and culture of Italy.

In her “Author’s Note,” she explains this strange decision and why she did not translate the book herself.  She writes, “Writing in Italian is a choice on my part, a risk that I feel inspired to take.  It requires a strict discipline that I am compelled, at the moment, to maintain.  Translating the book myself would have broken that discipline; it would have meant reengaging intimately with English, wrestling with it, rather than with Italian. // In addition, had I translated this book, the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language.  But I wanted the translation of In alter parole to render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralizing its oddness, without manipulating its character (xiii-xiv).
Jhumpa also speaks Bengali when interacting with her parents.  She mentions that they refused to change to English.  She writes, “I am the opposite.  While the refusal to change was my mother’s rebellion, the insistence on transforming myself is mine.  ‘There was a woman … who wanted to be another person’: it’s no accident that ‘The Exchange,’ the first story I wrote in Italian, begins with that sentence.  All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin.  It was the void that distressed me, that I was fleeing.  That’s why I was never happy with myself.  Change seemed the only solution.  Writing, I discovered a way of hiding my characters, or escaping myself.  Of undergoing one mutation after another” (169).

I found her struggles with finding the correct word inspiring.  I have profound admiration for her goals in this memoir.  She explains why she writes, “I write to feel alone.  Ever since I was a child it has been a way of withdrawing, of finding myself.  I need silence and solitude.  When I write in English I take for granted that I can do without help.  Someone may give a suggestion, point out a problem.  But in terms of the linguistic journey I am self-sufficient” (185).  With the exception of her last sentence, this explains exactly my feelings and emotional state when I write, alone, in a closed room.

In Other Words is a marvelous story of the struggles writers face.  Follow Jhumpa Lahiri on her journey through -- and struggle with – the beautiful Italian Language.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 7-26-16

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Man Booker International Prize is an addendum to the Man Booker Prize awarded annually, my favorite literary award.  Han Kang has won the International prize given for fiction in translation.  According to the dust jacket, she was born in 1970 in South Korea.  She made her literary debut in 1993 with a collection of poetry.  Her first novel came out in 1994.  Han has won numerous literary awards, and she has participated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She currently teaches at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.

The Vegetarian is a harrowing story of a young woman’s journey away from her husband, her family by rejecting most of the expected customs of Korea.  The story is divided into three parts.  Part one focuses on Yeong-hye, the wife of Mr. Cheong.  She decides to become a vegetarian, and tosses in the garbage a substantial amount of meat, poultry, and fish.  In Part Two, her husband divorces her, and her sister’s husband – an artist struggling to find his way in the art world – convinces her to model for him.  In-hye finds her husband with Yeong-hye, and she divorces him.  Part three involves In-hye’s futile attempt to rescue her sister. 

This chilling tale of an anorexic young woman and her struggle against the strict traditions of her family will fascinate while the horrifying nature of the prose is difficult to convey.  I am only slightly familiar with Korean customs and family dynamics, which seem strange – to say the least – in our more enlightened attitude toward women’s rights which are also human rights.  Saving face is an important element of the story.  Mr. Cheong describes his wife when Kang writes, “It wasn’t as though she had shapely breasts which might suit the ‘no-bra look.’  I would have preferred her to go around wearing one that was thickly padded, so that I could save face in front of my acquaintances” (13).  Later, the husband says, “I’d always liked my wife’s earthy vitality, the way she would catch cockroaches by smacking them with the palm of her hand,  She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world” (26).  Mr. Cheong also expects his wife to keep “quiet; after all, hadn’t women traditionally been expected to be demure and restrained?” (28).  Not since the 60s, I am afraid, Mr. Cheong.

Han Kang’s prose is spell-binding, and I could not imagine where his prize winning nove, <i>The Vegetarian</i>, tale was headed.

--Chiron, 7/26/16

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

I have admired Anne Tyler for many years, and have waited patiently for long periods for her next book.  I reviewed her latest novel, Spool of Blue Thread, last October, but I was thrilled when a second book came out this June.  Vinegar Girl is part of a project by the recently revived Hogarth Shakespeare, which aims to see the Bard of Avon’s works retold by acclaimed novelists.  Some other titles include The Tempest by Margaret Atwood, Othello by Tracy Chevalier, and The Winter’s Tale by Jeanette Winterson.  I am going to assemble this collection after my thoroughly enjoyable experience with Tyler’s contribution to the series..

Kate Batista lives with her younger sister, Bunny, and her father, Louis, who supervises a lab for research at Johns Hopkins University.  Kate is an independent woman to say the least.  She has finished college, but her only job is at a childcare center.  One day, her father calls her at home, and asks her to bring his lunch, which he had deliberately left behind.  Louis has a brilliant lab assistant, Pyotr, whose visa is about to expire.  He tries to hatch a plan to marry him to Kate so he can stay in the U.S.  Kate leaves the lunch and attempts an exit.  Tyler writes, “‘What! You’re leaving?  Why so soon?’” // But Kate just said, ‘Bye” – mostly addressing Pyotr, who was watching her with a measuring look – and she narched to the door and flung it open. // “‘Katherine, dearest, don’t rush off!’  Her father stood up.  ‘Oh, dear, this isn’t going well at all.  It’s just that she’s so busy, Pyotr.  I can never get her to sit down and take a little break.  Did I tell you she runs our whole house?  She’s very domestic.  Oh, I already said that.  And she has a full time job besides.  Did I tell you she teaches school?  She’s wonderful with small children.’” // “‘Why are you talking this way?’” Kate demanded, turning on him.  ‘What’s come over you?  I hate small children; you know that.’” (17).
Later on, Tyler writes, “At Quiet Rest Time she sat behind Mrs. Chauncy’s desk and stared into space.  Ordinarily she would have flipped through Mrs. Chauncey’s discarded newspaper or tidied up some of the more clutter-prone play areas – the Lego corner or the crafts table – but now she just gazed at nothing and racked up points against her father. // He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle.  After all, what real purpose did she have in her life?  And she couldn’t possibly find a man who would love her for herself, he must think, so why not just palm her off on someone who would be useful to him  // It wasn’t that Kate had never had a boyfriend.  After she graduated from high school, where the boys had seemed a little afraid of her, she’d had a lot of boyfriends.  Or a lot of first days, at least.  Sometimes even second dates.  Her father had no business giving up on her like that. // Besides, she was only twenty-nine years old.  There was plenty of time to find a husband! Provided she even wanted one, and she was not sure she did” (75).

A fun read with lots of comedy and some semi-serious plot twists.  Anne Tyler is a great writer and I recommend Vinegar Girl or any of her novels.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 7/26/16

Paris in Love by Eloisa James

One of my favorite cities in the world is Paris, France.  I made a number of trips there and always found it to be most enchanting.  When I came across a slim memoir, Paris in Love by Eloisa James, I could not resist despite the fact it is obviously directed at women.  The parts of the story involving women’s issues and shopping for haute couture, were sometimes funny, but the parts about food, cooking, and visiting art galleries and museums brought back many fond memories.  Eloise James is the pen name of Mary Bly, a tenured professor of English Literature at Fordham University.  She writes best-selling Regency romance novels under her pen name.

Eloise lost her mother to Cancer, and two years later, she received a diagnosis of the same disease.  She went through courses of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and following an optimistic appraisal by her oncologist, she decided to take a sabbatical move her husband, Alessandro, son, Luca, and daughter, Anna to Paris for a year.  The memoir is set up in an interesting way.  She begins most chapters with short essays – which grow longer as the story progresses – followed by brief nuggets detailing their adventures.

One of the things I admire in the French is their tolerance for dogs in all aspects of society.  Here is one of those nuggets.  James Writes, “Last night we trotted out to our local Thai ‘gastronomique’ restaurant which means it’s a trifle more fancy than average and serves mango cocktails.  A man and his son came in, trailed by a very old, lame golden retriever.  The dog felt like lying down, legs straight out, in the middle of the aisle running down the restaurant – on a Friday night.  The waiter and all customers patiently stepped over and around him, over and over and over…Bravo, France!” (34).

Many of these nuggets involve the close attention to detail so necessary to a writer.  She writes, “Alessandro and I followed an exquisite pair of legs out of the Métro today.  They were clad in flowery black lace stockings and dark red pumps.  Their owner wore a coat with five buttons closing the back flap, and gloves that matched her pumps precisely.  We walked briskly up the steps, and I turned around to see the front of the coat, only to find that the lady in question was at least seventy.  She was both dignified and très chic.  Old age, à la parisienne!” (49).  At the end of the memoir, Eloisa comes to appreciate the way French women dress and act.  In fact, I think I might have seen that women several times in several places.

Another subject Eloisa attends to is literature.  It moves her as much as it moves me.  She writes, “Alessandro came in to check on me at one point, sympathetic about my cold but very disapproving when he realized my pile of soggy tissues was the result of tears rather than a virus.  ‘I never cry when I read,’ he pointed out, with perfect truth.  His nighttime reading, a biography of Catherine the Great, seemed unlikely tp generate tears, even from one susceptible to sentimentality as I.  His book didn’t seem like much fun, especially after I inquired about the one thing I knew about Catherine – to wit, her purported erotic encounters with equines – and he informed me that the empress was a misunderstood feminist whose sexual inventory, while copious, was nevertheless conservative.  Nothing to cry about there” (61).

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Eloisa James’ memoir, Paris in Love.  I especially liked the handy list of restaurants and museums she visited.  I plan on taking this book along on my next trip to the city of lights.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/14/16