The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Review)

I should know by now that Jhumpa Lahiri writes beautiful, yet devastating stories. I’ve read two of her short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, but this is the first of her novel’s that I’ve picked up, and I’d forgotten what her style is like.

As for the plot, two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, are at the center of the book. They are alike in looks but very different in tempermant–Subhash being obedient and obliging, while Udayan is rebellious and fiercely political in the communist uprisings in India. Their stories evolve as risks mount and relationships change; saying too much else would give parts of the plot away.

I loved that Lahiri told the story from many different points of view, not just Subhash and Udayan, but others as well. Often, in starting a new section, it took me a moment to realize whose voice was leading the chapter. It’s a strategy that works well with Lahiri’s fragmentary pattern of writing–lots of line breaks and fairly short scenes.

However, this is definitely not a happy book, and sometimes the heaviness of the plot was wearing–I wanted just a little happiness for some of the characters that would last at least for a little while! But maybe that’s not what I should have been looking for here. It certainly didn’t feel out of character for her writing, and I loved her spare and haunting scenes.

Regardless, if you like Lahiri’s work, you will probably really enjoy this book. I found it fascinating to learn about the Naxalbari communist uprisings in India through this fictional lens, and to explore the ties and pains of family and romantic love.

4/5 STARS

Wednesday Quote: Jhumpa Lahiri

You are still young, free. Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.

–From The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Coming up Friday is my review of Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland.

Also,  I’m kind of excited that just last week I got my first book review request from someone who found my blog. Does that mean I made it?! I’m not sure yet if I’ll have time to read and review it, but I feel honored that someone found me and reached out — hopefully this is just the beginning!

Another fun fact from the week is that I’m giving coding a shot. The folks over at Code Academy have put together some great courses on computer coding languages, like HTML and CSS that are fun, interactive, and free. I figured I could use a little brushing up on those two languages in particular to help keep things running smoothly here on the blog.

What have you been up to this week?

What Makes a Five Star Review?

Off to the right and down a little in my sidebar you’ll see my Review Rubric, the guide I’ve set to explain my ratings for each book I post here. (It’s also the rubric I’ve used in the past for my Goodreads reviews.) For five stars the explanation I give is “Amazing, it changed my life.” Obviously this is not the most descriptive of guidelines, so I wanted to give some examples of what I mean.

Most of the books I read seem to end up in the four star category for a couple of reasons. 1) I’m an average to slow reader so I’m pretty picky about the books that I choose to read. Usually I strongly suspect in advance that I will enjoy the ones I commit to reading. 2) Only the books that touch me really deeply make it from four stars to five stars.

Some books that I’ve given five stars to make me reflect on who I am in a different way. The Warmth of Other Suns for instance taught me so much about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and brought the characters to life in such a vivid way that I couldn’t help being completely drawn into their stories and start thinking more about my families history. Other five star books, like The Golden Compass were one of my favorites because of the complete creativity that the author used to design a world and a 100% original storyline. Alternately, a five star review for me can be a work of lyrical genius, like The Selected Poems, a collection of Nikki Giovanni’s work.

So, while there’s no single definition for me of a five star review, I pretty much always know one when I read it. It’s a book that I can’t stop thinking about after I’ve read it. It’s a line from such a work that comes to me during a time when I need it most. It’s the books I keep recommending to friends over and over again. It’s the ones that make reading itself worth every minute.

What makes a five star review for you?

This post was inspired by A Date With A Book’s “25 Book Blog Post Ideas.”

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Review)

One of the first things you notice about Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is that most of the characters don’t have names. Or rather, they have names, but go by nicknames in Banks’ world. There is the protagonist, The Kid. The complicating secondary character, The Professor, as well as a host of other individuals that The Kid encounters whom he refers to by pseudonym (given either by them or himself). This is my first book by Banks so I can’t tell you if that’s a trademark of his or not, but it definitely added a layer of mystery to the novel.
As for the plot, it’s not necessarily and easy one to swallow. The Kid is a registered sex offender who lives with a colony of other sex offenders under a bridge in the city of Calusa. Why under a bridge? Because it’s one of the only places that they are allowed to live under the laws that prohibit them being withing a certain radius of parks, public places, homes with children, etc. The Kid plays host a variety of animals throughout the book–including a giant iguana, a parrot, and a dog–and meets a brainy and enigmatic professor who aims to “shape up” the colony. The friendship between The Kid and The Professor deepens over time as you learn more about who each is and how they are connected.
It may sound like a strange and uncomfortable setting and cast of characters–and in many ways I believe Banks wants us to feel this way–but it’s also a background that allows for some provocative questions to be asked about the nature of punishment for sex offenders and about the characteristics that connect all of us, no matter what’s in our past. For most of the book I was pretty drawn into The Kid’s story and experiences of trying to make a living and keep some sort of a roof over his head while also getting to know the strange Professor.
I thought the writing was really strong, with great descriptions of the Calusa swamplands and the flora and fauna within it. But I lost a little momentum when the climax of the story seemed to happen about two-thirds of the way through the novel. While there was still a good amount of story to be wrapped up after that point, I became a little less interested in the plot because the period of most intense energy had already happened for me.
I’d say if you’re open to working through some complicated feelings about the main subjects of this work–sex offenders–and are looking for a good literary fiction book exploring the nature of friendship and identity, then this might be one for you to check out.
4/5 STARS

Wednesday Quote: Russell Banks

What you believe matters, however. It’s all anyone has to act on. And since what you do is who you are, your actions define you. If you don’t believe anything is true simply because you can’t logically prove what’s true, you won’t do anything. You won’t be anything. You’ll end up spending your life in a rocking chair looking out at the horizon waiting for an answer that never comes. You might as well be dead. It’s an old philosophical problem.

–Russell Banks, from Lost Memory of Skin

Check back Friday for my review of Lost Memory of Skin!