4. The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

File:Interpreterofmaladiescover.jpgThis weekend I visited some of my old friends in St. Louis and it made me quite nostalgic. You see, I’m originally from Bosnia and St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia itself. For a few days it felt like I was at home in Bosnia. It was a weekend filled with traditional food, great music and best of all, old friends.  It was the perfect time for me to finish reading “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri because it is a book filled with nostalgia. This Pulitzer Prize winner is actually a collection of 9 short stories and not a novel. It is written by an Indian American author and it primarily concentrates on the lives of Indians and Indian Americans who a dealing with culture clashes and nostalgia towards their homeland. Most of the characters are caught in between two worlds.

To me it was a collection of short stories that I could easily relate to because I have experienced many of the little things that the characters in the book deal with. From the simply wish to once again eat that candy only made in your country to the big things like missing seeing your family and being able to see them only once in a while.

I’m not going to summarize all of the short stories in the collection but will say that the story by the same title as the book was my favorite. It is a story about Mr. and Mrs. Das who are an Indian American family visiting their country of birth. They have a tour guide they hire to take them around called Mr. Kapasi who is a big part of the story. He observes the couple and their interactions with their three children. His attention to detail is a big part of the story and what makes it enjoyable to me. He is a great listener in addition to being observant. By the middle of the story he starts to fall in love with Mrs. Das and she opens up to him and tells him she has cheated on her husband and that one of her sons in the result of that. The reason she tells him this is because of his profession. Mrs. Das hopes that because he is an interpreter he can interpret her feelings and tell her why she did this. However, he is very open about how he feels and tells her she should be ashamed of herself.  I won’t spoil the ending but this story is all about people interpret things and how we have a freedom to see things how we want to see them, not necessarily how they are. It is easily a book I would recommend others to read.

3. The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Many times a novel weighs heavily on our shoulders and should not be read on a murky, rainy day.  “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham literally grasps your heart and you are holding your breath for over 200 pages. The most ironic thing is that you are reading about three people and the ordinary life they lead and not an adventure with twists and turns on every page. However, in the end as these three unconnected people meet their faith we see just how masterful with words Cunningham truly is. A novel deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it has received.

I have never read any works by Virginia Wolf but do enjoy when novels are written about great authors. It makes me want to pick up one of their books and see what it’s all about. So the novel starts out in an unfortunate way with Virginia Woolf committing suicide in 1941. She drowns herself in a river in Sussex, England. As she is drowning, Virginia marvels at the images of ordinary life around her. In the very beginning pages her husband finds her suicide note which is the actual suicide note she left when she committed suicide. For the sake of space I have included the suicide note in the “Favorite Quotes” section of the blog.

The novel is about three generations of women affected by a Virginia Woolf novel and their narratives go back and forth in the book. In those narratives the reader gets unfiltered thoughts and past memories of protagonists that are very unpredictable. In Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway” the whole book takes place in one day in the life of the central character Clarissa Dalloway. In Cunningham’s book it is one day in the life of each of the three central characters; Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf herself. Cunningham shows the beauty and profoundness of every day in our life. He illustrates how even the most ordinary day in every person’s life can be examined through the prism of one single day. I believe this is the true beauty of this novel.

The first is Woolf herself writing “Mrs. Dalloway” in 1923 and struggling with her own mental illness which this book showcases in an extraordinary and emotional way. You can’t help but sympathize with the struggles the human mind faces especially when it is as brilliant as Woolf’s. The second is Mrs. Brown, wife of a World War II veteran, who is reading “Mrs. Dalloway” in 1949 as she plans her husband’s birthday party. She is probably the most relatable character to me as well as surprising. I was most griped by her story and the struggles she faces. Often times she wonders if there is more than being a housewife, raising children and what has she given up to commit to this life. What talent has she wasted and what potential has she killed? These are the questions she asks in the privacy of a hotel room as she thinks about what it’s like to have the power to end your own life. The third is Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian, who plans a party in 2001 to celebrate a major literary award received by her good friend and former lover, the poet Richard, who is dying of an AIDS-related illness. Here we see characters dealing with a lot of LGBTQ issues. From today’s perspective it is interesting to read about a lesbian living with her partner in the 1940s.

The situations of all three characters mirror situations experienced by Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway in “Mrs. Dalloway”, with Clarissa Vaughan being a very literal modern-day version of Woolf’s character. So with that being said, “Mrs. Dalloway” is now on my to-read list. As for my final thought on this novel…well it is not for the faint of heart but it is for those that like to read between the lines, that like to observe simple things in life and give those simply things profound meaning. It is a book to be read more than once because there is so much thought and feeling on every page. You need capacity to take it all in and you can’t do it all in two days. You need time to contemplate life, it is an ongoing process that Cunningham has captured in this novel. I found out that there is a movie based on this novel and will have to see it soon.

2. So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ

My reading adventures continued today with a book that most people do not come across at their local bookstore or on the list of top 100 books to read before you die. Nonetheless, “So Long a Letter” by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ is deserving of recognition. It is in fact one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century and the winner of the Noma Award.

“So Long a Letter” resembles an autobiographical novel and is kind of like the title suggests a long letter. It’s translated from French and done so very well. Despite not being in the original language it was written in, this novel resembles an epic poem and the author has a very special way of crafting images out of words. In fact, for most of the book I felt like I was bombarded with images of African culture. The theme is the condition of women in Western African society and the transition from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country. If you are at all interested in post-colonial African literature this is a must read. I do want to give a head up though. This novel will be a challenge if you are not familiar with contemporary African women’s literature or post-colonial literature. Most books in this genre are strongly rooted in culture and one gets the most out of these books if they know a little background information.

The novel starts of with Ramatoulaye Fall writing a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ.  We learn from the very start that the reason she is writing this letter is because her husband has passed away recently.  As she is telling her friend about her husband’s death she describes the major events in their lives. You really get a good picture of the friendship the two women share. At the same time we learn of the struggles Ramatoulaye has had to endure during her life time. She is an educated and articulate woman who has worked as a teacher her whole life. She has given birth to twelve children but despite this her husband takes on a second wife and she feels betrayed and does not agree with the polygyny that is allowed in her tradition.  In her letters to Aissatou she expresses her hope that the old traditions and new freedoms can one day be combined to form a healthy balance. Aissatou is very much in agreement with her because we know she immigrated to the United States and pursued a feminist, monogamist relationship.  Ramatoulaye also writes about many other aspects of her life that are affected by her tradition and religion and truly opens the door to her world for the reader to grasp.

“So Long a Letter” is not the easiest book to read but it is most definitely worth the effort. It offers an insight into a culture we often don’t read much about.  In case you do pick up this book and are looking for others that are similar I highly recommend  The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta.

1. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

To kick off my “1 Year and a 100 Books” challenge I decided to start out by reading an adventure of sorts. I picked up Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winner “The Old Man and the Sea” and finished it the same day. Now, I have gone fishing only once in my life and it was by no means what I consider fun. Knowing this I was afraid that a story about an old fisherman and the sea would not be my cup of tea. However, I could not put the book down. Hemingway used very simple language to showcase one man’s struggle and defeat.

The story is about a fisherman named Santiago and his struggle to catch a large fish. He has gone 84 days without catching any fish and is considered very unlucky at this point. His apprentice Manolin can no longer fish with him because his parents want him to train with someone that actually catches fish. However, the young boy has a special bond with Santiago and visits him every night to bring him food and talk about baseball. In the very beginning Santiago lets the boy know he is going out into the Gulf Stream the next day to end his unlucky streak. The boy begs to go with him but the old man does not let him. Here, the love between these two characters is extremely apparent and that’s what made me love this story at first. But then things get even more interesting once Santiago goes out to fish. He hooks a very large fish but struggles to get it on the boat. This struggle goes on for two days and things get out of hand. I don’t wish to spoil the book for anyone but some strange things occur. At one point Santiago eats a dolphin among other raw fish in order to keep his strength up and this old man is anything but weak because he also ends up killing a number of sharks.

Towards the end of the book I was concerned that the ending would not meet my expectations but I was not disappointed.  The ending definitely brings the tale of the fisherman together. I feel that I will most likely reread this book at some point because it reminds me of the small fishing villages in Croatia that I have spent much time at. Every time I would get up early the fishermen would be going out and it always made me wonder what their work day was like…I hope it is not as difficult as Santiago’s and has a happier ending.

Here is a picture from last year that I took. It’s what I pictured as I read “The Old Man and the Sea”.

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