Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cornwall Vacation Reading

Best to seek refuge in a Cornish cave. Oxford forecast on reuters yesterday: “tons of rain.” Tons? So what’s to come next: cats and dogs? Followed by a 50% chance of really crappy weather? One hour later the forecast was revised: “heavy rain.” Weather gremlins!

According to my English in-laws, the weather over the May half term break is almost always terrible. Nonetheless the extended Laurence family headed to the West Country with our wellies and waterproofs. We even brought the dogs. The gorgeous Cornwall scenery was worth it.

The Georgian house my father-in-law rented for the 11 of us was out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I warned my delighted daughter not to hide in the wardrobes – they were more likely to tip over than to lead to Narnia. As the rain pelted down, the cousins put on a puppet show. We discovered an old copy of Alice in Wonderland, which I read aloud at bedtime. It seemed all the more magical in that setting.

The country lanes were abloom with wildflowers. Foxgloves are favorites of mine. Other than mud walking, there was little else to do. One sign said it all: free horse manure. Good thing I packed several novels!

I couldn’t wait until June for Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth to come out in England, so my kind mother sent it from NYC. Unaccustomed Earth’s debut in April sent it to the top of the NYT bestseller list. This was unheard of for a short story collection written by an ethnic woman author. Literary fiction rarely tops the charts.

Lahiri’s first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. It was the best collection I’d ever read until I read her latest. Once again Lahiri has hit a homerun. You might know Lahiri from the movie The Namesake based on her first novel. Her short stories are better: not a word out of place, the writing subtle and the characters real. Judge them by craft or by content - they are perfect.

Lahiri writes about the Indian American (not the American Indian) experience and yet her tales of family dysfunction, inter-generational gaps and half-failed dreams are universal. At one point all Americans (excepting Native Americans) were immigrants. Ask us who we are, and we will describe our roots.

With my curly black hair and olive skin, I have been mistaken for an Italian, a Greek, an Egyptian, an Arab etc. I’m half Lithuanian and half English-Swiss. My husband is an Englishman who is a small part Chilean, and we have lived in both the USA and the UK. I relate to characters strung between cultures.

Lahiri titles her latest collection after a Nathaniel Hawthorne quotation:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

Lahiri’s stories are beautiful, but they are grim. In one, a lonely housewife in the suburbs anchors her sari with multiple safety pins (so it can’t be ripped off) and douses herself in kerosene. Will she strike the match? My reviews never have spoilers, so you will have to read the book yourself.

Buy Unaccustomed Earth because these stories will haunt you, and you will want to reread them. The three interlocking stories in the second part create a novella. I had read the first two in The New Yorker without realizing their connection. The final new story ties them together and pulls the knot so tight it hurts, and yet you will want to unwrap it to enjoy the precious gift inside.

A fine complement to Lahiri’s bitter tales was an up-beat all-American novel: Patricia Wood’s Lottery. I didn’t expect to like a book about that – I have no interest in gambling – writing a novel is bad enough! I am interested in disability in literature and here is the narrator of Lottery:

My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded . . . . You have to have an IQ number less than 75 to be retarded. I read that in Reader’s Digest. I am not. Mine is 76.

Perry reminded me of autistic Christopher in Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The novels share a similar dark humor with a double meaning half lost on the narrator. You root for the protagonist and see a world of challenges through his eyes.

These narrators are not unwitting victims but pro-active young men who shape their own life narratives. True, duplicitous people surround them, but our heroes can resist. They are guided by a core sense of what is right even if they can’t understand the depth of evil.

Lottery is a fairytale of good vs. bad, but the characters are well formed and quirky so escape cliché. It is a simple, somewhat predictable story, but a good one. The morals are a bit off-color, spouted by a beloved grandmother even from her grave: don’t be smart.

Lottery is laugh out loud funny and a well written tale of good luck, but success didn’t come to the author overnight. Wood worked hard to perfect her craft and to understand the market. She had written two other novels that didn’t find representation, but she didn’t give up. Her third novel found a good agent, was revised and then Lottery sold in an auction a week and a day after its submission to publishers. It was pitched as “Forrest Gump wins Powerball.”

Lottery wasn’t just a marketing gimmick as Wood writes from the heart about what she knows. Wood’s father won the lottery, and she is in graduate school studying disability among other topics. This is not a PC book – it’s a good book period.

I’m not alone in my praise. Lottery is buzzing through the blogosphere as the author is a fellow blogger. Wood’s novel is on the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction short list. The winner will be announced tonight (I’ll post a comment later.) Good luck, Patricia, and welcome to England!

Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage is another book with sympathetic characters facing a challenging world. This first novel won the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers last year and well deserved it.

The Lizard Cage was one of the most beautifully written and deeply disturbing books I have ever read. The story of Burma/Myanmar feels topical now with so many real people dying in the wake of the cyclone. Connelly’s tale is fictional but is based on time spent in Burma and in refugee camps on the Thai border where she interviewed political dissidents.

Connelly locks us into a vermin-infested prison with a university student serving a 20-year solitary sentence. Teza’s crime was composing revolutionary songs which criticized the authoritarian regime. The songwriter becomes a victim of the cruel regime: undergoing near starvation and torture for speaking his mind. He finds solace and fortitude in Buddhist meditation and faith and also through friendship.

Other characters in Teza’s drama: a young boy raised in the prison who kills rats to survive; a prison-guard who struggles to hold onto his humanity and another guard who does not. Even the lizards and insects become characters, in line with Buddhist beliefs. As horrible as the prison setting is, The Lizard Cage shines bright on the potential of the human spirit.

The Lizard Cage is a book you must read. I recommend taking it on vacation and not reading it before bedtime. It may trouble your sleep and your conscience, but it is more than a moral crusade. The writing and story telling is beautiful, full of perfect sentences. Here’s a passage on censorship:

As long as there is paper, people will write, secretly, in small rooms, in the hidden chambers of their minds, just as people whisper the words they’re forbidden to speak aloud.

The generals can’t stop them. Ne Win himself can’t stop them. He never could. Words are like the ants. They work their way through the thickest walls, eating through bricks and feeding off the very silence intended to stifle them.

Fortified by these rich words, I explored Tintagel in Cornwall on our one sunny day. Below the hilltop castle ruins, my son and I ventured inside a cave expecting only darkness but finding bright light shining from the murky depths. It wasn’t truly a haven for at high tide this cave would flood, creating a watery grave. An allegory?

Deep thoughts receded as we puffed up a myriad of cliff steps. At the top of the bluff were ruins of a medieval village which had crumbled into the sea. Despite strong fortification, wildflowers were the only survivors. Although Tintagel castle was the inspiration for the King Arthur legend, the land is now ruled by bumblebees.

The setting was spectacular but dangerous:

Another coastal walk was equally treacherous. How would we pass through this bridge/gate with a large, damp dog?

Luckily the English love dogs:

We hiked for this view:

In late May, yellow flags were in full bloom. Americans would call them water irises, but the English name suits them better. Where castles once stood, nature now unfurls its bright flags.


Life on Tilt said...

Hi Sarah - I enjoyed reading your blog.

If you liked Lottery, you should check out, the web home of my first novel, Life on Tilt: Confessions of a Poker Dad. It's also a novel that people sometimes misinterpret as a gambling book, then get caught up in the first person narrative.

Try out the free excerpt, take a look at the book trailer and smaple the audio book - all for free!

Let me know what you think.

All the best,

John Blowers

tina said...

I recently gave away some irises to a older gentleman in Indiana. I explained what they were and he said, "They are what used to be called flags aren't they?" I had heard that but did not know why. Now I know! The English connection.

Anissa said...

Wow, Sarah, gorgeous photos! The green pulls at my heart, living in the desert as I do.

I spent a semester in college studying in Stoke. Mostly used the time to travel the English countryside. I'll be back often for a little reminescing. :)

With regard to the food, I loved all the ethnic options England had to offer. Though on a student's budget, we mostly ate kabobs (which somehow were entirely different from what we call over here).

Mushy peas...eek! Like you said, food was definitely an adjustment. Imagine my surprise the first time I took a bite of whipped cream...without sugar. To each his own, I guess.

Sarah Laurence said...

Welcome, John, I’ll check out your website later although gambling is NOT my subject. Congratulations on your first novel!

Tina, call me the English Connection. I do like the image of flags.

Welcome, Anissa! After a year in England, I’d love to see a desert. I spent a semester of college in England too. Being a lactose-intolerant-British-resident, I’m an oxymoron. So we’ve covered desert and dessert! I’d love to hear more of your American student impressions/memories of England for my novel.

tina said...

Where will I get my English connections when you come back? Maybe you will still have that slant since hubby is an Englishman. I can just see the image of a cigar smoker in a darkly paneled study with a glass of cognac. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, don’t give way to despair. When I return home, I’ll be writing my English novel and flashing back for inspiration. I’ve collected too much material to include in this past year of weekly blogging. I’ll also be blogging about Maine, but that’s old hat for you.

As for my husband – Henry is very English but not in the velvet smoking jacket way. We do enjoy sundowners on our deck in Maine but that would be a beer or a glass of wine. He enjoys cooking and crafts a mean Yorkshire pudding. If he’s not swamped with grading, he’ll be watching the Daily Show on TV, listening to English punk rock or reading about history. He sports an English shirt and khakis. I wouldn’t have him any other way. Sorry to destroy your image!

tina said...

I was only joking about Henry and I'll be happy to read of Maine when you come back. Talking to you in England makes me miss my time in Europe. One Christmas we had prime rib, bread pudding and the whole English dinner. It was good but we didn't like bread pudding. All homemade (this from the non-cook). Is Yorkshire pudding like bread pudding or is it the same? I may be showing my ignorance here but have many questions.

Sarah Laurence said...

Americans call Yorkshire pudding "popovers." They are served with roast beef, never for dessert. Henry's are the best, but second prize goes to the the cafe at Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park, Maine. I'm not a fan of English puddings for dessert - they all have cream, and I'm lactose intolerant.

Sarah Laurence said...

Here are the 2008 results:

Orange Prize for Fiction: Rose Tremain, The Road Home (her 10th novel)

Orange Prize for New Writer: Joanna Kavenna, Inglorious

Anil P said...

The post entertained, and tempted with its description of the countryside, making me ask if there're more photos to be shared of the trip, showing more of the countryside :)

I found her first book Interpreter of Maladies true to form, and how very subtly she charted the destinies of the characters, as well as the events.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, that’s a really good point to add about Lahiri. Destiny is a big theme in all 3 of her books; it is something her characters cannot escape although they struggle with it. Do you know how her writing is received in India?

Alyson | New England Living said...

Wonderful post! I loved all the photos. Absolutely breathtaking coast. In the novel that I've been writing for years, one of the main characters is from Cornwall, but moved to the states for silver mining. Obviously, this was the 19th century, not contemporary. Anyway, I've never been to Cornwall. Wish I had a chance when I was in the UK!

I also loved all the book info. I MUST put all of them on my to-read list. I'm most interested in "Lottery". I grew up with a mentally-disabled sister. I always get drawn to books and movies that explore how they cope in the world.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyson, now you have the perfect excuse to return to the UK: “write what you know.” There are quite a few historical fiction blogs out there. One that springs to mind is Historical Boys. Author/blogger C.W. Gortner writes about historical women and reviews historical fiction by both men and women. Plus he’s funny.

I’ve blogged about other books featuring disabled characters – just click on the “disability” label. It’s an issue I touched in a S.A.D. subplot and will return to in my third novel, NOT CRICKET, with more focus. With your personal experience, you would be especially capable of writing on this topic. Characters with disability are under-represented in literature.

Anonymous said...

In Maine, the tight purple irises are also called flag,"native flag."
Hey Sarah, have you read The Highest Tide? by (somebody) Lynch? A tale of a young man so fond of Rachel Carson, who accidentally becomes a sort of guru himself.

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting fact about Maine flags – I bet they’re out now too. I just checked out The Highest Tide’s website, and Jim Lynch’s novel looks great. Thanks for the recommendation!

Alyson | New England Living said...

Thanks for the link! Very interesting. I don't plan to write exclusively historical fiction, but this story I have hit me and has been with me for so long.

I agree, there should be more disabled characters in literature. They are as valid as anyone else.

Bee said...


There are so many beautiful things in the post -- truly.

I like your Tintagel allegory -- and find it a fitting frame for all you describe here: weather, setting, novels.

I have read "The Namesake," and am now desperate to read Lahiri's short story collections. Your review made me want to cast aside all of the other books on my bedside table and take up with "Unaccustomed Earth" immediately. As you know, I too am attracted to any story which describes what it is like to be "strung between cultures."

I'd also like to lavish some praise on your (always) beautiful pictures. Particularly the snail on the blades of grass. You are a woman of many talents . . . and thank you for sharing them with us.

Anonymous said...

(Strange: your rss feed shows a later post, 'Down Farm Devon' which I was going to comment on--but the blog doesn't.)

Thanks for sharing your summer reading and Cornwall. Your photographs make me want to be there. They also remind me of the Joan Bodger's "How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books". She traveled these same haunts with her two children 50 years ago and if your photographs stir a sense of recognition it is thanks to her. She gave me an appreciation for how English children's literature is rooted in place, real places, not just the realm of imagination.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you’ll love Lahiri’s stories. Some have an English connection as the author was born in London although raised/lives in the USA. It’s been so nice to find another blogger American married to an Englishman living here. You understand that it’s the same language (mostly) but not the same culture. Makes life and marriage interesting!

Mss, I’m not sure why the feed is doing that, but it might be that I messed around with the labels. If this post (my latest) just updated now, it’s because I fixed a typo. I’m not the best speller, but I’m a bit of a writing perfectionist, a neurotic combination! The other things I occasionally fix are faulty links or photo formatting, but the content stays the same. I post once a week, usually on Wednesdays. The rest of the week, I’m working on my novels.

Bodger’s book sounds like a lovely read. Place is really important to me too. My characters and plot are fictional, but I like to put them in a real setting. Blog readers will recognize some details in my books.

Here’s the link to Down Farm Devon which was posted last month. You must see Cornwall and Devon one day – my photos hardly do them justice. Thanks for subscribing!

ORION said...

Aloha and thanks for the lovely comments about LOTTERY. I only wish I had more time in England to get out and explore.
I'm back home now and hard at work (surfing the net).
supposed to be working on that second novel!
Great photos!

Sarah Laurence said...

Pat, welcome! I know that fun distraction too well. Best of luck finishing book two. I’m eager to read it. I'll keep track on your blog. I'm enchanted by the idea of writing on a boat. You must have good sea - uh - fingers?