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.