I just wanted to give a little plug for Tupelo Press, a small poetry press that’s doing a couple of very cool projects. My friend Mike Dockins is participating in the 30/30 Project, short for 30 poems in 30 days. It’s been fun for me to bop in and out and see what Mike and others are writing; a poem every day is no small feat!
There’s also a collaborative poem-writing project called The Million Line Poem, which I think anyone can contribute to (though I can’t quite figure out how). In any event, it’s a neat project.
I was asked to join a book group, and the first selection was the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. I had read her Pulitzer-Prize winning book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, last year, and liked it well enough?but I don’t recall feeling that it was the best choice for the Pulitzer or that she was soon to become one of my favorite writers. But, wow, The Lowland?this is a beautiful book.
Novel, rubber tree, fancy new iPhone filter
The novel follows the lives of two brothers raised in Calcutta, one of whom stays in India while the other goes off to the States to study. Their paths diverge in stark ways, until one brother’s choices throw his wife into the life of the other. Back in Rhode Island, basically estranged from their families, Subhash and Gauri live with their daughter Bela carrying deep secrets that threaten everything: their relationship with each other, with their daughter, with their careers.
The novel spans about seventy years, and Lahiri deals with this by playing with time. Some passages snail along; then, there will be a ten-year gap between chapters. She compresses three?no, four?generations into under four hundred pages. At the end of those 340 pages, I felt sure I could have read another hundred.
In the book group, reactions were somewhat mixed. Some felt Lahiri had not developed certain characters or scenes well enough. But for me the book was almost perfect. It managed to be technically excellent?so I was reading it thinking, wow, that sentence is exactly what it should be?and also emotionally knifing. I kept rereading passages not because I was confused about what had happened but because I wanted to feel, again, the immense pain and tragedy she manages to render in a few short sentences. The book’s themes are relevant and important to me: it’s about motherhood and parenting, about being a parent?and a child; and about career and women’s difficult choices around career. It’s a book about revolution and tradition and the bonds of family.
Here’s a teaser:
He was never invited into the room. For some months he received no indication of Bela’s progress. Sitting in the waiting area, with a view of the door Bela and Dr. Grant were on the other side of, made him feel worse. He used the hour to buy groceries for the week. He timed the appointments, and waited for her in the parking lot, in the car. When it was over she sat beside him, shutting the door.
How did it go today, Bela?
It’s still a help to you?
Would you like to go to a restaurant for dinner?
I’m not hungry.
Would you like to write her a letter? Try to speak to her on the phone?
She shook her head. It was lowered, her brow furrowed. Her shoulders were hunched, pressed toward one another, as tears fell.
I just finished Alethea Black’s sweet book of short stories I Knew You’d Be Lovely. Alethea Black was in my brother’s class in high school, and I knew her younger sister. Because I grew up in a small town, the Black family was sort of on my radar–and who can forget a name like Alethea?–so it was with great curiosity that I picked up the book at a yard sale wondering if it was the same woman I knew (of). I had no idea she was a writer; I always feel like writers from my hometown, from college, are on my radar somehow, but she was not.
In any event, the stories are colorful and fun to read. There are surprises and good characters. Like all collections, some stories are stronger than others, and I found as the book progressed that I began to care more about the characters and find more interest and likeability in their quirks. Many of the stories are set outside of Boston, where we grew up, and my tenth-grade Chemistry teacher even makes an appearance (which completely freaked me out). So for me there was this fun sense of connection with a place I know intimately–and thus, with the writer herself.
I just wanted to make a plug for what’s happening over on popcorntheblog these days. Last week Tara Conklin posted a beautiful essay called Keep Writing that you’ve got to check out. And today I am blogging about Magical Realism and the History of Fiction (which is wayyyy more interesting than it sounds!). Reading recommendations included (George Saunders and Karen Russell, anyone?).
I’ve rekindled my love for the great storytelling that takes place on This American Life, and recently listened to parts one and two of the episodes about Harper High School. TAL spent five months at this Chicago school, where last year, 29 current and recent students were shot. As TAL explains, “We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances” (thisamericanlife.org).
The episodes are not easy to listen to, but I suggest you do. They’re timely, for one thing, and for me they really helped explain how difficult it is for kids living in poverty to make any other choice than to be in a gang and get involved in gang life. In fact, you’ll learn in the first episode that kids don’t choose to be in gangs: the choice is made for them.