Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

One of the greatest benefits of reading is the opportunity to travel vicariously to other times and places. Similarly, I find myself living inside the minds of people who, on the surface, are nothing like me. Over and over, I discover implicitly what many writers have pointed out explicitly: we are more alike than we are different.

My book club chose to read Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth, after having read her novel The Namesake several months ago. The book was first recommended to me by a friend who admitted that she didn't usually like to real whole collections of short stories but found this one different.

I personally love short stories, butI probably prefer the unity of a novel's narrative. Short stories serve well for short reads. They are perfect for a literature class in which having everyone arrive with a common reading experience is crucial. I especially love Kate Chopin's short stories, and most ninth grade literature anothologies hold some of the best: "The Most Dangerous Game," "And Sarah Laughed," "The First Seven Years," and more.

Unaccustomed Earth is the most unified collection of short stories I've read in awhile. Most if not all of the main characters are Indian-Americans, many first generation. As I read, I get a sense of the experience of being part of a small culture within our culture. I enjoy the tension between parents and children, especially as the children become adults themselves. While I have an urge as I am reading to find a restaurant nearby that serves authentic Indian cuisine, I am most struck by the universality of Lahiri's themes.

Each story pulled me forward, making me eager for the next. This momentum is rewarded in the end by a set of stories about the same two characters, bringing them from childhood to maturity. The final event--one I'll save for fear of spoiling the read--struck home, making me recall my own family's concern for an exchange student we knew only briefly before he returned to Thailand a few years ago.

I'm glad to recall that Lahiri has an earlier novel, Interpreter of Maladies, I have yet to read. I won't have to wait for her next to be published.

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