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April 2009: Unaccustomed Earth

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message 1: by Mimi (new)

Mimi (mimichen) | 30 comments Unaccustomed Earth

For the month of April, in preparation for Asian Pacific American Month, we'll be reading Unaccustomed Earth! This beautiful book is written by one of Debbie's favorite author. I think we'll have our choice of topics to discuss from this collection of short stories!

message 2: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie | 31 comments Mod
I finished the book, ladies! I gave the book 4 stars, because I loved the stories and very much enjoyed reading the book in general.

I read somewhere that Jhumpa Lahiri may not even have an exclamation point on her keyboard. Her gift of writing takes the readers hands directly into the stories and allows them to learn about the characters without forcing it. The simplicity behind the stories as they're told is calming yet disturbing - maybe because I could understand the characters, one by one, and relate to them personally. Although we all come from different walks of life, I feel that we all have a little bit of Rema, Hema and even Kaoushik in us; especially because we've immigrated to a new country at one point in our (or our parents') lives. If I was Sudha and had a brother, I would have acted as she did with Rahul, making him as American as possible. If I was Rema, I would also understand her struggle marrying someone outside of my own culture, slowly finding myself losing my identity.

As much as I liked the title story, Unaccustomed Earth, I'd like to give credit for Hell Heaven as one that stands out from the collection. I read the ending several times to fully grasp what the mother was trying to do and not only was it moving and devastating but simply honest. Her dramatic endings to the stories come as unexpected and add a powerful feature to her work.

However, I don't know if I'll be reading her other works anytime soon. Her topics and characters are very much predicted, dealing with a lot of the similar struggles. Although I have nothing but praise for the work that she's presented in this book, I'm afraid that her other works will be a repeat of this one.

message 3: by Mimi (last edited Apr 21, 2009 08:46PM) (new)

Mimi (mimichen) | 30 comments Stephanie gave a great introduction to our discussion on Unaccustomed Earth and I think she's on point when she says that our own upbringing is similar to that of Lahiri's characters but I like to think that we're happier, more content than her characters. But then, conflict is what makes stories interesting, internal and external.

In most of the short stories, I experienced discomfit when the characters acted in ways, as the omniscient reader, I knew would probably end badly. Lahiri condemns her characters for their small lies, lack of communication, risk aversion, and running away from problems by unfortunate consequences but she permits them a small window of opportunity to redeem themselves. I think that's partially what Stephanie means about the story arc being predictable. Although, the dramatic ending comes as a surprise at first, one can detect a pattern after reading a few of her stories.

I didn't understand the title of "Only Goodness" and how it comments on Sudha taking her emotional investment in perfection too far until tonight. Her choice to omit information about her brother's alcoholism enrages her husband when they discover their child unattended in the bathtub. I think the drama of their neglected child in a potentially dangerous situation overshadowed the revelation of the lack of trust within Sudha's marriage, meaning that she was afraid how a family member's substance abuse problem would affect her husband's perception of her and her family and maybe her husband would love her less. Maybe that was obvious to the rest of you but I'm a bit slow. :)

I hope Misono doesn't read this before she's finished "Going Ashore," because I don't want my thoughts to spoil the ending for her. Remembering the general story arc of earlier stories, I guessed that Hema would choose to stay with her fiance but I didn't expect Lahiri to kill off Kaushik. I've been pondering if Kasuhik's death was too easy an ending. Some authors choose death but I think the death of a character is a cop-out to drive in a point. It may be a difficult choice to kill off a beloved character but I think it plays with the readers emotions unfairly instead of exploring the possibilities. Thoughts?

message 4: by Misono (new)

Misono | 11 comments Hi ladies! Sorry I am so behind on posting here. I actually just finished the book today. I was late in getting it, and then it was a busy month so I couldn't find very much time to sit down and read. Another reason it took so long, though, is that Jhumpa Lahiri has such a profound way of expressing things that I found myself going back to read certain passages over and over. The way she expressed certain emotions and thoughts really resonated with me; they were things that I'd felt or things that had crossed my mind before too that I found so hard to put into words, and here she was, voicing them in the most perfect wording that hit the nail right on the head. I was continually fascinated by the way she conveyed each different account, so I took my time in really absorbing not just the stories but the way they were told.

I agree with Steph when she said that we can see some of us in each of the characters -- as I mentioned, some of their thoughts and feelings that were being described seemed like they were my own, things that I had felt or thought in the past. Part of it is because, as Stephanie said, we are also of an Eastern ethnic background living in the Western world like many of the characters, and the struggles and triumphs in reconciling the two are similar.

I didn't think the endings of the stories were that predictable, although I agree that you could sort of guess that they were all going to end in sort of a negative/sad way. The end of the last story was a bit of a shock to me, and what Mimi said about it being a cop-out kind of made me think. I think I agree that it was too easy of an ending... it felt kind of rushed, and forced Hema to go on with her life and loveless marriage, forever keeping her relationship with Kaushik and mourning a secret. Maybe I was being too hopeful that these two characters, who Lahiri had uniquely developed more than all the others in the book (dedicating three chapters between the two of them) and seemed to have led successful but lonely lives until then, could somehow stay together after they'd found each other and finally find happiness as they'd come full circle. But that probably would have been unrealistic, since they were adults, had different lives already planned ahead of them as well as obligations. It was just kind of heartbreaking to see them already missing each other and having regrets, and then being suddenly hit by Kaushik's death.

I think all of the stories were very powerful, but I think that "Only Goodness" was the one that really stuck out to me. As an oldest sibling, I often also feel responsible for influencing my younger siblings in one way or another, and it is inevitable that some of those instances are negative. Although I haven't seen any of my siblings go so steeply downhill as Rahul did, I can still relate with the guilt and responsibility that Sudha felt while trying to maintain face in front of her other loved ones. The trio of stories of Hema and Kaushik were close seconds... each of those stories had such a sad ending - it was heartbreaking when it was revealed that Kaushik's mother was dying, and I've known all too well the feeling of wishing I could take back harsh words that shot out of my mouth as in the case of Kaushik towards his young stepsisters.

I would definitely like to read more of Lahiri's work in the future, although I can see Steph's point about her stories probably being very similar. Even within the book (perhaps it was because it was within the book), though the tales were different, there seemed to be an overarching common theme and shared elements of Indian background, the same locations that kept popping up (Massachusetts, Cambridge, Calcutta, Bombay...) and family/relationship struggles. I think for me personally, it would be refreshing to step away from her work for a bit and then revisit some of her other stories later so that I can see them in more of a fresh light.

message 5: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie | 31 comments Mod
I like both of your interpretations of "Only Goodness".

Mimi, I felt the same way about Sudha's marriage with her husband not having enough trust. She should have been honest about it from the beginning, but the way he reacted to the situation clearly pronounced that their marriage was on the verge of falling apart anyway. I didn't think that part should have been expanded a bit.

Misono, I think it's very interesting how you chose the story as one that stands out. It demonstrates how we all tend to interpret things differently depending on what we can relate to. Having an older sister, I've never really thought of what influence I could have on my sister, but coming to see it from your light, I can understand the pressure/responsibility you must feel towards your younger siblings.

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