The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The NamesakeMy library picked this book for their Big Read title this year, and so of course I picked it for my library book club to read and talk all about!

The discussion turned out kind of awkward, as only two people (neither of them regulars!) came, and one hadn’t read past maybe page ten, but the book itself was pretty darn good and I think had more people come it would have been a decent discussion as well.

The Namesake takes place over about 30 years, following the lives of a Bengali family from Calcutta to Boston to New York and beyond. The three main characters are Ashima, a woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage that will take her from her Calcutta home to far-off Boston but strives to make the best of it; Ashoke, the man Ashima marries who is very happy to be so far from home and who once very nearly died in a train accident; and (mostly) Gogol, their son, who gets his weird name from the author of the book his dad was reading at the time of the accident and who spends all of his life trying to reconcile his Bengali roots and his American upbringing, with more or less predictable results.

“Predictable results?” I hear you saying. “I thought you said this book was pretty darn good.”

Well, yes. The plot, what little there is, is pretty standard. Immigrant parents have American kid, he rebels against his parents’ values and goals for him, he has a series of relationships (some ill-advised), at the end of the book he has more respect for his parents and their lives than he previously had.

But! The characters are super interesting, Gogol foremost to me because he follows a similar path with his name as I did, shunning the name he grew up with to choose his own name and create his own identity. I was going to say I never went so far as to legally change my name and then I remembered that in fact, I got married and changed my last name, so. I am fully on board with the story of how a person’s name impacts their life.

And it’s a fascinating topic in this book, especially, as Gogol’s name comes out of a Bengali naming tradition that I can’t quite wrap my head around, which is that a person gets a “good name”, like Ashima, to put on birth certificates and passports and school papers and whatnot, and a “pet name”, like Monu, that everyone who actually knows you calls you. In this book, Gogol is meant to be a pet name, but Gogol’s parents take too long coming up with an acceptable good name and they, and he, end up stuck with this one, at least until Gogol turns 18 and can fix it himself.

But back to the characters — I love Gogol’s parents, too, who could easily have been left out in favor of Gogol’s story, but whom we see adapting in their own ways to American life and carving out a semblance of home with the apparently fairly large Bengali community in eastern Massachusetts. Ashoke’s train accident story and his reticence to share it with his son rings very true, as does Ashima’s propensity for feeding too much food to family, friends, and strangers.

Also delightful is Lahiri’s writing, which isn’t beautiful in the “here, look at this particular sentence and adore it” sort of way, but which, when all those sentences combine, is a subtly descriptive and engaging sort of writing that I just fall for every time. If Lahiri’s writing were a voice, I would probably listen to that voice read the phone book, as they say. Is there a better analogy for that? I bet there is, and I bet Lahiri could tell me what it is.

I’d read and loved Lahiri’s story “Interpreter of Maladies” in some collection I can’t even remember ages and ages ago, but somehow never read any more of her work until this book. This vast oversight is going on my “Vast Oversights to Rectify in the Soon-Time” list, for sure.

Recommendation: To read when you’re looking for a quiet family story, or if you want to think to hard about what life would be like if your parents had just named you something different.

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Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the GoddessThe very seventh post on this lovely blog was about a really super fantastic book that I liked a lot (though you wouldn’t guess it by the miniature posts I used to write) called The Palace of Illusions. I don’t remember how I found that book — I think I probably just saw it at the library and liked the cover — but it was really a perfect book at a perfect time.

So when I saw another book from the same author (who has written probably several other books in the interim), I was hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn’t, exactly, but I did get a lovely read out of the deal, so that’s all right.

Palace was a sweeping epic fairy tale story, but Goddess is a much more straightforward novel telling the stories primarily of a grandmother, mother, and daughter and various points in their lives and across two continents, from India to California to Texas.

The novel starts off like it’s going to have a frame story — the mother calls the grandmother begging her to convince the daughter not to drop out of college. The grandmother, after a few false starts, decides to tell the daughter the story of the grandmother’s youth, with an education in India delayed by illicit love and the vagaries of rich people. But this story ends quickly and sadly and the novel moves on to the stories of the mother, eloping to America with a sometimes wonderful husband, and the daughter, dealing with the fallout of leaving college as well as the weight of a couple of generations of guilt.

It’s not the most engrossing novel — I spent plenty of time away from the novel without feeling terribly bad about it — but it is, like Palace before it, beautifully written. It is full of emotions, but mostly sad ones, and it lays down depressing truths that earned my husband some very tight bear hugs while I was reading. I’m sure he didn’t mind.

I definitely didn’t love this book as much as I’d hoped I would, but I’m going to chalk that up to my completely incorrect expectations. I was prepared to listen to the grandmother’s story for the book’s two hundred pages, and was greatly disappointed in that, and I was definitely not expecting a book that would leave me in a bit of a depressive funk. (I’m gonna need a happy story and a box of kittens, stat!) But if you’re prepared for an intergenerational story of sadness, you won’t go wrong picking up this particular one. I’ll just be over here choosing my next Divakaruni book a bit more wisely.

Recommendation: For people who like stories about unhappy people of all ages and a little bit for people who like immigrant stories.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraI had picked this book up to read because, well, elephants, but then I wavered on reading it because it seemed like it might be a cozy mystery, but then I read a very complicated book that I will talk about here soon and it broke my brain and I was like, hey, I like elephants.

Do you like elephants? Do you like quasi-cozy mysteries? Do you like people making terrible life decisions that end up having no consequences? This is totally the book for you.

I like the first one, obviously, and am sometimes down with the second, so for the most part this was a pretty fun book. We meet the titular Inspector Chopra on his last day with the Mumbai police, from which he is forced to retire after a heart attack. He is all set to at least try to enjoy retirement, but a woman and her dead son — and the police force’s reticence to look into the latter — catch his attention and he decides to pretend to be an inspector for just a bit longer. Like, literally pretend to be an officer. Totally not kosher. (Is there a Hindu version of kosher?)

Meanwhile, Chopra’s uncle has left him a baby elephant, as one does, and while Chopra is hunting down leads and information and potential killers he also is trying to figure out what elephants eat and why this one is so sad and where he can send it because the homeowner’s association lady is totally shitting a brick over the elephant in the apartment complex.

Also meanwhile, Chopra’s wife is not terribly pleased with the fact that she’s seeing her husband even less after his retirement, and she’s sure he’s up to no good with some hot young ladies, and Chopra is definitely keeping a secret buuuuut it’s probably not hot young ladies. Or is it?

So, it’s pretty cute. I love the elephant, of course, and his propensity for chocolate bars, and how Chopra is totally down with taking the elephant around town with him as he investigates because that’s totally not conspicuous at all. And the mystery itself is pretty decent, with the requisite number of twists and turns to keep things interesting.

But as you may have guessed, I really dislike thing number three above, and there’s a lot of that in this book. Chopra doesn’t want to go to the actual employed cops for help with his case because they’re disinterested and also because he doesn’t want to ruin his reputation by going crazy upon retirement, which, fine. And then when things start getting legitimately dangerous, Chopra is like, I should totally get help but I’m just not gonna. Which, not fine. But don’t worry, reader, Chopra’s innate luck and his new elephant friend are apparently all he needs to escape regular danger and also certain death. Ugh.

Escaping death is important, though, as this is apparently the first in a whole series of adorable elephant mysteries, which I kind of still almost want to read because elephants, guys. Who doesn’t want a crime-fighting, butt-kicking elephant sidekick? I know I do. Perhaps things will calm down for Chopra in these future installments? I can only hope!

Recommendation: For readers with easily suspended disbelief and also elephant lovers because adorable!

Rating: 6/10

The Tusk That Did the Damage, by Tania James

The Tusk That Did the DamageI was sold on this book as soon as I found out that some of the chapters were from an elephant’s point of view. An elephant! How delightful!

Oh, did I say delightful? Let’s try fairly depressing. But in the best of ways.

This book tells three different stories, just barely intertwined. There’s the story of the elephant, whose mother is killed by poachers and who ends up in some rich guy’s rental elephant collection. We find out pretty early on that he gains the nickname “the Gravedigger”, and why, but the how is a mystery until near the end. There’s also the story of a young Indian boy named Manu, whose cousin gets killed by the Gravedigger. We get his story both before and after this terrible event, along with the story of his poacher brother. Then there’s the story of Emma, part of a two-person American film crew doing a little documentary on a veterinarian who helps reunite lost elephant calves with their mothers, which is apparently very difficult, and who also helps the Forest Department track down poachers.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. The narratives are interestingly paced, so that you’re never quite sure where each is placed in time relative to the others. You know that some things are going to happen, but not necessarily to whom or when or why. It’s a nice changeup from my usual beloved multi-narrator stories, I have to admit, because it allows me, at least, to be more invested in the individual stories rather than the connections between them.

But taken together, the stories become an even better book. I learned a lot about poaching that I didn’t know I didn’t know, like how completely and utterly awful it is (thanks, elephant’s point of view!) but also how lucrative it is and how it can make perfect sense to become a poacher. Really, at its core, this is a book about people (and elephants) doing what they feel is the best thing to do for themselves, although it doesn’t always work out for the people (and elephants) around them.

Even though there’s a lot going on story-wise, this is still one of those books that makes you want to sit back and let the words just wash over you. James does a great job of setting the scenes and creating an atmosphere that walks the line between reality and myth. Even when one part of my brain was like, look, we don’t have time for this parable you’re telling, there’s an elephant in trouble!, another part was like, shut up, we’ll get there eventually and also this is interesting. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of elephants and multi-perspective stories.

Rating: 8/10

A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison

A Walk Across the SunThis book… this was a weird book for me. It was a book club pick and I started it the day before the meeting (shocking, I’m sure) and I was like, eh, maybe I just won’t bother, there aren’t a lot of people on the RSVP list anyway. But then I was like, no, I should read it and show up like a good book club member, so I read the first chapter, in which two Indian girls lose their entire family in seconds to the 2004 Christmas tsunami and then get kidnapped while trying to get to safety at their school. Then I was like, man, I definitely do not want to read this book, it’s going to be super depressing. But maybe I’ll give it 50 pages? So then I read the second chapter, in which a high-powered lawyer has a depressing Christmas and then on his way home witnesses a kidnapping that his father later says might be a trafficking and also when he sees his parents admits that his wife left him following the death of their child. In case there wasn’t enough story to this story already?

At this point I was like, I’m definitely not reading this book, but maybe I’ll just check in on those kidnapped girls and see how they’re doing, and then I read the whole book in one sitting.

When I relayed this to my book club, they were like, oh, you must have loved the book! And I was like, actually, I thought it was pretty terrible.

So on the one hand, it’s definitely a page turner. I wanted to know what was going to happen to these girls, and as much as I did not care about the lawyer fellow of course he ended up involved in the case because how else was that going to work, and so it was interesting seeing the girls’ stories from the outside.

But on the other hand the writing is almost aggressively bad, with people’s eyes flashing all over the place and people making stupid remarks about lawyers and everything that happens to this lawyer being made of 100 percent pure contrivance. Like, seriously, he witnesses a kidnapping? And then gets all but fired from his job? And then takes his forced pro bono leave and goes to India to work with an anti-trafficking organization in the same city to which his estranged wife has fled from him? And then one of the trafficked girls ends up in Paris and lawyer fellow is all, well, I studied at the Sorbonne for a semester so I know Paris and will therefore go there and find this girl?

I am not usually one to complain about a plot contrivance, because otherwise how could any story happen? But in this case? Please.

My other giant problem with this book is that in the end it’s a story about a rich white American guy who goes to India to rescue girls in distress. This is not a terribly original story, and in fact there were several times where I thought maybe it wasn’t going to be this story, that the girls would do some rescuing of themselves, perhaps, but sadly it was not meant to be.

To end on a happier note, I did appreciate this book for shedding some light on a topic I’m not terribly familiar with, and the author for putting some information about how to help in his afterword. I’m not going to argue with charity and the elimination of human trafficking.

But maybe you could just skip this book and donate those dollars to some charities doing good works instead?

Recommendation: Read it if you want to or if your book club tells you to, but don’t seek it out as your next read.

Rating: 5/10

The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (21 June − 29 June)

After an aborted attempt at reading The Other, I abandoned realistic fiction and picked up another book about deities. I was not disappointed.

The Palace of Illusions tells the story of an Indian princess who was born out of a fire as a sort of throw-in with the son her father asked for. The son, Dhri, was called upon to kill his father’s greatest enemy, but it is the daughter, Panchaali, who is to be the catalyst for the event. The novel tells the story of Panchaali from her youth until the end of her life, and it tells it in a really engaging way by giving away the ending and most of the important points of the story really early in the book. Panchaali, the narrator, goes to a fortune-teller early on who tells quite a bit of the story, and at the end of each chapter she says things like, “Later, when this REALLY IMPORTANT thing happened, I understood why I shouldn’t have done this stupid thing here” that totally spoil what’s going to happen. I kept reading because I needed to know how it happened. Really cool.

Rating: 9/10