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.

Weekend Shorts: Wayback Machine Edition

So, this summer went kind of insane on me, and I ended up reading a bunch of comics and then not blogging about them. So this post is about things I read, uh, two or more months ago and am just now getting around to writing about. Please forgive me for everything I am about to forget to mention!

Locke & Key, Vols. 2 & 3, “Head Games” and “Crown of Shadows”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key Vol. 2Man, I really do love Locke & Key. The art is amazing, the colors are amazing, the stories are amazing… it’s a complete package.

In Volume 2, our creepy ghostly Bad Guy, Zack, has failed to think about the fact that teachers remember their students, especially when said students show up in the exact same high-school age body decades later. While Zack’s cleaning up that mess, Bode finds a key that literally opens up a person’s head and lets you put things in and take them out. This is useful for both studying for a test and for removing debilitating fear, but of course these benefits don’t come without consequences.

In Volume 3, we get an awesome Bad Guy Spirit Fight to start things off, which, awesome. Then we see Kinsey making some new friends who lead her off to see some weird and dangerous stuff for funsies, and we see that Nina’s alcoholism is both out of control and maybe possibly kind of useful in this strange house. But mostly out of control. Also, even better than the Spirit Fight, we get a creepy-ass Shadow Fight, which is really kind of horrifying if you stop to think about it too long.

I’m going to stop thinking about it right now, and maybe go grab some more of these trades off hoopla. Love!

Giant Days, #13-14, by John Allison and Max Sarin
Giant Days #13After the Great Binge of Spring 2016, it took a while for new issues to show up on hoopla. But when they did, I grabbed them! (Of course, now there are a bunch more and I must go get them all!) Issue #13 is a day in the life of Esther — she’s run away from university back to mum and dad, and although it seems like a great adventure at first, it’s not uni and therefore is the worst. Luckily Susan and Daisy are on the case! Issue #14 covers the college student’s worst nightmare — putting off housing so long that there’s nothing left to find! A mad dash and a secret app may or may not get my favorite girls a home in the end. Can’t stop, won’t stop, loving this series.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThis one’s not a comic, but an audiobook. One of my book-club-mates picked this one out as an easy summer read, which, yes, but after my discovery, uh, seven years ago (so ooooold), that the series doesn’t really hold up to a second reading, I was not terribly excited. Then I discovered that I had the option to have Stephen Fry read the book to me, and I was like, oh, well, that’s all right then.

As I said oh those many years ago, a lot of this book relies on its unexpectedness, so again, it wasn’t really the most exciting re-read. But! If you have the chance to talk about the book with a bunch of people reading it for the first time, it’s totally worth it, even if the book club meeting is just people going, “42! Slartibartfast! Vogon poetry! Fjords!” Also, Stephen Fry.

Weekend Shorts: Locke & Sandman

Last week I talked about bingeing on single issues on hoopla, but this week I’m going to talk about a couple of trades that I read and loved and probably the only thing stopping me from binge-reading the rest of the already completed series is that I wanted to come tell you all about them first. Darn you, internet persons!

Sandman, Vol. 1: “Preludes and Nocturnes”, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III
Sandman, Vol. 1Sandman has been on my list of comics to read for a very long time, even before I considered myself a “comics person”. And since the whole series is on hoopla, that’s totally going to happen. Eventually.

This first volume is interesting. It’s essentially the story of Dream, who is accidentally summoned instead of his sister, Death, by some less-than-great summoners. The first issue covers the bad things that happen when you trap the god of dreams in the mortal world — people who sleep forever, people who can no longer sleep — and what happens when that god gets out — revenge in the form of eternal waking. Remind me not to piss off a dream god, is what I’m saying.

The rest of the volume follows Dream as he recovers from his imprisonment and hunts down his stolen tools. This part is a little weirder, as Dream meets not only Cain and Abel but also John Constantine and weird demons and some Justice League people I don’t know and a weird crazy villain guy… There’s a lot going on.

I think my favorites of the issues are the first one, which sets everything up, and the sixth one, which pits a bunch of people against each other as their minds are controlled and which is quite well done in terms of story and art.

I wasn’t as super sold on this series as I’d hoped I’d be, but I recall from my initial interest in the series that the first volume isn’t necessarily the place to start so I’m pretty sure it’ll get better. I just need to find time to read nine more volumes!

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: “Welcome to Lovecraft”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key, Vol. 1This volume, on the other hand, was awesome sauce from beginning to end. I’m a sucker for a creepy murder story and also for a creepy supernatural story, and this is both!

The book starts off with the horrible murder of a high school guidance counselor by a bright but very troubled student, flashing back and forth between the murder and the aftermath. The counselor’s family makes it out alive, but they decide to pack up all their stuff and move into the counselor’s childhood home, called Keyhouse, with his brother. As these things go, though, Keyhouse is not necessarily a safer place for the family — the house is full of secret places and mysterious keys and an apparition who seems to be running the whole show from the bottom of a well.

I love the way this book plays with its creepy elements, interspersing them perfectly with the mundane to make everything seem almost normal. I also love the characters; Hill does a great job of showing their love for each other even while they’re still a bickering family. And that chick in the well, well (HA), she’s veeery intriguing and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Run, by Ann Patchett

RunI’ve had Ann Patchett on my list of authors to get around to for some time now, so I’m very glad my book club chose this book and gave me that push to actually do so. But now I think I have to put her on my list of authors to give another shot, because this book? Didn’t really do it for me.

It’s a weird book to try to talk about (note to book clubs: does not make a great meeting), because while I read it eagerly over the course of four hours or so, I managed to come away with no strong feelings about it.

The plot is… weird. It centers on this wealthy political family in Boston with a dad and three sons, two of whom are adopted and black in an otherwise very white family. The dad dotes on the adopted sons; the biological son is kind of a screwup. Then the dad and the two adopted sons go to a Jesse Jackson event and afterward one of the sons is very nearly killed by a car except that he gets pushed out of the way at the last moment… by his biological mother.

Now, that sounds really cool, I think, but the book does not do the cool things with it that I would have wanted. The mother stays mostly unconscious in the hospital for the duration of the book, so we don’t get terribly much from her except for a strange interlude where she talks to her dead best friend. Instead we focus on the mother’s daughter, who knows that the brothers are her brothers and has apparently been keeping an eye on them with her mother all her life and is now being taken care of by this family that apparently didn’t have enough issues already.

The book does some interesting things. It opens with this fantastic story about a statue that I probably could have read an entire novel about. I can see it doing cool things with repetition and layered meanings. It talks about race, class, family dynamics, how our choices affect other people, all that good stuff. But for all the talking it does, I’m not sure what it’s trying to tell me.

In our book club meeting, my friend who picked the book mentioned that this book reads a lot like a fairy tale, with allegories and magical realism and things that just don’t make sense if you’re trying to read this as a straightforward novel. Unfortunately, the allegories of the book are largely political, calling to mind to my friends the Kennedys and other politicians and their various scandals, but my understanding of these references ended at knowing that Ted Kennedy was a person, so.

So onto the list of authors to try again Patchett goes. Maybe if I can read her awesome writing with some references that I understand, I’ll do a lot better!

Recommendation: For people who know politics, probably, and people interested in some weirdly twisty plot lines.

Rating: 6/10

The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent (1 July — 3 July)

When I opened up this book and saw a letter (the kind you send), I was a little nervous. I’m not a big fan of epistolary novels (Ella Minnow Pea notwithstanding) in general, because the exposition is always unwieldy and annoying. However, the letter soon ended and the book became simply a description of the life of Sarah Carrier.

Sarah is, in the story, a young girl living in Massachusetts near the end of the 17th century. Her family deals with the usual things — smallpox, farming, family rivalries, accusations of witchcraft… well, okay, that one comes a little later. Sarah’s mother, Martha, is a bit of an independent woman, which is okay by her family and friends but not okay by really anyone else. When the Carriers move in with Martha’s mother, they are not well-received by the town and eventually Martha is accused of being a witch. The book follows Sarah’s perspective in all this and gives an interesting look at life in this strange time.

This description is a little weak, and I apologize for that, but I just didn’t really get into this book. It was interesting, certainly, and I was happy to read through the end, but it’s not some stunning new take on the trials or even on family dynamics. -shrug- If you like historical novels or novels about accused witches, you should give it a read, but everyone else could probably take a pass.

Rating: 6/10