Let’s take a break from the Victorian literature. I’d love to create a series of the ugly truths that tell my shifted reading viewpoints. As I read more books from different authors, my reading taste changes, so as my opinions. Indian-American Pulitzer award winner, Jhumpa Lahiri is the first author that I’d like to talk about.
One of the most pleasant things in life is finding a very good book without expecting it whatsoever. I don’t intentionally check the internet, don’t read reviews. Then, I step into a bookstore, immediately get amazed by the first few pages, pay for the novel, enjoy reading it, each and every single page of the book. I close it with a very happy heart or mixed feelings.
Such things happen with me and Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ (2003).
I really love ‘The Namesake’. I don’t write the review of the novel because I have forgotten many details of it. The novel explores the life of an Indian couple living in the United States. The way they cope with the Western culture in the new land, how they preserve the ancestors culture and what values they can teach to their son, Gogol, are main issues in the novel. Gogol, which is taken from the name of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, gets ashamed with his name. He changes his name but then realizes his identity has very little thing to do with the name.
What I really like about the book is that it conveys a very deep message about self-identity, cross culture understanding and Western vs Eastern culture, some things that are very commonplace. Another best thing about this book is that it is written in a very beautiful language, simple plot yet impressive. Lahiri’s writings are very fabulous in a kind of simple way.
While my first reading experience with Lahiri is proven very memorable I don’t want to read another work. After ‘The Namesake’, I intended reading ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ (1999) that brought her the prestigious award but I didn’t do that because (1) I don’t like reading short stories as they are short and because (2) it tells, again, about problems, issues regarding identity and Western-Eastern cultures. At least, that’s what I get from reading reviews. More or less.
‘Unaccustomed Earth’ (2008) and ‘The Lowland’ (2013) speak about similar issues. I know it’s too quick to judge the books are easily predicted but knowing they bring up similar themes has had discouraged me. I get bored already.
What to expect if I change my mind one day is to enjoy Lahiri’s wonderful, very amazing writing skill. Modestly-crafted yet stunning. I have once watched her interviews then I was wowed by her soft-spoken, nice attitude.
But for now, my opinions remain the same. With the long to-be-read novel list written in the Victorian era, Jhumpa Lahiri’s books aren’t in my mind at least in months to come.
A good friend of mine once asks me: Eny, why do you love reading books that end sadly? Even another best friend associates my reading preference with depressive ending, difficult plot novel. The point is I don’t read books that mostly have bitter endings, some even so heartbreaking, to impress people that I’m smart. The first and foremost reason on why I get addicted to read novels by Victorian authors is because of their language. Their language is so genius that I can feel myself in the books. From their descriptions, I can fancy how those fictitious characters will look like if they were exist. At last, I am into the world and mind of the authors. I have read some novels written by modern authors, even the ones from Nobel winner John Steinbeck and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, but vintage authors’ language remains the best.
Other readers may say vintage novels are boring, too wordy. I don’t completely agree with that. Once I am absorbed into the first pages of the books, I don’t mind reading them until the last page. That’s why I don’t get bored at all in reading ‘The Mill on the Floss’ even if it is almost 600 pages long. As long as the language is beautiful, even poetic if necessary, coupled with good plot, I’ll stick to them till the end.
After the language, what concerns me next is the story itself. And speaking of theme, I’m a traditional reader. I prefer to read novels that bring up ordinary and general themes, like romance, human relationship, social stereotype, gender bias, than say, politic or religion. The reason is simple. It takes many efforts for any writers to make simple subjects to become worth reading. Since those topics have been widely written I must select certain readings that attract me most even if I have read another books that contain the same subjects. As such, language can be a tool to filter my selection.
On the other hand, taboo or controversial topics, like homosexuality and religious sect, are already debatable, making literary elements, such as language, may play insignificant roles.
As a realistic person, I avoid reading books about fantasy, like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’. The only novel about fantasy that I have read so far is ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and that is more because the novel contains so many satire about British kingdom at that time. You may call me too traditional or conventional, but yes, I think ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’ are way above my logic. I once did read ‘The Hobbit’ but given so many repetitive words in the book, it took me a quite long time to complete the reading. This unpleasant experience makes my reading appetite another Hobbit-related story by J. R. R. Tolkien vanishes.
I am not the kind of reader who seeks happy ending to reward my reading. It’s the plot, the language and the characterization that more matter. Thus, it would be ridiculous if Thomas Hardy puts a happy ending toward the dark, skeptical novel ‘Jude the Obscure.’ What draw s more attention is the congruity between the plot and the finale. If the plot leads to suicidal actions, then be it. Isn’t life not all about happiness? After all, doesn’t the writer have full authority on what he/she creates?
Will I turn out to be a skeptical, mournful person given the sad book I have read so far? Nope. I must not limit our reading selection if I want to be a prosperous reader. I think I must follow what my heart says and if it commands me to read sad or even controversial books then I’ll go for that. But, prior to this, I will reprimand myself that the purpose of reading is to add knowledge, filter what is good and bad for myself then restore those values in my mind. Only then, I will feel rich as my mind will be balanced. Reading classics that contain gloomy finale has instead enhanced my understanding on people’ way of life. I learn their logics, I compare their condition with current situations and I comprehend why I must do or not execute the same thing.
So those are my general reading preference. It’s not that bleak, difficult or complicated as others may see. I am not really sure that my principles indicate my reading level. The point is I put my feeling as the best clue and almost likely it is never wrong.
I intended to stop reading Amitav Ghosh’s novels once I finished digesting the first of his Ibis trilogy, “Sea of Poppies”. But after I completed reading “The Hungry Tide” now I refresh my willingness to read all of his books. Quite surprising, I don’t really like “Sea of Poppies” although I honestly say the book is so rich and comprehensive. You can find abundant unique vocabulary from the characters in the book. You can understand language of lascars. The book can widen your imagination on what life really like inside a huge ship like Ibis. And definitely, you can learn how old opium trade brings life to so many people in India.
To a certain point, what I love most from “Sea of Poppies” is that Ghosh uses firm language to put forward strength instead of weakness of major characters in the book. I’d love to read how such a fragile character like Dheeti is powerful enough to bounce back after so much sufferings in her life. This is very different with the language used in “The Glass Palace” where almost all characters seem weak, mellow, and too serious.
I prefer to read “The Glass Palace” somehow. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed imagining old life in Burma, India, and countries in Southeast Asia better than early opium trade. Both books contain wonderful history lessons and detailed places. That is one of the reasons why I love Ghosh’s novels. He admits travelling and researching are key points in his fictions. He can spend years to travel, meet a lot of people, and do library and archives research before writing a book. No wonder, I feel like learning history in a more fantastic way every time I read his books.
For me, “Sea of Poppies” is quite hard. The language, the description, even the theme itself is heavy on its own. To all of this, I give credit to Ghosh. Brutal descriptions are quite vivid, too. So reading the book leaves me a bit of mixed feeling.
“The Glass Palace”, on the other hand, brings a lighter issue. Perhaps I choose the book as my most favorite of all due to its easy language. Common themes, such as family relationship, identured people, faith, and love relationship, are easy to digest as well.
“The Hungry Tide” is so abundant in settings. I can imagine the beauty of islands alongside the Sundabans through this book. What I like more from the book is that Ghosh brings up local wisdom from uneducated people on their struggle to tame wild nature and animals. He even includes a folklore that may be ridiculous from modern men but still widely-believed by local residents. Such a smart scientist like Piyali Roy must admit she is nothing compared to illiterate Fokir when it comes to natural observation.
By far, “The Glass Palace” tops my choice. But this may change since I still have yet to read earlier Ghosh’s books such as “The Circle of Reason,” The Shadow Lines,” and “Calcutta Chromosome”. His newest book, “River of Smoke” should be into my to-be-read list books.
For information, Ghosh divides his time in India and New York. Husband of famous editor Deborah Baker, the couple is blessed with two children. Ghosh seriously began writing in his 20s. His books have been awarded some awards and captured worldwide readers. He also teaches at the Columbia University.
He has yet to win Man Booker Prize like Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga. “Sea of Poppies” are shortlisted for the prestigious prize in 2008. Unlike Jhumpa Lahiri, he hasn’t won the Pulitzer Prize. But Ghosh produces more books compared to his counterparts. His ideas are more various. Jhumpa stresses more on self-identity in her books and short stories collection. Aravind speaks more on social issues whereas Arundhati loves examining Indian culture. Ghosh’s stories tell more than that.
My first love toward Indian literature happens when I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I once hear her name from my friends and read my senior graduating papers at the beloved Rainblow (sorry, Rainbow, I mean). The title of the book steals my heart at the very beginning.
I have no chance (and money) to purchase it while I am a student. Never even bother myself to borrow it from the library, too. My curiosity toward the book goes on until I am in Jakarta. I search for the book at my favorite bookstore but to no avail for quite some time. When I find it at the Asian Literature section at the bookstore, I do not hesitate to spend almost Rp 200,000 for it (quite expensive for my book budget).
Initially, I think The God of Small Things would be a book of positivity. A novel that drives me, as a reader, to always be thankful with everything in store. Well, if you guys start to consider it that way, well.. you are cheated! Like I do.
The God of Small Things is such a vulgar story ( if I may say so). It revolves around a forbidden love tale between the rich and the poor. Its like a Cinderella story. But it is the man who becomes the fighter with the affluent woman serves as the recepient. The core of the whole story may not be special but all that occurs in between the sad ending fairy tale is a way more beautiful.
Sensitive issues, such as culture, caste, and society, are told in a creative language through the eyes of twin kids. Roy uses their innocence to observe what’s going on between their mother and their servant. Also, Roy brings up their family dead trap when it comes to unequal love life.
One the reviews I find at the internet says Roy imitates Salman Rushdie. I strongly oppose that statement. For me, Roy is much more awesome. Her language is just different. That what makes her is a distinctive writer.
Least, the title of the novel itself tells us the opposite. The God of Small Things refers to the greatest escape from all things. Sinful but tempting…
I move on to Jhumpa Lahiri. Her name reaches to a fame through her well-known short stories collection Interpreter of Maladies that wins Pulitzer Prize. I don’t read that novel simply because I dislike reading a compilation of short stories. I also do not read her another collection of short stories called An Accustomed Earth. I think I get bored with her stories on how Indian immigrant survive amidst Western culture. Anyway… I admire so much for her ability to, as what The Times says, spin gold out of the straw of ordinary lives.
I am talking about The Namesake of which I already write at the previous note at this blog. The novel is about a boy who is so shy because of his weird name, Gogol. He later changes his name which turns out to be a tiny matter compares to the whole message of the book itself. It is actually his name and his Indian culture that attracts people’ attention. The rest of the story is usual but worth reading till the last page to satisfy my curiousity about Gogol’s life. I am amazed with Lahiri’s choice of theme; extraordinary values in ordinary lives. Her language is simple, a bit poetic, not as creative as Roy’s. But still… Lahiri’s work is a very warm cultural identity story. The one that keeps me, and probably you, to want more and more…
Aravind Adiga, an Indian born and a former journalist. His novel The White Tiger puts him as one of the promising authors as it brings him to win The Man Booker Prize. Adiga is such a bold writer who chooses serious issues as the topics for his finest works. Initially, I am not interested at reading The White Tiger because of its boring first page. But as I stumble upon the following pages I cant stop reading it. Balram Halwai, the leading role of the story, brings readers to observe his life through letters he writes to Wen Jiabao. Balram is a successful character who lives a complicated life. Hard and bitter life as a poor person. The White Tiger itself refers to him as a rare distinguished person who is able to break through folded walls of poverty and inequality.
This novel is so realistic, serious, witty, satirical, with dark humour. I love all aspects of the novel except its too-good-to-be-true ending. Balram is raised up in an extended family who hangs its fate on the hands of his grandmother. Its already been bitter to see how his father, his brother let alone himself has a very small role in such a big family. Adiga even writes that the grandmother and another member of the family prefer to feed their cows instead of their male members. All the boys including Balram have to work so hard not only to make ends meet but also to pay for their sisters’ weddings. Till one day, Balram, who is forced to leave school, has an idea to take a driving course. He believes this is the only way that brings him to cut his poverty cycle. After he finishes the course, he seeks for a job at the city then works for Mr. Ashok and his family. At this point, Adiga moves up to another problem hampers the lives of the rich; corruption. Ashok’s family is a successful businessman in coal industry thanks partly to bribes they give to government officials. Ashok likes Balram and vice versa till one night Ashok kills his driver trust. Ashok’s wife Madam Pinky forces to drive even though she is drunk at one night. She takes the front seat and drives carelessly until she hits a streetchildren. Shocked! They run away. When the policemen come to their apartement, Ashok’s brother tells the officers that it is Balram who hits the kid. Ashok agrees. Balram does not go to the jail anyway because of the lack of evidence. But Balram begins to think sadly on how good person like Ashok can betray him.
Since then, Balram’s characteristic changes to be just another bad driver. He does not manipulate the cost of fuel but he does more. One day, he takes his master to go to a place, supposedly to bribe another officer. At the middle of the journey, he stops the car and tells his master to help him with the engine. Right after Ashok takes a look at the engine, Balram swings a bottle at Ashok’s body. Yes, Balram kills his boss.
He then drives all the way to Bangalore with millions of money he steals from his master. There, he opens White Tiger Drivers that takes business on buying secondhand cars and providing transportation service. To keep from being caught, he bribes officers. So there it goes… he uses bad ways to become a good boss for his drivers. Just too good to be true…
His last book that I read is Between The Assasinations, a compilation of short stories. Just like The White Tiger, the second book features serious, idealistic themes we commonly find in daily lives. Theres a bookseller who often stays behind bars for selling pirated book, including the banned The Satanic Verses. A story of a lonely rich boy who puts terror to his own school is interesting as well. See, problems are even more serious for rich people compared to the poor ones.
Adiga also highlights an idealistic journalist who eventually chooses to resign after he refuses his boss order for not publishing a story of a hit and run accident allegedly commited by one of the richest persons in the town.
Straight-forward, skeptical but honest. Thats my conclusion about Adiga’s works.
The Fury of Salman Rushdie
Dont get trapped in controversy! I like and hate controversy in some ways. I am curious to read Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses when I am at the college. Too bad that the book is banned. Or may be its good for me after I read Fury.
It is already confusing once I read the first page. Professor Solanka, a successful lecturer, prefers to leave his profession as a teacher and start to sell dolls. He abandons his family in India without words to New York, to find a peace of mind. Weird already, huh????
I barely remember on how the story goes anyway. I give up completing reading the novel after finishing the half of it. The book is too dark and pesimistic. Words like “shit and fuck” appear everywhere at the novel. I can only recall that Solanka’s fellow decides to commit suicide. Thats what I know about Rushdie. And thats all. From Fury I get to know may be I should not read The Satanic Verses. Though its fiction, may be I will be so depressed to know how he mocks and turns everything around about Prophet Muhammad saw. I just dislike one takes a very private matter as religion as a controversial way to produce a popularity.