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Book Cover: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri has achieved much with just three books. Her most remarkable accomplishment, which you spot before even opening her work, is that she has earned both popular success and critical acclaim. These goals are not contradictory, but they are widely divergent.

Lahiri has written two short story collections: Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008); also a novel, The Namesake (2003), which I have yet to read. If you have read any of these, please comment below, ideally before you even read this diary - then you'll add brand new opinions to the mix, instead of responding to my own.

Unaccustomed Earth entered the New York Times bestseller list at number 1, a rare feat for a story collection. But with her first book, Lahiri had already blazed like a comet across the literary firmament. Neither debuts nor story collections generally win the Pulitzer Prize. Interpreter of Maladies - which is both - won that and seven others. Since then, it's sold so well that it's been translated into more than 30 languages.

Interpreter of Maladies is an enjoyable and impressive collection. I found Unaccustomed Earth, to my surprise and delight, significantly better.

How does Lahiri write stories that are easy to read, that demand so little of the reader, yet they contain such subtlety and power? Her only unusual request for our attention is a willingness to learn about Indian customs and society. She manages her Indianness as she handles all the depth and strangeness she shows us: instead of demanding, she seduces her readers. India is sprinkled carefully through her fiction, so there is frequently enough spice to taste exotic, but never so much that it overwhelms us and becomes hard to digest.

This method is part of her greatest gift, her skill at shaping, or weaving, a tale. Lahiri has a marvelous intuition for what to tell, when to tell it, and how much. As you wander through her tale, she feeds you morsels of a world, its characters, their backgrounds, and the incidents that she weaves with. Her stories feel so true to life, so accidental, with people, words and deeds bumping into each other, and growing into unexpected patterns.

It is not all easy going. There are crises and epiphanies. By the time you reach these shocks, though, you are already living in her world, you feel her characters, so their triumphs and defeats hit you in the gut. Lahiri is a true magician of plot, and makes it seem effortless.

Like all great stage direction, you don't even notice this plotting when you read her stories. Lahiri weaves her subtle tapestry, and you just drink it with your eyes. What you notice instead is the second enchantment that permeates her work: her phenomenal and particular awareness of the wayward workings of the heart.

Lahiri sells so well because she writes stories with all the charms of popular Romance, but with far more insight and realism. She shows us every aspect of love, but she includes cancer, miscarriages, and people foolishly blurting out the wrong thing, which they can never take back.

So what is wrong with Interpreter of Maladies, that I preferred her second collection? Let's consider the title story.

There are six characters: the Interpreter, Mr. Kapasi; and the Das family, who he is driving to see the Sun Temple at Konarak. Mr. Kapasi is fully and subtly drawn. Next to him, the Das family seem more like caricatures, Indians who have lost their nature and dignity, and become shallow American tourists. From the first pages, they rub us the wrong way, and our sympathies lie with the Interpreter.

Mr. Kapasi drives the family, endures their boorishness, starts daydreaming about the charms and possibilities of Mrs. Das. A connection develops between these two, Mrs. Das confides in Mr. Kapasi. Then he tells her a simple truth, she doesn't like it, and Mr. Kapasi's daydream flutters away in the wind.

I'm not saying the story doesn't work. It did win an O Henry prize. It's just that, compared to her more recent work, this story feels heavy-handed. There was some monkey business which I saw coming a mile off. Also, the Das family. Yes, I beleive people just like this exist. But next to most of Lahiri's characters, they look like cartoons.

This does serve a purpose. We sympathize with the Interpreter, and perhaps we are meant to see the Dases as cartoons, since that's how they appear to Mr. Kapasi. But what slightly rankles, after seeing the finesse with which Lahiri handles her more recent work, is the moralizing she has woven into the story itself. We feel superior to the Dases because we, and Lahiri, judge their obvious flaws. In her later collection, characters suffer far worse fates, which they may well deserve. But we are not above them, we suffer right with them.

Lahiri is very good at endings, at tying things off with a small telling detail, an unexpected but fitting resolution. Most of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth, as I finished them, I felt she'd gotten them just right.

Would you like to write a diary for Contemporary Fiction Views? I've enjoyed filling in for bookgirl, but it's proving too hard to maintain a weekly series with limited computer access at the Santa Monica public library. Next week will be my last diary here.

If you've read a recent book that's inspired you, you could write about it for 10pm EST on Tues. Jan. 1st, or Jan 8th, or...

If you'd like to weave a piece of this ongoing tapestry, please say so in a comment, or message me, or Limelite.

I'll be diarying again in a month, writing a 'Books That Changed My Life' (Tristram Shandy) on January 25th, and then starting a new weekly series at 6pm EST on Friday, February 1st.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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  •  Tip Jar & (18+ / 0-)

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    bigjacbigjacbigjac has Indigo Kalliope at 2pm Tuesdays - but I can't open the diary queue to get the updated schedule. If any Admins can fix this glitch, that would be sweet and dandy.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 06:36:06 PM PST

  •  enjoyed your diary (7+ / 0-)

    have yet to read Unaccustomed Earth and will request that at the library now that you have brought it up.

    I have read the other two and it has been quite a while. I was struck with how she was able to inhabit her characters so well with compassion and so realistically. How is she so wise and yet so young? I don't think I understood people so well at that age.

    I also enjoyed how well she wrote about the struggle involved in transitioning between two cultures. Her ability to write about cultural identity in America is exquisite.  

    •  All you say is true and astute, it seems to me. (5+ / 0-)

      "How is she so wise and yet so young?"

      I read an article in which she mentioned that she preferred to listen, growing up - I think she just paid close attention, and, instead of forgetting details, put them together. Being an outsider, at all, encourages sensitivity (also, often, resentment). But, on top of these, she clearly has natural gifts.

      "Her ability to write about cultural identity in America  is exquisite." Yes, and there is so much melting pot here that, even though her specifics are Indian, they relate also to many other immigrant experiences, and how the succeeding generations assimilate.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 06:19:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Heh! Whenever I read stories, (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        shari, Brecht, cfk, Youffraita

        or watch films, by people who obviously "preferred to listen" to their families and friends while they were growing up, I always wish I'd paid more attention!

        •  I particularly wish I could retain the very words, (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          shari, cfk, Youffraita

          that I could keep in my memory the accent, and the exact ways of wording things, that express individuality.

          I really admire writers who can capture a personality in their way of speaking. Shakespeare wins, I think.

          I'm good at remembering the gist of conversations, but it's all been homogenized into Brechtspeak in my mind.

          I'm sorry, what did you say, Monsieur Georges?

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 08:22:05 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  ps (5+ / 0-)

    what is the name of the new series you are starting?

    •  I'm planning to call it 'Books Go Boom!' (5+ / 0-)

      That means a few things to me, and implies others.

      I'd explain it, but I've explained it to two people, and each time it meant less after I explained it.

      But I'm starting to like that it's not clear just what it means. I don't want to hand you a completed meaning. I like readers who will bring their own imagination to the conversation, and are willing to divine meanings for themselves.

      I will say, R&BLers has a lot of Kossacks who bring a high level of conversation to the table.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 06:10:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  sounds like (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, Monsieur Georges, cfk, Youffraita

        a great way to start the weekend

        •  You are kind to say so, shari. (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Monsieur Georges, shari, cfk, Youffraita

          I will do my best. I have a lot of ideas, and I'm enjoying working on my writing.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 07:24:16 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  LOL...okay, ignore (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            shari, Brecht

            my previous comment, if you wish.

            I have NO idea what "books go boom!" means, but that's okay.  I'm just looking forward to a fun R&BL Friday night diary to read after work.

            Friday is typically the most stressful of the weekend for a bunch of reasons, not least that it's usually the busiest at work.  So I am really looking forward to relaxing by reading your new series.  See ya sometime around 1 a.m. Eastern, once you have it up and running.

            To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

            by Youffraita on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:05:55 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  1am EST is 10pm in California, so I'll be at it (0+ / 0-)

              when you arrive.

              Then, you will quickly run away again. There will be no "fun R&BL Friday night diary", as you so rosily imagine. I picture something closer to calisthenics and a cold shower. It's time my readers suffered for my art.

              I will, however, work on making my jokes funny, just for variety.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:10:38 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  The library is closing. Now I go home. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cfk, Youffraita, MT Spaces, shari

    I'll come back tomorrow and check in again.

    Good night, all.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 08:44:16 PM PST

  •  Sorry to be late (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Youffraita, shari, Brecht

    Hubby and I left the cave to see The Hobbit and eat out.

    A friend gave me Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake and I enjoyed both of them.

    I like what you said:

    Her stories feel so true to life, so accidental, with people, words and deeds bumping into each other, and growing into unexpected patterns.

    I think you will really enjoy The Namesake.  It went down so easy and yet there was so much in it.  

    Best wishes with the new diary series...I like the title.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 08:58:57 PM PST

    •  What did you and hubby think (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cfk, shari, Brecht

      of The Hobbit?

      The NYT and at least one diarist here didn't like it...another post I read adored it...so I'm curious about your take on it.

      To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

      by Youffraita on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:11:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Here is what I said at OND (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Youffraita, MT Spaces, shari, Brecht
        I enjoyed it and hubby only had two "What?" and one, "No!" Then he reminded me of every difference between the book and the movie on the way home.

        I like the actor who plays Bilbo.

        I am really not a purist. I don't like orcs and would have left them out. As hubby said, there could be plenty of excitement without them added in.  

        As jlms qkw said...there is lots of falling. :)

        The movie had a lot of action and it didn't seem that long...it never dragged, but it is not The Hobbit.  I did enjoy it and hubby did really.  The scenery with the mountains behind was gorgeous.

        I thought the riddle scene was well done.  

        I will be interested in hearing what you think, too.

        Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

        by cfk on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:50:00 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Oh, cfk: (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          cfk, MT Spaces, shari, Brecht
          I will be interested in hearing what you think, too.
          I don't intend to see it anytime soon.  When it comes to Netflix, maybe.

          This is for your R&BL post tomorrow night but:  I am most of the way through The Barefoot Contessa with Bogart, written and directed by (sp?) Mankiewitz.

          Wow, what a terrific film.

          To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

          by Youffraita on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 01:44:18 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  I'll see it over Xmas, I expect. (0+ / 0-)

          Just looking at the numbers, I wonder if Peter Jackson is making 3 Hobbits because he really wishes he'd made 6 LOTR.

          There are, technically, 6 books. And by the time you watch the extended DVDs, he kind of did make 6 movies worth. But he would have liked 6 movies worth of profit and prizes, too.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:14:18 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  You once said you liked people commenting over the (0+ / 0-)

      week in Bookflurries, and I, too, like a longer span of conversation. So thank you for showing up, is all.

      I will not bore you by mentioning my enormous TBR list, again. Oops. But anyway, I would have put The Namesake off for a long time, if you hadn't given it props here.

      Instead, I'll put it off for a short time. My January reading will be directed toward getting a few diaries written before I have to publish the first. It will be so fine to have the time and space to polish my diaries at home at leisure. But managing CFViews has been a good experience, and catapulted me into considering a series of my own.

      Ah, I still talk better than I listen. Yes, there is a wayward natural magic in Lahiri's storytelling. I wonder what more she will grow into, as an artist.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:06:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Sorry to be later, to Bookflurries... (0+ / 0-)

      I have to get a couple more things done downtown, then go home, do laundry, pack, and fly tomorrow to Boston. So I may not show up in Bookflurries until Friday morning.

      But you throw a good salon, and I know you'll have plenty of guests tonight.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:52:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interpreter of Maladies (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shari, Brecht

    I preferred "Interpreter of Maladies" to "Unaccustomed Earth" but after reading your comments, I think it is time to re-read them.  

    Nothing else is catching my attention these days anyway although just finished Alice Munro's "Dear Life" which I enjoyed.  She is another master of the short story.

    These two writers are a solution to those who say they don't like short stories because they feel like they are left hanging.

    Cape Cod Librarian

    •  I haven't read any Alice Munro, yet. (0+ / 0-)

      I particularly enjoyed William Trevor's Selected Stories this year, which have as much insight as Lahiri (I'd say more, in fact, in that he has a wider cast of characters), but less surface warmth.

      I could be wrong, on the value of the two collections. I mean, I think my points are valid, but there are many other things going on in Lahiri's stories than the subtlety of the weave and the quieter authorial judgments I preferred in Unaccustomed Earth.

      I do look forward to the rest of her career, to see how she grows and applies her exceptional gifts.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:21:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Really liked the diary, thanks (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MT Spaces, shari, Brecht

    eom

    An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head. -- Eric Hoffer

    by MichiganChet on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 07:10:48 AM PST

    •  Glad you did. You commented a couple of weeks ago, (0+ / 0-)

      commending me on my work; I replied, "I hate work, won't do it."

      Clearly that's not true, or I wouldn't be writing diaries. But my answer made me think, and i realize I'm quite ambivalent about the word Work, and need to split it into what I admire and what I resent in it.

      Probably, like most proud artists, I can work hard when I believe in it: Work is good when I get to choose and own it.

      Thanks for your compliment of a fortnight ago, MichiganChet.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:29:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wow, Brecht, this is a wonderful diary. You (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MT Spaces, shari, Brecht

    explained this writer I've been interested in for awhile but have not read and made me want to go get this 2008 book now! Especially love your description of how she writes of Indian culture and tells stories. Very much appreciated.

    I wish you could continue to do this. It's frankly a crime that you don't have a computer tethered to you at all times because you write so well and you don't overdo it. Thanks and cheers!

    "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

    by Gorette on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 07:32:37 AM PST

    •  Thank you, Gorette, for your generous words (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Gorette

      I would quibble with "you don't overdo it" - I think I get rather purple, or 18 shades of green, in places. But perhaps my purple patches are pretty too. I'm glad you like my work.

      Incidentally, the nicest part of Jhumpa Lahiri's popular success is, you can probably find all her books in your local library.

      I will continue to do something like this, but with a wider range of subject matter, from February 1st, for many, many moons. And I'm hoping bookgirl will come back and do more on Contemporary Fiction, but she's been pretty busy this month.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:36:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I read the Namesake in one sitting, I think. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shari, Brecht

    Loved it.  The only thing I remember not liking is that she writes fairly long narrative stretches without any dialog.  But truly loved that novel.

    If the plutocrats begin the program, we will end it. -- Eugene Debs.

    by livjack on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 08:16:54 AM PST

    •  Oh good. I do find her very pleasant to read. (0+ / 0-)

      I am curious as to what larger things she attempts, given the scope of a novel. She's so good at drawing subtle, fully realized characters, and I expect she burrows even deeper into her protagonists in The Namesake.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 03:40:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've Read the Namesake (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht

    Wish I could sort out my reaction to it after all these years but I can't.  I was impressed by the writing and at the same time impatient with the rather ineffectual hero.

    I recognized the talent of the author but felt ambivalent about her novel until the end when the plot seemed to gather itself into something worth the effort I put into reading the book.  But not quite.

    Still, I feel a lingering distaste remains, enough to render me incurious about her short story collections.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 08:16:46 PM PST

    •  She does seem, like Dostoyevski, to be interested (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Limelite

      in partly broken people (who are often ineffectual).

      As you say of her ending, she is good at weaving many threads into a coherent pattern.

      She is young; I see progress, and I think she's pretty self-aware. I expect she'll come up with more powerful work, in time.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 07:53:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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