Monday, May 27, 2019

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri


I’ve been waiting for years for a new book from Jhumpa Lahiri, but somehow missed her latest novel, The Lowland, published in 2013. Like her other three books, this is a masterful piece of writing—lyrical and lovely, but telling a very somber story. 

Two brothers Subhash and Udayan are just fifteen months apart, and their bond is incredibly strong. Although Subhash is the older of the two, Udayan is the more daring and much more likely to lead them into mischief. Subhash “…was uncertain whether he was more frustrated by Udayan’s daring, or with himself for a his lack of it…But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there.”

Both brothers do well in school and have real talents for math and science. But their primary interest is in politics, and especially in the communist parties that battle with one another over whom to follow, and which has the truer line.

 Much of the lowland they live in is covered with water during great parts of the year.
The English started clearing the waterlogged jungle, laying down streets. In 1770, beyond the southern limits of Calcutta, they established a suburb whose first population was more European than Indian. A place where spotted deer roamed, and kingfishers darted across the horizon.
Both brothers are admitted to college and plan to attend graduate school once they graduate. But as it turns out, only Subhash goes on to graduate school in America. Udayan loses interest in continued academic training, and remains behind in India becoming more and more involved in revolutionary politics. The novel jumps back and forth between Rhode Island and India, and as in her earlier collection of short stories, Lahiri describes in great detail the difficulties in straddling countries and cultures. Neither brother is married, though both expect that eventually their parents will arrange marriages. Udayan begins to see the sister of a student friend, and when she, Gauri, becomes pregnant, they marry and move into his parent’s house—a house they keep enlarging so it will accommodate their sons’ wives and eventual grandchildren. 

Without telling too much more of the story (which Lahiri spins out slowly and patiently), Udayan is eventually killed by the police, and Subhash returns briefly to India. Although Gauri is allowed to stay in the home of her in-laws, they ignore her once Udayan is killed. Subhash wants to get to know his sister-in-law, but his parents discourage any real contact. He buys a shawl for his mother and decides to get on for Gauri as well. 
He gave his mother the shawl he’d bought for her. Then he showed her the one for Gauri.
I’d like to give her this. 
You should  know better, she said. Stop trying to befriend her.
You’ve taken away her colored clothes, the fish and meat from her plate.
These are our customs, his mother said.
Eventually, Subhash decides he needs to get Gauri out of the hostile environment of his home, and the only way he can do that is to marry her. Gauri is a brilliant student, and although she cares for little once her husband is dead, she still has a powerful urge to learn, and she consents to go back to America as Subhash’s wife and they decide they will simply treat the baby she is carrying as their own. No decision is made as to when, or even if, the child will be told the truth.

The remainder of the novel is primarily the story of Gauri, Subhash, and their daughter Bella, whom Subhash adores and from whom Bella get most of her nurturing. Subhash takes Bella for a visit to India, but Gauri remains behind committed to her studies and to teaching philosophy courses. For many and complicated reasons, Gauri decides that her husband and daughter are better off without her, and she takes a teaching job across the country in California.

While the description of family life, of what counts as love, what counts as loyalty and what betrayal is the crowning achievement of the novel, there is so much that Lahiri tells the reader about India, its past, its many wars and political unrest. As the author notes, very little of this history gets covered in American press, and most of us know very little about the complexity of the country. That is certainly true of this reader.

I found this to be a beautiful novel, full of heartache for sure, but also full of love and commitment. The relationship between Bella and Subhash is wonderfully described, as are the reasons that Gauri leaves them. 

I will remember this book for a long time, and it also led me to two even newer works of hers—a non-fiction autobiographical book, In Other Words which she wrote in Italian, and refused to translate into English, though she allowed a friend to do it. And a very small book (really an essay) entitled The Clothing of Books, which is really a book about dust jacket designs for hardback books and cover designs for paperbacks  and how little control authors have over such things.

I believe Lahiri to be one of the finest authors alive, and I recommend all of her work to you.

Monday, April 08, 2019

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman


It’s nice sometimes to read a book just for the delight of it; When God Was a Rabbit is full of delight as well as some wonderful observations on life. I’m sure a lot of you will remember Judy Blume’s wonderful little novel: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  Winman’s novel is in that lofty company. 

It’s a book about a young girl, Elly, and her brother who is five years older than she. Oh, and about a rabbit she is given and without any intention of sacrilege, she names God. Elly often gets into trouble at church, questioning things she should not. When she asks her mother if God loves everyone, “’Of course he does,’ my mother replied.” But her mother is alarmed by the question, and questions further.
‘Do you want to talk about anything?’ she asked quietly, reaching for my hand. (She had started to read a book on child psychology from America. It encouraged us to talk about our feelings. It made us want to clam up.) 
‘Nope,’ I said again through a small mouth. 
It had been a simple misunderstanding. All I had suggested was that Jesus Christ had been a mistake, that was all; an unplanned pregnancy.
‘Unplanned indeed!’ screamed the vicar. ‘And where did you get such blasphemous filth, you ungodly child?' 
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘just an idea’
When told that God does not love those who question his divine plan, she stops attending church. Elly’s father, a religious skeptic, encourages Elly’ rebellion against religion. “’You don’t have to go to Sunday school or church for God to love you ‘Or for anyone to love you. You know that, don’t you?’ 
‘You’ll understand that as you get older,’ he added. But I couldn’t wait that long. I’d already resolved that if this God couldn’t love me, then it was clear I’d have to find another one that could.
After befriending an 80 year old man in her neighborhood, she decides she’d like to be Jewish. She and her best friend, Jenny Penny, and her brother form an hilarious threesome as they skip through their youths. When her father wins a football pool and is suddenly a rich man, his life changes little except that he buys a new Mercedes with tinted windows. When Elly’s mother insists that the car is not them, says she won’t ride in it and then insists that either the car goes or she does, and she does.

I read this book several weeks ago, and one problem with putting off reviews is that by the time I got to this one, I had forgotten much of the story. Instead of simply going through my underlinings and notes, I started the book over, and was as delighted by it on second reading as on the first. This caused me to recall that whenever I used novels in my classes, I always reread each novel as my students were reading it for the first time, wanting not simply to refresh my memory, but to share in the emotional impact of the books which I could not do simply by writing a description. 

Winman was an actress before she became a writer, and it is obvious in the script quality of her dialogue. 
There was no great epiphany, no precise moment when I swapped the spoken word for the written word. I had been acting for twenty-three years and had always written, but mainly in script form, as most actors do.
Fortunate for us readers that she decided to write fiction, and fortunate too that her debut novel was this coming of age tale. While simply a lovely frolic for the most part, there are also darker passages when Elly describes the very different home-life of her best friend Jenny Penny. The simplicity of the writing  makes believable that it is the story of a young girl, but it also allows for a really lovely naivete, a refreshing and revealing innocence. Elly tell us that she divides her life into two parts, the first before she met Jenny Penny, and the rest after that friendship began to blossom. 
She featured not at all during this [early] period and I realize she was the colour that was missing. She clasped the years either side of this waiting and held them up as beacons, and when she arrived in class that dull January morning it was as if she herself was the New Year; the thing that offered me the promise of beyond. But only I could see that. Others, bound by convention, found her at best laughable, and at worst someone to mock. She was of another world; different. But by then, secretly, so was I. She was my missing piece; my compliment in play.
Elly could have been describing herself here rather than Penny, and for this reader, she opens up a new and refreshing world.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Girl In The River by Patricia Kullberg

It is with great pleasure that I talk with you this morning about a splendid novel by a good friend and fellow Old Mole, Patricia Kullberg. I’m not sure how this novel slipped by me in 2015, but it did. While at lunch with another Portland feminist and leftist, Johanna Brenner, in the course of our conversation Johanna asked, “Have you read Patsy’s novel?” No, I was ashamed to say, I had not, and could not really recall it ever being mentioned to me. The novel is Girl in the River, and besides being a rich historical novel about Portland and about the work of one particular Portland woman, it is a wonderfully told story.

Since I knew Patricia had been a physician and Medical Director for Multnomah County Health Department, I expected her novel to be well researched and historically significant, what I did not quite expect was how totally captivating her story would be and how convincing and well fleshed out her characters are. Her main characters are Mabelline (a.k.a. Mae Rose), Mae’s dear friend Trudy, and Dr. Ruth Barnett. Although Patricia hastens to tell the reader that her characters are fictitious and the story a product of her imagination, there can be no doubt that Dr. Barnett is modeled on a real woman—a woman who helped hundreds of women terminate their pregnancies. For many years, Dr. Barnett maintained her clinic under a “longstanding arrangement between the legal establishment and the abortionists.. So long as no woman died, the law looked the other way…And no patient of Ruth Barnett’s had ever died. She was the best. Everyone knew it, from the mayor to the street sweeper.”

Mae comes to know Dr. Barnett because she and Trudy are very sought after prostitutes who are very much a part of the high society of Portland, and Dr. Barnett is also a well known part of that ‘high society’. Mae’s mother ran a boarding house in a small town in Portland, and Mae is her do-everything helper; she helps in the kitchen, cleans the rooms and looks after her hard-working mother. When Mae’s mother, Lilly, dies quite young and unexpectedly, “a man with a pressed shirt and clean nails showed up at the Rose Home for Mill Hands and Lumberjacks. He’d come to take possession not of Mae, but of her home. He was from the bank and had papers to prove they owned it.” For a time she turns to a man she already knows for help;  “She went to live with Mr. Goshorn and his six striplings.” Fortunately for Mae she is able to extricate herself fairly quickly from that slave-like situation, and soon finds herself on the streets of Portland with no money and no real means of employment. She is soon arrested for vagrancy (the catch-all charge used to incarcerate the poor and jobless.” She finds herself in Rocky Butte jail without bail or any likelihood of freedom. Already an avid reader, she is hopeful when she hears that:
Rocky Butte had a library. Mae, picturing the colossal, wood-paneled room of the library downtowns with stacks and stacks of books, had been excited until she surveyed what the jail had—five copies of the Holy Bible; two guides to reading it; several manuals on household crafts, half of which Mae could have written herself; a couple dozen novels like Little Little Women and Pollyanna; and several issues each of Dime Detective and Screen Book, dog-eared and torn up.
Without giving up too much of the story, suffice it to say that Mae is eventually rescued by a woman named Trudy who admits to Mae that she is a prostitute and counsels her to avoid pimps at all costs, and suggests that Mae go into business with her (under the protection of a Madam). “…Mae decided maybe she didn’t mind the big bucks and being her own boss, the fun and the glamor. She liked being admired. She didn’t give a hoot about being loved. Not by a man.”

Mae and Trudy have quite a good life together and genuinely love each other, though Trudy always seems to want more from Mae than she can honestly give.

The descriptions Patricia Kullberg gives of Portland street life and the web of political and police corruption shine with authenticity, and she often quotes or paraphrases from news stories of the time, adding to the veracity of her story.

Eventually, Mae wants out of prostitution, and she manages to talk Dr. Barnett into taking her on as an assistant. Certainly a big step down in income and in the luxuries of her daily life, but for the first time she has work that is deeply meaningful to her, and works for a woman she genuinely admires.

This is a rich and wonderful story; once I started it, I read it up in two days and felt in its thrall for many weeks after. I don’t think I have done justice to the complexity of this tale nor the relationships that Mae has with both men and women. I will close by quoting from the epilogue:
Ruth Barnett continued to perform abortions after she was arrested and her clinic shut down in 1951. She never turned a blind eye to a woman in trouble. She was repeatedly arrested and hauled into court, but did not exhaust her legal appeals until 1967. At the age of seventy-eight and suffering from malignant melanoma, she became the oldest woman ever sent to prison in Oregon. She was paroled five months later and died in 1969, less than four years before the landmark decision, Roe vs. Wade.
Writing this book was obviously a labor of love for Patricia, and it has been a labor of love for me to read it. We can only hope she writes more fiction to go along with her many nonfiction articles and collaborations.

I have been talking about Patricia Kullberg’s novel, Girl in the River.