Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri
Houghton Mifflin, 1999

UnknownIn all nine short stories included in this 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, Lahiri seems to be inserting a karmic math to her stories. Characters are unable to see or they clearly see their life situation reflected in mundane events surrounding them. They range from the cover of evening darkness due to the power company to the last story’s running parallel math of culture changes by moving from India to America versus living to be one hundred years old.

The writing is excellent and is consistent in tone with a center in the story of internal desperation. A young couple in the first story is grieving a stillborn death and in the darkness of their separate and different griefs begin to make confessions during in the dark when the lights go out.

In the namesake Interpreter of Maladies, a tour guide disappointed in his life and circumstances imagines nuances and flirtations in a client that let him live briefly in hope.

The last story seems a mathematics story problem of seeing the

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

world change before your eyes in ways that seem impossible to overcome and accept as good. A young college graduate in Boston rents a room for a woman over a hundred years old who dresses as they did in the 1890s and is appalled at morality changes and that man is on the moon. Against that the student anticipates and lives through the first awkward months of his Indian bride’s arrival who has never been outside her village or away from her parents.

All the stories are told through the lens of contemporary Indian culture, often suffused with American or British culture. Sometimes the people are well-educated men and women living academic lives in Boston or New York. Other times they are told through the eyes of people who have never left India, but Lahiri gracefully writes it with the same ear to the heartbeat of need, fantasy, and fear.

The story problems work out. Or rather they end. Literary fiction is defined by a heavy and serious depiction of what is written as “real” in “real lives”. There are few if any laughs, few murders, plenty of suicides, lots of depressed grad students, and a general lack of romance that continues to happily ever after. At the end of reading the reader usually feels enlightened to “real” life, but feels no better for it.

There are no suicides or murders in this book and more people are depressed than just grad students, but Lahiri handles their puppet strings well and at the end I feel a bit more enlightened that yes, as Thoreau indicated, most people live lives of quiet desperation.

New word learned: Auscultation – the act of listening to sounds arising with organs as a tool in diagnosis.
Sentence in book: After x-rays, probes, auscultations, and injections, some merely advised BiBi to gain weight, others to lose it.

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Refugee Children and Private School Rich Children, Tens of Thousands Flood to U.S.

Is it just me or does this seem odd to others, too?

Situation 1: Thousands of children have crossed the Mexico to U.S. border in the last months from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. They are needy, hungry, mostly alone, and very poor. Some communities have gathered to help and then there’s the story out of Murietta, California where angry, picketing people turned away a bus of children.

The U.S. for all its yammering about border crossings, has had very little experience with refugees. The last great flood was in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended. In the end it did create a sea change of restaurant choices, but over thirty years later doesn’t seem to have undone the fabric of the nation. I’m getting off track. Back to my point.


Situation 2: This week it was reported that “tens of thousands” of foreign students, particularly Asian were applying to and getting into U.S. high schools with the intention of continuing into U.S. colleges. No one is picketing.

My off track comment on this fact before returning to my point is, how does this unintended result of changing our free public education to charter schools effect our children?

Now to my first of two points: It is duplicitous, blind-to-the-larger picture, and another strike in favor of the 1% that the media and too many citizens don’t see that our “fight” with the people south of our border who come thirsty, hungry, and begging for help is against people who come to lowest paid service jobs while the rich are flying overhead, laptops in hand, getting educated at the top levels, and taking the jobs we should really be squealing about.

My second of two points: Well, duh! How long did we think we could get away with growing all our marijuana, etc., in poor, desperate countries without gang wars and syndicates not forming to keep the money and enslave, torture its own people? And how long should they watch their families die and wait to be next?

I’m not making this up. Please see the Sunday, July 13, 2014 New York Times article by Sonia Nozario.

Wow! What a parallel between our gluttonous need for both drugs and crude oil on other countries and the detrimental effects that eventually, in one form or another, come home.

Are Colorado and Washington the states that are finally bringing out a little antiseptic for this wound? The very same week this is going on the sale of recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado.

Can we use the headlines in USA Today as a cosmic message for our answer to the problems on our southern border?

I don’t know the best course in dealing with the children from Central America except to afford them what our laws tell us to do and what our humanitarian selves compel as our best action.

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The Coven Circle of Revising


All chapters lined up to be put in circle.

All chapters lined up to be put in circle.

I’m all for mind magic, imagination, flights of fantasy, intelligent alter egos, and inviting muses, guardian angels, and ghosts. I’ll take my help from a gifted teacher, luck, a chance remark by a waitress, or a homeless person with something meaningful to say.

Especially at this point in writing a book-length manuscript. Here’s where I’ve been so far in this tumultuous historical fiction relationship.

There was a flash of inspiration. (Is that heaven or hell?)
It fermented to obsessive size.
I semi-organized thoughts and notes and wrote it. Three hundred eleven pages.
I am now overwhelmed by the changes, details, and story flummoxes that need fixing.

This doesn’t feel like the holy grail of fun novel writing. It feels like washing and waxing a Greyhound bus after a hurricane. On a hot summer day. In the sun. Alone.
It is book #5 and this is what works best for me at this point.

Hail in the muses! Invite ghosts and sprites of intuition. Ransack! With intent, pillage creativity. Make every word, idea, and scene justify itself to survive.Tell fear, exhaustion, impatience, and the nauseatingly prim Mistress of Time Management to vamoose.

Welcome to the Coven Circle of Revising. The steps:

Circle arranged.

Circle arranged.

1. Paperclip all chapters separately.

2. Arrange in circle.

3. Step in circle and commune. After judgment is gagged and tied in a dark basement or thrown over the fence to neighbor’s yard, open the heart and mind. Invite the chapters to chat amiably, productively, without my interference. Let them discuss the matter privately while I go about my life. They are as free as I am. They are to consider their combined future, I am to enjoy life without them. Eavesdropping only happens in night dreams. Let chapter discussion continue uninterrupted for a minimum of three to seven days.

Left to their own devices.

Left to their own devices.

Full moon is preferred, but the Creator of All Things does not require a puny night light to work.

4. Step into circle and proceed to listen to best points of discussion. Make note.

5. Revise.

Posted in Not the Grocery List, Writing and Creativity Outpost | Tagged , , , , , | 22 Comments

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Anya von Bremzen
Crown Publishers, 2013

9780307886811_custom-1007aebba5cbb497b76e89b257c398a450929429-s2-c85This book circled back to me because I gave it to my mother for Christmas. She traveled to the USSR in 1978 and she loves travel and cookbooks. It seemed like a slam dunk present and it was. So much so that she wanted to share it with me. She loved when von Bremzen wrote her family story that takes the reader from the 1910s to the 2000s.

Every chapter is a decade that combines history, family story, and of course reminiscences on food, or in this case, often the lack of it. Don’t expect a reference book anywhere near Julia Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The title is misleading as an attempt to slide in under Child’s fame, which is too bad because it also is unnecessary.

The book has a merit of its own. It is a generational recap without the messiness of a soul emptying memoir that includes ample politics and history to give a clearer picture of history no one ever learned in high school. Simplistically, the U.S. has a history of only a few centuries that has been defined by westward expansion and the power of individualism. For thousands of years, Russian history has been defined by a long series of despot leaders who took advantage of an uneducated and hungry people.

Von Bremzen comes from a family that at times struggles to survive living in a state-

An iconic Russian photo aspiring home cooks were to imitate.

An iconic Russian photo aspiring home cooks were to imitate.

owned apartment the size of a trailer with several families though her grandfather is in the respected intelligence work during the Cold War. Mother Larisa came from a loving, relatively secure family, though not many American memoirists with the same description could tell of grandma’s walking trip to claim a philandering grandpa and inadvertently spend the night in a battle trench with frozen amputated arms and legs. Von Bremzen’s father grew up as much on the streets as he did in the apartment where his cheery, lovable prostitute mother lived.

Mom Larisa was the dreamer who as a child believed there was more and someday she would experience it. It took until 1974, when von Bremzen was a young teenager, but at last the two of them emigrated to the U.S. The memoir is sketchy at this point but there is good information about the shock of American food that is equally divided between awe and disgust. No longer in the country of potato peel pancakes and millet, she was appalled by bad bread and flavorless strawberries.

Anya von Bremzen

Anya von Bremzen

More than a book of food and history, this is a peek into Russian character. There is a wicked sense of humor and six interesting paradoxes of “mature socialism”. They start with “There’s no unemployment but no one works,” and ends with “No one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes.”

Don’t read this book for the recipes though there are a few tucked in the back as an afterthought. A few would be worth trying out of curiosity. The nostalgic childhood invitation to Russian food is as if I told you about a childhood 4th of July picnic. I’d love to be there enjoying it with you, but I don’t need to make it. Instead, enjoy the book as a brush-up on modern Russia, food history, and an emigrant’s life who made good.

Posted in A Book Stream Review, Eating is for Everyone | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments