About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

#13: The Namesake

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri (New York: Random House Audio, 2003)

"Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies established this young writer as one of the most brilliant of her generation. Her stories are one of the few debut works -- and only a handful of collections -- to have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Among the many other awards and honors it received were the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, the PEN/ Hemingway Award, and the highest critical praise for its grace, acuity, and compassion in detailing lives transported from India to America.

"In The Namesake, Lahiri enriches the themes that made her collection an international bestseller: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the conflicts of assimilation, and, most poignantly, the tangled ties between generations. Here again Lahiri displays her deft touch for the perfect detail -- the fleeting moment, the turn of phrase -- that opens whole worlds of emotion.

"The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name.

"Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs, With penetrating insights, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves. The New York Times has praised Lahiri as 'a writer of uncommon elegance and poise.' The Namesake is a fine-tuned, intimate, and deeply felt novel of identity."

Opening Line:
"On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl."

My Take:
Simply exquisite. Listened to this one on CD on a drive downstate and back, somewhere in between 11/22/63 and State of Wonder, and wow ... what a gorgeous book. Perhaps it's that Gogol is just 2 years older than I am and so much of his coming of age mirrors my own, maybe it's Lahiri's seemingly effortless combination of those challenges unique to the child of immigrants with those common to all American (or hyphenated American) adolescents. Or the perfection with which the novel captures tiny but telling details; if I warmed to Ashima on the first page, trying to re-create a favorite Calcutta street food in Boston circa '68 in the last few weeks of pregnancy cravings, I absolutely adored her by page 8, when she looks back on the day 2 years earlier on which she first laid eyes on Ashoke:
"Glancing at the floor where visitors customarily removed their slippers, she noticed, beside two sets of chappals, a pair of men's shoes that were not like any she'd ever seen on the streets and trams and buses of Calcutta, or even in the windows of Bata. They were brown shoes with black heels and off-white laces and stitching. There was a band of lentil-sized holes embossed on either side of each shoe, and at the tips was a pretty pattern pricked into the leather as if with a needle. Looking more closely, she saw the shoemaker's name written on the insides, in gold lettering that had all but faded: something and sons, it said, She saw the size, eight and a half, and the initials U.S.A. And as her mother continued to sing her praises, Ashima, unable to resist a sudden and overwhelming urge, stepped into the shoes at her feet. Lingering sweat from the owner's feet mingled with hers, causing her heart to race: it was the closest thing she had ever experienced to the touch of a man."
You (or at least I) can't help but feel the same tenderness for Gogol, Ashoke, and even some of the more minor characters like Ruth, Gogol's first real girlfriend, and Moushumi, who he eventually marries. (I did not, however, ever warm to his post-college love interest, the spoiled rich Manhattanite Maxine.)

I could go on, and on, and on ... but truly, this is one of those books I was sad to finish because I didn't want to let the characters go.

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