Monday, February 29, 2016

Typee by Herman Melville

During the time I lived among the Typees, no one was ever put upon his trial for any offence against the public.  To all appearances there were no courts of law or equity.  There was no municipal police for the purpose of apprehending vagrants and disorderly characters.  In short, there were no legal provisions whatever for the well-being and conservation of society, the enlightened end of civilized legislation.  And yet everything went on in the valley with a harmony and smoothness unparalleled, I will venture to assert, in the most select, refined, and pious associations of mortals in Christendom.  How are we to explain this enigma?  These islanders were heathens! savages! ay, cannibals! and how came they, without the aid of established law, to exhibit, in so eminent a degree, that social order which is the greatest blessing and highest pride of the social state!

Brent expressed to me the other day the opinion that Melville gets something of a bad rap based on Moby Dick.  Truthfully, Melville was better known in his day for adventure novels like Typee, which details the life of a man who has abandoned his service in a whaling boat, only to fall captive to a native group of Polynesian islanders.  You can see that in Moby Dick, of course, which is an adventure novel that became something else entirely.  Typee doesn't have the explosive virtuosity of Moby Dick, but it does have the special benefit of being kind of true--Melville himself spent months marooned among the Typee, renowned for their vicious cannibalism.

For the narrator, Tommo, the Typee islanders fail to live up to their bloodthirsty reputation.  To the contrary, what he finds in the Typee valley is a utopian paradise with abundant food, natural beauty, no crime, and a life marked by leisure and camaraderie.  The Typee adopt him as, if not one of their own, something more sacred, marked by the mysterious "Taboo" that structures their religion and habits.  Tommo even has a gal Friday, a beautiful native named Fayaway who is devoted to him.

The Typees are your typical "noble savages," and Melville goes out of his way to point out that they lack institutions of law, as well as Christian theology.  What good is civilization, if the most prosperous places lack it?  He compares the Typees to the native Hawaiians, suffering under the introduction of white colonialism, disease, and social unrest.  Yet Tommo is unable to devote himself completely to the Typee lifestyle--he refuses, for instance, to let his face be tattooed in a scene that approaches slapstick comedy.  He schemes to get away, despite his ready admission that Typee society is far superior to his own.  Tommo's inability to relinquish his European life is another facet of Melville's criticism; why, he asks, can we not let go of what we know does us no good?

But the noble savage hypothesis is stupid, and it does the complexity of pre-colonial civilizations no real favors.  Typee is awesome not because of its politics but because it's a rousing adventure story, and a comedy of manners, although the manners are unfamiliar ones.  If you can go for the ride--unlike Tommo--it's a lot of fun.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson translated by W.S. Merwin & Takako Lento

When you grow chrysanthemums
you become a servant

of chrysanthemums

The East Mountain
tries to hold onto the night
but the daybreak can't wait

A kite is flying
just where it flew
in yesterday's sky

For some months now, in fact, I think it's been two years, I've had this book on my night stand. And, when the mood strikes me, I'd pick it up, read between three and twenty haiku, and then go to bed. This would normally occur if I were not ready for bed, had nothing else I felt like reading (e.g., my only option is an oppressively long chapter in a novel I only kind of like), and had already exhausted all the pleasures I could derive from the internet-machine.

Yosa Buson's grave.
My familiarity with poetry is quite terrible. Indeed, this is the one of only two books of poetry I've ever logged in my Fifty Books Project days. (the other is The Poetry of Sappho; arguably it does not count because it was during a year that I logged only four books and did zero reviews).

Nonetheless, I have a soft spot for haiku. I like writing haiku; I like boiling something down into seventeen syllables. And I like reading haiku. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed reading Buson's haiku.

The collection featured many poems about nature. It is divided into topics, which is helpful if I some day find myself needing a haiku or two about new years (as I did for a new year's party we had at the beginning of the year).

I would recommend this book for precisely how I read it. A book to have on hand, when the mood strikes, to read a couple of poems and put down again. If you're unfamiliar with haiku, you might start with Basho, who is rightfully considered the foremost master. Buson is a nice follow-up, though, so worth the read.

Now what will I do
When the haiku mood strikes me
Without Buson there?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

When Frank had been a small boy and they had lived on the site, the first sign of spring that couldn't be mistaken had been a protesting voice, the voice of the water, when the ice melted under the covered wooden footpath between the house and the factory.  The ice there wasn't affected by the stoves in the house or the assembly-shop furnace, the water freed itself by its own effort, and once it had begun to run in a chattering stream, the whole balance of the year tilted over.

Frank is an English printer living in Moscow with his wife and children--until his wife leaves, giving no reason, and unceremoniously depositing their three kids at a distant railway station.  Frank is baffled by his wife's decision, which no one can account for, but he is too successful and pragmatic to let it keep him from going on with the daily necessities of life.  He brings in a simple and taciturn young nanny, Lisa Ivanovna, and--wouldn't you guess it--quickly falls in love with her.  (For reasons, I might add, as inscrutable as his wife's sudden departure.)

All of this takes place against the background of the late winter thaw in Moscow, and the coming of Spring.  But what's the symbolic value of that?  Does it emphasize the great change that comes upon Frank's life when his wife abandons him, and suggest a greater happiness lies with Lisa Ivanovna?  Or, does it suggest the coming revolution--signified also by the student agitator, caught with a gun late one night in Frank's printing shop?  Frank's assistant, Selwyn, is an English devotee of Tolstoy who has just composed a book of poems called Birch Tree Thoughts, which seem to suggest that the earth has something to say to us, if we can only listen.  Later, in an eerie scene uncharacteristic of Fitzgerald's work, we see a cultish bunch of Tolstoyites emerge from a dark forest, where they have been literally hugging trees.

The Beginning of Spring has all the hallmarks that make Fitzgerald's books so terrific: the wit and humor, the finely drawn and clearly individuated characters, like Frank's no-nonsense daughter Dolly, the spacey Selwyn, and Kuriatin, the brash Russian merchant.  And though I'm no expert, Fitzgerald seems as impossibly at home in turn-of-the-century Russia as she did in the Romantic Germany of The Blue Flower.  And though it didn't have the compelling human-ness of that novel, or Innocence or At Freddie's, it does contain this awesome piece of dialogue, which I will leave here, without comment:

"Why is that bear on fire?"

There's only one Fitzgerald book left for me to read: The Golden Child, which seems to be regarded as sort of a trial run before Fitzgerald found her voice in The BookshopThat will be a sad moment for me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lexicon by Max Barry

"We attempt to conceal ourselves, Emily, but the truth is we do not entirely want to be concealed. We want to be found. Every poet, sooner or later, discovers this: that within perfect walls there is nothing worth protecting. There is, in fact, nothing. And so we exchange privacy for intimacy. We gamble with it, hoping that by exposing ourselves, someone may find a way in. This is why the human animal will always be vulnerable: because it wants to be."
In Max Barry's Lexicon, "poets" are members of an underground organization that trains them to use language to manipulate others. Through (increasingly sinister) historical and psychological research, they've identified specific sounds that short circuit the brain and give poets complete control over others. Once you get over the mild Harry Potterness of the premise, it works.

The book is completely immersive. It's fast paced from the first page and follows two story lines at breakneck speeds until they eventually merge. Along with the action (which is plentiful), there is just the right amount of intrigue/mystery to keep you hooked. The pacing and suspense can make it feel a little bit like a YA novel at times, but there is just the right amount of nerdiness--decent amounts of Latin and Biblical references, a fake Reddit thread--to make you feel like a grown up while reading it.

The female protagonist (who also spends a significant amount of time as an antagonist) is a total badass, and you can't help but root for her even when she's destroying most of the people around her. She's convincingly vulnerable and angry and, once you buy into the premise, convincingly good at the whole brain short circuitry gig. Once she catches on, she also effectively mirrors the reader's outrage at the horrors of what she's doing.

In the book's reality, the organization manages to cover up each instance of brainwashing with odd cover stories that sound an awful lot like real life news stories. Throughout the book, Barry sprinkles faux articles, internet posts and comment threads, and emails about these cover stories where regular people start to question what is actually going on. This is where the book somewhat loses me. Barry veers into social criticism a little too blatantly and hits you over the head with what you're supposed to think. Like this gem on data gathering:
I'm not a privacy nut, and I don't care that much if these organizations want to know where I go and what I buy, But what bothers me is how HARD they're all working for that data, how much money they're spending, and how they never admit  that's what they want. It means that information msut really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why. 
Overall, Lexicon is a fun, engaging read. It takes itself a little too seriously at times, but once you get past that piece, it's totally worth it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Familiar, Vol. 2: Into the Forest by Mark Z. Danielewski

When the apocalypse comes no one will know it as anything but ordinary even in its finality.

Especially in its finality.

If House of Leaves did one thing well, better than any other novel or author that I've read, it was being creepy. House of Leaves was creepy in excess. It was unnerving. Scenes and descriptions got under my skin. To this day, I think about scenes from that novel and how scary it would be to experience them in real life.

The Familiar Vol. 2: Into the Forest brings Danielewski back to that kind of writing. Don't get me wrong, it is still no where near as unnerving as House of Leaves. But we're getting the stronger hints that something has gone awry in the family who is the focal point of the novel.

The cat/kitten, who appears at the end of Vol. 1, begins to have a strange effect on the other family members. Xanther, the daughter who found the cat, has some sort of symbiotic relationship with the cat. She gradually gets more and more ill as she spends time away from the cat. Xanther's parents are vaguely unnerved by the cat--Xanther's mother hates the cat and does not understand why.

And strange things begin happening.

A cat photo felt appropriate.
I don't want to say what, because part of the pleasure of the novel, as with House of Leaves is in experiencing these strange occurrences as the reader. Nonetheless, I will say, it is strangeness in the same category as House of Leaves; which is to say, it is Danielewski writing what he is best at.

My criticisms for the first volume stand: there are still too many plot lines. However, the damage is mitigated by the fact that we now have twice as much context for the various other plot lines and their characters. I suspect that as the other volumes are released, this will be less and less an issue for readers. (Though, it's difficult to say because the novels appear to be slowing down in their publication.)

Moreover, the distraction of the other plot lines was less difficult because the main plot line, that of Xanther and the cat, has become dramatically more interesting. That's to say, as a reader, I was willing to forgive Danielewski the chapters that were less interesting because the more interesting chapters were really great. And, to some extent, I trust that it's going somewhere.

Indeed, this volume ends with a major cliffhanger that will bridges two plot lines previously separate. (and so, I'm eagerly awaiting Vol. 3).

For those of you considering jumping in: the water's pretty warm, but, though the water's plenty comfortable for me, I'm not yet ready to tell other people to jump in. I think by Volume 3, though, I'll be ready to start strongly recommending the novels. That said, at this point, you're only two novels behind (assuming they're each normal 300-page novels, you're only 600 normal pages behind).

Rest assured, though, I will continue reviewing, in installments.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that but more than ever as they were, and more, and more.

Loitering with Intent is the fictional memoir of Fleur, a young woman in London in 1949 trying to make it as a writer. We follow her through a few pivotal months in her life as she recounts the writing and publishing of her first novel and her time as the secretary for an Autobiographical Association turned cult. The book is at turns lyrical, sarcastic, and brilliant.

I am a total sucker for good opening lines, and Spark had me hook, line, and sinker from the start:

One day in middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me. He was shy and smiling, he might have been coming over the grass to ask me for a game of tennis. He only wanted to know what I was doing but plainly he didn't like to ask. I told him I was writing a poem, and offered him a sandwich which he refused as he had just had his dinner, himself. He stopped to talk awhile, then he said good-bye, the graves must be very old, and that he wished me good luck and that it was nice to speak to somebody.
I love how much we learn in this first paragraph, how much happens. I also love the image of a woman sitting in a graveyard in the middle of London writing a poem and eating a sandwich. I like my first sentences to give me enough of a framework to follow what happens in the coming pages, but leave enough questions open that I want to keep reading; Sparks does exactly this.

Scattered throughout the book are descriptions of Fleur's writing process as she finishes Warrender Chase, the novel within a novel she is wrapping up and pitching to publishers.
My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or, lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better. All day long, when I was busy with the affairs of the Autobiographical Association, I had my unfinished novel personified almost as  secret companion and accomplice following me like a shadow wherever I went, whatever I did. I took no notes, except in my mind
As with the opening paragraph, we have a sentence that by most standards would be too long. It tumbles through clauses and phrases before resolving with "it was like being in love and better." It shouldn't work, but does.  These meditations on writing are some of my favorite parts of the book. The joy and release of writing is captured with such clarity; she makes it sound like breathing, making me both jealous and itching to put pen to paper.

When she isn't capturing the writing process we all wish we had, Spark is busy building fantastic characters. Fleur herself is a little flighty but also a fantastic, observant commentator on the world around her. She introduces us to Sir Quentin, the leader of this literary society who is hilariously pretentious and obsessed with rank and title (and also, it turns out, totally insane). As time goes on, Fleur's suspicions that he is up to no good become more and more founded. At one point, over the course of just a few pages, three different Association/cult members remind Fleur that Sir Quentin "insists on complete frankness." Fleur immediately sees how ridiculous the situation has gotten (Sir Quentin is the least frank character I've seen in a while) and turns the phrase back against Sir Quentin brilliantly soon after. We meet Edwina, Sir Quentin's mother whose "green teeth" and "raised, blood red fingernail accompanied by her shrieking voice" horrify her son and delight Fleur. Dottie, the wife of Fleur's lover, sings Auld Lang Syne outside Fleur's window when she wants to chat, says prayers for Fleur's soul, and simultaneously seems to be Fleur's best friend and nemesis. Even the "evil" characters are so overblown that they're endearing.

I really relished reading this. The novel within a novel trope, which I usually find obnoxious, is pulled off perfectly. Sparks uses Fleur's novel to foreshadow build suspense in her own. The plot is nicely paced, the characters endearingly bizarre, and Fleur serves as the perfect guide to it all. My only complaint was that it was too short!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

L'Arabe Du Futur by Riad Sattouf

My mom gave me these books for Christmas, and I set out to read them mostly because I know nothing about Syria and need some serious French practice. Sattouf speaks from the perspective of his two to six year old self, telling the story of his childhood in France, Libya, and Syria, and shifts color schemes as he moves from country to country. His memories from France are tinted blue, Syria red, and Libya, yellow, a device that felt a little forced at first, but that I ended up really liking. 

The bulk of the texts takes place in Syria, and while the drawings are highly stylized, the brutality and poverty of life in rural Syria under Hafez al-Assad is palpable. Most of the more horrific aspects are somewhat glazed over; the stories are told through the eyes of Sattouf as tiny kid. That being said, there are horrifying moments of violence and loss of innocence that stick with you. Early on in their life in Syria, Sattouf watches out a window while a group of kids finds a puppy and then kicks it almost to death before impaling it on a pitchfork. Sattouf's father, obsessed with hunting, takes him out and shoots the only game they can find--sparrows perched on a telephone wire. The next frame zooms in on what Sattouf sees when he goes to collect their haul: the sparrow's feet, blown apart from their bodies, still clinging to the telephone wire. Sattouf's style is all curves and bold lines; images like these are rendered in the same cartoony style as the rest of the book, making them that much more haunting.

As could probably be expected, the treatment of women in Syria does not come across well. Sattouf's mother, a blonde frenchwoman, is permanently aghast and exhausted by the smallness of her life in Syria and the wretchedness of the lives of women around her. We see her through her young son's eyes, so this attitude comes through in small details (her hunched posture and bagged eyes are sometimes labelled to draw our attention to them), and occasional huge outbursts at her seemingly oblivious husband. I would have liked to see more of her internal life and thoughts, but that's a clear limit of the genre, not of Sattouf as a writer.

My favorite moment was when Sattouf starts to read French. He's been studying Arabic in school, but his mother has been slowly teaching him French at home. His family has a stack of Tin Tin comics which Sattouf has been "reading" on his own, making up stories to go with the pictures. One day, he picks up one of the books, and realizes that his is able to decipher words from the squiggles. He is amazed and delighted--the stories Herge wrote are even better than those Sattouf imagined. I love this scene for so many reasons. The vast majority of discoveries Sattouf makes are corrupting; to get to witness a more innocent breakthrough was a very refreshing oasis of hope. Second, I have a vivid memory of EXACTLY THIS MOMENT with Tin Tin comics. Sattouf is totally right. Herge is a way better storyteller than the seven year old imagination. Finally, there is a clear, Herge-esque quality to Sattouf's drawings. This moment was a nice nod to that bridge.

Overall, the books were more interesting as a character study of a confused third culture kid than they were as an account of Syrian culture. Because the whole thing is remembered through the eyes of a small child, the scope is small. The details are salient and feel real, but a lot of the bigger context is missing; possibly purposely since Sattouf himself wouldn't have had context beyond snippets of news and overheard adult conversation at the time.

The first volume is out here and the second is coming soon. If you like graphic novels: highly recommend.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

Strickland perplexed me.  I could not understand his motives.  When I had asked him what first gave him the idea of being a painter, he was unable or unwilling to tell me.  I could make nothing of it.  I tried to persuade myself that an obscure feeling of revolt had been gradually coming to a head in his slow mind, but to challenge this was the undoubted fact that he had never shown any impatience with the monotony of his life.  If, seized by an intolerable boredom, he had determined to be a painter merely to break with irksome ties, it would have been comprehensible, and commonplace; but commonplace is precisely what I felt he was not.  at last, because i was romantic, I devised an explanation which I acknowledged to be far-fetched, but which was the only one that in any way satisfied me.  It was this: I asked myself whether was not in his soul some deep-rooted instinct of creation, which the circumstances of his life had obscured, but which grew relentlessly, as a cancer may grow in the living tissues, till at last it took possession of his whole being and forced him irresistibly to action.  The cuckoo lays its eggs in the strange birds  nest, and when the young one is hatched it shoulders its foster-brothers out and breaks at last the nest that has sheltered it.

Charles Strickland leaves his job as a stockbroker and his wife and children in London to become a painter in Paris, eventually escaping to the isolation of Tahiti.  His life is based not-so-roughly on that of Paul Gaugin, who also abandoned his family to paint, and who lived the last years of his life in Tahiti, and who was, by all accounts, an enormous asshole.  Maugham stretches his characterization of Gaugin to the extreme, making him a callous, perhaps psychopathic narcissist devoid entirely of empathy.  He makes it clear to the narrator, who travels to Paris to interrogate him on behalf of his wife, that he cares very little whether she misses him, or whether she can survive.  One gets the impression from reading The Moon and Sixpence that the only reason Maugham gave the Gaugin-figure the slight disguise of a fictional name is because he didn't want to get sued out of existence for libel.

One question that The Moon and Sixpence is mercifully not very interested in is, how do we approach the art of obviously bad people?  I feel like we have this conversation all the time, whether it's Cosby or Polanski or Tolstoy.  Strickland is very bad; the main crisis of the novel occurs when he casually pries an associate's wife away from him, and then looks the other way as she kills herself by swallowing acid because he failed to love her.  But Maugham introduces the question with a brief accounting of the fame that Strickland has received since his death, and dismisses the question with a wave of the hand: his critics obsess over the personal details of Strickland's sordid life, but nothing Strickland has done can obviate the vitality and innovation of his paintings.

The Moon and Sixpence asks what I think is a much more interesting question: What if the capacity for genius in art precludes things like basic decency, humanity, and empathy?  We praise artists who are sui generis, who can see past the limitations of genre and history to a new kind of art.  What if that is only by possible by rejecting the burdens placed on us by friendship, family, and love?  Strickland doesn't even want fame--his last great act is to paint a masterpiece on the walls of his Tahitian hut while becoming blind from leprosy, and then make his Tahitian wife promise that she will burn it down when he dies.  That's what we want, after all, a devotion to art for art's sake, but there is much that can be sacrificed to that ideal.

The most interesting thing about The Moon and Sixpence is that, it seems to me, Maugham envies the narcissism of his central character.  Let me show you what I mean.  First of all, Maugham cannily makes us wait for most of the novel to "see" one of Strickland's paintings, which for the narrator turns out to be disorienting and disappointing:

I knew nothing of the simplicity at which he aimed.  I remembered a still-life of oranges on a plate, and  I was bothered because the plate was not round and the oranges were lop-sided.  The portraits were a little larger than life-size, and this gave them an ungainly look.  To my eyes the faces looked like caricatures.  They were painted in a way that was entirely new to me.  The landscape puzzled me even more.  There were two or three pictures of the forest and Fontainebleau and several of streets in Paris: my first feeling was that they might have been painted by a drunken cab-driver.  I was perfectly bewildered.  It passed through my mind that the whole thing was a stupendous, incomprehensible farce.  Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve's acuteness.  He saw from the first that here was a revolution in art, and he recognized in its beginnings the genius which now all the world allows.

The narrator tells us that Strickland "did not hesitate to simplify or distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought."  The narrator himself distorts Strickland's story, by his own admission, but the distortions are not the kind to get us nearer to any sort of unknown truth.  Rather, they do things like "clean up" Strickland's language and cajole his story into the neat, linear "unreality of fiction."  The plot about Strickland and the artist's wife seems wholly manufactured, perhaps imported from a melodramatic film.  Maugham's prose is tame and unadventurous; he aligns himself with his narrator, who is a moderately successful novelist who by his own admission "will continue to write moral stories in rhymed couplets."  Books about art are always about the books themselves, in a way, and it's hard to ignore the disconnect between Strickland's/Gaugin's way of painting and the narrator's/Maugham's way of writing.  The richest and saddest way of reading The Moon and Sixpence is to believe that Maugham has a great sympathy for Strickland's genius, and a melancholy regret that he cannot share it.  The best he can do is appreciate it:

But one fact was made clear to me: people talk of beauty lightly, and having no feeling for words, they use that one carelessly, so that it loses its force; and the thing it stands for, sharing its name with a hundred trivial objects, is deprived of dignity. They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and when they are face to face with Beauty they cannot recognize it.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

In my son's eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world.  In a few years he will graduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected.  But I remind myself that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong.  Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, there is no obstacle he cannot conquer.  While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years.  I know that my achievement is quite ordinary.  I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first.  Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.  As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

I did not enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, which seemed to me to obsess over superficial things--meals, houses, knicknacks, lifestyles--without any interest in their deeper implications.  Gogol, the protagonist of that novel, lives a life which is carefully constructed by Lahiri to seem both ordinary and American, and while I stick by that criticism, it's worth conceding that the contrast between Gogol's life and the lives lived by his parents, immigrants from Bengal, is much to the novel's interest.  I think Lahiri's interest in the banal and the ordinary works much better in the stories of Interpreter of Maladies, where the same superficial things can assume a meaningful presence in the more limited confines of short fiction.

As with The Namesake, Lahiri's subject is the intersection of American and Indian identities, and she gives us a host of characters who grapple with that duality: Indian immigrants to America, first-generation American-Indians vacationing in India, white Americans sleeping with Indian-Americans, etc., etc.  She has a special affinity for studying this duality through the eyes of children.  Sometimes this is effective, as in the story "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," in which a young narrator contemplates the plight of the title figure, who visits her parents every night to watch the news about the civil war in Bangladesh, where his wife and children are, thousands of miles away.  Sometimes it does not, as in the story "Sexy," about a white woman having an affair with Indian man.  The narrator of that story has an Indian friend who frets over the adultery of her cousin's husband.  The narrator ends up babysitting this cousin's son, who calls her "sexy"--just like her married lover did--and when the narrator presses the boy to say what he means by that, he defines it as "loving someone you don't know... That's why my father did... He sat next to someone he didn't know, someone sexy, and now he loves her instead of my mother."  From the mouths of babes, I guess.

But the best stories here, I think, are the ones that take place in India.  The title story, about a tour guide who develops something of an obsession with an unhappily married American-Indian woman, mines the cultural divide for a deeper, more universal resonance.  He tells her that he works part time interpreting in Gujarati for a local doctor; she confesses that one of her children is not her husband's.  Western notions of love have failed her, she is unhappy, but he is not a doctor, only an interpreter, and if there is wisdom to be gleaned from her own familial homeland she is unable to access it.  The best story, "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," ignores the question of American identity all together, focusing instead on a chronically sick woman's yearning for marriage.  It has a touch of irony that seems unique among all of Lahiri's earnestness, and for that reason it really stands out.

Lahiri's style is simple and unadorned, blanched of any kind of excess or ornamentation.  It is as self-consciously unmarked as the narrator of "This Blessed House," whose keen desire to fit in is undermined by his new wife, who keeps finding plaster statues of Jesus around the house.  In the context, that seems like a meaningful choice.  In The Namesake I found it tiring, but here it doesn't wear out its welcome, and instead allows Lahiri to uncover a great deal of meaning.