251 of 283 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simple. Sparse. Perfection
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn out soil. My children ... shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." This quote, which was a revelation to me, so much so that I redid my work e-mail "inspiration quote" signature to put it it,...
Published on April 12, 2008 by James Hiller
205 of 241 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant, but not brilliant prose
I don't want to criticize Jhumpa for always choosing the same milieu and the same class of Ivy League privileged Bengali families in the US. It's all well known and she doesn't try to deny it. But what seems most disappointing about her writing is that we have the impression she is constantly recycling the same characters, who although sometimes flawed, always seem...
Published on April 14, 2008 by Monika
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251 of 283 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simple. Sparse. Perfection,
This is the first book I have read of hers, and it simply does not disappoint. Eight stories are so intricately woven with their words and themes that each in itself is a beautiful work of art, and yet together, form the basis of a masterpiece. Former author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake (movie tie-in edition), Lahiri's carrying on her success with this new bunch. The book starts with the story named after the book, a story about a Bengali woman named Ruma and her father who comes to visit her from Pennsylvania. Cultures and expectations collide as these two virtual strangers learn to exist with each other without the familiar glue of her mother, who passed away only months before. A garden, her mixed race son, and a secret love, permeate the layers of this opening story that literally leave you breathless by stories end. Similar themes are woven through the other seven stories, some which I liked more than others, but all of them written with such scope and craft.
Reading a story written by Lahiri is like sitting in a well ordered, immaculate living room, with a rich, fragrant onion sitting in front of you. As you delve into the story, you peel back the layers of the onion, and the exactitude and preciseness of her stories marvel, and the scent of the onion, not bitter or harsh, but rich and alluring, fill that perfect room, so much so that by the end, all of yours senses are heightened, and you may possibly have tears in your eyes.
It's as if Lahiri wrote her stories, and took a literary comb and brushed out all of the extra verbs, nouns, and adjectives (most which can clutter today's fiction), leaving only the essential words behind, creating an exquisite picture. People have compared Lahiri's writing to Hemingway. I sense more of Michael Cunningham, who also strives for leximic precision. Both Cunningham and Lahiri's writing is character centered, creates worlds of inner conflict, and flows like a beautiful river.
After just reading the first story, I told five people of this marvelous new book, and highly recommend you to that if you want to marvel in the worlds created by Lahiri, this is the perfect place to start.
85 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Accustomed to Success - A Fine Collection of Eight Short Stories,
UNACCUSTOMED EARTH is eight stories, divided into two sections. The first section contains five distinct short stories, beginning with the near-novella length title story that is certainly the collection's finest. In that piece, a daughter of Indian descent, Ruma, welcomes her unexpectedly widowered father with trepidation to her new home in Seattle. Ruma is married to a Caucasian named Adam, and they have a young son named Akash. In every respect the young family is a model of mixed marriage and, in Ruma's case, full cultural assimilation. Nevertheless, her father's visit promises to force Ruma to confront the inevitable fissures that appear between first and second generation immigrant families. Travel to new countries or settling into new lands, postcards of foreign places, the soil in gardening, and measurement of distances all serve in symbolic support to the story's title, but it is a simple misplaced and unmailed postcard that pulls everything together into a poignant ending.
Lahiri's other four stories in the first section have similar themes. In "Hell-Heaven," a young woman recalls her childhood when a fellow Bengali became a family friend and part of her (and, surprisingly, her mother's) life. In "A Choice of Accommodation," (another title laden with multiple meanings), a middle-aged, mixed marriage couple (Amit and Megan) rediscover themselves and a bit of their previously unstated history during a friend's wedding held at Amit's old boarding school. In "Only Goodness," a model Bengali daughter named Sudha, married and a new mother, tries to cope with her younger brother Rahul's alcoholic failings and her likely role in making him what he has become. Of all the characters in this book, it is Rahul who comes across most powerfully.
The second part of the book contains three intertwined stories involving two characters, one female and one male, at different stages of their lives. Hema and Kaushik are first thrown together by circumstances of the latter's parents having relocated to India and then returned to the Boston area. Hema's family agrees to put Kaushik's family up until they can find a new house of their own, turning Hema's life upside down and even tossing her from her bedroom (now occupied by the three-year-older Kaushik) and onto a cot in her parents room. Tragedy looms behind these events, but it is one which Hema's family is not aware. The first story is told from Hema's viewpoint, the second about three years later from Kaushik's, and the third about twenty years later from both viewpoints. As with her opening story "Unaccustomed Earth," Lahiri finds an ending that, while somewhat contrived, is nonetheless touching.
It is only in this final piece, "Going Ashore" (again a title with multiple meanings), that Lahiri brings her narratives into the present day. The earlier stories appear to take place mostly in about the 1980's, with references to VCR's and record players and telephones with long extension cords. They seem oddly removed from everyday reality, as if they represented a sort of wistful backward stare at a different era, to a time when America was still a shining light on a hill and India was a place to escape before the Internet age and globalization changed some of the balance in their relationship. By the time of "Going Ashore," both Hema and Kaushik are adrift in global waters, world citizens who travel freely, lack strong personal attachments, and exist without the roots of family and place and culture that those of the prior generation clearly demonstrated in the earlier stories. Even their careers are disassociative: Hema's as a researcher of the ancient Etruscan civilization, Kaushik's as a photographer of world events who stands forever outside the very events whose images he captures.
If I had one criticism of UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, it would be Lahiri's seemingly incessant focus on one group of Bengalis, the academically-striving, economically prosperous, high achievers. Story after story expresses variations on the same themes from among the same types of people. Lahiri offers repeated mixed marriages (Ruma and Adam, Pranab and Deborah, Amit and Megan, Sudha and Roger Featherstone, Rahul and Elena). Nearly everyone is a PhD - perhaps that is what makes Rahul and Kaushik seem so refreshingly real - and everyone is an academic overachiever whose alma maters would make even US News & World Report blush - Princeton, MIT, Radcliffe, Harvard Medical School, Columbia, U Penn, London School of Economics, Cornell, NYU, Bryn Mawr, Tufts, Colgate, Swarthmore. One character has actually been slumming as a physics professor at Michigan State, but thankfully he's finally on his way to the more acceptable MIT. There must be other Bengalis in America worth writing about, and there must be other stories that do not lead one to paraphrase Tolstoy with, "Every happy Bengali family is alike, and every unhappy Bengali family is also unhappy in the same way."
Here's hoping that Ms. Lahiri can apply her brilliant writing skills (...clusters of swallows like giant thumbprints swiping the sky...") to a broader canvas in future works; the results promise to be stunning. In the meantime, be pleased as a reader to sit quietly and relish a master at work in these eight compelling and emotionally satisfying short stories. They are well worth the time.
205 of 241 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant, but not brilliant prose,
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Ms Lahiri's writing is mostly quite pleasant, skilled and at times a brilliantly put together prose, yet it lacks luster or humor. The characters, like the story lines are always on the verge of exploding, on the verge of something meaningful happing to them, yet they always stop short and the endings inevitably seem underwhelming.
The emotions that she tries so hard to elicit in the reader feel contrived. Having read numerous comparisons to Alice Munro, I was expecting much more, but if you are looking for an enjoyable read on the plane, I'd whole heartedly recommend it.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unaccustomed praise,
I was left wondering why such a strong writer does not wish to, by her third book, use her ability to evoke emotion through her characters' personal relationships to also evoke a sense of familiarity among readers whose principal interactions are with people other than ivy-league graduates, upper class whites, white collar professionals, and globe trotters? This would bother me less, since Lahiri is probably fully concious of her character choices, if the media did not cast Lahiri as the authority on the Indian-American experience. The experience is so much larger than that which Lahiri portrays (including among Bengalis), yet her non-immigrant audience almost co-opts her writing to represent what they are comfortable with. None of the political ugliness that non-immigrant America needs to contend with is unearthed in Lahiri's work.
Strong stories in the book include 'Hell-Heaven' (which also appeared in the New Yorker around 2002) and 'Only Goodness'. 'A Choice of Accomodations' and 'Nobody's Business' much less so. The best part of this book comes in part two, the 'Hema and Kaushik' trilogy. This second part reveals what Lahiri is capable of. Her writing strength is on display here, as is her ability to build bonds between characters and readers. She connects readers to not only the immigrant experience, but complex personal emotions and contemporary events and phenomena that have shaped both immigrants' and non-immigrants' lives. It also has a stronger ending than many of the other stories in the book. Her accomplishment here leaves me wondering why she sacrifices so much in some of her other stories. The media's focus on her work actually does her harm in the end. It sets up unrealistic expectations for an otherwise solid writer. If Lahiri were to write an entire novel that captured the range of ability, emotions, and relevance as the 'Hema and Kaushik' trilogy, she could then righfully claim all that she has already been afforded.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars same old song....,
I particularly loved the title story, and feel its her best yet. On the whole I liked this better than "Interpreter..."
I agree with one of the other reviewers however. As an Indian who moved here in the 90s, I'm stuck between the two generations of Indians (always refered to as Bengalis in her book...Bengalis happen to be from India but are known for a slight strain of chauvinsim, shall we say) she describes. I've adopted most of the ways of people who live here and still have ties to my home in India. I still can relate to their stories however. I just wish she would depart every once in a while and populate her stories with people who are slightly different. Maybe Indians with Blue Collar jobs or Gay Indians or whatever else. Jhumpa, you've lived here long enough to have been touched by people who didn't go to Harvard or Columbia, didn't grow up in affluent Boston suburbs and don't have perfect careers (but silent personal struggles)...
Its like I'm hearing variations of the same (albeit beautiful) song over and over again.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Takes Your Breath Away,
Two things are remarkable about these stories. One is the way she moves around from one point of view to another quite easily so that we see a situation from the standpoints of several characters. Lahiri switches smoothly in and out of various perspectives until she has rendered a little gem of a tale.
The second remarkable characteristic is the way she ends a story. It's not the classic O Henry ending where there's a twist that catches you by surprise and may not make sense entirely but what I think of now as a Lahiri ending, a devastating insight that takes your breath away. There's not an unsatisfying conclusion in any of the eight stories that make up this collection.
29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A little disappointed,
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If you have read the first two books, you'll realize that this one is marked with predictability, repetition and sameness.,
41 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "My children ... shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.",Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri has established herself as one of modern fiction's most powerful voices. The stories in that collection showcased what was to become Lahiri's trademark: acute psychological observations, eloquent writing, detailed descriptions, and a fiercely intelligent structure. As in poetry, each word feels carefully chosen, yet the overall ease with which the narratives flow belies the effort that undoubtedly went into them. "Interpreter of Maladies" also served to debut Lahiri's dominant theme in that each story featured Indian characters struggling to adapt to new surroundings after immigrating to the U.S. Her sophomore effort, The Namesake: A Novel expanded this theme into a wonderful full-length novel about the gap between a boy born and raised in America and his immigrant parents, who cling to their old traditions and ways of life. Lahiri, who was herself born in London but raised in New England, has made a career out of telling stories of cultural displacement, and until now she never once faltered when it came to crafting a powerful story.
"Unaccustomed Earth" marks Lahiri's return to the short story format, and while I had been looking forward to it with high anticipation, the product is surprising. Perhaps Lahiri succeeded at the transition from short stories to novels a little too well, because suddenly it feels like she has much more to say in an all-too-limited page count. The shortest story in the collection is "Hell-Heaven," which at twenty-four pages would have been right at home in "Interpreter of Maladies," and while it is one of the better offerings it feels clipped, as though there was so much more to say and not enough time to say it. Instead, the stories in "Unaccustomed Earth" verge on novella territory, allowing Lahiri to indulge in the slow-burn style she perfected in "The Namesake". The last three stories interlock to tell a single story in three parts, completing this effect. There aren't many authors who are at their best when they take their time, but Lahiri seems to be one of them. But this is a minor complaint.
I do, however, have more pointed concerns after reading Lahiri's latest work. Firstly, she seems to have acquired a taste for the melodramatic that doesn't suit her elegant style at all. Lahiri's writing is always very restrained when it comes to emotions, which is one of her strong suits, so when she indulges in plot contrivances such as alcoholism and abusive relationships it feels forced and more than a little jarring. Quiet desperation is more apt for her style; it is what makes it feel so authentic. Melodrama makes it feel theatrical. The high points of "Unaccustomed Earth" are its beginning and ending, "Unaccustomed Earth" and the saga of Hema and Kaushik, which notably steer clear of these plot elements. Luckily, Lahiri seems incapable of writing anything that doesn't maintain a grip on realism, but it still felt out of place to this reader.
Secondly, Lahiri's characters are starting to suffer from a degree of sameness. Perhaps that is why she infused the melodrama that I just discussed into the collection's middle section, but the fact that each character seems to have an ivy-league education and a doctorate and strikingly similar back stories still begins to feel stultifying.
Despite these complaints, Lahiri remains one of the most psychologically astute writers out there, and her keen plotting and pointed observations make "Unaccustomed Earth" tower head and shoulders above most other literary offerings. And even though I feel warier about what direction her next book will take, I still have the utmost faith in her abilities and look forward to it with the same degree of anticipation that I waited for "Unaccustomed Earth".
49 of 64 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Deja Vu Anybody?,
I was excited that Jhumpa Lahiri was coming out with a book of short stories again but upon reading the first few stories, I was nothing short of crestfallen. Although the stories themselves are not written badly, I am getting really tired of the same old formula she's using. It seems like almost every one of her stories revolves around Boston, involves an American-born Indian struggling with either their own culture or a family member, and of course involves Indian parents and their struggle coming to America. OK I get it already!
These stories didn't provide any new insight, I felt, that she didn't already communicate to me with Interpreter of Maladies. I ended up getting really bored and tired of her always leaving stories hanging with no resolution in sight. Some of the stories almost seemed pointless (the last one in the book is a prime example) to even write. After writing about having such emotion and turning around and completely ignoring that emotion just to have the character regret seems so tiresome, trite and overdone in her books.
The writer is obviously talented and I am not knocking on her ability to write mellifluously--however her stories need a breath of fresh air so I don't feel like I'm reading the same story that has been slightly altered 10X.
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Unaccustomed Earth (Vintage Contemporaries) by Jhumpa Lahiri (Paperback - April 7, 2009)