Mar 28, 2008

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (and Planning my Reading)

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories that all involve Indians – some immigrants in America, some in their homeland. A lot of these stories deal with displacement and isolation, but, needless to say, you don’t need to be Indian, or to be an immigrant, to be able to relate to the emotions they convey. All you need is to have experienced loneliness, loss, longing, intimacy, sorrow or joy in the many ways in which they come – in short, all you need is to be human.

Using a language that is subtle, precise, and disarming in its simplicity, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about unhappy couples, happy ones, affairs, a child’s perception of war, youth and old age, emptiness, satisfaction, frustration, dreams both lost and come true.

Most of these stories really touched me. The first, “A Temporary Matter”, is about a couple whose baby was born dead, and who now have to deal with their grief and with the increasing distance that separates them. When they get a letter warning them that the power will be cut between 8 and 9pm for a week due to some repair work, they begin to use that hour of darkness to tell each other things they had been holding back, and thus to regain some of their lost intimacy. The story ends with revelations that change things forever, and it made me feel such loss on behalf of the characters. It did what the best fiction does – it put me temporarily in the skin of another.

In “Sexy”, a young American woman named Miranda is having an affair with a married Indian man named Dev. We experience all the longing, bittersweetness and ambiguity of her situation along with her, until, when babysitting a young Indian boy, she is told what the word “sexy” means to a child, and consequentially begins to see her relationship in a different light.

“Mrs. Sen's” is a story about homesickness and displacement. Through the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy named Eliot, we witness Mrs Sen’s struggle to adjust to a way of life that is different from everything she has ever known.

The last story, “The Third and Final Continent”, is about growing intimacy and finding a place to call home. The protagonist leaves India for England and then for America. Before going to America, he gets married. The marriage is arranged by his and his bride’s families, and his wife is to join him in American when her papers are ready. In the meantime, he rents a room at Mrs. Croft’s house, and is very surprised to learn that his landlady is 103 years old. It is in the presence of his elderly lady that he and his wife begin to overcome the awkwardness of being two strangers married to each other, and to truly become a couple.

Jhumpa Lahiri is clearly a writer of great perception, and of equally great precision. Nothing in her stories is overstated, and her wording is always exactly right. What really won me over, though, was how superb her characterization is. All her characters are painfully human. Interpreter of Maladies is well worth reading.

Other Blog Reviews:
Bold Blue Adventure
books i done read
Book Addiction
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
Care's Online Bookclub

And so, I dare not count how many months later, I complete my first read for The Pulitzer Project! It’s really not that I have lost interested in the project, it’s just that the fact that it has no deadline means that the challenges that do have deadlines keep getting in the way. But from now on I’m going to discipline myself. I’m going to read at least one book for the project each month. Of course that means it will take me forever to complete it, but I knew from the start that this was something to be done in the long run. And on good months I may be able to read two. Dare I say three?

I also want to plan my monthly reading in other ways. I want to read at least two non-fiction books a month. I know that’s still not much, but it’s better than, say, zero. March was actually good in that way, I read 4 non-fiction books, woohoo! And after May I’ll have the Non-Fiction Five challenge to give me extra motivation. Speaking of which, I still need to make my list…

Finally, to make sure I don’t start feeling trapped by all these challenges and plans, I want to make sure I leave room for at least two whim reads a month – for books that aren’t on any of my challenge lists, but that happen to catch my eye at the library, or that I already own but have yet to find a suitable excuse to read. Should I be worried that I’m assigning monthly slots to whim reading? Does it defeat the purpose? Well, I’ll see how this plan works after trying it for a while.


  1. Don't you love how we plan reading on a whim? LOL! It's sad, huh? I want to join the Non-fic challenge so bad...but I'm just saying no...I really can't commit to anything else, but I'll just "try to read more non-fic". I did promise Eva that I'd join her challenge when she started it, so maybe I can fit some in with that. I'm still not sure of the details of that one. Challenges are just so overwhelming!

  2. Yet another book I've never heard of, but now really, really want to read!

    I think I need to "pencil in" some whim reading, too. It seems to have gotten totally lost among all the dang (and I use that word affectionately) challenge lists. Even though I only put books I really want to read on my challenge lists, it still occasionally feels stifling. Of course, with over 100 challenge books to choose from, something's always bound to sound good at the moment ;)

  3. I loved this book. I can't wait to read Unaccustomed Earth too!

  4. Chris: lol, it is sad :P But hey, we are not planning WHICH books to read on a whim, so it still counts! Challenges can be overwhelming, but I like how they kick my butt and made me actually read books I've always wanted to read. I'm curious about Eva's challenge!

    Debi, I think you'd enjoy these stories. lol, the good thing about joining lots of challenges is that there really is a lot to choose from on the lists :P

    Tricia: I really want to read more of her work too!

  5. The first and last stories appeal to me the most in the collection from what you have written. It sounds like a very touching book thanks for the review.

    This is the first year I have seriously planned my reading and funnily it doesn't feel too constricting at the moment. I am finding it encourages me to read me and motivates me having set reading for each month (I can always find extra space for a book that really catches my eye and isn't on my list). I just have so many books sitting around the house I want to read and re-read and this has really been helping so far this year. I hope your planning helps and doesn't hinder you as well :)

  6. Ooh, I just loved Interpreter of Maladies. "A Temporary Matter" has stuck with me for years now.

  7. I am planning to read Lahari's short story collection this year if I can. I enjoyed The Namesake and have heard her short stories are even better.

    Good luck with your reading plan, Nymeth. It sounds like a good one. As long as you are flexible and don't beat yourself up if you stray from it, you should be fine. :-)

  8. as always you made sound this book really interesting. I never read short stories,but recently a friend lent me a collection of them,so I might overcome my rejection!!

    well done with your plan, you're so lucky you have that much time to read, I can hardly read 4-5 books a month during my journey to work and lunch breaks!
    But like you I'm trying to stick to my plans and it's working for now.
    good luck with it:-)

  9. I've never heard of this author before, but this book sounds good, Nymeth.

    As for reading challenges, I too share your thoughts and there are times that I want to read books outside my lists. Ended up I give in anyway, because my mood plays a part in choosing the books I read and perhaps this is why I couldn't complete some of the challenges last year. I think having a plan is a good thing, so I'm hoping this will work well with you. :)

  10. I have had this book on my shelf for a number of years but never read it. Sounds like it's time to dust it off and enjoy it! Thanks for your review.

    I admire your reading plan and will be interested to see how it works for you. For me, though, those whim reads are so important...I've discovered some amazing books by whim and then followed those tangents for some very enjoyable and incredible experiences. So I'm glad you've built in room for the whims!

  11. Rhinoa, the first and the last were my favourites. For me, some planning does encourage me, and most of the time I do find the time for an extra or to. I've tried to plan my monthly reading, but that didn't work too well. It makes me feel pressured to complete the list, and if for some reason I don't I feel unaccomplished. But it's great that it's working out so well for you!

    Andi: I can see that one sticking with me for a long time too.

    Literary Feline: I really think you will enjoy this collection. And thanks :) I will definitely try not to beat myself up.

    Valentina: It took me a while to become a fan of short stories, but it has happened. My monthly reading depends on the time of the year, really...I know I'm being optimistic with these numbers, though. We'll see how things go. And thanks!

    Melody: Like Debi was saying, I guess that's the good side of joining too many challenges :P There has to be something on the many lists that will fit your mood at the moment.

    Robin: I hope you enjoy it! I have discovered some great books by whim too. I'd really feel constricted if I didn't have the time to follow my whims anymore.

  12. I just picked this book up, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the suggestion!

  13. Kim: I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to your review :)

  14. As much as I enjoy the reading challenges I still have to make sure I get my "whim" reads. I don't necessarily put down how many I'll take in a month or so but I guess I just know when it's time.
    Isn't this a great book. I just read somewhere that her next collection of short stories is out soon. I can't wait for that!

  15. Hi Nymeth,

    I'm so sorry I didn't get a chance to stop by yesterday! I've been sick and it's a cold that's kickin' my butt instead of those challenges! (I would much rather have it be the challenges at the moment..)

    This book looks really interesting. Somthing I want to pick up. I'm going to actually. On your word (how else would I have hear of it?) lol I'm adding it to a couple of others that you have here on the site. I LOVE this. New friends... New books....
    What could be better?

    Hope your weekend was better than mine!


  16. Iliana: Oooh, I look forward to her next collection! And yeah, sometimes I feel that I really need to stray off my challenge lists and just pick up whatever I feel like at the moment.

    Amy: No reason to apologize! We're all too busy/tired/sick/whatever to blog or blog hop sometimes. Please don't hate me if you turn out not to enjoy the books :P But I think you probably will. I had a nice weekend, thanks :)

  17. Nymeth - you are no good to my pocketbook. I'm putting this one on my wishlist!

    I have left 'slots" in my month for whim reading as well. I haven't had to use it too often so far this year, but I got burned out with books I HAD to read, even though I wanted to read them in the first place (most anyway). 2 non-fiction books a month is a great goal! I'm happy to read *maybe* one. Looking forward to the Non-Fiction Five as well.

  18. hi, I love your sentence --> "Jhumpa Lahiri is clearly a writer of great perception, and of equally great precision."
    I agree, well put.


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