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Book Club

Wed Sep 27 2006

Feature: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The eleventh selection for the Chicago Public Library's One Book, One Chicago program is Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Although the stories' characters are of Indian nationality and their names and the lands from which they hail may be unrecognizable in the American consciousness, Lahiri focuses on themes that are universal to the human experience. As a result, her writing has a richly colored feeling and her musings on family, love and the feeling of foreignness never seem distant from the heart and the mind.

"Mr. Kapasi had never thought of his job in such complimentary terms. To him it was a thankless occupation. He found nothing noble in interpreting people's maladies, assiduously translating the symptoms of so many swollen bones, countless cramps of bellies and bowels, spots on people's palms that changed color, shape, or size." So writes Lahiri in the titular story, describing Mr. Kapasi, a man giving a tour to the Das family and whose occupation is, literally, to interpret patients' ailments in a hospital where little Gujarati is spoken. Although the family on the tour is Indian, they came from New Jersey and "dressed as foreigners did," rendering them tourists in their own land. It's obvious that the marriage is failing and Mrs. Das's interest in Mr. Kapasi's work conjures up his own romantic fantasies, at least until she confides that one of their sons is not her husband's child and asks Mr. Kapasi for his help with this malady, her secret. He concedes that he is, however, only an interpreter of languages, not guilt or transgressions.

The first story in the book, "A Temporary Matter," follows another failing marriage and the husband's attempts to rebuild what he once had with his wife before they became parents of a stillborn child. When the couple's electricity is temporarily cut off each evening, Shukumar uses this opportunity to get closer to his wife –- with no lights they must eat dinner together, by candlelight, instead of taking their plates to their separate places in the house. "He remembered their first meals there, when they were so thrilled to be married, to be living together in the same house at last, that they would just reach for each other foolishly, more eager to make love than to eat." The perils of pregnancy also makes an appearance in "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," a story about a girl whose illness remains unexplainable to doctors, therapists, priests and anyone else who might try to diagnose her. She envies the girls who get married and questions if it is so wrong for her to want a husband and a child. When Bibi's outrages confine her to a storage room, she's found months later to be pregnant, refusing to reveal who the father might be. And it seems that once the child is born, all of Bibi's ailments have disappeared.

Each story in Interpreter of Maladies feels complete. There's a beginning, middle and end for each one and, in a short space, Lahiri manages to give her characters enough definition to carry the stories she creates for them. There's a real sense of history, emotion and motivation behind these names, which is something that can be rightfully expected from a novel, but which is often left by the wayside in stories of only fifteen or twenty pages. There isn't one of the book's nine stories that doesn't feel whole or, alternately, feels longer than necessary. Short stories are, by definition, not an opportunity to churn out what is really a wayward attempt at a half-novel, and Lahiri minds the limitations she puts on herself by writing in this form. These stories may be inspired by the author's Indian background, but they're never so specific as to alienate any of her readers. They're about the difficulties of marriage, the listlessness of unfulfilled lives and the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities. While these may be frequently visited topics, Lahiri's perfectly chosen words and phrases keep them from being mundane. More importantly, she doesn't employ odd tenses or a halting exposition or graphic sex scenes to generate interest in her writing; she simply writes well. That, more than anything, makes for a worthwhile read.

~*~

For more information on the One Book, One Chicago program, please visit the Chicago Public Library's website. You can also find a schedule of special events and a CPL book club near you where you can join in the citywide discussion. Ms. Lahiri will be at the Harold Washington Library on October 9 to talk about her acclaimed book with Mary A. Dempsey, Commissioner of the CPL.

Veronica Bond

News Thu Sep 21 2006

Read a Banned Book

September 23-30, 2006 is Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association designed to remind all of us in the United States to excercise our intellectual freedom. Below is a list of a few banned books by authors with a Chicago connection. Pick one up at a local library and say to everyone you know: "I read banned books."

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
This classic novel about a young man who drowns his pregnant lover was first published in 1925 and was based on a true story. It was banned in Boston, Mass. in 1927 and burned by the Nazis in Germany in 1933. [via]

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms is the story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I, who falls in love with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse he meets while recovering from injuries in the hospital. The book was originally published in 1929 and banned in Italy the same year. It was later banned in Ireland in 1939 and has faced several documented challenges over the past several decades. [via]

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
A young American professor uses his sabbatical to go and fight in the Spanish Civil War.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Once, twice, three times a banned author. Papa Hemingway's first full-length novel, which was first published in 1926, was also banned several times. The Sun Also Rises is about a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris after World War I.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
We read this classic Chicago story about Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who goes to work in the city's notorious stockyards, for the Book Club last year. Among other incidents, The Jungle was "banned from public libraries in Yugoslavia" in 1929 and "burned in the Nazi bonfires because of Sinclair's socialist views" in 1933. [via]

Native Son by Richard Wright
This violent and tragic novel about Bigger Thomas, a young black man who accidently kills a white woman in 1930s Chicago, has been challenged many, many times since its publication in 1940 for its graphic language and sexual content.

Alice Maggio

Reviews Wed Sep 20 2006

Feature: Hudson Lake by Laura Mazzuca Toops

Although the summer of 2006 is drawing to a close, it is not too late to travel back in time to a rural Indiana resort and relive the summer of 1926. Hudson Lake is the most recent novel by local author Laura Mazzuca Toops and it captures all the frenzy of the era of speakeasies, jazz music and bootleg gin.

The story centers around the musicians and visitors at the Blue Lantern dance hall on Hudson Lake in LaPorte County, Indiana. There we meet Joy, a free-spirit running from a troubled past. We are told that Joy is "an assumed name and an assumed attitude, because joy wasn't something she always felt, or at least something she hadn't felt in years." But as her past catches up with her, Joy finds it harder and harder to keep up the facade.

Opposite Joy and her "brassy bobbed red hair" and "wide rouged mouth" is Harriet Braun, a straight-laced pre-med student at Indiana University who is spending her summer working at the Hudson Hotel. Harriet is dating Rudy, a fellow Indiana U. student studying architecture and a man Harriet describes as a "typical alpha male." Although Rudy is a steady guy, Harriet's heart will be sorely tested when she meets a certain jazz musician playing at the Blue Lantern.

Bix Beiderbecke is the talented cornet player who unwittingly comes between Joy and Harriet. At the beginning of the story Joy is sleeping with Bix, but she can't admit to herself that she loves him until it's too late. Bix becomes attracted to the intelligent Harriet, but she is torn between her feelings for the charming musician and her loyalty to Rudy. But Bix may not be able to love anyone or anything more than his insatiable need for alcohol.

Add a Chicago gangster working for Al Capone who wants a piece of the bootlegging business in LaPorte County, plus a group of Ku Klux Klan members who want to rid their town of the fast-living denizens of the Blue Lantern, and Hudson Lake will never be the same again.

In Hudson Lake Laura Mazzuca Toops weaves a fictional story from many real historical people and places. Bix Beiderbecke is the primary example. Although the love-triangle between Bix and Joy and Harriet may never have happened, Bix Beiderbecke was a celebrated jazz musician in the 1920s, and the facts revealed about his life in the novel are based on Toops's research.

The end of Hudson Lake feels a bit rushed as Toops ties up the loose ends of her narrative. The story rapidly jumps forward from 1926 to 1929, 1931 and finally up to 1939 as we learn the often tragic fates of the characters. But, by carrying the story to its ultimate conclusion, Toops strengthens the feeling of the whole book — that the seemingly carefree Jazz Age also had a terrible dark side.

Toops has an obvious affection for her subject, which is hard to resist, and a deep knowledge of the time period. She skillfully brings the 1920s to life with the right historical touches without overburdening the reader with too many extraneous facts. That's a difficult balancing act for many historical fiction writers, but Toops pulls it off. Hudson Lake is a fun, sexy Jazz Age story about a summer that changes the lives of everyone at Hudson Lake, and it just might be a great book to help keep you warm on these increasingly chilly days.

~*~

Visit the official website of author Laura Mazzuca Toops at www.lauratoops.com to find out more about Hudson Lake, including information about the real-life locations featured in the novel. Hudson Lake is available from the publisher, Twilight Times Books, and local bookstores. Plus, see Twilight Times Books to read an excerpt from Hudson Lake.

Alice Maggio

Book Club Wed Sep 13 2006

Introduction: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

A mere one hundred and ten pages is the totality of this book. Comprised of short vignettes, this is a year in the life of Esperanza Cordero, a young girl coming of age in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen. Narrated by Esperanza, The House on Mango Street follows her mother, father, brother and two sisters as they restart their lives in a new house with new hopes and new experiences awaiting them. Though the book may be short in length, the strength and meaning gleaned from these snippets of Esperanza's life are never compromised for their brevity.

The Cordero family is after little more than the American Dream: to do well by their family and to have a house of their own. In Esperanza this dream becomes something more; it's a belief in a story repeated time and again and a disappointment when each new house falls short of her built-up expectations. "They always told us that one day we would move into a house," Esperanza says, "a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn't have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V. And we'd have a basement and at least three washrooms so when we took a bath we wouldn't have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence." It's a simple dream, nothing elaborate or beyond middle class means, but within the course of this narrative it's a dream that Esperanza does not get to experience.

Soft and sweet, sentimental but not without purpose, this is the story of a girl growing up, and it's not without some sadness that she enters adulthood. Esperanza is incredibly precocious and articulate in her thought, moving easily from the joy of high-heeled shoes to trepidation about what awaits her as a woman. Several women act as cautionary tales for Esperanza, serving as markers of what she is certain she does not want to become. When describing her great-grandmother, her namesake and a once wild woman who entered a depression in her marriage, Esperanza expounds that though she's inherited the woman's name, she does not want to inherit her place by the window, staring out at the world as it passes her by. Sally, a boisterous friend, runs off and gets married in effort to escape her abusive father. Unfortunately, her husband is not much better and in restricting contact with her friends and leaving physical destruction in the wake of his anger, Sally is no less afraid in this new life. Alicia, a neighbor, takes care of her family after her mother dies and divides her time desperately trying to educate herself because she is "afraid of nothing except four-legged fur. And fathers." Marin, another neighbor, exemplifies the stagnancy of existence, always dreaming of joining her boyfriend in Puerto Rico. After Marin is gone, Esperanza is sure that she's just somewhere else, "waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life."

This story is full of these snapshots of characters, capturing the people who play some role in Esperanza's life. They are as clear and as quick as a Polaroid, but with within these pages they are preserved in this girl's memory. Cisneros is very apt at describing the human consciousness, in one moment portraying the feeling when one realizes their father is not as strong as he used to be and in another accurately depicting the internal struggle with class and race when one "drive[s] into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight…that is how it goes and goes." The simplicity of The House on Mango Street is both startling and emotional, as it deftly encapsulating the surprise of growing up, the longing to know more and to be more, and the realization that one day all things could be taken away and lost. For Esperanza this is a dream of growing up strong and powerful, not passive like the other women she encounters, but "beautiful and cruel." This is a dream every bit as American as a home to call one's own and every bit as worthwhile an endeavor.

Sandra Cisneros was born and raised in Chicago, studying English first at Loyola University and earning her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. She has published poetry, short stories and a children's book. Both The House on Mango Street and Caramelo, her second novel, have been chosen by various cities for their "One Book" programs. To learn more about the author, visit her website at www.sandracisneros.com.

Veronica Bond

Reviews Wed Sep 06 2006

Feature: Sons of the Rapture by Todd Dills

This is a story about fathers and sons. This is a story about the past and the present, about wrongs done and rights attempted. This is a story about having no regrets and waiting for the end. This is Billy Jones's story.

Billy Jones, a young man living in Chicago, is at the center of this story focusing on his South Carolina family. Told in three parts and in several voices, Todd Dills's Sons of the Rapture offers a bevy of characters that are as loud and brash as they are desperate and downtrodden. In the first chapter alone we're introduced to five different points of view. Billy starts us out on the journey, but soon we meet Artichoke Heart (A.H.), a sometime hit man, and sometime frontman who performs at neighborhood festivals. Billy and A.H. meet at the Taste of Kedzie where he also meets Elsa, a French girl who enters and departs from Billy's life, eventually reentering as a sort of personal savior. Although we're told the tiara-wearing musician was born William Harmony Jones – no relation to Billy – A.H. never reveals why he's adopted his stage moniker for everyday life, but we never really have reason to question the choice. A character that daily sports pageantry headwear and claims to have carried out the will of a Brazilian gangster needs little explanation for his choice in names. Albert Ledbetter is the longtime friend of Johnny Jones, Billy's father, and acts as caretaker to Bobby Jones, Billy's younger brother, who is spending his days in prison for the murder of their mother years ago. Rounding out this first section is Clarence Hickman, a man in a yellow pickup truck, driving towards the Rapture.

All of these characters are ones you're never quite sure are telling the absolute truth. Billy and his father, Johnny, have a special flair for dressing up a story to suit their needs, and so great are their powers of persuasion that they have no trouble convincing others of these false truths. While Billy tells Elsa a disturbing, invented story about a friend who lost his genitalia in the war, he sneaks in the truth about his mentally handicapped brother who killed their mother, making it impossible to know when his stories are real and when they're elaborate fiction. Johnny, too, skews the truth in favor of his needs. When he learns of his mother's affair with Thorpe Storm, a bigoted senator who continues to use racially charged epithets well into Billy's day, he construes the facts to date the affair as occurring before his birth, thus furthering the hatred of the man he's taken upon himself to label as his father. Says Albert of Johnny's stubbornness in spite of all the traits he shares with Jeremiah Jones, his true father: "Two blues won't make a brown, but logic be damned: the young man Johnny determined he'd prove the falsity to the world in ways counter to pointing out the laws of trait inheritance, or so he'd said, and I was pulled along by the force of his adamant nature, a persuasion inherent in his insanity quite impossible for my naïve mind to resist."

The second section of the novel belongs entirely to the persuasive, present-day Johnny. Rich from his father's inheritance and having started monthly payments to Albert for checking in on his jailed son, this is Johnny's life with his cowboy-like friends, drinking, doing drugs, and hooking up with a feisty woman who bears a disturbing resemblance to his dead wife. It seems as though Johnny's only wish is to while away the rest of his life, but it's not until we reach the third chapter that we learn where he's going. Back in Billy's point of view, the third section finds our narrator drunk and out of a job when Albert visits him to deliver the message that his father is coming to see him, a proclamation that Billy doesn't quite believe and deems a "prophetic event." The event does occur and with it comes all the chaos and the glory that follows the Jones' lives, with Johnny leading a herd of cattle down the Dan Ryan Expressway, a literal interpretation of the city's "Cows on Parade." The question, then, is whether this is the Rapture Billy and Johnny have been waiting for.

Although the structure of the novel may leave some a bit confused – there's no apparent reason why the first part is told in so many points of view while the second and third parts are singular in thought – the story is, thankfully, interesting enough and Dills's writing is engaging enough to keep us wanting to know more. The transfer of viewpoints in the first chapter works because Dills gives us enough time to get to know each character before switching to another. He doesn't just give us snapshots, but portraits of his characters, including the city of Chicago among them. As much as the reader can picture Billy in his confederate gray topcoat, walking with his hands shoved in the pockets, shoulders hunched up around his ears, worn down jeans and shoes, portraying himself as someone who either has little money or wants to appear that way, the city is given as much personalization. "The sterile angles of the Chicago grid," Dills writes, "the little blocks of neighborhoods, the right angles, the 45-degree angles of diagonal flow streets that connected them all, the fine curve of the expressway gray and desolate and jammed on its way downtown." This is a story about that desolation, that connection, those little blocks that bring all of these vivid characters together, all awaiting the Rapture and what it will bring to them.


Todd Dills is the editor and publisher of The2ndHand, a quarterly broadsheet offering the latest in local writing. Featherproof Books will celebrate the publication of Sons of the Rapture with a release party on September 14 at the Hideout.

Veronica Bond

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