I didn’t do it on purpose. These things just seem to happen. Every now and then these huge boxes, filled with Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs), arrive at our door. It’s true, I’m attracted to bright colors. And alliteration. And really good fonts (I’ll let you in on a secret — I am one of those booksellers who has to battle not to judge, at least initially, a book by its cover). Is that why I went home with two books that turned out to be excellent companion pieces? Probably not. You wouldn’t have known from the titles, anyway. I mean, sure, Breathless in Bombay clues you in to the contents. And while Unaccustomed Earth doesn’t scream “Indian immigration”, Jhumpa Lahiri should be a dead giveaway. But that escaped my attention until yesterday.
I’ve been reading Breathless in Bombay, by Murzban Shroff, for two weeks now. It’s not that it’s a long book, but rather because it’s chock full of short stories that require a little reflection after finishing. So I haven’t quite completed the book yet, but each story has successively lodged in my brain. They all take place (you guessed it) in Bombay, span social and caste levels, and are wonderful. The writing is simple, rich in description, and incredibly evocative.
And then, just this past week, I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, also a collection of short stories, about Indian immigrants in America. This one, I’ve already finished. It sucked me in and wouldn’t let me go. The first half of the book is, characteristic of her writing, poignant and thoughtful, and really good. The latter half, a set of three stories that are linked by their main characters, is fantastic. I love story sets like these — Ursula Le Guin once referred to this form of writing as a story suite, which sums it up nicely — but even beyond my love for the art form, these three pieces are so human, so personal, so … I’m out of good words, but hopefully you believe me by now.
When I put Unaccustomed Earth down, it struck me that I had just gone on a journey. I had started in Bombay, immersed in Shroff’s portrayal of the sights and sounds and smells of India, and then traveled to America, far from that heat and bustle and life, to Lahiri’s cold coasts, displacement, generation gaps, and struggle to belong. It made me wish I’d read them both with a friend (or book group!), to explore the transitions, the similarities and differences, not just of the stories but of the writers and their perspective. I guess I’ll have to follow one of my fellow booksellers around until they agree to read them. You’ve been warned!
Breathless in Bombay will be out in February 2008, and Unaccustomed Earth in April 2008.