Since my last list, I’ve focused on perusing fiction. Jodi Picoult’s House Rules was the first novel I crested. This time, the bestselling author explored an Aspie teen who was charged with the murder of his tutor. Picoult gave an accurate and detailed portrait of a boy on the spectrum. The challenge of being misunderstood is laid bare before the world. I followed this up with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. Her first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, won her the Pulitzer. Meanwhile, the 2008 anthology debuted at number one on the Times bestsellers list. The collection continues the author’s expat Indian theme. The late Bruce Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, is this list’s de rigueur nonfiction read. Though released in the seventies, the title established Chatwin as one of the foremost literary minds of his generation.
- House Rules (Picoult). Once again, the writer deals with a sensitive topic, this time anatomising the life of a teenager on the spectrum. Jacob Hunt is eighteen, six feet tall, 185 pounds, and goes to school. However, he isn’t your typical adolescent. He colour-codes his garments and the meals he eats each day. He sticks to a routine and slight changes to this would make him go berserk. For the most part, he does not show emotion and takes things very literally. Thus, he gets lost when someone uses idioms or metaphors.
He always rides at the backseat of cars, even when he was off to the prom. He is obsessed about the show Crimebusters. When it plays at four-thirty pm, he drops everything to re-watch the episodes for the nth time. As typical with Aspies, he focuses his energies on but one compulsion: forensic science. He becomes a fixture at crime scenes. When he’s in a tight spot, he recites lines from popular movies. “Life is like a box of chocolates,” he once quipped. Another time, while Emma (his mom) debated their next moves, he said, “One martini please. Shaken not stirred.”
Picoult shifts the perspective (and the font) between various characters. She lets the reader into the points of view of Jacob, Emma, and Theo (his brother). The former has grown inexorably close to his tutor, Jess. He comes to resent Mark, the latter’s boyfriend, and finds the guts to ask her out on a date in front of Mark. This leads to a lover’s quarrel, before Jess tells him to ‘get lost.’ A few days later, Jess is missing, and the evidence leads Rich, the town sheriff, to arrest and charge Jacob. We occasionally focalise through Rich’s punto de vista.
Emma then hires Oliver, the first lawyer in sight. We become witnesses as Jacob’s team has the unenviable task of exonerating him before judge and jury. Almost every one of the eleven chapters begin with a real-life murder case. Henry, Jacob’s father, left them early on, content with sending them a check each month. The ending made me smile, as is the case with this author. By the way, the title is taken from one of Emma’s house rules for both her sons, which will be highlighted at the close. House Rules clocks in at over six hundred pages. However, this is a very well-researched effort that’s funny, sentimental, and quirky: a joy to read.
- Unaccustomed Earth (Lahiri). As mentioned, this collection of stories debuted at number one on the New York Times bestsellers list. As with Lahiri’s other English material, the book explores the Indian American experience. Eight stories comprise the title, including four published in The New Yorker. The title story, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is set in Seattle and delves into the three generations of the same family. We follow the father who vacations with Ruma and his grandson, Akash. While he tends their garden, he is harbouring a dark family secret. He also tries to convince his daughter to carry on her legal career instead of being a stay-at-home mum. The grandson, who is raised in the US, becomes more Bengali than his own mum.
Meanwhile, ‘Hell-Heaven’ is about Pranab, a graduate student of MIT, who becomes a de facto part of another Bengali American family. He fights homesickness while enjoying Aparna’s cooking. He has become a fixture in their abode that they call him Uncle Pranab. He starts dating this American woman, Deborah, and spends time with her instead. He grows apart from Aparna and her husband. The pair eventually marry and start a family. The former, who harbors hurt feelings, pines for their divorce. The couple eventually splits after twenty-three years of matrimony. The story explores the distinctive mother-daughter bond between Aparna and her daughter, Usha.
In ‘A choice of Accommodations’, Amit and Megan are an interethnic couple. They travel together to the former’s alma mater. Amit’s close school friend will be wed. While Amit waxes nostalgia, Megan is increasingly insecure. The weekend was supposed to be a romantic getaway but turns shady as the reception lasts deep into the evening. In ‘Only Goodness’, a sister’s desire to give her brother the childhood she never had goes back to bite her. Her hermano had studied at Cornell before his life unraveled. ‘Nobody’s Business’ is a cautionary tale about how some relationships are not what they seem. On the surface, Sang and Farouk’s relationship is flawless. However, there appears more to the story than even Sang would know. There is a Vancouver connection in this one.
Lahiri then gives us three interconnected stories in Part two: Hema and Kaushik. The trio of narratives offers an incandescent dirge of love, death, life and fate. We spectate at a girl and a boy, who shared one winter at a house in Massachusetts. They finally become lovers and we are privy to what transpires in the middle: growing up, new faces and ambitions. In all, this is a strong effort: familiar themes and settings, but superb writing. You might want to check out Lahiri’s other work, including The Namesake, which was adapted into a poignant film.
- In Patagonia (Chatwin). Since seeing his grandma’s ‘brontosaurus’ relic as a child in England, Chatwin had always longed to escape to South America. In his thirties, he quits his job as a journalist to wander through Patagonia. He longs to learn more about the mylodon, the strange beast that fascinated him as a child. He charts his journey from the fringes of the locale. He then meets settlers, among them British, Germans, and Spanish. They are all very hospitable and tell him stories along the way. While most tales get equal billing, there is more pages allotted on the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even as he hitches and takes the train, he spends a considerable time walking through the wilderness.
During Chatwin’s time, wool production was a major enterprise in the region and horses were requisite. Hence, gauchos and peons are ubiquitous terms in the narrative. Sheep farming here dates back to 1877. He also discusses historical figures such as Ferdinand Magellan and Charles Darwin, who both explored the pampas. He debates whether Patagonia had inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He searches for Trapalanda, the lost City of the Caesars. He also considers urban legends: the brujeria or male witches. There are also dialectics on socialism and revolution. Remember this was written before the end of the Cold War. Thus, there is no shortage of chronicles. In spite of his drifting, the author never loses sight of his purpose: to decipher the lost mylodon, the extinct sloth-like behemoth that precipitated his wanderlust.
In Patagonia is a standard read at around 260 pages. My copy included an introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare, his biographer. The book is notable for the briefness of its ninety-seven chapters. The structure of Hemingway’s In Our Time was said to inspire Chatwin’s brevity. This particular title is a visionary travel read, although I admit that it might not be for everyone. There are some parts that you could breeze through, and others that are better off with less detail. Some items are fictionalised for added effect.
Moreover, the work is an ethnographic phantasm: museums, native Americans, fauna, and oral histories to name a few. The title is littered with Spanish phrases, but the Briton does an admirable job in putting them together. Instead of confusing the reader, they add colour. Regardless of the foreign words, the author had a wide vocabulary per se. He uses eloquence to great effect in his vivid descriptions. Whether the writer sought out first or second-hand sources, his research skills were outstanding. Chatwin wrote with so much poise, even though this was his first book. In Patagonia remains the region’s unquestioned guide forty years since its publication.