The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated from the Italian by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush
An London-born American author of Bengali descent, Lahiri moved to Italy where she now writes in Italian – and her husband translated this essay into English, which she then reworked in both Italian and English for its English publication! Complicated, huh?
She considers the role of the book cover from both reader and author’s points of view – indeed, as an author, she hates the loss of control over how her work is presented, and often dislikes covers selected by the publishers. In the first section of the essay, she likens book covers to school uniform, or lack of it. She grew up with “naked books” – library copies with the dust-jackets removed, she liked getting zero clues about their contents. She detests cover puffs and “one of the most repugnant words in the English language: blurb.” She was fascinated by the national differences in book cover design when faced with one of her books in Amsterdam, “Each country’s jackets form a distinct geography, an unmistakeable landscape.”
Luckily Bloomsbury have served her well with its presentation of her 74 page essay – as a small flapped paperback original, in duck-egg blue, and a silver foiled title. It was particularly interesting to get an author’s perspective on book covers, and the glimpses of her childhood were excellent, but the beginning about book covers as school uniform was slightly laboured, and the ending about the translation rather than covers was mostly irrelevant. However, between her and her husband, they’ve done a good job with the translation – it’s beautiful to read. (7.5/10)
Feast Days by Ian MacKenzie
I’ve had a literary taste of life in São Paulo through the rather good crime novels of Joe Thomas, Paradise City and Gringa, so Ian MacKenzie’s take on Americans abroad living the high life there, was always going to attract me. Our narrator is a young American wife, relocated there with her banker husband. She describes the city thus in the novel’s first sentence:
…São Paulo, a city that reminded you of what Americans used to think the future would look like – gleaming and decrepit at once.
Over the page, she makes her own status clear:
I was ancillary – a word that comes from the Latin for “having the status of a female slave.” That’s the sort of thing I know, and it tells you something about how I misspent my education. The term among expats for people like me was “trailing spouse.”
There was no work permit for her, and given that she can barely speak Portuguese, not a lot she could do apart from offer English tutoring. Evenings are spent going to different restaurants and bars – they don’t cook, and when her husband tells her about the singers that used to perform at a bar, she admonishes him, “You’re doing facts about Brazil again.” Predictably, they’re soon mugged at knife-point, but are unharmed to their relief, having handed over their cash, cards, phones and jewellery – the police can’t do anything – but she can track where her husband’s phone is afterwards! Their social life is enriched by colleagues families from the bank; they get invited to a children’s party:
The kids were drunk on the overabundance of stimuli. The adults were drunk in the usual way.
MacKenzie’s narrator tells us the story of their stay in São Paulo with considerable dead-pan humour at first, although she does have her eyes opened, as life becomes more serious and their stay in Brazil is ultimately cut short by rioting and banks in crisis. The chapters are formed from a series of linked vignette-style paragraphs rather than a conventional serial narrative. It’s an effective style that keeps the text pared back purely to the narrator’s observations. While the latter part of the novel wasn’t as entertaining as the first half, I very much enjoyed this meditation on unrooted Americans abroad, the expat experience and the contrasts with their hosts of all classes. (8.5/10)
Short Story: The Lotus Eater by Somerset Maugham
I have decided to dip into some short stories now and again to fill spare minutes, and the first I picked was one by Maugham from 1935.
The Lotus Eater is the story of Wilson, a mild-mannered widowed banker who visited Capri and stayed, eschewing life in suburban London for paradise – he can last twenty-five years financially. Our narrator encounters him while on holiday after Wilson had already been there for sixteen years, he returns some years later – and wonders what happened to Wilson.
A little masterpiece in just 18 pages.
This story is included in the 550+ pages fourth volume of Maugham’s Collected short stories. Must read more of them!