Nothing Like I Imagined is collection of lighthearted essays by Mindy Kaling. Being quite a fan of Kaling and her shows I knew that these essays would be fun. If you like Kaling’s humour chances are you will also like her essays. In ‘Kind of Hindu’ she writes about not feeling Hindu enough, in ‘Help Is on the Way’ Kaling hires a baby nurse in spite of her initial reluctance, and in quite a few essays she recounts awkward/funny episodes set in the Hollywood world. She writes about herself in an honest and lightly self-deprecating way. I had a fun time with these. While they certainly weren’t in-depth essays they make for some entertaining reading material.
Dove mi trovo, which will be published in English as Whereabouts next spring, is the first novel Jhumpa Lahiri’s has written in Italian. Having read, and deeply empathised with, Lahiri’s In Other Words—a nonfiction work in which she interrogates her love for and struggles with the Italian language—I was looking forward to Dove mi trovo. Although I bought this book more than a year ago, during my last trip to Italy, part of me wasn’t ready to read it just yet. A teensy-weensy part me feared that I would find her Italian to be stilted. As it turns out, I should have not second-guessed Lahiri.
This novel consists in a series of short chapters, between 2 to 6 pages long, in which we follow a nameless narrator as she occupies different spaces. The titles of these chapters in fact refer to the place—not always a ‘physical’ one such as in the case of the recurring ‘Tra sé e sé’ chapters (an expression that for the life of me I cannot translate in English)—she is in or thinking of. She’s on the street, in a bar, a restaurant, a museum, her apartment, by the seaside…you get the gist. The novel takes place during a single year, and our narrator will often remark on the current season. She’s a solitary woman, and although she’s deeply aware of her loneliness, she’s not burdened by it. It is perhaps because she’s alone that she can get lost in her surroundings or in her thoughts. Even in those occasions where she interacts with others—who also remain unmanned and are referred to as her former lover, her friend, a professor, etc—she remains a lonely person. By seeing the way she interacts or navigates certain spaces, we learn more about her. Ultimately, however, she retains an air of mystery. One should not approach this novel hoping for a plot-driven novel. Dove mi trovo is very much about language. Lahiri’s Italian is crisp and deceptively simple. There are observations or conversations that are rendered with clarity, and there are passages that convey a sense of disquiet. While I can’t say whether Lahiri always articulated phrases like an Italian would, I didn’t notice any Englishism on her part. I loved the way Lahiri articulated her phrases and the correct if démodé terms she used. While Lahiri’s ‘Italian voice’ differs from the one in her English works, Dove mi trovo is the kind of quietly reflective and deeply nostalgic novel that I would happily revisit time and again.
Readers who enjoy the works of Zadie Smith or Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar may find White Dancing Elephants to have some merit. If you are thinking of reading this collection I recommend you read some of the more positives reviews as my one is alas a negative one. For those who liked or loved it, I hope you will not feel the need to leave comments on the lines of ‘your opinion are invalid because I disagree with you’.
Anyhow, moving onto my actual review: this is, in my opinion, an execrable collection of short stories. These stories are poorly written, populated by boilerplate characters, deeply vitriolic and exceedingly vexing. White Dancing Elephants follows the usual ‘short stories collection’ formula, so that we have a few stories experimenting, with not so great results, with perspective (of course, a story is told through a 2nd pov because that is what every other collection out there is doing so might as well follow their lead), a story about miscarriage (bursting with metaphors about ‘brokeness’), a story about a character grappling with mental illness, and a story that earns this collection the LGBTQ+ badge (ahem not all queer representation is good representation). If you’ve read any collections of short stories published in the last 3 years, you have already read stories like these ones.
There was nothing subversive or unique about White Dancing Elephants. Attempts at ‘edginess’ came across as insensitive, for example, the author’s treatment of mental health was, to use a trendy word, deeply problematic. What irked me the most however was how unclear these stories were. The author seemed unable or unwilling to stick to a certain perspective, so that it would be unclear who was telling the story. And, these stories managed to be confusing, which is impressive given how short they were. This is probably due to the nebulous povs and the amount of info-dumping we would at the start of each story (informing us of a character’s heritage, their parents backgrounds, their friends’ genetic makeup or whatnot). Knowing who these characters were related to, most of the time at least, added absolutely nothing to each respective story as ‘family’ never seemed to be the plot’s real focus. Instead, each story seemed set on being as impressionistic as possible, so that we have ripe metaphors are intent on being ‘visceral’ but seem like mere writing exercises, and a plethora of ‘shock-value’ scenes. Personally I was unimpressed by the author’s language. We have oddly phrased things, such as “it gave her flickers of amusement” (while I get that you can observe on someone’s face a ‘flicker of amusement’ the ‘gave her’ in that sentence brings me pause), clichés such as “smiling the smile”, “smiling her gorgeous smile”, “my father a stranger until his death”, “ Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed.” (UGH! Give me a break). A lot of the stories start with very eye-grabbing statements, that tease some dramatic event that once explained or explored will feel deeply anticlimactic. Also, I could not help but be offended by the author’s garish depictions of rape and its aftereffects. And don’t even get me started on the role that same-sex attraction has in two of these stories. Puh-lease. There is a lot of women-hating-women, which can happen…but in nearly every story? (and WHY do we always have to get women making snidey remarks about other women’s stomachs?). Last but not least, I did not appreciate that the one story where a black man actually plays some sort of role, ends up portraying him as a racist and a predator. The author’s prose (if we can call it such), the derogatory tone, the detestable and showy characters, the uninspired stories…they all did nothing for me. To be perfectly frank the only thing that surprised about this collection was that it managed to get published in the first place.
Burnt Sugar is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2020. If you were able to appreciate this novel, I’m glad. This may be one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ cases…or maybe I’ve read too many stories exploring a complex mother/daughter relationship. To be perfectly frank, I bloody hated this book. It was painfully intent on nauseating the reader. We get it, the human body is base (Julia Kristeva has been there and done that). Burnt Sugar is ripe with garish descriptions of the abject human body: we have bodily fluids and waste, failing bodies, changing bodies (pregnancies, puberty), body parts compared to food or objects (breasts like dough, buttocks like empty sacks). The narrator of this novel, someone who was so remarkable I can no longer recall her name, is the classic disaffected woman who is alienated from everyone and everything. A few days before listening to Burnt Sugar I read Luster, a novel that features a similar type of character except that there the author manages to make her protagonist into a nuanced human being, one who isn’t nice or extremely likeable but is nevertheless realistic and capable of moving the read. But here, dio mio! The narrator comes across as petulant and myopic, understanding nothing about anything and no one. Readers are clearly not meant to like her but there are various scenes that try to elicit some sort of sympathy (the nuns mistreat her, her mother is mercurial, her ‘silly’ Indian-American husband is blind to her anguish) on her behalf. Except that I didn’t. The MC goes and on about her mother, but we never gain insight into her actual feelings towards her. The MC is happy detailing all the wrongs she has endured, and seems to insinuate that she has become such a stronza because of her mother. The whole thing is incredibly superficial. Here we have another mother who is ‘hysterical’ just because ‘hysterical’ mothers can make for some dramatic scenes. Indian-Americans are portrayed as foolish and brainwashed. Everybody is nasty and disgusting. Ha-ha! Oh wait, that isn’t quite ‘caustic wit’. There were a few—and when I say a few, I mean two or three—phrases that under certain circumstances (if you are as high as a kite) may come across as slightly amusing, but for the most part the MC’s cutting humour fell flat. Viewing everything as grotesque is hardly funny, and it gets tiring, fast. I also found the author’s treatment and portrayal of postnatal depression and dementia to be highly insensitive. The mother in question becomes ‘monstrous’, the type of character that one may expect in Victorian literature. Who cares about realism when you can write explicit and ‘subversive’ things for the sake of shock value? I think this was an awful novel…and it seems that I’m in the minority. Who cares. If you want to read it or loved it, good for you. I’m glad I was able to return this audiobook and I sincerely doubt I will ever try reading anything by this author.
Books with believably fraught mother/daughter relationships featuring alienated, disaffect, or challenging main characters : You Exist Too Much, The Far Field.