Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews With Bill Bryson

between the lines book club logoThe month we are reading At Home by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson is a prolific speaker – we had the pleasure of hearing him speak at the Sacramento Central Library on one occasion. Here are some interviews with him regarding At Home.

First, a fun Q and A from The Guardian.

Bill Bryson on Colbert Report is a hoot – check out his hybrid American/British accent (he was raised in the USA but has lived in England for many years).

Here he is on the radio program “Here and Now”

Finally, here’s a brief but entertaining interview with The New York Times.

We’ll be meeting to discuss it in person on January 27, 2018 at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM. Join us!


Between the Lines Book Club: Epistolary Novels

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines Book Club! This month we’ve been reading Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. We’ll be meeting in person at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, California, at 10:30AM on October 22, 2016.

Gilead is written as a series of letters form Reverend Ames to his young son. Ames had his son late in his own life and he knows he will not live to see his son grow up, so he wants to leave a communication with the child he will soon leave behind. This format is known as an “epistolary novel.” An epistolary novel is one that consists of a series of letters. It can also consist of a colleciton of documents. For instance, World War Z, by Max Brooks, is made up entirely of a collection of interviews, and Carrie by Stephen King, consists of letters, newspaper articles, and excerpts from books.

If you are interested in the idea of the episotolary format, here’s a sample to get you started!

Lady Susan, by Jane Austen

Lady Susan was finished by austen, but probably not fully edited and polished. It appears not to have been intended for publication. Despite it not being as fully developed as Austen’s published works, this short novel is hilarious and wicked, as Lady Susan, a woman with no morals whatsoever, wreaks havoc on the lives of the proper people her surround her. You can find my full review here and my review of Love and Friendship, a movie based on the book, here.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

In this classic horror novel, the story is told through letters by Mina, Jonathon, Dr. Seward – in fact, almost every character except for Dracula. This gives the story a sense of immediacy and increases the feeling that Dracula is unknowable. We never hear his point of view – we simply sense his prescence, looming over all of the characters at every moment.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

This classic novel is told as a series of letters from Celie to God and later to her sister Nettie. As Celie becomes more confident, her letter become longer and more fluent. Because the novel is in Celie’s voice, the reader has a visceral sense of her struggles against racsim, sexism, and poverty, and the reader thrills at Celie’s liberation as she develops a sense of self and a place in her community.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

This book is told in the form of diary entries and emails. In the near future, Lenn is a middle-aged man, the son of Russian immigrants, who falls madly in love with Korean-American Eunice Park. Meanwhile, America faces political and economic collapse. The story of these mismatched lovers is funny, sharp, and yes, super sad.



Between the Lines Book Club: Gilead and Transcendentalism

between the lines book club logoOur October book club selection is Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. If you are in the Sacramento area, please join us at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM on October 29, 2016.

Gilead is the story of Reverend Ames, his father, and his grandfather, and their approaches to war and civil rights. The book is profoundly influenced by transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism is a philosophical school of thought that developed in the late 1820s. It was made famous by, among other people, author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other followers included Louisa May Alcott and her family, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

Transcendentalism was a movement that was influenced by Romanticism, as well as by Indian religions. Transcendentalists believed that all people are inherently good, that nature is inherently good, and that the more self-reliant people are, the better they are. The movement was notable as being American in origin, and most of its followers were Americans. It was also notable for sparking a literary movement that mirrored its philopophical aims. Emerson’s magazine, The Dial, was a home to many new essays and stories by American writers.

In an article for The New Inquiry titled “The New Transcendentalist” Susan Salter Reynolds says,

I like to think of Robinson as a member of a merry band I call the New Transcendentalists, a group that builds on the luminous work of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, and others. The New Transcendentalists include, besides Robinson,  Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver, Rebecca Solnit, and others. I am sure that I have left names from both categories, New and Old, but the message is the same: belief in the human spirit and its capacity for community, generosity, and stewardship; in what Whitman called “radical uniqueness,” and in the vital connection to nature as a source of creativity and innovation. The effect is also the same: elevation, followed by freedom.

By tying her work, both consciously (Robinson is a big Emerson fan) and unconsciously to Transcendentalism, Robinson is able to explore the healing power of nature, the pros and cons of communities, and the role of faith in matters and large and small. She also gives her work a distinctly American feel by tying it to a rich legacy of American thought and American fiction.

Between the Lines Book club: Gilead

between the lines book club logoTime to announce our October book club selection, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. If you are in the Sacramento area, please join us at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM on October 29, 2016 for an in-person discussion of this lyrical book.

Gilead, which was published in 2004, is Robinson’s second book. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for best fiction. Her first novel, Housekeeping, told the stories of three women. In Gilead, the story focuses on men – Reverend John Ames, his father, and hid grandfather. Ames is writing a series of letters to his son about the history of his family. The story deals with faith, conscience, mortality, and forgiveness.

Gilead is the first in what is known as “The Gilead Trilogy” although all three books in the trilogy work as stand-alone novels. It is followed by Home, which follows the struggles of Ames’ neighbors, and Lila, which tells the story of Ames’ wife. All three books pay tribute to the philosophies and writing styles of transcendental writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Emily Dickenson by using simple yet lyrical language to describe not only the dramatic events of life but the beauty of simple, everyday moments.


We hope you enjoy this selection! You can participate in book club in person or by leaving comments here.



Between The Lines Book Club: Blindness in All the Light We Cannot See

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines Book Club, which meets in this space every Friday and will be meeting in person at Arden Dimick Library on June 25, 2016 at 10:30AM. This month’s book is All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

One of the main characters in All the Light is a blind girl named Marie. Marie is fiercely protected by every other major character with the exception of the arch-villain of the story. Her father bathes her and dresses her and helps her put on her shoes well into her teens. Marie usually seems much younger than her actual age – at the start of the book she is six, but although later she is a teenager seems more like a girl between the ages of ten and twelve. She is presented as without flaws, other than a kind of passivity. However, she does show resourcefulness and increasing independence.

Most reviewers have praised the book, but some have pointed out that Marie represents an unrealistic version of life as a blind people. Blind people learn to navigate without ropes and model houses, and they can most certainly dress themselves. In this passionate essay by Sheri Wells-Jensen, Wells-Jensen (who is blind) analyzes the portrayal of Marie as a character “without agency”.

Not everyone agrees – here’s a dissenting essay by blind author Beth Finke. She felt that Marie was a well-rounded character, and she especially admires the way the writing stays within Marie’s point of view, so we don’t see anything she doesn’t see.

What do you think? Is Marie realistically written? Is she more, less, or equally passive than Werner, who drifts along with the army and makes very few choices on his own behalf?



Between the Lines Book Club: Jo Walton Mini-Bio and links!

between the lines book club logoThis month Between the Lines Book Club is reading Among Others by Jo Walton. Love comments here or join us in person at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM. Sat Oct 24.

Jo Walton was born in Wales and she speaks Welsh fluently. She moved to Canada in 2002. She’s the author of many science fiction and fantasy books, as well as a recent book of non-fiction titled “What Makes This Book So Great.” Her earlier series were relatively light fare (I’m crazy about them, by the way) and included fantasy (The King’s PeaceTooth and Claw) and alternate history (The Small Change Series). Her recent series, The Thessaly Series, kicked off with a critically acclaimed book called The Just City. The series asks what would happen if Plato’s theoretical city was actually built, and populated by real children and adults.

Unlike many authors I write about, Walton seems to have led a relatively calm, or at least private life. Her bios are largely lists of awards – Among Other, for instance, is one of only seven books to be nominated for The Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award (it won the Nebula and Hugo). Luckily for me, she wrote a bio, she uses on her blog (, and to introduce some of her works. Here’s Jo Walton’s autobiography:

Jo Walton
has run out of eggs and needs to go buy some,
she has no time to write a bio
as she wants to make spanakopita today.
She also wants to write a new chapter
and fix the last one.
Oh yes, she writes stuff,
when people leave her alone to get on with it
and don’t demand bios
and proofreading and interviews
and dinner.
Despite constant interruptions
she has published nine novels
in the last forty-eight years
and started lots of others.
She won the Campbell for Best New Writer in 2002
when she was 38.
She has also written half a ton of poetry
which isn’t surprising as she finds poetry
considerably easier to write
than short bios listing her accomplishments.
She is married, with one (grown up, awesome) son
who lives nearby with his girlfriend and two cats.
She also has lots of friends
who live all over the planet
who she doesn’t see often enough.
She remains confused by punctuation,
“who” and “whom”
and “that” and “which”.
She cannot sing and has trouble with arithmetic
also, despite living ten years in Montreal
her French still sucks.
Nevertheless, her novel Among Others
won a Hugo and a Nebula
so she must be doing something right
at least way back when she wrote it
it’ll probably never work again.
She also won a World Fantasy Award in 2004
for an odd book called Tooth and Claw
in which everyone is dragons.
She comes from South Wales
and identifies ethnically
as a Romano-Briton
but she emigrated to Canada
because it seemed a better place
to stand to build the future.
She blogs about old books on
and posts poetry and recipes and wordcount on her LJ
and is trying to find something to bribe herself with
as a reward for writing a bio
that isn’t chocolate.


Between The Lines Book Club: The Sustainable Food Movement

between the lines book club logoHey Sacramento followers – Between the Lines Book Club meets tomorrow (9/26/15) at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM! Not in the Sacramento area? Leave your comments about The Third Plate here!

In The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber talks about the importance of making sustainable agriculture part of elite cooking. Barber wants to make it fashionable to use all the parts of an animal or vegetable, rotation crops like barley and rye, and humanely and sustainably raised livestock.

Every culture has in some way grappled with the concept of sustainable agriculture, a term which basically means how to use land without using the land up to the point where it is no longer productive.. An early example from the Americas is that of the “The Three Sisters.” Several Native American Tribes had a practice of planting “The Three Sisters,” maize, beans, and squash, together. Each plant has components that keep the soil healthy, ensuring good farming in future years. The crops also proved a balanced diet when eaten together.

Sustainable agriculture is described today as agricultural practices that maximize human nutrition and quality of life while also maximizing the health of the environment and its ability to continue to provide food. This means that a farm cannot exhaust the nutrients in soil through over-farming, nor use chemical fertilizer that damages local water sources. My California readers will be most familiar with the concept in terms of water usage. While water is a renewable resource, California farms pull water out of the aquifer much faster than the aquifer can be refilled. The term “sustainable agriculture” became popular in the 1980’s. Other issues to consider are how much land is being used and how much energy a farm uses.

Discussions about sustainable farming can take a low-level approach (using different fertilizers and crop rotation, or a more radical approach (urban farming, vertical farming, and changes in the economy as a whole.


Between the Lines Book Club: 3 Chefs Who Changed the Game

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines! If you are in the Sacramento area, please join us at Arden Dimick Library, at 10:30AM on Saturday Sept. 26th. This month we are reading The Third Plate, by Chef Dan Barber. Barber belies that chefs have an opportunity to change the way people think about food. Here are 3 other chefs who did just that!

Alexis Soyer (1810 – 1958)

Soyer was a French chef who moved to England during the French Revolution. He worked for a number of celebrated restaurants, but his most significant achievements were as an inventor and a humanitarian. Sober invented a portable stove for use in the home and later invented the first camp stove for military use. Sober was a tireless advocate during the Crimean War for nutrition and safe food for the troops. He also sold cookbooks for charity and advocated on behalf of the Irish who were suffering through the potato famine. Soyer institute changes in how the government thinks about feeding troops and changes in how kitchens are stocked and organized that are still significant today.


Chef Ettore Boiardi, also known as Chef Boyardee (1897 – 1895)

Boiardi is the chef who brought us raviolis in a can. He came to America from Italy when he was sixteen years old and worked his way up to become head chef for the Plaza Hotel and a chef for President Woodrow Wilson.  When he opened his own restaurant in New York, customers begged to take home his sauces, so he started packaging them in clean used milk bottles. In 1927 he began a business of selling canned pasta products and sauces. He was commended for helping provide rations to troops in WWI.


Alice Waters (1944 – present day)

Waters is the owner and founder of Californian restaurant Chez Panisse. Waters has been a hugely successful promoter of organic food and local food. Most recently, she’s been working to make school lunches more healthy and to encourage schools to incorporate gardening into their curriculum. Since the early 2000’s, she’s been active in the Slow Food movement as well. Modern chefs and food writers cite her as having a huge influence on the way people today think about food. She moved the phrase ‘organic’ into the mainstream.

Alice Waters - 08 Mar 2002

Between the Lines Book Club: Truly Weird Adaptations of Crime and Punishment

between the lines book club logo

In Sacramento, CA? Join us for an in-person discussion of Crime and Punishment tomorrow (Aug 22, 2015) at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library!

Unlike some other classics, there’s no single iconic adaptation of Crime and Punishment, although there are a few movies and once might sound Law and Order as an adaptation that’s very long-running. While there may be no adaptation that is iconic, there are several that are just plain weird. Here’s some of the bizarre things people have done with the novel:

Proving that everything is better with Batman: Crime and Punishment Batman comic!

This spoof, from the collection Masterpiece Comics, tells the story of Crime and Punishment with Batman as the main character. In this version, Batman decides to take the law into his own hands – murder and angst ensue.

Teen Angst: Crime and Punishment in Suburbia (Film, 2000)

This movie has a 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It tells the tale of a teen girl who is attacked by her stepfather and plots to kill him with the help of the school quarterback. When she’s accused of the murder, the weird outcast high school kid with a crush is the only one she can turn to. This seems to be a love it or hate it movie.

Because Les Miserables wasn’t depressing enough:

Crime and Punishment is being made into a musical. I’m just going to drop this here and back slowly away.

Between the Lines Book Club: Four Fun Facts About Fyodor Dostoyevsky

between the lines book club logoWelcome once again to Between the Lines Book Club! This month we are reading Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. You can join us in person on August 22, 2015 at Arden Dimick Library, Sacramento, CA at 10:30AM.

There is a huge amount of detailed information about Dostoyevsky online, but here are four facts about his life:

1. He had epilepsy

According to, a health website for people with epilepsy, Dostoyevsky had a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy called “static epilepsy”. He documented 102 seizures during the course of his life. Many of his fictional characters have the same condition. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin describes a seizure:

‘He was thinking, incidentally, that there was a moment or two in his epileptic condition almost before the fit itself (if it occurred in waking hours) when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire at brief moments….His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.  His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light.  All his agitation, doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of understanding…but these moments, these glimmerings were still but a premonition of that final second (never more than a second) with which the seizure itself began.  That second was, of course, unbearable.’

Fyodor as a young man in 1847

2. He was arrested, scheduled to be executed, and exiled to Siberia for reading and circulating banned essays.

Dostoyevsky spent four months in prison waiting to be sentenced and was condemned to death. According to Wikipedia:

They sentenced the members of the circle to death by firing squad, and the prisoners were taken to Semyonov Place in St Petersburg on 23 December 1849 where they were split into three-man groups. Dostoyevsky was the third in the second row; next to him stood Pleshcheyev and Durov. The execution was stayed when a cart delivered a letter from the Tsar commuting the sentence.

Dostoyevsky spent the next eight years in a Siberian prison camp where we was shackled constantly and forbidden to read anything except the bible. Sometimes he was sent to the hospital where he was able to read Dickens and newspapers. His novel, The House of the Dead, written after his release, was the first published Russian novel about prison.

The New Testament that Dostoyevsky took to prison

3. He was unlucky in love until he met Anna Grigoryevna Dostoyevskaya, who became his second wife.

His first wife was Maria Dmitrievna. The marriage was unhappy. She died in 1864. In 1863 he met Polina Suslova, with whom he had a mad affair. After Maria died, Dostoyevsky proposed to Polina but she turned him down. He finally met Anna, who was a fan of his work, seems to have been a fairly stable emotional person, and was smart enough to take over the family finances so that he could not continue to game away all the money he possessed.

Dostoyseky was infirm, neurotic, poor, and a gambling addict, so he wasn’t much of a catch, but he sure knew how to sneak in a proposal. Again, from Wikipedia:

As described in the Memoirs, Dostoyevsky shared with Anna the plot of an imaginary new novel, as if he needed her advice on female psychology.[5] In his story an old painter made a proposal to young girl whose name was Anya. Dostoyevsky asked if it was possible for a girl so young and different in personality to fall in love with the painter. Anna answered that it was quite possible. Then he told Anna: “Put yourself in her place for a moment. Imagine I am the painter, I confessed to you and asked you to be my wife. What would you answer?” Anna said: “I would answer that I love you and I will love you forever”.

Anna Grigoryevna Dostoyevskaya

4. He was famous during his lifetime.

His funeral was huge – anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 mourners attended.

Between the Lines Book Club: A Short Bio and Discussion of Richard Powers

between the lines book club logoThis month in Between the Lines Book Club we are reading Orfeo by Richard Powers. If you live in or near Sacramento, California, please join us in person for coffee, pastries, and discussion at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library on July 25. Otherwise, leave your comments below!

Richard Powers is the author of eleven novels to date. He’s famous for cerebral novels, that frequently involve science and the ways science influences the human experience. His novel The Echo Maker won the National Book Award.

Powers was born in Illinois and spent several years in Thailand as a child. He moved back to Illinois as a teen and studies English Literature. His first job was as a computer programmer. Powers’ first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, won him so much publicity that he moved to The Netherlands to avoid it.

Critics tend to praise Powers for his ideas and criticize him for his characters. While Powers is concerned with deep thoughts, he doesn’t neglect plot. As Margot Atwood said of him:

On the other hand, there are books you read once and there are other books you read more than once because they are so flavorful, and then there are yet other books that you have to read more than once. Powers is in the third category: the second time through is necessary to pick up all the hidden treasure-hunt clues you might have missed on your first gallop through the plot. You do gallop, because Powers can plot. Of some books you don’t ask How will it all turn out? since that isn’t the point. It’s certainly part of the point with Powers. Only part, however.

If you’ve been reading Orfeo, what do you think? Did the science overwhelm the humanity of the characters, or vice versa, or is there balance? Were you swept up in the plot or caught up in the ideas? Every Powers book is a balancing act and opinions vary widely with each book on how well the act is accomplished. All critics seem to agree that every Powers book is worth the readers’ time, because of the discussions of science, art, and emotion.

Between the Lines Book Club: Our Next Series!

between the lines book club logoHello everyone! Watch this space on Fridays for Between the Lines Book Club. This is where we discuss one book a month in the comments. On the fourth Saturday of every month those of us in or near Sacramento, California meet at Arden Dimick Library to discuss the books. Arden Dimick is located at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864.

All gatherings are at 10:30 AM. Coffee and pastries are provided.

Here’s the line up!

July 25: Orfeo, by Richard Powers

August 22: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sept 26, The Third Plate, by Dan Barber

Oct 24: Among Others, by Jo Walton

Nov 21: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

See you soon!

Between the Lines Book Club: Orfeo, by Richard Powers

between the lines book club logo

Hello everyone! Watch this space on Fridays for Between the Lines Book Club. This is where we discuss one book a month in the comments. On the fourth Saturday of every month those of us in or near Sacramento, California meet at Arden Dimick Library to discuss the books. Arden Dimick is located at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864. Our next meeting is on July 25 at 10:30 AM, where we will discussing Orfeo by Richard Powers.

As many of you know, I’m currently on vacation in San Diego madly racing around San Diego Comic Con with many children in tow, fervently hoping that soon I can retreat to the beach where I shall collapse on the sand until lifeguards drag me away. Fortunately, many better writers than I have written about Orfeo. Here are links to some reviews and commentary:


This link goes to an interview with the author. Sample quote:

My challenge as a writer was how to create descriptions not just of canonical 20th century pieces, but to create vivid descriptions of fictional pieces. Works for small ensemble, for voice, symphonic orchestra, operatic works that did not exist and yet describe them in a way that was vivid and compelling and re-created the internal drama of the composer as he was at work on them. So it was almost as if I had in my own head to write the music first and then produce a kind of prose that recaptured the music and the rhythm and the challenge and the transgression of these pieces.

New York Times

In this review, the reviewer talks about what he calls “The Richard Powers Problem”, i.e., is Powers too cerebral?  Sample quote:

Why, then, was I unable to resist the emotional pull of “Orfeo”? Why did I pick it up eagerly each day and find myself moist-eyed when I came to its last pages? That, I think, has everything to do with Powers’s skill at putting us into the mind of his protagonist. Peter Els is blessed (or cursed) with an almost painfully exquisite musical sensibility. Throughout “Orfeo” we experience tonal patterns of all kinds — from bird song to the overtone series of a single piano note to the “caldera of noise” at a John Cage happening and the “naked pain” in the Largo of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony — filtered through Peter’s lyrical consciousness. In one of the novel’s most virtuosic passages, which goes on for a dozen pages, Peter dilates on the transcendent beauties of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed and first performed in the brutal conditions of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. All of which heightens and makes unbearably poignant Peter’s own losing struggle to “recover a fugitive language” that might capture something of eternity.

The Washington Post

This reviewer cautions the reader that the book has dangerous side effects:

Be forewarned: Even if you check “Orfeo” out of the library, it will still cost you a fortune. (Why couldn’t this novel come with a set of CDs?) From Mozart’s “Jupiter” to George Rochberg’s “String Quartets” and Harry Partch’s “Barstow” and John Cage’s “Concerto for Prepared Piano,” I’ve never bought so many tracks in a single week. Admittedly, some of the pieces struck my unsophisticated ear as noise, but the money kept running out of me prestissimo.

Hope to see many book clubbers on July 25!

Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri

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Time for Between The Lines Book Club! Leave your comments about The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri below. Better yet, join us in Sacramento, CA tomorrow ( 6/2715). We meet at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA.

Note: next Friday I will not be posting as I’ll be enjoying Fourth of July weekend and bracing for San Diego Comic-Con. That cosplay won’t pack itself! We’ll be back here to talk about July’s pick, Orfeo, by Richard Powers, on Friday July 10.

The Lowland was a much-anticipated book and as such there are many interviews available with Lahiri. Here’s a selection:

The New Yorker has a fairly long interview with Lahiri in which she talks about the book. She also talks about a new experiment – writing in Italian., which is a relative new language for her:

But what I think I find really freeing about this strange, experimental, whatever-you-want-to-call-it phase is that I love the freedom of writing in an imperfect way. I feel what I felt as a child, when I was first learning how to write stories, when I was first writing stories, and I was first experiencing that pleasure of putting sentences on paper and the excitement that it would give me. I think as an adult I do still feel that excitement, but it’s different. Writing in another language is humbling. It’s so hard. How I explain it to people is that I feel as though I’ve tied my right hand behind my back on purpose and I’m writing with my left hand, and I recognize how much sloppier it is, how much more awkward it is, how much more out of control it is in a way. But I also love doing without so much. I feel that when I describe something in Italian I just have a very limited amount of resources. My toolbox is small. And I only have a certain amount of vocabulary. I have the grammar and I can make it all work in that way, but it’s much simpler as a result. It’s not the same process of writing in English, where I could choose from one of twenty-five different words to describe how the sky looks to me. I can’t do that in Italian. I might have two or three words. So it feels more direct, in a way, the process, because there’s a strange purity about it, even though it’s so imperfect.

Parul Sehgal did an interview with Lahiri for Elle India in which Lahiri talks about her writing process:

The book begins: “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.” In that one sentence, we get the collision of British, Muslim and Hindu (and with the fork in the road, an echo of Robert Frost, and Lahiri’s New England roots), an intimation of how the brothers will take divergent paths, and inevitably, a little Lahiri family history. The Lowland is set in Tollygunge, her father’s neighborhood in Calcutta, where Naxalism set down strong roots, even attracting members of her family. The book brims with facts and local political lore – unusual for a writer who doesn’t identify herself as especially political. “I’m looking at the world a different way,” she says. “I’m trying to create people of all kinds and put them into situations, and it’s not my objective to have a message. I work from the inside out.”

To depict Naxalism from the inside out, she travelled to Calcutta to meet people who had been active in the movement. It was a turning point for the book, she says. “You realize the difference between someone who may vote a certain way or think that these objectives are right and reasonable, versus a person for whom these beliefs, this sense of justice is as essential as water or air. Even all these years later, they’re still burning with it.”

I thought this was a cute and poignant moment where she talks about understanding her parents better now that she’s moved to Rome:

But what’s also clear is that if Lahiri has moved away from using fiction to fathom her parents, life is teaching her what she wanted to know. Lahiri has been living in Rome for a year now, a city that, she says, shares Calcutta’s relaxed sociability. And she has found that fumbling with a foreign language, struggling with simple things – phone calls, putting her children in school—has helped her see her parents more clearly. Although she admits this confuses her mother a good deal. “She’s like, ‘Why do you have to be so far away from us? If you want to understand us, come over!’” Lahiri says, laughing.

The Lowland was a finalist for the National Book Award, and you can find an interview with her on their website.   In this interview, she reveals that she resisted writing the book for ten years:

I conceived of The Lowland before any of my other books were published. And so in a sense it’s the book I’ve been trying to write from the beginning. I think it’s a continuation, and perhaps a conclusion, of certain thematic preoccupations. I am also hopeful that it will lead to an aesthetic departure.

Between the Lines Book Club: The History Behind The Lowland

between the lines book club logoIn this month’s Between the Lines Book Club selection, The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about two brothers who react very differently to turbulent political times in Calcutta. One leaves for America, where he goes to university. The other becomes a member of the Naxalite movement. It’s obvious from the context of the book what’s going on. Clearly the character is involved in a political movement driven by young people that is concerned with social injustice and that is willing to use violence. But the full history of the movement is fascinating. While I can’t give it full justice, here’s a brief overview.

“Naxalites” refers to members of several different Communist groups in India. They have a Maoist ideology and continue to be active today in both legal and illegal forms. The term “Naxalite” comes from the West Bengali village of Naxalbari. In 1967, a group split off from the Communist Party and initiated an uprising in Naxalbari with the goal of redistributing land to the landless. Initially, the group attracted Indian peasants and urban intellectuals. They took much of their guidance form “The Historic Eight Documents”, written by Charu Majumdar. Their goal was to overthrow the Indian State. They were no fans of the Soviet Union, believing that the Soviet Union had lost track of true communism. In the 1970s the group split into factions, but remained active.

The segment of history most relevant to this month’s book club pick, The Lowland, involves Naxalite activity in West Bengal in the early 1970’s. From my old pal, Wikipedia (I’m not proud):

Around 1971 the Naxalites gained a strong presence among the radical sections of the student movement in Calcutta.[20] Students left school to join the Naxalites. Majumdar, to entice more students into his organisation, declared that revolutionary warfare was to take place not only in the rural areas as before, but everywhere and spontaneously. Thus Majumdar declared an “annihilation line”, a dictum that Naxalites should assassinate individual “class enemies” (such as landlords, businessmen, university teachers, police officers, politicians of the right and left) and others.[21][22]

The chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress Party, instituted strong counter-measures against the Naxalites. The West Bengal police fought back to stop the Naxalites. The house of Somen Mitra, the Congress MLA of Sealdah, was allegedly turned into a torture chamber where Naxals were incarcerated illegally by police and the Congress cadres. CPI-M cadres were also involved in the “state terror”. After suffering losses and facing the public rejection of Majumdar’s “annihilation line”, the Naxalites alleged human rights violations by the West Bengal police, who responded that the state was effectively fighting a civil war and that democratic pleasantries had no place in a war, especially when the opponent did not fight within the norms of democracy and civility.[15]

Large sections of the Naxal movement began to question Majumdar’s leadership. In 1971 the CPI(ML) was split, as the Satyanarayan Singh revolted against Majumdar’s leadership. In 1972 Majumdar was arrested by the police and died in Alipore Jail. His death accelerated the fragmentation of the movement.

In July 1971, Indira Gandhi took advantage of President’s rule to mobilise the Indian Army against the Naxalites and launched a colossal combined army and police counter-insurgency operation, termed “Operation Steeplechase,” killing hundreds of Naxalites and imprisoning more than 20,000 suspects and cadres, including senior leaders.[23] The paramilitary forces and a brigade of para commandos also participated in Operation Steeplechase. The operation was choreographed in October 1969, and J.F.R. Jacob was enjoined by Govind Narain, the Home Secretary of India, that “there should be no publicity and no records” and Jacob’s request to receive the orders in writing was also denied by Sam Manekshaw.[24]

Thousands of people have died as part of Naxalite insurgency or during Naxalite-sponsoered assassinations or other violent actions. Most Naxalite groups are considered terrorist groups. Like many such groups, they continue to appeal to the most marginalized, impoverished members of society. sums up the situation today:

Naxalite groups generally have claimed to represent the poorest and most socially marginalized members of Indian society (notably tribal peoples and Dalits [formerly untouchables]) and to adhere to the Maoist doctrine of sustained peasant-led revolution. For decades they have waged guerrilla warfare against such targets as landlords, businesspeople, politicians, and security forces, and they have disrupted infrastructure by damaging transportation, communication, and power lines. In the process, they often have been able to establish bases of operation in remote forested areas. Naxalite groups have come to control large territories in many of the states of eastern India—notably Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal—and their influence has spread even wider beyond those areas. Often Naxalite groups have taken over governing functions and provided social services within areas under their control, although they also have been accused of using harsh enforcement tactics.

If you are in the Sacramento area, be sure to join us on June 27, 2015 at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM for coffee, pastries, and discussion about The Lowland, a book that eloquently and compassionately describes why a intelligent and well-educated man might devote his life to this cause, without flinching from the violence practiced by the group or from the violence of the Indian State at the time.