In Other Words

Book cover: In Other Words by Jhumpa LahiriIn 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:

What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.

That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.

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Book cover: Mort(e) by Robert RepinoForget extraterrestrials arriving in spaceships powerful enough to scorch Earth. The “war with no name” has begun, and our own pets are the ones turning against us.

The mastermind of this attack is the queen of the Colony. For centuries, ants have been refining biological warfare with the goal of eradicating the violent humans from the face of the planet. The time has come to put the plan into action, and a key element of the attack is to give all animals human-like intelligence and self-awareness, as well as the ability to walk on their hind legs. Upon realizing what humans have done to them throughout history, many animals turn on their former owners.

At the center of the story is a former housecat named Mort(e). He rises through the ranks of the military, always volunteering to go into the most dangerous missions. He and his partner are are also determined to understand the cause of EMSAH, a biological weapon the humans produced to fight the animals. But really, Mort(e) is really just a cat looking for his best friend, Sheba, a dog he knew and loved before the war with no name began.

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The Mapmaker’s Children

Book cover: The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoyHaving read and loved Sarah McCoy’s previous novel, The Baker’s Daughter, I was excited to read her latest book. Diving deep into historical fiction, The Mapmaker’s Children reimagines the life of Sarah Brown. She was the daughter of John Brown, an abolitionist who attempted to start a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859; he survived the attack and was hanged for treason. Three of his sons also died for the cause, two of them at Harper’s Ferry.

In McCoy’s book, Sarah Brown plays a small but important role in the Underground Railroad, painting maps in code that slaves would then use to navigate their way to freedom. As a direct relative of John Brown, times are dangerous for her surviving family, but Sarah is determined to further the abolitionist cause in any way she can.

A century and a half later, a woman named Eden Anderson has just moved into an old house in New Charlestown, West Virginia. She and her husband, Jack, need a break from fast-paced city life; they’ve been trying to conceive a child, but several miscarriages later, their relationship is hanging by a thread. Jack is trying to be supportive, but Eden is taking the loss very hard; she’s furious when Jack comes home with a puppy, as if that could serve as a substitute for a child.

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Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Book cover: Native by Sayed KashuaAt the end of the first section of Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life, Sayed Kashua recounts a telephone call he received from a stranger in 2007. As a Palestinian writer living in Jerusalem, Kashua had a platform that not many Palestinians in Israel are afforded: he had a weekly column in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper.

The man on the other end of the line inquired whether Kashua was being censored from writing about politics and current affairs concerning Arabs. Kashua replied that he had the freedom to write anything he pleased. Surprised, the man on the other end replied, “All you write about is how drunk you got, about your wife and all sorts of nonsense…Don’t we have other problems right now, other than your hangovers and your conversation with your wife?”

At this point in the book — about a quarter of the way into the collection — I was wondering the same thing.

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American Housewife: Stories

Book cover: American Housewife by Helen EllisWith its eye-catching cover, Helen Ellis’s latest book had me at first sight: I am such a sucker for book covers, and this one was impossible for me to ignore. Add in the fact that I’m also a sucker for weird characters, short stories, and bizarre scenarios, and it becomes pretty clear that this book and I were meant to be. I wasn’t familiar with Ellis’s work before this, but I’d say her work is in the same vein as Aimee Bender and Ramona Ausubel’s…if one were to replace the magical realism with deadpan humor.

The twelve stories in the collection are all about women who are OVER. IT. in one way or another.

In “The Wainscoting War,” two neighbors battle it out via email over the decor of their shared hallway. It’s new money vs. old money, and the facade of tolerant politeness quickly gives way to all out war. Refined people throwing shade are present throughout the book, parceled out in thinly veiled insults and acerbic witticisms.

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