This Week's Reads

Jhumpa Lahiri, David Guterson, Dan Kennedy, and Nell Freudenberger.

THE NAMESAKE

By Jhumpa Lahiri (Houghton Mifflin, $24) If you've encountered Jhumpa Lahiri's distinctive voice before, in The New Yorker or in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, the first few pages of The Namesake are like a welcome return to a familiar neighborhood. If you haven't, catch-up is a cinch. Her voice has the same velvet-over-steel strength: gentle, precise, and ever-so-slightly bemused. And her eye misses nothing. This novel's characters, Calcutta-born New England transplants and their American-born children, might have crossed paths with the uprooted Bengalis of her short stories. Yet Lahiri has broadened and deepened her range with this slim volume, which follows the endearing Gogol Ganguli through his 30-some birthdays to the year 2000. He's born to traditional Bengali parents, whose arranged marriage took place in Calcutta before they emigrated to Cambridge, Mass., MIT, and a baffling new life. Unnerved by hospital rules that their baby needs a name to leave the premises, his parents' deadpan birthday present is "Gogol," a proper name in neither Russia nor India. Gogol won't learn its almost mystical meaning for his father for decades. Full disclosureof anythingis clearly "not the Bengali way." Lahiri traces that way luminously, keeping her focus on Gogol yet never abandoning his diligent, loving, frequently flummoxed parents. He's a good kid, studious enough to get into Yale and become an architect, yet tentative, touched by shadows from a country he knows almost not at all. Now calling himself "Nikhil," his "good" (public) Bengali name, he chooses lovers in almost defiant opposition to what's expected. Then, in a move that amuses them both, he settles on the elegant Moushumi Mazoomdar, a childhood acquaintance and his mother's choice for marriage. Although Moushumi is as driven and as conflicted as Gogol (she's lived in Paris, pursuing a Ph.D. in French literature), they seem the perfect second-generation love story. But if you think The Namesake ends so tidily, you gravely underestimate Lahiri's depths as a storytelleror as an interpreter of families. SHEILA BENSON Jhumpa Lahiri will read at UW Kane Hall, Room 120 (free tickets required from Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7 p.m. Fri., Oct. 3. OUR LADY OF THE FOREST

By David Guterson (Knopf, $25.95) I'm not sure David Guterson needs more money. If he provokes one more moolah tsunami like Snow Falling on Cedars, Bainbridge Island might get scraped to bedrock, like Eastern Washington after the prehistoric Montana ice dam broke. He does need a hit, however, after his numbing second novel, East of the Mountains, went south despite some lovely nature writing and deliberative wrestling with the flaming angel of Big Moral Issues. So I am thrilled to report that his third novel puts Guterson back on the popular-fiction map. (So is his new publisher, who read 50 pages of the manuscript and gave him a seven-figure deal.) Our Lady of the Forest blends some of the appeal of Stephen King's uncanny tales set in white-trash rural blue-collarville and John Updike's fables of small-town spiritual yearning among the ineffably sensitive and the effing horny. The lady of the title is the Virgin Mary, glimpsed in a radiant arboreal vision near North Fork, a down-and-out logging town that sounds a lot like Forks, Wash. Visionary Ann is a teenage runaway who fled a rapist stepdad to live as a squatter in the woods, picking mushrooms to survive. Her fellow 'shroomer, Carolyn, is no Catholic believer (she believes she'll have another beer), but she's concerned for the increasingly out-there Ann. Not averse to making a few bucks off the phenomenon, Carolyn appoints herself the mystic's spokesperson as the faithful gather in their thousands to trample the moss and witness Ann's Marian ecstasies. Father Collins, the young local priest, feels fascinated and torn by Ann. He has doubts about his own callinglike an Updike narrator, only with more guilt and less revolting self-regard; maybe he's more like a Hawthorne hero, only not that guilty. He's touched by Ann's innocent, instinctual faith, and he desperately wards off thoughts of touching her where it counts. (They share a carnal nature: Ann and Collins are both passionate onanists.) The symbolically named Tom Cross has the most tormented interest in Ann. He's an embittered logger forced to sell his once-thriving business and work at the hateful local prison. He lives at a local motel, drinking and stewing over his past (his wife left him; his son was paralyzed in a logging accident). Yet even as Tom lusts self-defeatingly for the Punjabi innkeeper's curry-scented wife, he yearns for the peace and purity that Ann has found. And just maybe there might be a miracle cure for his son. Forest could use more otherworldliness and plot complication, but it's thoroughly absorbing; and the wonderfully drawn characters draw us in, inexorably. Guterson writes virtuoso dialogue (even though, like Updike's, his narrator's voice can spill too much into his characters), and he now equals Raymond Carver as a painter of Northwest squalor and domestic strife. TIM APPELO David Guterson will read at Bainbridge High School (9330 High School Rd.; tickets available in advance from Eagle Harbor Books, 157 Winslow Way E., 206-842-5332), 7:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 7; and at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-624-6600; $5, tickets available in advance from Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 8. LOSER GOES FIRST: MY THIRTY-SOMETHING YEARS OF DUMB LUCK AND MINOR HUMILIATION

By Dan Kennedy (Crown, $21.95) These days we're all losers. Loser chic insists that every one of usat least every one of us straight white fellowspresent himself as a chronic screwup whose every bit of success (and usually, you know, there is some) has been attained through some accidental combination of, well, "dumb luck and minor humiliation." The shtick has become so tiresomely familiar that a little frank ambition would be welcome. Not much hope of that here. But Dan Kennedy is so abundantly hilarious that the pose doesn't matter. His fragmentary memoir is written in a bastard style of narrative, conjecture, fantasy dialogue, lists, vignettes, notes to himself, fake movie scripts, satirical instruction manuals, recipes, and the like, none of which comes off as fussy or post-mod in the least. Trading in a familiar slacker argotnow the lingua franca of straight guys everywherewith lots of sentences that read "Or something" and "Whatever," Kennedy's great gift for description, natural dialogue, and taking the piss out of himself makes his stint on the morning shift at a health club or his fall from a bedroom window howlingly funny. The one truly absurd mistake Kennedy commits is heading to Austin to become an indie-rock star, just a few months before the country goes crazy for grunge. Which is too bad, because Kennedy's ability to make fun of indie-rocker pretensions is something our own town desperately needs: "I make my way through this crowd in my secondhand army-man-goes-punk get-up with about fifty pounds of secondhand electronic Japanese guitar accessories clanging around behind me. . . . And of course a little journal that I've filled with notes on what I'm pissed off about, and/or what is going wrong with my life (girls and jobs) and/or the country (vague and confused corporation themes here) and the world (will try to leverage my limited understanding of foreign policy mostly)." Like any loser, of course, Kennedy does eventually make it to Seattle, working at a waterfront espresso stand and sneaking whip-its, by which point Loser starts to become a little trying. How many baristas/aspiring actors in Seattle do you know who get invited to audition in New York to be MTV vee-jays or have copywriting jobs suddenly thrust at them from big Manhattan ad agencies? Kennedy is now director of creative development for Atlantic Records, so you wonder how this loser who never attended college became so spectacularly well connected. Eventually you realize that this guy isn't a loser at all; he's just blessed with such prodigious talent (and charisma) that he can feel free to act like one. MARK D. FEFER Dan Kennedy will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 5:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 7. LUCKY GIRLS

By Nell Freudenberger (Ecco, $22.95) The lucky girls in this debut collection of short stories are only fortunate in certain small ways. Yes, they're most often wealthy and pretty, but they're also unhappy. In fact, most of them are damn near tragic. These five stories leak loneliness, emptiness, and sorrow, which belies not just the upbeat title, but the happy promise of Nell Freudenberger's rising literary reputation. (She snagged the career-making lead position in The New Yorker's 2001 fiction issue.) Like their 28-year-old creator, these girls are both young and wise. All but one of them are ex-pats, so they're worldly yet alone in that world, which lends to Lucky Girls' often somber tone. In "The Tutor," a melancholy American teenager living in Bombay with her father is studying for her college-entrance exams with a slightly older Indian man. The girl, her hazel eyes "ruined" by thick black eyeliner, and her tutor eventually sleep together, but this isn't what makes either of them lucky. Julia is fortunate because the friendship helps keep her homesickness at bay. Her tutor, Zubin, is thankful because the brief affair gives him a reprieve from his intellectual life. The story ends with Zubin walking home afterward and noticing that even the lifeless, monotonous apartment blocks in his neighborhood are, for just a moment, beautiful. Although it's a small thing, it's good fortune, and Freudenberger renders the scene with quietude and grace. Having spent time in Asia after graduating from Harvard, Freudenberger has a sophistication and worldliness that eludes well-traveled authors twice her age. More important, whether her stories are set in Thailand, India, or the U.S., she makes even the dreariest of situations seem auspicious. LAURA CASSIDY Nell Freudenberger will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 7. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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