Somerville Reads is a project that promotes literacy and community by encouraging people all over the City to read and discuss books on the same theme. For our third annual program, the subject is food—local, sustainable, delicious!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Somerville Reads Film: Hester Street

Join us at the Central Library tonight at 7 for our last film for Somerville Reads, the 1975 drama Hester Street. Jake is a Russian Jewish immigrant living on the Lower East Side who is enthusiastically Americanizing himself. All in all, he's doing pretty well. He's got a job and a girlfriend. But then his wife Gitl arrives in America, bring with her their young son. Not only does Jake have to deal with the complications this creates for his personal life, he also tries to pull Gitl away from the old Ashkenazi ways that she clings to so desperately.

Praising the film for its pathos and wit, New York Times critic Richard Eder described the experience of seeing this film about the familiar theme of Americanization as like seeing a "familiar play—A Midsummer Night's Dream as done by Peter Brook or The Wild Duck as done by Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theater—lit up by an intent and flowering mind." The acting in the film is stellar. The best performance is by Carol Kane (Gitl), who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

We hope to see you here!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Love of Strangers

One of my favorite passages in The Namesake poignantly illustrates the isolation of the members of the Ganguli family. They love each other, the parents want the children around as much as possible, but in so many ways they don't know each other. One November night Gogol takes the train back home from Yale to spend Thanksgiving with his father, Ashoke (his mother and sister have gone to India for three weeks). Gogol's train is late. He can't reach his father. He arrives at the station two hours late. His father is waiting for him.

"I hope you haven't been standing out in the cold all this time," Gogol says and from his father's lack of response he knows that this is exactly what he has done.

Then Gogol asks himself what's actually going on with his father, but admits that he won't find out.

Gogol wonders what it is like for his father to be without his mother and Sonia. He wonders if he is lonely. But his father is not the type to admit such things, to speak openly of his moods, his desires, his needs.

But when they reach home, Gogol's father does open up to him, possibly for the first time. Ashoke tells him why he's named Gogol. Interestingly, he doesn't wait for them to go inside. They sit in the car in the driveway, as if once they stepped into that house they would be drawn back into their old routines, their customary silences. Somehow, in the car, with just the two of them, Ashoke is free to talk. He tells Gogol about the train wreck, about the book of Nikolai Gogol's stories that saved his life, about the following year in bed, while his shattered bones healed.

Gogol listens, stunned, his eyes on his father's profile. Though there are only inches between them, for an instant his father is a stranger, a man who has kept a secret, has survived a tragedy, a man whose past he does not fully know. A man who is vulnerable, who has suffered in an inconceivable way.

"Why don't I know this about you?" Gogol says. His voice sounds harsh, accusing, but his eyes well with tears. "Why haven't you told me this until now?"

He doesn't understand why his father hasn't told him. And he doesn't know how to handle this knowledge, he's not quite sure what it means, for either of them.

"Is that what you think of when you think of me," Gogol asks him. Do I remind you of that night?"

"Not at all," his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. "You remind me of everything that followed."

For that moment at least, father and son connect.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Talk: Immigration, India and Women

Join us this Wed. at 7 pm at the Central Library for a talk by award-winning Brandeis Professor Harleen Singh. She'll discuss the themes of immigration and women's roles in The Namesake and other novels of the Indian Diaspora. It's sure to be fascinating!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Discussion and screening of In America

Tonight you have a choice of two Somerville Reads events in two different venues.

At 7:00 p.m., Kevin O'Kelly will lead a discussion of The Namesake at Sherman Cafe (257 Washington Street.) Kevin is a librarian at the Somerville Public Library and a writer. His book reviews appear regularly in The Boston Globe.

Also at 7:00, we'll be screening Jim Sheridan's In America at the Central Library. This is the second film in the Somerville Reads Film Festival, which explores the experiences of immigrants to America. says, "In America stars the incandescent Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine as two young Irish parents who have lost their only son. Trying to run away from their grief, they move (illegally) to a junkie-infested apartment building in New York City with their two daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger). Though they struggle with meager jobs and suffocatingly hot weather, a friendship with an artist in an apartment below them (Djimon Hounsou) becomes a catalyst that allows them to rebuild their family. In America is splendidly acted throughout - of particular note are the two girls, real-life sisters whose on-screen charisma is clearly a family trait. But it's Morton who anchors the movie; her every emotion seems to glow from her skin. The commitment of the actors keeps the movie compelling, despite some dangerously sentimental patches."

This free film series is sponsored by the Friends of the Library. All are welcome to attend.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What about the Women?

As much as I love The Namesake, one of the aspects of the book that troubles me is the lack of development of certain female characters. Ashima and Moushumi are the only women whose heads we can get inside. But what about Maxine? It's the most serious relationship of Gogol's life so far. We learn a lot about how he feels about her, her parents, their entire world. What does she feel about him?

An even more serious omission is the lack of any character development of Sonia, Gogol's sister. We get only the slightest glimpses of her as a person. We see that as a teenager she's got more of a rebellious edge than Gogol had: dyeing all her clothes black, threatening to put a blond streak in her hair, having a secret boyfriend. We learn that as a child she thought Sesame Street was an actual place. She has a warm relationship with her brother, evidenced by her nickname for him, "Goggles." (I love it that she calls him "Goggles!")

Her existence raises so many questions: what was it like being a girl in that family? Was it easier in any way? Or was it just harder? What were her relationships with guys like? Gogol's peculiar burden was his name. Did she have one?

Sonia's a character we should have had a chance to know.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Their American Life

One of the more poignant passages in The Namesake occurs in Chapter 3, which describes Ashima and Ashoke's adjustments to life in the college town just outside Boston where they live, and where they are raising their two children, Gogol and Sonia. It's a touching, beautiful evocation of the way immigrants become, to a degree, Americanized, yet retain much of their own culture, flavoring the rituals and customs of American life with something all their own. And it also describes the inevitable gulf I've mentioned before that is growing between these Bengalis and their American children.

Their garage, like every other, contains shovels and pruning shears and a shed. They purchase a barbecue for tandoori on the porch in summer. Each step, each acquisition, no matter how small, involves deliberation, consultation with Bengali friends. Was there a difference between a plastic rake and a metal one? Which was preferable, a live Christmas tree or an artificial one? They learn to roast turkeys, albeit rubbed with garlic and cumin and cayenne, at Thanksgiving, to nail a wreath to their door in December, to wrap woolen scarves around snowmen, to color boiled eggs violet and pink at Easter and hide them around the house. For the sake of Sonia and Gogol they celebrate, with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati. During pujos, scheduled for convenience on two Saturdays a year, Gogol and Sonia are dragged to a high school or a Knights of Columbus hall overtaken by Bengalis, where they are required to throw marigold petals at a cardboard effigy of a goddess and eat bland vegetarian food. It can't compare to Christmas, when they hang stockings on the fireplace mantel, and set out cookies and milk for Santa Claus, and receive heaps of presents, and stay home from school....In the supermarket they let Gogol fill the cart with items that he and Sonia, but not they, consume: individually wrapped slices of cheese, mayonnaise, tuna fish, hot dogs.....At his [Gogol's] insistence, she [Ashima] concedes and makes him an American dinner once a week as a treat, Shake n' Bake chicken or Hamburger Helper prepared with ground lamb...

And this passage slays me:

When Gogol is in third grade, they send him to Bengali language and culture classes every other Saturday, held in the home of one of their friends. For when Ashima and Ashoke close their eyes it never fails to unsettle them, that their children sound just like Americans, conversing expertly in a language that still at times confounds them, in accents they are accustomed not to trust.

Lahiri captures exactly how Ashima and Ashoke feel in their faltering steps to lead American lives, and yet expresses how much they will always feel Bengali. To must of us, purchasing a rake is a no-brainer. Not for Ashoke and Ashima: Each step, each acquisition, no matter how small, involves deliberation, consultation with Bengali friends. This is all new to them. Even one of the most trivial acts of suburban life is a small step into the unknown for them, and it's very telling that they will ask only Bengali friends what they should do. They don't trust their WASP friends enough to ask them about even such simple matters—if they have any WASP friends, that is.

And they adopt even some of the most bizarre North American customs: They nail a wreath to their door in December, to wrap woolen scarves around snowmen, to color boiled eggs violet and pink at Easter and hide them around the house... Can you imagine how surreal it must feel to a pair of Bengalis to be doing things like this? They're from a tropical climate, and now they're making snowmen—and putting clothes on them. And even native-born Americans should consider coloring eggs and hiding them strange, because let's face it, it's a weird thing to do.

And I love the emphasis on food in this passage, illustrating how profound a role food plays in expressing national identity. For example, the Gangulis give in to the American custom of roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving, but they add a Bengali twist—garlic, cumin and cayenne. I've never eaten a turkey roasted with garlic, cumin and cayenne, but it sounds delicious. Sadly for Ashima and Ashoke, their children have an unabashed preference for American food at its processed worst: individually wrapped slices of cheese, hot dogs, Hamburger Helper.

And then there's the tinge of sadness about this passage. Ashima and Ashoke try to maintain their culture in America, but in so many ways they're failing. Instead of the brightly-colored statues of Saraswati that are honored in the pujas (or pujos) back in Calcutta, the Gangulis have to make do with a cardboard cutout. I've read that in India children think the pujas for Saraswati and Durga are fun, maybe even the biggest event of the year, but Gogol and Sonia prefer Christmas. And most telling of all, Ashima and Ashoke feel the need to enroll Gogol in lessons in their native language:

when Ashima and Ashoke close their eyes it never fails to unsettle them, that their children sound just like Americans, conversing expertly in a language that still at times confounds them, in accents they are accustomed not to trust.

In so many ways, their children are strangers to them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Namesake at Porter Square Books!

If you missed last week's meeting about The Namesake at SPL, there's another one at Porter Square Books this Wednesday, May 11. Author and retired English teacher Joan Sindell will lead a discussion of The Namesake beginning at 7 pm. Seating will be limited, and sometimes parking can be tight in Porter Square, so get there early.

We hope to see you there....

Friday, May 6, 2011

Coverage of the Kick-Off

Carrie Stanziola of The Somerville News wrote a great article on the first event of Somerville Reads 2011. Check it out.

How It Begins

For my second commentary on a passage from The Namesake, I'm choosing the very start of the book. As I mulled over various parts of the novel, I kept coming back to the first pages, because they're a great example of Lahiri's skill at narrative, characterization, setting.

On a sticky August evening [in 1968] two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves.

"On a sticky August evening..." Lahiri puts us there immediately. Everyone knows what a "sticky August evening" feels like. And when she tells us it's two weeks before her due date, we feel tension. We know something's going to happen. And the snack Ashima makes isn't just about the odd cravings of pregnancy: Rice Krispies, Planters peanuts, chili peppers.... It's the best substitute she can devise for a common Indian snack food, and it's emblematic of her life. She's adapting to living in America as best she can, but India is where she wants to be. She can barely take in food anymore, but she still wants this snack. She literally hungers for India. On this very first page, Lahiri establishes the conflict and yearning that's at the heart of Ahsima's adult life.

Then Lahiri takes us further into the discomfort of the August night—and of pregnancy:

She wipes sweat from her face with the free end of her sari. Her swollen feet ache against gray speckled linoleum. Her pelvis aches from the baby's weight...a curious warmth floods her abdomen, followed by a tightening so severe, she doubles over, gasping without sound, dropping the onion with a thud on the floor....

The reader empathizes with Ashima now, especially if the reader is a woman who's ever had a baby. The reader knows what Ashima is feeling in her own body. And as if Lahiri hasn't done enough to grab the reader, she ratchets everything up a notch by taking the reader into Ahsima's very alien consciousness—alien at any rate to non-Bengali readers:

She calls out to her husband, Ashoke...[but] she doesn't say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband's name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname, but refuses, for propriety's sake, to utter his first. It's not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or a caress in a Hindi movie, a husband's name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so, instead of saying Ashoke's name, she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as, "Are you listening to me?"

The baby Ashima is about to have is going to be born in Massachusetts. He or she will be an American. This kid will watch The Muppet Show and Schoolhouse Rock, listen to Fleetwood Mac and eat Snicker's bars. And this is his mother, a woman whose culture doesn't allow her to say her husband's name, who will never stop longing for a country on the other side of the world.

Generation gap doesn't begin to describe the gulf waiting to open between this child and his parents.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Namesake: The Movie

Join us tonight at the Main Library, 79 Highland Ave., at 6:30 for a screening of The Namesake, the 2006 screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's award-winning novel.

Kal Penn (of House and the Harold and Kumar movies) plays the title role, Gogol Ganguli.

The film appeared on several critics' lists of top films of the year, incuding the top ten lists of The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Rainer, The Philadelphia Inquirer's Carrie Rickey, and USA Today's Claudia Puig.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Join Us Tonight

At 7 p.m. at the Central Library, Tufts English professor Neil Miller will lead a group discussion of The Namesake. Miller is the award-winning author of six books, including Sex-Crime Panic and Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade Against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil.

The Namesake is a wonderful book that evokes strong reactions from readers, so it's sure to be a great talk!