The Lowland

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We don’t often think about the long-term effects of an individual death on the lives of others. So often death serves as an endpoint or a tragic inevitability. Jhumpa Lahiri has endeavored to write a novel where death is front and central, chronicling the lives of characters left behind to cope with the grief and those in future generations yet to come who will share its impact. Lahiri does so with all of the sentimentality and feeling that it deserves.

Lahiri anchors her epic in the chaotic events of the Naxalite (Maoist) rebellion in Bengal, a period of time where class warfare and student protest engulfed Calcutta and many lives hung in the balance. In The Lowland, one such life is lost, sending reverberations and ripples across oceans and years separating the personal histories of the family left behind. A brother, with whom an inseparable bond was formed in childhood. A wife, whose blind love leaves deep-seated issues about trust and attachment. Two parents, whose grief is inconsolable. And a daughter, unknown and unborn, whose life is irrevocably altered by events before her birth.

The Lowland is a story about love and loss, sacrifice and selfishness, time and memory. It is an elegiac, beautiful, and deeply compassionate family saga.

Transatlantic

TransAtlanticTransAtlantic by Colum McCann
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I finally got around to reading Colum McCann’s elegiac Let the Great World Spin earlier this summer, and I loved it. Needless to say, I was delighted to see that he had a new book coming out that same month. ‘Spin’ was a novel of character vignettes loosely tied around 1974’s historic high-wire crossing of the Twin Towers by Philippe Petit. Using this real-life event as an anchor of sorts, McCann created a wonderful novel of multiple perspectives dedicated to the idea that the most disparate of lives are intertwined in surprising and reassuring ways – often across space, class, and even time.

‘Transatlantic’ sticks to much the same principle – indeed, McCann doesn’t stray far from the basic structure or tone of ‘Spin’ here, but he does surpass the earlier novel in both lyrical beauty and panoramic scope. Using not one, but three, historical figures to anchor stories set in three distinctly different eras of history on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, McCann tells a family history that is not so much about Frederick Douglass’ tour of Ireland, George Mitchell’s brokering of peace, or John Alcock and Alfred Brown’s first-ever transatlantic flight as it is about the three women who, on the periphery of the historic events of their era, grappled with the hopes and disappointments of life.

Like the symbolic transatlantic flight that begins the novel, these women’s lives bridge the gap between eras and generations, showing that who we are today is imperceptibly but irrevocably altered by those who came before. McCann also deftly interposes differences in world view and reality. When confronted with the precursor of famine in the Irish countryside, Douglass ponders how such terrible poverty the likes of which he had never even seen in slavery could thrive in a free society. Likewise, Lily Duggan, an Irish housemaid moved by Douglass’ talk of emancipation is so stirred to flee her life of servitude and seek freedom in Douglass’ America – only to go unrecognized and unacknowledged by Douglass when he meets her again as an independent woman. For all his talk of the human condition and universal worth, he can see Lily only as a servant, and struggles to contextualize injustice that falls outside his own experience.

This is a novel that will cause pause for reflection – on the subtle ways in which our own lives have been influenced by the stories of past generations, on how their future direction relies upon luck and circumstance, and on the linkages that bind one another – and history – together.

Jam of the Week

I’m obsessed with the entire new album from Rhye, but this jam is especially infectious.  It’s hard to believe this was recorded in 2012/2013 and not the 80’s.

This is part of a growing obsession I have with indie R&B/electronic sounds of late.  I went to a dj show earlier this week that featured a number of iconic R&B samples and remixes and they’ve become earworms, so I made a playlist of recent indie R&B and R&B-influenced electronic tracks to jam along to at work. Check it out and enjoy.

Learning Nutrition

Yesterday morning I had the good fortune to catch a little bit of Chris Hayes’ excellent MSNBC show, Up With Chris.  During the segment I saw Tom Colicchio (of Top Chef fame), was on to promote his new film that advocates healthier food choices in schools as a public health initiative.  Their exchange focused on issues such as the financial economics of being a foodie, the infrastructure, staffing, and budgetary constraints that push schools to offer less healthy convenience options, and the prevailing sense that people don’t really know what they should be eating anymore.

This last point resonated with me, since I too have recently awoken to the facts and realities of healthy eating.  As a long-time high school and college athlete, I grew accustomed to carbo-loading and essentially eating whatever I wanted.  Bulk was an asset, and food was viewed by coaches and players as a necessary fuel for weight lifting sessions and two-a-day practices.  After the end of my collegiate career, however, my eating habits stayed largely the same.  I knew intuitively that this was probably a bad idea, but after five years of eating omelettes or muffins for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and burgers for dinner, it was time to come to terms with the result of these continued eating habits and lower rates (and intensity) of workouts: elevated blood pressure and sitting at the same weight as in college but with drastically different muscle composition. That’s not good. So I added a doctor-mandated nutrition app to my smartphone and my world has been shattered.

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Jam of the Week

This R&B jam from Autre Ne Veut’s new album has an intense Purple Rain 80s vibe and borrows some production techniques from other electronic ingenues obsessed with rhythm and blues.  The distorted saxophone is a pretty unreal touch.  One of the strongest singles of 2013 so far for sure.  It’s no wonder the album has already garnered Best New Music accolades and the third highest rating of the year from Pitchfork.

First Listen: Shlohmo – Laid Out EP

This is a cross-post with Indie Bloops and Bleeps.

Shlohmo (aka Henry Laufer) may reside in sunny southern California, but the moody atmospherics in his productions belie a fixation with less pleasant climes.  His exceptional 2012 track “Rained The Whole Time” is practically an ode to a less than sunny disposition, with its soothing electronic plinks that emulate raindrops on glass and a woefully plaintive guitar melody that perfectly encapsulates the sentiment that so much more could be done about today if only the sun would shine.  Shlohmo’s productions provoke the sort of melancholy ambiance so often associated with contemplation on the past or on missed possibility.  It’s perhaps ironic, then, that his artistic ability represents fully-realized possibility, a statement supported and expanded upon to encompass some new aural moods on this latest release, an EP of five tracks titled Laid Out.

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