Review of In Other Words

I wasn’t intending to read this tonight. In fact, I’m immersed in a mystery novel by a Swedish writer, which will be reviewed here in the next day or so–or so because I visited my library account and saw that this book was about to expire and that there were 55 people waiting for the other copies. I shrugged, signed up for renewal, and thought that I might just scan the first chapter to see what I would be missing.

Now it’s two hours and 11 minutes later (thanks nifty counter in Overdrive) and I have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of essays and two fictional, albeit semi-autobiographical, stories chronicling her immersion into the Italian language. This book was the outcome. It was translated by Ann Goldstein.

51wnsrzeh6l-_ac_us160_As I began reading, the first word that came to mind was: courage. Anyone who goes to another country barely knowing the language and becomes completely immersed, speaking the language, even if it is faltering, is courageous. To have as a goal to write a complete book in that language seems to go way beyond courageous.

Lahiri offers many reasons as to why she has done this. Some of the reasons arise from alienation, others from the need to express oneself artistically. She writes: “Maybe because from a creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security.” She talks about metamorphosis and exploration and discovery in regard to learning and expressing oneself in another language. How it allows one to be vulnerable and how she felt that while writing in Italian she was writing from her true place.

As I was reading, I was struck by the poetry of the language and images. But here I have to stop. First, I have never read any of Lahiri’s novels (not yet, anyway; the adage so many books, so little time is alive and well in my world) so I can’t make a blanket statement about her writing style in English. Second, my year of college Italian will not permit me to read Lahiri’s actual text in anything close to 2 hours, nor the actual 17 hours I have before the book expires, so I wrestle with the idea of what is Lahiri’s and what is Goldstein’s before I comment on lyricism. I’m probably not going to wrestle. I’m just going to say that what I read was beautifully written, so beautifully written and so well-considered that it gripped me enough to sit on this uncomfortable chair at my computer and read the entire memoir on this computer screen.

A recent review talked about the spate of memoirs hitting the market and how the more interesting ones were those in which the writer described an activity they were involved in rather than the typical celebrity name-dropping or tell-all. Here you have such a memoir. While it is a book about a famous writer learning a new language, a love affair, if you will, it is also a discussion of the writer’s past,  the first language she learned, the second, how those languages ultimately formed her. There is a great deal of introspection here and philosophizing, which I rather enjoy, but realize that they might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I guess it could come across as self-indulgent, but it is a memoir and that strikes me as redundant.

Who would enjoy this book? Anyone who is a fan of Lahiri’s would probably find it well worth reading and perhaps a little distressing, wondering if she would ever write in English again. Also, writers and aspiring writers would probably find a lot of what she has to say interesting as she writes about the place where writers write from.

Disclaimer: It’s late and I like to write these reviews when I’m a bit more on my game, but thought if I didn’t write it while it was fresh, it wouldn’t get written until I could revisit the book, which I’ll probably do anyway. So, I apologize for any verbosity and incoherence.

From Amazon: In Other Words

Rating: butterflybutterflybutterflybutterfly (4 out of 5 butterflies)

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