Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Monday, May 5: The Death of Vishnu

by Manil Suri

Discussion leader: Ellen Getreu

As Vishnu lies dying on the staircase he inhabits, his neighbors argue over who will pay for an ambulance. Each neighbor has his or her own drama: Mr. Jalal is searching for higher meaning; Vinod Taneja longs for the wife he lost; and Kavita Asrani is planning to elope. This story becomes a metaphor for the social and religious divisions of contemporary India, and Vishnu's ascent of the staircase parallels the soul's progress through the various stages of existence.

Glossary of Indian terms (copyright from the 2008 Harper First Perennial edition)

Page 1 Page 2 Page 3

Reviews for this Title:
Booklist Review:

Suri, a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, has entered the realm of literature with assurance, agile humor, and an impressive breadth of social and religious concerns. His first novel, set in Bombay, the city of his birth, conjures a beehive-busy microcosm within the walls of an apartment building. Two Hindu families bicker about water and ghee; a Muslim household is pitched into confusion when its mild-mannered patriarch turns fanatic in his pursuit of enlightenment; a Hindu girl and Muslim boy imagine that they’re in love; and Vishnu, the drunk who sleeps on the first-floor landing, drifts peacefully toward death. As he lies dreaming about love, his childhood, and his divine namesake, his neighbors fret over their tired marriages, knotty questions of status and faith, and responsibility for Vishnu. The gospel of the movies is just as influential as the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita in Suri’s tenderly comic, wryly metaphysical, and hugely entertaining tale, in which profound longings for romance and deliverance shape even the most modest (perhaps the most precious) of lives. (Reviewed November 15, 2000) -- Donna Seaman

Publishers Weekly Review
: Visualizing a village, a hotel or an apartment building as a microcosm of society is not a new concept to writers, but few have invested their fiction with such luminous language, insight into character and grasp of cultural construct as Suri does in his debut. The inhabitants of a small apartment building in Bombay are motivated by concerns ranging from social status to spiritual transcendence while their alcoholic houseboy, Vishnu, lies dying on the staircase landing. During a span of 24 hours, Vishnu's body becomes the fulcrum for a series of crises, some tragic, some farcical, that reflect both the folly and nobility of human conduct. To the perpetually quarreling first-floor tenants, Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani, Vishnu is a recipient of grudging charity and casual calumny; each justifies her refusal to pay for his hospitalization. Though locked in perpetual bickering, the women are united in their prejudice against their upstairs neighbors, the Jahals, who are Muslims. While Mr. Jahal seeks to test his intellectual agnosticism by seeking spiritual enlightenment, his son, Samil, and the Asranis' spoiled, willful daughter, Kavita, prepare to defy their families by running away together. On the third floor, reclusive widower Vinod Taneja still mourns his young wife, Sheetal; their story of tentative love blossoming into deep devotion and truncated by early death is an exquisite cameo of a marital relationship. Interspersed are Vishnu's lyrically rendered thoughts as his soul leaves his body and begins a slow ascent of the apartment stairs, rising through the stages of existence as he relives memories of his gentle mother and his passion for the prostitute Padmina. Suril has a discerning eye for human foibles, an empathetic knowledge of domestic interaction and an instinctive understanding of the caste-nuanced traditions of Indian society. The excesses of life in that country--the oppressive heat, the mixture of superstitions and religious fanaticism, the social cruelty--permeate the atmospheric narrative. By turns charming and funny, searing and poignant, dramatic and farcical, this fluid novel is an irresistible blend of realism, mysticism and religious metaphor, a parable of the universal conditions of human life. Agent, Nicole Aragi. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Library Journal Review: The lives and loves of residents of an apartment house in Bombay unfold as Vishnu, a drunk, lies dying on the steps that serve as his home. As his neighbors argue over the cost of an ambulance, the sick man drifts in and out of consciousness, reflecting on the meaning of his life. The well-developed and often humorous characters who make up the world of the building include the Pathaks and Asranis, whose difficult wives begrudgingly share a kitchen; the Asranis' lovesick teenaged daughter, Kavita, who plans to run away with her Muslim boyfriend; and Mr. Taneja, who still mourns the loss of his spouse years earlier. This nicely paced narrative is full of Hindu mythology, and, as Vishnu nears death, the belief that he might be a god causes a disturbing confrontation. The author of this radiant first novel is a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/00.]--Cathleen A. Towey, Port Washington P.L., NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews Indian-born Suri's imaginative first novel, set in and near a volatile Bombay apartment building, employs the figure of a drunken handyman as the catalyst for a linked series of charmingly improbable seriocomic catastrophes.The eponymous Vishnu lies crumpled in a stuporous heap on a landing just outside his door. Scandalized neighbors throw covers over his offending carcass, checking occasionally for a pulse, or telltale snores. The life of the building at first proceeds pretty much as always: fastidious Mrs. Asrani and stolid Mrs. Pathak bicker over privileges abused in their communal kitchen, while their weary husbands attempt to keep the peace. Snooty Mrs. Jaiswal disapproves of everybody; reclusive widower Mr. Taneja warily emerges from his shell; devout Mrs. Jalal fears for her unbeliever husband Ahmed's soul—and really despairs when Ahmed envisions Vishnu in the figure of his namesake deity ("with fire and smoke, and more heads than I could count"). Furthermore, the Jalals' gorgeous daughter Kavati plans to elude an arranged marriage by eloping with the Asranis' prematurely jaded son Salim—unless she becomes a film star instead. Meanwhile, Vishnu's disorderly dreams revisit his chaotic past (notably his obsession with Padmini, a dictatorial prostitute with expensive tastes), and extend to a delirium presumably derived from half-overheard conversations: he decides he has become the god Vishnu. This transformation creates insoluble problems when his neighbors finally call an ambulance to remove him, and the slumberer "becomes" the last of Vishnu's traditional avatars: Kalki the destroyer. Suri plots it all beautifully, and his suggestible characters' varied eccentricities and delusions are often very funny indeed. But the crazy-quilt inner life of (the mortal) Vishnu seems essentially unrelated to their lives, as if it belongs to another novel that Suri hasn't yet written.An amalgam of early Naipaul and R.K. Narayan, with just a whiff of Kosinski's Being There. A highly likable, if oddly conceived and assembled, debut novel. (Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2000)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Monday, April 7: Aloft

by Chang-rae Lee

Discussion leader: Edna Ritzenberg

A visit from his daughter and her fiancé from Oregon prompts Jerry Battle to reassess his life, his relationships, and his disengagement from those around him, as he reflects on his success and his love of flying solo.

See the Readers' Guide for Aloft at Long Island Reads

Long Island Reads is an Island-wide reading initiative. Each Spring, people in Nassau and Suffolk come together to read the same book, participate in discussions of the selection, and enjoy related events in public libraries. The program takes place in April; many events take place during National Library Week

Long Island Reads is an Island-wide reading initiative sponsored by the Nassau Library System and Suffolk Cooperative Library System

Reserve your copy of Aloft

Reviews for this Title:

Booklist Review: At 59, Jerry Battle takes great comfort in the orderliness of the aerial view as he flies his small plane above Long Island, where his Italian American family has run a landscape business for generations, and the fact is, Jerry is always somewhat airborne. He suppresses his feelings, avoids confrontation, and, although he's physically present for his still-virile elderly father and his adult children, he is always out of reach. But gravity is a relentless force, and over the course of just a few months, Jerry is pulled inexorably into a snarl of family catastrophes, reaping the consequences of his indifference toward the family business, his inability to come to terms with his wife's death, and his failure to ask the woman he loves, Rita, to marry him, even though she essentially raised his son, Jack, whose questionable financial shenanigans will destroy the family business, and his daughter, Theresa, whose progressive views evaporate in the face of her cruel fate: she's diagnosed with cancer at the same time she gets pregnant. Lee follows the stunning A Gesture Life (1999) with a brilliant and candid parsing of the dynamics of a family of mixed heritage--Jerry's wife was Korean, as is Theresa's intended, and Rita is Puerto Rican--while simultaneously offering a ribald look at male sexuality, a charming celebration of the solace of good food, and a sagacious and bitingly funny critique of our times. There is no escape, Lee reminds us, no rising above. We have no choice but to cope with fleshy, chaotic, and bittersweet life right here on earth. -- Donna Seaman (BookList, 12-01-2003, p627)
Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ Lee's third novel (after Native Speaker and A Gesture Life) approaches the problems of race and belonging in America from a new angle—the perspective of Jerry Battle, the semiretired patriarch of a well-off (and mostly white) Long Island family. Sensitive but emotionally detached, Jerry escapes by flying solo in his small plane even as he ponders his responsibilities to his loved ones: his irascible father, Hank, stewing in a retirement home; his son, Jack, rashly expanding the family landscaping business; Jerry's graduate student daughter, Theresa, engaged to Asian-American writer Paul and pregnant but ominously secretive; and Jerry's long-time Puerto Rican girlfriend, Rita, who has grown tired of two decades of aloofness and left him for a wealthy lawyer. Jack and Theresa's mother was Jerry's Korean-American wife, Daisy, who drowned in the swimming pool after a struggle with mental illness when Jack and Theresa were children, and Theresa's angry postcolonial take on ethnicity and exploitation is met by Jerry's slightly bewildered efforts to understand his place in a new America. Jerry's efforts to win back Rita, Theresa's failing health and Hank's rebellion against his confinement push the meandering narrative along, but the novel's real substance comes from the rich, circuitous paths of Jerry's thoughts—about family history and contemporary culture—as his family draws closer in a period of escalating crisis. Lee's poetic prose sits well in the mouth of this aging Italian-American whose sentences turn unexpected corners. Though it sometimes seems that Lee may be trying to embody too many aspects of 21st-century American life in these individuals, Jerry's humble and skeptical voice and Lee's genuine compassion for his compromised characters makes for a truly moving story about a modern family. Agent, Amanda Urban. Foreign rights sold in France, Germany, Holland and the U.K. (Mar.) — Staff (Reviewed March 1, 2004) (Publishers Weekly, vol 251, issue 9, p51)
Library Journal Review: In his third novel (after Native Speaker and A Gesture Life), Lee applies his remarkable storytelling skills to create a monstrous first-person narrator. Not that retired Long Island businessman and part-time travel agent Jerry Battle is a murderer, sexual predator, or any sort of criminal according to law. However, his defect is both serious and destructive: he is an emotional miser, distancing himself from others and keeping himself above the risks of emotional involvement. Not completely without insight, Jerry recognizes the irony and symbolism of his favorite pastime, soaring solo in his private plane—but only in clear weather. He could not be less prepared when virtually every element of his personal life goes haywire simultaneously: his longtime lover walks out, his dad disappears from an assisted-living home, his son dangerously overextends the family landscaping firm, and his pregnant daughter contracts a terminal illness. Jerry's graceless yet sometimes endearing attempts to cope with these disasters (and their attendant reminders of the bizarre death, decades before, of his beautiful Korean American wife) round out a masterly portrait of a disaffected personality. Unfortunately, the other characters, seen solely from Jerry's self-absorbed viewpoint, are often little more than two-dimensional foils for Jerry's worries and obsessions. Still, Lee's radiant writing style will please fans of his earlier fiction, and the plot will interest readers who liked Louis Begley's About Schmidt. Recommended for larger collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]—Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA (Reviewed February 1, 2004) (Library Journal, vol 129, issue 2, p124)
Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ An introspective widower rises above his "habit/condition of disbelieving the Real"—in this generously ruminative third novel.Its predecessors (Native Speaker, 1995; A Gesture Life, 1999) explored the comedy and pathos of assimilation into American culture with a compassionate precision here lavished on almost-60 Jerry Battle (born "Battaglia"), whom we first meet "aloft," in the small private plane to which he retreats from quotidian pressures. Not unlike the transplanted Asians of Lee's earlier books, he's an ingredient in a rich multiethnic mix. Since the drowning death (in the family pool) of his Korean-American wife Daisy 20 years earlier, Jerry has had a gratifying affair with Puerto Rican beauty Rita Reyes, now his ex—and maintained close if wary relationships with his son Jack (who runs, and has significantly expanded the Battles' landscaping business) and daughter Theresa, a literature professor engaged to, and pregnant by, Asian-American writer Paul Pyun. What energizes Lee's very deliberately paced fiction is the accretion of detail with which his closely observed characters' shared and separate experiences and worlds are created. We feel we know everything about decent, caring Jerry (still hungry for life—and quite reminiscent of several John Updike narrators), gutsy Theresa (whose serious illness threatens her pregnancy and her life), Paul's quiet strength, Rita's spirited independence, Jack's frustrating combination of profligacy and resilience, and—in a triumphant characterization—Jerry's ornery octogenarian father Hank, too alive to be contained by the assisted living center where he reluctantly resides or by Jerry's disapproving concern. Aloft's muted conclusion contrasts tellingly with its opening image, as Jerry hunkers down in the hole dug for a new pool, at peace with his "finally examined and thus remorseful life . . . [and resolved that] I'll go solo no more, no more."Beautiful writing, richly drawn characters, and a powerful sense of life enduring in spite of all. A fine and very moving performance. (Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003)
Features about this author or title:
Book Discussion Guide -