New English Reading Circle for 2013-2014

The International Institute library will have a new English Reading Circle cycle for 2013-2014. Please follow us  at or contact us (

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“Once in a Lifetime,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

The short story I have selected for our June reading, Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Once in a Lifetime,” provides us with a pleasant read and a neat synthesis of many of the themes we have been discussing as a group throughout the year. First published in The New Yorker in 2006 and later included in Lahiri’s 2008 collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, “Once in a Lifetime” is, formally speaking, a relatively unproblematic narrative that tells the story of Kaushik Choudhuri and his parents as witnessed by Hema and her parents. Hema is the narrator, and the narrative she transmits is directed to Kaushik, using a glaring you as a way of transposing reader and listener. What we as readers don’t know, however, is why these memories are being related to one of their protagonists. (Here’s a hint: there are two more Hema-Kaushik stories). Lahiri, in my opinion, has a certain gift for storytelling, and if I can momentarily ignore the rather conventional crush motif, these gifts are easier to discern and appreciate. But more on this at our Reading Circle meeting.

I’d like to return for a moment to a casual comment I made earlier. When I use the term “synthesis” to refer to the story’s relationship to the unifying concept of this year’s Reading Circle, I am simply referring to the fact that in the foreground is the experience of a child of Bengali immigrants to the United States, an experience profoundly marked by contradictory desires: to be different (American? Indian?) and the same (with a united identity). More than their parents, Hema and Kaushik embody this difficult territory to navigate – that no man’s land of belonging to neither the native culture, nor to the culture of one’s elders. Our culture collector will surely be able to extract a decent number of examples from the story to illustrate how this conflicted and conflicting consciousness plays out in the lives of these characters, whether the examples are of hospitality, food, drink, language, traditions, manners, childrearing, clothes, or class. At the root of the particular examples present in “Once in a lifetime,” I think there is a grain of truth for most immigrant peoples from any country to any country. On a related note, and as always, I encourage you to think about the story’s readers, or about those who read Lahiri’s fiction in general. We can speak more about this topic at our meeting, but I’ll just say for now that I suspect there is at least a bit of Orientalism at work here – probably not as far as the author is concerned (her interviews don’t give that impression), but in the imaginary of the readers who catapult her work to the top of fiction bestseller lists. Sorry, sorry – I digress. In any case, we can see clearly illustrated in this month’s story the idea I wanted to bring to the Reading Circle this year: that these contradictions are also the typical American experience, even if they have not yet been canonized as American literature.

One of the stylistic elements that pleasantly surprised me was the description of bodies. If we pay close attention to Lahiri’s many descriptive passages in the story, many of them paint a portrait and then focus the reader on an image of a person through his or her body. On the first page, there are the party preparations, complete with vivid descriptions of Hena’s bath, dressing, and application of perfume. Later on, this scene:

I was ushered into the fitting room, your mother watching approvingly as I took off my coat and sweater and tried on the bra. She adjusted the straps and attached the hook at the back. She tried things on as well, topless beside me without shame, though it embarrassed me to see her large, plumcolored nipples, the surprising droop of her breasts, the dark patches of underarm hair that gave off a faintly acrid but not altogether unpleasant smell. “Perfect,” your mother said, running her finger below the elastic, along my skin, adding, “I hope you know that you’re going to be very beautiful one day.”

And then there is the moment when Kaushik goes out into the snow with Hema, “touching the snow with your bare hands, studying it, looking happy for the first time since you arrived.” Passages such as these fill the story, and surely they are part of what makes the story enjoyable and generally easy to identify with.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and impressions. The only thing I would ask you to briefly consider in preparation for our meeting is the relationship between “Once in a Lifetime” and the theme that has implicitly or explicitly united all of the stories we have read together this year, that of the border between cultural belonging and cultural exclusion, and how this border is not fixed. Having come full circle, you could even relate it back to the first story we read, Junot Díaz’s “Miss Lora.” Remember? Happy reading, and I hope to see you at the last meeting of the (school) year of our English Reading Circle.

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 June Reading | 1 Comment

Ninth Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

June reading: “Once in a Lifetime” by Jhumpa Lahiri


“Short story about an Indian family who comes from Bombay to stay with another Indian family in Massachusetts; the daughter of the host family, Hema, gets a crush on the son, Kaushik, and he confides in her that his mother is dying of breast cancer…”.

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, June 12th 2013 at 14:30 h.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments under this or next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

(Short story Reviews)

(General Reviews) (In Spanish)



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Eighth Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

May reading: “Alone” by Yiyun Li


“Short story about a woman who meets an older man at a ski resort and tells him about a childhood tragedy in her past…”

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, May 22nd 2013 at 14:30 h.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments under this or next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:





Posted in Cycle 2012/13 May Reading | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seventh Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

April reading: “Nawabdin Electrician” by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Steve Power - Nawabdin

“Short story about an electrician named Nawabdin in the Pakistani desert. He flourished on a signature ability: a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of its meters. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, this trick guaranteed Nawab’s employment, both off and on the farm of…”

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, April 24th 2013 at 14:30 h.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments under this or next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 April Reading | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Five Wounds,” by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Kirstin Valdez Quade is very young by publishing industry standards, but has nevertheless begun to find her place on the literary scene. This month’s story, “The Five Wounds,” appeared originally in The New Yorker, and another story of hers has been included in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories. She obtained an MFA in creative writing, and now teaches it at Stanford University. We, the readers of her stories, ultimately know little more about her, but this information is not essential – nor should it be the key to understanding the work of any author. In any case, the motif and general aesthetic of “The Five Wounds” certainly fits thematically with the title we have given this year’s Reading Circle: “Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story.” I think that most readers of The New Yorker probably wouldn’t be able to identify with the small, marginal community in New Mexico that Valdez Quade depicts in her story, nor would the image of a bloody, agonizing Jesus resonate (spiritually) with many people outside Spanish-speaking sociocultural contexts. The author does, however, use a number of techniques that make the story more attractive to its potential readers: the use of Spanglish, which is reminiscent of Junot Díaz, and a “creative writingese” style that many university-trained authors and their readers seem to favor recently.

Hopefully we will have time to discuss these two issues at Wednesday’s session, but for now I would ask you to reflect on a question that I repeatedly come back to, especially when considering pieces of fiction published in The New Yorker: what does an upper-middle class American reader “get” from this story? Why do they like (or simply finish) it? Does it resonate with them? Why or why not? I would like to propose we frame our discussion with these questions in mind, and I am sure this month’s Culture Collector will have something to say about them.

I would like to briefly outline a few of my general observations about “The Five Wounds,” beginning with the themes of forgiveness and redemption, which I believe are the central ones to this piece. A good portion of the story is dedicated to enumerating Amadeo’s faults and shortcomings in life, both as an individual and as a father, partner, son, and worker. Playing the role of Jesus is “his chance to prove to them all – and God, too – everything he’s capable of.” About halfway through the story, when Angel asks her father why he wants to experience the pain of a staged crucifixion, he is at a loss for words. “He can’t say it, but the answer is this: he needs to know if he has it in him to ask for the nails, if he can get up there in front of the whole town and do a performance so convincing he’ll transubstantiate right there on the cross into something real. […] Total redemption in one gesture, if only he can do it right.” In the end, Amadeo does ask for the nails, and is subsequently illuminated with true insight. What exactly is the nature of this insight, particularly pertaining to his relationship with his daughter, Angel? I think this is a good topic for discussion at our meeting – it tests our ability to perform a close reading. As for forgiveness, it’s fair to say that Amadeo is forgiven for his past sins, as foreshadowed in the third sentence, “People are saying that Amadeo is the best Jesus they’ve had in years, maybe the best since Manuel García”, and the poignant last phrase of the story: “Amadeo twists in agony on the cross, and below him the people applaud.” Who are these “people?” Perhaps the (small, rather closed) society he lives in. Even before the time of the story (the time of his atonement) begins, the “people” are prepared to forgive him. Only he doesn’t seem prepared to forgive himself.

This brings us to the question of time. The way the narrative distributes a notion of time over the entire text is certainly one of the elements I refer to when I use the term “creative writingese” to describe the style Valdez Quade deploys. This designation is not a disparaging remark, but rather seeks to identify a rather formulaic way of constructing the narrative time of the story. As one commentator remarked in one of the links provided in the announcement post of “The Five Wounds,” the use of the present tense provides an interesting way of accompanying Amadeo, who lives primarily in the present, while he traverses a sort of coming-to-terms with his daughter and carries out his “performance” as Jesus (or as the first line reads: “This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus,” emphasis mine). There is a balanced mix of description and dialogue, including a significant, and almost cinematic, flashback. This largely chronological development helps the reader advance effortlessly through the narrative, which starts on Holy Tuesday and ends on Good Friday. We “get to know” Amadeo and Angel, and witness their development, at a very comfortable pace.

I imagine we are going to have an interesting time discussing the different characters of the story and the Biblical figures they correspond to, since the main characters are few (Amadeo and Angel), yet relatively complex, and “The Five Wounds” is essentially the story of their relationship with one another. But for me, the one that most stands out is Manuel García, who “[…] is old, but still a legend: in 1962 he begged the hermanos to use nails, he hasn’t been able to open or close his hands since.” He was the last Jesus to (actually) be crucified in the community’s reenactment of the Passion, so when he begins to follow and observe Amadeo, his phantom-like presence is not entirely unexpected: “[…] only Manuel García is qualified to judge this new Christ […].” I wonder how much of Manuel is actually in Amadeo from the beginning. They are compared in terms of their roles as Jesus in the very first paragraph. And when Manuel touches Angel in one of the more puzzling episodes of the story, Amadeo gets rather upset, for reasons he does not quite understand:

                        Manuel extends a gnarled brown hand, places it against her belly. Reaches out with the other. Cups her belly in both his hands, moves them over the surface of it. Angel stares at the Romeros’ yard.
                        Amadeo could go outside now, put a stop to the terrible thing that is happening, but he stays, one hand touching the pink lace. His legs are weak. When the old man closes his eyes, so does Amadeo.

There are only two occasions on which Amadeo himself touches his daughter, and they are both pokes on the shoulder, delivered only so that she will stop crying. When Manuel touches her belly, however, Amadeo begins to feel uneasy, and this could be considered the catalyst for the rest of the story, both in his attitude toward his performance as Jesus and the way he sees Angel. Manuel certainly helps transform Amadeo, by scrutinizing him, by insulting him, by calling Angel a whore. My question is (and hopefully you can help me answer it): to what extent is Manuel Amadeo? To put this another way: is Manuel (in the narrative, not as a spatially differentiated character) a part of Amadeo? What parallels can we draw?

This brings me to the ending of the story, gruesome as it is. The final images are hard to see through, and almost drown out the emotions of Amadeo and Angel. The cinematic suspension of time between the nail being driven into Amadeo’s palm and the very believable physical agony resulting from it, provides a perfect occasion for revelation.

                        In a moment, pain, but for now he thinks, This is all wrong, and he has time to clarify the thought. I am not the Son. The sky agrees, because it doesn’t darken. Amadeo remembers Christ’s cry – My God, why hast thou forsaken me? – and he knows what is missing. It is Angel who has been forsaken.
                        All at once he sees her. He is surprised by the naked fear on Angel’s face. It is not an expression he knows. And she feels not only fear – Amadeo sees that now – but pain, complete and physical. Nothing he can do will change this, and soon it won’t be just her suffering but the baby, too.

What does this realization mean, exactly? I have a few ideas, but I would like to hear yours, either here on the blog or at Wednesday’s meeting (but preferably both). I sense there is a connection between Amadeo’s pain and Angel’s. The suspension in time allows Amadeo to realize what it is that he must atone for, a realization without which the pain of the crucifixion would be in vain and would not purify his conscience/consciousness. In the end, does the pain free Amadeo from what ails him? I suspect it does, but in an unexpected way.

I hope you find Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story as engaging as I do. I must confess that when I first read it, while selecting the stories for this year’s Reading Circle, I knew that I had to include it as our reading for the month March. Since most of you, the participants, are Spanish (and as such, are at least more used to graphic religious imagery), I will be quite interested to hear your perspectives. What do the final images of Amadeo/Jesus on the cross mean to you (culturally), and what do you think they could mean to an American reader of The New Yorker? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Wednesday. Happy reading.

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 March Reading | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Sixth Reading for Cycle 2012-2013

Cycle: Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story

March reading: “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade

5 wounds

 “Short story about a man who plays Jesus in a passion play and his relationship with his pregnant teen-age daughter.”

Read it online at the New Yorker’s website.

Colloquium: Wednesday, March 13th 2013 at 2:30 p.m.

Previous discussion online here! Included your comments here or under next Peter Savaiano’s post about this short story.

See also:

Posted in Cycle 2012/13 March Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment