Sunday, October 24, 2010

30. "My Freshman Year" by Rebekah Nathan

Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005. Print.
168 pages
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

In My Freshman Year, Rebekah Nathan, a full time university professor, enrolls in a university and goes through a freshman year in order to complete an ethnography of freshman students at a typical American university.

What Nathan discovers was not shocking to me and was, in fact, quite reminiscent of my own experience as a freshman in college. Nathan noticed several patterns of behavior as well as common values among freshman at a university. Freshman, she concludes, generally value deviance, rebellion, freedom of choice, and “fun” with “fun” being defined in several different ways. Students now expect education to be entertaining and they also expect education to be something personal and individual. She writes that to the freshman she studied "community" is “personal networks of friends that some referred to as my ‘homeys.’ It was these small ego-centered groups that we the backbone of most students’ social experience in the university” (Nathan 55).

A point I found very interesting in her work was about the liminality of the university. Nathan writes, “Cross-culturally, rites of passage have universal characteristics marked by severance from one’s normal status, entrance into a ‘liminal’ state where normal rules of society are lifted, and finally reintegration into society within a new status. This jibes well with the nature of the undergraduate college experience. . .It is in the middle or ‘liminal’ state—the ambiguous place of being neither here nor there—that anthropologists see profoundly creative and transformative possibilities” (Nathan 146-47).

I thought that Nathan’s discussion of the university as a liminal space was the most important idea I took away from this text. Everything else she described, I already more or less knew and understood. Her discussion on liminality though, gives me a space, as a professor and as a former student, to navigate life in academia. Because the university is a liminal space, there is an abundance of opportunities to create change both within individuals and society at large. While I might not live long enough to see substantial or drastic changes, I know the potential is there.

3 darts out of 5

Saturday, October 9, 2010

29. "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
291 Pages
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

The Ganguli family story is rich, colorful, and full of intricacies. It is also full of insecurities, heartbreak, and a sense of homelessness. The Ganguli family is always just a little out of place. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli move to the United States from India to start a life together. Ashoke works as a professor while Ashima stays home and raises their two children, Gogol, and Sonia. The majority of the story is focused on Gogol’s life as he struggles to develop a sense of self.

The Namesake flows effortlessly. Transitions between anecdotes and storylines are smooth and nearly flawless. Lahiri’s prose is both simple and elegant. To tell the story, Lahiri relies on sensory descriptions—describing the colors, shapes, smells, tastes, and sounds of every scene. As a result, the characters are exquisitely developed and it was easy for me care about them. As a reader, it is important the characters have depth and are not just empty devices to keep the plot moving. The novel is a genealogy, a Ganguli family history.

I have an uncanny connection to this story. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I too changed my name like Gogol does. I went through the same court procedure that Gogol did to become Nikhil. My new name was actually my original name—the name my mother wanted to name me when I was born—my “good” name, as the Ganguli family calls it. My mother named me something much simpler after nurses pressured her to saying that people would think the name she originally wanted was strange and difficult to pronounce. The name is strange and difficult to pronounce but it is mine, and I made it legally so just a few years ago.

Deeper questions and themes continue to emerge for me the more I reflect on this novel. I feel that in order to fully appreciate it, it will require more than one reading. This book is worth reading for its masterful portrait of an immigrant family trying to find their identity and place in the world.

4 darts out of 5