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Strained Connections in 'Unaccustomed Earth'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for her first effort, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Her second work, the best-selling novel The Namesake, was adapted into a Hollywood movie directed by Mira Nair.

For her third book, Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri has returned to the short story form. Once again, she expertly plumbs the Bengali-American experience, following immigrants and their offspring while traversing borders and expectations. Upon publication, the book debuted at the top of The New York Times best-seller list.

Dwight Garner, senior editor of The Times' Book Review section, wrote in his blog: "It's hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction — particularly a book of stories — that leapt straight to No. 1; it's a powerful demonstration of Lahiri's newfound commercial clout."

The collection of eight stories takes its title from a passage from Nathanial Hawthorne's introduction to The Scarlet Letter: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children ... shall strike their roots in unaccustomed earth."

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Lahiri said that when she read those words, she stopped. "I just thought about how much they stand for everything that I had been writing about: the experience of being transplanted, and people being transplanted."

Born in London and raised in Rhode Island, the author of Indian descent traveled regularly to Calcutta while growing up. Lahiri has written about the pressure she felt to stay loyal to the old world while being fluent in the new. That tension both fuels and graces her stories.

This reading of Unaccustomed Earth took place in April 2008 at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.