White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Review

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of (Mad) Mice and (English) Men

I was ordering coffee a couple of weeks ago, holding White Teeth, and the barista asked me what it was about. I’m just a couple of chapters in, I told him, so I’m still working that out. Having finished the novel now, I can answer the question up to a point, but to do so I suspect I’d just be retelling the entire story.

That in mind, I will limit my recitation and mention a certain minor character, a religious leader who gives awful speeches. He has the “habit of using three words where one would do, of emphasizing the last word of such triplets” — such as democracy, freedom, liberty and oppression, persecution, slaughter and chaos, disorder, confusion.

In a sense, that is what the three families of White Teeth (indeed, all of us) are — the latest generations of variations on familial, cultural, and genetic themes, with an emphasis of story on the youngest generation because, well, that’s the way of the world. And it’s set in fin de si├Ęcle, 20th Century England — not a melting pot of immigrants, but a boiling cauldron as people drawn from around the world try to find their way in the capital of a dying empire. Religion, science, family, and going down to the pub collide for ontological primacy.

That awful speaker with his tautologies, repetitions, and pleonasm is Human History incarnate. Life is messy. We seem to live in circles, trapped on the wheel of life, endlessly repeating the sins and virtues of our ancestors with our own minor variations, fighting the same battles and wars, making the same gross miscalculations and grand gestures.

But despite it all, the trip around that wheel is worth taking, just to see how we can make it our own. As the old saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

Zadie Smith is an astonishingly good writer, as I’ve found in the shorter works of hers that I’ve read. This is my first of her books. It is not perfect — there is a lot of holding the characters at arms-length, with diegetic commentary standing in for real emotion, as well as artifice and too-tidiness of story. But she is a stylistically gifted and brilliant writer, as proved in this wonderful novel.

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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Review

Homage to CataloniaHomage to Catalonia by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is something of a slog through Orwell’s descriptions of the brutal trench war he experienced, alternating with attempts to explain the complicated politics making up the Spanish Civil War. Even as he grimly sketches the fractured, kaleidoscopic factions arrayed on the anti-Fascist Republican side, you can sense his heart breaking as his idealistic determination is subsumed under the reality of the war and of the surreal urban scenes away from the front lines. The sorrowful denouement, with a poetically ironic ending to Orwell’s career as a militiaman, gives closure neither for him nor the conflict, which was ongoing when the book was published in 1938. He is left only with guilt for a job unfinished and undoable, grief over friends lost and left behind, and a mournful adoration of a place and people caught in a tightening net of tyranny from which there would be no escape. A devastating read, especially with hindsight of the great darkness that would befall Europe and the rest of the world in succeeding years.

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The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King: Review

The Beekeeper's Apprentice (Mary Russell, #1)The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this paean to and update of the world’s greatest fictional detective, Laurie R. King does an admirable job of walking that dangerous high wire over the “fan fiction” pit into which lesser writers would inevitably fall. And while there are certainly wobbles of character insufferableness (I suspect inevitable with a narrator who is meant to be the mental peer of Holmes) and wish fulfillment during the journey, both the book as a whole and the quite solid narrator are fine additions to the greater Holmes universe. I look forward to the next book featuring the indomitable Ms. Russell.

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