Wednesday, June 11, 2014

#75 - "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith

I've finished #75, White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Actually, I finished it about a week ago, but haven't had a chance to write anything until now.

It's tough to say what, or rather, who this story is really about. I suppose it's the story of a group of people, three families, whose lives become intertwined over the course of several decades. It begins with Archibald Jones, recently divorced from his wife, as he attempts to commit suicide. After being rescued by a passer-by, Archie gets a new lease on life, and before too long, is re-married to a Jamaican woman named Clara, who is 30 years his junior.

After marriage, Archie is reunited with an old Army pal, Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslin who has recently immigrated to the United Kingdom. Both men are married to much younger women, and both are soon raising young families. From there, the book follows their lives, as they struggle with a variety of topics, including race, religion, substance abuse, infidelity, and...genetics.

Sounds quite serious, but really, I'd classify this as a comedy. It's quite a funny book for the most part, intermingled with some serious situations, and dare I say, even a couple of rather tense moments. But it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.

Right from the beginning, while Archie is preparing to do himself in via his car's exhaust pipe, we can't help but not be too worried as he remembers, triumphantly, that he did get the vacuum in the divorce. And when Samad's son Millat gets involved with a Muslim fundamentalist brotherhood, the "Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation," one can't help but smile when everybody refers to their group by its acronym, KEVIN. It's isn't knee-slapping material, but it brought a smile to my face.

But at the same time, the book does delve into some rather serious topics, and does have an interesting take on them. Samad wrestles with his twin boys growing up in England and forgetting their Bengali roots, and we get a glimpse of how difficult it can be for an immigrant to see his children grow up in such a different world. And how helpless is really is to do anything about it, having no money nor any prospects.

This is the type of novel I would like to see studied more often in high school English classes. I'm not saying it's the perfect novel, far from it, nor am I suggesting it being on every curriculum in the country, but it's this type of book that I could see engaging a lot more students than what is often taught.

A quick look at the current Alberta approved reading list for grade 12, shows titles like Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, and Great Expectations. Sure, these are all fine novels, but these are the type of 19th century novels that the vast majority of 17 and 18 years olds have a difficult time understanding. Soon they lose interest, and it's really no wonder why so many people stop reading fiction after high school.

A novel like White Teeth is written in a modern prose, so students won't get lost in archaic language. It's humorous, which always lightens the mood in English classes that more often than not are taking themselves too seriously. And it does explore a lot of different themes, providing a teacher with an endless list of possible assignments and test questions.

Having said this, I was luck in high school, as two of the books I studied were The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird, so maybe I don't really know what I'm talking about. But even now, and I'd consider myself an experienced reader, I would dread reading and being tested on, Crime and Punishment. And the 17 year old version of me simply wouldn't have read the book.

But I digress...White Teeth, one of the newest books on the List, was a fun, enjoyable read that I would recommend to others. I might not stop people on the street to tell them about it, as I do with Gone With the Wind, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to the type of people who read what I have to say here.

Next up is going to be A House for Mr. Biswas, by VS Naipaul. #76. Seems like I'm so near the finish, even with 25 books to go!

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