White Teeth by Zadie Smith

“You must live life with the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are creatures of consequence.”

4/5 stars.
Hardcover, 448 pages.
Read from October 12, 2018 to November 6, 2018.

There aren’t many books that manage to be this cohesive and consistently relevant. White Teeth debuted back in the 2000s and not many authors are able to make the literary impact that Zadie Smith did with this novel. For a first time novel, not only is  White Teeth brilliantly written but it also portrays a modern England with multi-ethnicities that span over two generations.

White Teeth begins by following two WWII veterans and friends, Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal. These two men, likely never would have been friends had they not met in the war as they come from vastly different backgrounds and ethnicities, boundaries that are not often crossed during post-war England. Both men marry women a generation younger than them. Archibald marries Clara, a beautiful, young, intelligent black woman who just happened to come into his life at a vulnerable time in hers. They have one daughter together, Irie. Samad is married to Alsana, an Indian woman with a sharp tongue who hides under a perceived notion of tradition but is generally “all talk”,  they have two boys together, identical twins, Millat and Magid.

Samad is a traditional man who brought his family over to England from India. He hides the fact that he is a server at his family’s restaurant because he feels the position is below him and often goes out of his way to stoke his ego any chance he can, to hide his own insecurities and personal failures, even at the expense of others. Archibald is an indecisive man that floats through life and is just happy to meet with Samad once a week at their neighbourhood pub. The men’s children are growing up in an England that they don’t recognize, can’t relate to, and are unwilling to move forward with. Millat and Migid relate more to being English than they do to their Indian roots, much to Samad’s fury, while Irie feels lost behind her fro and big hips, despite her intelligence and being the only character with a solid head on her shoulders. This dysfunctional lot each makes their own mistakes as they each traverse through their own identities and generational differences. No one really knows who they should be but they’re all being bombarded with ideals that are ultimately irrelevant.

“…They cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow.”

This book has a bit of slow start as it transitions from generation to generation. Once the children are born into each family the plot takes on a more interesting dynamic. Samad becomes a tragic yet despicable character, in my opinion. He is disrespectful of his wife and will do whatever it takes to prove himself right. He doesn’t care about his son’s wishes or wellbeing, just about what he believes their life should be like and for this, they both suffer.

“They have both lost their way. Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave–acutely displays “the immigrant fears–dissolution, disappearance.”

It’s hard to feel bad for Samad but Archibald too makes his own mistakes with Irie by not being a firm presence in her life. It doesn’t matter to Archibald what becomes of Irie, not because he doesn’t care, but more because he doesn’t put effort into any aspects of his life. As a reader, Irie is the only one you don’t want to pull your hair out over as she seems to be the only one that can see everyone’s issues, including her own. She is the only voice of sanity when everyone is at their breaking points.

I enjoyed most of the book, though I found some bits slow and obviously some of the characters highly unlikeable, however, the writing is moving and a brilliant commentary on race and gender in England. For a debut novel, White Teeth is very good so I can only imagine what else Zadie Smith has brought to the table since then.

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

“We are all drowning slowly in the tide of our opinions, oblivious that we are taking on water every time we open our mouths.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 386 pages.
Read from December 13 to December 22, 2018.

I was actually hoping to get a copy of this book on Netgalley but when that didn’t pan out my library saved the day. This is the first time I have read anything by Jodi Picoult and I’m impressed with this timely and politically relevant book on a topic that most authors would shy away from.

The lives of regular everyday people, coming from all walks of life are all brought together in this story from one tragedy. The author pulls you in from the first page with this reverse timeline narrative on women’s reproductive rights in America as a gunman has entered a woman’s reproductive centre. Each chapter provides the reader with a different narrative and approach from the people who are trapped inside this terrifying situation. As the timeline reverses from the point just before the climax of the novel you begin to piece together the lives of the people in the centre, the choices that brought them there that day and the how regardless of their views they are all caught up in the same horrific circumstances together.

“Your religion should help you make the decision if you find yourself in that situation, but the policy should exist for you to have the right to make it in the first place. When you say you can’t do something because your religion forbids it, that’s a good thing. When you say I can’t do something because YOUR religion forbids it, that’s a problem.”

It’s obvious that Jodi Picoult did her homework with this novel as she is able to bring in widely conflicting views on one of the most sensitive of topics of our time. In her afterward, she mentions interviewing numerous women who have had abortions as well as staff from clinics.  Each her characters has intensely well-rounded and fully formed perspectives and reasoning for their beliefs and choices and the author does not push the reader in one direction or the other and broaches the topic with integrity and grace.

What I felt was important from this book is that is that it showed some general and very real situations of how many women come to need an abortion service, especially outside of the scary situations like rape, incest or medical necessity, as well as topics of race and why controlling women’s reproduction has become such a violent priority in America.

The reverse timeline worked in building anticipation in the story but I feel that it also created a bit of unnecessary repetition and occasionally, confusion. Overall though the writing style is approachable and easy to read and easily explains this author’s mainstream popularity with her ability to reach such a wide audience. After this novel, I can assure that this won’t be my last Jodi Picoult novel.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

“It seems as if, year after year, the world becomes a more difficult place to live.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 763 pages.
Read from November 29, 2018 to December 6, 2018.

The last full-fledged novel Murakami published is the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage which was published in spring of 2013. While Murakami published some short stories since then, Men Without Women in the spring of 2014, fans like myself have been waiting for his next feature-length publication with much anticipation. Based on some of the reviews that I have read, I can sense some disappointment within Murakami fan base with this novel, I, however, do not share their sentiments.

An unnamed portrait painter in his mid-thirties is going through a divorce as a result of an affair on his wife’s part. After leaving home he wanders aimlessly for a few weeks and tells his agent that he is no longer interested in doing any more portrait commissions, his only source of income. The protagonist isn’t an especially passionate portrait artist but he is very good at it. He has a gift for being able to capture a person’s inner essence and soul. After an old art school friend reaches out to him and offers to let him rent his famous father’s old painting studio to live in, our protagonist isn’t really in a position to refuse. The home is a quaint mountain retreat out in the middle of nowhere. He begins teaching an art class in the closest town before starting an affair with two of his students, despite desperately missing his wife.

After getting a call from his agent saying that someone is offering him a ridiculous amount of money to paint a portrait, the protagonist decides to take on the job, though he has found no inspiration or desire to paint since moving. This is how he meets his peculiar and interesting neighbour, Menshiki. Menshiki is an attractive, middle-aged man with stark white hair, he is also clearly wealthy. The reasons for Menshiki wanting such an expensive portrait are unknown to the protagonist but he is intrigued. Menshiki has given him unlimited license to paint the portrait in whatever way or method he sees fit, provided that Menshiki sits for the portrait itself, a method that the protagonist doesn’t like to use.

After meeting Menshiki, the protagonist finds a painting in the attic of the home that has been wrapped up and hidden. After unwrapping the picture called “Killing Commendatore” it becomes clear that this is an unknown piece of work was done by the famous artist that used to live there. The protagonist becomes enthralled with the exquisite painting and stares at it for days.

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Found an image resembling someone’s interpretation of  “Killing Commendatore” by bongsancomics.

Shortly after he is inspired and begins painting again. The recovery of “Killing Commendatore” has also brought with it a strange sound that emanates from a pit of rocks outside his home at the same time every evening. With Menshiki’s help, he aims to determine the cause of the sound, without knowing the whimsical and strange events that were to come.

I didn’t even notice that the protagonist wasn’t named. It wasn’t until I saw other people’s reviews that I went back to the book to verify that it. The writing makes it seem so natural that the protagonist doesn’t have a name because it feels like you already know him. The story, as with many Murakami books, is a slow burner that is part philosophical and part whimsical fantasy. The book contains Murakami’s trademark beautiful prose with themes of loneliness, war, family and inspiration. I particularly enjoyed some of the historical details on WWII. There are also, of course, awkward conversations with characters involving breasts and plenty of sex and peculiar sex dreams. While I know other readers found this book a bit drab I found it captivating. I felt like I knew every inch of the home the protagonist was living in and felt enveloped in the world and the characters that Murakami created. This book was even nominated for one of 2018’s Bad Sex in Fiction award and I still really enjoyed it.

While I admit that the music and cultural references that Murakami uses in this book are dated making the book feel somewhat socially irrelevant but this is the way Murakami has always written. Murakami has always included tidbits of things that he likes, such as very specific music references and detailed scenes of cooking.

While this book is far from Murakami’s best I still found it to be an immensely enjoyable read. It’s not the best book to start with if you haven’t read anything by Murakami before but it is still a must read for anyone that is familiar with his work.