LIT UP by David Denby | Review

As I scrolled through the audio books available for me to download on Overdrive before my long flight to England, one title (and subtitle) caught my attention: Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives. by David Denby. How could I resist? David Denby, an American journalist and film critic for The New Yorker magazine, spent an entire academic year observing tenth grade students in an English class of a New York public school. What began as a group of students who hadn’t picked up a book for fun since they were much younger gradually transformed into a bunch of insightful, passionate, enthusiastic readers all before Denby’s own eyes.

Before beginning this book, I thought it would systematically go through each of the twenty-four books mentioned in the subtitle and explain the hows and whys of what it was a great pick. While Denby does structure this account in terms of the books themselves, the discussion is actually much more classroom-driven. Rather than merely focus on the plot and content of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut or The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Denby explains how the novels were taught in the classroom and the methods used to help these teenagers connect with texts written decades and decades before they were even born. Over the course of the book the reader gets to know the students as well as the teachers Denby introduces us to, just as he himself did throughout the study. This more personal touch was a pleasant surprise and reminded me of the many anthropology ethnographers I read for a course a few years ago.

So, how did these teachers make unwilling, uninterested teenagers enthusiastic and even passionate about reading? For me, this was actually the most fascinating part of the book rather than the books themselves. When asked why they didn’t read, many of the teens explained that they would rather watch TV, play video games, use their laptops, or listen to music instead of picking up a book. Once it became clear that they were wholly distracted by technology, one of the teachers imposed a ban on technology for varying lengths of time. To be honest, I was skeptical that this would be effective– after all, what teenager (or anyone, really) today would be willing to give up their phone or computer for a mere school assignment? However, I was surprised that this technological detox actually made many students realize just how much they needlessly rely on screens in their every day lives. Some noticed that they were more apt to read or spend time with family and friends without their phone buzzing at all hours of the day.

Other teachers used methods such as making time for small group discussions in class, encouraging independent reading both inside and outside the classroom, and assigning projects for which the students had to read books that they chose based on their own interests. Yet the most effective strategy seemed to be appealing to themes that deeply affected teenagers: independence, loss, love, fear, doubt, a sense of justice, right and wrong, etc. These universal themes can apply to people’s lives in myriad ways, meaning that it’s quite likely that at least some of the students would connect with the novels each time. Reading this book brought me back to some of the English literature classes I’ve experienced over the years– the good, the bad, and the hilarious. I definitely think that more teachers would greatly benefit from reading Denby’s insightful and astute observations.

Overall, Lit Up surprised me with its thought-provoking discussions on what it’s like to be a teenager, how to spark a love of reading in uninterested students, and why studying literature in our modern society remains an incredibly important endeavor. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone!

What are your thoughts on Lit Up? What kinds of books do you think we should be teaching high school students nowadays? What’s the best way to spark a love of reading in teenagers who haven’t picked up a book for fun since they were younger? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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THE ART OF MEMOIR by Mary Karr | Review

Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well.

For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning graduate teaching prizes for her highly selective seminar at Syracuse, where she mentored such future hit authors as Cheryl Strayed, Keith Gessen, and Koren Zailckas. In The Art of Memoir, she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre. {Gooodreads}

To be honest, I had no idea who Mary Karr was when I decided to read The Art of Memoir on a whim. I didn’t know that she had written several well-known memoirs prior to this book nor that she had taught the likes of popular memoirists like Cheryl Strayed, etc. I had just finished reading a few memoirs at the time (Hilary Clinton’s What Happened being one of them) and was interested in learning how memoirists crafted such captivating stories of their lives. When I realized who Mary Karr was– and actual writer of memoirs?! An actual professor of memoir writing?!– I became even more eager to read this book. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.

I listened to the audio book version of The Art of Memoir while on my flight from Boston back to Oxford for the beginning of Hilary Term. The fact that I was able to sit through an entire audio book basically in one sitting is a testament in itself that this book is interesting, engrossing, and good enough to compete with my love of listening to the same song over and over and over again on long flights. Karr narrates the audio book herself, and if you’ve followed my blog for a while then you probably know that I absolutely adore when writers narrate their own books. Her voice is engaging and strangely soothing and her tone is like a cross between chatting with a longtime friend and discussing writing with a close professor or colleague. While I usually prefer the paper versions of book, I must admit that The Art of Memoir translates excellently into audio book form! 

A major strength of this book is that it successfully juggles the needs and desires of numerous audiences. Karr often acknowledges that some parts of the book are geared more towards people interested in writing memoirs of their own, while other sections will likely be more interesting to people who have actually read her memoirs. This balance of catering to both writers and non writers can be tricky, but Karr handles it quite deftly. The Art of Memoir contains a varied mix of writing advice, explorations and analysis of famous memoirs, personal anecdotes and life experiences, snippets from her own memoirs, etc. Rather than come across as a jumbled mess, Karr’s masterful writing ability ties these disparate parts together seamlessly. And did I mention that her writing is incredibly witty, clever, and beautiful? Because it is.

“Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.”

My only qualm with this book is minor but still worth mentioning: as someone who has not read Karr’s actual memoirs, I found some parts to be a bit confusing. It seemed as though she assumed that the majority of readers likely would have already read her memoirs, meaning that she offered very little explanation when referencing them. However, this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of reading the book and has even made me more eager to read her memoirs in the near future.

Overall, The Art of Memoir is an enjoyable read no matter if you’re interested in writing your own memoir or are simply interested in learning more about Mary Karr, her life, and how she approaches the memoir writing process. If you’re ever on a plane and need something to listen to for five hours, I would highly recommend this book!

What are your thoughts on The Art of Memoir? Would you recommend any of Mary Karr’s actual memoirs? Do you have a favorite memoir in general? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

FREDERICK DOUGLASS by William S. McFeely

I’ve been fascinated by the life and writing of Frederick Douglass ever since reading his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) in my Introduction to Literature class during my very first semester of college. Born into slavery, Douglass eventually escaped to the North, became a free man, and rose to be a prolific orator and writer in the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century. Like countless people throughout history, I am captivated by how eloquently and effectively Douglass was able to portray himself through language. I’ve written more essays about him than any other subject so far in college, all from different perspectives and angles. After writing a research paper about the critical reception of his biographies in a literary theory class, I decided it was time for me to finally read a full biography about this extraordinary figure. One day while browsing the shelves of a local independent bookshop I saw William S. McFeely’s biography Frederick Douglass and decided to give it a try.

Perhaps I should have expected reading a biography about someone who wrote several autobiographies to feel a bit strange, but the feeling didn’t really hit me until about fifty pages in. The story of Douglass’ experiences as a young slave and eventual success at running away sounded extremely familiar because it was– Douglass himself had written about it in all three of his autobiographies: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). At this point I started to ask myself what the point of reading or writing a biography of someone who had written their autobiography was in the first place, but the answer was soon obvious: context. Anyone can write an autobiography any way they want, but the way they portray their own life can vary greatly depending on the context they choose to incorporate. For instance, Douglass left out nearly everything about his personal relationships from his autobiographies, only briefly mentioning that he married a woman named Anna at one point. Readers were left wondering what his life was like behind closed doors, which is information we now know thanks to research done for biographies such as this one.

Speaking of Douglass’ wife, reading about the many women in Douglass’ life was one of the most interesting aspects of this biography. Douglass might have been famously admired both in the North of the United States and abroad in the United Kingdom, but it sounds like Anna was not a huge fan. In reality, it seems like Douglass was a pretty mediocre husband at best. Not only did he leave Anna for extended periods of time while orating and traveling abroad, but he often brought back other women– usually white intellectual women he met in his travels– to live in their home. This latter action caused incessant rumors to spread wherever he was living at the time about Douglass’ potential affairs. It didn’t help matters that Anna, having once been a slave as well, was illiterate and therefore could not help Douglass with his writing career as could some of the other women he met and became close to later in life. Throughout this biography I couldn’t help but feel like poor Anna was dealt the short straw of the bunch, yet few people have recognized the struggle she must have endured sitting in the background of her husband’s life.

Overall, I really enjoyed this biography of Frederick Douglass and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about his life, abolitionism, or even woman’s rights during the Civil War and Reconstruction in the United States.

What are your thoughts on this biography of Frederick Douglass? Do you have a favorite biography in general? Any you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

MEMORIAL by Alice Oswald | Review

In this daring new work, the poet Alice Oswald strips away the narrative of the Iliad—the anger of Achilles, the story of Helen—in favor of attending to its atmospheres: the extended similes that bring so much of the natural order into the poem and the corresponding litany of the war-dead, most of whom are little more than names but each of whom lives and dies unforgettably and unforgotten in the copious retrospect of Homer’s glance. The resulting poem is a war memorial and a profoundly responsive work that gives new voice to Homer’s level-voiced version of the world. Through a mix of narrative and musical repetition, the sequence becomes a meditation on the loss of human life. {Goodreads}

As an English major who is regrettably not very familiar with Homer’s epics, I was a little worried when I saw that Alice Oswald’s Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad was listed as assigned reading for my Writing Feminisms tutorial this term. Would I be able to wade through sea of references I didn’t understand and still take away something meaningful from this poem? Should I read The Iliad first? Would my fuzzy memory of reading it during my sophomore year of high school suffice?

Answers: Yes, maybe, and yes again.

The true correct answer to the first question is yes, having a thorough understanding of Homer’s epic would probably deepen one’s reading experience with Oswald’s Memorial. However, rereading The Iliad was not in my future considering I was also assigned nine other books to read during my five-week winter break. So I did what any other college student would do when strapped for time: I googled a summary of The Iliad, skimmed it, and then proceeded onward with my assigned reading. For someone who is only studying this book for a brief week during the actual term and does not even need to write an essay on it, I would hazard a guess that this vague understanding is sufficient to at least take away something meaningful from reading Memorial. 

With that being said, Memorial is a fascinating, touching, thought-provoking, beautifully written poem whether or not you are familiar with the original text it’s based on. I really appreciate the experimental and creative nature of this text, from the list of hundreds of names of those who died in the beginning of the poem as well as the constant repetition of whole stanzas throughout. Oswald presents a different side of warfare that is deeply personal and intimate, humanizing those who died in the brief stories of their last moments alive. In the introduction to the poem, Oswald writes that “this is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story” and I know no better way to describe Memorial.

Overall, there are countless topics I could discuss in relation to this poem– its treatment of women, its relation with how we view those who died in 9/11, its relation to the original Homeric text, etc.— but for now I think I’ll leave it here and simply say: READ MEMORIAL. Whether or not poetry is usually your go-to genre, I believe that there is a little something for all readers in this brilliant text.

{If you’re interested in reading more about Memorial, check out these well written reviews in The Guardian and The New York Times}

What are your thoughts on Memorial? What other poetry would you recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

MRS. DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf | Review

Virginia Woolf’s classic 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway is one of this prolific writer’s best known works. It tells the story of a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, who struggles with the fact that she is no longer the young woman she used to be once upon a time. Set in the urban tumult of London after WWI, Mrs. Dalloway is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be an adult woman in this rapidly changing yet surprisingly stagnant society.

Where do I possibly begin? Mrs. Dalloway is one of those novels that had been incessantly recommended to me for years before I finally read it recently for a tutorial. This was only the second Woolf novel I had ever read (the first one being To the Lighthouse over the summer) so I sort of knew what to expect from her style but no idea what to expect from the general story itself. I needn’t have worried, though; Virginia knows what she’s doing.

Mrs. Dalloway is a novel rooted in the modernism of the early twentieth century, one of my favorite time periods and literary movements to study. One of the important markers of modernism is experimentation with narration, such as the stream of consciousness style Woolf uses throughout the novel. Although the novel is told through the eyes of an omniscient third person narrator, we nevertheless are privy to the innermost thoughts of a vast cast of characters through free indirect discourse. We learn about Clarissa’s relentless yearning for the past, Septimus’ struggles as a veteran in postwar British society, Lucrezia’s unhappiness with her husband, Peter’s love for Clarissa…. the list goes on and on. At times it may actually feel as though we are hearing from the characters in their own voices; this immersion is the beauty of Woolf’s writing.

Another feature of modernism is a fascination with time. Woolf plays with the concept of time in a number of ways in this novel: the measured tolls of Big Ben over bustling London, the characters’ varying perceptions of time, the constant flashbacks to the past, etc. There is also the fact that the entire novel takes place over the course of a single day in June 1923. This detail is one of my favorite things about Mrs. Dalloway because its bewildering and even unbelievable at times because so much time seems to pass from the beginning to the end. The flowing and fluid stream of consciousness style makes it seem as though a lot is happening when in actuality the reader is just experiencing a lot of the characters’ thoughts. While reading I had to constantly remind myself that all of this was happening in a single day because it just seemed so unlikely.

This novel also deals with many important and interesting topics: aging, missing youth, the role of women in society, postwar British society, the plight of veterans after WWI, the relationship between noncombatant civilians and veterans, mental health, etc. When my tutor told me that I could write an essay on any topic from Mrs. Dalloway I immediately felt overwhelmed. How on earth could I choose just one? Somehow Woolf has managed to pack a tome’s worth of material into a slim, beautiful, well-crafted novel. 

Overall, Mrs. Dalloway is a captivating, brilliant novel that I couldn’t help becoming invested in from the very first page. This may have only been the second Wool novel I have ever read, but it most certainly won’t be my last! I would highly recommend this novel to anyone and everyone!

What are your thoughts on Mrs. Dalloway? Do you have favorite novel or text by Virginia Woolf? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

THE QUARTET by Joseph J. Ellis | Review

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 is a comprehensive, cohesive, carefully crafted analysis of the transition from distinctly powerful states in America under the Articles of Confederation to a nation of united states under the newly ratified Constitution. By focusing on the brilliant men who made this shift possible– George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison— Ellis emphasizes just how influential and integral the Founding Fathers were at creating the nation we still know today.

Joseph J. Ellis is a brilliant historian. I absolutely loved his book Founding Brothers when I read it in high school for my AP United States history class, so I purchased The Quartet as soon as I learned it was being released in 2015. Unfortunately, life got in the way (as it does) and I’ve just gotten around to reading it now. But trust me: it was well worth the wait!

A major strength of The Quartet is the interesting perspective Ellis takes on the events between 1783 and 1789. History textbooks spend pages and pages about the dramatic, exciting battles of the American Revolution, and then BAM! Washington was suddenly and unanimously elected to be the first President of the United States. But what happened in between? Why is this transition from states that wanted nothing to do with each other to a nation striving to be unified rarely discussed? Ellis explains what happened in the interim to create the governing body and form the nation we are still familiar with today. He refers to this as the Second American Revolution, one that may have lacked violence but was brimming with tense, vitriolic ideological debate.

As always, Ellis’ writing is well-organized, clear, fluid, and poignant. Although the book is structured in sections that focus on events chronologically, the overarching text highlights the four men that made it all happen. Of course, they weren’t the only people contributing to the effort, but they pulled all the strings they could to achieve the vision they intended. While the lives of Washington and Hamilton are often taught in great detail, students are much likely to learn about the work of John Jay and James Madison. Most importantly, Ellis adeptly humanizes these iconic and almost legendary figures in American history that we think we know so well (think again!).

These events may have happened centuries ago, but their legacies continue to affect us even now. While reading The Quartet I was suddenly struck by how removed from the initial writing of the Constitution we make ourselves when we discuss it today. The Constitution was intended to be a living document that would change over the course of history as suited the needs of the nation. Although the United States has changed considerably since 1789, there are many aspects of our culture that unfortunately remain the same. Why haven’t we turned to the Constitution to make more positive changes happen? Should we? These are the kinds of questions that make studying history so important, and I appreciate Ellis for continually reminding us of them. 

Overall, Ellis has once again hit the proverbial nail on the head with The Quartet. While Founding Brothers still holds a special place in my bookish heart, this book is a very close second. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, regardless of whether or not you’ve studied history in the past.

What are your thoughts on The Quartet? Do you have a favorite time period in history to read about? Any recommendations for great history books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Fantasy Tropes Book Tag

Although I mostly read classics now (largely due to all of my course work) the genre that first got me hooked on reading was definitely fantasy. You can imagine how excited I was to see that I was recently tagged to do the Fantasy Tropes Book Tag. Thanks so much to Kelly @ Just Another Book in the Wall for tagging me!!

The Lost Princess: A book/series you lost interest in halfway through

I remember reading I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore several years ago when it was pretty popular, but after reading up to the third book in the series I lost interest in it. I think there are around seven books in total now, but I don’t plan on returning to finish the series at anytime soon.

The Knight in Shining Armor: A hyped book/series you were swept up by

The more I read the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, the more I became invested in the characters, plot, and series as a whole. This fantastical world steeped in reality is just too engrossing to let go.

The Wise Old Wizard: An author who amazes you with his/her writing

Is anyone surprised that my answer to this question is William Faulkner?

The Maiden in Distress: An undervalued character you wished had a bigger story line

So many characters in Harry Potter! I would definitely be up for a spin-off series about all of the side characters we don’t learn enough about (especially the Marauders!).

The Magical Sword: A magical item/ability you wish authors used less

Probably mind control, specifically the ability to move things telepathically (kind of like Eleven from Stranger Things). I think it’s overused at this point and not very creative.

The Mindless Villain: A phrase you cannot help but roll your eyes at

“She wasn’t like the other girls. She was different.” Someone please gauge my eyes out so I don’t have to read this anymore (figuratively speaking, of course. I like my eyes).

The Untamed Dragon: A magical creature you wish you had as a pet

I wouldn’t want a house elf as a pet (I definitely stand with Hermione and S.P.E.W.) but I would love to befriend one!

The Chosen One: A book/series you will always root for

Perhaps my favorite series ever: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ll never get tired of returning to these books time and time again!

Thanks again to Kelly for tagging me!

What are your answers to these prompts? What do you think of mine? Do you have a favorite fantasy book or series? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

CHILDREN OF THE MIND by Orson Scott Card | Review

Children of the Mind is the fourth and final novel in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Quartet. This series begins with the well-known Ender’s Game, which tells the story of a young boy recruited and trained to be part of the International Fleet seeking to destroy the alien “buggers” that are a threat to Earth. The series was originally supposed to be a trilogy, with this novel initially being the second half of the third book, Xenocide. This final installment attempts to wrap up all loose ends in that have been woven and tangled throughout the series as the repercussions of Ender’s involvement in the universe finally take their course.

In my opinion, this series could have ended after three books and I would have been completely fine with it. While I enjoyed the first three books in this quartet immensely, Children of the Mind was an unexpected disappointment. Instead of an exciting, suspenseful, thought-provoking conclusion, this novel is actually slow, tedious, and rather dull to read. Other reasons why I dislike this novel include:

– Everyone is arguing. Ender and Novinha. Jane and Miro. Miro and Val. Miro and his entire family. (Miro is very angry, clearly.) Peter and Si Wang-Mu. The list goes on and on. After a while all of these arguments start to sound petty and unimportant when everyone is actually supposed to be saving the universe.

– It feels like nothing really happens. I usually love character-driven novels– but only when the characters are actually interesting and worth rooting for. When a plot moves slower than a sloth and there are few characters worth being invested in, what actually happens in the book? (Answer: not much.)

– I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end. Rather than going out with a bang, this series ends with a confusing firework of random events. I was hoping for some clarity and closure, but no such luck.

It’s not fun to write negative reviews of books you expected to enjoy, but sometimes it has to be done. I highly recommend the first three books in the Ender Quartet (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide) but Children of the Mind is an optional read as far as I’m concerned.

What are your thoughts on Children of the Mind or any of the books in the Ender Quartet? Would you recommend continuing on with books in the Ender series? How do you deal with disappointing books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe | Review

“The narrative drive of Stowe’s classic novel is often overlooked in the heat of the controversies surrounding its anti-slavery sentiments. In fact, it is a compelling adventure story with richly drawn characters and has earned a place in both literary and American history. Stowe’s puritanical religious beliefs show up in the novel’s final, overarching theme—the exploration of the nature of Christianity and how Christian theology is fundamentally incompatible with slavery.” {Goodreads}

First published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin has often been described as the book that launched the Civil War. Despite not having read it until recently, this book had been mentioned often enough in past history classes that I figured I had a pretty good idea of what reading it would be like.

Well, I stand corrected.

There’s no denying that the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remarkable. The story goes that upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln exclaimed, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” This novel was a powerful tool for those fighting to end slavery before and during the Civil War; however, it’s easy to forget the story’s antislavery intentions when a modern reading of it reinforces disturbing racial stereotypes. Slaves are often portrayed as ignorant, unconditionally loyal to their masters, and eager to please as many people as possible. I was also taken aback by the glaring religious overtones in this novel; as someone who isn’t religious, it felt as thought I was being pelted with Christian beliefs over and over and over again. Then there’s the fact that this novel was written by a white woman who wrote a novel based on secondhand accounts of slavery from fugitive slaves. Where is the accuracy there? The authenticity? (Hint: there is none.)

This tension between the novel’s historical importance and the actual content and story within the book itself makes writing a review of it much more challenging than I initially expected. The story itself was captivating and entertaining, and I genuinely wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen to the characters. I quickly became invested in Uncle Tom and his family while simultaneously feeling uncomfortable with how they are portrayed as one dimensional caricatures of human beings. Andrew Delbanco  has more clearly and eloquently put my conflicted feelings into words in his New York Times review of David S. Reynold’s “Mightier Than the Sword.” Delbanco writes:

In my experience, students can be embarrassed by it. They recognize it as a valuable document for understanding the history of what we now call the “conversation” about race in America. In response to the prevailing view of black people as inferior beings (a view long held in the North as well as the South), it lifted its black characters to the status of impossibly virtuous victims — just the elevation that James Baldwin felt was a kind of contempt. When Baldwin called Stowe less a novelist than an “impassioned pamphleteer,” he meant, in part, that her characters don’t seem capable of selfishness as well as self-sacrifice, or of pettiness and jealousy along with piety and wisdom. In short, they don’t seem human. Reynolds calls Baldwin’s a “blinkered critique,” though he concedes that Stowe trafficked in the clichés of “romantic racialism” while reminding us, fairly enough, that what now seems “like racial stereotyping” was “progressive” in her day.

So where does this leave me? I’m still conflicted. Let’s just say that while I appreciate the immensely important historical significance of this novel, I’m so glad that our society has come a long way from the language and portrayals of characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 

What are your thoughts on Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How do you deal with books that give you mixed feelings like this? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith | Review

“Zadie Smith’s dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant café, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes —faith, race, gender, history, and culture— and triumphs.” {Goodreads}

Zadie Smith is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to read for ages but just never got around to doing so…. until White Teeth popped up on this term’s required reading list. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. How often is it that a personal and academic TBR line up?! (I mean, mine tend to line up pretty frequently, but this was a special scenario.) I purposely decided to put this novel towards the end of my reading list as motivation to get through the rest as quickly as possible. (Do I motivate myself to read certain books by rewarding myself with the chance to read other books? Indeed.)

I was honestly shocked when I read Smith’s short bio in the back of the book and learned that White Teeth was her debut novel. I once read a review that described this novel as “Dickensian” in scope and grandeur, and to be honest that is probably the most accurate description I could offer. There is a sprawling cast of characters from a diverse array of countries, backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, religions, and generations. Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on all of the characters, Smith introduces entirely new families and groups of people into the mix. These characters are not introduced simply as a way to further the plot; rather, they bring out different sides of pre-existing characters as well as more depth in the story itself.

White Teeth explores countless fascinating topics that are relevant in our society today as well as in their earlier context of the novel. Fate or free will, the end of the world, experiments on animals, the role of women in society, dualities, how we view the past in the present, the concept of multiple truths– the list goes on and on and on. It’s incredible how much Smith was able to pack into these 448 pages and still have it be a coherent, cohesive novel in which all the pieces come together at the very end. It helps that Smith’s writing and storytelling abilities are remarkable, as shown in her ability to reveal that seemingly simple and obvious ideas are actually fascinatingly multifaceted:

“If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.”

Unfortunately, the ending was the weakest point of the novel in my eyes. I was expecting an epic convergence of all of the characters culminating in some sort of jaw-dropping reveal; instead, there was a confusing jumble of events that I still don’t really understand fully. Part of me wonders if that is precisely the point: life is messy and doesn’t really make sense or live up to one’s expectations all of the time. But does that really make a lackluster conclusion to an otherwise fantastic novel worth it? Not really.

Overall, White Teeth has made me an avid Zadie Smith fan who is incredibly eager to read more of her work. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel (despite its rather disappointing ending) and I look forward to reading much more of her writing in the future. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who hasn’t read Zadie Smith before!

What are your thoughts on White Teeth? Which Zadie Smith novel should I read next? Do you have a favorite? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY