Monday, June 01, 2009

The Blind Assassin (by Margaret Atwood) and White Teeth (by Zadie Smith)

I finished The Blind Assassin a good month or two ago, but I never blogged about it, apparently! And then didn't read anything after that until I got on a plane this weekend and read White Teeth. (When I was packing for the plane, I was looking through my "to read" pile and plucked out the Zadie Smith book in part because it wouldn't break my streak of reading only books by women this year. It's not that I need to keep it going for the whole year, but none of the books by men that I currently have seem to be worth breaking the streak for. I did read half of a male historian's book on Henry VIII, but it wasn't even close to as good as Antonia Fraser's stuff, and Ian finished it and agreed it was nothing special and we should just send it back to the library. So I did read like 300 pages of history in there somewhere, just didn't finish it. But I digress.)

The Blind Assassin is my first Atwood, believe it or not, and I really loved it, most especially on the sentence level. Just gorgeous, luscious prose. One of my friends said the plot felt a little too show-offy and contrived, but she also admitted this is based on an overarching experience with Atwood's books. Since this was the first one I'd read, the twists in the plot didn't bother me. In fact, I have to say that although I saw some things coming, there was also some stuff at the end that I wasn't expecting. (I will be vague here but if you want to talk about it in the comments, we can, and this can be a spoiler alert.) I got absorbed in the book and loved reading it, and I came away thinking Atwood has a masterful command of the sentence, and wanting to read more by her.

White Teeth is one of those books that I had picked up a few times and then put down again. Someone in our book group has never finished a book by an Indian author (Brick Lane, Midnight's Children, etc.) for whatever reason, and I used to say if it was by an Indian author or about India, I would probably not like it. (Along with my other rule of thumb, which is that I hate reading about scenery.) Books I have disliked to varying degrees include The Satanic Verses, Kim, Brick Lane, and my ne plus ultra of hated books, A Passage to India. It's weird because it's not like I hate Indian culture. I love Indian movies, for example... I just have had bad luck with Indian-centric books. So anyway, every time I picked up this book I would get to the name of one of the characters and was like, oh god, it's about Indian people in London, and then my eyes would roll into the back of my head and I would put the book down again. So weird.

But it turns out that the book is in fact very multicultural, that the character I was reading about isn't even Indian, but Bangladeshi, that all the characters (the Bangladeshi ones included) are incredibly well drawn, and that it's an AWESOME BOOK. I completely devoured it, and I was ridiculously pleased that the ending did not go to the cliche place where I was expecting the ending to go. As a second generation child of immigrants myself, I found the book not only funny and entertaining, but also thought-provoking in terms of the relationships between the parents and children and their warring cultures. Zadie Smith and I were born in the same year, which makes me want to kill myself, because this book is a tour de force. Are all of her other books this good?

And both of these books are, I believe, on the Time Magazine booklist. That is a damn fine list, y'all.



Blogger Kevin said...

So how far off do you consider my review of The Blind Assassin? I dunno. It was okay.

10:17 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

Just read your review!

1. I agree it was mostly okay, although I did not have issues with her use of metaphor.

2. I didn't catch the fashion thing at all; you are smart.

3. I figured something had happened between Laura and Alex--wasn't she the one who took care of him and smuggled him into their attic?--so I was fine with the idea of her being in love with him.

So I guess not far off at all!

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Antonia Fraser.

That's all, really.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also have the same random dislike of Indian-centric books (especially Brick Lane, which I've read the first chapter of at least five times now) and also fell in love with White Teeth.

7:15 AM  
Blogger jen fu said...

Zadie Smith is who I want to be when I grow up, and I try not to remember that she is YOUNGER THAN ME so that I don't cry and cry and cry. Have you read On Beauty? It's her homage to Howard's End and I have some problems with it, but it's one of my favorite books, though Autograph Man might be a better book. She's basically awesome.

I kind of hate Margaret Atwood. I think her writing is technically stunning, but her stories and her characters have not ever moved me. I'd be interested to hear what you think of Oryx and Crake.

8:42 AM  
Blogger jen fu said...

Wait, that was your first Zadie Smith. Sorry. Yes, her other books are that good, if not better. I love her. The end.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Jen said...

I loved White Teeth but could only get through a few chapters of The Autograph Man and thought On Beauty was just OK. The thing I really liked about White Teeth was the complexity of the story, which I felt was lacking in her other books. I know that White Teeth was her thesis work, I think for undergrad, and you could tell she had spent many years on it. The other books felt less polished to me.

I guess this proves again that Jen Fu and I have completely opposite taste in literature!

8:51 AM  
Blogger mo pie said...

Well now that I am underemployed, I am going to try out this place called "the library" and maybe I will see if they have either or both of those Zadie Smith books, and see what I think!

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Long-time lurker here)
The only book from Zadie Smith I've read is On beauty, and I loved it, though several people say it's basically a repeat of White teeth.

Regarding India-centric books: I absolutely loved The god of small things by Arundhati Roy, and What the body remembers from Shauna Singh.

4:14 AM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I remember reading The God of Small Things, it was depressing as hell, if I recall correctly! But I am going to read On Beauty for sure; I wouldn't mind basically a White Teeth retread, it was so good.

5:17 PM  
Blogger toolprincess said...

Have you read The Namesake? I thought that was a really excellent Indian-centric book.

9:08 AM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I have not, but can put it on my list! I did pick up "On Beauty" at the used bookstore.

11:15 AM  

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