Archive for February, 2008

here is a beautifully overexposed photograph taken by none other than yours truly featuring the book called what not to wear by trinny woodall and susannah constantine. if you have ever seen these broads on tv you may have witnessed their overuse of the word ‘tits’ to describe bosoms. whenever trinny is agreeing with something, her received pronunciation ‘yaaaah, yaaaaah’ is something i’ve often found amusing. look, i know it barely counts, it’s basically a picture book, for god’s sake. but it has some useful things in it apart from the odd real fashion boo-boo (they recommend wearing a sheer top without a bra if you have small boobs…um.) and they combine sartorial nous with a realistic view of bits and bodies, which is a good thing in my hon op.

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Cheryl Klein has a list she calls ‘The Death List’. On this list are the books that would pop into her mind as she was poised on the brink of death. Using Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as an example, she illustrated how The Death List works: ‘Oh no,’ she would think, struggling between the jaws of a shark, ‘now i’ll never find out what happens to Lyra.’ This, it is true, is a touching and apt way of describing the tension characteristic of the wait between books of a culminating series. My way of reacting to the tension of waiting for series instalments, it must be said, is a little bit less touching. For many years, I’ve been a fan of Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series. Since I defied my Year 9 English teacher to write a review of The Farseekers, the second in the series, instead of ‘a proper novel’, the books have affected my life in a number of ways. (My mark for that assignment reflected Mrs West’s displeasure.)

The Obernewtyn series has long been on my Death List (as is her Darkfall trilogy), but alas for Ms Carmody, I always feared what would happen if she died, leaving me alive but distraught and wondering what would have been. Monstrous, I know, but the publication of The Stone Key means I have less to fear. There’s only one more Obernewtyn instalment left. Sensibly, considering this book ended up being about a thousand pages, Carmody decided to divide the finale into two books, with the concluding tome to follow next year. (Edit: it won’t be around until the end of 2009, I think.)

These books are really not for everyone. Unless you like the idea of people talking to each other inside their heads, or talking to animals who are by turns noble, grumpy and autonomous, and fantasy adventures of epic proportions, the Obernewtyn books are not for you. But if you are anything like me, that sentence turned you on a little bit. Even so, The Stone Key would be difficult reading for any stranger to the series. It does not stand alone, despite a lengthy backstory chapter, and it is not designed to do so. It contains a hell of a lot of plot-moving that requires intimacy with the world’s politics and characters.

Although I am predisposed to be pleased by anything in this series and to happily absorb whatever authorly intent is given form, The Stone Key nevertheless suffers from what I like to call J.K Rowling syndrome. This phenomenon describes an overindulgence of fantasy writers by their editors in respect of length. (See: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.) Fantasy writers are usually connate storytellers, but not always literary guns, with wild imaginations spanning many more universes than the one us ordinary folk deal with. But the impressive weft of a fantasy world can suffer from a lack of limits, and for this reason needs to be reined in by the same, if not more discipline as fiction depicting the real world.

Perhaps it is the bestselling nature of these books that means fantasy writers get more leeway than their peers. Rowling’s success is chronicled legend and Carmody’s book was in the Readings top ten within a week of its release. But even Rowling herself has acknowledged the unnecessary lengthiness of her books, revealing the reluctance of her editors to meddle too much with her preliminary vision.

To be fair, The Stone Key‘s events are truly epic, and require a certain volume of pages to allow them to unfold. Carmody also has a naturally rambling style, which lends her protagonist, Elspeth Gordie, much charm. But I would have liked to see some of the descriptive overflow staunched because at times it bogs down the narrative and strips Carmody’s hooks of their dramatic potential. The Stone Key also suffers from a lot of copy-type errors. Considering the months of delay in publication and the length concerns, this flaw becomes a little more jarring than it would be otherwise.

Really, though, don’t get me wrong. I panicked when I couldn’t see any copies of The Stone Key on the shelf. The sales assistant pulled a copy off hold from someone else because she could see the desperation in my eyes. These books are beautifully imagined and heavily political, stunning and suspenseful. I chewed through this book in 24 hours and hungrily await the next; the day the sixth and final book comes out, I will assuredly be on a bookstore doorstep, waving $33 in some hapless assistant’s face.

‘He was helping me with my faith, yeah? He’s the head of the Cricklewood branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation.’
The headmaster frowned. ‘KEVIN?’
‘They are aware they have an acronym problem,’ explained Irie.

In case you’re interested, this is the first Zadie Smith book I ever read, and it’s the only one I have read. I actually read it in February of last year, an entire year ago. Yet my feelings about this book are as fresh as they were then. Some of these feelings pre-date the actual act of reading – I remember my reluctance to read it, because White Teeth is what Jonathan Franzen referred to in Strong Motion as ‘implicating’. Being on the young side of your twenties, sitting on a tram seat, reading this book: you might as well also project the screen of your ipod onto the inner tram wall and show everyone that you are listening to Joanna Newsom and are going home to drink a wine whose purchase price is only slightly but definitely outside your means. You might as well whisper into your fellow tram-traveller’s ear that you are going to see your friend’s band play tonight and are likely to earn a bruise from falling off your bike when riding home afterwards.

Notwithstanding my distaste for being so easily pigeonholed by my reading matter, which is easily a kind of snobbery or at least a manifestation of guilty defensiveness that Smith was my age when White Teeth was published to international acclaim, I finally got on with it. I had two broad reactions to this novel; the first relates to pages 27-520, the second relates to the first and final chapters.

Reaction the first: The wily weaving of Smith’s writing encompasses the doings of a multitude of characters, each as beguiling, funny and complete as a major character should be. White Teeth‘s scintillating dialogue and component predicaments suggest that Smith has equably mastered a coherent vision of the state of migrant culture. Plus, it’s extremely readable – the observational narrative wiggles along without the extraordinary heft with which Salman Rushdie invests his geographically similar postcolonial landscapes. Central to White Teeth are the comings and goings of three families: the (Anglo-Jamaican) Joneses, the (liberal Jewish-Catholic) Chalfens and the (Bangladeshi) Iqbals. The antics of these clans have been prepared in such a way that, despite their ready wit, conflicts of religion and race constantly display their tiny claws. At these junctions there is rarely resolution, a condition that even the patent intelligence and tenacity of Irie Jones, the most compelling of the second-generation characters, cannot displace.

Reaction the second: The main body of the novel is uniformly complex and precise. It is micro-detail at its best, and this is why I found the first and final chapters so disappointing. The first chapter reveals Archie Jones, soon to be patriarch of the London Joneses, within the grasp of (a nonetheless very funny and awkward) suicide attempt. Its tone is that of a short story rather than the opening of a novel; more strident than the remainder and less faithful to Archie Jones than it perhaps should be. However, it certainly serves some literary purposes; it introduces Jones, whose story is the catalyst for those of others, as well as establishing White Teeth’s a patently multicultural setting.

The conclusion of the novel however was what I found most troubling. Each character’s journey collides in a surprising and extremely neat way. Yet this reveals a macro-structure which reduces the effects of the novel’s extreme sensitivity to detail, a kind of reverse resolution. From inspecting the minutiae of the drama, from traversing the streets at pixel-level, we are dragged into a somewhat farcical culmination of these filaments. I’m not sure everyone would react in the same way – there is certainly a level of genius to the hysterical but consummate convergence of the many narrative strands.

Despite these bitter complaints, the greater part of White Teeth constitutes an alluring and accomplished venture. The subjects of science, fanaticism and family are broached with a lightness of touch and a prodigious sense of character that does smith credit and beyond. By the way, in case you’re interested, it’s also one of Time Magazine’s 100 books of all-time.

February 27, 2008
one: so the premise of this website is that i have a reading target of 50 new books a year. for some people this is child’s play – i have a friend who was told in no uncertain terms not to contact me while reading harry potter and the deathly hallows because of an extremely misguided text message i had received while reading harry potter and the half blood prince. she had finished it before i was even halfway.

but for me, 50 new books is a theoretically conceivable, but as yet unreached goal. while completing my english literature major i was reading on average one book a week during semester, a number which increased in holiday periods, particularly on travels in the summer. the first time i set this goal i read about 65 books in a year, 48 of which were books i had not read before.

getting to the nuts and bolts: the observant, the less observant, and probably the asleep among you have probably realised that my 2007 reading load as reflected by this blog has fallen way short of 50. a few excuses:

  • i didn’t do any english subjects this semester. while reading an entire law textbook is quite instructive, it’s not always fun, and i would rarely recommend it, let alone do it. i make an exception for proof and the preparation of trials which was a toasty little read no more than a centimetre thick, with a dear little dedication to ‘all my children’ which proceeded to name about 17 individuals.
  • law subjects take a lot more time out of the schedule than literature subjects for extra curricular reading, not just from actual time spent studying, but also from recovery from a state of mind only slightly above completely numb.
  • i did actually read more books than that…i just haven’t reviewed them yet.
  • note that i only started this blog in march. i probably read about 30 books in january…not.
so as you can see ’3000 books’ is an aspiration, not a promise. not to be defensive. 2008 is the year for 50 though, just you wait and see.

two: i have just come back from a five week jaunt in south-east asia, and that is why i haven’t written anything for five weeks. but i read a few books. so there’ll be some new things soon.

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