Friday, March 2, 2012

metaphors help eliminate what separates you and me

I am glad it's Friday. Next week is the students' spring break, which means I will get to catch up on a bunch of stuff that I haven't had a chance to do. But this week has felt like a month. Whew.

I recently finished two books, and here are some quick thoughts.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith:

I read On Beauty a couple of years ago, so I thought I'd try another Zadie Smith. White Teeth is Smith's 2000 debut novel. It won a bunch of awards, including the Whitbread, the James Tait Black award, The Guardian First Book award...and some more. Time put it on its 100 Best English Novels (1923-2005) list. People really liked this book.

The novel is primarily about the immigrant experience in the UK. It starts with Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, long-time friends and WWII vets, and their families. Archie marries Clara, who is Jamaican and a former Jehovah's Witness. Samad goes through with a traditional arranged marriage to Alsana--they are both Bangladeshi and Muslim. Both couples have children, who are integral in the plotline. Thrown into the mix are the Chalfens, who are intellectual and, well, very British.

White Teeth is in turns hilarious--the fundamentalist Muslim group is Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, abbreviated KEVIN--and serious in that it depicts the struggles of immigrants to adjust to English life. It's populated by quirky, interesting characters who are intelligent but also blind to their own faults. Irie, Archie and Clara's daughter, is easily my favorite. She is quick and smart, but she's also very much a teenager--longing for attention and in love with Millat, Samad and Alsana's son.

I'm only capturing pieces of this book; it's rather sprawling in character development. I'll end with Zadie Smith's words from a PBS interview:
The people in White Teeth are immigrants. I'm not an immigrant, so it's a different experience. But I was around people who had that experience, who felt separated or cut in two, who had moved from one country to another, who had that sense of leading two lives. Samad thinks that way -- that somewhere in the world there is this other Samad who still lives in Bangladesh and is very good and religious and proper. But he has to deal with the real Samad. I think that's a fairly common experience. But that's a guess; I couldn't know.

Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

This is my first Murakami. I've been told that it's different from a lot of his other novels in that its main character is a 15-year-old boy instead of a middle-aged man. Like White Teeth, it's a rather sprawling book, but in different ways.

There are two separate but interweaving strands to this book. The first plotline is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home under his father's curse (you will kill your father and sleep with your mother and sister; sound familiar?). From there, he ends up at a private library, where he meets Miss Saeki, the head of the library who lost her love when she was twenty and never moved on, and Oshima, a gay transgender man who takes Kafka under his wing. There's also Sakura, who may be Kafka's sister, but we never really know. After Kafka leaves home, Kafka's father, a famous artist, is murdered, and part of the plot focuses on the fact that neither Kafka nor the reader knows whether Kafka killed him or not.

Then there is Nakata, an old man who suffered an accident in his youth and woke up from a coma without his memories or the ability to read or write. He can, however, speak to cats, and makes a little money finding lost cats for their owners. As he is searching for a cat, Nakata is lured to a lair by "Johnnie Walker," a cat-snatcher, and forced to kill him. "Johnnie Walker" may or may not be Kafka's father. Like Kafka, Nakata takes a journey, picking up Hoshino, a truck driver, on the way.

I'd call this book "magical realism," but I'm not quite sure it fits. It's got talking cats, fish falling from the sky, soldiers in a forest who never age. It's got a Colonel Sanders, who is "a concept." Miss Saeki is both fifty years old and fifteen years old, and she may be Kafka's mother. But we're never sure.
And that is a recurring them of this book: we're never quite sure if anything is real.

Again, this seems an inadequate summary of this book. In his review of Kafka on the Shore in The New Yorker, John Updike calls it " a real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender." I'd agree with that.

I'm reading Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones now. Also, just because, have a zinnia:

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