His Dark Materials, Zadie Smith

I spent much of my 11-day holiday break either horizontal or wishing I was horizontal thanks to a back strain that’s still giving me fits. I took advantage of the time to get some reading done. M and I had gone to see The Golden Compass, and in anticipation of it, she purchased and read the trilogy of which that movie composes roughly one third. She was somewhat disappointed in how the movie chopped off the end of the first book and how it left out some of the back story about Dust. Having not read the books yet, I thought it was a pretty engaging movie, if it was a little slow at times (especially when Kidman was onscreen). In any case, watching the movie and hearing M talk about the books prompted me to read the books. Steinbeck they’re not, but I enjoyed the whole set. Oddly, where M found the second book to suffer from what she calls second book syndrome (wherein a second book in a set serves primarily to set up the more involved politics and relationships that drive subsequent books but are of limited interest on their own in terms of actually moving the plot along), I found it to be pretty interesting. On the whole, not a bad bunch of books for a quick read.

I had heard about an author named Zadie Smith. She made waves a few years ago with her first novel (published when she was 24, I think), and I’ve been meaning for a while to pick up some of her stuff. Her On Beauty was on my amazon wish list, and Ashley got it for me for Christmas. It was a good book, though somewhat different from what I had expected based on comparisons of her work to other authors I like. It felt a bit like a modern day take on the old comedies of manners. I don’t mean to pigeon-hole Smith here in the almost patronizing way it’ll probably come off, but the book felt a bit like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility for the 20th century (which probably isn’t terribly flattering given that I find those sorts of books tedious and dull and light). And yet it wasn’t tedious or dull or light, and in fact, there was much to appreciate. Smith writes really great dialogue, and especially argument dialogue. So the book wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was well-done enough that I decided to get her first novel, White Teeth. This I finished reading last night, and it’s the sort of book I expected based on what I had read about Smith. It was different than any of the old white guy fiction I’ve read, and it dealt with its subjects in what felt like really honest, informed ways across cultures, religions, races, genders, and ages. And it did so with wit and beauty and absurdity and sometimes sadness. On Beauty isn’t a book I’ll likely read a great many times in my life, but White Teeth I can imagine myself re-reading every few years, as I do with most of my favorites. (Uh, which is not to detract from the gift itself of the former book; had I not read that one, I might never have gotten around to reading the other.) If you happen to like reading contemporary literary fiction, this one should go on your list.

Next up I think is George R. R. Martin. I’ve never been much on sci-fi or fantasy, and I guess he’s a fantasy author. Three or four people have separately recommended him to me even knowing that I’m not much of a fantasy reader. M gobbles the stuff up, so I got her the first in his big series for Christmas, and she dug it and has since read the rest of the series that’s been published to date. She seems to validate what others have told me about him, so I’m thinking I might broaden my horizons a bit and see what I think of his books.

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