White Teeth, Perdido Street Station, and Last Evenings on Earth

white teeth

And so well with the help of Jenny Sterlin’s narration and my handy-dandy portable mp3-playing device, I finally made it through Zadie Smith‘s 2000 novel White Teeth, and, having digested all of it, am now fit to declare it hilarious in places, larded with moments of intensely brilliant prose, wildly ambitious, and ultimately hollow, overstuffed with flat characters who, despite Smith’s best efforts, do not manage to earn the Big Important Climax she shoves them toward. Smith succeeds in communicating the multicultural problematics of late-twentieth-century London, but her massive scope (the audiobook is 23 hours and my unfinished paperback runs to nearly 500 pages) is just too massive. Smith seems to think that loads of concrete detail will automatically conjure emotional force, but what we get instead verges on soap opera at times–more bathos than pathos.It doesn’t help reader expectations of course that White Teeth was wildly overpraised after its debut. While White Teeth‘s attempt to reconcile the personal traumas of a postcolonial world with the demands of family, tradition, and personal worth is admirable, its aim exceeds its grasp, and the end disappoints. Still, I enjoyed it as an audiobook–Jenny Sterlin mugs enthusiastically through the various accents and argots of a melting pot London, and Smith’s concrete emphasis on detail makes it an ideal listen for a few summer afternoons of gardening or housework. Not the Great Book we’ve been told it is, but a fine listen nonetheless.


Summer is, of course, a great time for audiobooks, and I’m thrilled that China Miéville‘s breakthrough second novel Perdido Street Station is finally available on mp3. I’ve been wanting to read Miéville for quite some time now, but the length of his dystopian tomes has made it difficult until now (I am a very busy, important man, with busy, important things to do). Perdido Street Station, set in a bizarre, gross world of humans, Re-mades, and other sundry races, is weird fiction at its finest (so far)–a great hybrid of Charles Dickens and PK Dick, HP Lovecraft and JG Ballard. It trawls the line between real and surreal, art and science, grime and enlightenment, in lovely, if dense prose, that could never be mistaken as genre fiction. Great stuff, so far.


Also great stuff, so far, is Roberto Bolaño‘s collection of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth. I read the first three tales in succession last night, unable to put the book down although it was well-past my well-established “you must go to bed now or your toddler daughter will wreak havoc on you in the AM” bedtime. The first three stories are about, get this, (big surprise if you’ve read Bolaño), writers–good, bad, indifferent writers, failed, semi-failed, miserable writers. Sad writers, mad writers. The opener “Sensini” tells the story of an epistolary relationship between a young writer and an aging, uncelebrated writer. It’s sad yet measured in its pathos, and it earns its happy ending by loading that ending with the seed of potential disaster. The next story, “Henri Simon Leprince,” is the hilarious (and sad) tale of a miserable writer, a hack who teams up with the Resistance in WWII France. Despite his best intentions, he’s roundly despised by all those he helps. And he’s a terrible writer. The third story, “Enrique Martín,” literally made me laugh out loud, several times, to the point of tears. Narrated by Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s literary stand-in, it tells the desperate story of the titular failed poet, a would-be artist and sometime UFO hunter who slowly watches his dreams disintegrate.

All of Bolaño’s stories so far have extended past the mad force of his own strong voice(s) and implanted themselves into my mind, reaching into my own past; his characters, in hashing out their strange young lives (from a bit of distance, now) repeatedly evoked my own youthful memories, stuff I hadn’t thought about in years. There’s a sad brilliance under all of Bolaño’s stuff, like bright noon sun perceived through an ambiguous tear resting on your eye. Reading the beginning of Last Evenings on Earth last night, it occurred to me for the first time that Bolaño had died, and he’d died really young, and there weren’t going to be anymore books from him. But that’s a bummer note to end on. Let’s leave it at this–Last Evenings on Earth is some seriously great stuff.

Summer Reading List: Tales of Adventure

Indulge yourself this summer by taking a fantastic voyage–literary or literally. To help you get started, check out the following tales of adventure.

William Vollman’s The Rifles, part of his as-yet-unfinished Seven Dreams series is a brilliant engagement of history, colonialism, identity, and all of those Big Profound Issues that we so adore in our modern literature. It’s also a really cool adventure story, the tale of John Franklin’s nineteenth-century exploration of Inuit territory. Sad, beautiful, breathtaking.

If you prefer your adventure tales uncomplicated by postmodern gambits, check out John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a journalistic account of the writer’s 1996 ascent of Mt. Everest, and the disasters that befell his expedition. The word “harrowing” fits well, gentle readers.

On the lighter-but-not-too-much-lighter side, Jeff Smith’s self-published comic Bone is fantastic; even better, you can get the entire 1300 page run of the whole series in Bone: One Volume Edition. We use the word “delightful” here in an absolutely unpejorative sense, friends: the adventures of Fone Bone, his cousins Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, and Thorn, Granma Rose, and the Red Dragon are epic in scope yet retain an honest humor that will keep in the most cynical folks laughing. A major literary accomplishment that has been unjustly overlooked.

Also somewhat overlooked is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. In Bone, protagonist Fone Bone lugs around a massive copy of Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick everywhere he goes–and while that book is undoubtedly a desert island classic, Benito Cereno is an underappreciated gem of a tale. Revealing the strange secret at the heart of this book would spoil it, so suffice to say that the short novel enigmatically investigates slavery and colonialism in ways that beg for closer analysis. Good stuff.

Perhaps, though, you beg for the real thing. In that case, we recommend Ultimate Adventures (from Rough Guides) for all your camel-trekking-in-the-Sahara, rock-climbing-at-Joshua-tree, Pacuare-River-rafting needs. Beautiful photography and tantalizing descriptions are coupled with informative “Need to Know” sections that spell out the who-what-when-where-and-how that will help you get your adventure under way.

Also in the exploratory vein, Where to Go When: The Americas, from DK’s Eyewitness Travel, serves as a kind of travel almanac–the kind that makes you wish you were very, very rich with an excess of free time. If that were the case, you’d be spending nine days in May on the Amazon River, spotting pink river dolphins, gorgeous macaws, and darling squirrel monkeys instead of reading this blog right now. Even if you’re not excessively rich with nothing more pressing to do other than trek the Alaskan fjords, The Americas is fun daydreaming material–perhaps the realist response to Vollman’s Seven Dreams. In any case, Ultimate Adventures and The Americas both come out at the end of this summer, giving you plenty of time to plan that awesome adventure getaway for next year.

Summer Reading List: Primer–Beach Reading and School Reading

The end of the Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer, and with it, summer reading. This week Biblioklept will offer up some swell reading suggestions that will both entertain you and make you a better human being (seriously). In advance of that, let’s start with a silly question: just what is “summer reading” and how is it different–or is it different–than any other type of reading?

We’ll divide summer reading into two distinct camps: there’s elective summer reading, which we will henceforth call beach reading (no beach need be involved, as we will soon see), and then there’s the summer reading forced upon young people, henceforth known as the mandatory summer reading list. Let’s look at mandatory reading first, and then quickly dismiss it.

The lists. Oh the lists. We imagine most of our audience has been through the whole mandatory summer reading drill: schlepping around Barnes & Noble (or B. Dalton, back in the day), diligent Mom with said list clutched in hand, the embarrassment of the whole thing summed up in the piles of A Raisin in the Sun and A Separate Peace displayed in the aisles, the sullen look of an emerging sophomore gripping various honeybee-colored editions of Cliff’s Notes, the indignant cries of younger siblings, also forced to read, your never-read copy of My Side of the Mountain foisted upon them. The list seems impossible: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? The Aeneid? Tess of the D’Ubervilles? Christ on crutches! Almost everything else in the bookstore seems doubly alluring by comparison. We want to read what we want to read, not what you tell us we want to read

This isn’t to suggest that a codified summer reading list should be done away with, of course. Summer reading helps to keep young people’s minds engaged during a time when they’d otherwise, let’s face it, consume naught but the cotton candy fare of Grand Theft Auto and Flavor of Love. Without the rigors of summer reading, students would return to school in the fall with their mind-muscled atrophied, puny, impotent. Still, having someone mandate what you should read is never fun. We had to go back years later, on our own, to appreciate much of what was forced upon us in youth.

That said, summer is a fine time to go back to those very lists. Just because you didn’t “get” Don Quixote when you were fifteen (and really, why would you have?) doesn’t mean that you won’t find it hilarious now that you’re older and your frames of reference have so greatly expanded. Ditto Moby-Dick, The Turn of the Screw, Walden, et al. There’s no rule that what we are calling here “beach reads” have to be light and fluffy. Still.

Ideas of just what constitutes beach reading, are, of course varied. But for many of us, beach reading implies a book that we can read on the beach or by the pool or swaying in a hammock in our backyard. Beach reading is a book that we can still follow after three beers on the porch. Beach reading can be trashy and lurid; beach reading can be literary junk food. Beach reading is genre fiction in cheap mass produced paperbacks, the kind of books we’re happy to leave at the condo when we’re through with them. Someone else will find them, digest them along with a blender of margaritas. At the same time, for a lot of us beach reading is the time to play catch up with all those books that have been stacking up in the margins of our homes, neglected, unread. In any case, summer is a time that many of us put renewed energies into pursuing the endangered pastime of reading, and over the next week Biblioklept aims to aid the cause.