May’s book: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

This month’s theme was “addictive books”. So many amazing choices, but this is the one who narrowly pipped The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

On New Year’s morning, 1975, Archie Jones sits in his car on a London road and waits for the exhaust fumes to fill his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon. Archie—working-class, ordinary, a failed marriage under his belt—is calling it quits, the deciding factor being the flip of a 20-pence coin. When the owner of a nearby halal butcher shop (annoyed that Archie’s car is blocking his delivery area) comes out and bangs on the window, he gives Archie another chance at life and sets in motion this richly imagined, uproariously funny novel.

Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie’s best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for “no problem”). Samad —devoutly Muslim, hopelessly “foreign”— weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire’s worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.

The other choices for this month were:

  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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April’s meeting

A slightly smaller group than normal braved the unseasonably cold April weather (what happened to our lovely sun?) at Le Lacustre to discuss Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Bliken).

With so many wonderful books on the list for “Pseudonyms” it seems we picked the best of the bunch. The book had an average score of 7.8 with most, bar one, loving the novel.

For their initial assessment, the group found the book “quaint”, “calm”, “full of light”, and “astounding”. One member of the group described the book as like being told a story by an old friend. Another developed a new-found love for Kenya. For all this, the group felt that the book sometimes lacked emotion and that the book was ultimately about failure and therefore not a fun read (despite the beauty of the language).

We started our discussion talking about language. Blixen, of course, was Danish, and yet decided to write Out of Africa in English. The group felt that as the book was written as a tribute to those she knew and loved in Africa, writing in her native language may have restricted the readership. The slightly more cynical in the group reminded us that Blixen was a businesswoman. Scandi-dramas weren’t as popular as they are now so writing in English made financial sense. Interesting fact of the discussion, Blixen refused to get the book translated by someone else – she wrote the Danish version too.

We moved onto feminism. Was the book a feminist novel? Some felt because male figures (aside from Farah) were significantly absent from the novel (Bror isn’t mentioned at all, Denys has a passing cameo) that Blixen wanted to highlight the fact that she was striving for equality. However, since she didn’t write the novel to empower women, it was also argued that it couldn’t be a feminist novel – it had no agenda behind it.

Denys came up in conversation – unsurprisingly. Why was he so absent from the novel? Was it because she was married? Was it because the affair (alleged affair) wasn’t relevant to the story that she left him out? Was it because she was still hurt by his death and didn’t want to dwell on it? As one member succinctly put it:

The book’s called “Out of Africa” not “Out of Denys”

Well, quite.

I admit, it was at this point that I stopped taking notes. Conversations, debates, and “discussions” moved to the question of Karen’s staff. Was it right that she had staff? Did they feel shamed by their role? Did she treat them badly? Why did she refer to them as natives? Why were they “squatters” when originally her land was theirs?

The group had many views, opinions, and experiences around these questions and, because I don’t have time to write a dissertation, I’m not going to go through them all now. Suffice it to say, some of the club who had lived in colonies and ex-colonies (Kenya, Australia, Philippines etc) took the view that having staff is perfectly normal. Others who hadn’t experienced it before, found the idea of staff a little more difficult to comprehend.

All in all, an interesting conversation with a healthy variety of viewpoints – something that bookclub is all about.

Until next month, bookclubbers.

P.S. For those of you who want to get into Scandi-drama, try the following





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