Books on GIF #38 — 'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith
|Books on GIF||Mar 26, 2017|
Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.
This Sunday's book is 'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith.
This is a fantastic book. FANTASTIC. It's beautifully written. It's funny. It's about so many things, including immigration, identity, family, raising children, white privilege, history, racism, colonialism, religion, war, science, teeth (they are heavily symbolic), growing up and how we all fit into a diverse world. As I read and reflected on it, I couldn't help but think of this guy:
And this issue:
And the recent terror attack in London, where the book is set. I was like:
'White Teeth' starts with a man trying to kill himself. Archie Jones is in a failed marriage, he has a job as a paper folder (yes, someone who folds paper), and he has seen life mostly pass him by in the 30 years since he served in World War II. He decides to gas himself to death with carbon monoxide from his car's tailpipe. But he's saved, and in that moment he opts to:
First thing he does is crash a new year's party, which is where he meets his future second wife: a Jamaican woman named Clara, who's almost 30 years his junior. And then readers meet Samad, Archie's war buddy from Bangladesh, who bursts into this story like:
Samad is worried about many things, particularly his soul. He wants to be a good Muslim and to have a good Muslim family, but not because he's particularly devout. In fact, he's a hypocrite. Samad enjoys drinking at the pub with Archie and has an affair with a school teacher, but he's terrified that his children will lose their traditions and be irredeemably tainted by the West. In fairness, this was in the 1980s, when weird stuff was on TV:
So, Samad kidnaps one of his twin sons, 8-year-old Magid, and sends him to Bangladesh to be raised in what he believes is a proper and traditional society. Once this happens, the book shifts its focus away from Archie and Samad and onto their children: Archie and Clara's daughter, Irie, and Samad and his wife's remaining son, Millat. The scenes of Irie and Millat as teens tangling with the pressures of adolescence, assimilation, racism, tradition and white privilege are some of the best in the book. In one, Irie tries to straighten her hair to be more attractive, but ends up burning most of it off. In another, Millat and his band of juvenile delinquents burn copies of a book like Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." When he returns home, he finds his mother has set fire to his Beastie Boys and Public Enemy memorabilia.
And when the two get busted for smoking marijuana, they avoid punishment by being sent by school authorities to a white family, the Chalfens, for extracurricular studies. The Chalfens are parents of Irie and Millat's classmate. They are believed to have better jobs (dad's a scientist and mom's a horticulturalist) and temperaments to exert a more positive influence on the pair than they're getting in their own homes. This sets off a whole new set of emotions and problems as the Chalfens exert their influence on the children. Things come to a head when Magid returns.
'White Teeth' includes a story about how immigrant families struggle in menial jobs like working in restaurants or doing seamstress work (like my grandmother did) to give their children a better life, while being apprehensive about what that future entails. It includes a tale of how white people can think they're being helpful when they're not. It also describes what forces can drive a young man to commit an act of terror. And this book was written before 9/11! It does all this all with a mix of humor and life affirmation that does not dilute its stern warnings. This book is not only a great achievement of literature, but also of political and social commentary. Read this book. Give it to your liberal friends. Give it to your Trumpian friends. This is a book everyone can learn from.
'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith was originally published in 2000 by Hamish Hamilton in Great Britain and by Random House in the United States. It was subsequently published by Vintage in 2001. 448 pages.
What's next?In the coming weeks I'll review 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe, 'Crossing to Safety' by Wallace Stegner and 'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!