July 2008


Kitchen window with pumpkin
Photo by annafdd used under a Creative Commons license.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth (Random House, 2000).
Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal served together in the British Army in World War II; both then started families in North London. Archie married a Jamaican, escaped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad, a Bangladeshi, marries Alsana, who mothers twin sons, Millat and Magid. Smith’s novel is the story of the two families, picked up in the 1970s and carried forward. Smith paints a panorama, not a snapshot, and she has thought about race, class, sex, and other Big Issues, though she writes with a light touch. Call it an immigrant novel or a postcolonial novel if you will. The action ranges from Jamaica to Bengal, but always revolves around North London.

Here is Smith’s bio on Wikipedia. Maria Russo (Salon) profiles Smith. The publisher posts this interview and this excerpt. PBS posts this interview. Here’s an interview with Kathleen O’Grady of Concordia in Montreal. Or listen to this interview on NPR. At The Believer, Smith talked with Ian McEwan. Liam Sullivan calls it epic and ambitious but flawed. Bonnie (BlogCritics) calls it a whirlwind exploration of immigration and multiculturalism. Dan Schneider says it’s a horrendously bad book. Another who didn’t like it is lurgee. Travis Mamone says it lives up to the hype. Eithne Farry, a Jehovah’s Witness, says it has undeniable bite. Ben Welch (Flak Magazine) calls a thick, sweeping novel in the grand tradition of the epic (there’s that word again). Daneet Steffens (Entertainment Weekly) calls it a comic, canny, sprawling tale. Bob Graham (San Francisco Chronicle) wonders what the title means. Amy likes how Smith uses imagery of teeth. Maria Russo (Salon) says Smith’s London is a place that makes you marvel. Eileen Frost says it’s perfectly wonderful and often funny. Hari Kunzru talks about Willesden, where the novel is set. Nat JM says the novel breathes London. James Johnson read it in Haiti. Horace Jeffrey Hodges passes along an anecdote about the possible inspiration for Iqbal. Here is Google BookSearch on a reader guide by Claire Squires. And, finally, Laila Lalami says no one needs another review of it.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

2x poplars
Photo of the Yukon by nordicshutter used under a Creative Commons license.

Jill Fredston, Rowing to Latitude (North Point Press, 2001).
Fredston is an avalanche expert who lives near Anchorage nine months out of the year; for the other three months, she and her husband take long-distance trips in oceangoing rowing shells in colder climes. This book is the story of 20,000 miles of kayaking along the coasts of British Columbia, Alaska, Yukon, Greenland, Labrador, and Norway, with a little of Sweden and Washington thrown in for good measure. Oh, she rowed 2,000 miles down the Yukon River to the Bering Strait, and before she reached the Yukon coast on that other trip she rowed down hundreds of miles down the Mackenzie River from Hay River, Northwest Territories. For those of us who dream about such trips but likely will never feather an oar in those waters, Fredston’s book is a wonderful opportunity to row vicariously — a better way to experience the tedium, mosquitoes, and bears. The book won a 2002 National Outdoor Book Award.

Here (scroll down) is Fredston’s bio at the National Avalanche School. You’ll find an excerpt here. Philip Johns says it’s a tremendous book. Dana De Zoysa says Fredston writes rings around mass-market travel scribblers (whomever they may be). Judyth Willis particularly likes Fredston’s connection with the coasts of Yukon and Labrador. David would reread it in a heartbeat. Carol Standish is glad that it’s not a sloppy paean to nature. KiwiBird appreciates Fredston’s thoughts about what’s truly wild (and she should know). Brian Handwerk (National Geographic) picks up on the same theme. Sarah Sammis says it’s one of the best books she’s ever read. It’s Katie Lindsay’s favorite travel writing book (or was in 2004). Karen Karbo (The New York Times) focuses on Fredston’s husband. Gavin J. Grant interviewed Fredston.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

m e r e s t r æ t
Photo by -Proserpina used under a Creative Commons license.

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (Penguin, 1988).
A classic of travel writing, a mix of what Chatwin saw in Patagonia and the fruits of his research about the area. Well worth reading in any event, but certainly for anyone heading to that part of the world. Chatwin ought not be mistaken for a historian or a travel guide, as he is fond of tall tales and anecdotes, but all that is part of the charm.  (Notwithstanding, I’ve tagged it as non-fiction.)

Here is a preview at Google BookSearch. Chatwin’s entry on Wikipedia is reasonably detailed. The New York Times ran this obituary for him. Here is a site devoted to Chatwin. The BBC offers this introduction to his life and works. Scott Esposito says Chatwin’s Patagonia has a cultural history consistingly largely of madmen, dreamers, and everyday eccentrics. Ted Mahsun says Chatwin tells a great story. Mike Gerrard read the manuscript. Edward Pickering recommends it. Perrin Lindelauf was unsatisfied. Bs As Theo sees embellishment. Rolf Potts relays thoughts about Chatwin’s fabrications. Terry considered links between Chatwin and W.G. Sebald. As Daniel Buck describes, Adrian Giminez Hutton retraced Chatwin’s path. And Nick Clapson considers Chatwin’s enduring appeal.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

En memoria
Photo by gotto78 used under a Creative Commons license.

Patricia Verdugo, Chile, Pinochet, and the Caravan of Death, (University of Miami, North/South Center Press, 2001).
Writing in Salon’s Literary Guide to the World
, Ariel Dorfman says:

The Pinochet years have, in fact, spawned a plethora of incisive books. If I had to choose one to take on a journey into the bitter heart of Chile’s oppression, it would be [this book]. The story of the extrajudicial execution of a group of prisoners in the north of the country is paced like a thriller, as the author, a fearless journalist, struggles to unravel not only the transgressions of the army but also the ways in which the military fruitlessly attempted to cover up its crimes.

It was originally published in 1989 under the title Los Zarpazos del Puma (The Claws of the Puma).

Verdugo died earlier this year; via Tomas Dinges, here is her obituary in the Guardian. She outlasted Pinochet. Reviewing the book in Latin American Politics and Society, Anthony W. Pereira says this is a meticulous yet gripping account, a fascinating study of the consolidation of power within a dictatorship, the use of violence for political ends, and the tension within the military between the norms of military honor and the perceived need of coup leaders to concentrate power. Here is more on the Caravan of Death.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Camel in the Simpson Desert
Photo by Markus Staas used under a Creative Commons license.

Robyn Davidson, Tracks (Vintage, 1995).
In 1977, after two years of training camels, Davidson set out to walk from the vicinity of Alice Springs, in heart of Australia, across the outback 1,700 miles to the Indian Ocean, which she found south of Carnarvon, W.A. She did this alone, but for her dog Diggity and four camels, and this is her story. The desert’s solitude appealed to Davidson, and to others as well — when she accepted financial support from National Geographic, she shared her trek with others. Lucky for us: the popularity of the magazine’s coverage prompted her to write this book.

Here are some passages. Sarah Ferrell (The New York Times) says the book is much more than the usual descriptions of obstacles met and surmounted. Tim Forcer liked the book but was disappointed by its relative lack of naturism. Susan Wyndham wondered if Davidson was mad. karen said it was just OK. Bobby Matherne reviewed it. This reading group guide is probably of more use to those who have read the book. You can listen to this 2006 interview with Davidson. This page explains how to listen to another interview with Davidson hosted by the National Museum of Australia.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Bungy Jump
Photo of Queenstown by Kinho Pizzato used under a Creative Commons license.

Marion McLeod & Bill Manhire, eds., Some Other Country (Bridget Williams Books, 1997).
An anthology of short stories from New Zealand. The earliest story here is “At the Bay,” by Katherine Mansfield (1922), and other well-known authors here include Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson, but the collection is weighted to more recent stories. Maori authors here include Witi Ihimaera, Janet Frame and Keri Hulme (and of course there’s no shortage of Pākehā authors).

This book has little internet presence, alas. Here’s a list of New Zealand short story writers from the Christchurch City Libraries. Here is a long profile of Katherine Mansfield. Alan K. Grant says there are only six kinds of New Zealand short stories. Despite its name, this YouTube clip doesn’t have anything to do with the book.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Double Negative
Photo of Double Negative, by Michael Heizer, by Chris Fullmer used under a Creative Commons license.

William L. Fox, The Void, the Grid & the Sign (University of Utah, 2000).
Three perspectives on the Great Basin. The first section, “The Void,” considers the sculpture of artist Michael Heizer, including City, an immense project in the Nevada desert he has been working on since 1970. Fox is interested in how this work sheds light on people’s reactions to large, empty spaces. The second section, “The Grid,” traces the evolution of cartography and the exploration of the Great Basin. The last section, “The Sign,” examines language and meaning, from petroglyphs to the neon of Las Vegas. Fox acknowledges the influence of Rebecca Solnit, and those who appreciate her work might do well to check out this book.

Fox’s web site has biographical information and more. Google Book Search offers a preview. This survey of desert writing by Scott Slovic calls Fox one of the major writers of the Great Basin landscape at the turn of the twenty-first century. Here is a website about Michael Heizer, with more about City.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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