Saturday, February 25, 2006

White Teeth: Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith wrote her debut novel, White Teeth, when she was 23. It is utterly brilliant, telling the story of an English-Jamaican family, a Bangladeshi Muslim family, and an utterly English family over a span of 30 years or so.

Zadie Smith's main strength is in her character development: her characters are amazingly well fleshed-out and variegated. The novel could have been shorter by about a third and even more entertaining, but it almost seemed like she had to include a couple of characters and had to give them enough room.

Her other strength lies in describing high-schoolers. Rushdie or anyone else can't even come close to her when she starts describing high-school life in England in the 80s: unbelievably funny and vivid. As a 23-year-old, the experience was obviously still quite fresh for her.

She makes a few goof-ups: she never explains why Hindu Mangal Pandey has a staunchly Muslim great-great-grandson who is utterly devoted to his saga. The novel could have ended a couple of hundred pages sooner, and it would still have worked as well. Her plot development is a bit thin also - I need to check out her newer books to see if that still remains the case.

There is a lot to love about this book: the characters, the milieu, the inter-cultural and intra-cultural humor... Undoubtedly a must-read.

I enjoyed it as an audio-book because the narrator - Jenny Sterlin, I think - was utterly awesome and could do excellent Jamaican, desi and English accents.


Mystery writing

Someone on KQED's Forum said a few weeks back that she switched to writing mystery stories when she saw that it pays more to be a mediocre mystery writer, than a good writer in other genres. Mysteries are popular, the Santa Clara City Library has Mystery section almost as large as the Fiction section!

The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler

Since I've gotten so interested in mystery stories again, Mandar recommended Raymond Chandler. I'd always been planning to read Chandler's stories but I never got around to it. Finally I went to the library and got The Big Sleep. Set in the Los Angeles of 1930s, it is a short, fast-paced crime novel with an attitude. I got an edition that is a photographic novel, so there are about 40 photographs accompanying the story which definitely makes the book more interesting.

The book itself is fun, especially since it's set in SoCal and has a very colorful cast of villains. I didn't quite enjoy the writing style as much - the sentences were terse and abrupt, as if written by a laconic cop or dock-worker. The joy of reading a mystery is that you can stop from time to time and use the data you have to try and figure out whodunnit. In this book, you feel like you have no data at all. So why bother...


An Unsuitable Job for a Woman: PD James

Like a reviewer said, this is not just a whodunnit but a whydunnit too. Moreover, the best part comes after the mystery is resolved. The detective is a 22-year-old woman, a rookie private eye. Commander Dalgleish, the protagonist in most PD James mysteries, also pops up from time to time.

PD James is a British crime writer, but her stories are more like novels (according to Wikipedia). I second that: this book has some excellent descriptions of Cambridge and UK in the 70s.


Lord of the Flies: Book Review

Lately, I've almost exclusively been reading the Old Masters and the classics. My modest goal: I want to have at least read everything a high-schooler is supposed to read.

"Lord of the Flies" is essential reading for school kids not just in the US, but also in Germany and probably many other countries. It's a wonderful book - simple, dark and stark.

A short summary from

William Golding's classic tale about a group of English schoolboys who are plane-wrecked on a deserted island is just as chilling and relevant today as when it was first published in 1954. At first, the stranded boys cooperate, attempting to gather food, make shelters, and maintain signal fires. Overseeing their efforts are Ralph, "the boy with fair hair," and Piggy, Ralph's chubby, wisdom-dispensing sidekick whose thick spectacles come in handy for lighting fires. Although Ralph tries to impose order and delegate responsibility, there are many in their number who would rather swim, play, or hunt the island's wild pig population. Soon Ralph's rules are being ignored or challenged outright. His fiercest antagonist is Jack, the redheaded leader of the pig hunters, who manages to lure away many of the boys to join his band of painted savages. The situation deteriorates as the trappings of civilization continue to fall away, until Ralph discovers that instead of being hunters, he and Piggy have become the hunted: "He forgot his words, his hunger and thirst, and became fear; hopeless fear on flying feet." Golding's gripping novel explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of adolescent competition.

What I like about the book is that even in its darkness, it is not quite Orwellian. Even though things go totally out of control in the story, you can always go back and see how a couple of tweaks here and there in the 'system' could have led us back to 'civilized society' as we know it.

Silly as it sounds, the only reason I hadn't read this book until now was because of its name. "Lord of the Flies" - what the hell is that... especially compared to "Lord of the Rings."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The diamond wasn't always forever

The Atlantic Monthly (via Boing Boing) has an interesting story on the story of the diamond:

An excerpt:
In its 1947 strategy plan, the advertising agency strongly emphasized a psychological approach. "We are dealing with a problem in mass psychology. We seek to ... strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring -- to make it a psychological necessity capable of competing successfully at the retail level with utility goods and services...." It defined as its target audience "some 70 million people 15 years and over whose opinion we hope to influence in support of our objectives." N. W. Ayer outlined a subtle program that included arranging for lecturers to visit high schools across the country. "All of these lectures revolve around the diamond engagement ring, and are reaching thousands of girls in their assemblies, classes and informal meetings in our leading educational institutions," the agency explained in a memorandum to De Beers. The agency had organized, in 1946, a weekly service called "Hollywood Personalities," which provided 125 leading newspapers with descriptions of the diamonds worn by movie stars. And it continued its efforts to encourage news coverage of celebrities displaying diamond rings as symbols of romantic involvement. In 1947, the agency commissioned a series of portraits of "engaged socialites." The idea was to create prestigious "role models" for the poorer middle-class wage-earners. The advertising agency explained, in its 1948 strategy paper, "We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer's wife and the mechanic's sweetheart say 'I wish I had what she has.'"

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