postcolonial literature

2017 Reading List #1: Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

Happy New Year! Though we’re already 2 days into 2017, I’m still enjoying my free time of winter break and using it to soak up as much reading/viewing as possible (while balancing my time productively in preparation for a new semester, of course).

My first completed reading project is one I’d been itching to start since receiving it for my birthday—Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. I quickly fell in love with Smith’s writing when I read White Teeth in 2015 and have been slowly accumulating her other works. Swing Time, though, is the only other novel I’ve read by her, having also read The Book of Other People, a short story collection she edited in 2016.

Though Swing Time is a hefty novel that rounds out at 453 pages, it’s quick-moving and easy to read. The story follows an unnamed narrator through her youth, growing up biracial in North London, to her young adulthood as an assistant to an international pop star. Because the story is written by Smith, it’s riddled with complex issues like friendship, identity, feminism, family, and cultural appropriation. Smith’s characteristic ability to address these topics in a true-to-life way is what makes her writing so compelling.

Though I wasn’t quite as charmed by Swing Time as I was by White Teeth—though in fairness the scope of White Teeth is much broader and more complicated—Smith undeniably deserved her place on so many of the “best of” fiction lists at the end of 2016.

Since one of my reading goals in 2017 is to read two novels by Smith, I’ll definitely read On Beauty before the year ends, and I having a feeling The Autograph Man might find its way onto my reading list too.

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Books I Read in 2015

I’ve been a bit all over the place with my reading the last two years. In 2013, I set a goal of reading 40 books and beat it, and in 2014, I seriously surpassed my goal of reading 52 books by reading 91 (my numbers have been greatly bolstered by reading plays, in case you were wondering).

Since I’m in an English Literature graduate program, I obviously do plenty of reading, but I think I went back to my goal of 50 books in 2015. Though this number might be a bit low based on 2014’s results, I stay plenty busy with my school reading and don’t always have lots of time for recreational reading. I ended up exceeding that goal by reading 69 books in 2015, an achievement I’m pretty proud of. Here’s my full list of reading from 2015–for reference, the titles listed in bold are those I particularly enjoyed.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  2. Live From New York, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
  3. Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan
  4. Looking for Alaska, John Green
  5. Sanctuary, William Faulkner
  6. It’s Only A Play, Terrence McNally
  7. Brother to Dragons, Robert Penn Warren
  8. On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
  9. Paddle Your Own Canoe, Nick Offerman
  10. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, William Inge
  11. Come Back, Little Sheba, William Inge
  12. Bus Stop, William Inge
  13. The Basic Eight, Daniel Handler
  14. Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell
  15. My Ideal Bookshelf, Jane Mount and Thessaly la Force
  16. Fallen Too Far, Abbi Glines
  17. Wait for You, J. Lynn
  18. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
  19. Dead as a Doornail, Charlaine Harris
  20. In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway
  21. Child of God, Cormac McCarthy
  22. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  23. Love, Rosie, Cecelia Ahern
  24. Airships, Barry Hannah
  25. Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley
  26. The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
  27. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  28. Joe, Larry Brown
  29. Wolf Whistle, Lewis Nordan
  30. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
  31. Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
  32. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews
  33. In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume
  34. Angels in America Part One: Millennium ApproachesTony Kushner
  35. Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika, Tony Kushner
  36. The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
  37. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling
  38. Quidditch Through the Ages, J.K. Rowling
  39. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  40. Paper Towns, John Green
  41. White Teeth, Zadie Smith
  42. Shame, Salman Rushdie
  43. Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
  44. The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
  45. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
  46. Vita Nuova, Dante Alighieri
  47. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  48. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  49. Dragonfly in AmberDiana Gabaldon
  50. We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  51. Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih
  52. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Aimé Césaire
  53. Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Alighieri
  54. After the Fall, Arthur Miller
  55. Murder in Retrospect, Agatha Christie
  56. Divine Comedy Vol. II: Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri
  57. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloeckner
  58. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington
  59. Divine Comedy Vol. III: Paradiso, Dante Alighieri
  60. The Grownup, Gillian Flynn
  61. Me Before You, Jojo Moyes
  62. The Book of Mormon, Trey Parker and Matt Stone
  63. Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
  64. Dracula, Bram Stoker
  65. Doctor Sleep, Stephen King
  66. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne
  67. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  68. The Cripple of Inishmaan, Martin McDonagh

Book #58: Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, by Doris Pilkington

Another book crossed off the reading list this weekend! Making progress sure does feel good.

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence was a book I stumbled upon in a quest to find a book dealing with colonial issues in Australia for my postcolonial literature class. I was vaguely familiar with the story because I saw the film adaptation when it came out more than a decade ago, but I was interested to delve into the story with a fresh perspective.

Though this book tells an incredible story, the writing leaves something to be desired. Pilkington tells the story of her mother and two aunts who, as the half-caste daughters of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers, were taken away from their homes to a native settlement where they could be educated under a Western (and white) system. Molly, Gracie, and Daisy were ages 14, 11, and 8 when they were taken from their homes, but after spending a few days at the settlement, decided to escape and walk back to their home across Australia.

Needless to say, the book casts light on some pretty disturbing facts of colonial Australia, but my biggest issue was that I didn’t think the writing matched up to the gravity of the story itself. Pilkington takes a storytelling approach to this true tale, so it reads more like a narrative than a true story. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but I felt like it demeaned a bit of the importance of this journey. Pilkington tries to cram Australia’s colonial history into the book before she begins her family’s story, and it all feels a bit rushed and superficial.

After reading the book, though, I would be interested to watched the film again for comparison. While I’m not in love with the book, I was thankful for the perspective on a section of colonial history I know very little about.

Book #48: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Three weeks into the semester and things are up and running. I’m at a point where I’m reading at least one book a week, trudging my way through The Divine Comedy, and filling all the other time with “scholarly” reading and drafting new sections of my thesis.

Suffice it to say that I have no shortage of assignments to occupy my time.

This weekend’s reading was Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart. I first read this novel as a high school sophomore seven years ago (yeesh!) in an AP World History class, so I was glad to have the chance to reread it from a literary perspective. I remember feeling like Things Fall Apart was one of the first pieces of “real literature” I’d ever read because it exposed me to the type of tragic ending that’s exemplary of so many classic literary works.

This time around I was less enthusiastic about the book. Achebe’s writing is perhaps deceptively easy to understand, but I felt bored by the narrative structure. There’s hardly any style to his writing, so it feels like someone sharing a fairly straightforward account of some stuff that happened in a tribe in Niger around the turn of the 20th century. The novel is also incredibly sexist and I don’t (yet) know enough about Achebe to know if that’s reflective of his personal opinions, but it made it difficult for me to have much sympathy for Okonkwo as a protagonist.

To me, the strongest part of the novel is Part III, when white colonists begin to invade the lives of the indigenous peoples and attempt to spread Christianity. What begins as a respectable cause turns quickly as both sides become violent. This section feels like the only time we see actions of major consequence, and I wish it encompassed a larger part of the book’s action.

So, though I have mixed feelings about this novel, I don’t have to spend much more time thinking about it. Now I’m on to the next one.

Book #43: Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee

I’m pretty proud of my reading speed in recent days.

Today I finished my third book in one week’s time. All three of these books happen to be required reading for one of my classes this semester, so the fact that I’ve gotten ahead before the semester begins is just icing on the cake.

I skipped a blog post for Book #42 on my 2015 reading list, which was Salman Rushdie’s Shame. In all honesty, I didn’t write anything about it because I don’t know what to write. I finished the book yesterday afternoon, but my thoughts on it are muddled. Shame was my first encounter with Rushdie, so I’m hoping some class discussions this fall will enlighten me on the subject.

Now to the book at hand: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (you might notice that with titles like Shame and Disgrace the readings for this class don’t exactly sound uplifting). This was also my first reading of Coetzee, and stylistically, it’s one that’s made me interested in reading more of his works.

My roommate read Disgrace in recent weeks because he’s also taking this class, and told me he had mixed feelings about it. I believe his exact words were something along the lines of “whiny white people,” which certainly isn’t ideal reading, and not the most enticing introduction when I started reading the book last night.

Ryan definitely wasn’t wrong in his assessment of the book. At first, I was a bit amused by David Lurie, the novel’s (anti-) hero. Lurie is a 52-year-old Communications professor at a university in South Africa. He’s far more interested in high brow entertainment than his mediocre students. But then Lurie becomes obsessed with a young female student, luring her into his home for an affair that she only seems to tolerate.

By chapter 2, I was already repulsed by Lurie — I even scribbled “you’re gross” in the margins on page 12. He feels entitled to the affections of his student, or perhaps any female he deems worthy of his love. I was most disgusted by the following interaction, when Lurie tries to convince the girl she must spend the night with him: “A woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”

As much as I hated the sentiment in this statement, I ended up feeling more compassionate toward Lurie than I ever imagined. Lurie ends up staying with his daughter in her rural home temporarily, and the two of them fall victim to a horrendous act of violence that carries the weight of the racial tension in South Africa. Though Lurie largely remains self-obsessed, his eyes are opened a bit to the world around him and his humanity comes through by the book’s end.

The hardest part of reading this book with a terribly flawed protagonist is separating him from his creator. Ryan mentioned this to me when he read the book, saying it was hard to tell if the sentiments expressed were those of the characters or Coetzee himself. On my copy of the book, Coetzee’s image is featured on the back cover next to the blurb, so I found it especially difficult to see the character as anyone else. Maybe this was intentional, but I’d like to imagine Coetzee is a better man than his character. I guess I’ll have to do some further reading to find out.

Book #41: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

Being productive is a wonderful feeling. Just moments ago, I finished reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, marking the first book I’ve read toward the upcoming semester’s reading list. I’m happy to report that I made a good decision in starting with a smart, funny, thoroughly entertaining novel.

White Teeth was already on my tentative reading list for 2015, so the fact that it ended up being an assigned text for a World Lit class I’m taking this fall worked nicely with my life plans. I went into reading White Teeth with very little knowledge of what it was about; I knew this was Smith’s first novel, took place primarily between the 1970s and 1990s in London, and was apparently funny. All good things, I suppose.

Turns out, the book is divided into four sections that shift focus among a pretty large ensemble of characters. We start with Archibald and Samad, friends since they served together in World War II, and then quickly branch out to meet their families over the course of several years. The book is full of culture clash, featuring characters of various racial, cultural, religious, and economical, and sexual backgrounds. Needless to say, this book leaves readers with a lot to think about.

Despite the complexity of the characters and story, White Teeth is an easy-to-read, funny book. Smith is able to write in a way that is eloquent and thought-provoking without ever being unapproachable. To me, this is an incredible and rare talent that makes me all the more interested in reading more of Smith’s works.

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Side note: another of the things I knew related to this book before reading it was that there’s an English miniseries adaptation of the novel. I did a presentation on adaptation for a class last fall, and the book I read on the subject had lots of discussion with Smith about her perceptions of the visual adaptation of her work. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to watch it yet, but I have high hopes of doing so sometime soon.