From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
Almost as an afterthought to the 2012 Olympic Games in London come two new novels by a pair of prominent British writers committed to revealing the messy modern city hidden behind postcard images of the Thames, Tower Bridge, and Big Ben.
Zadie Smith’s NW
The more optimistic of these two fictional exposés belongs to Zadie Smith. NW (named for the geographical section of London where the novel is set) gives us a picture of a down-and-out London neighborhood through the eyes of two childhood friends: Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake.
The former, a Caucasian of Irish descent married to a devoted French Algerian hairdresser, spends her days in existential stasis working a menial community job and bumming pot off her neighbor. The latter, a black Caribbean who changes her name midway through the novel to Natalie, has pulled herself up through the educational system to become a lawyer and achieve the veritable “perfect life” of which her best friend is so envious.
In short, we have a story of the Haves and the Have Nots, each of whom thinks the other is living the more fulfilled (read: less boring) life. It’s a simple story told in a complicated manner: fragmented chapters, stream of consciousness prose and chat room slang. There’s a lengthy episode devoted to Felix, a Jamaican man from a troubled background whose attempt to change his life is shattered by a late-night confrontation; there’s also the occasional appearance by Leah’s childhood crush, Nathan Bogle, a drug addict and symbol of the bottom rung of the socio-cultural ladder.
As chaotic as the storytelling can get at times (after all, one reader’s experimental prose is another reader’s head-scratching mess), the beating heart of NW is the complicated friendship between these two women; the middle section of the novel, told in the aforementioned fragments, is a masterful, impressionist rendering of the two women’s lives from childhood up through college and on to adulthood and all its attendant problems. And the novel’s deft dialogue and its sharp eye for the cultural mélange of modern life, hallmarks of Smith’s prose, are frequently on display here.
One only wishes that, for all its engagement, NW left us with something a little more spectacular or memorable. Instead, Smith’s vision of London as a beautiful, complex mess of ethnicities and intentions — while certainly worth looking it — doesn’t leave us shaken or challenged. Instead, it just feels like any other day in a 21st-Century city.
Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England
The dog-kicking, stomach-stabbing reprobates who flit in and out of NW take center stage in Martin Amis‘ Lionel Asbo: State of England, the story of one cultural degenerate’s rise to the top of the social heap. And subsequent fall back to the bottom.
Taking his surname from the legal acronym for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, Lionel is a larger-than-life sociopath who spends his days and nights training his attack dogs (by feeding them beer and Tabasco sauce), reading the sleazy rag of a local newspaper, getting in bar fights, stealing property, and possibly even committing murder. He spends so much time in jail that it’s just a diversion for him. It’s during one of these excursions in the British penal system that he winds up winning almost 140 million pounds in the lottery.
What happens then? Lionel skyrockets to fame. He moves out of his tenement tower (where he lives with his ward and nephew, Desmond Pepperdine), lives the high life along with other wasted celebrities (one exceptional episode involves Lionel struggling his way through a fancy lobster dinner), and falls in “love” with the performance artist and poet “Threnody.” Meanwhile, his nephew slowly emerges from under his uncle’s monstrous shadow and builds a career as a journalist and a life with his wife, Dawn, and their infant daughter, Cilla.
Lionel Asbo is a Martin Amis novel, so over-the-top events (including a sub-plot involving Desmond’s incestuous relationship with his grandmother) and bold characterizations are par for the course. It’s a fun and amusing read, even though its views on celebrity culture and the media’s obsession with fame and crime aren’t anything new. Perhaps what’s most surprising is that, despise the forcefulness of the novel’s subtitle, it’s a bit wrong. The media’s rabid obsession with deviant behavior and Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame–these aren’t just England’s problems. They’re the modern West’s problems.
From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
Fall seems to be the Oscar season of literature: a season packed with books by big-name authors commonly associated with the best that modern writing has to offer. And 2012 is no different. There’s a lot to choose from, folks. And this is only a small sampling of what’ll be hitting bookshelves in September, October, and November.
Whatever you hope to read, plan accordingly, fellow bookworms. It’s going to be a busy season.
“NW” by Zadie Smith (September 4)
Smith’s first novel in years is another multifaceted and multicultural look at contemporary London – this time through the eyes of four residents of an urban corner of the city.
“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon (September 11)
Chabon foregoes comic book heroes for a more down-to-earth look at the struggles of a fictional used record story in the author’s stomping grounds of Berkeley and Oakland, CA.
“This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz (September 11)
The second short story collection by the author of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” promises touching and haunting stories about the problems of love and romance.
“Joseph Anton: A Memoir” by Salman Rushdie (September 18)
This highly anticipated memoir covers the popular author’s years in hiding during the infamous Iranian fatwa on his life between 1989 and 1999 (the title comes from one of the author’s aliases). (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)
“The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling (September 27)
J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel focuses on one of the least magical subjects of all: political battles between the citizens of a small English town.
“The Twelve” by Justin Cronin (October 16)
The second in a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by bloodsucking monsters, “The Twelve” finds a band of survivors tracking down twelve specific “virals” whose death could save humanity. (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)
“Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture” by Daniel Mendelsohn (October 16)
This latest collection of essays by classicist and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn features insightful commentary on Greek poetry, Broadway musicals, blockbuster films, and even “Mad Men.”
“The Fifty Year Sword” by Mark Z. Danielewski (October 16)
Expect postmodern wizardry, typographical experimentation, and head-scratching befuddlement from Danielewki’s horror story about a woman’s 50th birthday party.
“Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe (October 23)
Having eviscerated college culture in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” new journalist and social novelist Tom Wolfe is back with an equally expansive investigation of life at all levels of Miami society.
“Both Flesh and Not: Essays” by David Foster Wallace (November 6)
This posthumous collection brings us the novelist and essayist’s hyperanalytical thoughts on everything from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” to tennis phenom Roger Federer.
“Dear Life” by Alice Munro (November 13)
A new collection of Alice Munro’s short stories – always quiet, meditative, and heartfelt, and restorative – may be just the thing to curl up to as the weather gets chillier.
“Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan (November 13)
McEwan’s latest novel is a Cold War thriller set in 1970s England that blends the holy trinity of an interesting read: sex, espionage–and literature. (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)
“Woes of the True Policeman” by Roberto Bolaño (November 13)
The posthumous publications by the Chilean writer keep on coming; this one follows the wanderings of an academic from Bolaño’s grand epic, “2666” in a remote border town.
Still not sure which books are worth investing your hard-earned time and money? Look for reviews of many of them in the coming weeks. Any other books coming out in the next few months you think your fellow Borderstan neighbors should read? Let us know in the comments section below.
From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
End-of-summer reading suggestions for the indoor and outdoor crowd.
August is finally here, which means there is only one true month left in the summer. It’s a depressing time for those of us who live for beaches, barbecues and rooftop pools. And for those of us with hyperactive sweat glands, summer’s impending end arrives with all the pomp and circumstance of last week’s Olympic opening ceremony.
But whether you’re of the indoor or outdoor variety, summer is also that time of year where it seems more socially acceptable to be caught in public with a book; where it seems like reading new books, or catching up on books you haven’t finished, is much higher on everyone’s to-do list.
So if you’re looking to fit one last book into your summer reading schedule, or you’re curious about trying something different during the month of August, here are some brief suggestions for books to keep you occupied. The best part: they can be enjoyed just as well while cuddling next to an air-conditioning unit as they can be while lounging outside in DC’s post-apocalyptic summer heat.
Arguably one of the best books of the year thus far, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to her wildly acclaimed Wolf Hall takes us further into the story of Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell. The focus here is on the most infamous chapter in Tudor history: the downfall of Henry VIII’s second wife (of six): Anne Boleyn.
You don’t need to have read the first novel to enjoy Mantel’s stunning prose, which lifts this story up from the muck of dull and dusty historical fiction and transforms it into a fascinating — and fascinatingly poetic — study of court intrigue and political gamesmanship. (Cover Courtesy Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.)
At fewer than 200 pages, calling Toni Morrison’s newest work a novel is quite a stretch. Nevertheless, what Home lacks in page numbers it more than makes up for in emotional heft. In brief, it’s the story of a battle-scarred Korean War veteran traveling (you guessed it) home to Georgia to rescue his sister from the clutches of an abusive, Mengele-like doctor. What makes Morrison’s novel resonate isn’t so much this simple plot as it is the constant flashbacks to the hero’s childhood; flashbacks which, even while beautiful, are tinged with anger and violence. (Cover Courtesy Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
Published in the United States last year, Murakami’s epic novel was just released in a more reader friendly, three-book paperback set. It’s a mysterious, tangled story about a young man and woman trapped in a parallel world similar to the year 1984 (when the novel takes place).
Though at times the plot starts and stops because of underdeveloped writing (that’s also heavy on the similes — an average of one per page), it’s best to think of this beguiling work as the literary equivalent of a David Lynch film, one packed with everything from two moons and private investigators with misshapen heads to mysterious cults and little people that crawl out from the mouths of dead animals and young children. A long and clunky novel, to be sure — but one that’s undeniably addictive in its strangeness. (Cover Courtesy Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
Featured image by Alejandra Owens.
If you’re looking to take your talented knitting skills and Paper Source-endued love for letterpress outside the walls of your apartment, then look no further.
Hello Craft, a local non-profit trade association dedicated to the advancement of independent crafters and the handmade crafting movement, is throwing a launch party to celebrate its new book, “Handmade to Sell: Hello Craft’s Guide to Owning, Running and Growing Your Crafty Biz.”
And what’s more crafty than commemorating a crafting book with craft beers? True to its style, Hello Craft will host its party at Churchkey, 1337 14th Street NW, on July 10 from 6:30to 8:30 pm.
Guests are invited to enjoy some brews, finger foods, author signings and some fun prizes. RSVPs are not required, but are very much encouraged.