This book is as good as its reputation, if not better. This is a generational saga in the best sense of that concept, full of compelling and affecting characters. If you are not British or live in Britain, the book benefits especially from the audio performance, because of all the different accents of all the characters involved. Riotously funny, but also tragic and sad, "White Teeth" is a portrayal of our times, of any big cosmopolitan city where past tradition and the modern world collide in explosive ways.
The book kicks off with a suicide attempt and then flashbacks to World War II to return to a present day London where racial, religious and generational tensions simmer; but its greatness does not reside in its topicality, but in its finely etched character portrayals of 2 families, that of the bengali soldier who fought for the British in World War II, his long suffering but astute wife and their twin sons; and that of Archie, the suicidal soldier from World War II who marries a stunning but toothless beauty from Jamaica, and their sensitive daughter, and let's not forget about the Jehova Witness grandma from Jamaica, and dozens of memorable supporting characters.
Smith takes jabs at the failings and sometimes ridiculous conduct of their characters, but firmly grounded in humanity and compassion (although to tell the truth, most of the men in the book are jerks or idiots), which gives the book a tremendous energy and vitality. Towards the end you fear the plot is heading towards a predictable ending, but fear not, there is a final twist.
Justly acclaimed as one of the great books of the Decade of the 00s, Jenny Sterlin reading is also a tour de force; her voice takes some getting used to at the beginning, but very quickly one is dazzled by the care and precision put into each character's individual voice. A must hear!
After an extensive first third of the book dealing with prehistory to dispel any still possible existing claims of racial superiority between East and West, the book becomes mainly a comparative history between "East" and "West".
Of course this description does not do full justice to the scope and ambition of the author, whose main theory is that progress in history is a product of geography and social development, with one feeding on each other, creating both splendor and collapse; he comes up with an index to measure civilizational development and concludes that there is no foundation for one culture claiming superiority over another.
Mr. Morris wildly overreaches in staking a claim for geography as the main driver of history: he concludes that great men, and culture in general, have played no crucial part in civilization, and that history would have taken pretty much the same course whatever these men or women did: would really history have been the same without Napoleon, George Washington or Isaac Newton? This gives his theory a sometimes disturbingly materialistic and deterministic bent.
His definitions of East and West are highly debatable: since for him culture is not important, he does not make a difference of the split between Christianity and Islam, and sees both as part of the West; obviously, he does not make a big deal of the subsequent schism between Catholics and Protestants. Just look at the huge differences between Europe and the Arab World, or the US and Latin America and the claim that these divergences have not had a major role in shaping history seem wildly unrealistic, .
That said, Mr. Morris is a compelling narrator, and in some cases his arguments are definitely persuasive. The close attention he gives to both the rise of the East and the West provide a much needed balance to existing world histories, and shed light on the interconnectedness of the World starting in Antiquity. His final thoughts are quite dazzling. Well worth a listen.
In the Eighties and Nineties, Robert Stone regularly got into the New York Times Best Books of the Year, including Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise and Outerbrige Reach and although it has been a while since a Stone's book has generated more buzz, his acclaim in those decades as one of the major American writers of his generations is greatly deserved.
A Flag for Sunrise is a triumphant achievement, the Great Central American novel by an American writer, but even calling it that is not doing justice to this dark, riveting work. A Flag for Sunrise is a novel about the shadier, duplicitous nature of modern warfare, and it could well take place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan or Chechnya.
Stone juggles a dozen of desperate and driven character who are caught in the conflict between idealism and realpolitik: a former CIA agent turned scholar who might or might not be still a spy, an idealistic young nun trying to find meaning in a dangerous quest for social justice, a nearly psychotic Coast Guard deserter entangled in arms smuggling and an assortment of dangerous, double crossing and desperate characters, a half mad alcoholic Canadian Priest trying to finish his magnum opus on the meaning of the universe, and a revolution brewing in one of Central America's hot spots at the height of the Cold War. All of this is brilliantly read by Stephen Lang, in an extraordinary performance.
Stone is clearly a master storyteller, with a suspenseful twist at every turn, penetrating character portraits and prose which conveys this hot, dangerous world with bracing, savage beauty.
A major American novel.
One of the greatest epics of World Literature given a fantastic translation and performance by Stanley Lombardo. Although I'm not breaking new ground in commenting this, I was struck by how contemporary "The Iliad" is in its depiction of the ravages and sometimes folly of War. The descriptions of battle are - appropriately - as gruesome as anything in the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan. In a brilliant touch, almost every man killed throughout the story gets his history briefly told in a few lines, which works as a way of putting all these brutal deaths into context. The men who die have families far away who will mourn for them, who will be ruined and devastated by their deaths.
Of course, The Iliad is dominated by the great, legendary characters of Achiles, Hector, Odyseus, Agamemnon, Priamus, Andromache, Paris, Helen, Priamus and Hecuba, among others. Stanley Lombardo translation is fast moving and fast paced, and invariably suspenseful, which makes a great service to the modern reader/listener in illuminating the way War has played a crucial role in human history.
Despite different modern and more classical readings, I don't think the book is either pro-war or anti-war, it is just brilliant, and in that way it shows how senseless war can be, but also how vital a role courage and honour play in battle, and how high the stakes are. Homer does not take sides (as do the Gods) and recognizes the courage and the arrogance on both sides.
The riveting storytelling and the astonishing complexity will keep you fascinated.
It is thrilling to hear this epic as it was recounted through oral tradition through many generations. I look forward to more Stanley Lombardo translations and performances of classical works .
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