It’s been such a busy summer so far, it’s hard to believe we’re into the second week of August! I have three more weeks off until I go back to work at my schools, so I’m feeling the pressure to increase my reading efforts, as I’m not even close to reaching my self-imposed quota! Next week most of my days are free, but then it’s a week away, and then the last week of summer vacation… *sigh* I’m actually looking forward to getting back into a routine - I certainly seem to do more reading that way!
My volunteer book group met on Friday morning to discuss On Beauty by Zadie Smith. No one in the group had ever read anything by this acclaimed, award-winning British author, so we were all happy to have had the opportunity to do so. This novel tells the story of two feuding families, the Belsey’s, led by liberal art history professor Howard, and the Kipps’, headed by ultra-conservative art history professor Monty. British-born Howard lives with his family in a small, predominantly white college town outside of Boston. His wife, Kiki, is an American who grew up in Florida, and who no longer resembles the slim, sexy black woman he married. Their three children all have their own battles: Jerome struggles to embrace his newfound Christian beliefs while the rest of his family are atheists; Zora believes that an intellectual life is ideal, yet she also struggles to be popular and have a normal social life; and Levi is on a quest for “authentic blackness”. The book opens with Jerome’s emails to his family describing his life with the Kipps’ in London where he has an internship. He can’t stress enough how “perfect” and “ideal” this family is compared to his own dysfunctional one back in America. But this idealism is short-lived, and he quickly returns home after a romance with the Kipps’ daughter ends badly. Fast-forward nine months and Howard finds out that Monty is coming to Wellington College as a guest lecturer for a year. What could be worse than having to work side by side with your rival, an ultra-conservative at your liberal arts college? But when the veil is lifted, it becomes apparent that all is not what it seems and that, really, all families are dysfunctional in their own ways. This was certainly an interesting book to read, a real “slice of American life”, as one member put it. We thought that most of the characters were stereotypes, not really three-dimensional, and that they were disconnected from one another and from society. There were strong male/female stereotypes in this book, too, particularly with Howard and Kiki, Monty and his wife Carlene. We all agreed that Kiki, Jerome, and self-educated street poet/rapper Carl were the most likeable characters, and that Howard and Monty were detestable (although we agreed that Howard may have redeemed himself by the end, while Monty… well, you’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself!). One member said that it was difficult to read this book because it seemed to have no plot, but upon discussion, we decided that there were, actually, almost too many plots, and that many of these plots went undeveloped, that the book may have been more engaging if it was more focused. As we discussed Levi and his embrace of what I would describe as black street language, I learned that this is actually called Ebonics: "American Black English regarded as a language in its own right rather than as a dialect of standard English." I have never heard of this before, so knowing this certainly shed light on Levi's character and his struggle. Everyone in this book seemed to be searching for identity, a search that is usually reserved for teens and young adults. Perhaps the older characters, Kiki and Howard in particular, were not so much searching for identity as attempting to reclaim it after years of losing themselves in their family and their work... hmmm... the "empty nest" syndrome? We talked about the changing roles of women, and how some people still believe that working women lead to the downfall of the family. We talked about Smith's skill at capturing the academic life perfectly, with all its ups and downs. Race, too, played an important role in this book, in both America and the UK, and Smith outlined some of the struggles black people face even in today's society. As I was reading this book, I kept thinking that her style reminded me of John Updike, but I'm not even sure if Updike wrote this way, presenting a slightly satirical look at American family life... I'll have to read some of his books again to find out. It was an animated, interesting discussion that led us in many directions. While not everyone loved the book, we were all glad to have read it. I'd give it an 8.5 out of 10.
That's all for today. Get outside and enjoy this lovely, less humid day!
Bye for now... Julie
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