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In the Spotlight

Queer Adventures in Romance

Every year, I try to challenge myself to diversify my reading.  Whether it’s exploring a new genre or delving into books written by authors of color, part of what I love most about reading is seeing the world from a new perspective or gaining a greater understanding of the beautiful lives of others.

This fall, I became obsessed with LGBTQ+ Romance novels, a genre I tend to avoid because I find it to be riddled with stereotypes.  Imagine my surprise when I picked up Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk, which proved to be so much more than the generic romances I’ve become accustomed to perusing at the grocery store check-out aisle.   Read More..

Book Squad Podcast: 03 – Winter Reading and More!

The Book Squad Podcast

a collaboration with AudioReader.

Once a month, the librarians are in, with their favorite recommendations, a toe-to-toe discussion on a book or topic, as well as news from the book world and bookish-Lawrence. Listen to the latest episode: Read More..

Too S.A.D. to Read: When Winter Hits Your Shelf

As someone who has no kids and no television, I read a lot — during my lunch hour, after work with a beer, at a coffee shop, waiting in line. In fact, my boss and I have a segment on our podcast called “We can’t always be reading” and I always have trouble coming up with content for this section. Like Rory Gilmore, I basically always have a book with me (at least one.) Read More..

A Reflection on Zadie Smith, 15 Years in the Making

[Nota Bene: What I have attempted below is most likely better left to academics and others better suited to pontificate upon Zadie Smith and White Teeth, her critically-acclaimed debut novel, but oh well, here goes…]

In celebration of Zadie Smith’s December 1st visit to Lawrence—thanks to our lovely friends at KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities—I was asked to write a piece about Zadie Smith.

Why me, you may ask? Fantastic question. Anyone who has mentioned Zadie Smith within earshot of me will most likely have been told (by me!) a well-worn, old story of writing a grad school paper on White Teeth and then accosting Ms. Smith with said paper at an author event in Kansas City.

They will also see me beam with pride as I say that she wrote me back and commented that some of my points were pretty good. (I still have that old, old email.) So, that’s why: because I freak out about White Teeth anytime anyone brings up Zadie Smith. With this prologue and the above nota bene out of the way, here’s why I think White Teeth is so important, perhaps now more than ever.

First, for those who have not read the book, here is some attempted enticement. Then 24-year-old Zadie Smith’s debut novel was released to great acclaim in January 2000, that cultural moment when we were all taking solace that Y2K didn’t collapse the grid. Yet it was still a giddy, hopeful, perhaps blindly optimistic time, right before our late-90s economic boom collapsed along with the World Trade Center.

Entertainment Weekly hailed her as the “It Lit Debutante.” Salman Rushdie declared the novel, “an astonishingly assured debut.” It was in the window of every bookstore. It was An Important Book!

White Teeth is the sweeping, epic multicultural story of three families—the Joneses, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens, (one “mixed” family, one Indian, one *very* white, respectively). The central storylines concentrate on the parents and children of these families, but also extend backwards in time to grandparents and even a great-great-grandparent(!), stretching from the then-current times (1990s) back to the 1850s and here and there through the 1970s and 1980s. The central metaphors of the book, teeth and horticulture, concentrate on “roots,” and Smith plumbs the depths of these roots exhaustively throughout the book.

So that’s the context, the basic gist of the book, and my attempted enticement. Are you still with me?

Here is a bold declaration. White Teeth demonstrates that fiction writing is perhaps the best situated medium there is to help us understand the complexities of all our intersectionalities as human beings.

Why? A novel allows an author and its reader (and perhaps a community of readers discussing the author’s book during and after reading it) to engage in an extended meditation on how human beings behave, how they interact with one another, and how they respond to the things that happen in the world that surrounds them.

So what? Characters interacting and reacting to their fictive world (generally based on our own real world) allow us to see examples of behavior and ways of being that help us understand a world beyond our own, and this helps expand our consciousness and even our capacity for compassion. Seeing characters in fiction move through multiple examples of ways of acting in the world help illustrate in our minds how the world operates and more importantly, ways in which it could operate.

I am being too abstract. Time for an example— okay, deal with it. Let me quote myself, from my 2001 grad school paper: “Smith, who comes from the neighborhood she writes about in White Teeth, makes a strong argument for the importance of integrated neighborhoods in the development of cross-racial relationships and friendships. While Archie retains some of his inherent racism, he forges a true friendship with Bangladeshi Samad and he marries a Jamaican.”

Don’t worry if you don’t know who Archie and Samad are, or what Archie’s Jamaican wife’s name is (it’s Clara). I quote my former grad student self because it seems that many of the things that divide us as a nation, as racial and ethnic groups, across class and gender, come from physical and psychological distance, from not having to deal with each other in any meaningful way.

Somehow, two completely, wildly different men forge a dear friendship. How? Why? Because they were in the army together, and then, after several years of never seeing or communicating with each other, they randomly move to the same neighborhood and forge a friendship over endless drinks together at the local pub. I’m simplifying here a bit, I know, but again, that drives home my point. In a great novel, the creation of a world doesn’t have to simplify—it can exist in its complexity; it can resist didacticism and encourage us to think about how and why things are and how they came (and/or come) to be.

I could go on and on (I did back in 2001), but let me close by saying that I personally thank Zadie Smith for writing a novel that gave me so much to chew on, and my amazing professor at the University of Wisconsin, the late great Dr. Nellie McKay, for teaching the black women’s literature class wherein I thought and wrote about White Teeth for several weeks.

Zadie Smith is a gift to our world. Do yourself a solid and go see her talk at the KU Ballroom on Thursday, December 1. I can’t wait.

-Brad Allen is the Executive Director of Lawrence Public Library.

Header image credit: B.C. Lorio: “Zadie Smith (110 Camera Street Portrait)” via Flickr. Cropped for compatibility.

A Librarian’s Search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. –  Friedrich Nietzsche

Two days after the election, I was in New York for business, and I found myself roaming the streets of Brooklyn. Everywhere I went, people seemed to be trying to make sense of the incredible divide in our country. Some people claimed to be shocked. Others claimed to be unsurprised, but there was a palpable sense of people searching for threads of understanding they could weave into substance while absorbing the outcome of a long and contentious campaign. Read More..

Temporal Turn, Turn, Turn

The Spencer Museum of Art recently underwent a transformative renovation that lasted eighteen months and celebrated with a grand re-opening weekend in October. This reinvigoration was more than cosmetic; it was necessary. The museum upgraded nearly 30,000 square feet —further details can be found on their website.

After dedicating great energy to time and space, the Spencer is prepared for their new exhibition, Temporal Turn: Art & Speculation in Contemporary Asia. The museum offers an eloquent summary: “Temporal Turn explores a rich mosaic of ideas about time and history from a generation of contemporary artists grounded in what has been dubbed the ‘Asian Century.’” It incorporates an impressive cohesion of works of 26 different artists from Asia, four of whom were in residence at the Spencer: Rohini Devasher (India), Jaeyoung Park (South Korea), Sahej Rahal (India), and Tomoko Konoike (Japan).

There are five themes to the exhibit—Pulse, The Edge of Infinity, Mythopoeia, Human/Posthuman/Inhuman, and Anthropocene—that unify this collective effort and its multiple literary references. The Spencer’s expansive catalog for Temporal Turn also contains two contributions from KU: short story “The Empress Jingū Fishes” by Kij Johnson, Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing, along with the piece “Time, Space, and Physics” by Philip Baringer, Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy. Read More..

Total Boox: A Sampler’s Delight

After a recent flight reminded me of how terrible it is to travel with my circa-2011 laptop, I took the plunge and bought myself a basic tablet. As tablets go, it’s not particularly powerful, but 1) it doesn’t weigh upwards of 10 pounds and 2) the battery doesn’t fall out when I move it, so it’s a clear upgrade.

The biggest benefit of my newly acquired tablet? Much easier access to e-books.

I’ve particularly enjoyed exploring Total Boox, a service LPL offers that I hadn’t heard about before I started working here. Total Boox lets you check out as many e-books as you want and keep them for as long as you want – period. You can even check out whole shelves devoted to specific authors, topics, or genres. Just download to your device, and bam! They’re yours to read at whatever pace works for you. Read More..

Local Food Feeds The World

As we slide into the holiday season, beginning with our most thankful time of year, we naturally begin to think about food. Sitting down to generous plates and celebrating all we’re grateful for, seems like a good time to give some thought to those who keep us fed. I’m not talking about Grandma’s cornbread dressing or Aunt Louise’s maple-bourbon-pecan pie. Rather, I’m thinking about the story that your meal would share if asked what it is and where it came from. Read More..

Fantastic Beasts at LPL

Just in case you haven’t been on the internet, seen a magazine/newspaper, or watched television in the last year, I’m here to inform you that there is in fact a new Harry Potter movie coming out. The screenplay is written by J.K. Rowling herself (unlike a certain play that must not be named), and it’s set the Muggle world aflame.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is based on the 128 page book of same title, a character from Rowling’s Harry Potter footnotes, and a chance to expand the Wizarding World across the pond. The book itself is a pseudo-encyclopedia of seventy-five fantastic beasts. It’s charming, enchanting and if you haven’t picked it up, it’s definitely worth the half hour or so of reading time. Read More..

The Book Squad Podcast: Ep 01, 02

The Book Squad Podcast

a collaboration with AudioReader.

Once a month, the librarians are in, with their favorite recommendations, a toe-to-toe discussion on a book or topic, as well as news from the book world and bookish-Lawrence. Listen to the latest episode: Read More..