Does it sometimes occur that you get invited to a party that you really don’t want to go to because you don’t know anybody there but your partner entreats you to make an effort and you discover that the hosts don’t speak much English and it’s in a shabby part of town and it’s promising to be a long and boring affair? But you go anyway, dragging your feet and mumbling under your breath because he insists on being punctual when you know nobody will arrive before the appointed hour. But in the end, you really had a good time and happy that you went and even stayed well after the party was supposed to be over?

This was the case with Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” I had never heard of this writer and this was the first novel she wrote when she was in her early 20’s. As first novels go, this one is a tour de force — ambitious, far-encompassing, heartfelt, and full of humor. Smith takes two guys who have nothing in common with each other and places them in a drab north London suburb and breathes life into them, giving them ancestors, wives, children, and such trials and tribulations that as readers you can’t but feel sympathy for them. Smith’s narrative travels from India to Jamaica to Pakistan to London and back again, in witty English as well as dubitable dialects, like someone who can both tell jokes and mime.

But then something curious happens. You realize that a lot of time has gone by but the event is slow to get off the ground. So what if these people are really nice and funny and entertaining but the clock is ticking along and there is no end in sight? Smith’s book is a whopping 550 pages printed in size two font, and after page 246 you’re beginning to feel party fatigue as when you’re listening to one person speak for too long and laugh too loud while wondering where this is all headed.

Yet you’re curious so you hang around, like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the night, hoping that in the end there will finally be a point to this novel and that you will have had a grand time after all.

There is and you will, but be armed with lots of humor and patience.

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith
550 pages

Today is my 26th wedding anniversary and I haven’t got a clue for a gift for my beloved. Of course it must be something special as it only occurs once a year. Last year was extraordinary – a trek through SE Asia. What can possibly be more memorable once you’ve visited the great stone monument of Bersurat Terengganu, Penang’s undaunted Fort Cornwallis, lively and historical Malacca, and duty-free paradise Langwaki?

Google had this to say about 26th wedding anniversaries:

  • The 26th Wedding Anniversary does not have any traditional materials or Symbols associated with it.
  • This Wedding Anniversary does not have any Flowers associated with it.
  • This Anniversary does not have any Gemstones associated with it.

Big help.

Restless from staring out the window at nothingness – for a 30-minute métro commute that’s a lot of emptiness to take in – I turned to read the newspaper over my fellow commuter’s shoulder when I spotted an ad for a play called “Mars et Vénus – La guerre entre les sexes” (tr. “Mars and Venus – the war between the sexes) playing at the Théatre Le Triomphe on rue Mouffetard, just up the cobblestone street from where we live.

The proverbial light finally flicked on. Why bother looking over mountains and seas when the answer is just around the block?

So what if the title piece is a bit cynical for a wedding anniversary event?

Next year, I’ll get him a medal of valor for putting up with me all these tiring decades.

Place Monge. Tuesday morning back to work after a long weekend. Dashed down the métro stairs in good spirits and spotted a poor schmuck in the glass cubicle wearing an RATP shirt and a hang dog look. He must have the most ungrateful job in the world. This forlorn metro station in the 5th arrondissement sees tourists and students and old people but hardly anybody ever gives the guy a glance unless they’re lost or pissed off or both. So I slowed down at the turnstile and flashed him a winning smile and called out “Bonjour!” Just then I tripped and stumbled — then looked up to see him grinning from ear to ear.

And probably thinking I was flirting with him…

Saw a girl wearing a belted toga in the métro today. The belt was significant because without it she could trip over the hem with her gladiator sandals and stumble and ruin the whole look.

It’s often said that when we have children, we don’t raise them for ourselves but for them. When the time comes for the kids to leave the nest and build their own lives, we must let them go for their sakes and our own. I should know, I’ve been repeating that tenet to myself for years until I had no choice but to believe it and allow my oldest son to fly off on his own.

Focus now on Alice Randall’s heroine Windsor Armstrong, a determined and headstrong black American woman in her mid-30’s and professor of Russian literature. Windsor was raped by her mother’s white boss just as she was starting university. She nevertheless went through Harvard and raised her child alone, a boy whom she named Pushkin X after the celebrated Russian poet of African descendence who was unluckily killed in a duel over an adulterous wife.

Windsor has good reason to be proud of herself and of her son. She is a tenured professor and Pushkin is an accomplished athlete playing major league football and earning an income to match. Yet she cannot be happy. Windsor can’t get over the fact that Pushkin has chosen sports over scholarship. For this proud mother,  that is the ordinary sorts of a stereotype black American male; and worse, her son wants to marry a white Russian lap dancer/stripper who happens to be the love of his life. How Windsor would have liked Pushkin to follow in her footsteps, or the path of W.E.B. Dubois, the famous writer and first black PhD graduate from Harvard. Dubois himself would never have married outside of his race, much less to a lap dancer. As for Pushkin himself, all he wants is for his mother to be happy and marry the girl he loves and learn about his father.

So what is there to do? For her part, Windsor nags. And whines and rants and rails and ruminates about the bitter past, the tenuous present and the bleak future. Nothing escapes her musings as she spews forth angst and venom, exposes the deep layers of scar tissue that span her Detroit childhood, her gangster father and self-centered mother, rape and racism, and the difficulty of being a good parent. Readers get it all thrust upon us, Windsor’s tireless 288-page tirade.

I never made it to the end. Windsor’s diatribe wearied me. It had taken me too long to earn a spot of serenity in my life and now that I have it I refuse to take on someone else’s bitterness and bile. So I skipped ahead and gave Pushkin my blessing to marry the girl of his dreams and wished him well in his football career. So what if the boy wants to be just another ordinary American male? If he is happy in his life, then I will be happy too. Elitist poetry and literature be damned.

Among her other published works, Alice Randall wrote a highly appraised novel called  “The Wind Done Gone,” a parody of “Gone With The Wind”.

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades
by Alice Randall
288 pages

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that many Americans who have never been to France are intrigued by this country, and those who have been here and loved it often feel a longing for anything French. And for those Americans who live in Paris, it’s like having their cake and eat it too.

Elizabeth Bard feeds on this francophile nostalgia in her memoir of her courtship and marriage to her French husband. Bard is a journalist from New York and her husband is a computer science PhD from Brittany. It is a “paralel love affair” in Bard’s words, one with France and the other with her husband. She peppers her narrative with food descriptions and anecdotes à la Julia Child and topping it with her own refreshing sense of humor.

“Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes” is fast, light read just in time for summer. Pack it in your picnic basket to enjoy on the beach or in the shade along the Seine. And perhaps there will even be a film adaptation come fall?

Would you pass the Evian, please?

“Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes”
by Elizabeth Bard
336 pages