three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
By: 
Zadie Smith
user_rating: 
0

Occasional Essays

A-ChangingMyMindZadie Smith is the author of the acclaimed novels White Teeth and On Beauty ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2005).

The Topic: Zadie Smith calls Changing My Mind a book she hadn’t realized she had written, since most of these pieces had been previously published in newspapers and magazines. However, when someone pointed out that she had amassed more than enough material for a collection, she arranged the work into an aesthetically pleasing pattern, sorted under the section titles "Reading," Being," Seeing," "Feeling," and "Remembering." Topics include an evolving relationship with a childhood favorite (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston), "Ten Notes," on attending the Oscars (none of which, thankfully, feature celebrities), and memories of the last days with her father—in which the two watched the classic BBC series, Fawlty Towers.
The Penguin Press. 208 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9781594202377.

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Smith’s enthusiasm is almost shocking; she breaks the rules established by the black-gowned, gruel-blooded nerds in universities who murder books by dissecting them, reduce poems and novels to texts which are no more than snarled networks of verbal signals and revenge themselves on the literature they secretly hate by writing badly about it." Peter Conrad

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Smith’s reflections on, among other things, Greta Garbo, literary trends, Oscar parties and a trip to Liberia, fall more or less gracefully into ostensibly banal categories. … Taken together, they reflect a lively, unselfconscious, rigorous, erudite and earnestly open mind that’s busy refining its view of life, literature and a great deal in between. … It’s in her impassioned, compulsively dialectical and endearingly wonkish inquiry into literature that Smith really takes off." Ella Taylor

Onion AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars
" [E]ven readers unfamiliar with her work will discover a voracious reader and a keen wit in these articles previously published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian, among other publications. … [I]n [her] best moments, Smith approaches her subjects as both student and impassioned defender." Ellen Wernecke

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Whether her gaze is set on sunny Hollywood, sopping London or searing Liberia, Smith is always peering at the gears shifting behind reality’s facade. … The self-deprecating Smith has said her fiction can come off as ‘essay-like.’ By contrast, her essays share one quality with good fiction. They reveal truths that facts alone can’t quite explain." Tyrone Beason

Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Changing My Mind tantalises us with what might be to come from Zadie Smith. Forster’s recommendation of a work by E. F. Benson (quoted here) feels right: ‘The book’s uneven—bits of it are perfunctory, but bits are awfully good.’" Sameer Rahim

Times (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The title of Smith’s essay collection seems to warn of hysterical indecision, but the author shows herself to be an impressively agile critic, capable of writing about Roland Barthes and Fawlty Towers with the same leaping intelligence and warm demotic style." Edmond Gordon

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Part of the charm Smith banks on is that her mind is a vibrant instrument, tuned and retuned, that she is never quite satisfied with. In class this might be useful. Published, it’s an attitude that tries a reader’s patience and leaves little room for deeper thought." Susanna Sonnenberg

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"As you might expect, her essays on literature reflect smart close readings and a refreshing willingness to grapple with subjectivity. … Smith is shakier when she strays from the subject of books or personal history to less familiar ground, like U.S. politics or Hollywood; her 2006 movie reviews for London’s Telegraph now just seem dated." Thom Geier

Critical Summary

We typically avoid covering collections of previously published essays and columns: they’re often a mixed bag and, at their worst, an effort to get paid twice for the same material. However, Smith is an important voice in modern fiction—and, as one would expect, critics felt there was something here for everyone, but few liked the whole book. Some called Smith’s republished movie reviews outdated and self-indulgent, but others were fascinated by what this greatly respected novelist had to say about Date Movie and 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. One point of critical consensus, however, was praise for Smith’s essays about her father which, many reviewers noted, exhibit the spirit of her novels but in a more personal form. So, as one would expect, this one is for Smith devotees only: casual readers should stick to, and enjoy, her fiction.

Also by the Author

On Beauty (2005): In a plot that mirrors E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), two radically different families collide. Howard, a Rembrandt scholar at a college near Boston, is a liberal Englishman married to an African-American. Their eldest child falls in love with the daughter of Howard’s archenemy, the conservative Trinidadian Monty Kipps. As the two families inevitably come together, they must address their different intellectual values, cultural heritages, and political beliefs. ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2005)