49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2009
In addition to her considerable talents as a novelist, Zadie Smith has been quietly assembling an impressive body of literary and cultural criticism over the past several years. Those pieces have been collected in this volume, a virtuosic demonstration of the workings of a first-class mind expressed in consistently lucid prose. Smith, who divides her time between New York and London, is an acute observer of contemporary culture, possessed also with the intellectual grounding to make her commentaries more than ephemera.
The first section of the volume consists of six scholarly essays on writers like Zora Neale Hurston (one of her early literary inspirations), Nabokov and Barthes, George Eliot, E.M. Forster and Kafka. The most intriguing (and perhaps controversial) piece in this section is one entitled "Two Directions for the Novel," in which she contrasts the lyrical realism of Joseph O'Neill's lavishly praised NETHERLAND with her preference for the "constructive deconstruction" of English novelist Tom McCarthy's experimental REMAINDER.
Smith's lecture, "Speaking in Tongues," the highlight of a section entitled "Being," is a moving meditation delivered only a few weeks after the election of Barack Obama. More than any other essay in the collection, this one puts her dazzling talents on full display. In it, she moves gracefully from the story of shedding the accent of her birth ("Willesden was a big, colorful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle.") to a discussion of Pygmalion, to an incisive dissection of Obama's memoir. Along the way, she discourses on such subjects as Shakespeare, the religious wars of 17th-century England and Cary Grant. None of this feels as if it's calculated to showcase her erudition. Rather, it's an invigorating display of the breadth of her learning and of her ability to knit together seamlessly elements of culture both high and low.
A close study of Smith's generous essay "That Crafty Feeling" (a version of a lecture delivered to Columbia creative writing students) will repay aspiring writers many times over. In it, she lays down 10 genial guidelines about the writing craft, of which this terse admonition about literary influences is but one example: "Other people's words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write...Other people's words are the bridge you use to cross from where you were to wherever you're going."
The three essays collected under the heading "Feeling" are the most poignant in the book. Smith begins with a description of a family Christmas around 1980 (she was six or so at the time), and then in "Accidental Hero" recounts her father Harvey's wartime memories, including his participation in D-Day ("So much experience that should be parceled out, tenderly, over years, came to my father that day, concertinaed into twenty-four hours.") and concludes with "Dead Man Laughing," a sly meditation that winds its way effortlessly from the gentle fun she pokes at her father's sense of humor (he loved "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Fawlty Towers") to a professional critique of the art of comedy.
Smith's collection winds up with a lengthy reconsideration of David Foster Wallace's short story collection, BRIEF LIVES OF HIDEOUS MEN. In the same vein as the literary criticism that leads off the volume, it's a discussion that will challenge the general reader, but it's an unsurpassed introduction to Wallace's work and an exceptionally generous tribute to a departed colleague.
The only section of CHANGING MY MIND that mildly disappoints is "Seeing." Focusing on the movies, Smith offers an appreciation of Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, a profile of the Italian actress Anna Magnani and a series of vignettes from Oscar weekend 2006. The longest piece in this section collects Smith's reviews of mainstream films that year. The problem with this relatively lengthy chunk of the book is that a good many of the films Smith critiques (such as the ghastly Get Rich or Die Tryin' and Date Movie) are best forgotten and, in any event, unworthy of her talents.
In a recent essay in the Guardian, Zadie Smith explains that something she calls "novel nausea" inspired her to turn to the essay form. "But in a strange circular effect, it has been the experience of writing essays that has renewed my enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can," she concludes. "Writing essays on Kafka, on Nabokov, on George Eliot, on Zora Neale Hurston, I was newly humbled and excited by the artificial and the fully imagined." It's reassuring to know that a gifted writer of fiction now has recharged her creative batteries, but these elegant and thoughtful essays can only inspire the hope that she'll return with more soon.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I'm a big fan of Zadie Smith's novels, and thought she would be an interesting essayist. By and large my expectations were met. I really enjoyed parts of the book. I enjoyed her socio-political writing, in 'One Week in Liberia', her diary of a week spent in Liberia for Oxfam, and 'Speaking in Tongues', an essay on race and dialect. I also enjoyed her personal stories of her family and especially her father, in the 'Feeling' section of the book, especially 'Dead Man Laughing'. And I enjoyed her movie reviews as well as her account of Oscar weekend. The parts of the book I enjoyed less were those where she delves into literary theory, where her invocations of ideas from critical theory and philosophy feel extremely elliptical and vague, as well as not finding a distinctive or original voice of her own so clearly as in her other writing. The sweeping scope of the intellectual references may seem erudite to some, but their treatment is - perhaps inevitably in a collection of essays like this - rather superficial, and that frustrated me. For example, Smith brings up numerous times the postmodernist idea that language does not describe reality, without really doing anything to explain or motivate such a claim. The weaving together of (for example) Eliot and Spinoza feels a little studied and forced. Still, there is a lot to enjoy here, and even the sections on literature did inspire me to read some of her heroes; she communicates enthusiasm and passion for the literature she loves beautifully. Overall, I recommend this to fans of Smith as well as those who enjoy good journalistic writing of a middle-to-high-brow, non-specialist sort.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Zadie Smith has established herself as one of the prominent novelists of the contemporary literature scene, but she is well on her way to establishing her reputation as a fine essayist. This collection of essays, gathered over the course of the last few years, proceed from erudite literature reviews, to politics, to film, and on to personal reflections from Smith's life. I found the pieces on literature the most compelling and brilliant; Smith's willingness to reassess her aesthetic commitments is a rare gift and an indicator of an active and sharp reader. Her review of David Foster Wallace's 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,' is a fabulous ode to the late writer and close friend of Smith. Here she is able to give a nuanced reading of what made DFW so elusive and mystifying a writer. The essays in this volume very in quality, and Smith is prone to the kind of obscure intellectualizing of which she is so suspicious. Never the less, this collection is the mark of an open and promising interpreter of literature and cultural matters as a whole. I look forward to future work.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2009
As always, Smith writes not just with brain and spine, as her hero Nabokov urged, but with stomach too and heart and funny bone. Divided into five (not four) sections entitled "Reading," "Being," "Seeing," "Feeling," and "Remembering", the collection is eclectic, including travel journalism, family histories and movie reviews, which range from blow-your-mind brilliant to, in one or two cases, a little flat. But - and this is not a sentence you get to write too often - it's the lit crit that really sparkles. The essays about consuming and producing literature are what will earn this book a place on the shelf of every serious creative reader and writer. I loved, and learned from and yes, had my mind changed by, their forensic effervescence.
From The Creative Intelligence Blog by Orna Ross, author Lovers' Hollow &A Dance in Time
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Changing My Mind is a collection of essays from the novelist Zadie Smith. Anyone who has read her fiction knows that Ms Smith is an engaging, intelligent, and passionate writer, so it seems she should be a natural as an essayist. This collection proves that theory to be true.
The selections here cover a broad range of topics, from trips she took to Liberia and the Oscars (not at the same time) to three funny and touching essays about her family. But it is her writings on art that really shine. She shows great insight into the writings of Forster, Eliot, Barthes, Nabokov, and Kafka; in fact, I think the first seven essays are required reading for any aspiring writer. But she also brings a keen eye to cinema, with a wonderful essay about Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, and even stand-up comedy in an essay about her younger brother's surprisingly (to her) successful foray into that field.
I read one essay each morning, and after the first one I woke up every day excited about reading the next. That is probably the best endorsement I can give this book. But Ms Smith has also inspired me to discover new works, like Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and re-discover some others. Middlemarch and Everybody is a sharp essay on the philosophy of the famous novel, and not only did it make me want to re-read it immediately, it also inspired me in my own writing. The essay entitled Hepburn and Garbo spurred me to run out and rent the Philadelphia Story. And the final piece, part eulogy and part reading guide, has inspired me to give David Foster Wallace's difficult fiction one more try.
After reading this book, I cannot wait for her next novel.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I love a good essay collection and this definitely fits that description. I hadn't read anything of Zadie Smith's since the excellent but oh-so-long winded "White Teeth" and was excited when this arrived for me at my local library. These essays were written during the past decade and published mostly in British papers or given as lectures globally. As to be expected, some appeal more than others. My favorites are when Smith brings in her own biracialness. Her piece on Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" asks the question "what does soulful mean?" and is extremely moving. I wanted to pull that book from my bookshelf and immediately reread it. (My to reread list grows longer). Her recollection of a Smith Family Christmas when she was 5 years old was incredibly funny and poignant. Of the presence of an uncle, she writes "Poor Denzil, off the plane from Jamaica into bitter England, and stuck in the most cultish, insular day in the nuclear-family calendar." I wanted to hear more about her time growing up in a half-English/half-Irish neighborhood, "one black family squished between two tribes at war." Maybe she will write more on that. Moving on, her lecture about her craft was better than anything I have read for aspiring writers. There were also other pieces that I started reading then passed on: for example critiques on Kafka, George Elliot and Forster (a bit too dry). Then again, I don't think this collection is best appreciated on a 3-week library loan. It is one to keep on hand to reread and perhaps read those that one didn't appreciate the first time around. Maybe I should get my own copy one day...
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2010
Of the fifteen essays in this collection, there is only one out-and-out dud (Smith reporting on the Oscar weekend). The rest range from good to amazing. Even the superficially unpromising pieces have something to offer. The final essay, an appreciation of David Foster Wallace, is altogether terrific. Her remarks about DFW's deliberate choice to make his writing difficult for the reader are smarter than almost anything else I've read on the subject. She obviously loves his work, but not to the point of foolishness.
The three essays in which Smith remembers her father are probably the most powerful - simultaneously moving and funny. My favorites among the remaining pieces tended to be those about writing, especially the essays on Kafka, Barthes and Nabokov, E.M. Forster, with the piece de resistance being that DFW appreciation. The sections "Seeing" (essays on film) and "Being" were less interesting to me, but that's largely because I have no particular enthusiasm about film.
I didn't find the lecture on her "craft of writing" valuable, but that's obviously a matter of personal taste. Other than the silly Oscar weekend piece, the two least successful essays (for me) were "Two Directions for the Novel" and "Speaking in Tongues", each of which originated as lectures. The former seemed to be an exercise in inventing categories when there is no obvious need to do so. The latter, based on a lecture given in new York in December 2008 (in the exuberant aftermath of Obama's election), makes some interesting points, but seems already outdated. But I'm doing that thing I do when confronted with excellence - focus on a few minor flaws without having made it clear how brilliant I think the work as a whole.
Why are these essays so much fun to read? One of Smith's major strengths is that her criticism tends to be concrete and specific. Thus, even though she can fling the litcrit jargon around with the best of them, it's never obnoxious, probably because she writes so clearly. (You may find yourself wondering why academics can't manage to match her clear style, until you remember that they are playing by a different set of rules, under which the last thing anyone wants to do is actually write in a way that's easy to understand).
Zadie Smith is an intelligent, witty, engaging writer. Some of these essays are so lucid, smart, and funny, it's hard not to just dissolve into incoherent admiration. A major part of the considerable appeal of this collection is just the fun in seeing such an intelligent mind at work.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2010
Zadie Smith is a British writer who achieved great fame with her first novel, White Teeth. The book was good, but the hype concentrated on the fact that it had been written by a young, beautiful black woman who had grown up on a council estate in Willesden. Her second novel did not do well, and Smith gave a few bitter interviews and then disappeared. She spent that time back in her academic comfort zone (she has a degree from Cambridge) and writing things like movie reviews and magazine articles about her family. She has since brought out another book, On Beauty, which was successful on its own merits and now she has had this book of essays published.
Changing My Mind was a very uneven read, and I think she might have been better served by waiting a few years, until there was a better selection of material to chose from. Many of the essays, the ones that discuss authors and books or the ones that talk about her family are amazing. Then there are a few moderately interesting pieces about Liberia and her own writing methods that are worth reading, but not exciting and then there are the bits from when she reviewed movies for a newspaper. Essays about movies, or Hollywood, can be riveting, but Smith has too sharp a mind and, while she seems to like film, isn't a real fan or expert. So this section consists of describing the plots of various movies and there's a sense that she's looking down on the whole endeavor.
The essays on literature, however, are fantastic. She has the ability to delve deeply into a topic without talking down to her audience or making it too difficult to understand. I did have to pay attention, especially to the essay on David Foster Wallace, but I was never lost. She discusses Their Eyes Were Watching God, Middlemarch, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Kafka, Nabokov, E.M. Forster and Barthes and each essay was a revelation (to me, at least).
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2010
In "Crafty Feeling," one of the versatile and thought-provoking essays contained in Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind, the author confesses that whenever readers express admiration for White Teeth, she tries "to feel pleased, but it's a distant, disconnected sensation," and that the book and she "may never be reconciled." Coming from a writer who, while still an undergraduate wunderkind at Cambridge, carved her place among the literati with such a precocious debut novel, this revelation may come as something of a surprise. Indeed, while smatters of it can read as stylistically incoherent, White Teeth displays artistic traits surely coveted by the immature novelist--there is the precise musicality of her prose, a tonally secure authorial voice that easily dispenses with unmannered verbal pyrotechnics, and, most remarkably, an artistic philosophy that embraces the medium of fiction as a means of depicting themes of religion, race, and character.
Like the many pieces in this eclectic omnibus of thoughts, this essay communicates not only the intricacies of Smith's literary craft, but also unveils the inner workings of her dartingly gifted mind, tackling such conventionally cerebral topics like literary criticism, investigative journalism, and mini-memoir with the balances of wit and humor that charmed her critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Deeply personal and arrestingly candid, these pieces venture into the cultural and emotional waters that illuminated her previous works of fiction, for instance underscoring the influences imparted by Zora Neale Hurston's "unerringly strong and soulful" black characters in "Their Eyes Were Watching God : What Does Soulful Mean?" or expressing admiration for Barack Obama's polyphonic rhetoric in "Speaking in Tongues."
On a first glance though, Changing My Mind may read like free-form exercises on a dartboard of random ideas: recollections about her bittersweet relationship with her working-class, unread white father quickly segue into meditations on her brother's flair for stand-up comedy. Under the section "Seeing," Smith flexes her critical muscle and performs witty vivisections on mainstream cinema's blockbuster titles. Adjoining this is a cleverly articulated exposé about feminism revolving around Luchino Visconti's Bellissima, which sits beside an entertaining exegesis on Katharine Hepburn's iconic approaches to character while examining the "essential, Platonic and unindividuated" that graces Greta Garbo's features.
Elsewhere she writes about subjects as disparate as the power struggles pitted by Vladimir Nabokov's "bold assertion of authorial privilege" versus Roland Barthes' "authorial assassination"; Franz Kafka's surreal renderings as a by-product of his collective Jewishness; reflections on the bizarreness of Oscar weekend in Los Angeles; the "middling" sincerity of E.M Forster's writing; and the future novelistic paths paved by Joseph O'Neill's scintillating Netherland and Tom McCarthy's more daring experimental work, Remainder. Setting a slightly different key in this collection is the essay "One Week in Liberia," which reads like a tapered remastering of Ryszard Kapuscinski's artful journalistic expositions; and, in one of the more elegiac excerpts in this book, a most fitting tribute to the late David Foster Wallace.
Given the stark thematic differences explored throughout these essays, it understandably becomes difficult to find the common denominator that underlines this collection. For starters, it is apparent that Smith's writing is coziest when she dispatches with inquiries into literature and the authors who interest her. As a perceptive reader who also happens to be a remarkable fiction writer, she expresses in "Rereading Barthes and Nabokov" her inclinations for latter's author-biased "portrait of subjectivity" to the former's authorial independence. Although she attempts to reconcile both of these diametrically opposing views, she in the end finds greater rewards in the Russian author's highly involved approach. In expressing her deep affinity with Nabokov, the reader is assured that she is not merely knowledgeable about the devices behind his baroque flourishes and his playful puzzles, but that she grew and matured into Nabokov's artistic philosophy and his religious dedication to the art of reading and rereading.
When she recounts the grim state of contemporary English fiction, Smith contrasts Joseph O'Neill's more lyrical model with Tom McCarthy's stark one, enticing the reader to examine them from a holistic perspective, to place them in context of the artistic tradition, and, ultimately, to take note of how these innovations "shake the novel out of its present complacency." The essay, entitled "Two Directions for the Novel," rends one of this collection's most compelling reads and points to the author's promising future in literary criticism. In homage to one of the 21st century's most formidable prose stylists, Smith ably deconstructs the geometric complexities, the "formal, philosophical possibilities," and the linguistic manipulations of consciousness characteristic to David Foster Wallace's writing, highlighting his ability to shake the reader out of disbelief by inserting their psyche into the text.
But Smith also allows a bit of familiarity to penetrate the predominantly cerebral fabric of her writing, as evinced when culture and family are brought to the table. In discussing the virtues of Zora Neale Hurston, for example, Smith tells us that she initially resisted reading black authors due to the sentimentality, the "extraliterary feelings," and the stilted theories of the "Black Female Literary Tradition," declaring that, "I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not by my melanin count." She eventually comes to terms with Hurston's work, and acknowledges the universality of that certain weltschmerz, or, as with this particular case, the soulfulness, that aligns any reader with the pathos of Hurston's characters. And when she devotes space to three essays about her "gentle, sentimental" father, Harvey Smith, one recognizes the inspiration behind White Teeth's Archie Jones and his daughter who, by merit of her intellectual acuity, managed to wrest herself away from England's class limitations.
On the other hand, when Smith makes critical forays outside her element into film, one gets the feeling that she hasn't been able to fully get under the skin of the art form. While her perspicacious insights make her blockbuster movie reviews entertaining and witty, they can sometimes come off as jerry-built and annoyingly cute displays of winded English wit. And while the Vogue magazinesque "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend" bear similarities with the more accomplished investigative piece, "One Week in Liberia," the self-conscious demeanor of the piece (which investigates the artifice that drenches Hollywood during the Oscars) renders something like a flat-footed imitation of a Dominic Dunne reportage.
In the end, all of these pieces do converge towards a central concept: to engage with Zadie Smith's thoughts and to involve ourselves in the process of savoring and creating written art. Whether she is discussing the vocal multiplicity of Obama's rhetoric, the fractal-like nature of Foster Wallace's syntax, Nabokov's game-master-like manipulation of prose, the pitch-perfect dialectics of black society, or the carefully constructed synthesis between body language and speech in film, these essays constantly impart Ms. Smith's attempts to retune and refine a reader's intuition and a writer's wisdom. If this essay collection seems at first riddled with "ideological inconsistency," ultimately, Changing My Mind addresses and embraces the credo of any great writer--that reading, and more importantly, reading well, is an invaluable precept to living.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2013
A collection of writings like this, spread across years of composition and categories of content and intent, is bound to be uneven. This one has enough grand moments to keep you going, and Smith is always interesting, even if now and then an essay comes out flat.
Smith first grabbed my attention in her discussion of George Eliot's classic novel Middlemarch, where she writes, "When Dorothea [Brooke, the central character] truly becomes great (only really in the last third of the novel, when she comes to the aid of Lydgate and Rosamund), it is because she has at last recognized the value of emotional experience. . . ." This was a big "Aha" moment for me because if I'd known about this essay I would have included a discussion of it in my book about the value of our experience, Our Experience, Ourselves.
To my mind the biggest moment of her book was Smith's tribute to Katharine Hepburn, where her personal enthusiasm lines up exactly with her intellectual training and her writing practice to give us a good strong feeling for what it was that made Hepburn such a great artist. Personal without being solipsistic, showing genuine adulation for one of her heroes, detailing the delights of going to the movies and coming home uplifted, inspired by the idea that a great artist can really change the world around her, Smith gets it all going in this piece and it alone is worth the full price of admission.
Another such moment she calls "Speaking in Tongues," when she takes us deep into the language strategies Barack Obama deploys to convince us that he is one of us. Smith again is personal here, remembering her own upbringing in working class Britain and then the changes resulting from her university education, how she moved from one language community to another and what it means more generally for people who move away from the lingo they're brought up in, people who learn a different tongue and then can "speak in tongues" but can never go home again, linguistically speaking. She takes us into the world of Eliza Dolittle and the wizardry of George Bernard Shaw to write so commandingly all those registers of accent from cockney to the speech of royals. We feel the escalator "moving on up" with style and grace, the ultimate immigrant's tale told so memorably it bears rereading every couple of years just to keep it fresh in your mind.
Readers will encounter throw-away movie reviews, ponderous literary-cum- philosophical disquisitions, things to skip or skim over, a real mixed bag of materials, but when Zadie Smith really gets it going she can make the world change right in front of your eyes.