Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

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Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

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Category: Anthologies
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: A lively, thought-provoking selection of literary criticism, film and travel writing and memoir.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241142950

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Zadie Smith is best known as the author of three novels: White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty. She now teaches Creative Writing at Columbia University in New York. This collection is a mixture of literary criticism and journalism, including travel writing, reviews and other writing on film and several pieces about Zadie Smith's family, and especially her father. It is divided into five sections under the headings Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling and Remembering.

The Reading and Remembering sections are literary criticism, and these are the parts I found most challenging to read. Smith's tastes include some very experimental writing, including the work of Tom McCarthy and the late David Foster Wallace; she admires these writers a great deal, but I doubt I will be seeking out their books. Tom McCarthy is compared to Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and Smith argues that Netherland simply indulges the fears and weaknesses of its readers, obviously much preferring McCarthy's Remainder. However, the piece on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, originally written as an introduction to a reprint by Virago Modern Classics, reminded me of a book I really want to read. Smith's piece is a very personal response about reading as a black woman; she describes her reluctance to read the book when her mum gave her it at fourteen, and how it challenged her ideas of what good writing was. The essay on Middlemarch by George Eliot also made me want to dig out my copy. Other writers discussed in this section are Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov and Roland Barthes.

Being includes an essay adapted from a lecture to Creative Writing students on how Smith writes, and an account of a visit to Liberia with Oxfam. Speaking in Tongues is the text of a lecture given at New York Public Library shortly after the election of Barack Obama as US President. Like Obama, Smith has one white and one black parent, and she praises his ability to speak in different voices to varied audiences.

Seeing consists of writings about film. I especially enjoyed At the Multiplex, Smith's film reviews for the Sunday Telegraph, in which she applies her academic critical skills and her lively opinions to a few mainstream commercial films, with no arthouse choices permitted.

Feeling was my favourite section of the book; I love reading about family relationships and I found Smith's recollections of her father Harvey, who died last year aged 81, and her relationship with him, really moving.

A collection like this is perhaps not designed to be read straight through, on the tube and at lunchtimes, under pressure of a review deadline, but I found it interesting and thought-provoking and am grateful to have had the opportunity to read it, thanks to the publishers who sent a copy to the Bookbag. I read the hardback but it will also be available at the same time in paperback and unabridged on audio CD, read by Barbara Rosenblat.

The literary criticism in Changing My Mind made me want to read a number of the novels discussed. There is a review of Netherland by Joseph O'Neill here. Other collections of essays with a literary flavour include The Brain-dead Megaphone by George Saunders, and At Large and At Small and Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

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