Jen Padgett Bohle's Reviews > Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
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Jun 15, 10

bookshelves: nonfiction, essays, contemporary-brit
Read from May 11 to 20, 2010

I've been daydreaming about Zadie Smith being both my professor and my best friend. We'd go for a sandwich in Camden discussing Jean Rhys or George Eliot and then recount the details of the latest Jud Apatow film and the handsome stranger over by the drinks...

What can’t this woman do? And with such charm and perspicacity! She was analyzing postcolonial literature and Zora Neale Hurston when I was still stuck on Sweet Valley High as a 12 year old. She really knows her literary shit. But I really admire her because she’s completely unpretentious about it all. I walked into her literary criticisms on Kafka, Middlemarch, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and David Foster Wallace like a fastidious and fussy college freshman --- with my online dictionary open, pencil in hand to take notes in the margins, and a general guardedness and alertness that one has to have when reading, say, David Foster Wallace’s heavier essays. I certainly had to think and dissect while reading this collection, but there was no flashy pedantry to deal with.

Smith could, undoubtedly, write scholarly academic obfuscations about the future of literature or Barthes’ “Death of the Author” for peer reviewed journal and use fancy, indecipherable jargon , but she keeps it completely real. Her ebullience for her topics, the obvious depth of her intellect, and the fact that she can explicate and untangle authors, texts, and ideas that so many ivory tower types attempt to render virtually meaningless and devoid of any pleasure make her literary essays something rare and extraordinary.

One of my favorite essays of this collection is kind of a boxing match Smith facilitates between Barthes and his freeing of the reader vs. Nabokov and his assertion of a writer’s supreme and god-like control over his/her literary worlds. (see ""Rereading Barthes and Nabokov") You see where a discussion of reader-response and Nabokov, and a few mentions of Foucault could’ve gone, right? Her essay about the opposing directions for contemporary literature is outstanding too and pits Joseph O’Neill’s lyrical realist Netherland against Tom McCarthy’s more theoretical Remainder.

The collection, as the title and subtitle might imply, is difficult to categorize and the essays range from literary analyses of various works, dissections of authors' lives, film reviews, writing advice, travelogues, personal essays about her family, and probably some other stuff I’ve left out. Several of the film reviews and the Oscar weekend essay seem to be filler material, though, and the essay on a trip to Libya was pretty unremarkable. But Smith’s intimate and detailed piece on David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men makes me wonder if she he had a “Being John Malkovich” kind of experience in his head. It's that insightful.


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05/17/2010 page 131
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Drew (new) - added it

Drew I'd be interested to hear what you think. Generally I like her essays more than her novels, but do they hold up at book length?


message 2: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen Padgett Bohle Will report back to you upon finishing!


message 3: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen Padgett Bohle Sorry to just be getting back to you. Highly recommended collection, Drew, with a few exceptions. I'd read it just for the the literary pieces and the essays dealing with her family and identity are quite strong. The film reviews and a travel piece were mere filler, though and just kind of "eh". Let me know what you think if you read the collection.


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