Thursday, February 4, 2010

Zadie Smith — Changing My Mind, Occasional Essays: Review and Giveaway

Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers. So, last year when I learned that she was publishing a book of essays, titled Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, I was excited. When I saw a review in Time (on the Top 10 Non-fiction books of 2009, incidentally) that compared her gifts as an essayist to those of my FAVORITE writer David Foster Wallace, I was ecstatic. And when the book arrived and I discovered that the last of the 17 essays is a 40-page tribute to DFW, I damn near lost my mind. For me, this is like the Coen Brothers making a movie about Marquette basketball — a near-perfect combination of Greg-obsessions!

The book itself is very, very good — Smith's incomparably charming voice and "astonishing intellect" are on full display here. The essays are split into five subject-based sections and range from literary criticism to movie reviews to an essay on humor. Frankly, not every essay will be interesting to every reader — there were a few here I struggled to get through (about an obscure Italian film, about Middlemarch, about Kafka). But on the whole, it's a wonderful collection.

As shocking as this may be, my favorite piece is the DFW essay — her talent screams to the surface here, not just eulogizing HER favorite writer (she actually began the essay when he was still alive, and finished after he'd died) but also explaining his literary philosophy, and how and why she thought a genius like DFW wrote fiction. One of my favorite DFW quotes of all time is "Fiction's about what it means to be f@#$ing human," and the highlight of the essay for me is Smith unpacking this quote to explain why DFW thought fiction in general and language specifically allowed us to empathize with our fellow humans and escape solipsism. The essay is difficult at times, but very well worth the effort; just like DFW's stories, you have to invest the time and work to truly reap the benefits.

Other highlights of the collection include a lecture to Columbia University writing students about her writing process titled "That Crafty Feeling." This is highly recommended reading for any aspiring writer. Another is an essay about a trip to Liberia — Smith carefully records the destitution and poverty with terrifying vividness. Finally, as sharp and witty as her literary criticism is, her film review is just as good. One of the best essays is a collection of several reviews of 2006 films — they're funny, honest and just a blast to read, and a very concrete example of Smith's range as an essayist!

I have an extra copy of the book and want to get it in the hands of someone who will enjoy Smith's talent as much as I do. So, here are the rules, which I'll try to keep simple. You'll collect a number of "entries" based on the criteria below. Please comment and tell me which of the following applies for you (just be honest, and don't forget your email address so I can get a hold of you if you win.):
+1 for a new follower.
+2 for an existing follower.
+2 for posting a link to this review/giveaway on your blog. (Please include the link in your comment.)
+5 for identifying your favorite Zadie Smith novel, and writing a short paragraph explaining why it's your favorite.

The deadline for entry is Monday, Feb. 15. The winner will be chosen via a random drawing.


  1. I've yet to read Zadie Smith, but I eye "White Teeth" every time I walk past the Sm section in my library. I've also heard nothing but great, things about "On Beauty."

    I'm an old follower! +2


  2. White Teeth has been one of those books that I've tried to get into but no luck so far. I can tell that she's a good writer from what I did read and would like an excuse to try again:)

    +another old follower

  3. I've been a follower for a few weeks, I think.

    I read White Teeth years ago, and really don't remember much except the party scene in the beginning. It struck me how off Archie was and yet she chose him. Was it fate? I like how Smith exposes the personality of the character. I can still picture Archie as if I saw him in a movie.

    I'd love to read this book!

  4. I've been following for a while and I love Zadie Smith too.

  5. I am a follower.

    I am glad that Zadie Smith is doing essays - I love her novels but sometimes it seems that short stories or essays really showcase an author's talent.

    My favorite novel of hers is White Teeth because of her excellent exploration of the immigrant experience. I am first generation and could relate to the experiences of the characters.

    leenbeen2001(at) yahoo (dot) com

  6. I thought I was Zadie Smith's biggest fan until I realised I had some competition!! ;) I would LOOOOOOVE to win this book.

    I'm an existing follower (+2), have added a link to this post in my sidebar (see here: (+2).

    My fave Zadie Smith book.... for ages it was On Beauty but then I listened to the audio book of White Teeth. Even half way through WT, OB remained my fave but once I had finished WT I realised it had taken the place of top Zadie Smith book in my mind. Only just though as they are both fantastic. I think the thing I loved the most about both of the novels were the characters. They're so richly drawn and real, it's like they become extended family.

    At the end of the day, basically I think Zadie Smith is brilliant.

  7. Oof. I can't get into her. I know, I know! I actually blogged about it. You guilted me ;)

    And yes, I'm an old follower. Duh.

    rmanwill at gmail dot com

  8. @Michelle - Do it! White Teeth is amazing!

    @lady T - Ditto. On Beauty may be a good place to start with Smith, too. I'd avoid Autograph Man, though - even Smith admits it's kind of a clunker.

    @Amy - Yes, Smith renders her characters and her families so faithfully, they're just a joy to read!

    @Myne - Thanks for entering!

    @Booksnyc - Good point about the immigrant experience - I'd nearly forgotten about that huge theme of the book.

    @Kathmeista - Yes, you have some competition! :) Thanks for the link. Yes, Zadie Smith is brilliant - almost inaccessibly so, as some of the essays in this book illustrate.

    @Home - I'll try really hard...really hard....grr...not to hold it against you. :) Just kidding - we all have those critically acclaimed authors that don't reach us. For me, it's Cormac McCarthy (except for The Road). Zadie Smith also makes me feel dumb, especially after this book of essays. It makes me simultaneously happy and depressed that someone that smart is out there, but that I'll never be able to write like that. Great post - and thanks for the link!

  9. Sounds like a great book! I must admit that the only Zadie Smith I've read is White Teeth -- which I loved (The Autograph Man is sitting on my shelf...)

    The thing I appreciate most about WT, besides the fact that she wrote this brilliant novel when she was 24ish!, is the way she juxtaposes tradition and technology. She weaves some amazingly real and grounded individual characters with the more universal themes of holding on to one's culture and one's past while facing the inevitable conflict of living in a new country and a modern world -- a world which appreciates sameness and convenience. "The past is prologue..."

    Oh, and I'm an old, old follower, and a link on my blog:

  10. Ooh... a bit afraid to admit this here, but I don't have a favorite Zadie Smith novel because I haven't actually read any of her books. Yet. Big yet. She's on my (very long) list of authors-to-read-soon.

    I'm a new follower. Love the blog.

    kerrybu AT gmail DOT com

  11. I have two Zadie Smith books on my bookshelf, but I can't seem to pick them up and read them. I'm sorry! Haha, but yes, I'll get around to her eventually.

    I can begin with this book, haha. (See what I did there?)

    I'm a new Google Connect follower (I don't usually follow, because I blog at Wordpress), but I've been stalking you for a long time now--and am subscribed to your feed. Hm.


  12. I have read both White Teeth and On Beauty. I preferred White Teeth, but also thought On Beauty was very good. I really never could get into The Autograph Man. It would interesting to compare her writing style with essays.

    I follow by e-mail, and am a new Google follower.

    cyeates AT nycap DOT rr DOT com

  13. I've never read Zadie Smith but would like to after your review. Please enter my name. I'm already a follower of yours which gives me two entries.

    Aloha from Rob

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