Changing My Mind – 4/5 Stars
So this post is a compendium of reviews based initially on my reading of this, Zadie Smith’s early collection of essays.
These essays are not part of an intentional collection and represent a set number of years of nonfiction writing projects for Smith. The best of them are the reviews, including and sometimes especially her movie reviews, longform journalism (which is the least interesting, if not impactful writing in the book), writing about writing, and writing about her father. Her reviews often pair books or films together, as a lot of say London Review of Books articles will do, to talk about parallels in the writing and filmmaking experiences and to pull out potential discussions about motifs and trends in the respective industry. So for example, the review of “Netherland” and “Remainder” work together as diverging paths in British publishing circa 2008 or so. Remainder being a novel that is somewhat experimental in form (though I think highly readable) and “Netherland” being more traditional (though I would say particularly rich and less conventional than appears).
Her writing about “Their Eyes Were Watching God” talks about being given the novel by her mother at a young age and rejecting it because of the teenage annoyance about being told anything and resenting the sense that she was to enjoy it because she and Janie were both Black women, and having a kind of stark teenage belief in literary Black and Whiteness (ie that identity novels were weaker than the novels of ideas), but falling in love with it in spite of herself.
The movie reviews are very enjoyable because for the most part she’s stuck watching blockbuster mainstream movies or over-serious Oscar bait and finding herself enjoying the earnestness of action movies more than the “important” films, which not actually being allowed to see actually interesting films.
And if you’ve read “White Teeth” you will enjoy the long essays describing her relationship with her much older father and his influence on and reaction to that novel.
Their Eyes Were Watching God – 5/5 Stars
I have a real affection for hearing Zadie Smith gush about novels, and her words on this one inspired me to pick it up again. Of everything I’ve ever read, this book, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, and the YA novel Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith are the books I’ve read and reread and reread. I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1999 in high school in AP Literature, or because of AP Literature, I don’t remember which. I read twice in college, once in grad school. I’ve taught it four or five times, and so all told, this is about my 12th-15th time. This is the first time I’ve listened to the audiobook version read by Ruby Dee, who is a complete treasure.
Some stray thoughts: if you’ve never read the novel before, some things to be aware of. One, a good bit of it is written in dialect; this is a feature of a lot of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing and is reflective of or reflects her interest in anthropology. So her fiction works in a kind of ethnographical kind of way.
This book is about choices, like all books, but I’ve never been behind someone’s choices more than in this book. That doesn’t mean I trust all the choices or think they’re good choices. Many of them are not. But watching Janie go from someone completely disallowed from having a say in her life to someone purposely and willfully making choices against the grain is a truly gratifying experience.
It’s a book in which White People exist only as a specter barely acknowledged, and white people exist barely at all, except in crucial moments. It was a book assaulted from all sides when it came out, and where some of those criticisms speak to valid concerns within the African American literature scene of the time, they are not reflective of the beauty of this work.
It’s a lyrical book. There’s a decent amount of plot, but nothing that’s particularly remarkable, until the end. It’s a book where huge amounts of time pass, while very little happens. But it’s incredibly rich.
Netherland – 4/5 Stars
This novel takes place in New York City (for the most part, with some sections in London toward the end) in the years following 9/11. It’s interesting to me because it’s rare for me to read about Americans (culturally at least) from non-Americans, and while much of what is contained in this novel feels about right, it’s got an outside feel to it in a lot of ways. So while it’s more or less accurate, it’s a little artificial.
The novel begins with our narrator Hans, a Dutch national living in the US and working in the banking industry in New York. We learned that he is at the beginning of a trial separation from his wife, who is moving back to London with their young son. While he doesn’t like this, Hans more or less takes this news in stride. Looking for an outlet, he becomes involved with a regular pickup cricket game in a park and becomes friends with a (Indo-)Trinidadian man who seems to be up to something, but who is friendly and affable and shepherds Hans along.
As the novel progresses, very little happens, but some time passes. We are relatively ingrained in the experience of a not bitter man dealing with a separation, the odd chaos that took over much of the US after 9/11, and the ins and outs of cricket. There’s a lot of cricket in this novel.
Throughout the novel I felt that the writing was generally rich and complex, especially for a relatively short novel, and the ideas were interested. At the same time, though, it also felt somewhat antiseptic.
Remainder – 5/5 Stars
And speaking of antiseptic, this novel. In this novel our protagonist has had an incident and is recovering in hospital, and especially in physical therapy, retraining his brain and the neuron therein to work his arms and legs and body by establishing and reestablishing the connections lost to the trauma. We meet him on the day he’s discovered he’s won a judgement of 8.5 million pounds from the “organizations” responsible for the incident, in which something, some kind of technology, fell from the sky and hit him on the head. He doesn’t remember the event; he simply remembers the feeling of about to have something happen.
Among other things, his emotional connection to his life has been severed. He “feels neutral” he tells us. His most strong feeling is preference and annoyance.
So he invests his money, and the upturn in the market keeps his investments growing in such a way that he has excess cash. Rather than donate, spend, or reinvest his money, he sets off on a project to reinscribe his memory with what is lost. He has the vague recollection of a scene from before the incident and so he spends his money carefully reconstructing the elements of that scene he can remember. As he does this, more memories are brought to light, and of course new memories are made as he lives his life, and so he spends more and more money to work through as well.
It’s hard to capture the tone of this novel, but I found it hilarious at times and sardonic and alarming at other times. It’s really rich, and while the events are quirky, they still happen in a recognizable language that is quite inviting.