Hamish Hamilton £20

Changing My Mind, By Zadie Smith

Skip the clever-clever lit crit, and Zadie Smith's collection of musings is artfully engaging

Since the colossal success of her debut novel White Teeth in 2000, Zadie Smith has shown a refreshing reluctance to be pigeonholed as merely a novelist, producing articles and essays, teaching courses and giving speeches, publishing everything from memoirs to literary criticism. This collection of "occasional essays" groups together a disparate array of such pieces into a whole which, although demonstrating considerable writerly skill and an undeniably fierce intellect, remains something of a hotchpotch of miscellaneous musings. Split up into five sections – Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling and Remembering – it is the first of these which is arguably most problematic for mass consumption.

Taking up the first third of the book are half a dozen pieces of serious literary criticism, tackling some of her favourite writers, such as EM Forster, Kafka and Nabokov. These pieces are nicely constructed and well thought out, but there is an academic dryness to them that will be completely unfamiliar to fans of her fiction. At times, it is almost as though Smith is desperately trying to impress the reader with her intellect, unable to quite shake off the ghost of the precocious Cambridge student of English literature she was when first noticed by the publishing industry.

Despite displaying obvious passion for her subject matter, Smith's endless minuscule dissection of her topics tends to turn the reader off, and the result is like being stuck next to the show-off academic at a dinner party and being unable to shut them up.

But then, past this section, Changing My Mind really takes off. As if a switch has been flicked, life pours into the prose, as Smith takes on everything from the craft of writing to reportage to film reviewing and memories of her father.

"That Crafty Feeling" is a funny and self-deprecating lecture originally given at Columbia University, detailing the travails of novel-writing and pulling back the curtain to reveal personal details of the process for Smith, and how she stays sane through the whole maddening experience.

More serious but equally impressive is "Speaking In Tongues", a lecture that looks at the way we interact with the spoken word, and which manages to tie in the oratory of Barack Obama, the work of Shakespeare and Smith's own multi-cultural and multi-voiced background to scintillating effect.

Sandwiched between these two is another fine piece of writing, an account of a week in Liberia, written with such a clear eye and discerning spirit that it suggests Smith could easily have had a successful career as a journalist. The other piece of reportage here, "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend", is also beautifully observed and piercingly perceptive, Smith's outsider's eye dissecting the madness of Hollywood with pinpoint accuracy.

Much of the rest of Changing My Mind is taken up with musings on the world of cinema and more personal examinations of Smith's family. The film stuff is fun, and written with a knockabout enthusiasm missing from the literary discussions, as Smith covers everything from Katherine Hepburn to 50 Cent, from Italian arthouse cinema to Date Movie.

But it's the memoir pieces that stick in the mind. Smith's account of trying to uncover her father's wartime exploits is touching and funny in equal measure, as is her recounting of his eventual death, which she manages to come at obliquely through their shared love of comedy, making the account all the more poignant.

Reading these pieces, along with the other personal stuff and the reportage, it's impossible not to admire Smith's marriage of humanity, humour and intellect. If only all the writing here were as well-balanced.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence