Reading Zadie Smith – January 2019

One of my reading goals for 2019 is to become more familiar with works by different authors by featuring a different author every month (see A Focus on Authors Reading Challenge). January was spent reading as much as I could by Zadie Smith, whom I had never read before. The following are the books I manage to complete:


Title: White Teeth
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: January 25, 2001
Pages: 542
Format Read: Book & Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Free library
Date finished reading:  January 18, 2019

Goodreads Description: 
At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith. Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ 

28390369Title: Swing Time
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Publication Date: November 15, 2016
Pages: 453
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby App
Date finished reading:  January 21, 2019

Goodreads Description: Two brown girls dream of being dancers–but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

imageTitle: Feel Free
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Nonfiction essay collection
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: February 6, 2018
Pages: 448
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby App
Date finished reading: January 27, 2019

Goodreads Description: Since she burst spectacularly into view with her debut novel almost two decades ago, Zadie Smith has established herself not just as one of the world’s preeminent fiction writers, but also a brilliant and singular essayist. She contributes regularly to The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books on a range of subjects, and each piece of hers is a literary event in its own right.

Arranged into five sections—In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free—this new collection poses questions we immediately recognize. What is The Social Network, and Facebook itself, really about? “It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.” Why do we love libraries? “Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.” What will we tell our granddaughters about our collective failure to address global warming? “So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.”

Gathering in one place for the first time previously unpublished work, as well as already classic essays, such as, Joy, and, Find Your BeachFeel Free offers a survey of important recent events in culture and politics, as well as Smith’s own life. Equally at home in the world of good books and bad politics, Brooklyn-born rappers and the work of Swiss novelists, she is by turns wry, heartfelt, indignant, and incisive and never any less than perfect company. This is literary journalism at its zenith.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ½


On Beauty
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: August 29, 2006
Pages: 445
Format Read: Book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Books
Date finished reading: January 31, 2019

Goodreads Description:
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard’s older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

Set on both sides of the Atlantic, Zadie Smith’s third novel is a brilliant analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and an honest look at people’s deceptions. It is also, as you might expect, very funny indeed.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My Thoughts on Zadie Smith’s Literature: I am really glad that I chose Zadie Smith to kick off 2019. I started my Zadie Smith readings with her debut novel, White Teeth. I was a bit disappointed by it. It fell a bit flat for me, and maybe the fact that it was her first novel is why it just did not grab me. While I thought the odd friendship between Archie Jones and Samal Iqbad was charming, I found myself not really invested in the characters very much.

I enjoyed Swing Time much more than White Teeth. I felt invested in the main character from the very beginning. Maybe I enjoyed this more because the story was told in a first person narrative and the main character is never named, so there is quite an element of mystery about her. Her connection (could maybe at times be more like an obsession) with her childhood best friend, Tracey, drives this story along with the art of dance. Maybe I just related more to this story with my own love of dance. I too wanted to dance like Fred Astaire.

Feel Free was the first essay collection I ever read, and I loved it! I could have done without the Justin Bieber section and other pop culture references, because I just didn’t care, but I enjoyed the overall theme. It was like a study of how society and culture (like music, food, art, literature, entertainment, etc) has evolved or hasn’t. Zadie Smith started by discussing a public library that was closing. Are libraries still relevant or have they evolved enough to be just as relevant now but in a different way? She discussed how Facebook has affected society. “Here, I’m becoming nostalgic. I fear I’m dreaming of a web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and, which is more important, to herself.” She discussed how art on our walls has changed from being paintings (or other forms of art) that we find interesting and appreciate, to becoming the “wallpaper of our lives” – speaking of photo art of our experiences. This is what Zadie Smith says about literature: “That readers are tired of once upon a time there lived and can now only read work that speaks directly of reality.” I for one still like the “once upon a time” theme, but definitely can see how literature has progressed away from that. Is it progression though? This book had me pondering a lot of things, and I believe it will stick with me for a while.

On Beauty was my final Zadie Smith read of the month, and I enjoyed this one as well. I am so grateful that one of my Litsy pen pals sent me a copy of this. After reading and not altogether enjoying White Teeth, I was nervous about reading another family saga story told in a third person narrative. However, this one spoke to me. I think it was much more organized, as it focused almost completely on just the Belsey family. I also felt that the complexity of each of the characters and their struggles (inner and outer) was much clearer.

I think an overwhelming theme in all of the Zadie Smith books I read this month is the differences in culture, race, religion and social standing. She tackles all of these in clever ways that make it easy to read and yet powerful at the same time.

Please let me know your thoughts on Zadie Smith’s fiction and/or nonfiction in the comment section below. Next month I’ll be reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


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