Thursday, May 6, 2010

Occasional Essays

First of all, how great would it be to be a writer of occasional essays? It sounds like the most leisurely job, undertaken only on occasion, whenever inspiration strikes.

Of course, it's probably a bit more involved than that. Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is a collection of short pieces that range from literary criticism to biographical essays to movie reviews.

I'm a big fan of Zadie Smith's fiction. Her novels somehow manage to be modern and yet traditional at the same time. These nonfiction essays give a sense of her as a writer who also manages to be multiple things at once. The book starts out with a section of literary essays, which, though interesting, get a little dense with literary theory at times. It's an interesting choice to open the book with these, since it probably results in losing some readers who are expecting the casual essays the title hints at. (Even I skipped or skimmed through a couple of these when my English major hat got a little too tight.)

But just when it seems like the entire book will be filled with highbrow criticisms, you hit the next section of essays and find out that besides being incredibly intelligent, Zadie Smith is also incredibly funny and relatable. Pieces about a trip to Liberia and her writing process sit next to memoirs of her family and an account of her Oscar weekend experiences. Her collected movie reviews are filled with humorous gems. I can't resist sharing what's probably my favorite passage in the entire book, a description of Steve Martin's face in the movie Shopgirl:

"Steve Martin's face. I can't explain it. You have to see it. But whatever he has done to it, he does not look one day younger than he is. He has, however, succeeded in leaving himself only one facial expression: smug. No, that's not fair. He also looks creepy."

Such subtle wordplay in such a biting remark. I could probably go on and on, but then I'd be writing my own essay, not a snappy blog post. I'll just say that this book cemented Zadie Smith as one of my favorite writers.

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