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BOOK REVIEW

Novelist’s gifts shine through in essays

By Nicole Cammorata
Globe Staff / December 29, 2009

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It’s easy to love Zadie Smith. In her most recent work, the nonfiction collection “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays,’’ the 34-year-old Smith writes as if already in the middle of a conversation with her reader. Her writing is wonderfully accessible and full of acute observations - a casual tone that allows the reader to feel close to both the words and their author, no matter what the topic.

For Smith devotees and newcomers alike, the 17 essays are a welcome insight into the author’s world of literature, film, and family dynamics. The book is organized into five thematic sections - Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, and Remembering. It’s all here: from the week she spent reporting on the socio-economic conditions in Liberia to what it was like to celebrate Christmas growing up in a multiracial home; from Hollywood glamour to a 43-page appreciation of the work “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men’’ and its author, the late, great David Foster Wallace.

Though primarily a fiction writer best known for “White Teeth’’ and “On Beauty,’’ Smith brings her novelist’s gifts - an eye for detail, a languid turn of phrase - to the essay form. The first section, in which Smith explores the works of some influential literary greats - Kafka, Barthes, Nabokov, and Hurston - is smart and insightful. However, occasionally this section veers into tedious territory - more scholarly extrapolation than the average reader may have bargained for. Luckily, the essays in the remaining four sections go faster than the first. It’s a disservice to the rest of the content to put the scholarly stuff up front; anyone plucking the book off the shelf is apt to see this first section and think it a different kind of book. What remains in the other four sections is a great collection of musings on topics such as popular films (she asserts that “Date Movie’’ is the worst movie she’s ever seen), Katharine Hepburn (“from the earliest age I was devoted to her’’), and the significance of President Obama’s oratory excellence.

But exclude that first section and you leave out a portion of who Smith is. And identity is exactly what Smith is exploring; this is the axis upon which each essay turns. Writer and reader. Black and white. Critic and fan. Independent woman and responsible daughter. As a whole, the essays illuminate who Smith is in the process of becoming, including the reader on her journey.

Where Smith really shines is when she’s writing about her own writing process, particularly in the essay “That Crafty Feeling,’’ taken from a lecture she gave to Columbia University writing students in 2008. Here, she is wise and witty. Her words are both inspirational and aspirational as she outlines what it’s like to be at the mercy of this relentless, all-consuming craft. On writing the first 20 pages of a novel, she says, “The idea of forming people out of grammatical clauses seems so fantastical at the start that you hide your terror in a smokescreen of elaborate sentence making.’’ And then, “who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives.’’ The lecture gives an intimate look at the relationship between a writer and her prose, full of insider jokes on the creative process. It’s a pity there’s not more from her on the subject.

Smith hits it right on the head with the title; when taken as a whole, the works do feel “occasional.’’ The only unifying factor seems to be that they all happen to have the same author, written in the middle of a (hopefully) long career. But in the foreword Smith is quick to point out the simple paradox all writers face: Though we evolve in our thoughts over time, putting these thoughts in print makes them resolute.

Nicole Cammorata is an arts producer for Boston.com.

CHANGING MY MIND: Occasional Essays

By Zadie Smith

Penguin

288 pages $17.79

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