Top critical review
Readable and interesting journalistic essays
Reviewed in the United States on August 14, 2012
I'm a big fan of Zadie Smith's novels, and thought she would be an interesting essayist. By and large my expectations were met. I really enjoyed parts of the book. I enjoyed her socio-political writing, in 'One Week in Liberia', her diary of a week spent in Liberia for Oxfam, and 'Speaking in Tongues', an essay on race and dialect. I also enjoyed her personal stories of her family and especially her father, in the 'Feeling' section of the book, especially 'Dead Man Laughing'. And I enjoyed her movie reviews as well as her account of Oscar weekend. The parts of the book I enjoyed less were those where she delves into literary theory, where her invocations of ideas from critical theory and philosophy feel extremely elliptical and vague, as well as not finding a distinctive or original voice of her own so clearly as in her other writing. The sweeping scope of the intellectual references may seem erudite to some, but their treatment is - perhaps inevitably in a collection of essays like this - rather superficial, and that frustrated me. For example, Smith brings up numerous times the postmodernist idea that language does not describe reality, without really doing anything to explain or motivate such a claim. The weaving together of (for example) Eliot and Spinoza feels a little studied and forced. Still, there is a lot to enjoy here, and even the sections on literature did inspire me to read some of her heroes; she communicates enthusiasm and passion for the literature she loves beautifully. Overall, I recommend this to fans of Smith as well as those who enjoy good journalistic writing of a middle-to-high-brow, non-specialist sort.