Chang­ing My Mind: Oc­ca­sional Es­says by Zadie Smith, Pen­guin Press, 288 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

Two of the best en­tries in Zadie Smith’s Chang­ing My Mind, her first non­fic­tion col­lec­tion, deal with the au­thor’s fa­ther. One is a war story, and the other is about Bri­tish hu­mor. And both re­mind us why Smith, the au­thor of the nov­els White Teeth, The Au­to­graph Man, and On Beauty, has drawn so much praise in her short ca­reer.

In “Ac­ci­den­tal Hero,” she re­counts Har­vey Smith’s ex­pe­ri­ence in WorldWar II and the seem­ing dis­con­nect be­tween the easy­go­ing man his fam­ily knows and his time as an English sol­dier dur­ing the 1944 Nor­mandy in­va­sion. Smith writes that, as a child, she never heard her fa­ther talk about the fight­ing, and as a re­sult, she sim­ply could not see him— a man she de­scribes as “paci­fistic in all things and pos­sessed of a lib­eral heart that does not so much bleed as hem­or­rhage”— as a war­rior. None­the­less, the elder Smith served when his coun­try needed him, and “he did some re­mark­able things. He caught a se­nior Nazi, an episode I turned into id­i­otic com­edy for a novel.” Smith’s fans will ap­pre­ci­ate the ref­er­ence; in White Teeth, a char­ac­ter named Archie Jones cap­tures one of Hitler’s men and lets him go when he can’t bear to kill the pris­oner.

“Dead Man Laugh­ing” is about com­edy and the way it bonded fa­ther and daugh­ter to­gether. Fans of English hu­mor will en­joy Smith’s thoughts on Monty Python, the Goons, Fawlty Tow­ers, and The Of­fice— es­pe­cially her take on what Of­fice hon­cho David Brent’s home dé­cor might have looked like (“the risqué Athena poster, the gi­gan­tic en­ter­tain­ment sys­tem, the com­i­cal fridge mag­nets”).

“Great sit­u­a­tion com­edy ex­pands in the imagination,” Smith writes of shows like Fawlty Tow­ers and The Of­fice. You don’t have to be fa­mil­iar with the pro­grams she men­tions to know that her es­say is a smart com­men­tary on pop­u­lar cul­ture or to know what fic­tion— even the sit­com ver­sion of fic­tion— can mean to its most de­voted fans.

Smith uses an­other piece to dis­cuss what works for her when she sits down to write. In con­trast to some of her peers, who read noth­ing but their own words when writ­ing, Smith makes sure to spend time with her fa­vorite books. “Some writ­ers are the kind of solo vi­o­lin­ists who need com­plete si­lence to tune their in­stru­ments,” she writes in “That Crafty Feel­ing.” “Oth­ers want to hear ev­ery mem­ber of the or­ches­tra— they’ll take a cue from a clar­inet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writ­ing desk is cov­ered in open nov­els. I read lines to swim in a cer­tain sen­si­bil­ity.” Specif­i­cally about novel writ­ing, it’s an es­say that con­tains ad­vice that can in­form any kind of creative work.

Smith’s piece on the nov­el­ist David FosterWal­lace, au­thor of In­fi­nite Jest, abounds with won­der for his writ­ing, a feel­ing she wants to share. “To ap­pre­ci­ateWal­lace, you need to re­ally read him — and then you need to reread him.” She then goes about lead­ing her read­ers throughWal­lace’s heady prose. It’s the work of a fan and a won­der­ful tour guide who is also an ac­com­plished es­say­ist.

— Kevin Can­field

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