Review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Two biracial girls grow up in the same bit of northwest London, attending dance classes together. Tracey has real talent, and our unnamed narrator does not, and Swing Time is about the unexpected paths their lives take as they grow into adulthood.

Swing Time

Content warning, there is very little dance school in this book. The narrator pretty quickly stops taking dance, so if you were going into Swing Time singing a little song to yourself like “dance school dance school dance school dance school,” you might end up disappointed. That’s not what I was doing or anything. It’s just something I thought of. That a person might do. Who liked reading about dance schools.

Halfway through Swing Time, I told Alice and Whiskey Jenny that I was considering giving it up. Two-thirds of the way through Swing Time, I was back in, while accepting quietly to myself that as a general rule, Zadie Smith’s fiction — like Michael Chabon’s — simply is not for me.

I loved Swing Time best when it got out of northwest London, which makes me suspect that I am completely missing the point of Zadie Smith, famed chronicler of life in northwest London, and that you shouldn’t listen to my opinion about this book or any Zadie-Smith related topics.1 Once the narrator and Aimee begin traveling to Africa to set up an Oprah-like school for girls there, I was 1000% more engaged in the story. I had occasional issues with the way the narrator presents her own life vs. life in Gambia,2 in particular:

Food preparation was not for me, nor was washing, or fetching water or pulling up onions or even feeding the goats and chickens. I was, in the strictest sense of the term, good-for-nothing. Even babies were handed to me ironically, and people laughed when they saw me holding one. Yes, great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.

Maybe this was intended to showcase the narrator’s naivety about developing countries? It doesn’t feel that way — in general she’s portrayed as being awkward and unsociable to the Gambian folks she encounters, but not un-self-aware — but maybe I am misreading. If I am not misreading, then I have sneers to give to this quite patronizing idea that one way of living — close to the land, near large groups of family, butchering one’s own meat, struggling to get by — is more “real” somehow than another way of living. All ways of living are real, and I’m sure y’all understand why the particular idea that closeness to the Land and the Family is more real/authentic than, for instance, city living makes me a little twitchy just at this present historical moment.

HOWEVER. Apart from that one bit, I really enjoyed everything where the narrator is in Africa watching Aimee try to Do Good, an enthusiasm that everyone in Aimee’s entourage knows will not last. While Smith isn’t necessarily saying something I don’t know about charity work in developing nations, she’s writing about something I rarely see depicted in fiction with the specificity it receives here, namely the disconnect between intention and reality in international charitable giving.

Okay okay okay, I know that my interests are not everyone’s. But that is a topic of interest to me, and one that rarely arises in fiction by Western writers.

By contrast, I could not possibly have cared less about the relationship between the narrator and Tracey that forms the backbone of this book. I have two hypotheses as to why that could be. It could be that Zadie Smith never sells me on the friendship. You don’t see a single thing about the narrator that Tracey likes, or a single thing about Tracey that the narrator likes. I had no idea why these two people spent time together and continued to be in each other’s lives.

My second hypothesis is that I am finished, or close to finished, with stories about wild girls and the unwild girls who have complicated relationships with them. I possibly have read enough of those books, and I possibly am finished with them. I’m not sure. I’ll do further research on this matter and let you know the outcome.

Meanwhile, what are some dance school books you can recommend me? I love books set in dance schools and there are never enough of them.

  1. Except that her essays are really good and she has the face of an angel. Those opinions remain solid.
  2. Ready for a lengthy footnote? Here’s what happened. Zadie Smith never says “Gambia” but I figured it out anyway. The narrator says what countries are nearby — Benin, Togo, Senegal — and what groups dominated the country, and I narrowed it down in my head to Ghana or Gambia. And then she said something about the President for Life, and that was enough information to tell me Gambia. It was incredibly justifying of all the reading about Africa I have done / want to continue doing. Also please read this Alexis Okeowo sum-up of what’s going on with the president in Gambia (someone else got elected, but the sitting president won’t leave).

NPR BOOK CONCIERGE TIIIIIIIIME: A Totally Chill Links Round-Up

Good morning! I have started a new thing that I wanted to tell you about, where I thank journalists when I read a story that I particularly like. There is every reason to do this (especially under the new administration, which we already know will be very hostile to journalists) and no reason not to. Try it!

The NPR Book Concierge has arrived once again! Every year I get zillions of recommendations from this thing, and you should too!

How fantasy movies portray the experience of oppression in near-totally white terms (by the fabulous Zeba Blay).

Vann R. Newkirk II is flames emoji as usual on calling out racism and the value of civility.

The Eritrean soccer league keeps defecting en masse when it goes to games overseas. The author of this article, Alexis Okeowo, allegedly has a book about resisting extremism in Africa, and I am going to read it twice because this article on Eritrean soccer is incredible.

2016 was the year America finally saw the (black) South: A super-great article by Jesmyn Ward. Oh! I forgot to tell you! Last night I dreamed I met Jesmyn Ward, and I wanted to tell her that I admired her work, but all I had read of hers was THIS ONE ARTICLE, and I felt terribly embarrassed that I hadn’t read any of her books yet. I was like “But — I mean, but, I have The Fire This Time at my apartment right now!” and Jesmyn Ward, in my dream, couldn’t have been more polite about it.

The rise of the romance novel (including the genuinely fucking awful The Flame and the Flower, dear God I want those hours of my life back). This article notably includes a picture of romance novelist Rosemary Rogers in a sari because of course.

Authors from around the world discuss colonialism and literature.

It’s been a while since we had a bonkers story in this round-up! Let’s have one: Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, is embroiled in a deeply weird financial scheme regarding Hatchimals (a prime Christmas gift for children).

Zadie Smith talks about the experimental (or otherwise) nature of multiculturalism and her hopes for the future.

The Intimidating TBR Tag

And now it’s time for the walk of shame. The beautiful and brilliant Renay has tagged me to talk about my TBR list, and I hang my head woefully and confess my TBR sins.

1. What book have you been unable to finish?

Future Crimes, by Mark Goodman. I started it a while back, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t into it, but you know how if you kept getting lice as a kid because that one girl in your class had a crunchy granola mother who I guess didn’t believe in Nix Shampoo and wouldn’t do anything about her daughter having lice so everyone in fifth grade kept getting it over and over again, you know how to this day if you talk about lice your head starts itching even though you know it’s psychosomatic and everything’s fine?

No? That’s just me? (My head itches right now y’all.)

Well, anyway, reading Future Crimes got too stressful for me. It made my brain itch. I’ll go back to it sometime! Swearsies!

2. Which book haven’t you read yet because you haven’t had the time?

All of them? Can I answer “all of them” to this question? I’m giving the very specific answer right now of The Madwoman Upstairs, which I checked out with a regular (okay, largeish) bunch of library books and then a ton of electronic holds on new books arrived at once. With a shiny new Crooked Kingdom, Three Dark Crowns, Tessa Dare romance novel, and this sports romance novel by an author called Ruby Lang I only just heard about, the library books that are currently on their last renewal are falling by the wayside. Sorry, The Madwoman Upstairs! I’ll come back to you someday!

3. Which book haven’t you read yet because it’s a sequel?

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. I got it at a book sale thinking “well I won’t like Wolf Hall for sure but maybe I’ll like this,” and then I tried reading Wolf Hall and really loved it. (Go fig.) So now I have this nice hardback of Bring Up the Bodies, and I haven’t read it yet because Anne Boleyn dies! And even though Mantel’s version of Anne Boleyn isn’t the world’s most ever sympathetic, still I do not want her to get beheaded.

Bring Up the Bodies

4. Which book haven’t you read yet because it’s brand new?

All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths about Native Americans, by Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker. I read Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States a few years back and thought it was terrific. I’m also trying to be more aware of indigenous American history and lives generally, and I’m hoping to read more from Indian authors in the upcoming year.

5. Which book haven’t you read yet because you read a book by the same author and didn’t enjoy it?

White Teeth and On Beauty, by Zadie Smith. I quite liked her essay collection, Changing My Mind, but wasn’t wild about her latest-but-one novel, NW. I am hoping that I’ll love her latest latest, Swing Time, and then that will ease the way for me to get back to reading these two earlier novels, which have been on my list for like a decade now.

6. Which book haven’t you read yet because you’re just not in the mood for it?

Happy Families, by Tanita Davis. Let me revise that: I am in the mood for it. I will always be in the mood for it. I loved her latest book Peas and Carrots, and I am confident that Happy Families will be similarly thoughtful, emotional, and great. But I have been saving Happy Families for some kind of feelings emergency, and even though 2016 has been terrible, there hasn’t been anything so cataclysmic as to merit digging into my emergency reserve of books that feel like hugs.

7. Which book haven’t you read yet because it’s humongous?

Don Quixote, okay, I admit it. I asked for it for Christmas probably over ten years ago, received it from one of my beloved aunts, and to this day I still haven’t read it. There’s a part of me that’s hoping Alice at Reading Rambo will host a readalong one time, but honestly it doesn’t seem like the kind of book she’d be excited to read along with other bloggers.

(But Jenny, couldn’t you just host the readalong? I hear you ask. Okay, yes, probably I could do that. Alice is just so much betterrrrrr at it and she’ll definitely keep dooooooooing it and I’m so laaaaaaaaaaazy and I’m just like not a leader I am really more of a facilitator slash sheep. So.)

8. Which book haven’t you read yet because because it was a cover buy that turned out to have poor reviews?

Wow this is really specific. I don’t buy books based on the covers almost ever, because I want my library to be (I’m sorry to use this word but) curated. So I’ll do something closeish: I was very excited to read The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, because on paper it sounded perfect for me, all sciencey and accessible. But then I read a thing where apparently a bunch of scientists who study this stuff as their jobs do not think Mukherjee has a good handle on it at all. DILEMMAS.

9. What is the most intimidating book in your TBR pile?

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad, which is so intimidating it is now officially the oldest book on my TBR list. Not only is the book 500+ pages long, it’s also in translation, which is very intimidating to me. My track record with translated novels is not the greatest track record. Anyway, the good news is that in compiling this post, I discovered a super beautiful cover for the book that made me feel like three degrees less intimidated.

My Uncle Napoleon

10. Who do you tag?

Look, this tag made me dig deep into my TBR shame, and I don’t want to pressure anyone else to do that who doesn’t want to. Do the Intimidating TBR Tag if you wish! Maybe it’ll remind you that you should get off your butt and read My Uncle Napoleon already or else take it off your TBR list and admit it’s never going to happen.

Reviews: Watching the English and Changing My Mind

Watching the English, Kate Fox

I have a confession to make, y’all.  I am a sucker for pop psychology, and also pop sociology and yes, pop anthropology.  It’s all, you know, it’s all readable, and there are interview excerpts, and people talk about what they think and why they do the things they do.  How could anyone not love that?  I love that so much!

I know that Kate Fox’s Watching the English is observational and subjective and thus Not Proper Science, and maybe it was a tiny smidge repetitive…and yet I do not care.  Because it got me all nostalgic.  Oh, for so many reasons.  With the queues; and the thing about how Americans don’t understand irony and Britain knows we don’t because of that Alanis Morrissette song; and the tea v. dinner debate (which raged in my flat my whole first term at Essex University).  I love living in Louisiana – y’all know I love my home state – but oh how I miss England sometimes.  Kate Fox writes with wry humor (humour) about all sorts of British customs, admitting freely their absurdity and her own adherence to them.  It was a fun read.  Excellent for camping, and of course it reminded me of all the things I liked so much about England.

(When I went to the WH Smith (or Waterstones?) in Croydon to buy the sixth Harry Potter book at midnight, one of the British girls I was with said, perfectly seriously, “Oh goody!  A queue!” as I was preparing to launch into a moan about the length of the queue.  She was very cheerful all the time we were waiting, but was sobered when she had the book in her hands.)

Other reviews:

Stuck in a Book
Musings

Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith

As much as I love pop anthropology books, that is how much I do not love books of essays.  Which is to say, when I am reminded of them, I express strong feelings (see above), yet I spend most of my time not thinking about them at all.  Eva wrote about Changing My Mind in glowing terms; ordinarily when she busts out the glowing terms to describe a book, I go to my library’s website to investigate the availability of that book; but I don’t like books of essays.

Except when I went to the library before camping, to get a bunch of books to read on our camping trip, I suffered a series of disappointments.  The library claimed it had The Group, which I really wanted, and Cold Comfort Farm, which I really wanted, and you know what?  IT HAD NEITHER.  I was wandering out of the children’s section, where I had been searching for a Mary Stolz book the library also did not have.  My life was so depressing.  I’d come to get one duty-read (Slaughterhouse Five) and three pleasure reads, and y’all, walking out of the library with one book is just, you know, it’s just such a defeat.  And then, right there on the new books shelf, was Changing My Mind, and I didn’t want to leave with only Slaughterhouse Five, so okay, I got Changing My Mind.

And yeah, Eva was right.

The essays in this book vary in topic from Greta Garbo to Zora Neale Hurston to Smith’s visit to Liberia.  I learned many things, such as that Firestone is very, very wicked in Liberia, and that Nabokov was quite as arrogant as I have always vaguely suspected him to be.  Zadie Smith writes so beautifully in these essays that I read all of them, even the ones on topics that should have (and have, in the past) bored me stiff, like Kafka and Greta Garbo.  I particularly enjoyed her essay about her father’s participation in D-Day, “Accidental Hero” – it’s not just a glimpse into the experience of war, but a reflection on her relationship with her father, as a daughter and as a writer.  These are occasional essays and personal too.  I guess now I should go try one of Zadie Smith’s full books.

This is my first read for the Women Unbound Challenge!  I loved the way each of the essays spoke to Zadie Smith’s personal life and views, which I suppose is what made all of them enjoyable for me.  She writes about relationships – between books and between people.  Next up for this challenge is The Group, which I have now managed to acquire, and to which I am very much looking forward.

What are your feelings on essays?  Like them, don’t like them?  Like them singly but not a bunch all in a row?  Want to recommend some?

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair
Book Addiction
Vishy’s Blog

Tell me if I missed yours, on either of these books!