Reading Zadie Smith

A month of reading Zadie Smith

When I moved into this apartment in Berlin, I was thrilled to find a giant overflowing bookshelf in my bedroom.

Naturally most of these books are in German. Not all, though.

There’s a used bookstore not far from here – Saint George’s. They’ve got this terrific system where you can return their books and get half your money back after reading them. Or you can put the money towards more books. So I’ve been doing lots of that. But then one day I found Zadie Smith in Lena’s bookshelf.

I started with On Beauty which I loved. But then I moved onto White Teeth, and there was this passage that made me put aside my book for fifteen minutes for a good cry, just because:

‘It seems to me,’ said Magid finally, as the moon became clearer than the sun, ‘that you have tried to love a man as if he were an island and you were shipwrecked and you could mark the land with an X. It seems to me it is too late in the day for all that.’
Then he gave her a kiss on the forehead that felt like a baptism and she wept like a baby.”

I don’t even know why. Just something about it. Notwithstanding the fact that I’ll never measure up to that kind of writing, no matter how hard I try.

(That’s not to ask for reassurance. If you’re a writer, you know what I mean.)

So here’s what I’ve been reading. Some I hate, some I love.

Zadie Smith


Quick Summary

After Howard has a disastrous affair with a colleague, his sensitive older son, Jerome, escapes to England for the holidays. In London he defies everything the Belseys represent when he goes to work for Trinidadian right-wing academic and pundit, Monty Kipps. Taken in by the Kipps family for the summer, Jerome falls for Monty’s beautiful, capricious daughter, Victoria.” But this short-lived romance has long-lasting consequences, drawing these very different families into each other’s lives. As Kiki develops a friendship with Mrs. Kipps, and Howard and Monty do battle on different sides of the culture war, hot-headed Zora brings a handsome young man from the Boston streets into their midst whom she is determined to draw into the fold of the black middle class – but at what price?

Three-line Review

On Beauty was my first introduction to Zadie Smith, and although it was slow moving at times, the writing was beautiful enough to keep me hooked. Fascinating and infuriating characters. Every now and then I’d read a line that would stop me in my tracks.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Favourite Quote: “You could pluck bass notes on those veins.”


Quick Summary

On New Year’s morning, 1975, Archie Jones sits in his car on a London road and waits for the exhaust fumes to fill his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon. Archie—working-class, ordinary, a failed marriage under his belt—is calling it quits, the deciding factor being the flip of a 20-pence coin. When the owner of a nearby halal butcher shop (annoyed that Archie’s car is blocking his delivery area) comes out and bangs on the window, he gives Archie another chance at life and sets in motion this richly imagined, uproariously funny novel.

Three-line Review

I can’t explain why this book had the impact on me that it did. I cried so many times throughout the whole thing. Again, infuriating and fascinating characters…mostly SO infuriating. But I committed myself so wholly to them. (Also, I wouldn’t call this “uproariously funny.”)

☆☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Quote: “We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”

Eugenides and Huxley


Quick Summary

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned.

Three-line Review

I didn’t love The Marriage Plot as much as his others, but I did enjoy it a good deal. I’m a sucker for books that grow with the characters, even if most of these characters are insufferable. (Seems to be a theme this month, non?) It’s indeed a little pretentious, but well, those are the characters.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆


Quick Summary

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…

Three-line Review


☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Woolf and Foer


Quick Summary

Mrs. Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post-World War I England. It is one of Woolf’s best-known novels.

Created from two short stories, “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street” and the unfinished “The Prime Minister,” the novel addresses Clarissa’s preparations for a party she will host that evening. With an interior perspective, the story travels forwards and back in time and in and out of the characters’ minds to construct an image of Clarissa’s life and of the inter-war social structure.

Three-line Review

Couldn’t get into this one. I don’t know. I was bored as hell, although I did appreciate the writing.

☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆


Quick Summary

Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is an inventor, amateur entomologist, Francophile, letter writer, pacifist, natural historian, percussionist, romantic, Great Explorer, jeweller, detective, vegan, and collector of butterflies. When his father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key he discovers in his father’s closet. It is a search which leads him into the lives of strangers, through the five boroughs of New York, into history, to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and on an inward journey which brings him ever closer to some kind of peace.

Three-line Review

I loved 99% of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I loved the writing style, and little Oskar’s bizarre perception of the world. And the story itself was just heartbreaking. The only bit I didn’t love was the chapters written by his grandparents.


martin and foer


Quick Summary

Daniel Pecan Cambridge, 30, 35, 38, or 27, depending on how he feels that day, is a young man whose life is rich and full, provided he never leaves his Santa Monica apartment. After all, outside there are 8-inch-high curbs and there’s always the horrible chance he might see a gas station attendant wearing a blue hat. So, except for the occasional trip to the Rite Aid to admire the California girl Zandy and to buy earplugs because they’re on sale, he stays home a lot. And a good thing too, or he would have never been falsely implicated in a murder, never almost seduced Philipa, never done the impossible task of jogging around the block with Brian, never ironed his pillows, and he might never have won the Most Average American essay contest. The Pleasure of My Company is the chronicle of a modern-day neurotic yearning to break free.

Three-line Review

I thought The Pleasure Of My Company was a memoir when it was recommended to me. Who knew Steve Martin was a fiction writer?! This is a nice, light-hearted, feel-good novella. The kind you wanna take on vacation and read poolside while a busboy serves you mojitos.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆


Quick Summary

Humor and pathos are deftly woven together in this remarkable novel that has won sweeping critical acclaim. USA Today calls Everything Is Illuminated a hilarious yet heartbreaking tale of family and discovery. Jonathan is a Jewish college student searching Europe for the one person he believes can explain his roots. Alex, a lover of all things American and unsurpassed butcher of the English language, is his lovable Ukrainian guide. On their quixotic quest, the two young men look for Augustine, a woman who might have saved Jonathan’s grandfather from the Nazis. As past and present merge, hysterically funny moments collide with episodes of great tragedy–and an unforgettable story of one family’s extraordinary history unfolds.

Three-line Review

I simultaneously loved and hated this book. The parts I loved, I really, really loved. The parts I hated, I really, really fucking hated. There was so much that completely grossed me out. And I spent one third of the time being really fucking confused. I’m all for this fun, quirky, innovative approach to writing, but not at the expense of my sanity.


I’ve been going through fits of rage today thanks to my broken Internet and lack of work ability…if you couldn’t tell. Haha. Have you read any of these?

  • March 08 2016

    Well, you’ve convinced me that it might be worth trying Zadie Smith. Although Brave New World was the only book I read in school that I actually liked… ;)

    PS. Really jealous of that bookstore. What an innovative, terrific (and thus, typically German) system!
    LC recently posted…15 Things That Happen When You Move to Doha

    • March 13 2016

      I actually used to LOVE more sci-fi stuff in high school and in university but now…? I just can’t. I don’t know why! And yeah for real, I’m obsessed with that bookstore. Sometimes I can’t wait to finish a book just so I can go back there and hang out, haha.

  • March 08 2016

    I definitely cried reading that Zadie Smith passage you posted up there. I’ve been trying to read her work for ever and have never really been able to commit – she just intimidates me so much – but I think I need to read White Teeth immediately.
    Tiffany recently posted…Weekend Reads

    • March 13 2016

      She’s the kind of author that just kind of makes you go, UGHHH, what am I doing with my life? Hahaha. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I adore her.

  • March 10 2016

    Zadie Smith I refused to read for years, it’s just so not me. But then I did – how good is On Beauty?! The writing’s just beautiful!

    How’re you finding Berlin? I head out there in a couple of weeks, are their any hidden gems you’d recommend?

    I’m also part of a recent travel site development called Triporia. allows travellers booking their accommodation to see exactly what they can expect from their surroundings when they arrive. It’s something that no other site does and we kind of feel it’s comforting and acts as a great stress relief when you arrive somewhere you’ve never been to and actually reconise it.

    You don’t even have to be specific about where you’re going, it’ll still bring up your nearest accommodation no matter how remote the area. It’d be great if you could take a look.

    Please carry on with the book reviews – I love them! :)

  • March 13 2016

    Hoorah! Book post!

    Adding some of these to my list (I loved On Beauty and haven’t read White Teeth yet, so should move that up toward the top of the list).

    I, too, couldn’t deal with Everything Is Illuminated. It was too gross and I had to put it down.
    Gigi recently posted…On Literary Readings, Crazy Art, & One Really Special Town in Arizona

    • March 15 2016

      OMG it makes me outrageously happy that you agree about Everything is Illuminated!!! Hahaha. I almost gave up reading it. Then I went into a big angry rant about it at my bookstore. Lolllll.

      You have to read White Teeth. I loved On Beauty, but I loved White Teeth twice as much

  • March 13 2016

    Thanks for the list. Ive added a couple to my library hold list.
    This bookshelf of yours reminds me of a showhome I was stuck in one summer. The entire house was done around a pink theme. thewholeentirehouse right down to carpets, dishes and nicknacks. Was amazed at all the pink stuff including the handles on the silverware…..The only redeeming quality was the bookcase in the diningroom. The decorator used pink moire paper to cover hundreds of really old (prob bought by the truckload) hardcover books. Although the house reminded me of being immersed in pepto bismal the bookcase kept me entertained. I never read so many wierd out of print books.
    as an aside…..when someone tells you pink calms you. Bull…my three kids (ages 3-7) at the time would come visit periodically with my husband from time to time, during my long hours of solitude. They were calm for about 20 minutes. Until all hell broke loose and they fought like cats and dogs after that. Pink only calms for 20 min max. I was so intriqued by their behavior that I actually timed it.

    • March 15 2016

      Haaahahahaha! This is amazing. WHY would anyone want to do this?!

  • August 09 2019

    How did I miss this post?? I thought I had binge-read everything you had written on this blog. I love Zadie Smith. On Beauty, White Teeth = perfection. Hope you are doing okay and really enjoyed your last few posts. Thinking of you and sending you lots of love from the other end of Canada. xoxo

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