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