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

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!

43 thoughts on “Reviews: Watching the English and Changing My Mind

  1. Watching the English sounds great, and I’m adding it to my list.

    I love essays and my favorite book of essays is Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. Maria Edgerton’s essay in that collection is one of my very favorites.

    I just went to look for it, but since we’ve just moved, I guess it is in a box that remains unpacked. I think the title is “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” Anyway, it would be perfect for the Women Unbound challenge.

    • That sounds interesting! I would especially like to read “Vindication” – I have read about it for a number of years in English classes on various subjects, but for some reason never read it by itself.

  2. Did you read The Woman at the Washington Zoo? It’s by Marjorie Williamson, a collection of sometimes rather lengthy essays, some political, some personal. Her last essay before she died (much too early, of cancer) was incredibly moving. And the one on the Bushes (which I think appeared in Vanity Fair? but don’t quote me on that, I might be wrong) was fascinating.

    I like books of essays IF they are by a fascinating essayist. Or if they are on a fascinating topic – I read a book of essays on marriage once, and even though some of the essays were tedious, there were enough alien perspectives to keep me sitting with dropped jaw. I liked it.

    • Oh, I didn’t know it was essays. I thought it was about peacocks or something. Isn’t there a peacock on the cover? I thought it was a memoir about having cancer and communing with zoo animals. Well, hurrah, I will get on that.

  3. I think I would enjoy Watching the English, since I really don’t know a whole lot about the little customs, and am clueless about the tea vs. dinner debate. 🙂

    I really have to be in the right mood for essays, and they have to be entertaining or really thought provoking. I can’t think of any favorites off the top of my head, but that is probably due to how tired I am today.

    • Ha, the tea vs. dinner debate in my flat was completely my fault. My flatmate Sarah said she was going to have pasta and beans on toast for tea, and I laughed and said “Sounds more like dinner to me”. I said it in all ignorance, but I realized later I’d hit on a rather touchy subject. She always called dinner “tea” & my slightly posher flatmates called it “dinner” or “supper”. I’d just never heard it called “tea” before, but anyway they used to tease each other about it.

  4. I like them singly, but not always in a row. I do like Zadie Smith, though, especially On Beauty, and I have this book of essays on my TBR. Watching the English sounds like a fun read, too!

    • Normally I’m with you – books of essays are good ones for me to leave in the bathroom and read while I’m brushing my teeth in the mornings and evenings. Then I have a reasonable space of time between essays and don’t feel like I’m drowning in them. 😛

  5. I loved Watching The English! It inspired the subject of my Masters dissertation. I did lots of observing people on the street (but not in queues).

    Essays: yes, very occasionally, but I have to be in the mood for them. I think I wouldn’t read more than one or two at a time. Several years ago I read a whole bunch by Isaac Asimov (extremely wide-ranging, though he does become rather irritating in his own genius); and I have a collection on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which got put away in a box when I moved, but I remember some of them were very interesting.

    • Did you? How cool! What did you observe about them? What was the dissertation?

      I’d love to read essays on the Narnia books. I actually mightily enjoy reading essays on books I’ve just read or movies I’ve seen – I am constantly using my sister’s university log-on to access EBSCO and search for critical articles about books I’m reading. Because I am that big of a dork.

      • I agree that essays on books you’ve read are great – in the same way the best reviews are the ones you can agree with or disagree with because you know the book. And I’ve also got interested in reading about authors I know and love – like Dorothy L. Sayers. It gives a whole nother level to the book when you understand more about the motivations of the writer.

        My dissertation was on how strangers interact in public spaces when two people meet going through a doorway or a narrow space – how do we negotiate passage? It’s pretty obscure, but also not, because we all do it all the time without thinking about it.

        I found there was a lot less eye contact than I expected – the social ‘rules’ are mostly based on who got there first. Eye contact, nods, or gestures are mostly for if there’s some kind of ambiguity, or to acknowledge a special courtesy, or to apologise for breaking the ‘rules’.

        Obviously I found it fascinating and there were masses of peripheral issues I read about like using mobile phones (cellphones to you, I guess) in public – our behaviour changes, but so do other people’s expectations of us – but if I carry on I’ll end up writing the entire dissertation again…

      • That sounds really interesting! I actually used to try breaking the “rules” of passing in narrow doorways or on narrow streets, just to see whether people would mind or would go with it. (Nearly always go with it.)

    • Hopefully your mum will read it quickly! My own mother very kindly lent me two of her Christmas books straightaway, and I felt a bit guilty, but not enough not to borrow them. (:

  6. I’m so glad to hear you liked Watching the English because I have a copy on my shelves. One of these days, I’ll get around to reading it.

    I actually love reading essays, as long as they’re by someone who has something original to say and who says it well. The best essayists do just that. Woman at the Washington Zoo, which Mumsy mentions, is a great collection. There is a lot of 1990s politics embedded in it, but she put spins on it that I’d never heard before.

    • I’m interested to see what I make of the stuff about the 1990s politics. I remember reading an essay collection by Julian Barnes, which dealt with politics in England in the Thatcher era, and it was fascinating, but I often felt I lacked context. I didn’t start paying attention to politics much until probably the 2000 election.

      I hope you enjoy Watching the English when you get round to it!

  7. Thanks for the link – Watching the English was such fun, I think I read it as a distraction to finals, and I loved every moment. I bought Jeremy Paxman’s The English too, still haven’t read it… I’m not a big Paxman fan, so not sure it’ll work quite the same for me.

  8. I’m looking forward to reading Zadie Smith’s collection of essays. I’ve read and loved her first three books (in varying degrees of course) but I heard a lot of great things on this one, your post included 🙂

  9. Watching the English sounds like it would be very entertaining to read. I wonder if she says anything about the chip (crisp) flavors (flavours)?

    I just loved them all! Who has ever heard of a thing such as Prawn Cocktail flavored chips? Not I!

    • Dude, I miss the crisps. Every time I go to a bar here, I’m all – yeah, yeah, this drink is nice but WHERE ARE THE WORCESTER SAUCE CRISPS? (Actually I liked the salt and vinegar kind. Delicious.)

  10. I really want to read Zadie Smith’s essays AND Watching the English, which I have only heard good things about. But the real point of commenting is to say: NO! Were you really at Essex University??? I grew up in Colchester and my first love lived in Wivenhoe. How about that?

    • Wow! Did you really? My first love lived in Wivenhoe as well, when we were there – we saved a stray dog and returned it to its owner in Wivenhoe. Yeah, I was at Essex nine months, it was an exchange program with my home university, so I lived on campus. How funny!

  11. I loved Watching the English! I found it fascinating – especially trying to work out what social class I am. There were several points when I ticked boxes for all three levels – I hadn’t realised it was all so complicated. I regularly recommend it to people.

    I haven’t read any essays yet (apart from ones at school and uni) perhaps I should start one on 2010.

    • I thought it was so interesting, all the stuff about social class! America isn’t un-class-conscious or anything, but I think the classes are less sharply and obviously defined by language, if that makes sense. Kate Fox’s explanations were so true to my memories of England.

  12. Is it ironic that America gets blamed for not understanding irony when Alanis Morrisette is Canadian? 😉

    I’m going to have to see if I can get my hands on a copy of Watching the English. (By the bye, I love the word queue and wish we used it here in the States.)

    As for essays, I do enjoy reading them if they are on subjects that interest me, but I don’t read a lot of them. Most of them tend to be book-related.

    • I know! She’s Canadian! But I didn’t find that out until after I’d already left; I didn’t know it when people were accusing me of not understanding irony. Which I do, I do!

      I love “queue” too. The word, not the activity. “Queuing” as well. I’ve had an incredibly hard time, back in the US, stopping using it. I still sometimes catch myself saying “Are you queuing?” to people here.

      • I love the way it sounds when you spell out the word queue: Kyou-you-ee-you-ee.

        And I remember being slightly bemused the first time an American acquaintance didn’t understand me when I talked about queuing.

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  14. I read Watching English for one of my book groups (we regularly read non-fiction) and liked it for its social anthropology schtick. It was only a few months after moving to London from Scotland so I found it very interesting to compare our differing as well as similar customs are language. I am more observing due to that book and enjoy watching -and being aware of myself doing the same- the British public create queues. I have just finished reading the latest Jasper Fforde book and he had a lot about queues and their inexplicableness in it. We also drink a lot and lot of tea.

    • Y’all drink so much tea. When I was at Essex and I would go out clubbing with my flatmates, we’d get back late late at night, and I’d be all set to collapse into bed, and someone else would say “Shall I put the kettle on?” and we’d all have tea and toast. 😛

  15. Paxman’s book is not remotely as perceptive as Katie Fox’s book. He intellectualises too much. Katie’s book is based on solid research and is the only book on the English that is 90% accurate. “Watching the English” is frequently painful to read. There is much about the English that is risible and Katie captures most of it, because she gets to grip with class and its critical importance, still, to the English.

    BTW, British is wholly different.

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  17. I am new to your blog and it looks great! I discovered your blog while looking around for reviews of Zadie Smith’s ‘Changing My Mind’.

    I enjoyed reading your review of Zadie Smith’s book. I finished reading it this week and enjoyed reading it. Different essays were in different styles and that made it more interesting. I found some of the essays tough to read – especially the one on David Foster Wallace. But there were many others which were very enjoyable – especially the one on Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. I have posted my review of the book here –

    Do have a look if you are interested and do let me know what you think.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I agree with you that some of the essays were harder to get through – I actually skipped the David Foster Wallace one. I figure I can always go back to it once I’ve read David Foster Wallace and have some idea what she’s talking about. :p

      • Interesting to know that you skipped the essay on David Foster Wallace 🙂 I was really tempted to do that, because each page was tough to read. But if I don’t read a section of a book, I don’t get the satisfaction that I normally get when I finish reading a book. So I ploughed through with a lot of effort.

        I actually bought a book by David Foster Wallace at the bookstore the other day. There were two books at the store – one an essay collection and another a short story collection. The short story collection, looked like it had densely packed prose and so I kept it back. The essay collection looked quite humorous (it is called ‘Consider the Lobster’) and so I got it. I am looking forward to reading it soon.

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