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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

November Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

This 2000 debut novel by British writer Zadie Smith is complicated tale of three individuals living in the outskirts of London in the early 70’s: Samad Iqbal, a middle-aged Bengali Muslim, a WWII vet, with a wife and two twin boys who works in an Indian restaurant; Archie Jones, a middle-aged white man, Samad’s best friend, also a WWII vet, who at the start of the novel unsuccessfully commits suicide; and Clara, a dark-skinned Jamaican young woman who marries Archie within six weeks of meeting despite the wide age difference. It is a story of family, of love, of religion, of prejudice; each character has a complicated, intense history which influences their current behaviors and attitudes. As the story unfolds, and the characters’ children grow older, life only becomes more and more complicated, as cultures, values, and the changing of times clash, and the sentiments that once bounds them together slowly begin to unravel.

Smith wrote the book in her early twenties as she was finishing her undergrad, and when it picked up and published when she was only twenty-five, it was met with so much acclaim that Smith won a grant. The book won multiple awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Award, the Whitbread Book Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. Doubtless a major reason for the novel’s unprecedented success is the meticulous detail to the social commentary on modern British life and specifically on the multiculturism and post-colonialism that mark the fusion of the different backgrounds of the characters. Smith, with biting attention, reveals the intricacies of hybridity and examines how the dynamics of intermixing cultures work to dismantle and redefine the very definition of “Englishness.” The book is a masterpiece; Smith’s prose is fluid, accessible yet intellectual, clever, and incredibly impressive. It is no wonder why this debut novel of hers propelled her into the upper echelons of contemporary literature where she still sits today.

Intimations by Zadie Smith

This 2020 collections of essays by British writer Zadie Smith is her newest body of work. A short collection–only six essays total–she wrote them at the beginning of the year while living in New York City, still with more than half of the year to go. Essay topics range from aging to the importance of art, the significance of writing and why, cultivating space, working remotely, love, and life during a pandemic. Each essay is not simply an observation or well-detailed anecdote, but rather an examination, an in-depth analysis of culture, events, tradition, politics, conventions, and the invisible ties that bind people together, especially in the chaotic and truly unprecedented year that 2020 has been.

I couldn’t spurn the urge to dive into some of her essays after finishing White Teeth and this collection was truly a perfect work. In each essay, Smith’s brilliant mind, her eloquent way with words, uncanny craft of criticism, and acerbic wit poured forth in volumes. Spanning from the intimate, heart-churning, emotion invoked in her ideas and questions put forth to the biting, mordant, cynical criticism reminiscent of Sontag, this collection was a truly entertaining, and intellectual work. And it’s so short, I finished it in one sitting. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

This 1963 essay by American novelist and literary critic Susan Sontag is one of her most popular essays. In the essay, Sontag argues, in her famous concluding line, that “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.” The essay is attack on the newer methods of aestheticism and literary criticism that seek to find “deeper meanings” in works of literature. She lambasts the methodologies of previous critics and philosophers noting that the probing of a piece of art detracts from the importance and profound effects found in the experience of the piece of art. She makes the argument, using Kafka as an example, that if a reader approaches a piece of literature with the objective of finding a specific theme or allegory, then that reader will inevitably find it and in doing so will overlook the other important aspects, lessons, and beautiful things that can be found in the piece of art. Sontag, in her essay, draws heavily on the influence of Water Pater, Oscar Wilde, and her early mentor Roland Barthes.

The essay is widely regarded as a critique on literary criticism, the various schools of which Sontag details in the essay. She argues that meaning should not be forced out of a piece of literature, that art should be able to exist separated from the idea that it should mean something. And because of her scathing eloquence and brilliant mind for analogy and metaphor, her essay is often taught in academic settings. The collection of essays in which this one was included and eponymously named after this essay upon its publication in 1966 was a finalist for the Arts and Letters category of the National Book Award. For me, it’s one of her best, and though I would argue with perhaps more than few points she makes in the essay, I still think it is an essay of utmost importance, not simply in the academic world of literary criticism, but also in the artistic world, the inner workings of which academic criticism strives to understand.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

This 1981 short story by American writer Raymond Carver revolves around the conversation between two middle-aged couples at a dinner party: Nick, the narrator, and his girlfriend Laura; and theirs married friends Mel and Terri, both of whom have been formerly married. The story is almost entirely the dialogue of the characters as they talk about competing definitions of love. Terri talks about how her ex-husband loved her so much he tried to kill her and ended killing himself. Mel talks about how he used loved his ex-wife in ways different than he now loved Terri. And Nick and his girlfriend Laura listen, doubtlessly wondering about their own love, as the conversation meanders, Mel discursively leaps from story to story and back again on the concept of love. The story ends ambiguously with Mel drunkenly wanting to call his kids and with Terri who insists on their going out to dinner.

Carver is renowned for his ability to write dialogue, to paint the details of conversation in ways that reflect real life with unbelievable accuracy. He is often lumped into the “minimalists” (though he himself denounced it) as it pertains to his terse prose and avoidance of too much extraneous details, instead focusing on his characters and the relationships between them. And this story is very well known for that reason. Each character’s perspective on the concept of love seems to clash with another’s and does so in such a way as to reveal certain aspects of the individual’s character and personality. However, such an exposition on humanly love doubles as a critique and commentary on the contemporary norms of our collective understanding of what love should be and what love actually is. This story hit me in a way that seldom a story does. An absolute masterpiece.

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