Book Review: “On Beauty” (2005) by Zadie Smith

"Belle" Portraits - 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

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It should be obvious from the first line that this novel is inspired by a love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.

So let’s talk about E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), one of the last great “condition of England” novels. In this genre, the writer draws a picture of English society and its many problems, often showing that change is necessary for a better future. In this book, Forster examines class relations in particular and argues that the strict social hierarchy of the Victorian age has no place in the modern world. He is critical of Edwardian society, but also seems hopeful that these issues can be resolved and that people will be able to find a way to connect despite their differences.

In On Beauty, Zadie Smith takes the plot of Howards End into the twenty-first century. There are still two families, one liberal and one conservative, who find their fates intertwined by a sudden engagement. There is still a young man looking to climb up the social ladder and, like Forster, Smith asks the reader to rethink the meaning of identity in a multicultural world. However, she adds an extra dimension, one that makes this novel instantly relevant to today’s society: race.

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Book Review: “Siegfried Sassoon: A Life” by Max Egremont

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Sassoon in 1920.

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When we think of Siegfried Sassoon, we think of World War One – his brutally realistic poems about the trenches, his anger, how he narrowly escaped death so many times. The war was the defining of Sassoon’s life and his career as a writer… But it lasted only four years and was over when he was only thirty-two. In this 639-page biography, the war ends around the 200th page. Then what? This was a question that plagued Sassoon all his life – and one his biographer, Max Egremont, struggles with as well. What happens after the worst has passed? How do you move on? What is left?

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Book Review: “Crush” (2005) by Richard Siken

“On The Road” (2012) still.

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In an older study advice post on how to approach poetry, I wrote that a good poet should be able to make you feel something, whether you fully understand the work or not:

Often poems are not so much vessels of information, but more like an experience. A good poet can reach out and get an emotional response from you even if you have no clue what (s)he is talking about. Sometimes you need to read a poem a few times before you fully understand it, or you can spend the rest of your life reading a work and still not grasp what is actually about. Sometimes the poets doesn’t want you to get it. You’re not stupid or illiterate, it’s just… Poetry. If you feel it, you feel it. If you don’t, you don’t.

Even though Richard Siken is a fairly accessible poet, I had no idea what the poems in Crush were about the first time I read it, little over a year ago. But it didn’t matter, because I felt it. The words tugged on heartstrings I never even knew I had and left me staring out the window, trying to find the right words for the rush of emotions washing over me. I have read Crush two more times since then and I feel like I have a better grasp of it now, but it still leaves me staring out the window, at a complete loss for words.

…But let’s give it a go anyway.

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