NW by Zadie Smith

Last Wednesday, I rushed home after work to feed and walk the dog, then rushed to the Cambridge Public Library to see Zadie Smith read from her new book, NW, and answer questions. Despite minimal advertising for the program, there was a long line; in addition to the auditorium where she was speaking, the CPL staff opened up an auxiliary room and set up a simulcast; I was one of the last four people allowed into the overflow room, and I was glad just to get in.

Smith read two sections from NW, one from the middle where Felix Cooper visits Annie, and one where Natalie Blake is part of a confrontation in a playground. (The book’s title, which refers to northwest London, reflects the author’s belief that “a novel is a local thing.”) Hearing an author read from her own work is nearly always enjoyable, and in this case it also helped give us Americans an idea of what the various NW characters were supposed to sound like (as we follow Smith’s advice, “Read what isn’t you,” e.g. the unfamiliar).

NW is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different character and each with a different narrative style. Felix’s story, in the middle, was the most straightforward, but only tangentially connected to Leah Hanwell and Natalie (formerly Keisha) Blake’s stories. The book opens with Leah, and ends with Natalie, whose section is broken into numbered segments; part of this ran in The New Yorker before the book was published.

As those who have read Zadie Smith’s work before know, she is fiercely intelligent and it can take some effort to keep up with her writing; additionally, in NW, the shifts in writing style will keep you on your toes. All three of the main characters grapple with their past, present, and future: in short, their identities. Though the writing is nontraditional and the characters are confused about who they are, NW has, in a way many other novels don’t, “thematic coherence” that resonates.

Read my full review, with quotes, on Goodreads.

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Preparing for Banned Books Week at the library (September 30-October 6), I’m getting excited ahead of time. The American Library Association (ALA) has several cool badges and banners available to download for free (remember to give credit for the images if you use them).

Reprinted by permission of the American Library Association.

On the ALA site, you can also see lists of the most frequently banned/challenged books, by author, year, or decade. You can also see that almost half of the Radcliffe (now Columbia) Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been challenged or banned; if you did any of your assigned reading in school, I can pretty much guarantee that at least one of those books is on that list.

The most frequently challenged/banned books list is overwhelmingly comprised of classics (think To Kill A Mockingbird and Brave New World) and young adult literature (The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter). The most common reasons for challenges are “sexually explicit,” “offensive language,” and “unsuited to age group,” and the most likely challenger, by a tremendous margin, is a parent.

I was fortunate that during my childhood and adolescence, my parents, teachers, and librarians never told me I couldn’t read a book. Reading has always been a positive part of my life, not something that ever harmed me – even when I was reading material “unsuited to my age group.”

Let’s all celebrate our freedom to read, not just September 30-October 6, but all year, every year – because reading is magic.


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

An alternative title for this post, taken from author Madeline Miller’s event last night at Porter Square Books, could be: Mythological Fiction: “Am I really having a centaur in my novel?”

 “Mythological fiction” is how Miller categorizes her novel, The Song of Achilles, rather than historical fiction or simply literary fiction, and it’s apt: The Song of Achilles is a retelling of part of Homer’s Iliad, complete with heroes, gods, and mortals. Authors who choose to adapt or retell myths have a choice, said Miller, to write the gods as characters or to explain away their presence (e.g., Was it Poseidon or an earthquake?). Miller chose to include the gods as characters, notably Achilles’ sea-nymph mother Thetis, and his and Patroclus’ teacher, the centaur Chiron.

 Miller’s impetus for writing The Song of Achilles was Achilles’ extreme grief over Patroclus’ death in the Iliad. To explain Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’ fate, she writes about their adolescence and coming of age together from Patroclus’ point of view. The Song of Achilles tells an ancient story in an accessible way; the writing is both modern and lyric. Of adapting Homer’s original material, Miller said, “Great artists [such as Homer] understand human nature…the stories in the past illuminate the present…great art has great psychological insight.” The story seems modern because human nature has not changed: pride, love, grief, and revenge are as familiar to us now as they were three thousand years ago.