Mini-Reviews: Swing Time and Letter From New York

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 18 books so far in 2018. This includes audio books and two chapter books I’ve read with my son (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl.) Currently my son and I have been reading more of the Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborn. I haven’t included those in my tally since they’re so short but I’m thinking perhaps I should. After all, I’m reading them aloud to him a few chapters every night, and I’m enjoying them! Why should book length have anything to do with if it “really counts” as reading?

Anyway, I don’t review everything I read because, frankly, I want to do other things at night after he goes to sleep and I have a couple of hours to myself, including yoga, painting my nails, watching Netflix/movies, and – oh yes – reading! 🙂 So in the interest of catching up, here are a couple of quickie mini-reviews of recent reads.

51hi92m66BLSwing Time by Zadie Smith. When this came out in 2016 I added it to my TBR list and then in 2017 I took it off. Well, it was chosen as my book group choice last month so I ended up reading it after all! I gave it three stars but feel like it might really be closer to two for me. Parts of it felt like a total SLOG. The last 50 pages or so redeemed it a bit and brought up the star rating. It’s about two young mixed-race British girls growing up in a poor part of town, taking dance classes together and watching old dance movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, among others. Our narrator (first person) is unnamed, but her more talented friend is named Tracey, and she is more of a vibrant character at times as well. As they come of age, they do grow apart for many reasons, like their families and general paths in life. Our narrator ends up being the personal assistant to a super famous pop star named Aimee, an utterly obnoxious woman (almost a caricature.) Aimee has a notion to open a girls’ school in Senegal and Our Narrator helps get that running. We go back and forth with chapters about the friendship and chapters about Aimee and Africa. I never felt like I really got to know Our Narrator very well. I felt like she was passive, aimless, and very afraid to let herself really love or care deeply about anyone.

There was some beautiful writing, and I feel like Smith is so talented on a purely sentence quality level. I just wish her stories were better, more focused. To be fair, I’ve only read two of her books, this one and White Teeth. But I also felt like White Teeth started strong and petered out by the end. So I’m frustrated with my experiences of reading Smith, and it makes me not want to waste my time with any of her other novels. If anyone else out there has read NW or On Beauty, tell me what you think. My book group meeting is tomorrow (Sunday,) and I’m certain that this book will offer us plenty to discuss.

231256Letter From New York: BBC Woman’s Hour Broadcasts by Helene Hanff. This was a yummy blueberry muffin of a book. Enjoyable, sweet, kind of forgettable. I found my copy of this slim collection of essays last fall in a used book shop in Black Mountain, NC called Black Mountain Books. You may recognize Hanff’s name from her beloved book 84 Charing Cross Road, which every book lover should read in my opinion. Letter From New York is a collection of essays she read on a BBC radio show called The Woman’s Hour. They are short pieces detailing her life in New York City in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Her friends, neighbors, neighbors’ dogs, neighbors’ tiny patio gardens, dinner parties, New York City parades, the wonder and splendor of Central Park – all of these and more are chronicled in charming vignettes that take about five minutes each to read. I read one or two every day, parceling them out in the morning like little mini-muffins of a time gone by. I enjoyed them, but I didn’t take any notes or really even single out any particular paragraphs. I’ll say that if you’re a fan of reading about New York City, or if you enjoyed Hanff’s Charing Cross Road, you should seek out this 140-page collection.

Do you sometimes not “count” certain types of reading in your yearly Goodreads tally? Should I give Zadie Smith another try? Is the movie version of 84 Charing Cross Road worth a watch? Share your thoughts on this or anything else in the comments!


29 thoughts on “Mini-Reviews: Swing Time and Letter From New York

  1. I’ve had Swing Time on my list too and have yet to read it. I kind of feel the same way. I’ve read a little bit of it, but it just isn’t giving me a warm fuzzy. She has a new essay collection called: Feel Free: Essays. I’ve heard good things about it. Maybe her shorter work is more engaging than her longer work. I don’t know.

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  2. I’m always tempted by Zadie Smith’s books, and then I read the reviews and think, nah, I wouldn’t really enjoy them – don’t know what it is really, maybe that I always feel she’s trying too hard to make A Point? I don’t usually count the horror stories I read on Goodreads unless they’re at least novella length, but I know several of my GR friends do. It makes me feel better about the fact that they all seem able to read three times as much as me… 😉

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    1. Trouble is, what Point is she making? I kept feeling like I was missing something here.

      Yes, it’s all relative! I see Goodreads friends who read a lot of graphic novels and their counts are much higher than mine. Goes to show I shouldn’t compare! Reading is reading!

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  3. I think if you read a book and you want people to know it and/or to support the book, put it in Goodreads. Don’t worry about how many and up there.

    I’ve only read On Beauty by Smith, which is a reimagining of Howard’s End. I read H.E. first and then O.B. for a class and enjoyed them together. O.B. didn’t blow me away, though.

    I think my new, most favorite description of a book is “a yummy blueberry muffin of a book.”

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    1. I didn’t know that about On Beauty. Howard’s End is on my Classics Club list so perhaps I will try On Beauty after I finish that one.

      Ha ha! I’m glad to give you a new fave description. It was warm and enjoyable like a blueberry muffin but not my favorite thing ever (cheesecake? hot fresh donuts?)


  4. I have had a similar frustration with Zadie Smith. Can’t tell you how many times I tried to read White Teeth and gave up. The only novel of hers that I’ve been able to complete is On Beauty, which I very much enjoyed. I like your assessment that she writes beautifully on a sentence level, plus she’s so interesting to listen to in interviews!

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  5. I haven’t read alot of Zadie Smith, but you’re not the only person who has complained about her writing so I’d probably agree with you there. I don’t typically count parenting books that I read in my tallies, more so because I’m embarrassed I read them at all LOL

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    1. That’s funny! You shouldn’t be embarrassed about parenting books – it’s like any other kind of “how-to” book, right? 🙂 I always think I’m going to read parenting books, they always look appealing, but then when I actually get down to it, I’d much rather read a novel or memoir!

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  6. I was just thinking about that and in particular DNF reads. I read a book over the weekend and only got to 30% before deciding that its not for me. Do you usually add DNFs to your tally? As for your books, I think they should count even if they are short because you did read them after all 🙂

    I haven’t read any of the two books I hope that the group meeting went well though.


    1. I don’t include DNFs on my tally. I have an exclusive Goodreads shelf for those, so it doesn’t count them towards the Goodreads challenge.
      I think that I probably will include the Magic Tree House books – you’re right, I’m reading them! 🙂

      Our meeting was great! We had a really good discussion about Swing Time. Made me reconsider it in a new light.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes the movie of 84 Charing Cross Road is definitely worth watching with Anne Bancroft! Sorry to hear about the Zadie Smith book as a Slog — perhaps her nonfiction is better? Her recent book of essays I’m on the wait list for at the library. We will see ….

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  8. Well done, you! I need to focus on one book and stop book juggling to get more finished 😁🙈
    Mini-reviews are so handy, need to take a page out of your book and get on that! Haha yes to Netflix etc time!
    I’ve heard a lot of Swing Time, mostly meh, so I might read more of her essays First. I did enjoy In. Beauty and White Teeth though 😊
    Happy reading!😊

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  9. I saw your updates on GR for the Magic Treehouse books today, so I know you took seriously all the encouragement to add them: why not? Especially when they take time every evening that you’re not spending with other books instead! I have a feeling you won’t necessarily enjoy NW or On Beauty any more than you’ve enjoyed the other two Zadie Smith novels. I found Swing Time very rewarding (my thoughts are here, if you’re curious ) but I agree with your sentiment in a comment above, that it’s more about appreciating. I do really admire what she does (and I enjoy the puzzle of trying to find “the point” even though I’m not sure I always do find it) but I do read her in a serious, home-worky kind of mood, not just in any old mood. Oh, I love love love the film of 84 Charing Cross Road. Just your question makes me want to rewatch it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will take a look at your thoughts on Swing Time! Perhaps I should have waited to write my post until after my book group meeting. Our discussion made me reconsider my thoughts on the book a bit. Just a bit! 🙂

      Oh good – another classic film for the to-watch list!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. There seem to be so many differing opinions on Zadie Smith’s books. Just that alone makes me curious to read more of them – ha! I’ve only read On Beauty, but I really liked it. We read it for Literary Wives a few months ago and not all of us liked it. It was really interesting to get other perspectives. Your book club meeting must have been good. Was there anything in particular someone said about Swing Time to change your thinking?

    I remember reading The Magic Tree House books to my kids. We got through a lot of them! It did get a little tiring to read the beginning of them over and over, but I actually learned some stuff reading those books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, one of our members talked about the structure of the book in a way that I hadn’t noticed… that it swung back and forth like a pendulum, with the beginning and ending both consisting of the friendship with Tracey and the narrator’s mother, and the other stuff in then middle. And the way that the narrator was so influenced by the three woman in her life who had such strong personalities: Tracey, her mom, and Aimee. She almost never had a chance to develop any of her own qualities or opinions because every time she tried, one of those women shot her down. It made me feel more sympathetic and understanding of the character.

      Yes, I do learn things from the Magic Tree House too! I like that they’re adventure/fantasy, that they have both a boy and a girl character, and that they’re educational. I’m enjoying them so far!

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