Five Books Making News This Week: Punks, Geniuses, Parisians
Patti Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Patrick Modiano and more
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a big week. He is one of three writers included in this year’s list of 24 winners of the $625,000 MacArthur “genius” grants (along with Ben Lerner and Ellen Bryant Voigt). Coates also is named a nonfiction finalist for the Kirkus Prize ($50,000 for each of three winners in fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature). Two previous National Book Award winners—Patti Smith and Lily Tuck—have new books out, last year’s French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano is building a critical mass of work translated into English, and Claire Vaye Watkins’s apocalyptic first novel hits as wildfires consume thousands of acres in California.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Framed as a letter to his son, Coates’ powerful and timely book on racism—“a visceral experience,” that “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth”—was rushed into print in mid-July. Coates continues to build momentum as he is named to the nonfiction finalists’ list for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize and nabs a MacArthur “genius” grant.
“Between the World and Me is a chronicle of a historical moment and a text that deserves the place it will hopefully find in the canon of writing about fatherhood, filial love, and race in the United States,” writes Tom Andes (The Rumpus). “Ta-Nehisi Coates shares James Baldwin’s capacity to look into the maw of history and recognize the human, and that makes Between the World and Me worthy of Baldwin’s legacy. Hopefully, that will cause Coates’s most ardent fans to seek out writers like Brittney Cooper, Jelani Cobb, Mia McKenzie, or Roxane Gay—or John Edgar Wideman, Nella Larson, and the many others who are part of the same rich tradition to which Coates and Baldwin belong.”
John Paul Rollert (The Atlantic) compares Coates’s point of view with that of President Obama: “Coates offers a very different perspective on the potential for empathy to heal racial divisions.”
Meanwhile, Coates has written a provocative new cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration,” for The Atlantic, signed on to create a year-long Black Panther Marvel comics series, and spoken to Tim Adams (The Guardian) about two men who inspire his work—James Baldwin and his own father.
Patti Smith, The M Train
The punk rocker elder whose memoir Just Kids won a National Book Award launched her new book with an a cappella performance at the 100th anniversary celebration of her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf on Thursday night and a rendition of “Because the Night” to David Remnick’s accompaniment at the New Yorker Festival. Reviewers respond positively to her evocative lyrics.
The M Train arrives 40 years after Smith’s debut album Horses, “a sonic boom still sending aftershocks through music, literature and fashion,” notes Elizabeth Hand (Washington Post). Smith’s new book, Hand writes, “is a Proustian reverie covering those four decades: a magical, mystical tour de force that begins in a tiny Greenwich Village cafe and ends as a dream requiem to the same place, encompassing an entire lost world in its 253 pages.” Despite all the losses, she concludes, “there is extraordinary joy here, too… Readers who share in Smith’s transcendent pilgrimage may find themselves reborn within the pages of this exquisite memoir.”
Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) uses phrases like “achingly beautiful,” and a “kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance” to characterize The M Train. Smith’s book, Kakutani writes, “is about moving from a time when her children were little and ‘the things I touched were living’ (‘my husband’s fingers, a dandelion, a skinned knee’) to a time when she increasingly began to capture and memorialize moments from her life in photos and words—to create, as an artist, talismanic souvenirs of the past. Of which this book is one.”
The M Train is not a sequel to Smith’s Just Kids, points out David L. Ulin (Los Angeles Times). It is, he writes, “a book of mourning, written from the perspective of experience. If Just Kids was a work of youthful consecration, and Woolgathering (written when the author was in her 40s) a series of midlife meditations, M Train takes place in the aftermath and concerns itself with reckoning… looking back and forth across the days.”
Moira Hodgson (Wall Street Journal) considers The M Train more a “musing” than a memoir, with Smith “taking her ancient Polaroid camera on a world-wide tour of the most important places in her life. They include Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, Friedrich Schiller’s summer house in Germany, and a rundown shack she bought in Far Rockaway, Queens—her ‘Alamo,’ she calls it, since it miraculously stood through Hurricane Sandy. The book shows the reflective side of this 68-year-old punk rocker/poet, who onstage just last June at Glastonbury gave the Dalai Lama a cake for his 80th birthday and screamed to an ecstatic crowd: ‘My generation had dreams and we’re still dreaming!’”
Lily Tuck, The Double Life of Liliane
Tuck, who won a National Book Award for her 2004 novel The News from Paraguay, is back with an autobiographical fiction that pushes the form and raises questions about family, memory, history and narrative.
“Tuck expertly fuses world history and four-generation family history, fact and fiction,” writes Malcolm Forbes (The Millions). “She utilizes photographs, letters, and poetry and engages with and reflects on war, memory, and humanity. In all of this, W.G. Sebald looms large over the page.” As for the autobiographical nature of this novel, Forbes concludes, “After a fashion we stop questioning how much of what we are reading is memoir and how much of it isn’t, and simply surrender to the elegant, limpid prose of this, the most beguiling work of Lily Tuck’s career.”
Mark Athitakis (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) calls Tuck’s coming-of-age novel “remarkable:” “The double life of the novel’s title,” he writes, touches “on faith, family and how much we manipulate our pasts when we start writing it down.”
Flammetta Rocco (New York Times Book Review) suggests Tuck’s novel “will mean most to readers of a certain age who are able to recognize the cultural fence posts Tuck has hammered into the verge along her journey.”
Tuck’s autobiographical facts “often segue into relevant historical information—about street names, for example, ocean liners, news stories of the day—that lends an aura of even greater veracity,” notes Tova Reich (Washington Post) “All of this is further backed up and given added authority by the inclusion of old photographs in the manner of W.G. Sebald, like a family album. Yet this is a work of fiction. In its narrative detail and organization, in the liberties it takes reconstructing past events, in its cameo appearances by such international figures as Josephine Baker, Alberto Moravia and a coyly unnamed Nabokov, The Double Life of Liliane stands as fiction.”
My take for NPR: “This recovery of fragments, for this author, involves a near alchemical process. Tuck inhabits the spacious realm of the imagination, shifting time zones and historic periods effortlessly, weaving memories and photographs, family stories and facts, as Liliane’s mesmerizing portrait emerges.”
Patrick Modiano, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, translated by Euan Cameron.
The prolific Modiano, who won last year’s Nobel prize in literature, is introduced to American readers, thanks to a wave of translations making his work newly available.
Alexandra Schwartz (The New Yorker) nails the Modiano moment: “Novelists are compulsive as a breed, and Modiano is an exceptionally compulsive novelist. He has come out with a book every couple of years or so since 1968, and though a few, like Honeymoon, have been quietly available in English for some time, a harvest of new translations has just arrived… Such a sudden bounty should, by all rights, lead to writer fatigue, but Modiano is an ideal writer to gorge on, in part because his books are airy and short—generally a hundred and fifty pages at the most, hypnotically carried along by sentences built simply enough to survive their hurried journeys into English—and in part because they make up a system as beguiling and complete as any in contemporary literature. Again and again, he returns to the same names and places and events, ‘patterns,’ as he says, ‘on a tapestry woven while half asleep.’ Laced together by their internal repetitions, the books echo and contradict and amplify one another until they come to seem like a single work.”
David L. Ulin (Los Angeles Times) also points out the “overlap, the back-and-forth” in Modiano’s work, which “makes reading any single Modiano book like encountering one installment in an ongoing, multivolume work. This press of memory becomes more resonant the more one reads.” So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, he writes, “leads us back through [his new memoir] Pedigree” to Modiano’s first three novels—La Place de l’Etoile, The Night Watch and Ring Roads—which have just been issued in a single volume called The Occupation Trilogy. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion, the petals of a rose.
Melissa Maerz (Entertainment Weekly) calls So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood “a suspenseful inquiry into memory and storytelling, including the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. It’s the best kind of mystery, the kind that never stops haunting you.”
Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus
Watkins won a raft of awards (including the Story Prize) for her first book, the collection Battleborn. Her first novel has made it onto a raft of “best of ” lists, including BBC.com, Buzzfeed, Men’s Journal, The Millions, and Newsday.
The California-born Watkins’s “beautiful” first novel, which “depicts an American West brought to its knees by a crippling drought, couldn’t be more timely,” writes Michael Schaub (Los Angeles Times), “But it would be a shame to skip Watkins’s unsettling, hallucinatory vision of the future.” Watkins writes, he adds, “with a brutal kind of beauty, and even in the book’s darkest moments, it’s impossible to turn away… It’s an urgent, frequently merciless book, as unrelenting as it is brilliant.”
Christine Smallwood (Harper’s) notes, “Watkins’s narrative is mythic and speculative, its sediment forming and re-forming in lists, treatises, and reports. The writing, with its tough sentimentality, is reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s, but Watkins has a style of mordant observation all her own.”
“Watkins has crafted a powerful, innovative and hallucinatory novel from a bleak yet all-too-real vision,” concludes Malcolm Forbes (Minneapolis Star-Tribune). “Her landscapes feel primordial and post-apocalyptic. Each is brilliantly mapped.”
Emily St. John Mandel (New York Times Book Review) voices some quibbles—“ not all of the stand-alone chapters connect… from time to time there is a certain unevenness to the writing… If this book is sometimes frustrating,” she writes, “it’s also fascinating. A great pleasure of the book is Watkins’s fearlessness, particularly in giving her characters free rein to be themselves. People who were shiftless and irresponsible before the disaster are shiftless and irresponsible afterward. This particular apocalypse is not an opportunity for redemption, and no one is ennobled by it.”
Maddie Oatman (Mother Jones) calls it one good thing to come out of the California drought. “Just as she turns a familiar landscape into a mysterious and foreboding geography, Watkins breathes new life into words we thought we knew well. Gold Fame Citrus will hypnotize you like a dream, and make you want to take a big swig of the water we have left.”
Using Gold Fame Citrus as a jumping-off point, Lyz Lenz (Salon) crafts an essay on “the lean but vital tradition of fictional ambivalent mothers.” The landscape of Watkins’s novel, she writes, “is undeniably female, not only in its symbols—Luz, her mother and Ig—but in Watkins’s phantasmagoric imaginings. The light and color are ever-shifting and -changing. Attempts to understand and control this world are futile. The landscape is both victim and victimizer—like an angry Medea, satisfied with nothing but a total obliteration.The land is then the ambivalent mother—it gives and betrays, nurtures and devastates. The fates of women in this novel are closely intertwined with the land.”