Ta-Nehisi Coates has contributed some of the more tendentious analysis on African-American identity and history in the US, including his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” This book came about after he reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which includes, in part, an open letter from Baldwin to his nephew.
Between the World and Me is written in a similar style, but as a letter from Coates to his teenage son in which he speaks frankly about the plight of being black in America, including stories of his West Baltimore upbringing and the idealism of his college years at Howard University. Despite dips into history and memoir, the book is rooted ﬁrmly in current moments. In...more
“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” As M Train opens, Patti Smith enters a dream set in an isolated landscape, trying to get the attention of a cowpoke, “vaguely handsome, intensely laconic.” He ignores her and claims her dream as his own before declaring, “The writer is a conductor.” The book proceeds through eighteen “stations,” rather than chapters, though its linearity remains dreamlike, touching on themes of solitude, grief, and the creative process. The cowpoke recurs, as does Smith’s habit of visiting the café across the street from her apartment to drink black coﬀee and follow her meandering thoughts.
I closed my notebook and sat in the café thinking about real time. Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended?...more
In the summer I read Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, and struggled to write anything about it. The book is broad and scattered, attempting to establish Gordon’s roots as an artist while also covering basically every side project she took on while she was the bassist for Sonic Youth for twenty years. She seems to write the least about her experiences in the band, even insisting she doesn’t primarily consider herself a musician. Her approach felt emotionally distant, though she acknowledges that people tend to see her that way; yet then she delves into raw, gossipy detail on the dissolution of her marriage with Thurston Moore after he was unable to end an aﬀair with another woman.
Reading this immediately after Frank Bruni’s memoir, in which he is so open about his life, Nina MacLaughlin seems very guarded in comparison. She has some funny and touching stories to tell about leaving a career as a journalist to become a carpenter, responding to a Craiglist posting almost on a lark, but while she attempts to make clever literary statements by referencing other texts and going into the etymologies of terms, something seems oﬀ about her approach. At one point she criticizes an interview with Gabriel García Márquez in which he described writing being the same as carpentry, “With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”
García Márquez admits a few sentences later that...more
Frank Bruni is best known for the ﬁve years he spent as restaurant critic for The New York Times, but while this memoir is very food-focused, only a sliver of it is about his tenure in that position and funny stories of his challenges in dining incognito. Though he opens with the ﬁrst phone call he received about the job, he quickly contextualizes the signiﬁcance for him in considering the position by relating another phone call with a colleague who asks him bluntly, “Are you sure that you’re willing to sacriﬁce the good shape you’ve gotten into?” After a lifelong struggle with overeating and discomfort with his body size, Bruni had only recently found some balance while working as the...more
Most often classiﬁed as a memoir, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon feels like a novella-length personal essay that starts with Mark Doty’s interest in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings and moves through an elegiac exploration of objects and intimacy. It’s surprisingly expansive for its length, and Doty manages to suggest a lot of detail in his descriptions and narratives. Writing about paintings seems at ﬁrst like it could be a terrible idea — something along the lines of dancing about architecture — yet here it leads to graceful, compelling prose.
The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of...more
Some ballads begin as your letter does: ‘You, whom I’ve loved so much…’ This past tense, with the present still resounding so close, is as sad as the ends of parties, when the lights are turned oﬀ and you remain alone, watching the couples go oﬀ into the dark streets. It’s over: nothing else is to be expected, and yet you stay there indeﬁnitely, knowing that nothing more will happen. You have notes like a guitar’s; at times, like a chorus that repeats: ‘I could not have given you happiness.’ It’s an old song from long ago, like a dried ﬂower…Does the past become an old thing so quickly?
Sauvageot wrote Commentary in a sanitarium not long before her death from...more
I last read this book nearly six and a half years ago; when my friend Eleanor brought it up recently to share a quote from it someone had passed on to her, it felt like perfect time for a re-read. In those six odd years, I’ve read several of Solnit’s books and have come to appreciate her particular way of getting at a subject, where bits and pieces of anecdotes and research fuse together into a nuanced perspective. Much of her work is grounded in history and various arenas of activism, so this feels very personal and nostalgic in comparison, yet I think it has more of those elements than her more recent book, The Faraway Nearby....more
I expect even some of the most stalwart of Solnit’s fans would not consider this her best book, as it seems a bit scattered, though it’s similar in general feel to A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Its “Russian-doll” structure functions less like burrowing deeper into the complexities of a diﬃcult period of her life and more like the tide retreating away from solid ground only to ﬂow back in. Yet for me the timing of this book was uncanny, as I kept ﬁnding topical moments throughout. Solnit has a lot to say about telling our stories, of the vagaries of illness, of the possibilities of empathy, of the slow pace of change, and of the isolated time she...more
Recounting nine years of living in protective custody after the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death, Rushdie’s memoir is beﬁttingly hefty at over 630 pages. About three-quarters of the way into it, the tediousness of his ongoing ﬁght to live freely comes through all too clear. In addition to describing the particulars of living constantly with a team of security personnel and the various meetings to try to force Iran to overturn the fatwa, Rushdie also covers general life stories including his several marriages and inﬁdelities as well as his writing process and various parties he attended and celebrities he met, despite the restrictions to his personal freedom.