For nearly four decades, Michiko Kakutani, who has decided to step down as chief book critic of The New York Times, has anointed new talent, charted the peaks and valleys of literary careers and memorialized writers when they’re gone. She has stayed up all night reading embargoed memoirs by ex-presidents and novels about boy wizards. She has chronicled the changing landscape of technology and its impact on reading; culture in the wake of 9/11; fiction in an era of war.
Below are highlights from Kakutani’s tenure at The Times — her reviews of major novels and autobiographies, her obituaries and appreciations, her profiles and essays. Together they represent a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium.
Not all of these books were debuts, but all of them found their authors at a new stage of ambition and relevance.
“Less Than Zero” by Bret Easton Ellis (1985)
Mr. Ellis has a good ear for the sort of dumb exchange of non sequiturs, bad jokes and half-hearted shrugs that pass for conversation between Clay and his friends; and while his descriptions of Los Angeles carry a few too many echoes of Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion and Nathanael West… they nonetheless demonstrate a keen eye for grim details (the dead fish in the Jacuzzi, the cigarette butt stubbed out on the kitchen floor, and so on) and a sure sense of the absurd.
“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace (1996)
It also shows off the 33-year-old Mr. Wallace as one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who’s equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who’s also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes.
Perfect, however, “Infinite Jest” is not: this 1,079-page novel is a “loose baggy monster,” to use Henry James’s words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind. It’s Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins, done in the hallucinogenic style of Terry Gilliam and Ralph Steadman.
“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” by George Saunders (1996)
In many respects, Mr. Saunders’s America is simply a nightmare vision of the future, an America only a few farcical steps removed from the country glimpsed every night on television. It’s a place where angry vigilantism has replaced respect for the law, a place where great expectations have turned to sour disappointment, and the good, the bad and the appalling are all recycled into tacky merchandise available at your local store.
“White Teeth” by Zadie Smith (2000)
It’s a novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer — a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time. This, “White Teeth” announces, is someone who can do comedy, drama and satire, and do them all with exceptional confidence and brio.… In what will surely rank as one of her generation’s most precocious debuts, Ms. Smith announces herself as a writer of remarkable powers, a writer whose talents prove commensurate with her ambitions.
“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers (2000)
Dave Eggers’s new book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” is part autobiography, part postmodern collage, a novelistic “memoir-y kind of thing” that tells the sad, awful, tragic story of how the author’s mother and father died within weeks of each other and how he became a surrogate parent to his 8-year-old brother, and tells it with such style and hyperventilated, self-conscious energy, such coy, Lettermanesque shtick and such genuine, heartfelt emotion, that the story is at once funny, tender, annoying and, yes, heartbreaking — an epic, in the end, not of woe, though there’s plenty of that too, but an epic about family and how families fracture and fragment and somehow, through all the tumult and upset, manage to endure.
“The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
In his new novel, “The Corrections,” Mr. Franzen has brought a family and its problems center stage to try to write a sort of American “Buddenbrooks.” In doing so he has harnessed his penchant for social criticism and subordinated it to his natural storytelling instincts, while at the same time, shucking off the influence of other writers to find an idiosyncratic voice of his own. Though often self-indulgent and long-winded, the novel leaves the reader with both a devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of America in the late 1990’s — an America deep in the grip of that decade’s money madness and sick with envy, resentment, greed, acquisitiveness and self-delusion, an America committed to the quick-fix solution and determined to try to medicate its problems away.
“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James (2014)
How to describe Marlon James’s monumental new novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”?
It’s like a Tarantino remake of “The Harder They Come” but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner, with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja. It’s epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting — a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent.
If it was a major book by a major author, chances are that Kakutani reviewed it.
“The Sportswriter” by Richard Ford (1986)
Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of Richard Ford’s powerful new novel, is a sportswriter the way Walker Percy’s famous hero, Binx Bolling, was a moviegoer.… Like Harry, the hero of the author’s last novel (“The Ultimate Good Luck”), Frank is an observer, a loner who’s wary of getting too involved in the lives of others; and in telling his story — or rather, in allowing Frank to tell it himself in his own rambling, philosophical voice — Mr. Ford has succeeded in writing his finest book to date, a book that can stand alongside such works as Mr. Percy’s “The Moviegoer” and Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road” as a devastating chronicle of contemporary alienation.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987)
“Beloved” possesses the heightened power and resonance of myth — its characters, like those in opera or Greek drama, seem larger than life and their actions, too, tend to strike us as enactments of ancient rituals and passions. To describe “Beloved” only in these terms, however, is to diminish its immediacy, for the novel also remains precisely grounded in an American reality — the reality of black history as experienced in the wake of the Civil War.
“London Fields” by Martin Amis (1990)
If one were to characterize “London Fields” further, one might add that it’s a comic murder mystery, an apocalyptic satire, a scatological meditation on love and death and nuclear winter — “Bonfire of the Vanities” crossed with “Gravity’s Rainbow,” as narrated by Al Goldstein and Jonathan Swift.
“Rabbit at Rest” by John Updike (1990)
Although he lacks the refined upper-middle-class tastes of the Maples and the author’s other suburban sophisticates, Rabbit remains the quintessential Updike hero — torn between sexual urgencies and vague spiritual illusions, between freedom and responsibility, a yearning for independence and an old-fashioned sense of duty. There is nothing forced or synthetic about Mr. Updike’s portrait of him, as there was in his recent depiction of characters in “The Witches of Eastwick” and “S.”; rather the reader has the sense that Mr. Updike knows Rabbit intimately, that Rabbit is someone palpably real. Indeed, he comes across as the author’s doppelgänger — the other self Mr. Updike might have become had he remained in his hometown, Shillington, Pa., and never become a writer.
In this sumptuous volume of 65 short stories… the reader is treated to a glorious recapitulation of the sorcerer’s entire career. His fascination with the elusive transactions made between life and art, his obsession with memory and the practice of nostalgia, his own experience of expatriation, and his love of games and puzzles and coincidence — all can be found in these pages, pushed, prodded and honed into a variety of shapes, into whimsical fables, old-fashioned character sketches, Poe-like exercises in the macabre, and clever, Postmodernist confections.
“The Moor’s Last Sigh” by Salman Rushdie (1995)
Filled with allusions to everything from “Tristram Shandy” to “The Lone Ranger,” from “Paradise Lost” to “Alice in Wonderland,” and crammed full with puns, wordplay, vulgar jokes and lyrical asides, “The Moor’s Last Sigh” is many books at the same time: a demented family saga, a twisted Bildungsroman, an exploration of the uses and misuses of art and a dark historical parable that rivals Mr. Rushdie’s 1981 masterpiece, “Midnight’s Children,” in scope, inventiveness and ambition.
“Mason & Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon (1997)
Certainly “Mason & Dixon” could have used some judicious editing; as it stands, its enormous bulk and intermittent longueurs will prove daunting to many readers. Still, its flaws are exuberant flaws of excess, and the reader who perseveres will be amply rewarded. In fact, as the novel rumbles along, it gathers a cumulative momentum, its density and garrulity impressing upon the reader a sense of the arduousness of Mason and Dixon’s journey and the long, aching curve of their lives.
“Underworld” by Don DeLillo (1997)
In an earlier book, a Don DeLillo character spoke about a Joycean novel, a novel “in which nothing is left out,” a novel that would capture the nervous spin and drift of recent American history and freeze forever in words a past that never stops happening.
With his astonishing new novel, DeLillo has written that book, or at least a close approximation of it. “Underworld” is an amazing performance, a novel that encompasses some five decades of history, both the hard, bright world of public events and the more subterranean world of private emotions in which individuals are connected by a secret calculus of hope and loss. It is the story of one man, one family, but it is also the story of what happened to America in the second half of the 20th century.
“American Pastoral” by Philip Roth (1997)
Certainly the vexing relationship between fathers and children, and the mind-boggling disparity between one’s expectations of the world and its grim reality are perennial issues for Mr. Roth’s heroes, but in “Pastoral,” they are turned from purely personal dilemmas into broader social ones. We are made to contemplate the demise of the immigrant dream cherished by men like Seymour’s father, the souring of the generational struggle during the 60’s, and the connections between assimilation and rootlessness and anomie.
“Birds of America” by Lorrie Moore (1998)
Like the writer-heroine in one of these stories, Ms. Moore is a skilled craftsman, capable of doing “quasi-amusing phone dialogue,” “succinct descriptions of weather” and “screwball outings with the family pet” with her left hand. The stories in this volume, however, also attest to far deeper gifts. They attest to Ms. Moore’s ability to map the emotional landscape of people in transition, people who have run smack up against the limits and limitations of their lives, people who feel themselves to be outsiders in their own families and marriages.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion (2005)
In this book, the elliptical constructions and sometimes mannered prose of the author’s recent fiction give way to the stunning candor and piercing details that distinguished her groundbreaking early books of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.” At once exquisitely controlled and heartbreakingly sad, “The Year of Magical Thinking” tells us in completely unvarnished terms what it is to love someone and lose him, what it is to have a child fall sick and be unable to help her.
It is a book that tells us how people try to make sense of the senseless and how they somehow go on.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” by J. K. Rowling (2007)
It is Ms. Rowling’s achievement in this series that she manages to make Harry both a familiar adolescent — coping with the banal frustrations of school and dating — and an epic hero, kin to everyone from the young King Arthur to Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker.
“Life” by Keith Richards (2010)
Mr. Richards’s prose is like his guitar playing: intense, elemental, utterly distinctive and achingly, emotionally direct. Just as the Stones perfected a signature sound that could accommodate everything from ferocious Dionysian anthems to melancholy ballads about love and time and loss, so Mr. Richards has found a voice in these pages — a kind of rich, primal Keith-Speak — that enables him to dispense funny, streetwise observations, tender family reminiscences, casually profane yarns and wry literary allusions with both heart-felt sincerity and bad-boy charm.
“Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee (2015)
The depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” makes for disturbing reading, and for “Mockingbird” fans, it’s especially disorienting. Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus — described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot? Suggestions about changing times and the polarizing effects of the civil rights movement seem insufficient when it comes to explaining such a radical change, and the reader, like Scout, cannot help feeling baffled and distressed.
Politics, History and Current Events
The world of books is as wide as the world itself, and the critic’s job extends to intepreting both. Kakutani embraced this role with enthusiasm and acumen.
“My Life” by Bill Clinton (2004)
The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull — the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history.
In many ways, the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton’s presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration.
Taken together with earlier volumes, these books create a cumulative and, in many respects, surprisingly coherent portrait of the Bush White House and its management style. Authors as disparate as the Reagan administration economist Bruce Bartlett, the New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, the Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes and the New York Times reporter James Risen point to ways in which this administration has discarded past precedent, and illuminate its penchant for circumventing traditional processes of policy development and policy review.
“Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)
In an appealing but awkward new book, “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin tries to look at Lincoln through his relationships with his former political rivals turned cabinet members . . . The result is a book that gives us a portrait of Lincoln as a virtuosic politician and managerial genius — a sort of visionary C.E.O. whose magnanimity, wisdom, humor and shrewd political instincts helped him to hold together a contentious cabinet and even more contentious coalition of Republicans, moderate Democrats and border-state Unionists, and thereby wage a successful war to preserve the Union and emancipate the slaves.
“Known and Unknown: A Memoir” by Donald Rumsfeld (2011)
For all the copious spin in this volume, Mr. Rumsfeld wittingly or unwittingly ratifies several aspects of the Bush administration described in earlier books and news reports: namely that toxic in-fighting between the Pentagon and State Department undermined the handling of the war in Iraq; and that the decision-making process within the Bush White House and the National Security Council was often fuzzy, if not downright dysfunctional.
“On China” by Henry Kissinger (2011)
Lurking beneath Mr. Kissinger’s musings on Chinese history is a not-so-subtle subtext. This volume, much like his 1994 book, “Diplomacy,” is also a sly attempt by a controversial figure to burnish his legacy as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. It is a book that promotes Mr. Kissinger’s own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Mao’s ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of more recent American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” (2013)
He began slowly, with magisterial gravity, talking about what it was to be black in America in 1963 and the “shameful condition” of race relations a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Unlike many of the day’s previous speakers, he did not talk about particular bills before Congress or the marchers’ demands. Instead, he situated the civil rights movement within the broader landscape of history — time past, present and future — and within the timeless vistas of Scripture.
Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan morph into shapeless struggles with no clear ends in sight, they have given birth to an extraordinary outpouring of writing that tries to make sense of it all: journalism that has unraveled the back story of how and why America went to war, and also a profusion of stories, novels, memoirs and poems that testify to the day-to-day realities and to the wars’ ever-unspooling human costs.
“Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939” by Volker Ullrich (2016)
How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?
Books About Donald Trump (2016)
To read a stack of new and reissued books about Mr. Trump, as well as a bunch of his own works, is to be plunged into a kind of Bizarro World version of Dante’s “Inferno,” where arrogance, acquisitiveness and the sowing of discord are not sins, but attributes of leadership; a place where lies, contradictions and outrageous remarks spring up in such thickets that the sort of moral exhaustion associated with bad soap operas quickly threatens to ensue.
Interview With Barack Obama (2017)
Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.
When the literary world was roiled by intense debates, most often surrounding ideas of truth and authenticity, Kakutani weighed in with authority.
“Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” by Edmund Morris (1999)
Back in 1985, when President Ronald Reagan selected Edmund Morris as his official biographer, the writer vowed he would produce “a substantial, scholarly book.” Fourteen years later, after years of worrying he didn’t “understand the first thing” about his subject, Mr. Morris has produced a book that is anything but scholarly or substantial. He has produced a bizarre, irresponsible and monstrously self-absorbed book — a Ragtime-esque “memoir” featuring a self-annotating narrator out of a Philip Roth novel and childlike hero out of “Being There.” Even worse, this loony hodgepodge of fact and fiction is being sold not as a novel but as “the only biography ever authorized by a sitting President.”
“A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey (2006)
If the memoir form once prized authenticity above all else — regarding testimony as an act of paying witness to history — it has been evolving, in the hands of some writers, into something very different. In fact, Mr. Frey’s embellishments and fabrications in many ways represent the logical if absurd culmination of several trends that have been percolating away for years. His distortions serve as an illustration of a depressing remark once made by the literary theorist Stanley Fish — that the death of objectivity “relieves me of the obligation to be right”; it “demands only that I be interesting.”
Appraisals and Appreciations
It’s a tradition at The Times for critics to assess the legacy of major cultural figures soon after they die, framing their influence beyond the obituary. Here are just a few of the towering figures brought into focus by Kakutani.
Saul Bellow (2005)
Cutting back and forth in time, while draping every manner of philosophical digression upon the armature of his characters’ lives, Mr. Bellow conjured both the busy mental life of his heroes — men who live, quite willfully, in their heads — and their daily, creaturely existence, their hectic encounters with tempestuous women, fast-talking pitchmen, professional jokesters, bumblers, bureaucrats and poseurs.
John Updike (2009)
Mr. Updike’s strongest work remained tethered to the small town and suburban worlds he knew firsthand, just as many of his heroes shared the same sort of existential fears the author acknowledged he had suffered as a young man. . . . Their fear of death threatens to make everything they do feel meaningless, and it also sends them running after God — looking for some reassurance that there is something beyond the familiar, everyday world with “its signals and buildings and cars and bricks.”
Lou Reed (2013)
If Mr. Reed provided a literary bridge to the Beats (and through them, back to the Modernists, and the French “decadents” Rimbaud and Verlaine, and even Poe, the subject of his 2003 project “The Raven”), he also created a bridge forward to punk and to glam, indie, new wave and noise rock.
Gabriel García Márquez (2014)
In novels like “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Autumn of the Patriarch” and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Mr. García Márquez mythologized the history of an entire continent, while at the same time creating a Rabelaisian portrait of the human condition as a febrile dream in which love and suffering and redemption endlessly cycle back on themselves on a Möbius strip in time.
Oliver Sacks (2015)
Animated by a self-deprecating sense of humor and set down in limber, pointillist prose, Dr. Sacks’s autobiographical accounts are as candid and searching as his writings about his patients, and they suggest just how rooted his compassion and intuitive understanding — as a doctor and a writer — were in his youthful feelings of fear and dislocation.