National Book Critics Circle
2016 (Fiction)
LaRose
Book Jacket   Louise Erdrich
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. After accidentally shooting his friend and neighbor's young son, a man on a Native American reservation subscribes to "an old form of justice" by giving his own son, LaRose, to the parents of his victim. Erdrich, whose last novel, The Round House, won the National Book Award in 2012, sets this meditative, profoundly humane story in the time just before the U.S. invades Iraq but wanders in and out of that moment, even back to origin tales about the beginning of time. On tribal lands in rural North Dakota, the shooter, Landreaux Iron, and his wife, Emmaline, trudge toward their neighbors' house to say, "Our son will be your son now." As both families amble through the emotional thickets produced by this act (the wives are half sisters, to boot), Erdrich depicts a tribal culture that is indelible and vibrant: Romeo, a drug-addled grifter still smarting from a years-ago abandonment by his friend Landreaux (and whose hurt makes this novel a revenge story); war vet Father Travis, holy but in love with Emmaline; and LaRose, his father's "little man, his favorite child," the fifth generation of LaRoses in his family, who confers with his departed ancestors and summons a deep, preternatural courage to right an injustice done to his new sister. Erdrich's style is discursive; a long digression about the first LaRose and her darkness haunts this novel. Just when she needs to, though, Erdrich races toward an ending that reads like a thriller as doubts emerge about Landreaux's intentions the day he went hunting. Electric, nimble, and perceptive, this novel is about "the phosphorous of grief" but also, more essentially, about the emotions men need, but rarely get, from one another. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2016 (General NonFiction)
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Book Jacket   Matthew Desmond
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A groundbreaking work on the central role of housing in the lives of the poor. Based on two years (2008-2009) spent embedded with eight poor families in Milwaukee, Desmond (Sociology and Social Science/Harvard Univ.; On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, 2007, etc.) delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative exploring the ceaseless cycle of "making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless" as experienced by adults and children, both black and white, surviving in trailer parks and ghettos. "We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty," writes the author. Once rare, eviction is now commonplace for millions of Americans each year, most often as a result of insufficient government support, rising rent and utility costs, and stagnant incomes. Having gained unusual access to these families, Desmond immerses us in the lives of Sherrena Tarver, a teacher-turned-landlord who rents inner-city units to the black poor; Tobin Charney, who nets more than $400,000 yearly on 131 poorly maintained trailers rented (at $550 a month) to poor whites; and disparate tenants who struggle to make rent for cramped, decrepit units plagued by poor plumbing, lack of heat, and code violations. The latter include Crystal, 18, raised in more than two dozen foster homes, who moved in with three garbage bags of clothes, and Arleen, a single mother, who contacted more than 80 apartment owners in her search for a new home. Their frantic experiencesthey spend an astonishing 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rentmake for harrowing reading, interspersed with moving moments revealing their resilience and humanity. "All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary," writes Desmond, who bolsters his stories with important new survey findings. He argues that universal housing vouchers and publicly funded legal services for the evicted (90 percent lack attorneys in housing courts) would help alleviate this growing, often overlooked housing crisis. This stunning, remarkable booka scholar's 21st-century How the Other Half Livesdemands a wide audience. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2016 (Biography)
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
 Ruth Franklin
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2016 (Poetry)
House of Lords and Commons
 Ishion Hutchinson
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2016 (Criticism)
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
Book Jacket   Carol Anderson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A close reading of America's racial chasm.In the wake of what were often termed the Ferguson riots, Anderson (African American Studies/Emory Univ.; Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960, 2014, etc.) wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post with the headline, "Ferguson isn't about black rage against cops. It's white rage against progress." Here, she extends her argument, showing how any signs of black rage might be more than justified in the face of decades of white intolerance, indifference, and obstruction. The author provides a perspective dating back to the Civil War, charging that the victory outlawing slavery failed during Reconstruction, which shifted terms without significantly improving the plight of the former slaves. "Indeed, for all the saintedness of his legacy as The Great Emancipator," she writes, "Lincoln himself had neither the clarity, humanity, nor resolve necessary to fix what was so fundamentally broken. Nor did his successor." Most of what Anderson traces in this compact study offers more summary than revelation, and while it does testify to the dehumanizing effects of white power and prejudice, the "white rage" of the title seems more like a rebalancing of the scales than a precise description. As she writes in the wake of Ferguson, "framing the discussion, dominating it, in fact, was an overwhelming focus on black ragewhich, it seemed to me, entirely missed the point." Yet the book builds to an emotional climax that justifies its title, as the election of the nation's first black president brought such intensity to the nation's fissures: "the vitriol heaped on Obama was simply unprecedented," and the "hatred started early." By the epilogue, Anderson's analysis seems prescient. "Not even a full month after Dylann Roof gunned down nine African Americans," she writes, "Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, fired up his silent majority'with a macabre promise: Don't worry, we'll take our country back.' " A book that provides necessary perspective on the racial conflagrations in the U.S. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2015 (Fiction)
The Sellout: A Novel
Book Jacket   Paul Beatty
 
2015 (General NonFiction)
Dreamland: The True Tale of Americas Opiate Epidemic
 Sam Quinones
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Discouraging, unflinching dispatches from America's enduring opiate-abuse epidemic. Veteran freelance journalist Quinones (Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, 2007, etc.) cogently captures the essence of the festering war on drugs throughout the 1990s. He focuses on the market for black tar heroin, a cheap, potent, semiprocessed drug smuggled into the United States from Nayarit, a state on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The author charts its dissemination throughout American heartland cities like Columbus and Portsmouth, Ohio, home to a huge, family-friendly swimming pool named Dreamland, which closed in 1993, after which opiates "made easy work of a landscape stripped of any communal girding." Assembling history through varying locales and personal portraits, Quinones follows a palpable trail of heartbreak, misery and the eventual demise of seemingly harmless people "shape-shifted into lying, thieving slaves to an unseen molecule." The author provides an insider's glimpse into the drug trade machine, examining the evolution of medical narcotic destigmatization, the OxyContin-heroin correlation and the machinations of manipulative pharmaceutical companies. His profiles include a West Virginia father burying his overdosed son, a diabolically resourceful drug dealer dubbed "the Man," and "Enrique," a Mexican citizen who entered the drug trade as a dealer for his uncle at 14. Perhaps most intriguing is the author's vivid dissection of the "cross-cultural heroin deal," consisting of an interconnected, hive-minded "retail system" of telephone operators, dealers (popularly known as the "Xalisco Boys") and customers; everything is efficiently and covertly marketed "like a pizza delivery service" and franchised nationwide with precision. The author's text, the result of a five-year endeavor of remote research and in-person interviews, offers a sweeping vantage point of the nation's ever expanding drug problem. Though initially disjointed, these frustrating and undeniably disheartening scenarios eventually dovetail into a disturbing tapestry of abuse, addiction and death. Thankfully, for a fortunate few, rebirth is possible. A compellingly investigated, relentlessly gloomy report on the drug distribution industry. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. In this young adult adaptation of his adult title Dreamland (2015), seasoned journalist Quinones narrates a fast-paced expos of the opiate epidemic.The story begins and ends in Portsmouth, Ohio, a leader in both societal decline due to addiction and, years later, hope for recovering addicts. Quinones lays out the causes of the epidemic as if bringing together puzzle pieces. Purdue Pharma's ad campaign targeting physicians downplayed the addictive nature of painkillers; physicians overprescribed them, mostbut not allwith sincere intentions of helping their patients. A seemingly endless stream of Mexican drug dealers sought out the addict population as customers for their imported black tar heroin, which provided the same euphoria but with less cost and inconvenience. Presented as victims are the addictspredominantly white families, at first poor and rural, later from privileged backgrounds. The efforts of law enforcement and public health officials to tackle the problem are detailed. Personal profiles crafted from interviews keep things interesting, and the technical descriptions of the various drug forms and the history of opiates are informative. Although the author describes the radical about-face by lawmakers who took a "tough on crime" approach to drugs when victims were predominantly black, readers may finish the book with the impression that Mexicans have wreaked havoc on innocent white lives.A scrupulously researched, well-crafted tale that sheds light on a timely topic. (epilogue, photographs, reading guide, source notes) (Nonfiction. 12-18) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2015 (Biography)
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
 Charlotte Gordon
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Gordon (English/Endicott Coll.; The Woman Who Named God: Abraham's Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths, 2007) delivers a drama-filled dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and her daughter, Mary Shelley (1797-1851).In an occasionally confusing style featuring alternating chapters, the author's biographies of the two Marys show how different their lives were. The daughter of an alcoholic father, Wollstonecraft grew up constantly trying to protect her mother and siblings, circumstances that led her into a lifelong fight for independence and female rights and against marriage. Her publisher, Joseph Johnson, gave her a position as a book reviewer for his monthly Analytical Review, where only initials indicated the author, masking her gender. Johnson eventually sent her to Paris to write about the Revolution, and she became the first foreign correspondent and an unwed mother to boot. Her political writing, especially A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was highly regarded. She eventually married William Godwin, a political writer with an equally dim view of marriage. Their marriage was happy but short, and Mary died giving birth to her daughter, who spent her life idolizing and emulating her mother. At 16, Mary and her half sister, Jane, ran away to France with Percy Shelley; the only poorer choice would have been his dear friend, Lord Byron. Together, society termed them the "League of Incest." Mary and Jane vied for Shelley's attention; Jane eventually had Byron's child, and polite society shunned them. Mary and Percy eventually married, in hopes of gaining custody of his children from a previous marriage. The widowed Mary successfully carried on her mother's work, not through political writing but in novels. What the two women had in common was their writing talent, strength, and dedication to the fight for women's education and rights. While Gordon tells their stories well, moving back and forth between the Marys can be perplexing. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2015 (Autobiography)
Negroland: A Memoir
Book Jacket   Margo Jefferson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. From a Pulitzer Prize-winning theater and book critic, a memoir about being raised in upper-class black Chicago, where families worked tirelessly to distance themselves as much from lower-class black people as from white people. Born in 1947, Jefferson (On Michael Jackson, 2006) has lived through an era that has seen radical shifts in the way black people are viewed and treated in the United States. The civil rights movement, shifting viewpoints on affirmative action, and the election of the first black president, with all the promise and peril it held: the author has borne witness to changes that her parents could only have dreamed about. Jefferson was born in a small part of Chicago where a "black elite" lived, to a father who was the head of pediatrics at Provident, the country's oldest black hospital, and a socialite mother. The author describes a segment of the population intent on simultaneously distinguishing itself from both white people and lower-class black people and drawing from both groups to forge its own identity. She writes about being raised in a mindset that demanded the best from her and her family, while she also experienced resentment regarding the relative lack of recognition for the achievements they had earned. Jefferson tells a story of her parents seeing Sammy Davis Jr. on stage, early in his career, when he hadn't yet established himself enough to completely let his own unique style shine through. Her parents could see the change coming, thoughthe self-assuredness in his performanceand they saw that as emblematic of their own rise. Jefferson swings the narrative back and forth through her life, exploring the tides of racism, opportunity, and dignity while also provocatively exploring the inherent contradictions for Jefferson and her family members in working so tirelessly to differentiate themselves. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2015 (Poetry)
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
Book Jacket   Ross Gay
 
2015 (Criticism)
The Argonauts
 Maggie Nelson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A fiercely provocative and intellectually audacious memoir that focuses on motherhood, love and gender fluidity.Nelson (Critical Studies/CalArts; The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, 2012, etc.) is all over the map in a memoir that illuminates Barthes and celebrates anal eroticism (charging that some who have written about it hide behind metaphor, whereas she's plain from the first paragraph that she's more interested in the real deal). This is a book about transitioning, transgendering, transcending and any other trans- the author wants to connect. But it's also a love story, chronicling the relationship between the author and her lover, the artist Harry Dodge, who was born a female (or at least had a female name) but has more recently passed for male, particularly with the testosterone treatments that initially concerned the author before she realized her selfishness. The relationship generally requires "pronoun avoidance." This created a problem in 2008, when the New York Times published a piece on Dodge's art but insisted that the artist "couldn't appear on their pages unless you chose Mr. or Ms.You chose Ms., to take one for the team.' " Nelson was also undergoing body changes, through a pregnancy she had desired since the relationship flourished. She recounts 2011 as "the summer of our changing bodies." She elaborates: "On the surface it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more male,' mine more and more female.' But that's not how it felt on the inside." The author turns the whole process and concept of motherhood inside out, exploring every possible perspective, blurring the distinctions among the political, philosophical, aesthetic and personal, wondering if her writing is violating the privacy of her son-to-be as well as her lover. Ultimately, Harry speaks within these pages, as the death of Dodge's mother and the birth of their son bring the book to its richly rewarding climax. A book that will challenge readers as much as the author has challenged herself. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2014 (Fiction)
Lila
 Marilynne Robinson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. More balm in Gilead as Robinson (When I Was a Child I Read Books, 2012, etc.) returns to familiar ground to continue the saga of John Ames and his neighbors. Ames, Robinson's readers will know, is a minister in the hamlet of Gilead, a quiet place in a quiet corner of a quiet Midwestern state. Deceptively quiet, we should say, for Robinson, ever the Calvinist (albeit a gentle and compassionate one), is a master at plumbing the roiling depths below calm surfaces. In this installment, she turns to the title character, Ames' wife, who has figured mostly just in passing in Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). How, after all, did this young outsider wind up in a place so far away from the orbits of most people? What secrets does she bear? It turns out that Lila has quite a story to tell, one of abandonment, want, struggle and redemptionclassic Robinson territory, in other words. Robinson provides Lila with enough back story to fuel several other books, her prose richly suggestive and poetic as she evokes a bygone time before "everyonestarted getting poorer and the wind turned dirty" that merges into a more recent past that seems no less bleak, when Lila, having subsisted on cattails and pine sap, wanders into Gilead just to look at the houses and gardens: "The loneliness was bad, but it was better than anything else she could think of." She never leaves, of course, becoming part of the landscapeand, as readers will learn, essential to the gradually unfolding story of Gilead. And in Robinson's hands, that small town, with its heat and cicadas, its tree toads and morning dew, becomes as real as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, just as charged with meaning if a touch less ominous, Lila's talismanic knife notwithstanding. Fans of Robinson will wish the book were longerand will surely look forward to the next. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2014 (General NonFiction)
A brief history of seven killings : a novel
Book Jacket   Marlon James
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. An assassination attempt on Bob Marley stokes this sweeping portrait of Jamaica, encompassing a host of gangsters, CIA agents, journalists and businessmen.Marley is never mentioned by name in the third novel by James (The Book of Night Women, 2009, etc.). But the singer is unmistakably him, and the opening chapters, set in late 1976, evoke an attempt on his life sparked by tensions between gangs representing rival political parties. (In reality, as in the novel, the singer was wounded and went into exile in England.) And though we never hear Marley in his own voice, James massive novel makes room for pretty much everybody elses. Most prominent are Papa-Lo and Josey Wales, kingpins of the Copenhagen City gangs; Barry, a cynical CIA agent with orders to stop the march of communism though the red menace is the least of the islands problems; Alex, aRolling Stonereporter assigned to cover Marley who becomes enmeshed with the gangs; and Nina, who had a fling with Marley. As in his previous novels, James is masterful at inhabiting a variety of voices and dialects, and he writes unflinchingly about the violence, drug-fueled and coldblooded, that runs through the islands ghettos. Moreover, he has a ferocious and full character in Nina, who persistently reboots her life across 15 years, eventually moving to New York; her story exemplifies both the instinct to escape violence and the impossibility of shaking it entirely. But the book is undeniably overstuffed, with plenty of acreage given to low-level thugs, CIA-agent banter and Alexs outsider ramblings about Jamaican culture. James fiction thus far is forming a remarkable portrait of Jamaica in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the novels sprawl can be demanding.An ambitious and multivalent, if occasionally patience-testing, book. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2014 (Biography)
Tennessee williams : mad pilgrimage of the flesh.
Book Jacket   John Lahr
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. The tormented life of a celebrated American playwright.WhenThe Glass Menageriedebuted on Broadway in 1945, the opening-night audience erupted in thunderous applause. After 24 curtain calls, shouts of Author, Author! brought a startled, bewildered, terrified, and excited Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) to the stage. At 34, after a decade of failed productions, he had achieved the success for which he had been desperately striving. Arthur Miller called the play a revolution in theater; Carson McCullers saw in it the beginning of a renaissance. But praise could never quash the demons that haunted Williams throughout his life. In this majestic biography, former longtimeNew Yorkerdrama critic Lahr (Honky-Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People,2005, etc.) delineates the fears, paranoia and wrenching self-doubt that Williams transformed into his art. I have lived intimately with the outcast and derelict and the desperate, Williams said. I have tried to make a record of their lives because my own has fitted me to do so. In stories, poems and such plays asA Streetcar Named DesireandCat on a Hot Tin Roof,Williams drew upon his stultifying childhood; his anguish over his sisters mental illness; and his promiscuity and failed love affairs. Addicted to alcohol and a pharmacopeia of narcotics, Williams at one point sought help from a psychoanalyst; however, when the treatment forbade him to write, he fled. His self-worth, Lahr concludes, was bound up entirely in his work and consequently in how directors, actors and especially critics responded to what he produced. Feeling bullied and intimidated by others expectations, he projected onto them (director Elia Kazan, most notably, or his long-suffering agent Audrey Wood) his own moral failure and turned it into a kind of legend of betrayal. Lahr knows his subject intimately and portrays him with cleareyed compassion. Drawing on vast archival sources and unpublished manuscripts, as well as interviews, memoirs and theater history, he fashions a sweeping, riveting narrative.There is only one word for this biography: superb. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2014 (Autobiography)
Cant we talk about something more pleasant?
 Roz Chast
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A revelatory and occasionally hilarious memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist on helping her parents through their old age. Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast (What I Hate, 2011, etc.) retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she's done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life as the only child of parents who had never even dated anyone else and whose deep bond left little room for this intruder in their midst. Yet, "the reality was that at 95, their minds and bodies were falling apart," and these two people who had only relied on each other were forced to rely on a host of caretakers, their daughter in particular, and to move from the Brooklyn apartment that had been home for half a century into a series of facilities that provided fewer and fewer amenities at escalating expense. Chast rarely lapses into sentimentality and can often be quite funny, as she depicts mortality as "The Moving Sidewalk of Life" ("Caution: Drop-Off Ahead") or deals with dread and anxiety on the "Wheel of DOOM, surrounded by the cautionary' tales of my childhood." The older her parents get, the more their health declines and the more expensive the care they require, the bleaker the story becomesuntil, toward the end, a series of 12 largely wordless drawings of her mother's final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does. A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers' appreciation of Chast and her work.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2014 (Poetry)
Citizen : an american lyric.
 Claudia Rankine
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A prism of personal perspectives illuminates a poet's meditations on race.Like a previous volume, Don't Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Rankine (English/Pomona Coll.) subtitles this book An American Lyric, which serves as an attempt to categorize the unclassifiable. Some of this might look like poetry, but more often there are short anecdotes or observations, pieces of visual art and longer selections credited as "Script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas." Yet the focus throughout is on how it feels and what it means to be black in America. It builds from an accretion of slights (being invisible, ignored or called by the name of a black colleague) and builds toward the killing of Trayvon Martin and the video-gone-viral beating of Rodney King. "A similar accumulation and release drove many Americans to respond to the Rodney King beating," she writes. "Before it happened, it had happened and happened." Rankine is particularly insightful about Serena Williams, often criticized for displays of anger that the author justifies as responses to racism, conscious or not. "For Serena," she writes, "the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you." The author's anger is cathartic, for her and perhaps for readers, though she shows how it can be strategic as well: She refers to an artist's "wryly suggesting black people's anger is marketable," while proposing that "on the bridge between this sellable anger and the artist' resides, at times, an actual anger." Within what are often very short pieces or sections, with lots of white space on the page, Rankine more effectively sustains a feeling and establishes a state of being than advances an argument. At times, she can be both provocative and puzzlinge.g., "It is the White Man who creates the black man. But it is the black man who creates." Frequently powerful, occasionally opaque. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2014 (Criticism)
The Essential Ellen Willis
Book Jacket   Ellen Willis
2013 (Fiction)
Americanah
Book Jacket   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A sensitive portrayal of distant love, broken affinities and culture clash by Nigerian novelist Adichie (Purple Hibiscus, 2003, etc.). Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it's said--but as often it makes the heart grow forgetful. Ifemelu, beautiful and naturally aristocratic, has the good fortune to escape Nigeria during a time of military dictatorship. It is a place and a society where, as a vivacious "aunty" remarks, "[t]he problem is that there are many qualified people who are not where they are supposed to be because they won't lick anybody's ass, or they don't know which ass to lick or they don't even know how to lick an ass." Ifemelu's high school sweetheart, Obinze, is too proud for any of that; smart and scholarly, he has been denied a visa to enter post-9/11 America (says his mother, "[t]he Americans are now averse to foreign young men"), and now he is living illegally in London, delivering refrigerators and looking for a way to find his beloved. The years pass, and the world changes: In the America where Ifemelu is increasingly at home, "postracial" is a fond hope, but everyone seems just a little bewildered at how to get there, and meanwhile, Ifemelu has to leave the safe, sheltered confines of Princeton to go to Trenton if she's to get her hair done properly. The years pass, and Ifemelu is involved in the usual entanglements, making a reunion with Obinze all the more complicated. Will true love win out? Can things be fixed and contempt disarmed? All that remains to be seen, but for the moment, think of Adichie's elegantly written, emotionally believable novel as a kind of update of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale. Soap-operatic in spots, but a fine adult love story with locations both exotic and familiar.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2013 (General Nonfiction)
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
 Sheri Fink
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Pulitzer Prizewinning medical journalist/investigator Fink (War Hospital, 2003) submits a sophisticated, detailed recounting of what happened at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. Under calamitous, lethal circumstances, the staff at Memorial did a remarkable job of saving many lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina--though others would point out they didn't have the street smarts of the staff at Charity Hospital, whose creativeness resulted in far fewer deaths. Fink draws those few days in the hospital's life with a fine, lively pen, providing stunningly framed vignettes of activities in the hospital and sharp pocket profiles of many of the characters. She gives measured consideration to such explosive issues as class and race discrimination in medicine, end-of-life care, medical rationing and euthanasia, and she presents the injection of some patients with a cocktail of drugs to reduce their breathing in such a manner that readers will be able to fully fashion their own opinions. The book is an artful blend of drama and philosophy: When do normal standards no longer apply? what if doing something seems right but doesn't feel right? In the ensuing investigation of one doctor, who is clearly the fall guy (or woman, as it were), Fink circles all the players, successfully giving much-needed perspective to their views. The obvious villains are the usual suspects: nature, for sending Katrina forth; big business, in the guise of Memorial owner Tenet Healthcare, for its failure to act and subsequent guilty posturing; and government, feds to local, for the bungling incompetence that led to dozens of deaths. The street thugs and looters didn't help much, either. With apparent effortlessness, Fink tells the Memorial story with cogency and atmosphere.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2013 (Biography)
Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World
 Leo Damrosch
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A feisty, first-class life of the sage and scourge of English Literature. Besides being a great essayist, satirist, novelist and poet, Jonathan Swift (16671745) was a very public man: a social-climbing Anglican minister, a friend to Alexander Pope, a competitor of Daniel Defoe and Laurence Sterne, a stalwart nationalist of Ireland--where he would be consigned to live--and a man whose shifting political allegiances forced him to publish his fiercest critiques anonymously (if only just barely). He masked himself in other ways, as well, leaving behind enough private contradictions and obscurities to keep biographers busy to this day. Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.; Tocqueville's Discovery of America, 2010, etc.) is bent on both correcting the record and adding to it, creating a fresh and vivid life even as he wrestles with previous biographers--namely Irvin Ehrenpreis--along the way. Damrosch explores the mystery of Swift's parentage as well as his concealed Betty-and-Veronica relationships, one with the loving and devoted "Stella" (Hester Johnson)--whom he may have secretly married and who is buried next to him--and one with the temptress "Vanessa" (Esther Vanhomrigh). Damrosch also amply scrutinizes Swift's inner life: Was this preacher who absolutely insisted on churchly tithes even a true believer? Was Gulliver's Travels misanthropic or, as Methodist founder John Wesley suggested, an honest examination of mankind at its worst? Damrosch gets close to Swift as both a talented author and a man, detailing his frustrations, habits and multiple physical torments from deafness, vertigo and a variety of odd ailments. ("The spots increased every day and had little pimples, which are now grown white and full of corruption, though smallI cannot be sick like other people," he wrote, "but always something out of the common way.") This is the kind of biography where you come to feel you know the subject personally. A rich and rewarding portrait of an irreplaceable genius.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2013 (Autobiography)
Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti
Book Jacket   Amy Wilentz
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A veteran journalist captures the functioning chaos of Haiti. New Yorker writer Wilentz has been covering shattering events in Haiti since the Duvalier dynasty fell in 1986, culminating in her book The Rainy Season. Now based in Los Angeles, the author again felt the fatal pull of the country after the recent natural-disaster devastation and returned repeatedly in order to record the uneven progress in reconstruction and humanitarian aid as well as interview many of the so-called (in politically incorrect parlance) Fred Voodoos, or Everymen on the street, for a reality check. Describing herself as "a nave person, and a romantic," she has grown enormously wary of the good intentions heaped on the country from one crisis to another and is frequently cynical after many years of her "Haitian education." Since its very inception as the first (and last) slave revolution in history, Haiti has been victimized, plunged into poverty, denuded of resources and patronized by rich white neighbors bent on a "salvation fantasy" that has never lifted the country out of poverty. After the hurricane, suddenly whites appeared everywhere to help out. While Wilentz does chronicle some extremely good work being done--by the indefatigable infectious-disease specialist Dr. Megan Coffee and by actor Sean Penn in setting up a workable refugee camp--much of what the journalist witnessed remained a familiar profound malaise and dysfunction. Seeking out her old acquaintances and former protgs of President Aristide, the author found drugged-out zombies, many living in permanent refugee camps without proper sanitation and little or no literacy. She learned that nothing is as it seems in Haiti. Like voodoo ceremonies, society runs on "artifice and duplicity," and its government (a kleptocracy) has been organized "to be porous and incompetent, to allow for corruption." An extraordinarily frank cultural study/memoir that eschews platitudes of both tragedy and hope.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2013 (Poetry)
Metaphysical Dog: Poems
Book Jacket   Frank Bidart
 
2013 (Criticism)
Distant Reading
 Franco Moretti
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2012 (Fiction)
Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk
 Ben Fountain
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Hailed as heroes on a stateside tour before returning to Iraq, Bravo Squad discovers just what it has been fighting for. Though the shell-shocked humor will likely conjure comparisons with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, the debut novel by Fountain (following his story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, 2006) focuses even more on the cross-promotional media monster that America has become than it does on the absurdities of war. The entire novel takes place over a single Thanksgiving Day, when the eight soldiers (with their memories of the two who didn't make it) find themselves at the promotional center of an all-American extravaganza, a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys football game. Providing the novel with its moral compass is protagonist Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old virgin from small-town Texas who has been inflated into some kind of cross between John Wayne and Audie Murphy for his role in a rescue mission documented by an embedded Fox News camera. In two days, the Pentagon-sponsored "Victory Tour" will end and Bravo will return to the business as usual of war. In the meantime, they are dealing with a producer trying to negotiate a film deal ("Think Rocky meets Platoon," though Hilary Swank is rumored to be attached), glad-handing with the corporate elite of Cowboy fandom (and ownership) and suffering collateral damage during a halftime spectacle with Beyonc. Over the course of this long, alcohol-fueled day, Billy finds himself torn, as he falls in love (and lust) with a devout Christian cheerleader and listens to his sister try to persuade him that he has done his duty and should refuse to go back. As "Americans fight the war daily in their strenuous inner lives," Billy and his foxhole brethren discover treachery and betrayal beyond anything they've experienced on the battlefield. War is hell in this novel of inspired absurdity. ]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2012 (General Nonfiction)
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity
Book Jacket   Andrew Solomon
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. National Book Awardwinning journalist Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 2001, etc.) uses issues raised by disability to examine the nature of parenthood, the definition of disability and the ability to control reproduction to create designer children. More than a decade ago, when he was assigned to cover a student protest at the Lexington Center for the Deaf in Queens, N.Y., over the hiring of a CEO with normal hearing, the author began to look at medical and cultural issues raised by disability. The protesters demanded that deafness should not be considered a disability, but rather a neuro-diversity on par with ethnic diversity. Some members of the deaf community even considered cochlear implants in young children as "a genocidal attack on a vibrant community" because of the linguistic richness of sign language. Solomon also wrote a piece on child prodigies based on an interview with the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and he followed with a story about the lives of dwarfs based on the experience of a friend who sought role models for her daughter. Gradually, Far from the Tree began to take shape as the author explored more deeply the question of disability. Additional chapters cover Down syndrome (a genetic disorder), autism (of unknown origin), transgenderism and more. Solomon writes about the transformative, "terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility" faced by parents who cherish severely disabled children, and he takes an in-depth look at the struggles of parents of autistic children who behave destructively. He also explores the fascinating mental lives of independently functioning autistic individuals and speculates on the possibility that geniuses such as Mozart and Einstein were at the far end of the spectrum. Throughout, Solomon reflects on his own history as a gay man who has been bullied when he didn't conform to society's image of masculinity. An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the future of humanity.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2012 (Biography)
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Book Jacket   Robert Caro
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. The fourth volume of one of the most anticipated English-language biographies of the past 30 years. This installment covers Johnson's vice presidency under John F. Kennedy, his ascension to the presidency after the Kennedy assassination and his initial nine months as president. As in the earlier volumes, Caro (Master of the Senate, 2002, etc.) combines a compelling narrative and insightful authorial judgments into a lengthy volume that will thrill those who care about American politics, the foundations of power, or both. Even Johnson acolytes, sometimes critical about portions of the earlier volumes, are less likely to complain about their hero's portrayal here. While documenting the progression of his subject's character flaws, Caro admires Johnson's adroit adaptability. Though he chafed as vice president after giving up the leadership of the U.S. Senate, Johnson seems to have developed a grudging admiration for JFK. However, Johnson and Robert Kennedy could not put aside the animosity that had taken root on Capitol Hill. When Robert became not only his brother's confidant but also his attorney general, Johnson resented the appointment. Caro documents the feuds between them and vividly relates how the warfare between the two men continued after JFK's assassination. On a more upbeat track, the author explains how Johnson's lifelong commitment to helping the dispossessed led to passage of unprecedented civil-rights legislation. The evidence seems strong that JFK could not have engineered passage of much of the civil-rights legislation because he lacked Johnson's influence over members of Congress. The fifth volume is in the works, and it is expected to cover Johnson's election to the White House and his full term, with the conduct of the Vietnam War ceaselessly dogging him. The author writes that the next book "will be very different in tone." Before beginning the Johnson biography, Caro published a life of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974), a book many scholars consider a watershed in contemporary biography. The Johnson project deserves equal praise.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2012 (Autobiography)
Swimming Studies
 Leanne Shapton
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A disjointed debut memoir about how competitive swimming shaped the personal and artistic sensibilities of a respected illustrator. Through a series of vignettes, paintings and photographs that often have no sequential relationship to each other, Shapton (The Native Trees of Canada, 2010, etc.) depicts her intense relationship to all aspects of swimming: pools, water, races and even bathing suits. The author trained competitively throughout her adolescence, yet however much she loved racing, "the idea of fastest, of number one, of the Olympics, didn't motivate me." In 1988 and again in 1992, she qualified for the Olympic trials but never went further. Soon afterward, Shapton gave up competition, but she never quite ended her relationship to swimming. Almost 20 years later, she writes, "I dream about swimming at least three nights a week." Her recollections are equally saturated with stories that somehow involve the act of swimming. When she speaks of her family, it is less in terms of who they are as individuals and more in context of how they were involved in her life as a competitive swimmer. When she describes her adult life--which she often reveals in disconnected fragments--it is in ways that sometimes seem totally random. If she remembers the day before her wedding, for example, it is because she couldn't find a bathing suit to wear in her hotel pool. Her watery obsession also defines her view of her chosen profession, art. At one point, Shapton recalls a documentary about Olympian Michael Phelps and draws the parallel that art, like great athleticism, is as "serene in aspect" as it is "incomprehensible." While the author may attempt to mirror this ideal, the result is less than satisfying and more than a little irritating.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2012 (Poetry)
Useless Landscape/A Guide for Boys
 D. A. Powell
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2012 (Criticism)
Strange Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights
Book Jacket   Marina Warner
2011 (Fiction)
Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories
Book Jacket   Edith Pearlman
 
2011 (General Nonfiction)
Libertys Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World
 Maya Jasanoff
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Jasanoff (History/Harvard Univ.; Edge of Empire: Life, Culture, and Conquest in the East 17501850, 2005) examines the effects of the American Revolution on those whose loyalty to the Crown compelled them to flee the new United States.As the author writes, few expected the Revolution to succeed, but when it did, the American supporters of King George III found their property and lives in dire jeopardyeven the Anglican clergy, who had sworn fealty to George III and felt honor-bound to their oaths. Loyalists were beaten and tormented constantly. After a swift summary of the war, Jasanoff focuses on those who did not remain. Where did they go? Did they prosper? Upper-class white loyalists were inconvenienced, but many managed to find havens elsewhere. The lower classes, however, including the American Indians and African-Americans who had sided with the British, found their lives shattered and their futures bleak. Jasanoff moves artfully from larger global issues (where to resettle?) to individual stories of people who documented the turmoil with publications, letters and diaries. Some individuals stand out. Sir Guy Carleton organized a massive evacuation of up to 100,000 soldiers and civilians from U.S. coastal cities. Dr. William Johnston struggled with the many ill immigrants in Jamaica. John Clarkson was the white Moses of the emigration in 1792 of hundreds of blacks from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone. Jasanoff gives just space to each of the principal destinationsNova Scotia, the Bahamas and Jamaica, Canada and Sierra Leone. The struggles were fierce in all the locations, but the author has perhaps her kindest words for the African settlers, who, after a devastating attack from the French, succeeded in Freetown. Jasanoff's most sympathetic words go to the American Indians, who listened and trusted, and suffered horribly as a result.Splendidly researched, sensibly argued and compassionately told.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2011 (Biography)
George F. Kennan: An American Life
 John Lewis Gaddis
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. The long-awaited authorized biography of George F. Kennan (19042005), the creator of America's Cold War containment strategy.Kennan commissioned Gaddis (History/Yale Univ.; The Cold War: A New History,2006, etc.) to write his life story back in 1981, on condition that the work not be published until after his death. Then 75, Kennan lived to be 101. Now the story can be told, and it is well worth the wait. At the beginning of his diplomatic career in the late 1920s, Kennan, along with a handful of others, was recruited into the Russian Studies section of the State Department's Eastern European division by Robert Kelley, and he helped FDR's Ambassador William Bullitt open diplomatic relations. Gaddis has had unique access to official papers, Kennan's own publications and documents, the diary that he kept throughout his life and his correspondence, especially to his sister. This access will be especially revealing for those interested in discovering more about the period from 1944 to 1952, which saw victory in World War II, the development of the atomic bomb, the adoption of containment, the beginning of the Cold War and the adoption of the Truman Doctrine. Throughout the book, Kennan's papers make clear what he was responsible for, and what he wasn't. Gaddis also provides intriguing accounts of Kennan's work with the Marshall Plan, his establishment of a training program for upcoming officers in the military and diplomatic service and his work with Frank Wisner and the Office of Policy Coordination. But of equal interest are his later life at Princeton's School of Advanced Studies and his relations with subsequent Presidents, including Bill Clinton, whose expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union Kennan forcefully objected to.A well-rounded treatment of the life of a man who made significant contributions to his country and the world at large.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2011 (Autobiography)
The Memory Palace: A Memoir
Book Jacket   Mira Bartok
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A disturbing, mesmerizing personal narrative about growing up with a brilliant but schizophrenic mother.The book is comprised of two intertwining narratives. One concerns artist Bartk's mother, Norma Herr, and her struggle with mental illness. The other examines the author's midlife struggle with a traumatic brain injury. Norma was a gifted pianist whose musical career came to an unexpected end when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19. In the lucid intervals between the debilitating episodes of her illness, Normawho married an equally gifted alcoholicfostered a love of art in her two daughters. In so doing, she gave both girls the tools to survive her illness and their father's abandonment. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, Bartk and her sister used art as a coping mechanism for dealing with their mother's illness. As Norma's condition worsened, escape from domestic turbulence became more difficult. In an act of radical self-preservation, the sisters changed their names and severed nearly all ties with Norma; letters sent via PO Box became the only way they communicated with her. As a young adult, Bartk forged a life as a peripatetic artist haunted by the fear that her mother would find her. At age 40, she was involved in a car accident that left her with a speech and memory-impairing brain injury. From that moment on, her greatest challenge became recollection, which manifested textually as a slightly exaggerated concern with descriptive detail. She and her sister then discovered that their now-homeless mother was dying of cancer, and both decided to see her, 17 years after their decision to disappear from Norma's life. By chance, Bartk found a storage unit filled with her mother's letters, journals and personal effectsa veritable palace of memories. The artifacts she uncovered helped her to better understand her mother, and herself, and find the beginnings of a physical and emotional healing that had eluded her for years.Richly textured, compassionate and heartbreaking.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2011 (Poetry)
Space, in Chains
Book Jacket   Laura Kasischke
 
2011 (Criticism)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews
 Geoff Dyer
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A grab-bag of critical essays, reportage and personal stories from the irrepressibly curious Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, 2009, etc).The title of this hefty tome, featuring pieces published in two United Kingdomonly collections, suggests ponderous philosophizing. But though Dyer takes his art seriously, his prose is as relaxed and self-effacing as it is informed. Indeed, the title essay is about nothing more serious than his quest for a decent doughnut and cappuccino in New York City, from which he extracts some surprising insights about our need for routines, standards and sense of home. Though the book is wide-ranging, his command is consistent, whether he's writing about Richard Avedon or model airplanes. Dyer consistently expresses an appreciation for the way the idiosyncratic human being emerges despite our best efforts to suppress it. That's evident in the way he admires John Cheever's confessional journals more than his acclaimed short stories, and in his urge to uncover F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic personal history when writing about his novels. It also shows in the subjects he chooses to write about. Consistently suspicious of slickness in art, he's drawn to photographers like Enrique Metinides, who documented disasters and accidents in Mexico City, and musicians like John Coltrane, whose "My Favorite Things" grows more appealing to Dyer the more decoupled it becomes from its Rodgers and Hammerstein source. In a few pieces, particularly in his first-person reportage, Dyer works a bit too hard to find something clever to say about subjects he wouldn't have pursued were he not assigned to write about theme.g., a Def Leppard concert or a flight in a decommissioned MiG. Also, a handful of book reviews are brief piecework of only moderate interest. But the book is chock-full of Dyer at his most open, thoughtful and lyrical, as in his study of photographs of Rodin sculptures, his appreciation of Rebecca West's neglected travel writings and a candid piece about the first time he was fired, where, in exposing his 20-something childishness, he finds the roots of the adult he became.Whether in sketches or rigorous studies, each piece bears the mark of Dyer's unique intelligence and wit.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2010 (Fiction)
A Visit from the Goon Squad
 Jennifer Egan
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2010 (General Nonfiction)
The Warmth of Other Suns
Book Jacket   Isabel Wilkerson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. In her ambitious debut, Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Wilkerson (Journalism, Narrative Nonfiction/Boston Univ.) examines the Great Migration of African-Americans from World War I to the 1970s.The author interviewed more than 1,200 people for this sweeping history, which focuses mainly on the personal stories of three Southern African-Americans who uprooted their lives to move to other parts of America: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife who moved from rural Mississippi in the midst of the Great Depression, eventually landing in Chicago; George Swanson Starling, who went from picking fruit in north Florida to becoming a train attendant in 1940s New York; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, an accomplished surgeon who moved from northern Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Wilkerson uses their histories to tell the larger story of how institutionalized racism helped spur the Great Migration of millions of Southern African-Americans to northern, midwestern and western states. Gladney and her family decided to leave Mississippi after a relative, suspected of stealing turkeys, was nearly beaten to death by whites. Starling, after leading an attempted sit-down strike of some African-American fruit-pickers, fled Florida under threat of death. Foster moved to California because no Southern hospitals would hire an African-American surgeon; whites in the South wouldn't even call him "Dr. Foster," but "spat out 'Doc' as if they were addressing the cook." Though each of Wilkerson's subjects faced discrimination in the North as well, they felt a greater sense of freedom to pursue their own visions of the American dream. The author deftly intersperses their stories with short vignettes about other individuals and consistently provides the bigger picture without interrupting the flow of the narrative. While other fine books, such as Ira Berlin's The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations(2010), address many of the same themes, Wilkerson's focus on the personal aspect lends her book a markedly different, more accessible tone. Her powerful storytelling style, as well, gives this decades-spanning history a welcome novelistic flavor.An impressive take on the Great Migration, and a truly auspicious debut.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2010 (Biography)
How to Live OR a life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty
Book Jacket   Sarah Bakewell
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Former Wellcome Library curator Bakewell (Creative Writing/City Univ. London; The English Dane: A Life of Jorgen Jorgenson, 2005, etc.) sketches the life of essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (15331592) and traces his evolving reputation.The author notes that Montaigne is particularly appropriate in our time, "[a century] full of people who are full of themselves." He was a revolutionary writer, the founding father of the personal essay and the man who realized that his own life could serve as a mirror for others. Bakewell identifies 20 Montaignian answers to her title's question, though her treatment of each answer varies both in length and focus. Some answers occasion major biographical attention; others are dense summaries of the philosophical positions of the day. Some comprise Bakewell's appealing summaries and analyses of the essays; others elicit her thoughts on Montaigne's stature in the literary world. By the end of the book, readers will have a good sense of the sweep of the subject's life and times and writing. Among the highlights: Montaigne's notion that reading ought to be pleasurable, even exciting (he loved Ovid, Virgil, Plutarch); Bakewell's account of the profound early friendship of Montaigne and fellow French philosopher tienne de La Botie, whose early death devastated Montaigne; Montaigne's careful choreography with the church and its leaders, kings and other dignitaries; his late-life relationship with Marie de Gournay, who became his posthumous editor and whose work remains both revered and disdained. Bakewell describes Montaigne's travels, his physical ailments (kidney stones killed his father and plagued Montaigne as well) and his fascinations with the ordinaryfrom eating habits to sexual practices to observations that cats and people occupy the same space and observe one another with interest.A bright, genial and generous introduction to the master's methods.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2010 (Autobiography)
Half a Life
 Darin Strauss
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Redress and atonement mar a boy's adolescence after the accidental death of a classmate.In 1988, Strauss (Writing/New York Univ.; More Than It Hurts You, 2008, etc.), one month shy of his high-school graduation, struck Celine Zilke while out on a joyride with friends in his hometown of Glen Head, Long Island. Zilke, a popular 16-year-old girl who was the "lively athletic type," remained unconscious and succumbed to her injuries a day after the accident. "No charges were filed," and Strauss was deemed innocent by "unprovisional absolution." The author suffered through Celine's funeral and endured endless days of painful introspection and the shame of his classmates' collective shunning. Some of these early events may strike some readers as implausiblehis astonishingly indifferent parents' advice to go to the movies after the accident, or that the author "slept soundly" that same night. The complexity of his burgeoning emotions would be nothing compared to the million-dollar lawsuit Celine's once-forgiving parents shockingly filed while Strauss was in his first year at Tufts University. Before the trial, the author suspected that Celine had committed suicide since she'd foretold her death, to the exact day, in a journal. The lawsuit proceedings stalled for five years ("like when a dark sky decides not to rain") and eventually the case dissolved, but the lasting effects of the event haunted an obsessive Strauss for decades, with lasting emotional, sociological and physical implications. At age 30, his new wife Susannah offered the strength and levelheadedness needed for the author to cope with his overwhelming survivor's guilt. Strauss tells his "accident memoir" in economical, well-honed prose, oscillating between the remorseful and the glib, but benign platitudes about shock ("If everything couldn't continue as planned, no real plans could be made"), death, Manhattan and relationships often feel like filler.Genuinely remorseful and heartfelt, yet strangely unremarkable.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2010 (Poetry)
One with Others
 CD Wright
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2010 (Criticism)
Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics
Book Jacket   Clare Cavanagh
2009 (Fiction)
Wolf Hall
Book Jacket   Hilary Mantel
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Exhaustive examination of the circumstances surrounding Henry VIII's schism-inducing marriage to Anne Boleyn. Versatile British novelist Mantel (Giving Up the Ghost, 2006, etc.) forays into the saturated field of Tudor historicals to cover eight years (152735) of Henry's long, tumultuous reign. They're chronicled from the point of view of consummate courtier Thomas Cromwell, whose commentary on the doings of his irascible and inwardly tormented king is impressionistic, idiosyncratic and self-interested. The son of a cruel blacksmith, Cromwell fled his father's beatings to become a soldier of fortune in France and Italy, later a cloth trader and banker. He begins his political career as secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England. Having failed to secure the Pope's permission for Henry to divorce Queen Katherine, Wolsey falls out of favor with the monarch and is supplanted by Sir Thomas More, portrayed here as a domestic tyrant and enthusiastic torturer of Protestants. Unemployed, Cromwell is soon advising Henry himself and acting as confidante to Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary, former mistress of both Henry and King Francis I of France. When plague takes his wife and children, Cromwell creates a new family by taking in his late siblings' children and mentoring impoverished young men who remind him of his low-born, youthful self. The religious issues of the day swirl around the events at court, including the rise of Luther and the burgeoning movement to translate the Bible into vernacular languages. Anne is cast in an unsympathetic light as a petulant, calculating temptress who withholds her favors until Henry is willing to make her queen. Although Mantel's language is original, evocative and at times wittily anachronistic, this minute exegesis of a relatively brief, albeit momentous, period in English history occasionally grows tedious. The characters, including Cromwell, remain unknowable, their emotions closely guarded; this works well for court intrigues, less so for fiction. Masterfully written and researched but likely to appeal mainly to devotees of all things Tudor. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2009 (General Nonfiction)
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
 Richard Holmes
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2009 (Biography)
Cheever: A life
 Blake Bailey
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A comprehensive treatment of the tormented but artful life of one of fiction's modern masters. Bailey (A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, 2004, etc.) plunges deeply into the murky, sometimes fetid stew of John Cheever's life (191282). Beginning with his 1982 appearance at Carnegie Hall to receive the National Medal for Literature (more details appear some 650 pages later), the author proceeds in chronological fashion to tell the story of a deeply needy, difficult man. Born into money that soon vanished, Cheever never graduated from high school. Yet he earned some of the country's most prestigious literary awards, in recognition of his brilliant short stories (more than 100 published in the New Yorker alone) and critically esteemed novels (especially Falconer, 1977). Despite all this acclaim, as Bailey shows in agonizing detail, Cheever's demons were destructive, even deadly. He smoked heavily and drank steadily, though he finally gave up both a few years before cancer killed him. He had unhappy, even bitter, relations with his wife and three children, and maintained uneasy, tense literary friendships with, among others, Bellow and Updike. Most seriously, argues Bailey, he could never accept his bisexuality. Always attracted to menan attraction he indulged more frequently, albeit always covertly, as he agedhe nonetheless pursued a variety of women, from Hollywood's Hope Lange to students in his classes. (He taught creative writing at several places, including the Iowa Writers' Workshop.) Cheever could be rude, snide, petty, selfish, jealous, vindictive, depressed, savage, pretentious and embarrassing. He made sexual advances to startled friends and dropped his pants at alarming moments. He was often, pathetically, a dipsomaniacal mess. But, oh, those sentences and stories! Bailey pauses continually to examine a tale or a novel, never in an obtrusive or esoteric way, and notes how his works today sell littlethough two Library of America volumes are forthcoming (both edited by Bailey). Superb work that shows Cheever wrestling with dark angels, but wresting from those encounters some celestial prose. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2009 (Autobiography)
Somewhere Towards the End
Book Jacket   Diana Athill
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Now 91, one of England's notable book editors examines life, old age and approaching death with astonishing candor in 16 essays distinguished by her spare, direct prose. Athill (Yesterday Morning, 2002, etc.) does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects: the waning of sexual desire, her qualms about the physical act of dying and her atheism, which deprives her of a comforting belief in the hereafter. Although she knows that death cannot be far off, the present is full of quiet satisfactions. The tiny tree fern that she purchases in the opening essay will not provide shade for her backyard garden in her lifetime, but watching it unfurl its fronds becomes an unexpected and genuine pleasure. Athill vividly describes corpses she has seen and deaths she has witnessed, taking some comfort from the knowledge that among her close relatives the end has been relatively swift and peaceful. Having no children to care for her at the end of her life, she notes sadly but calmly that she will likely end her days in an impersonal institution. With no afterlife to look forward to, the present becomes more precious; hers is filled with reading, writing and reviewing books, gardening, drawing, pottering about and, surprisingly, driving her car. After a highway accident in which only the car was damaged, her love of the freedom provided by driving kept her behind the wheel. Erotic desire may have vanished, but Athill remembers it clearly and is quite candid about relationships with past lovers. Kindness and loving friendship are more important than sexual fidelity, she asserts, demonstrating this with brief anecdotes of her affairs. At the time of writing, she has reluctantly but dutifully become caretaker for a man she has lived with for nearly half a century. Their life now, she writes matter-of-factly, is "in about equal parts, both sad and boring." Fiercely intelligent, discomfortingly honest and never dull. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2009 (Poetry)
Versed
Book Jacket   Rae Armantrout
 
2009 (Criticism)
Notes from No Mans Land: American Essays
 Eula Biss
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2008 (Criticism)
Childrens Literature: A Readers History from Aesop to Harry Potter (University of Chicago Press)
 Seth Lerer
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2008 (Poetry)
Sleeping It Off in Rapid City (Farrar, Strauss)
Book Jacket   August Kleinzahler
2008 (Poetry)
Half the World in Light(University of Arizona Press)
Book Jacket   Juan Felipe Herrera
 
2008 (Autobiography)
My Fathers Paradise: A Sons Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
 Ariel Sabar
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. In a filial salute and show of contrition, D.C.-based journalist Sabar recounts his family's unusual history, reaching back to times before the Bible. The author's remarkable father, Yona, was born in remote Zakho, a dusty, isolated village not far from Mosul. The Jews of Kurdish Iraq, believed to be descended from one of the lost tribes of the Babylonian exile, were the last people to speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and lingua franca of much of the ancient world. In the 1950s, they emigrated en masse to Israel, where Yona and his family, with their strange costumes, customs and language, found themselves at the bottom of the ethnic and economic hierarchy. Unfolding the tale of their assimilation with the novelistic skill of a Levantine storyteller, Sabar traces his father's journey from poverty to professorship. Yona's diaspora story began with the end of Iraq Jewry, continued through scholarship in Jerusalem to a teaching post at Yale and reached fulfillment in a distinguished academic career at UCLA and the compilation of an Aramaic dictionary. A generational and cultural gap divided the immigrant father from the cool son who cared little for his heritage. Then, prompted by the birth of his own son, Sabar began to investigate his family's past. Eventually he and Yona visited a vastly altered Zakho, a town without Jews that now boasts a cybercaf. Describing their pilgrimage and the history that preceded it, the author spins a colorful tale inhabited by wonderful characters in billowing trousers and turbans. The distance between father and son is bridged as Sabar explores the conflicting demands of love and tradition, the burdens and blessings of an ancient culture encountering the 21st century. A well-researched text falling somewhere between journalism and memoir, sustained by Mesopotamian imagination. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2008 (Biography)
The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
 Patrick French
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Biography of the 2001 Nobel laureate assesses with equal acuity his creative accomplishments and profound character flaws. Although Naipaul cooperated with this biography, British writer French (Tibet, Tibet, 2003, etc.) declares that he did not intrude and did not insist on any changes after reading the manuscript. Born in Trinidad in 1932, Vidyadhar Naipaul was among the one-third of the island's population whose ancestors had come from India. His mother cared deeply for him; his mercurial father worked as a journalist. Vidia, as he has been known throughout adulthood, had a fierce intelligence and a powerful subterranean river of energy and creativity. He also had few friends and a broad vein of contrarian ore in his soul. French proceeds in fairly routine fashion through a history of Trinidad and Indian immigration, family background and childhood progress. The narrative follows young Vidia in 1950 to England, where he matriculated at Oxford, dealt with racial prejudice and began working for the BBC and freelancing. At Oxford, he met Patricia (Pat) Hale, whom he married in 1955 and repeatedly betrayed in spectacular fashion for years; her death in 1996 closes the biography. In 1972, Vidia became deeply involved with Margaret Gooding, carrying on a decades-long affair with her between periods of fidelity to Pat and visits to prostitutes. Frank about Naipaul's unedifying personal life, French attends responsibly to his literary achievements, highly praising his early work, occasionally condemning later efforts and concluding that A Bend in the River (1979) is his masterworkthough he also applauds A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). French admires Naipaul's nonfiction, recognizes the strengths and weaknesses in his journalism and believes that for the past decade he has been in decline. The text features many quotations from Naipaul's letters and diaries. Eloquent and scholarly evidence thatno surprisegreat writers need not be moral exemplars. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2008 (General Nonfiction)
The Forever War
Book Jacket   Dexter Filkins
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A bleak litany of war's savage absurdity in Afghanistan and Iraq by accomplished New York Times correspondent Filkins. His dispatches from the front lines begin in September 1998, when he stealthily moved among the Taliban in Kabul and observed their murderous rule by fear, and continue through nearly four years of shadowing American maneuvers in Iraq, from "liberation" to anarchy. Filkins writes with candor and clarity of the brutality he witnessed, such as the execution of a criminal in a Kabul soccer field crowded with spectators. He imbues his narrative with galvanizing snapshots of Afghanistan's dramatic contrasts: An interview with Taliban's minister for the promotion of virtue, cheerfully describing the punishments doled out to women who fail to cover themselves, is followed by a woman's bitter whisper through the vent of her imprisoning burqa, "This is like a death." While he found that the Taliban waged war "like a game of pickup basketball" (constantly shifting sides and bargaining) and judged the typical fighter "dumb as a brick," Filkins was genuinely moved by the generosity of the Afghan people. Baghdad seemed to him like "a mental institution. One of the old ones, from the 19th century, where societies used to dump people and forget about them." The author records how the general euphoria over Saddam's fall gradually turned to disillusionment and lust for revenge. He toured Saddam's palace right before the Marines arrived; visited the family of the female politician Wijdan al-Khuzai, slain while campaigning for Iraq's first free elections; talked to scores of the maimed and bombing victims; trailed American field commander Nathan Sassaman and influential returned Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi. Filkins also joined a company of 150 Marines as they penetrated Fallujah and took it back from the jihadis. Nonetheless, in his judgment, looters, suicide bombers and kidnappers gained ascendancy, civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis accelerated and the country was lost. Sharing his deeply humbling, transforming journey, the author tempers numbing details of slaughter and carnage with affecting human stories. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2008 (Fiction)
2666
Book Jacket   Roberto Bolaño
 
2009 (Fiction)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
 Junot Diaz
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A rich, impassioned vision of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora, filtered through the destiny of a single family. After a noted debut volume of short stories (Drown, 1996), D"az pens a first novel that bursts alive in an ironic, confiding, exuberant voice. Its wider focus is an indictment of the terrible Trujillo regime and its aftermath, but the approach is oblique, traced backwards via the children (Oscar and Lola) of a larger-than-life but ruined Dominican matriarch, Beli. In earthy, streetwise, Spanish-interlaced prose, D"az links overweight, nerdy fantasist Oscar, his combative, majestic sister and their once Amazonian mother to the island of their ancestry. There, an aunt, La Inca, with strange, possibly supernatural powers, heals and saves Beli after her involvement with one of Trujillo's minor henchman, who was married to the dictator's sister. Beli, at age14, had naively hoped this affair would lead to marriage and family, but instead her pregnancy incurred a near-fatal beating, after which she fled to New Jersey to a life of drudgery, single parenting and illness. By placing sad, lovelorn, virginal Oscar at the book's heart, D"az softens the horrors visited on his antecedents, which began when Trujillo cast his predatory eye on wealthy Abelard Cabral's beautiful daughter. Was the heap of catastrophes that ensued fukú (accursed fate), D"az asks repeatedly, and can there be counterbalancing zafa (blessing)? The story comes full circle with Oscar's death in Santo Domingo's fateful cornfields, himself the victim of a post-Trujillo petty tyrant, but it's redeemed by the power of love. Despite a less sure-footed conclusion, D"az's reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2008 (Nonfiction)
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experiments on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present
 Harriet Washington
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Medical ethicist and journalist Washington details the abusive medical practices to which African-Americans have been subjected. She begins her shocking history in the colonial period, when owners would hire out or sell slaves to physicians for use as guinea pigs in medical experiments. Into the 19th century, black cadavers were routinely exploited for profit by whites who shipped them to medical schools for dissection and to museums and traveling shows for casual public display. The most notorious case here may be the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which about 600 syphilitic men were left untreated by the U.S. Public Health Service so it could study the progression of the disease, but Washington asserts that it was the forerunner to a host of similar medical abuses. Among her numerous examples is the radical brain surgery performed by a University of Mississippi neurosurgeon on African-American boys as young as six who were deemed aggressive or hyperactive, a procedure he recommended for urban rioters after Watts. And the abuses are not all buried in the distant past: During a 1992-1997 study of the biological basis of violent behavior conducted by the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University's Loewenstein Center, researchers intimidated parents of black juvenile offenders into permitting them to administer the dangerous drug fenfluramine to the offenders' younger brothers. African-Americans' reproductive rights have been trampled on; soldiers, prisoners and children have been coerced into becoming subjects of experiments without therapeutic value to themselves; the federal government and private companies have utilized unwitting blacks in large-scale experiments with radiation and biological weapons, she asserts. While the worst abuses have been eliminated, Washington concludes, African-American skepticism about the medical establishment and reluctance to participate in medical research is an unfortunate result. One of her goals in writing this book, aside from documenting a shameful past, is to convince them that they must participate actively in therapeutic medical research, especially in areas that most affect their community's health, while remaining ever alert to possible abuses. Sweeping and powerful. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2008 (Biography)
Stanley, the Impossible Life of Africas Greatest Explorer
Book Jacket   Tim Jeal
2007 (Fiction)
The Inheritance of Loss
Book Jacket   Kiran Desai
 
2007 (Nonfiction)
Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution
 Simon Schama
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Was the England of King George less racist than the America of George Washington? Yes, for which reason thousands of Africans and African-Americans cast their lot with England when revolution came. "All men are created equal"—but not in America. As Schama (A History of Britain, 2001, etc.) notes in this lucid history, though the Americans made pious noises about the indignity of slavery, they blamed the trade on the crown even as England was all but done with slavery. Indeed, a common scare tactic used during the Revolution was claiming that King George had ordered the slaves to rise up against their American masters, which set American hearts pounding and militia to mustering. Meanwhile, runaway slaves in England benefited from the largess of crown courts and the widespread (though by no means universal) view that "all subjects in the land, irrespective of rank, were equally subject to the king's laws and equally entitled to his protection." Word soon filtered back to America, and freedmen and slaves alike swarmed to join the British Army, where they were put "on the march against America and slavery" and performed heroically at places like Fort Murray and Charleston. After the Revolution, British reformers worked to establish colonies of black refugees, as in Sierra Leone, while social and political pressures finally forced Thomas Jefferson to sign a "bill outlawing the importation of slaves" in 1807—only to be trumped by Britain, which abolished slavery altogether. An important contribution to the history of the Revolution, and of slavery in America. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2007 (Biography)
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
 Julie Phillips
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Finely detailed biography of a woman whose ascension as a cult figure writing as a man was the most visible facet of her fascinating and, in the end, tragic life. Journalist Phillips's (Ms., Village Voice, etc.) superb depiction of Alice B. Sheldon (1915–87) as the woman behind the persona of science-fiction writer James Tiptree is an extraordinary achievement. A Chicago debutante who survived a quickie society marriage and divorce, "Alli" Bradley enlisted in the army and became a WWII intelligence officer. After the war, she married fellow veteran Huntingdon Sheldon, and they both joined the fledgling CIA. She also dabbled in graphic art and eventually earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. After more than a decade of publishing as "Tiptree," Sheldon's secret was revealed. Her life ended in a double suicide with her ailing husband. Apart from the basic facts of her life, Sheldon's innermost thoughts were revealed to the world through her stories and the voluminous correspondence "he" exchanged with close friends, who, like Tiptree's readers, had no idea that it was a woman speaking to them. Most, Phillips says, saw him as a manly man's writer, dealing with issues of sex and death—her writing was sometimes compared to Hemingway's—but one with an unusual talent for creating sympathetic female characters. Phillips is more than adept at plumbing Sheldon's writing to expose her anger at the role gender plays in sex, creativity and power. A compelling portrait of a conflicted feminist. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2006 (Fiction)
The March
Book Jacket   E. L. Doctorow
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. William Tecumseh Sherman's legendary "march" (1864–65) through Georgia and the Carolinas—toward Appomattox, and victory—is the subject of Doctorow's panoramic tenth novel. As he did in his classic Ragtime (1991), Doctorow juxtaposes grand historical events with the lives of people caught up in them—here, nearly two dozen Union and Confederate soldiers and officers and support personnel; plantation owners and their families; and freed slaves unsure where their futures lie. The story begins in Georgia, where John Jameson's homestead "Fieldstone" becomes a casualty of Sherman's "scorched earth" tactics (earlier applied during the destruction of Atlanta). The narrative expands as Sherman moves north, adding characters and subtly entwining their destinies with that of the nation. Emily Thompson, daughter of a Georgia Chief Justice, finds her calling as a battlefield nurse working alongside Union Army surgeon Wrede Sartorius (who'll later be reassigned to Washington, where an incident at Ford's Theater demands his services). "Rebel" soldiers Will Kirkland and Arly Wilcox move duplicitously from one army to another, and the Falstaffian pragmatist Arly later courts survival by usurping the identity of a battlefield photographer. John Jameson's "white Negro" bastard daughter Pearl becomes her former mistress's keeper—and the last best hope for melancholy "replacement" northern soldier Stephen Walsh. Sherman's war-loving subordinate Justin "Kil" Kilpatrick blithely rapes and loots, finding a boy's excitement in bloody exigencies. There's even a brief appearance by indignantly independent black "Coalhouse" Walker (a graceful nod to the aforementioned Ragtime). Doctorow patiently weaves these and several other stories together, while presenting military strategies (e.g., the "vise" formed by Sherman's gradual meeting with Grant's Army) with exemplary clarity. Behind it all stalks the brilliant, conflicted, "volatile" Sherman, to whom Doctorow gives this stunning climactic statement: "our civil war . . . is but a war after a war, a war before a war." Doctorow's previous novels have earned multiple major literary awards. The March should do so as well. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2006 (Nonfiction)
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster
Book Jacket   Svetlana Alexievich
 
2006 (Biography)
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
 Kai Bird
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. The second greatest scientific mind of the atomic era gets respectful but revealing treatment by political journalist Bird (The Color of Truth, 1998) and literary scholar Sherwin (A World Destroyed, 1975). That Oppenheimer (1904–67) was a rare genius is beyond doubt; his colleagues at CalTech, GÖttingen and Los Alamos were impressed to the point of being cowed by his intellect, and "Oppie" was far ahead of even his professors in the new world of quantum theory. He was a rare bird in other ways as well. A child of privilege whose very luggage excited discussion among his cash-strapped European colleagues, he identified early with left-wing causes and was reportedly better read in the classics of Marxism than most Communist theoreticians; and, though a leftist, he expressed enough fondness for the U.S. that those European colleagues sometimes thought him a chauvinist. Worldly in many ways, he was something of a naïf. In time, he shed some of his clumsiness and became the model of a committed intellectual, unusually generous in sharing credit with students and colleagues and able to wear his achievements lightly. ("I can make it clearer," he once remarked of a thorny physics problem, "but I can't make it simpler.") The authors lucidly explain Oppenheimer's many scientific accomplishments and the finer points of quantum mechanics. More, they examine his life in a political context, for, though one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer warned against its proliferation and noted, as early as 1946, that our major cities were now susceptible to terrorist attack, the only defense being a screwdriver—to open "each and every crate or suitcase." His prescience and conscience cost him dearly: Oppie was effectively blacklisted for more than a decade and rehabilitated only at the end of his too-short life. A swiftly moving narrative full of morality tales and juicy gossip. One of the best scientific biographies to appear in recent years. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2005 (Fiction)
Gilead
 Marilynne Robinson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart. A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best—and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames's first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people—until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames's sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married—Ames was 67—had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel's present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter—the pages of Gilead—addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he's grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father's church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America—addressed to an unknown and doubting future—is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was. Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2005 (Nonfiction)
The Reformation: A History
Book Jacket   Diarmaid MacCulloch
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A monumental study of the clash between late medieval Christianity and early modern Protestantism, both "religions of fear, anxiety, and guilt." And both, writes MacCulloch (History/Oxford Univ.), also claimed "remedy and comfort for anxiety and guilt through the love exhibited by God and humanity in Jesus Christ." The remark points to one of MacCulloch's constantly unfolding themes, and one of the great contributions of this superb narrative: that the Protestant revolution and the Catholic counterrevolution marked a clash between many breeds and conceptions of Christianity, so many that it might be well to speak of Reformations and Counterreformations in the plural. MacCulloch points to any number of doctrinal and, as it were, dialectal differences: the Franciscan hatred for Jews, an ironic subversion of St. Francis's urging that Christians consider the life of Christ on earth (which "had the logical consequence of making the faithful also think about the death of Christ on the Cross," which led, of course, to dark thoughts about Jews); the rise of Maristic devotion, which emphasized the Queen of Heaven without much scriptural support, and which served as a key point of Erasmus's contributions to the Protestant revolution; the obsession of some strands of Catholicism—particularly at the edges of Christendom, in places such as Denmark and Galicia—with purgatory, another point of Protestant rejection. Against such deeply and widely held beliefs, matters like papal infallibility and the sale of dispensations seem almost rarefied, though they of course figure strongly in MacCulloch's account of Martin Luther's signal contribution to that revolution, as well as those of Luther's near contemporaries and sometime rivals such as Zwingli and Calvin. MacCulloch adds much to our understanding of why the "Lutheran heresy" was not immediately crushed (he was protected by an important elector within the Holy Roman Empire). He also offers a lucid view of the Reformation and Counterreformation as ongoing struggles—not in Europe, where Christianity has become largely secular, but in the US, where the rate of church-going and fundamentalist belief would do the Middle Ages proud. An essential work of religious history. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2005 (Biography)
De Kooning: An American Master
Book Jacket   Mark Stevens
 
2004 (Fiction)
The Known World
 Edward P. Jones
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Slave-owning by free blacks in antebellum America is the astonishingly rich subject of this impressively researched, challenging novel debut by Faulkner Award–winning Jones (stories: Lost in the City, 1992). Set mostly in the period 1830–50, many nested and interrelated stories revolve around the death of black Virginia farmer and slaveholder Henry Townsend, himself a former slave who had purchased his own freedom, as was—and did—his father Augustus, a gifted woodcarver. Jones's flexible narrative moves from the travail of Augustus and his wife Mildred through Henry's conflicted life as both servant and master, to survey as well the lives of Armstrong slaves, from their early years on to many decades after Henry's passing. The first hundred pages are daunting, as the reader struggles to sort out initially quickly glimpsed characters and absorb Jones's handling of historical background information (which virtually never feels obtrusive or oppressive, thanks to his eloquent prose and palpable high seriousness). The story steadily gathers overpowering momentum, as we learn more about such vibrant figures as Henry's introspective spouse Caldonia, his wily overseer Moses, the long-suffering mutilated slave Elias and his crippled wife Celeste, the brutal "patrollers" charged with hunting down runaways (one of whom, duplicitous Harvey Travis, is a villain for the ages), and county sheriff John Skiffington, a decent man who nevertheless cannot shrug off "responsibilities" with which his culture has provisioned, and burdened, him. The particulars and consequences of the "right" of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice—even during a prolonged climax when two searches produce bitter results and presage the vanishing of a "known world" unable to isolate itself from the shaping power of time and change. This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won't be forgotten. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2004 (Nonfiction)
Sons of Mississippi
 Paul Hendrickson
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2004 (Biography)
Khrushchev: The Man and His Era
Book Jacket   William Taubman
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780393051445 Communist murderer, reluctant despot-or pretty good guy? The answer that emerges from this complex, massive, but engagingly written study: all of the above. Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), suggests Taubman (Political Science/Amherst College), was less paradoxical than opportunistic. "A study in unresolved contrasts," he had a survivor's gift for being in the right place at the right time and a strong sense of how to avoid trouble though constantly beset by it. Indeed, he was frequently in danger during the first decades of his long career; amazingly, as Taubman documents, he was one of the few one-time (if short-time) followers of Trotsky not to have been murdered at Stalin's orders, and despite remarkable failures at many turns-including the disastrous Kharkov feint against the invading Nazi forces, which cost the Red Army 267,000 casualties-he managed to avoid the firing squad time and again. Khrushchev enthusiastically endorsed the liquidation of the regime's enemies, though he was tormented in his final years by his complicity in murder; he crushed freedom movements in Hungary, Poland, and East Germany, though he set in motion some democratizing efforts in his own country that Gorbachev and Yeltsin would fulfill three decades later; and he made every effort to educate and cultivate himself, fostering the arts even while heavily censoring the likes of Boris Pasternak, another of many acts he would come to regret. Taubman shows us Khrushchev in all his guises, revealing a man far different from the shoe-banging clod of Western media caricature. The account of Khrushchev's masterful destruction of secret policeman Lavrenty Beria, his chief rival to become Stalin's successor, reveals astonishing Machiavellian powers that Khrushchev had hitherto carefully concealed. Taubman's analysis of Khrushchev's eventual fall before what amounted to a right-wing coup is similarly masterful, supplementing the partial record Khrushchev left in his own memoirs and making good use of newly declassified documents from Soviet archives. Altogether superb: an essential study of power and its corruptions and contradictions.
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2003 (Fiction)
Atonement
Book Jacket   Ian McEwan
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780385503952 McEwan's latest, both powerful and equisite, considers the making of a writer, the dangers and rewards of imagination, and the juncture between innocence and awareness, all set against the late afternoon of an England soon to disappear. In the first, longest, and most compelling of four parts, McEwan (the Booker-winning Amsterdam, 1998) captures the inner lives of three characters in a moment in 1935: upper-class 13-year-old Briony Tallis; her 18-year-old sister, Cecilia; and Robbie Turner, son of the family's charlady, whose Cambridge education has been subsidized by their father. Briony is a penetrating look at the nascent artist, vain and inspired, her imagination seizing on everything that comes her way to create stories, numinous but still childish. She witnesses an angry, erotic encounter between her sister and Robbie, sees an improper note, and later finds them hungrily coupling; misunderstanding all of it, when a visiting cousin is sexually assaulted, Briony falsely brings blame to bear on Robbie, setting the course for all their lives. A few years later, we see a wounded and feverish Robbie stumbling across the French countryside in retreat with the rest of the British forces at Dunkirk, while in London Briony and Cecilia, long estranged, have joined the regiment of nurses who treat broken men back from war. At 18, Briony understands and regrets her crime: it is the touchstone event of her life, and she yearns for atonement. Seeking out Cecilia, she inconclusively confronts her and a war-scarred Robbie. In an epilogue, we meet Briony a final time as a 77-year-old novelist facing oblivion, whose confessions reframe everything we've read. With a sweeping bow to Virginia Woolf, McEwan combines insight, penetrating historical understanding, and sure-handed storytelling despite a conclusion that borrows from early postmodern narrative trickery. Masterful. (N.B.:Atonement was on the shortlist for this year's Booker, and is favored to win the Whitbread in January.) Author tour
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2003 (Nonfiction)
A Problem From Hell
 Samantha Power
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780465061501 The executive director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy presents a superb analysis of the US government's evident unwillingness to intervene in ethnic slaughter. Based on centuries-old hatreds all but inexplicable to outside observers, genocide is indeed "a problem from hell," as then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher put it. In Bosnia, which inspired Christopher's remark, those hatreds resulted in untold thousands of deaths, televised and reported for the world to see. Even so, writes Power (who covered the Balkan conflict for U.S. News and World Report), the Clinton administration was reluctant to characterize the butchery as genocide, preferring instead to cast it in terms of "tragedy" and "civil war" and thus "downplaying public expectations that there was anything the United States could do." The author argues that the Clinton administration's failure to act was entirely consistent with earlier American responses to genocide, which turned on the assumption of policymakers, journalists, and citizens that human beings are rational and in the event of war, innocent civilians can insure their safety merely by keeping out of the line of fire. That failure also fits in with the American government's isolationist tendencies, strong even at a time when the US is the world's sole superpower. Power examines genocide after genocide, including the Turkish slaughter of Armenians during WWI, the Holocaust, and the Cambodian bloodbath of the 1970s, assuring her readers that US officials knew very well what was happening and chose to look the other way. She closes by suggesting that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "might enhance the empathy of Americans . . . toward peoples victimized by genocide," although she also guesses that the government may view intervention as an untenable diversion of resources away from homeland defense. A well-reasoned argument for the moral necessity of halting genocide wherever it occurs, and an unpleasant reminder of our role in enabling it, however unwittingly. Author tour; radio satellite tour
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2003 (Biography)
Charles Darwin
 Janet Browne
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780679429326 Continuing where Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) left off, the British science historian completes her brilliant two-volume biography. The narrative opens in 1858, when Darwin received a letter posted by Alfred Russel Wallace from a faraway Indonesian island. Though it reinforced Darwin's long-held (but unpublished) evolutionary views, the letter destroyed any hope that he was the sole originator of those ideas. The shock prompted the writing and reluctant publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, but Darwin shouldn't have been surprised, writes Browne (History of Biology/Wellcome Inst., London). Anticipations of natural selection and speciation abounded in contemporary scientific literature; he had simply "closed his mind to the possibility that other thinkers might be moving along the same road as he and that any one of them might come up with the same answer." To his credit, Darwin accommodated the views of Wallace and others, which had the effect of unifying disparate parties in what amounted to a scientific revolution. At a time of unfettered empire, aggressively expanding markets, and "carboniferous capitalism," Darwin's exploration of the struggle for survival and the necessity of adaptation seemed very apt, even though it overturned Victorians' notions that nature "mirrored the social stability they thought they saw around them." On the contrary, Darwin quietly insisted, the world had no moral purpose or validity. He himself was not inclined to rely on fate, Brown demonstrates: for all his apparent desire to be left alone to lead the life of a country gentleman, Darwin was a shrewd self-promoter, vigorously publicizing his work even in the depths of a long illness that she suggests may have been brought on in part by his tireless labors. An overlooked magazine questionnaire from 1874 reveals that he considered himself something of a failure except as a businessman. A richly detailed, vivid, and definitive portrait with not a word wasted: the best life of Charles Darwin in the modern literature.
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2002 (Fiction)
Austerlitz
Book Jacket   W. G. Sebald
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780375504839 Another haunting mixture of history, memoir, and photo album from the author of The Rings of Saturn (1998) and Vertigo (2000). Sebald's fourth novel, like its predecessors, is a melancholy meditation on the dark side of human history. The unnamed narrator recounts the life story of Jacques Austerlitz, a polymath whose erudition, like the author's, runs the gamut from his chosen field of architectural history to his avocation of zoology. Meeting by chance in the Antwerp railroad station, Austerlitz and the narrator fall easily into a learned conversation about the building itself that gradually leads to a discussion of the history and mysteries of Europe's fortified cities. A friendship of sorts develops and the two meet from time to time, at first apparently without planning, to continue their chat as if no time had elapsed in between. Gradually, Austerlitz begins to reveal his personal history. In 1939, at the age of five, he was adopted and raised by an austere Welsh cleric and his equally forbidding wife. He knows nothing of his past until he is encouraged to explore history by an inspirational teacher. Eventually, Austerlitz discovers that he is a child of a Jewish couple who vanished in the Holocaust after sending him to England to escape-no surprise to those who are familiar with Sebald's earlier work. Austerlitz recounts his story in a low-key, slow-moving, but utterly engrossing prose style, with almost no paragraph or chapter breaks, interrupted only by a series of eerie photographs of landscapes, architectural features, and hazily glimpsed faces. The tale is cunningly constructed around internal echoes, phrases repeated many pages apart, whose larger significance can be grasped only on repetition, and a complex, multilayered set of thematic correspondences that cannot be unraveled on a single reading. Superbly translated, hypnotically written, a volume that requires and rewards slow, careful reading.
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2002 (Nonfiction)
Double Fold
Book Jacket   Nicholson Baker
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780375504440 In a passionate cri de coeur sure to raise controversy and alarm, novelist Baker ( The Everlasting Story of Nory , 1998, etc.) accuses America?s librarians of betraying the public trust as they rush to microfilm and digitize. Since the 1950s, writes Baker, American libraries have been microfilming newspapers and discarding the originals because, they claimed, paper manufactured since 1850 from wood pulp (more acidic than its rag-based predecessor) was rapidly crumbling to dust and would soon be unreadable. ?Absolute nonsense,? retorts Baker, quoting a paper conservation scholar who claims that, when properly stored, old newspapers and books do not disintegrate. The real agenda of the ?reformatters??and among Baker?s principle villains are such respected library names as Fremont Rider, Verner Clapp, Peter Sparks, and Patricia Battin?is to save shelf space and cut costs. That?s why they also manufactured a ?brittle books? crisis (based largely on the inappropriate double-fold test that gives this work its title) to convince Congress and the public that old books also should be filmed or computer-scanned and thrown away. In a blistering point-by-point rebuttal, Baker points out that microfilming costs more in the long term than building additional storage facilities; that library users loathe microfilm, which is hard to read at best and undecipherable at worst; that quality control has been so sketchy that whole months are missing from newspaper runs supposedly filmed in their entirety; and that it's inexcusable to destroy books? bindings in order to film them when spring-balanced book cradles have been available since the 1930s. Digital storage is also ridiculously expensive, and the image comes nowhere near matching the paper original. Due to the author?s eagerness to dismember every justification offered by his opponents, the narrative has a relentless comprehensiveness that may weary even the most sympathetic reader. It?s leavened by acid humor: Baker remarks of one librarian?s metaphor comparing microfilming to chemotherapy, ?radiation therapy . . . has a reasonable chance of keeping a patient alive [while] your typical late-eighties preservation-reformatter disposed of the patient after a last afternoon on the X-ray table.? If even half of what Baker alleges is true, some of America's most honored librarians have a lot of explaining to do.
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2002 (Biography)
Boswells Presumptious Task
 Adam Sisman
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780374115616 Deconstructing Boswell?s classic Life of Johnson, former publisher Sisman reveals the process of making of this unique book and addresses fundamental questions about the nature of biography. Sisman presents Boswell primarily in his role as friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson. Born into a family of Scottish gentry, educated in law, and craving recognition as a writer, Boswell met the renowned author when he was 22, and this fateful meeting became a turning point in his life. Gradually, Johnson became for Boswell a means of making sense of his own life, of achieving popularity for himself in the glow shed by his celebrity friend, and of gaining access to the heart of London?s literary and artistic circles. Over the course of their 21-year relationship, Boswell and Johnson repeatedly met in London, traveled in Scotland together, and exchanged many letters. Although distressed by the fact that his mentor did not mention him in his will, Boswell nevertheless eagerly volunteered to be Johnson?s biographer after his death. He initially published his journal documenting their tour of the Hebrides, which was marked by a strikingly innovative, informal tone?as well as surprisingly coarse details. This new style of biographical writing culminated in 1791 with the monumental Life of Johnson. Sisman describes the many obstacles that arose on Boswell?s path toward the completion of this project: uncontrollable bouts of drinking, whoring, and gambling, the death of his wife, and the failure of his political career. Throughout the text, Boswell accorded his own persona an unabashedly prominent position beside his main subject. Overall, the Life was a success, but the same characteristics that made the book so entertaining also provoked criticism: Boswell was reprimanded by many a prudish biographer of the day for going overboard in exposing Johnson?s idiosyncrasies, slovenly behavior, and hot temper. Over time, however, such probing into the great author?s inner life elicited increasing appreciation, as Boswell?s new breed of biography took root in European letters. Sisman draws inspiration from Boswell, exposing for the reader the inner mechanism of a masterpiece creation, and never hesitating to provide lurid details about Boswell himself.
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2001 (Fiction)
Being Dead
 Jim Crace
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2001 (Nonfiction)
Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing
Book Jacket   Ted Conover
2001 (Biography)
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
Book Jacket   Herbert Bix
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780060193140 A lengthy exploration of the role of Emperor Hirohito in 20th-century Japanese politics that draws on an impressive array of fresh sources. Bix (Social Sciences/Hitosubashi Univ.) has written what is essentially a 700-page indictment of the Japanese emperor, arguing that he should bear more blame, responsibility, and consequences than he has for Japan?s aggression in the first half of this century. Far from being a detached figurehead and tool for Japan?s militarist factions, Hirohito was closely involved behind closed doors in all facets of Japanese politics, especially its military forays. ?From the very start of the Asia-Pacific war, the emperor was a major protagonist of the events going on around him,? Bix writes. In this portrayal, Hirohito played no small part in the rise of nationalism, Japan?s aggressiveness in Manchuria, the disastrous prolongation of the war against the Allies (leading to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings), and Japan?s ongoing struggle to display adequate repentance to the rest of the world. The author has intentionally made his subject complex to debunk ?the myth of Japan as tightly unified and monolithic state.? Though the writing is glib, the result is a trying puzzle of multitudinous pieces that requires some fortitude on behalf of the reader. Bix?s research is thorough, but, as he points out, Hirohito left little documentation behind and his peers have been loath to write badly of him. The author, therefore, had to rely a great deal on reading between the lines. For example, Bix immediately comes to surmise that Hirohito?s abilities had been doubted when his teachers went out of their way to priase the emperor?s speaking abilities. He nestles his speculations firmly between facts, however, and in the end is very convincing. A deeply satisfying immersion into modern Japanese history that also serves to warn against facile approaches to the machinery of states. History Book Club selection
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2000 (Fiction)
Motherless Brooklyn
 Jonathan Lethem
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780385491839 A brilliantly imagined riff on the classic detective tale: the fifth high-energy novel in five years from the rapidly maturing prodigy whose bizarre black-comic fiction includes, most recently, Girl in Landscape (1998). Lethem's delirious yarn about crime, pursuit, and punishment, is narrated in a unique voice by its embattled protagonist, Brooklynite (and orphan) Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. ``Freakshow.'' Lionel's moniker denotes the Tourette's syndrome that twists his speech into weird aslant approximations (his own name, for example, is apt to come out ``Larval Pushbug'' or ``Unreliable Chessgrub'') and induces a tendency to compulsive behavior (``reaching, tapping, grabbing and kissing urges'') that makes him useful putty in the hands of Frank Minna, an enterprising hood who recruits teenagers (like Lionel) from St. Vincent's Home for Boys, to move stolen goods and otherwise function as apprentice-criminal ``Minna Men.'' The daft plot'which disappears for a while somewhere around the middle of the novel'concerns Minna's murder and Lionel's crazily courageous search for the killer, an odyssey that brings him into increasingly dangerous contact with two elderly Italian men (``The Clients'') who have previously employed the Minna Men and now pointedly advise Lionel to abandon his quest; Frank's not-quite-bereaved widow Julia (a tough-talking dame who seems to have dropped in from a Raymond Chandler novel) at the Zendo, a dilapidated commune where meditation and other Buddhist techniques are taught; a menacing ``Polish giant''; and, on Maine's Muscongus Island, a lobster pound and Japanese restaurant that front for a sinister Oriental conglomerate. The resulting complications are hilariously enhanced by Lionel's ``verbal Tourette's flowering'''a barrage of sheer rhetorical invention that has tour de force written all over it; it's an amazing stunt, and, just when you think the well is running dry, Lethem keeps on topping himself. Another terrific entertainment from Lethem, one of contemporary fiction's most inspired risk-takers. Don't miss this one.
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2000 (Nonfiction)
Time, Love, Memory
 Jonathan Weiner
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780679444350 It's a biography of a scientist, a summary of 20th-century genetics, and a fly's-eye (i.e., multifaceted) view of trends and controversies in biology'all told by an expert science writer with one Pulitizer Prize already to his credit (The Beak of the Finch, 1994). Seymour Benzer is the fly man par excellence and a dream subject for profiling. Curious and restless, he made his mark in physics and phage genetics (phage are viruses that infect bacteria) before turning to the fruit fly and launching a second wave of fly genetics that not only sparked a revolution in developmental biology but now has turned to the study of behavior. Yes, flies behave. They have courtship songs; they have circadian rhythms; they can learn and remember. Indeed, time, love, and memory (and thus learning) have become associated with specific fly genes. And these genes have counterparts in mammals, including humans. Benzer et al. are saying that behavior as well as the housekeeping rules that govern cellular metabolism get encoded in living organisms as products of evolutionary adaptation. It's not that there is a gene for this or that, but rather complex sets of interacting genes affected by environment. But some, like Richard Lewontin and Jonathan Beckwith, will have none of that, categorically denying the relevance of fly genetics to human behavior. Weiner gives them a fair hearing, as well as E.O. Wilson and others on either side of the nature-nurture fence. Fair play aside, the momentum of the new studies could play out in the 21st century with the rich opting for ``favored'' genes for their offspring, Weiner says, a phenomenon that could eventually split the species. There is thus plenty of food for thought in the volume. But Weiner's great gift lies in explaining the science with you-are-there descriptions of lab life and personalities; reporting what scientists say and what they do. He provides telling anecdotes that reveal the humor, quirks, frustration, anger, and rewards of being a scientist. (Book-of-the-Month Club dual main selection)
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2000 (Biography)
The Hairstons
Book Jacket   Henry Wiencek
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780312192778 A look at the largest slaveholders in the South and black and white families they spawned. Once they ruled over a pre'Civil War kingdom that spanned 45 plantations spread out over four states and included 10,000 slaves. To keep it all intact, they did what European aristocracy did: they married their own. And as one might imagine, this created a huge and maddeningly complex genealogical configuration, hard to decipher, to say the least. Undaunted, Wiencek, hwo has written for Smithsonian and American Heritage magazines, has spent eight years unraveling the mystery of the Hairstons (pronounced Harston), said to be ``the largest family in America.'' What Wiencek has turned up is nothing if not intriguing, including aspects which are worthy of further exploration. But perhaps not wishing to appear sensational nor to feed prurient interests, he has gone in the opposite direction, taken a subdued approach to his subject that often has the effect of heavy sedation. Wiencek says his research points up that the family touched every aspect of American endeavor from Hollywood to Wall Street and from the coal fields of West Virginia to Europe during WWII. And that may be true. But his approach is so very genteel that it's easy to miss key elements, including some that read like something out of William Faulkner. Amid these huge plantations, for example, are unacknowledged children of their masters who become enslaved butlers, servants, and housekeepers, or children who were forced to keep their mother's maiden name to disguise their heritage. Wiencek does not have a dramatic flair for language, making this a very slow read indeed. But those with an interest in the subject will tough out this eerily fascinating account. (Author tour)
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1999 (Fiction)
The Love of a Good Woman
Book Jacket   Alice Munro
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780375403958 The Canadian Chekhov's ninth book (after her recent triumphs Friend of My Youth, 1990, and Open Secrets, 1994) contains eight long stories that resemble Munro's mature work in their tendency toward leisurely development and complex narrative. As always, their province is both the author's native Ontario and the experiential territory denoted by the title of an earlier volume, Lives of Girls and Women (1973). The inchoate understanding possessed by husbands and wives whose intimacies never fully accommodate their unshared histories, siblings who have inevitably endured (or imagined) imbalance and unfairness, parents and children unhinged by the emotional variations to which their one flesh is susceptible?all are central to these elaborately woven tales of people's disillusioning plunges into the depths of their own and others' lives. But this time around the stories seem overloaded, distended by successive disclosures that move us unconvincingly away from their thematic and structural centers. In ``Save the Reaper,'' for instance, essential details about its characters' relationships are withheld for so long that we never empathize sufficiently with the harried, lonely grandmother whose momentary impulsiveness endangers her family and herself. ``My Mother's Dream'' reimagines from a daughter's perspective?and in almost ludicrously melodramatic terms?her mother's ordeal among her late husband's controlling family. ``The Children stay'' overemphatically delineates the moral unraveling of an adulterous wife who unwisely makes ``the choice of fantasy.'' To be fair, a few of the stories are, even by Munro's high standards, exemplary: notably ``Cortes Island,'' in which a bored housewife's vivid imagination may or may not have exaggerated incriminating facts about her odd landlords; and especially the fine title novella, about the death of a small-town optometrist, the extremities to which well-meaning ordinary people are driven, and the burden helplessly shouldered by a ``practical nurse'' (there's a lovely irony therein) caught between ``Trying to ease people. Trying to be good'' and telling what she wishes not to know. A mixed bag, then, through which we too often sense Munro straining to extend and intensify her stories. The unfortunate result is her weakest book yet.
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1999 (Nonfiction)
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
 Philip Gourevitch
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780374286972 A probing chronicle of the mass ethnic slaughter in Rwanda that raises questions about human survival and coexistence in that country and everywhere. In a period of 100 days during 1994, at least 800,000 Rwandans died in government-sanctioned mass killings. The government, dominated by Rwanda's Hutu majority group, decided that it was necessary to rid the country of its Tutsi minority and called on its Hutu citizens to carry out this collective charge. Further slaughter ensued in a horrific aftermath, when victims and perpetrators found themselves together in Zairian refugee camps. Gourevitch, a regular writer for the New Yorker, responded to the Rwandan massacres both professionally and personally. As a child of Holocaust survivors, he felt himself relentlessly drawn to a country where T-shirts read ``Genocide. Bury the dead, not the truth.? The result of Gourevitch's repeated trips to Rwanda during and after the massacres is a book that is less a history lesson (though it is that, too) than a series of meditative essays on the deeper meanings of the Rwandan genocide. Gourevitch deftly weaves together historical background to the massacres (arguing against the oft-invoked theory of ancient rivalries), firsthand accounts of the killings, stories of survival and loss related by a handful of Rwandans, and cynical criticism of international agencies? handling of the situation. Without invoking Bosnia or multiethnic societies worldwide, Gourevitch shapes his discussion of Rwanda into a broader inquiry into human psychology and collective identity (``Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building''). Despite the cruelty and injustice of the situation he describes, Gourevitch remains an optimist, closing with the courageous example of Hutu and Tutsi girls under attack who risked their lives by refusing to separate themselves by ethnicity. Gourevitch?s first book should be required reading for those seeking a better understanding of Rwanda's massacres; it?s also a thoughtful investigation of ethnic conflict and its aftermath.
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1999 (Biography)
A Beautiful MInd
 Sylvia Nasar
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780684819068 A biography about a mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia, miraculously recovered, and later received the Nobel Prize in 1994. Nasar, an economics correspondent for the New York Times, opens her book with the spectral image of John Forbes Nash Jr., who haunted the Princeton University campus where he had once been a promising graduate student. Nash, the son of conservative southern parents, rose rapidly through the ranks of equally brilliant mathematicians during the 1950s. Then, at the age of 31 and at the height of his career, Nash experienced the first of many breakdowns and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nasar attempts to write an ambitious biography. It is, on one level, an in-depth look at this mysterious figure and his milieu and, on another level, a meditation on the nature of genius and madness. On the first level, Nasar succeeds, providing a sense of the rarefied and competitive atmosphere of mathematics departments in the nation's leading universities during the height of the Cold War. The peripheral characters of the book are vividly drawn, and episodes in Nash's life are painted with an extraordinary attention to detail. She also presents advanced mathematical theories in an accessible and palatable way. However, her efforts to get at the heart of Nash's disease fall short. A great deal of speculation is made about his early childhood, his homosexual liaisons, and his arrest for solicitation in this pre-Stonewall era. And even more is made of his bizarre and generally antisocial behavior before the breakdown. By the time Nasar reaches Nash's first psychotic episode, the reader is struck, not by his genius, but by his maladjusted behavior. By the end of the book, Nash remains as much of an enigma as he was before. Impressively researched and detailed, but still fails to shed much light on the mysteries of genius and insanity.
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780684819068 A biography about a mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia, miraculously recovered, and later received the Nobel Prize in 1994. Nasar, an economics correspondent for the New York Times, opens her book with the spectral image of John Forbes Nash Jr., who haunted the Princeton University campus where he had once been a promising graduate student. Nash, the son of conservative southern parents, rose rapidly through the ranks of equally brilliant mathematicians during the 1950s. Then, at the age of 31 and at the height of his career, Nash experienced the first of many breakdowns and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nasar attempts to write an ambitious biography. It is, on one level, an in-depth look at this mysterious figure and his milieu and, on another level, a meditation on the nature of genius and madness. On the first level, Nasar succeeds, providing a sense of the rarefied and competitive atmosphere of mathematics departments in the nation's leading universities during the height of the Cold War. The peripheral characters of the book are vividly drawn, and episodes in Nash's life are painted with an extraordinary attention to detail. She also presents advanced mathematical theories in an accessible and palatable way. However, her efforts to get at the heart of Nash's disease fall short. A great deal of speculation is made about his early childhood, his homosexual liaisons, and his arrest for solicitation in this pre-Stonewall era. And even more is made of his bizarre and generally antisocial behavior before the breakdown. By the time Nasar reaches Nash's first psychotic episode, the reader is struck, not by his genius, but by his maladjusted behavior. By the end of the book, Nash remains as much of an enigma as he was before. Impressively researched and detailed, but still fails to shed much light on the mysteries of genius and insanity.
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1998 (Fiction)
The Blue Flower
Book Jacket   Penelope Fitzgerald
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780395859971 The German poet Novalis (17721801) was really Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg: and Fitzgerald (The Gates of Angels, 1992; Offshore, 1987, etc.) here re-creates him, his family, his doomed young lover Sophie von Kühn, and Sophie's huge family--not to mention the era all of them lived in--in the most human-sized and yet intellectually capacious narrative a reader could wish for. Times were once better for the Hardenbergs, who've sold two estates, may have to sell another, and meanwhile live in a more manageable house in town. The pious and old (he's 56) father of the many-childrened family is Director of the Salt Mining Administration of Saxony, one of the few vocations (the military is another) not forbidden to members of the aristocracy, and the same calling the oldest Hardenberg son, Fritz, will follow upon conclusion of his studies at the universities of Jena, Leipzig, and Wittenberg. To say he's a salt inspector, though, is a little like saying Shakespeare was an actor. Not only have Fritz's studies brought him among faculty the likes of Fichte, Schiller, and Schlegel--but he himself is already a visionary poet helping bring the 18th century to its close (`` `The universe, after all, is within us. The way leads inwards, always inwards' ''). What transpires, then, in the inward universe, when Fritz first sees 12-year- old Sophie von Kühn standing at a window looking out? Says he: `` `Something happened to me.' '' This cheerful, careless, laughing child-woman becomes Fritz's star, his guide, ``his Philosophy.'' Against all precedent (Sophie isn't of the real nobility), and in keeping with the changing times (there's been the revolution in France), he gets his father's permission to become engaged--but dreadful sorrow lies just ahead. A historical novel that's touching, funny, unflinchingly tragic, and at the same time uncompromising in its accuracy, learning, and detail: a book that brings its subject entirely alive, almost nothing seeming beyond its grasp.
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1998 (Nonfiction)
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Book Jacket   Anne Fadiman
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780374267810 A vivid, deeply felt, and meticulously researched account of the disastrous encounter between two disparate cultures: Western medicine and Eastern spirituality, in this case, of Hmong immigrants from Laos. Fadiman, a columnist for Civilization and the new editor of the American Scholar, met the Lees, a Hmong refugee family in Merced, Calif., in 1988, when their daughter Lia was already seven years old and, in the eyes of her American doctors, brain dead. In the Lees' view, Lia's soul had fled her body and become lost. At age three months Lia had had her first epileptic seizure--as the Lees put it, ``the spirit catches you and you fall down.'' Lia's treatment was complex--her anticonvulsant prescriptions changed 23 times in four years--and the Lees were sure the medicines were bad for their daughter. Believing that the family's failure to comply with his instructions constituted child abuse, Lia's doctor had her placed in foster care. A few months after returning home, Lia was hospitalized with a massive seizure that effectively destroyed her brain. With death believed to be imminent, the Lees were permitted to take her home. Two years later, Fadiman found Lia being lovingly cared for by her parents. Still hoping to reunite her soul with her body, they arranged for a Hmong shaman to perform a healing ceremony featuring the sacrifice of a live pig in their apartment. Into this heart-wrenching story, Fadiman weaves an account of Hmong history from ancient times to the present, including their work for the CIA in Laos and their resettlement in the US, their culture, spiritual beliefs, ethics, and etiquette. While Fadiman is keenly aware of the frustrations of doctors striving to provide medical care to those with such a radically different worldview, she urges that physicians at least acknowledge their patients' realities. A brilliant study in cross-cultural medicine.
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1998 (Biography)
Ernie Pyles War
 James Tobin
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780684836423 From Detroit News reporter Tobin, the definitive biography of this country's great WW II war correspondent. There was little in Ernie Pyle's background to suggest greatness. Born in 1900 in Indiana to an unsuccessful farmer, Pyle grew into a small, quiet man with a tendency to hypochondria. He dropped out of Indiana University in 1923 to accept a job as a reporter for the LaPorte Herald. Later that year, he made the leap to big-city journalism with a job at the Washington Daily News. In the capital, he met Geraldine Siebolds, whom he married in 1925. After a peripatetic period, he became a widely read roving columnist for the Scripps-Howard papers. According to Tobin, covering the war allowed Pyle to escape from a disintegrating marriage. Reporting on Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, he swiftly became a favorite of the soldiers, as his columns portrayed the war from the standpoint of the average GI rather than that of the generals: Pyle faithfully relayed messages from soldiers to their families, mentioned soldiers by name in his columns, and shaped America's image of the Good War (as Tobin shows, Pyle was both oppressed and exhilarated by the war but was often unable to get his darker images of war past the military censors). Exhausted after several years in the European theater, he basked in homefront glory (he wrote two bestselling books, had an audience with Eleanor Roosevelt, and a movie was made about his life) before leaving again to report on the Pacific War. Insisting on covering the invasion of Okinawa from the front lines, he was killed by a Japanese machine gun on the beach at Ie Shima on April 18, 1945. Tobin's account is a balanced tribute to the quintessential war correspondent: In his ability to make war come alive and at the same time show its human side, Pyle was never to be bettered by any of the generation of war correspondents that followed.
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1997 (Fiction)
Women in their Beds
 Gina Berriault
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A generous selection of 35 stories containing many from Berriault's earlier collections (The Infinite Passion of Expectation, 1982, etc.) and ten previously uncollected. Of the newer work, the standouts are: an astringent tale of marital infidelity (""A Dream of Fair Women""); a wonderfully complex analysis of the relationship between a famous sculptor and the son whom he abandons and, in so doing, paradoxically empowers; and the superb title story, about a would-be actress, employed as a hospital social worker, who gains unwelcome and frightening knowledge about the variety, and extremities, of human behavior. Berriault's tense, probing stories, sometimes inelegantly fashioned or unaccountably abrasive, nevertheless dig deeply inside her troubled characters, and they stay with you long after. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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1997 (Nonfiction)
Bad Land
Book Jacket   Jonathan Raban
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780679442547 As seen in the punning title, travel writer Raban (Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America, 1991, etc.) adds a second, more sinister meaning to the legendary Montana-Dakota stretch of the Great Plains. Raban focuses on the town of Ismay, Mont., and its role in a seldom-discussed chapter of the modern American West. Ismay's settlers were lured by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, by misleading advertising by railroad companies, and by pseudoscientific claims about the benefits of dry-land farming. Before long, however, this inhospitable land had wrecked the hopes of these latter-day homesteaders. Instead of the American Eden they were promised, they encountered something more akin to the Egyptian plagues: subzero winter temperatures, dust, dying cattle, large grasshoppers, and above all, scant rainfall. Raban skillfully evokes the landscape's stark immensity, which defeated the attempts of photographers who tried to transform it into a romantic panorama. As settlers gradually deserted Ismay, they left behind signs of their failure, so that when Raban passed through, ``for every surviving ranch, I passed a dozen ruined houses.'' Yet Ismay, conceived by advertising, still could not resist making a bundle off a promotion, as seen in a hilarious recounting of its attempt to recast itself as a tourist trap by renaming itself Joe, Montana, after the quarterback (who is neither native son nor resident). Ultimately, Raban produces a startling revision of traditional Western myth: not the hopeful cowboys and farmers so often found in children's school primers, but solitaries, religious zealots, and even sociopaths. In Randy Weaver, Theodore Kaczynski, and Timothy McVeigh, Raban discovers spiritual descendants of the homesteaders in ``their resentment of government, their notion of property rights, their harping on self-sufficiency, and self-defence, [and] in their sense of enraged Scriptural entitlement.'' A powerful, grim new slant on those who took the way west--and of the terrible consequences when their dreams curdled and died. (First serial to the New Yorker)
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1997 (Biography)
Angelas Ashes
Book Jacket   Frank McCourt
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780684874357 A powerful, exquisitely written debut, a recollection of the author's miserable childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, during the Depression and WW II. McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930 but returned to Ireland with his family at the age of four. He describes, not without humor, scenes of hunger, illness, filth, and deprivation that would have given Dickens pause. His ``shiftless loquacious alcoholic father,'' Malachy, rarely worked; when he did he usually drank his wages, leaving his wife, Angela, to beg from local churches and charity organizations. McCourt remembers his little sister dying in his mother's arms. Then Oliver, one of the twins, got sick and died. McCourt himself nearly died of typhoid fever when he was ten. As awful and neglectful as his father could be, there were also heartrendingly tender moments: Unable to pay for a doctor and fearful of losing yet another child when the youngest is almost suffocating from a cold, his father places ``his mouth on the little nose . . . sucking the bad stuff out of Michael's head.'' Malachy fled to do war work in England but failed to send any money home, leaving his wife and children, already living in squalor, to further fend for themselves. They stole and begged and tore wood from the walls to burn in the stove. Forced to move in with an abusive cousin, McCourt became aware that the man and his mother were having ``the excitement'' up there in their grubby loft. After taking a beating from the man, McCourt ran away to stay with an uncle and spent his teens alternating between petty crime and odd jobs. Eventually he made his way, once again, to America. An extraordinary work in every way. McCourt magically retrieves love, dignity, and humor from a childhood of hunger, loss, and pain. (First serial to the New Yorker; Book-of-the-Month Club and Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selections; author tour)
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1996 (Fiction)
Mrs. Ted Bliss
 Stanley Elkin
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780786861040 An extremely vexing if entertaining novel about an 80-year-old Jewish widow, by the late master of obsessive dark humor (Van Gogh's Room at Arles, 1993, etc.). Dorothy Bliss is a recent widow who moved with her husband to Miami after he retired as a butcher 20 years ago. Through the course of the story Elkin reveals in great detail every nuance of the rather dull life of Mrs. Bliss, a devoted homemaker who never dared to ``color outside the lines.'' We learn of her two living children and numerous grandchildren and other minor relativesMrs. Bliss keeps careful records of how much money she gives to each of them on every holiday, making sure that no one gets more than any of the others. We hear of the trauma of her oldest son's death from cancer at an early age. And we learn all about her fastidious cleaning habits. She leads such an ordinary, predictable life that her drug-smuggling South American neighbors conspire to use her and her dead husband's car as a front for their operation. But the amusing drug-running bit is only a ruse to tease you into thinking there's a plot. In fact, there's isn't so much a plot as an accumulation of detail about Mrs. Bliss. At first the repetitive, seemingly trivial anecdotes are grating, but Elkin's long poetic sentences about seemingly mundane minutiae subtly compound, and his central character gradually takes on a profound weight. By the end, when she's alone in her condo waiting for the killer hurricane that is bearing down on Miami, Mrs. Ted Bliss seems like a mythic character, the scene the Götterdämmerung of the Jewish-American Mother. A fiendish and, by end, thoroughly engrossing life study. (Author tour)
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1996 (Nonfiction)
A Civil Action
 Jonathan Harr
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A crash course in big-bucks tort litigation, as rich as any novel on the scene. In the mid-'70s, the small industrial town of Woburn, Mass., found itself afflicted with a plague of biblical dimensions: 12 local children, 8 of them close neighbors, had died (or were dying) of leukemia. The parents suspected the water supply, which was foul-smelling, rusty, and undrinkable, but they had no hard evidence of a link to the cancers. But in 1979, the accidental discovery of carcinogenic industrial wastes in the town's wells led the grieving parents to hire personal-injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, new to the profession but intoxicated with the sizable damages he'd won so far. This is magazine journalist Hafts first book, but his complex portrait of Schlichtmann is the work of a master. Egomaniacal, quixotic, workaholic, greedy, altruistic, and naive, Schlichtmann is Everylawyer, and as he allows the Woburn case to consume his practice, he almost loses his license and his life. Harr wisely downplays the dying-children angle, focusing instead on Schlichtmann's case against the two corporate Goliaths who dumped the waste: Beatrice Foods (represented by Jerome Facher of Boston's Hale & Dorr) and W.R. Grace (represented by William Cheeseman of Boston's Foley, Hoag & Eliot). Despite their white-shoe lineage, Facher and Cheeseman play dirty, withholding evidence and repeatedly seeking Schlichtmann's suspension for having filed a ""frivolous"" lawsuit. But the real villain of the story is Federal District Judge Walter J. Skinner, whose personal dislike of Schlichtmann (and camaraderie with Facher) leads him to grant the defense's motion to split the trial into two protracted phases. By the time Judge Skinner submits four incomprehensible questions to be bewildered jury, Woburn's young victims have been forgotten--and the whole legal system has suffered a tragic loss. A paranoid legal thriller as readable as Grisham, but important and illuminating. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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1996 (Biography)
Savage Art
Book Jacket   Robert Polito
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780394584072 A triple-decker biography of the darkest of all practitioners of noir fiction (The Stranger Inside Me, The Grifters, etc.). After a brisk, incisive critical overview of Thompson's work, Polito, editor of Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson (1988), launches into a hard-driving account, based largely on interviews, of the novelist's life that makes it sound like a hellish parody of a cautionary pulp fable. Like a Hollywood writer, Thompson cherished an oedipal ambivalence toward his charming, irresponsible father, an Oklahoma sheriff. He also had, in the best Hollywood manner, a shy, courtly, hypersensitive demeanor that belied both the anarchic fury that simmered inside and the rough, rolling-stone background that took him from work as a knowing bellboy to jobs in the Texas oilfields, with time out for marriage, children, and a stint as a hobo before the Depression turned him into a radical, a WPA writer, and finally a poet of failure (``Thompson's great subject''). Although Polito emphasizes his subject's formative apprenticeship in true-crime writing, Thompson, again in approved movie-hero fashion, churned out millions of words in a dizzying variety of assignmentsarticles for agricultural and industrial journals, short stories and memoirs, labor news and interviewsbefore publishing, at the age of 42, Nothing More Than Murder, the first of his jet-black studies of doomed criminal sociopaths. Finally finding his niche, Thompson produced, in a miraculous year and a half (195254), 12 paperback novels, including most of the work by which he is best known, before beginning a long, painful slide toward piecework (TV episodes, novelizations, a hundred abortive projects), premature aging, and oblivion. Polito not only takes Thompson's measure as a man and writer, but makes you feel what it must have been like to be this quiet, raging man in a biography nearly as dark as its subject's own fiction.
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1995 (Fiction)
The Stone Diaries
Book Jacket   Carol Shields
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780670853090 Shields (The Republic of Love, The Orange Fish, Swan, plus see above) offers epic material in this century-long story of a woman's life told from many points of view. Short-listed for the Booker Prize, the novel dazzles with its deft touch and ironic wisdom. Daisy Goodwill is born in 1905 in Manitoba and dies early in the 1990's in a Florida nursing home. Chapter headings are archetypal: ``Birth, 1905,'' ``Childhood, 1916,'' ``Marriage, 1927,'' ``Love, 1936,'' ``Motherhood, 1947,'' until, finally, ``Illness and Decline, 1985'' and ``Death.'' In fact, the novel even includes 16 pages of photos to mimic the usual pattern of a biography. In this case, however, the point of view switches frequently: ``Life is an endless recruiting of witnesses,'' Daisy says in ``Birth,'' and the narrative structure bears out this theme. Daisy's mother dies in childbirth, and her father, a stonecutter, forgets for days at a time ``that he is the father of a child....'' Her father moves to Indiana, where she marries a man who quickly commits suicide and then, in 1936, she marries Barker Flett, a professor whose mother had brought her up. Her life plays itself out. Shields's quiet touch, gossipy and affectionate, re- creates Daisy's poignant decline and death with dollops of humorous distance, including obituaries, recipes, and overheard snippets of conversation. Shields, who began as a miniaturist, has come full bloom with this latest exploration of domestic plenitude and paucity; she's entered a mature, luminous period, devising a style that develops an earlier whimsical fabulism into a hard-edged lyricism perfect for the ambitious bicultural exploration she undertakes here.
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1995 (Nonfiction)
The Rape of Europa
 Lynn Nicholas
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780679400691 A sprawling, vivid look at the fate of Europe's artworks during WW II. ``Never,'' states Nicholas in her admirably accomplished first book, ``had works of art been so important to a political movement and never had they been moved about on such a vast scale....'' Charting this unprecedented movement, Nicholas begins with the Nazis' twofold ``purification'' effort to ban ``degenerate'' culture and to scour public and private collections of enemy lands and races for nobly Germanic art. Backed always by astonishing statistics, the author recounts not only the brutal pursuit of both goals in western continental Europe and the even harsher, racially motivated pillage of Russian and Polish art treasures, but also the baffling exceptions to rules: the modernist ``garbage'' (Goebbels) imported into Germany and auctioned for hard foreign currency; the Jewish experts in Nordic art made ``Honorary Aryans''; the hands of Jewish women kissed by Goering in his quest for favorite canvases. As a former researcher at Washington's National Gallery who made a childhood visit through the devastated Germany of 1948, Nicholas is well equipped to elucidate the technicalities and vivify the chaos of wartime Europe's emergency storage sites, their improvised safety and climate controls, the economics and legalities of the art trade and postwar reclamations, and America's interests during and after the war in custodianship, reparation politics, and efforts to protect its own collections. Nonetheless, Nicholas does not, so to speak, lose the big picture, duly prefacing each country-by-country account with background history of the war. One interesting Cold War issue she considers is the politically sensitive return to newly Communist countries of plundered religious relics. The book abounds in poignant and bizarre details, from masterpieces traded for everything from human lives to ``8 kilograms of millet,'' to Chinese bronzes found holding manure in East German pigsties. Nicholas restores harrowing political contexts to ``safe,'' pristinely displayed museum masterpieces. (87 b&w illustrations and 3 maps)
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1995 (Biography)
Shot in the Heart
 Mikal Gilmore
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. 9780385422932 In a narrative that holds all the morbid fascination of a bad car wreck, the kid brother of Gary Gilmore--immortalized in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, he campaigned for his own death and became the first person to be executed in America after the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s--details a sickening family history of violence, rage, and lies that spans several generations. Mother Bessie, who was traumatized by her unforgiving Mormon parents (her father who was beaten with his own father's wooden leg, in turn would batter Bessie's brother until the gawky boy passed out), married Frank Gilmore, a Catholic 20-some years her senior. Frank neglected to mention that he had six ex-wives and several abandoned children. The son of a mother who withheld her love, Frank became a drunk and a thief who left home for months at a time and moved his family frequently to evade the law. To get back at him, Bessie had an affair and became pregnant by one of his sons from a previous marriage. He suspected Gary was not his (in fact, the oldest, Frank, Jr., wasn't) and particularly disdained him. Frank regularly and savagely beat Bessie, and Mikal's older brothers Gary, Frank, Jr., and Gaylen, and robbed them of all shreds of security and self-esteem. Gary, a gifted artist and very intelligent teenager, was sent to reform school because of his father's recalcitrance, and there he became a criminal. His stints in jail further turned him into the monster who senselessly murdered two young Mormon men. Mikal humanizes Gary, and tells of the wrenching legacy he and his other brothers inherited: alcoholic Gaylen died of knife wounds, probably inflicted by a jealous husband; Frank, Jr., cared for the mother who hated him until her death, and then became a recluse; and the youngest, Mikal, now a senior editor at Rolling Stone, lives with the guilt of being his father's favorite and the shame of being Gary's brother. Articulate, brave, and heartbreaking. (15 b&w photos, not seen) (First serial to Rolling Stone; film rights to Alan Pakula; Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection; Quality Paperback Book Club selection; author tour)
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