Book List

10 Classics That Never Get Old

The gut-soul of Roots, with which this will be recklessly, inevitably linked, and a handsome display of a major talent.


"When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die."

And the scribbled no-name "Macon Dead," given to a newly freed black man by a drunken Union Army officer, has stained out a family's real name for three generations, and then we meet the third "Macon Dead," called "Milkman." Raised among the sour hatreds of the richest black family in a Michigan town, Milkman learns not to love or make commitments, learns to turn away from his father's hard, tight greed, his mother's unloved passivity, his sisters' sterile virginity. He stands apart from his outcast aunt Pilate (a figure reminiscent of Sula, living beyond all reason), a "raggedy bootlegger" who keeps her name in a box threaded to one ear. And he stands above the wild untidy adoration of his cousin Hagar, above the atrocities against blacks in the 1950s, even while his friend organizes a black execution squad. However, when Milkman's father opens the door to a family past of murder and flight, Milkman—in order to steal what he believes is gold—begins the cleansing Odyssean journey. His wanderings will take him through a wilderness of rich and wonderful landscapes murmuring with old tales, those real names becoming closer and more familiar. He beholds eerie appearances (an ancient Circe ringed with fight-eyed dogs)—and hears the electric singing of children, which holds within it the pulse of truth. Like other black Americans, Milkman's retrieval of identity from obliteration helps him to shake off the "Dead" no-name state of his forebears. And, like all people, his examination of the past gives him a perspective that liberates the capacity for love. Morrison's narration, accomplished with such patient delicacy, is both darkly tense and exuberant; fantastic events and symbolic embellishments simply extend and deepen the validity and grace of speech and character.

The gut-soul of Roots, with which this will be recklessly, inevitably linked, and a handsome display of a major talent.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1977


Page Count: 360

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1977


An extremely powerful story of a young Southern Negro, from his late high school days through three years of college to his life in Harlem.

His early training prepared him for a life of humility before white men, but through injustices- large and small, he came to realize that he was an "invisible man". People saw in him only a reflection of their preconceived ideas of what he was, denied his individuality, and ultimately did not see him at all. This theme, which has implications far beyond the obvious racial parallel, is skillfully handled. The incidents of the story are wholly absorbing. The boy's dismissal from college because of an innocent mistake, his shocked reaction to the anonymity of the North and to Harlem, his nightmare experiences on a one-day job in a paint factory and in the hospital, his lightning success as the Harlem leader of a communistic organization known as the Brotherhood, his involvement in black versus white and black versus black clashes and his disillusion and understanding of his invisibility- all climax naturally in scenes of violence and riot, followed by a retreat which is both literal and figurative. Parts of this experience may have been told before, but never with such freshness, intensity and power.

This is Ellison's first novel, but he has complete control of his story and his style. Watch it.

Pub Date: April 7, 1952

ISBN: 0679732764

Page Count: 616

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 22, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1952


Tremendous in scope—tremendous in depth of penetration—and as different a Steinbeck as the Steinbeck of Burning Bright was from the Steinbeck of The Grapes of Wrath.

Here is no saga of the underprivileged—no drama of social significance. Tenderness, which some felt was inherent in everything Steinbeck wrote, is muted almost to the vanishing point in this story of conflict within character, impact of character on character, of circumstances on personalities, of the difficult acceptance of individual choice as against the dominance of inherited traits. The philosophy is intimately interwoven with the pace of story, as he follows-from New England to California over some fifty odd years-the two families which hold stage center. There are the Trasks, brothers in two generations, strangely linked, strangely at war the one with the other; there are the Hamiltons (John Steinbeck's own forebears), a unique Irish born couple, the man an odd lovable sort of genius who never capitalizes on his ideas for himself, the tiny wife, tart, cold-and revealing now and again unexpected gentleness of spirit, the burgeoning family, as varied a tribe as could be found. And- on the periphery but integral to the deepening philosophy which motivates the story, there is the wise Chinese servant scholar and gentleman, who submerges his own goals to identify himself wholly with the needs of the desolate Adam Trask, crushed by his soulless wife's desertion, and the twin boys, Cal, violent, moody, basically strong enough to be himself—and Aron, gentle, unwilling to face disagreeable facts, beloved by all who met him. In counterpoint, the story follows too the murky career of Adam's wife, Cathy—who came to him from a mysteriously clouded past, and returned to a role for which she was suited—as a costly whore, and later as Madame in Salinas most corrupt "house," where the perversions of sex ridden males were catered to—and cruelty capitalized upon.

Shock techniques applied with rapier and not bludgeon will rule the book out for the tender-skinned. But John Steinbeck, the philosopher, dominates his material and brings it into sharply moral focus.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 1952


Page Count: 616

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1952

More shaded, more graphic, and angrier than Lord of the Flies, but the fierce anger is transmuted by Oe's art into literary...


First American publication of 1994 Nobelist Oe's 1958 debut novel: a fiercely intense, unsparingly realistic chronicle of the cruelties visited on the deviant and the different.

Unlike most Japanese writers, Oe (The Silent Cry, 1975, etc.) prefers the direct to the oblique, truth to euphemism, and the intellectual to the mystic. Set in rural Japan, an area almost mythic in its isolation and timelessness, the story concerns a group of juvenile delinquents being evacuated en masse from a reformatory due to wartime air raids. Harried from village to village by hostile peasants who mistreat and starve them, the boys finally arrive in a rain-sodden mountain hamlet. Here, they must dig a grave and then bury a mound of plague-ridden animal corpses. Overnight, one of the youngest boys dies from the plague, and next morning all awake to find the village abandoned except for a girl and a dead woman; the inhabitants, fearing the plague, have blocked all exits and fled. For a while, time "went really slowly and simply wouldn't pass." Then the adolescent narrator, his tenderhearted young brother, and their tough comrade Minami break into the houses for food; they meet an abandoned Korean boy and a deserting soldier who's been hiding in the forest; and the narrator has a brief love affair with the nameless girl left behind in the villagers' flight. But she sickens and dies; his brother runs away; the residents return to kill the deserter and punish the boys; and the narrator—``only a child, tired, insanely angry, tearful, shivering with cold and hunger''—runs off into the forest.

More shaded, more graphic, and angrier than Lord of the Flies, but the fierce anger is transmuted by Oe's art into literary gold- -an anguished plea for tolerance more wrenching than any rant could ever be. (First serial to Grand Street; author tour)

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-7145-2997-4

Page Count: 189

Publisher: Marion Boyars

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995


A brilliant piece of writing, with the atmosphere and suspense and pace that made Jamaica Inn an absorbing and thrilling story—and it has besides a depth of characterization and soundness of psychological conflict that makes it a finer and more penetrating book.

The story is told through the eyes of the unsophisticated and somewhat terrified young second wife of Maxim de Winter, owner of Manderley, a Cornish estate that had won renown under the executive management and fascination of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Bit by bit, the character of Rebecca is built up in the mind of her successor, and the sinister figure of the housekeeper who had adored her, strengthens the conviction that her ghost haunts the place. Then comes disaster, impending tragedy, and in the face of what seems the end of all things, a new Rebecca emerges — and a new marriage is brought to life. A haunting sense of impending tragedy keeps one breathless to the end. It is fascinating reading.

Should be easy to sell—easy to rent.

Pub Date: Sept. 23, 1938

ISBN: 0385043805

Page Count: 372

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: March 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1938


I loved Jonah's Gourd Vine—thought some of her short stories very fine—and feel that this measures up to the promise of the early books.

Authentic picture of Negroes, not in relation to white people but to each other. An ageing grandmother marries off her granddaughter almost a child to a middle-aged man for security—and she leaves him when she finds that her dreams are dying, and goes off with a dapper young Negro, full of his own sense of power and go-getter qualities. He takes her to a mushroom town, buys a lot, puts up a store and makes the town sit up and take notice. His success goes to his head—their life becomes a mockery of her high hopes. And after his death, she goes off with a youth who brings her happiness and tragedy.

A poignant story, told with almost rhythmic beauty.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1937

ISBN: 0060199490

Page Count: 231

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1937


James Thurber once remarked that "we live in a time when in the moth-proof closet dwells the moth." It is a good lesson and could easily be the text for Halberstam's dazzling account of how some of the best and brightest men of our time—John F. Kennedy, Walt Whitman Rostow, the Bundy brothers, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, numerous other political illuminati of the '60's—were chewed up, some beyond mending, by a little moth named Vietnam.

It's a moth who ate so much so voraciously and so sneakily that he grew to be an unmanageable creature of monstrous proportions, capable of toppling presidents, visiting holocaust on an entire area of the world, and sucking dry the moral viscera of the great nation Amurrica. How did the moth do it? How was he able to chomp up and ingest everything in the Washington closet right under the collective perspicacity of the brainiest individuals to serve in government since the New Deal? Weren't these men educated at the swellest schools? Wasn't Rusk a Rhodes Scholar? Didn't Rostow write books which set even the Cambridge elite on its fabulous behind? Didn't such an oracle as Walter Lippmann him-self recommend McGeorge Bundy as Secretary of State? Hadn't they all learned at Groton and other Ivy way stations "what washes and what does not wash"? And, yes, wasn't it also true that even Lyndon B. Johnson, who became the hungry moth's favorite dish, was one of the nouveau best and brightest, notwithstanding Pedernales origins and San Marcos State Teachers College vita? All true, but the bug continued to gnaw the fabric—relentlessly. "Lyndon Johnson had lost it all, and so had the rest of them; they had, for all their brilliance and hubris and sense of themselves, been unwilling to look to and learn from the past...swept forward by their belief in the importance of anti-Communism (and the dangers of not paying sufficient homage to it)."

Halberstam's conclusions are not original—see Daniel Ellsberg's "Stalemate Machine" fueled by the "lesson of China" in Papers on the War—but his ability to interrelate the decisions and the policy-making processes with the makers' personalities and intellectual biases results in a tour de force of contemporary political journalism.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1972

ISBN: 0449908704

Page Count: 724

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1972


Sheer entertainment against a fabulous background, proving that late-blooming first-novelist Wolfe, a superobserver of the social scene (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers), has the right stuff for fiction.

Undertaken as a serial for Rolling Stone, his magnum opus hits the ball far, far, far out of the park. Son of Park Avenue wealth, Sherman McCoy at 35 is perhaps the greatest bond salesman on Wall Street, and eats only the upper crust. But millionaire Sherman's constant inner cry is that he is "hemorrhaging money." He's also a jerk, ripe for humiliation; and when his humiliation arrives, it is fearsome. Since this is also the story of The Law as it applies to rich and poor, especially to blacks and Hispanics of the Bronx, Wolfe has a field day familiarizing the reader with the politics and legal machinations that take place in the Bronx County Courthouse, a fortress wherein Sherman McCoy becomes known as the Great White Defendant. One evening, married Sherman picks up his $100-million mistress Maria at Kennedy Airport, gets lost bringing her back in his $48,000 Mercedes-Benz, is attacked by two blacks on a ramp in the Bronx. When Maria jumps behind the wheel, one black is hit by the car. Later, he lapses into a terminal coma, but not before giving his mother part of Sherman's license plate. This event is hyped absurdly by an alcoholic British reporter for the The City Light (read: Rupert Murdoch's New York Post), the mugger becomes an "honor student," and Sherman becomes the object of vile racist attacks mounted by a charlatan black minister. Chunk by chunk, Sherman loses every footing in his life but gains his manhood. Meanwhile, Wolfe triumphantly mounts scene after magnificent scene depicting the vanity of human endeavor, with every character measured by his shoes and suits or dresses, his income and expenses, and with his vain desires rising in smoke against settings that would make a Hollywood director's tongue hang out.

Often hilarious, and much, much more.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 1987

ISBN: 1241681244

Page Count: 494

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1987

Lovely: a fairy tale for grown-ups, both partaking in and departing from a rich literary tradition.


A lyrical, allusive (and elusive) voyage into the mists of British folklore by renowned novelist Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go, 2005, etc.).

There be giants buried beneath the earth—and also the ancient kings of Britain, Arthur among them. Ishiguro’s tale opens not on such a declaration but instead on a hushed tone; an old man has been remembering days gone by, and the images he conjures, punctuated by visions of a woman with flowing red hair, may be truthful or a troubling dream. Axl dare not ask his neighbors, fellow residents of a hillside and bogside burrow, for help remembering, “[f]or in this community, the past was rarely discussed.” With his wife, who bears the suggestive if un-Arthurian name Beatrice, the old man sets off on a quest in search of the past and of people forgotten. As it unfolds, Axl finds himself in the company of such stalwarts as a warrior named Wistan, who is himself given to saying such things as “[t]he trees and moorland here, the sky itself seem to tug at some lost memory,” and eventually Sir Gawain himself. The premise of a nation made up of amnesiac people longing for meaning is beguiling, and while it opens itself to heavy-handed treatment, Ishiguro is a master of subtlety; as with Never Let Me Go, he allows a detail to slip out here, another there, until we are finally aware of the facts of the matter, horrible though they may be. By the time the she-dragon named Querig enters the picture, the reader will already well know that we’re in Tolkien-ish territory—but Tolkien by way of P.D. James, with deep studies in character and allegory layered onto the narrative. And heaps of poetry, too, even as forgetfulness resolves as a species of PTSD: “I was but a young knight then….Did you not all grow old in a time of peace? So leave us to go our way without insults at our back.”

Lovely: a fairy tale for grown-ups, both partaking in and departing from a rich literary tradition.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-307-27103-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015


This ran in the S.E.P. and resulted in more demands for the story in book form than ever recorded. Well, here it is and it is a honey. Imagine ten people, not knowing each other, not knowing why they were invited on a certain island house-party, not knowing their hosts. Then imagine them dead, one by one, until none remained alive, nor any clue to the murderer. Grand suspense, a unique trick, expertly handled.

Pub Date: Feb. 21, 1939

ISBN: 0062073478

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Dodd, Mead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1939

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