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

SONG OF SOLOMON

"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

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1977

EAST OF EDEN

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

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 616

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1952

Despite a less sure-footed conclusion, Díaz’s reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a...

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THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO

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), Díaz 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, Díaz 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, Díaz 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), Díaz 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, Díaz’s reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-1-59448-958-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST

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

NATIVE SON

Uncle Tom's Children was a collection of novelettes; this is a full length novel by perhaps the outstanding of the young Negro fiction writers. He writes with violence, with passion, with force. This new book is a powerful study of fear and hatred, of social forces in America today which have instilled these elements into the Negro. A convincing story of Bigger Thomas, a Chicago slum product, resentful, rebellious, ignorant, storing up fear and hatred that he must stifle daily. When he gets a job as chauffeur to some "emancipated "capitalists, his antagonism breaks out. He kills, by accident; and fear forces him to shift the blame. Another death is made necessary, he is caught and sentenced to death. A violent story, but a convincing one.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1939

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 434

Publisher: Harper

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1939

I, CLAUDIUS

Fictionized biography of a Roman emperor, who lived at a strategic period in the history of the empire.

A book that some will read because they think it should be read, and will be pleasantly disappointed at finding it very entertaining, although not conventionally popular. The author has told his story as though it were an autobiography, in which lame, stuttering, weak Claudius writes his own story, in modern style, giving from the inside the plots and counterplots, the intrigues and loves and hates and vices and virtues and scandals and skeletons of his family and the court. The story goes through the long reign of Augustus, to Tiberius, Caligula and his own accession, with all the vast spectacles and ceremonies. The people—hither to names on the pages of ancient history to most of us—come alive.

A book that should rate leading reviews, and that those who like historical fiction and biography will find worth reading.

Pub Date: June 1, 1934

ISBN: 067972477X

Page Count: 484

Publisher: Smith & Haas

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1934

THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG

The life story of double-murderer Gary Gilmore and a new, impressive book for Mailer, a thousand-page leviathan achieved at an awesome price.

Goodbye, self-advertising, two-fisted clown-drunk Mailer. Hello, relentlessly objective Invisible Norman. Indeed, the tone, the voice, the man himself seem at first entirely gone, until we notice how vividly the figure of Gilmore dominates every page as he manipulates the world from his jail cell; it's as if Mailer, always his own existential hero, has found one with even stronger credentials. Before his death at 36, Gilmore had spent all but four years of his adolescent/adult life in jail. Here, we follow him from his release on parole from the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, in April 1976 to his execution at Utah State Prison in January 1977, a nine-month period in which Gilmore spent only four months flee. He was paroled when his cousin Brenda guaranteed him a home and a job. Self-educated, Gilmore had a nice vocabulary, a definite drawing talent, and a knack for writing; he exercised regularly and was generally fearless. But he'd been an emotional child, we learn from flashbacks, boorishly insensitive to the effect of his instant explosions on others. And now, in his newfound parole freedom, his volatility became a weapon that terrorized others and let him get his own way. He also brought his prison values with him; to cheat, to steal, or to rape were as inconsequential and natural as breathing. But within a few weeks he'd moved in with Nicole Baker, a much-married 19-year-old mother of two, a sexy, sensitive girl-woman (Gary's "elf") who fell for him in the hardest possible way. He beat her; she moved out and hid in a nearby town. And after her desertion, he was wired for disaster; he murdered a gas-station attendant and a motel clerk, was recognized and arrested. A rapid trial and sentencing found him on Death Row. He chose death by firing squad and refused to allow an appeal; he deserved to die, he felt, and he detested the prospect of a life sentence—he'd already spent over 18 years in prison. So began the massive efforts of others to save him against his will. Utah's entire judicial system was called into question. And, more important, no one had been executed in the U.S. for ten years. Would his be the breakthrough case re-establishing capital punishment and condemning Death Row prisoners everywhere? Gilmore, meanwhile, had sold the rights to his life story to Larry Schiller, a journalist-filmmaker (who put together Mailer's Marilyn bio-package), and, in Mailer's dramatization, he becomes the third principal—a hustler who undergoes a profound moral education in the course of the Gilmore countdown.

These three are magnificently drawn and placed against the array of persons who've been stabbed in one way or another by Gilmore's tragic double nature—and, working chiefly with Schiller's tapes, Mailer has pulled off a crafty portrait, a shrewd reconstruction, a compelling projection of his own nature through that of a truly doomed man.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 1979

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 1056

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Sept. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979

THE SATANIC VERSES

A NOVEL

This controversial novel, banned in India for its alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, is a surreal hallucinatory feast.

Rushdie (Midnight's Children; Shame, etc.), long a magical realist, turns finally to Islam for his jumping, off point, and his inventiveness never flags. Satan, according to an epigraph by Defoe, has no fixed place to settle, and the difficulty of telling good from evil, the way that one reincarnates into the other, is the theme of this epic tale—which contains stories within stories, dreams within dreams. It begins with the explosion of a hijacked jumbo jet; Gibreel Farishta, a Bombay movie star, and Saladin Chamcha, an exile who lives in Britain, survive their free fall from the plane. Gibreel then presides over the dream/stow worlds of his "arehangelic other self" after he and Saladin are transformed into angelic or satanic opponents. (They are never certain which is which.) The central story concerns Mahound, the Prophet of Jahilia who founds the religion of "those who submit," which parallels Islam; another is about Ayesha, a contemporary visionary who leads a group of villagers to the sea, where she promises that the waves will part before them (they all drown, of course); yet another dream-story involves the Imam, a sort of grim Ayatollah. Such a summary does the book a disservice, however, because all of these stories and many others besides are woven together with cross-references, psychic communications, brisk farces and satires, and interconnected picaresque. Rushdie does for Islam what Mark Helprin did (a little less successfully) for New York in his Winter's Tale: peoples it with fantastic figures that always seem close to some ineffable imaginative truth—even as Rushdie fast-cuts to the next scene in his phantasmagoric dream-time world.

Whether it all finally holds together or not is almost beside the point: this is an entertainment in the highest sense of that much-exploited word.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 1988

ISBN: 0812976711

Page Count: 325

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1988

A tale of two magnificently imagined characters, and a plaintive love song to (and vivid re-creation of) the fractious...

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THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY

A stroke of sheer conceptual genius links the themes of illusion and escape with that of the European immigrant experience of America in this huge, enthralling third novel from the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1994).

Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier arrives in Brooklyn in 1939 to stay with his aunt’s family, and sparks are immediately struck between “Joe” (a talented draftsman) and his cousin Sammy Klayman, a hustling go-getter (and hopeful “serious writer”) who dreams of success in the burgeoning new field of newspaper comic strips. The pair dream up, and draw the exploits of, such superheroes as “the Escapist” (a figure resembling “Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer,” whose sources are revealed in extensive flashbacks that also detail Joe’s training as a magician and escape artist)—and “Kavalier & Clay” become rich and famous. But the shadow of Hitler overpowers Joe’s imagination, sending him on an odyssey of revenge (to Greenland Station as a naval technician, in a furiously imaginative sequence) and into retreat from both his celebrity and the surviving people he still loves. Meanwhile, even as the world of the comics is yielding to the pressures of change and political accusation (in the form of Senator Estes Kefauver’s Congressional Committee investigation), Sammy makes a parallel gesture of renunciation, continuing to live in a fragile fantasy world. The story climaxes unforgettably—and surprisingly—atop the Empire State Building, and its lengthy dénouement (a virtuoso piece of sustained storytelling) ends in a gratifying resolution of the deceptions and disappearances that have become second nature (as well as heavy burdens) to Joe, and a simultaneous “unmasking” and liberation that release Sammy from the storybook world they had made together.

A tale of two magnificently imagined characters, and a plaintive love song to (and vivid re-creation of) the fractious ethnic energy of New York City a half century ago.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2000

ISBN: 0-679-45004-1

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2000

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