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Best Books of 2013 on Politics, Current Affairs and Social Sciences

Though many liberals will dislike Baum’s conclusions (and gun rights crusaders may distrust him regardless), he offers a...

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GUN GUYS

A ROAD TRIP

Engrossing social study from a rara avis: an East Coast progressive who’s also a gun enthusiast.

Former New Yorker staff writer Baum (Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, 2009, etc.) wonders at the vast gap between his social peers, who tend to abhor every aspect of firearms culture, and the “Red State” demographics that embrace it, particularly as a response to the perceived effete social meddling of liberals. He is also curious as to his own lifelong fascination with the forbidden, masculine allure of guns. For this project, he pursued a “gun-guy walkabout” through parts of the country where guns are beloved (the Southwest) or, in some cases, problematic (Detroit, New Orleans). He first obtained a concealed carry permit (noting how easy this process has become in many states), then tried to find pro-gun academics, industry types, gun-store owners, hunters and other firearms enthusiasts to share their views. He heard from many thoughtful individuals on gun culture and the social value of self-defense, though he also documents an undercurrent of embittered paranoia among “gun guys,” which he shrewdly connects to the hard economic times he observes in the working-class regions that skew pro-gun—e.g., Kentucky or Nebraska. Baum summarizes this complex effect of the gun issue on American politics by noting, “It was hard to think of a better organizing tool for the right than the left’s tribal antipathy to guns.” The author develops well-shaded character portraits, including wealthy machine-gun enthusiasts, an African-American self-defense advocate, aimless young suburban men growing up on gun-oriented video games who’ve embraced the now-notorious AR-15, and his own fish-out-of-water adventures among more conservative gun enthusiasts. Baum’s road trip into gun culture taught him about self-reliance, but he admits his core questions about firearms’ easily politicized allure remain slippery.

Though many liberals will dislike Baum’s conclusions (and gun rights crusaders may distrust him regardless), he offers a thoughtful corrective to the mutual ideological hysteria surrounding the issue of guns in America. The book should gain further exposure and/or controversy following the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

Pub Date: March 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-59541-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

A gripping environmental thriller.

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TOMS RIVER

A STORY OF SCIENCE AND SALVATION

An award-winning science journalist exposes how corporate interests and corrupt politicians almost turned a quiet, suburban New Jersey beach community into a toxic wasteland.

Former Newsday reporter Fagin (Journalism/New York Univ.; co-author: Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health, 1999) reveals the complex motives that blinded residents of Toms River to the consequences of the practices of the town's major employer, Ciba-Geigy, a chemical company based in Switzerland that produced dyes from coal tar. Since the early 1950s, the corporation “had produced about three billion pounds of dyes and plastics—along with perhaps forty billion gallons of wastewater and two hundred thousand drums of toxic waste,” which ultimately found its way into their drinking water. In 1986, after mounting pressure from environmentalists resulted in some remediation, Ciba-Geigy announced the plant's imminent closure. They would be moving their operations to lower-wage areas with less regulation (in the U.S. and overseas to Asia). Despite increased environmental awareness over the years, the union (supported by residents who feared the loss of the high wages paid by the corporation) was complicit in a coverup of the extent of the contamination. While some people relied on backyard wells, the major drinking-water supplier in the town also had a vested interest in the coverup, and tourism was an economic consideration. Eventually, truth prevailed as parents became concerned by the number of children afflicted with cancer, and activists were supported by the local newspaper. A 2001 legal settlement was “one of the largest payouts ever, in a toxic-exposure case.” Fagin weaves fascinating background material on epidemiology, statistical analysis and more into this hard-hitting chronicle.

A gripping environmental thriller.

Pub Date: March 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-0553806533

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2013

With apparent effortlessness, Fink tells the Memorial story with cogency and atmosphere.

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FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL

LIFE AND DEATH IN A STORM-RAVAGED HOSPITAL

Pulitzer Prize–winning 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.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-71896-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

A real war story with a jarring but critical message for the American people.

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THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE

Washington Post writer Finkel delivers one of the most morally responsible works of journalism to emerge from the post-9/11 era.

To call this moving rendering of the costs of war a continuation of the author’s first book, The Good Soldiers (2009), would be misleading. While Finkel does focus on the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion following their actions in Iraq, the breadth and depth of his portraits of the men and women scarred by the 21st century’s conflicts are startling. In a series of interconnected stories, Finkel follows a handful of soldiers and their spouses through the painful, sometimes-fatal process of reintegration into American society. The author gives a cleareyed, frightening portrayal of precisely what it is like to suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury and what it is like to have the specter of suicide whispering into your ear every day. Finkel’s emotional touchstone is Sgt. Adam Schumann, a genuine American hero who returned from Iraq without a physical scratch on him—but whose three tours of duty may have broken him for good. Schumann’s condition, compounded by financial stress, drove a deep wedge between the wounded soldier and his wife, who has struggled to understand why her husband returned a changed man. Finkel also follows the widow of a soldier Schumann tried to save, an American Samoan vet whose TBI threatens to derail his life, and a suicidal comrade unable to overcome his condition, among others. Fighting on the front lines of this conflict are a compassionate case worker, a U.S. Army general who makes it his last mission to halt the waves of suicides, and the director of a transition center whose war should have ended long ago. The truly astonishing aspect of Finkel’s work is that he remains completely absent from his reportage; he is still embedded.

A real war story with a jarring but critical message for the American people.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-374-18066-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 25, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

Although his subject was Iraq, Peter Van Buren covered the same ground in his hilarious We Meant Well (2011). Gezari eschews...

THE TENDER SOLDIER

A TRUE STORY OF WAR AND SACRIFICE

Having discovered (again) that superior firepower does poorly against guerrillas, America’s military adopted its current counterinsurgency doctrine, an object of almost universal praise. Not all was deserved, writes journalist Gezari (Narrative Nonfiction and War Reporting/Univ. of Michigan) in this insightful but disturbing account of the Human Terrain System, a program designed to bring social science to the battlefield.

Launched in 2006, each HTS team ostensibly consists of a scholar to gather data on an area’s culture, politics, demographics and needs. Other team members integrate this information and pass it on to the local American military unit, allowing it to resolve disputes, identify problems before they turn violent, and avoid causing needless offense. Gezari begins with one team’s disastrous experience. A young woman anthropologist, dedicated and popular, was talking with a young Afghan when he suddenly doused her with gasoline and set her afire. He was captured, and a distraught team member killed him. The team member was convicted of the murder. Attempting to comprehend the offender, the author interviewed his fellow villagers. All denounced the crime, but their explanations were oddly contradictory. Understanding foreign cultures is difficult. Gezari points out that America contains too few scholars familiar with Afghanistan, so many teams are clueless. Members often serve for the wrong reasons, since the civilian contractor earns $250,000-$350,000 per year. The Defense Department remains enthusiastic, but few claim that matters in Afghanistan are going well.

Although his subject was Iraq, Peter Van Buren covered the same ground in his hilarious We Meant Well (2011). Gezari eschews humor but delivers a gripping report on another of America’s painful, surprisingly difficult efforts to win hearts and minds.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4391-7739-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2013

A stirring, funny, thought-provoking appreciation of the place, the idea, the experiment, the United States of America.

TO AMERICA WITH LOVE

An ardent mash note to the vast, vital nation that confounds and beguiles its European cousins in equal measure.

Gill (A.A. Gill Is Further Away, 2012, etc.) celebrates America’s natural bounty, its lack of pretention and hidebound tradition, the dizzying diversity of its people and its startling capacity for invention in a series of witty, discursive considerations of the national character, as reflected by such American signifiers as guns, skyscrapers, movies and moonshine. The author provides engrossing accounts of historical events, including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Scopes Monkey trial, distinguished by richly drawn portraits of the familiar figures involved and Gill’s erudite but accessible prose style, which flits from arresting profundity to cheeky humor to wrenching pathos. The collection alternates memoir with examinations of American history and institutions; Gill’s tales of his encounters with Appalachian moonshiners and Harlem barbers are warmly funny and rendered with the attention to detail of a fine short story. The author never condescends to his subjects or settles for juicy anecdotes; his brief is an appreciation of America as an expression of the sublime, a transcendent emotional response to the world that goes beyond the studied, safely curated idea of “beauty” as idealized by Old World European culture. Gill finds the sublime in American thought, writing and art, in its love of talk and argument, in its refusal to venerate the past above the promise of the future, in all of its lunatic variety and conflict and ambition. It’s a passionate, richly literary love letter to a place and idea that remains unique in the history of the world.

A stirring, funny, thought-provoking appreciation of the place, the idea, the experiment, the United States of America.

Pub Date: July 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4165-9621-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 12, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2013

A thrilling and suspenseful page-turner that is sure to be loved by the majority of readers, who will be both horrified and...

THE GOOD NURSE

A TRUE STORY OF MEDICINE, MADNESS, AND MURDER

The terrifying, true tale of nurse Charles Cullen, a man who worked with the most vulnerable of patients for 16 years, delivering life or death on a whim.

A whodunit where the culprit is identified on page one is as strange as a thriller with no surprise ending, but journalist Graeber presents these facts right from the beginning, never doubting the strength of the story. It works. Even without an uncertain finale, this true-crime tale delivers mystery and intrigue. The author begins with the satisfaction Cullen felt in his work, the good money he made and the doors open to him despite the litany of problems littering his professional and personal record. The author describes how Cullen came to nursing, how he felt a sense of belonging and distinction in his role, and the dysfunction of his personal life. Soon, Cullen was exerting control over his world by taking the lives of patients. Graeber does a particularly good job of showing the mounting evidence against Cullen as his misdeeds were originally discovered, following the nurse from accusation to accusation. The author imbues the story with an intense level of anticipation, with one question constantly in the background: Who will stop this man and when? Graeber describes the administrators who refused to report Cullen in the same way as the whistle-blowers who insisted on involving the police. The author’s cut-and-dried delivery serves to make the many paradoxes more poignant and lend some humor to a dark subject.

A thrilling and suspenseful page-turner that is sure to be loved by the majority of readers, who will be both horrified and fascinated.

Pub Date: April 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-446-50529-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: Feb. 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman’s entry into prostitution.

LOST GIRLS

AN UNSOLVED AMERICAN MYSTERY

In his debut, New York magazine contributor Kolker delves into the disappearances and murders of five women, all working as escorts in the New York metropolitan area.

More than 100 years ago, London prostitutes were targeted by Jack the Ripper, a serial killer whose identity remains an enigma. In our brave new world of Craigslist advertisements, cellphones and escort services, one group of lost girls—Shannan, Maureen, Melissa, Megan and Amber—faced similar threats from the anonymous client(s) who eventually killed them. The author unflinchingly probes the 21st-century innovations that facilitated these crimes, which launched a media blitz that shook the integrity of a secluded Long Island community called Oak Beach. What sets his investigation apart from many true-crime tomes, however, is the attention he pays to the girls’ back stories and to the efforts of their families and friends to bring the killer to justice. We know from the title that the crimes are still unsolved, leaving Kolker free to present the bewildering array of theories held by law enforcement, neighbors, online communities and even potential suspects. Nor does the author shy away from the dysfunction that permeated all five girls’ lives: foster homes, absent parents, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancies and domineering boyfriends all play prominent roles in this narrative. Fortunately, he includes both a timeline and a list of characters for reference, as the deluge of names, dates and details can prove intimidating. Kolker also does a fine job of describing the girls’ lives without patronizing their decisions or unnecessarily inserting himself into the proceedings. Most commendably, he points out inconsistencies and dubious motives on the part of some of his interviewees; one mother, who had little to do with her daughter while she was alive, reinvented herself as a crusader for justice. Still, “[t]he issue of blame itself, in the end, may be a trap,” Kolker concludes.

An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman’s entry into prostitution.

Pub Date: July 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-218363-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 8, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Outstanding in every respect.

A WILD JUSTICE

THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN AMERICA

When the Supreme Court declined to accept the appeal of a 1963 rape case, Justice Arthur Goldberg published an unusual dissent questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty. From this small beginning, Mandery (John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Q: A Novel, 2011, etc.) skillfully traces the building momentum within the country and the court to question the legality of a punishment the Founding Fathers took for granted.

Indeed, by 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the court struck down death penalty statutes so similar to those in 40 other states that executions nationwide came to a halt. Disagreement among Furman’s 5-4 majority—was the death penalty “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendment, or was its arbitrary application a violation under the 14th?—and a forceful dissent hinted at a blueprint for states to rewrite their capital-sentencing schemes. By 1976, 35 had done so. In Gregg v. Georgia and its companion cases, the court approved the revised statutes, opening the door to 1,300 state-sponsored executions since. Relying on interviews with law clerks and attorneys, information from economists, criminologists and social scientists, arguments from political and legal scholars, a thorough knowledge of all applicable cases and sure-handed storytelling, Mandery focuses on the strategies of the Legal Defense Fund, the remarkable attorneys who led the charge for abolition, to cover virtually every dimension of the capital punishment debate. The author is especially strong on the individual backgrounds, personalities and judicial philosophies of the justices, the shifting alliances among them and the frustrating contingencies upon which momentous decisions sometimes turn. Even those weary of this topic will be riveted by his insider information about towering figures, lawyers and judges.

Outstanding in every respect.

Pub Date: Aug. 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-393-23958-4

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 9, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2013

A shocking, galvanizing manifesto against the corporations manipulating nutrition to fatten their bottom line—one of the...

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SALT SUGAR FAT

HOW THE FOOD GIANTS HOOKED US

A revelatory look at America's increasing consumption of unhealthy products and at how the biggest food manufacturers ignore health risks, and employ savvy advertising campaigns, to keep us hooked on the ingredients that ensure big profit.

In an era where morbid numbers of people are living with diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Moss (Palace Coup, 1989) discovers through ardent research—much of it interviews with current and former executives of Kraft, PepsiCo and other massive conglomerates—that there is shockingly little regulation of the processes behind the design and sale of foods purposely laden with dangerous levels of salt, sugar and fat. As the average American works longer hours and spends more time outside of the home, the demand for easy-to-cook and tasty meals has skyrocketed. In response, food giants provide an enormous slate of processed food options, almost all of which require immense amounts of salt, fat and/or sugar to cover the taste of poor-quality ingredients. Pulling no punches, the author points out that the recent trend of "healthy" items is no loss for these food manufacturers, who capitalize on creating new lines of spinoff products labeled "low-salt" or "sugar-free," when in fact those products require a significant increase in one of the other triad of flavors to remain palatable. Many products are laden with these ingredients in ways that would surprise the consumer: A single cookie, for example, might require several servings' worth of undetectable salt to retain its irresistible crunch, while it also contains up to five teaspoons of sugar. Moss breaks down the chemical science behind the molecular appeal of these foods, as well as behind the advertising strategies that are so successful in getting consumers to buy not only the "healthier" versions of popular foods, but the originals, as well. If this trend is to be reversed, he argues, it might take a social revolution of empowered consumers, a goal within reach if accurate information is available and pressure is put on these companies to dramatically alter the contents of its processed foods.

A shocking, galvanizing manifesto against the corporations manipulating nutrition to fatten their bottom line—one of the most important books of the year.

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-1400069804

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

Exemplary journalism that defines a sobering, even depressing matter. A foundational document in the literature of the end...

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THE UNWINDING

AN INNER HISTORY OF THE NEW AMERICA

New Yorker writer Packer (Interesting Times: Writing from a Turbulent Decade, 2009, etc.) ranges across the country to chronicle the time when “the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”

“I am the empire at the end of the decadence.” Thus said the French poet Mallarmé. Packer describes the decline of America from a very specific time: If you were born half a century ago, around 1960, then, he writes, “you watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape.” While forces are picking away at the pillars that still stand (Social Security, public education, privacy, etc.), and while only money seems to matter, the author offers the tiniest comfort in the thought that America has declined and fallen before. Still, this decline seems steeper than those others, save for the Civil War. Among his subjects are the city of Tampa, Fla., which once “was going to be America’s Next Great City” but is mired in stagnation and desperation, and a struggling, no-longer-aspirational factory worker named Tammy, one of whose co-workers sagely observes, “Most people wouldn’t survive in a factory. Mitt Romney would die in a week.” Against these depressed landscapes and people, Packer juxtaposes a few who are doing a bit better: Raymond Chandler, “a drinker” whose lapidary stories of blue-collar America have become classics; Oprah Winfrey, empire builder; and Colin Powell, empire builder of another kind. Packer’s repetitive structure—a chapter on Tammy followed by one on Tampa followed by other pieces—hammers home the point that all is not well in America and not likely to get better soon, the promise of “acres of diamonds in Greenville [N.C.]” notwithstanding.

Exemplary journalism that defines a sobering, even depressing matter. A foundational document in the literature of the end of America—the end, that is, for the moment.

Pub Date: May 21, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-374-10241-8

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms.

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COMMAND AND CONTROL

NUCLEAR WEAPONS, THE DAMASCUS ACCIDENT, AND THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY

The chilling, concise history of America’s precarious nuclear arsenal.

Investigative journalist Schlosser’s (Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, 2003, etc.) vivid and unsettling treatise spreads across a 70-year span of the development and control of nuclear weaponry. At the core of the author’s scrutiny is the suspensefully narrated back story of the Arkansas-based Titan II military missile silo. A disastrous mishap in 1980 involving an accidentally punctured fuel tank caused a near-detonation and collapse of the missile, killing a young repairman and sparking an investigation into the hazardous nature of all military nuclear armaments. Schlosser frames this incident around four decades of the Cold War, the Eisenhower and Truman administrations, the Cuban missile crisis, the bravery of servicemen like Gen. Curtis LeMay, and the eerily accurate predictions and statistical determinations of nuclear strategist Fred Iklé. Testimony from a massive list of scientists and engineers further elucidates what Schlosser considers to be the nation’s perpetual military defense conundrum: “the need for a nuclear weapon to be safe and the need for it to be reliable.” Throughout, he chillingly extrapolates the long-standing history of nuclear near-misses with the engagement of a fiction writer. He also examines the heavily endorsed anti-nuclear foreign policies proselytized by politicians and probes the operational processes of nuclear missiles and warheads, though the specter of decimation at the hands of a weapon of mass destruction looms over each chapter. With this cautionary text, Schlosser, who pinged processed food and the underground economy onto America’s cultural radar, succeeds in increasing awareness for more stringent precautions and less of the casual mismanagement of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, he respectfully memorializes those Cold War heroes (and countless others, like nuclear weapon safety lobbyist Bob Peurifoy) who’ve prevented nuclear holocausts from being written into the annals of American history.

An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59420-227-8

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

A groundbreaking history that will no doubt contribute to a reappraisal of some deep-rooted founding myths.

EBONY AND IVY

RACE, SLAVERY, AND THE TROUBLED HISTORY OF AMERICA'S UNIVERSITIES

An eye-opening examination of how America's colonial-era colleges were rooted in slave economies and “stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”

Wilder (History/MIT; In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York City, 2002, etc.) establishes the interrelationship between slave-cultivated plantations and the academic institutions that lived off the rents gathered through endowments, leases, mortgage debts and other instruments of feudal-style bondage. At first, land holdings were acquired through conquest of native populations, followed by successive phases of clearance and resettlement. “The Indians-for-African trade reduced the risk of enslaved Indians fleeing to their own lands or inciting conflicts,” writes Wilder, “and brought a population of African slaves who lacked knowledge of the local geography and languages but possessed important agricultural skills, particularly in rice production.” The slave trade developed in complexity as it grew in scale. Universities and colleges not only required their own endowments of land as sources of income and supplies, but also served to educate the leaders and administrators of the colonial settlements, who often became apologists for slavery. Wilder provides an excellent exploration of the role of the College of New Jersey and the Rev. John Witherspoon in the education of the leaders (James Madison and Patrick Henry, among many others) and their successors (John Marshall and James Monroe), who formulated the Indian Removal Act of 1830. His detailed elaboration of how Northern colleges spread the slave system into colonies like South Carolina and Georgia is equally thorough, and he also documents how race science took root in American academia.

A groundbreaking history that will no doubt contribute to a reappraisal of some deep-rooted founding myths.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59691-681-4

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

A patient, wholly compelling investigation into a paranoid “religion” and the faithful held in its sweaty grip.

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GOING CLEAR

SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF

A devastating history-cum-exposé of the Church of Scientology.

Wright has written about religion on several occasions (Saints and Sinners, 1993; Remembering Satan, 1994) and received a Pulitzer Prize for his book on terrorism (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 2006)—all of which clearly served as excellent training for this book. It begins, of course, with the life of L. Ron Hubbard, a manic-depressive, wannabe naval hero, sci-fi writer and self-styled shaman who “believed that the secrets of existence were accidentally revealed to him” after receiving a gas anesthetic in the dentist’s chair. After that experience, the visions kept arriving, leading to his 1950 self-help best-seller, Dianetics, which laid the groundwork for a “religion” where “thetans” (souls) are stymied by “engrams,” self-destructive suggestive impulses lodged in the brain (not a few of which were inflicted on mankind following an intergalactic war that took place 75 million years ago). Through personal, deeply revelatory counseling sessions known as auditing, adherents deal with these obstacles, and for wealthy celebrities, Scientology (and its many Hollywood connections) has supposedly cleared the path to success. It has also destroyed many others, usually less well-heeled people from within, who raise questions or try to leave, or outside forces (journalists, the IRS, family members) investigating the church’s multiple personal or financial abuses. Wright exposes the church’s many sins: covert espionage, psychological torment, threatened blackmail using confidential information from auditing sessions and constant physical assaults on members by tyrannical current leader David Miscavage. The author is also interested in something deeper: If it's all a con, why is everyone involved (especially the late Hubbard) so deeply invested in its beliefs? Wright doesn't go out of his way to exaggerate the excesses of Scientology; each page delivers startling facts that need no elaboration.

A patient, wholly compelling investigation into a paranoid “religion” and the faithful held in its sweaty grip.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-70066-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

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