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Best Books for Dogging the NSA

Snapshots of people no one wants to think about, written with great candor by someone unafraid to reveal his own fears and...


National Book Award–winning novelist and journalist Vollmann (Europe Central, 2005, etc.) asks street people why they think they’re poor. Most have no answer.

The author doesn’t either, though he certainly has temerity. On mean streets and blasted spots in New York, California, Japan, China, Thailand, Afghanistan, Russia, Kenya, the Philippines and elsewhere, Vollmann sought out the most wanting among us, heard their stories, asked his questions. He has no solutions to global poverty. He knows that only the well-to-do and educated will read his book; the best he can offer is a plea for a “culture of communalism.” He is fully aware of the narrative’s central irony: a rich, educated guy, jetting around the world visiting prostitutes, alcoholics, the homeless and the hopeless. Some were forthcoming; he was welcomed into a Thai home made of planks. Others were reticent, distrustful, even fearful: In Kazakhstan, no one would talk to him about the oil company that had ravaged the local environment; nor could he find anyone in Japan to arrange an interview with a “snakehead” who smuggled illegal Chinese immigrants, many of whom became prostitutes. Vollmann tackles head-on the problem of hope, seeing it in gambling, drug-taking and love. (Oddly, he alludes to religion only briefly, mostly in sections about the Taliban.) The most powerful chapter concerns the author’s experiences with the homeless who camp in the parking lot adjacent to his house in Sacramento. Vollmann pinballs among emotions ranging from compassion to anger, frustration, rage and disgust when he has to scrub their feces from his building’s outer wall. He tries to maintain a human connection with them, partly because he is “kind by nature” (he hopes), but also because their good will may minimize the damage they do to his property.

Snapshots of people no one wants to think about, written with great candor by someone unafraid to reveal his own fears and prejudices.

Pub Date: March 1, 2007

ISBN: 0-06-087882-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2006

Not for novices, but a welcome addition to Bukowski’s growing library.



More posthumous uncollected prose from the Dirty Old Man.

Calonne (English/Eastern Michigan Univ.; William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being, 1983, etc.), who previously edited a volume of Bukowski’s interviews, digs up a few more fragments from the author’s vast—and scattershot—oeuvre. As with many “uncollected” selections, the results are a mixed bag, but Bukowski’s gruff directness and take-no-crap attitude shine through. Discussing his style in “Basic Training,” he writes, “I hurled myself toward my personal god: SIMPLICITY. The tighter and smaller you got it the less chance there was of error and the lie. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.” Certainly, much of Bukowski’s genius lay in his plainspoken, immediate, self-assured prose, but his constant attack on the literary establishment also earned him accolades—and scorn—from fellow writers and critics. He held special contempt for pretentious elitists, those, as Calonne eloquently notes in his illuminating introduction, “who tried to domesticate the sacred barbaric Muse: the disruptive, primal, archaic, violent, inchoate forces of the creative unconscious.” In the more than 35 pieces that comprise the volume, Bukowski runs through all his favorite topics—drinking, fighting, women, horse-racing (“A track is some place you go so you won’t stare at the walls and whack off, or swallow ant poison”)—but he’s at his most lucid and powerful when he explores the process of writing, both his own and others (Artaud, Hemingway, his hero John Fante). There’s a neat deconstruction of Ezra Pound, excerpts from his “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column and a peripatetic review of a Rolling Stones concert. Though a few of the selections are little more than ill-formed rants, probably originally scrawled across a bar napkin, there is plenty of the visceral, potent, even graphically sexual (tame readers beware of “Workout”) material to satisfy fans.

Not for novices, but a welcome addition to Bukowski’s growing library.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-87286-492-4

Page Count: 284

Publisher: City Lights

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2008


This is good Hemingway. It has some of the tenderness of A Farewell to Arms and some of its amazing power to make one feel inside the picture of a nation at war, of the people experiencing war shorn of its glamor, of the emotions that the effects of war — rather than war itself — arouse. But in style and tempo and impact, there is greater resemblance to The Sun Also Rises. Implicit in the characters and the story is the whole tragic lesson of Spain's Civil War, proving ground for today's holocaust, and carrying in its small compass, the contradictions, the human frailties, the heroism and idealism and shortcomings. In retrospect the thread of the story itself is slight. Three days, during which time a young American, a professor who has taken his Sabbatical year from the University of Montana to play his part in the struggle for Loyalist Spain and democracy. He is sent to a guerilla camp of partisans within the Fascist lines to blow up a strategic bridge. His is a complex problem in humanity, a group of undisciplined, unorganized natives, emotionally geared to go their own way, while he has a job that demands unreasoning, unwavering obedience. He falls in love with a lovely refugee girl, escaping the terrors of a fascist imprisonment, and their romance is sharply etched against a gruesome background. It is a searing book; Hemingway has done more to dramatize the Spanish War than any amount of abstract declamation. Yet he has done it through revealing the pettinesses, the indignities, the jealousies, the cruelties on both sides, never glorifying simply presenting starkly the belief in the principles for which these people fought a hopeless war, to give the rest of the world an interval to prepare. There is something of the implacable logic of Verdun in the telling. It's not a book for the thin-skinned; it has more than its fill of obscenities and the style is clipped and almost too elliptical for clarity at times. But it is a book that repays one for bleak moments of unpleasantness.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1940

ISBN: 0684803356

Page Count: 484

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1940


In 1947, Kirkus (March 15, p. 170) predicted—wrongly—that "any Sinclair Lewis book has tremendous sales impetus." Soon after publication, Kingsblood Royal fell out of print, and the cause seems apparent now: as much as readers readily took to Lewis's fictional attacks on American business (Dodsworth) and sham preachers (Elmer Gantry), they weren't quite prepared for his novel on race. Of course, they may have found this "thesis novel" (as we called it) too "contrived," and full of "exaggeration" and "stock characters." Fiction-writer Charles Johnson, in his introduction to this new edition, almost agrees with Kirkus, finding Lewis's tale of race relations in the Midwest "less a novel than a corrosively effective polemic." "Flawed and failed as a fully realized work," Lewis's tale of a white man who discovers a drop of black blood in his past nevertheless, in Johnson's opinion, speaks effectively to the present, and stands alongside the many great African-American novels of "passing." Even Kirkus admitted that Lewis's "fast-paced narrative abilities" and "sense of interplay of personalities. . . . drives home some unpalatable truths." We wished, though, he'd wielded a "rapier," not a "sledge hammer."

Pub Date: April 13, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-75686-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Modern Library

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2001


A far cry from Tortilla Flat, with none of the originality and sardonic humor of that delightful book. But this qualifies for recognition on the score of being much-better-than-average proletarian novel (of which there are chiefly below average books). The setting is a fruit growing district in California — the story revolves around the deliberate and almost fanatical machinations of red agents to foment discontent and to organize strikes. It is extraordinary how Steinbeck succeeds in swinging the sympathy with the agent and his young apprentice, in building understanding of the methods employed, of showing how the side of convention twists and distorts facts and creates false evidence, establishing disturbance where there was simply quiet and grim determination. Almost one grows to accept the inevitability of eliminating the human equation. A book for those interested in Left Wing literature — and those concerned with new trends.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 1936

ISBN: 0143039636

Page Count: 259

Publisher: Covici, Friede

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1936


"There's got to be something wrong with somebody who'd do a thing like that." This is Perry Edward Smith, talking about himself. "Deal me out, baby...I'm a normal." This is Richard Eugene Hickock, talking about himself. They're as sick a pair as Leopold and Loeb and together they killed a mother, a father, a pretty 17-year-old and her brother, none of whom they'd seen before, in cold blood. A couple of days before they had bought a 100 foot rope to garrote them—enough for ten people if necessary. This small pogrom took place in Holcomb, Kansas, a lonesome town on a flat, limitless landscape: a depot, a store, a cafe, two filling stations, 270 inhabitants. The natives refer to it as "out there." It occurred in 1959 and Capote has spent five years, almost all of the time which has since elapsed, in following up this crime which made no sense, had no motive, left few clues—just a footprint and a remembered conversation. Capote's alternating dossier Shifts from the victims, the Clutter family, to the boy who had loved Nancy Clutter, and her best friend, to the neighbors, and to the recently paroled perpetrators: Perry, with a stunted child's legs and a changeling's face, and Dick, who had one squinting eye but a "smile that works." They had been cellmates at the Kansas State Penitentiary where another prisoner had told them about the Clutters—he'd hired out once on Mr. Clutter's farm and thought that Mr. Clutter was perhaps rich. And this is the lead which finally broke the case after Perry and Dick had drifted down to Mexico, back to the midwest, been seen in Kansas City, and were finally picked up in Las Vegas. The last, even more terrible chapters, deal with their confessions, the law man who wanted to see them hanged, back to back, the trial begun in 1960, the post-ponements of the execution, and finally the walk to "The Corner" and Perry's soft-spoken words—"It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize." It's a magnificent job—this American tragedy—with the incomparable Capote touches throughout. There may never have been a perfect crime, but if there ever has been a perfect reconstruction of one, surely this must be it.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 1965

ISBN: 0375507906

Page Count: 343

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1965


In a perceptive and sympathetic account based on extensive research in archives and public records, Williamson (Humanities/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; The Crucible of Race, 1984, etc.) offers some revelations about Faulkner's ancestry and background, along with a comprehensive commentary on the novelist's life and works. Ashamed of his background, Faulkner, Williamson tells us, spent as much energy reinventing himself as he did creating his fiction. Rather than his descending, as he claimed, from Scottish Highlanders or an aristocratic slave-owning southern family, Faulkner's paternal grandfather, ``the Colonel,'' was an eccentric businessman, while his maternal grandfather was a sheriff who shot the editor of the local paper, embezzled public funds, and ran off with a mulatto girl. Faulkner's fictions about his own life were similarly less colorful than reality. He represented himself as, variously, an RAF pilot wounded in WW I, a bootlegger, a gentleman farmer, and, in his final invention, as a gentleman equestrian who rode the Virginia hunts. In fact, Faulkner never flew and his farm was a failure. He began writing while tending a boiler all night, married a divorcÇe, and ended up raising and supporting her children and family as well as his own. His real-life travels, seductions, and alcoholic bouts—especially with Howard Hawks, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart while adapting Hemingway's To Have and Have Not—are more interesting than his invented role as simple southern farmer, and than the other roles he assumed, such as literary ambassador (after his 1950 Nobel) and academic. Similarly, Williamson's Platonic schematization of Faulkner's work is less interesting than the intense experience and vitality of the fiction, which may or may not have had roots in Faulkner's life, culture, and beliefs. The biographical material here and the social history involving racial issues, sex, and class are especially significant- -but there's not much on the southern history of the title.

Pub Date: May 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-19-507404-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1993



Sandburg's long life (1878-1967) illustrates the great American success story: Emerging from an austere Swedish immigrant background, through work, discipline, clean living, and high thinking he achieved fame, love, power, and money, and was identified at his death, at age 89, with the voice of America. This massive authorized biography, from first-time author Niven, is comprehensive, factual, and sentimental, and captures the ``honey'' and ``salt'' that Sandburg found in his life. Starting as a hobo (as he claimed at heart he remained), Sandburg had a varied and demanding literary career: years as a journalist in Chicago, volumes of poetry, the best-selling Lincoln biography, songs, children's stories, novels, platform lectures (at which he excelled), radio and film scripts (The Greatest Story Ever Told), recordings, and the text to The Family of Man—Edward Steichen's renowned photographic exhibit. Committed to the crude, virile, simple, and passionate life of the laboring classes, he nevertheless befriended movie stars (Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe), Presidents (Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson), and a glittering array of poets (Eliot, Auden, Pound, Frost, Wallace Stevens), and performed wherever he was invited (on the Milton Berle show, the Library of Congress, and nearly all the major universities in the country). He married into the creative Steichen family, finding in Paula his ideal mate to whom, Niven argues, he remained faithful for nearly 60 years. Of their three daughters, one became a writer, and the other two remained at home with Paula, who raised goats at Connemara, the farm they purchased in North Carolina—now a tourist attraction. For such a voluble man, Sandburg was personally reticent. Niven's study, then, is by necessity a chronicle of events, dates, places, awards, names, reviews, political and literary activities, and poems that she interprets with tact and appreciation. It vindicates Paula's observation to the insecure young poet: ``The life we live is more important than the works we achieve. You are the Achievement.'' (Two eight-page photo inserts—not seen.)

Pub Date: July 22, 1991

ISBN: 0-684-19251-9

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1991



The biographer of Nietzsche, Kafka, Brecht, Sartre, Proust and de Sade takes on Tennessee Williams with intelligent, neatly weighed but uninspired results. Hayman mentions that he was commissioned by Yale to write this book, which otherwise might never have been written. Since very little original research has gone into it—it's mostly a too-smooth reshuffling of already familiar stuff—a reader of earlier lives of Williams might wonder why anyone should pursue this one. Still, Hayman's weighing of his subject's life brings a lively, not overly academic sensibility to bear on work a new generation might not be familiar with and offers as well a history of productions of Williams plays that often had his wavering imprimatur. The tack Hayman takes boils down to a portrait of a bedeviled gay artist whose growing dependence on drugs reinforced a neurotic insecurity that could be borne only by the immense daily discipline of writing—and writing no matter what disaster has befallen him. Williams's last 20 years come off as a decline into mental slop, with the playwright doggedly dramatizing his own ``blue devils'' without effect and producing failure upon failure, or parody upon self-parody. Meanwhile, he also falls into outrageous behavior and talks endlessly like a queen bitch who wants only to be stroked, despite whatever idiocies he's mouthing. A thought played on by Elia Kazan when first mounting A Streetcar Named Desire seems pivotal to understanding Williams, who as a younger man often picked up rough trade and was sometimes beaten up, a fear that becomes central to the Blanche-Stanley polarity, with Williams as Blanche and Stanley the rough trade perhaps out to murder him. In the end, Williams lusted for new acclaim by the critics as if for a lost Mardi Gras crown. Spankingly well-produced with superb illustrations.

Pub Date: March 26, 1994

ISBN: 0-300-05414-9

Page Count: 268

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1994



A generously sympathetic and artistically astute account of one poet by another, the author also of a biography of John Berryman (Dreamsong, 1990). Openly building on Ian Hamilton's 1982 biography of Lowell, Mariani has been able to draw on newly available sources: his own interviews and Lowell's correspondences with, among others, Elizabeth Bishop, George Santayana, Mary McCarthy, Adrienne Rich, and Randall Jarrell. The saga of Lowell and his friends, wives, and lovers (with their addictions, breakdowns, early deaths, and driving accidents) seems scripted for a sudsy TV movie, but Mariani conveys both ``the hugeness and the frailty'' of Lowell: An unwanted child and school bully, he became a precocious poet- historian; his initial literary allegiances to Eliot and Allen Tate later made room for a poetics of greater ``lived experience'' inspired by William Carlos Williams; from ambitious attempts at ``prophecy and myth'' he moved to an appreciation of ``the more humble fragments of the quotidian.'' Uncannily strong, Lowell was nicknamed ``Cal'' for Caliban and/or Caligula. The combination of strength and psychosis led to some problems, for Lowell's lyrical and rhetorical violence could turn physical, as it did the time he decided ``it would be good fun'' to steal tickets from a movie theater. ``The police were called, and once more, feeling cornered, Lowell took on the arresting police officer and beat him up.'' Lowell was descended from the great preacher Jonathan Edwards, and Mariani sees Lowell as very much in the lineage of a stern, passionate, torn Puritan idealism. Yet through expert (if interpretively familiar) analyses of major poems and quotations of Lowell's brilliant, often wry critical judgments, Mariani argues for the pertinence of Lowell's themes, eloquently defined here as ``our destructive self-interest, our racial fears and self- delusions, our murderous innocence.'' A welcome volume about a Rabelaisian monster of a man and a poet, made timelier by the recent publication of Elizabeth Bishop's letters. (photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1994

ISBN: 0-393-03661-8

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1994

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