Book List

Best Memoirs of 2013

Auster has long rendered life as something of a puzzle; here are some significant, illuminating pieces.

REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR

The interplay of memory, identity and the creative imagination informs this portrait of the artist as a young man, a memoir that the novelist’s avid readership will find particularly compelling.

Even by the standards of the distinctive literary stylist and his formal ingenuity, this is an unusual book. Auster introduces it as something of a companion piece to his previous Winter Journal (2012), as he compares the two: “It was one thing to write about your body, to catalogue the manifold knocks and pleasures experienced by your physical self, but exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood will no doubt be a more difficult task—perhaps an impossible one. Still, you feel compelled to give it a try.” While writing throughout in the second person, inviting readers inside his head, Auster has divided the book into four distinct and very different parts. The first is a childhood psychobiography, to the age of 12, recognizing the distortions and holes in memory while discovering the magic of literature, “the mystifying process by which a person can leap into a mind that is not his own.” The second consists of exhaustively detailed synopses of two movies that he saw in his midteens, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), noteworthy for the way such a formative experience “burns itself into your heart forever.” The third compiles college letters to his future (and now former) wife, the author/translator Lydia Davis, unearthed when she was compiling her archives—“you have lost contact with that person [he writes of his younger self], and as you listen to him speak on the page, you scarcely recognize him anymore.” The fourth is a scrapbook, not of the author and his family, but of images from the era that remain emblazoned on his consciousness.

Auster has long rendered life as something of a puzzle; here are some significant, illuminating pieces.

Pub Date: Nov. 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9857-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

A well-written, powerful book.

SHOUTING WON'T HELP

WHY I--AND 50 MILLION OTHER AMERICANS--CAN'T HEAR YOU

A former New York Times senior editor's poignant, enlightening memoir of hearing loss.

Hearing impairment is a widespread, and widely misunderstood, condition that afflicts nearly 50 million Americans. With ever-specialized medical technology and increasingly precise diagnostic tools, treatment options are better than ever, but the nature of damage to the inner ear remains opaque. In addition, in a culture dominated by oral communication, a persistent stigma remains attached to going deaf and to its prosthetic aids. Where hearing loss was once associated with the elderly, statistics suggest that an increasing number of young people put themselves at risk for early damage by exposure to overloud music, sports arenas, even subway stations. Bouton, whose own hearing loss has no known cause, details her struggle to accept the disability and to navigate the complex physical and emotional changes that accompany the inability to hear well. Vanity considerations aside—most hearing aids have an exterior element, drawing visibility to an otherwise invisible condition—the decision to wear a hearing aid or to have surgery to install a cochlear implant has financial and psychological ramifications. Most insurance companies don't cover all costs related to hearing loss, and often such devices don't work right away or even at all. Vertigo, tinnitus and depression are also common side effects of hearing loss or surgery, and the small adjustments and audio therapy required to get devices to work can take years. By interspersing her story with those of many others—both those suffering with hearing loss and the medical experts working to find a cure—the author provides a relatable, inspiring narrative of taking control, going public and finding comfort and empowerment in connecting with others facing similar difficulties.

A well-written, powerful book.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-374-26304-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2012

An invaluable contribution to understanding the mentality of extremist conservatism and its supporters.

WRAPPED IN THE FLAG

A PERSONAL HISTORY OF AMERICA'S RADICAL RIGHT

Prompted by the rise of the modern-day tea party, Conner writes of her experiences as the child of leaders in the radical right-wing John Birch Society.

“My parents are back.” That was the author’s response to the rise of the tea party after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In this memoir/history, she opens new insights into the conservative political movement, with the echoes of the profoundest aspects of family life providing the links between then and now. Her parents, Stillwell and Laurene Conner, were among the 1958 founders of the Birch Society, an organization that opposed racial integration, welfare programs, the United Nations and other seemingly progressive programs and organizations. Conner's parents were involved with the organization's national leadership for more than 30 years. Like her parents, the Birchers went too far with their anti-Semitism and extreme economic and social theories. She details how they were pushed out of the Republican Party and shows how they adopted what the author calls “Plan B,” in which monied Birchers redirected their funds into think tanks and foundations. Among them was Fred Koch, founder and national leader of the Birth Society and father of current tea party backers David and Charles Koch. In 1993, some Birchers, including the author’s mother, even offered mild support for the Oklahoma City bombers for “defending the rest of us from the government.” Conner’s parents employed threats and violence to condition her to represent her parents' politics to the broader world and accept the consequences of physical retaliation, ostracism and ridicule in return. The author's personal struggle to free herself from those whose minds “the facts never changed” shapes her memoir and enriches the accumulating literature on the tea party.

An invaluable contribution to understanding the mentality of extremist conservatism and its supporters.

Pub Date: July 2, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8070-7750-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: April 10, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Part elegy, part mystery and wholly unforgettable.

AFTER VISITING FRIENDS

A SON'S STORY

A young reporter goes in search of his long-lost, deceased father.

“There’s lots of stories you haven’t heard," said the narrator's mother when he asked about an unfamiliar family anecdote. But GQ deputy editor Hainey wanted to hear them all. When his father died suddenly one spring day in 1970, he left behind two boys, a wife and a trail of questions that no one wanted to answer for Hainey. For years, the family danced silently around the subject of his father, until the author decided to track down whatever true story was left of him. It was the obituary that set him off: His father allegedly died "after visiting friends," but who were they? Who was with him in his final hours? With medical records and a few shaky, secondhand accounts from his father's former co-workers, a tight-lipped crew of old-time Chicago newspapermen, Hainey hoped to fill the gaps between what he had always been told and what it seemed might actually be true. His personal investigation took him across the country and into strangers' lives, but the most difficult and hard-won part of the journey was his gradual, intimate understanding of his mother and brother. Hainey's writing is balletic, nimbly avoiding both sentimentality and sensationalism, making grief and absence into powerful and fully felt forces. His short scenes appear like flashes of memory, prose poems of what once was, and he skillfully weaves a narrative that transcends his own and spans generations. From family history to Chicago lore, Hainey searches the deepest fissures of memory and finds a hidden and entire "world of men, of stories, of knowledge" that wasn't there before.

Part elegy, part mystery and wholly unforgettable.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4516-7656-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Jan. 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

A deft, lyrical chronicle by a punk with perspective.

I DREAMED I WAS A VERY CLEAN TRAMP

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

The life and wild times of a punk avatar.

Besides being a rock legend, Hell has long been a journalist and novelist (Godlike, 2005, etc.), and this memoir reveals a skilled writer. Born in Kentucky in 1949 as Richard Meyers, he became a fledgling poet who ditched home and high school for the New York art world, where he trawled through galleries and beds, winding up as the boy toy of the wife of sculptor Claes Oldenburg. He also co-founded the band Television with his contentious pal Tom Verlaine, although he left before the band’s first album, as would also be the case with his brief stint with Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. He hit his peak instead with his own band, The Voidoids, creating both a classic album (“Blank Generation”) and a fashion style he wore on his torn and safety-pinned sleeve. The Brits noticed. Punk was born. In recalling these days when love came in spurts, Hell is precise, telling a lot without ever seeming to tell too much. He nails the essence of both scenes and people, from rock peers to exploitative record producers. Nodding on heroin “was like the dream of a dream, a dream you could manipulate—in other words, paradise on earth.” Sid Vicious “wasn’t really vicious,” just someone who “saw that there was a crazy opening into fame and money that required only that he relax into full loutish negativity.” He can also be bitter, as when he writes that Thunders’ lyrics “were half-assed in never having an original idea or turn of phrase.”

A deft, lyrical chronicle by a punk with perspective.

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0062190833

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

A humorous, cerebral and daringly written memoir.

THE JOKER

A MEMOIR

An acclaimed poet proves his versatility in his gut-busting memoir on jokes.

In his debut memoir, Hudgins (English/Ohio State Univ.; American Rendering, 2010, etc.) admits his Achilles’ heel for clowning. “Since junior high, I’ve been a joker, a punster, a laugher,” he writes, “someone who will say almost anything for a laugh.” In his memoir, he also proves that he will write anything for a laugh as well. No terrain proves too taboo for Hudgins, who dispenses racial jokes, misogynistic jokes and jokes in which Jesus and dead babies make appearances in the punch lines. Yet his often-bawdy material probes depths far beneath the jokes themselves, providing opportunities to examine his life through a humorous lens. Hudgins recounts his evolution from grade school clown to college-age clown to married (and later divorced) clown, but he’s at his best when moving beyond himself and providing the historical context for his punch lines. While tightrope walking along the perilous subject of racial jokes, Hudgins' true contribution comes from his commentary on growing up in the segregated South. His discussion on jokes as a regional defense mechanism—one that exposes the fears and biases of the time—prompts new thinking on a subject often overlooked: i.e., the attempt to shroud America’s past lunacy in laughter. “Jokes are often—some would say always—intricately wound up with power,” he writes, a claim all the more powerful given his Southern upbringing. As Hudgins proves, jokes provide various other functions as well, including a test of the teller’s ability to read his audience. As the author has learned, humor is no universal language, though thankfully, he possesses the skills to prompt readers to examine their own complex relationships with chuckles, guffaws and groans.

A humorous, cerebral and daringly written memoir.

Pub Date: June 11, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1271-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

Gripping, emotional depictions of the conflicts that rage in the interior and exterior worlds of a spy—and of a journalist.

THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN

A FATHER, A SON, AND THE CIA

A former Newsweek foreign correspondent reviews his often perplexing experiences as the son of a CIA operative.

Now a freelance journalist, Johnson begins in 1973, his birth year, with a story about a snake charmer in India, where his father was stationed. The snake charmer proves an apt metaphor for the mysterious elder Johnson, a sophisticated persuader whose ability to charm was his deadliest arrow as he sought to flip other agents and foreign nationals. The author does not obey a strict chronology. After 10 chapters that deliver us to 2001, Johnson returns to Mexico City in 1968, wondering if or how his father was involved in the deadly violence that occurred there just before the Olympics. Rendering the question even more wrenching is his realization that Johnson père could have been involved in the arrest of the father of a woman Johnson fils was dating. About halfway through, the narrative arrives near the present with a summary of the author's sometimes-harrowing experiences covering the war in Iraq; he survived an IED explosion while riding in a Marine vehicle and had other brushes with death. We also hear about Sarajevo in 2004 and, in later chapters, about visits with his uneasily retired father in Spokane. They took some road trips, and en route, we learn about some of the missions and adventures of Johnson père, though he says he resents interrogations. Nonetheless, the author kept pushing him to impart as much family and professional history as possible, trying to understand a man with such a deadly past who nonetheless both professes and demonstrates a profound love for his son.

Gripping, emotional depictions of the conflicts that rage in the interior and exterior worlds of a spy—and of a journalist.

Pub Date: May 20, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-393-23980-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

Nonfiction with the resonance of literary fiction and the impact of real tragedy.

THE WORLD IS MOVING AROUND ME

A MEMOIR OF THE HAITI EARTHQUAKE

Keen observation, incisive analysis and passionate engagement mark this author’s account of the 2010 earthquake that devastated his native Haiti.

Through vignettes that range from a paragraph to a couple of pages, novelist Laferrière (I Am a Japanese Writer, 2011, etc.) delivers a knockout punch through prose favoring matter-of-fact understatement over sentimental histrionics. A literary festival brought him back from French-speaking Canada, where he emigrated to establish himself as a writer, to the homeland where his mother and much of his family still lives. He ordered dinner at a restaurant and then heard what sounded like a machine gun, a train or an explosion. It intensified: “The earth started shaking like a sheet of paper whipped by the wind. The low roar of buildings falling to their knees. They didn’t explode; they imploded, trapping people inside their bellies.” The author is no journalist, and he engages in none of what would conventionally be called reporting. Instead, he describes what he saw, how it felt and what it meant. For those who survived, the aftershocks continued: natural, personal, political, cultural. Laferrière is particularly sharp on the ambiguous motives and ambivalent effects of humanitarian charity and celebrities who helped keep the world’s spotlight on Haiti (and, of course, themselves), until attention turned to the next world calamity. The framing is particularly strong, beginning with vivid detail of the experience itself, culminating in a multileveled meditation on what it means to be Haitian, to be a survivor, to be a writer, to be alive. “We say January 12 here the way they say September 11 in other places,” he writes of the cataclysm most vividly experienced at street level, which is where this memoir operates.

Nonfiction with the resonance of literary fiction and the impact of real tragedy.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-55152-498-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2013

An ambitious, experimental look at exodus, acclimatization and culture with a cast as diverse as any family photo album.

THE FAMILY

THREE JOURNEYS INTO THE HEART OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

A Jewish writer explores his heritage in a speculative family history that mirrors the triumphs and tragedies of the 20th century.

Laskin (The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, 2010, etc.) stays firmly within his characteristic style of anecdotal guesswork in chronicling the fates of three branches of his family tree. While his journalistic consistency may be a bit dubious, the author knows how to zero in on a good story. Starting with a rumor that Joseph Stalin’s enforcer Lazar Kaganovich might be a distant relation, Laskin dives deeply into the lives and times of his relatives, dating back to the late 19th century in Volozhin, Russia. It’s after the family’s move to Belarus that the narrative gets really interesting. One branch, largely led by Maidenform Bra founder Ida Rosenthal, landed in New York and Americanized everything about themselves, abandoning names, homes and traditions. “Others step off the boat, fill their lungs with the raw unfamiliar air, and get to work. They never look back because they never have a moment to spare or an urge to regret,” writes the author. Another couple, Chaim and Sonia, became hard-core Zionist pioneers in the wilds of Palestine. Another entire branch was lost to the Holocaust, a richly imagined tragedy but one that Laskin has largely plucked from history books. Were this fiction, it would read much like the novels of Leon Uris and other spinners of historical sagas, as Laskin ties his relatives to events ranging from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Black Friday to the establishment of Israel. The telling of the tales and the recollection of history eventually breaks the author’s assumptions that his family was all about business. “Now I see how wrong I was,” Laskin writes. “History made and broke my family in the 20th century.”

An ambitious, experimental look at exodus, acclimatization and culture with a cast as diverse as any family photo album.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-670-02547-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

A vivid, gut-wrenching, beautifully written, memorable book.

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A HOUSE IN THE SKY

A MEMOIR

With the assistance of New York Times Magazine writer Corbett, Lindhout, who was held hostage in Somalia for more than a year, chronicles her harrowing ordeal and how she found the moral strength to survive.

In 2008, Lindhout, after working as a cocktail waitress to earn travel money, was working as a freelance journalist. In an attempt to jump-start her fledgling career, she planned to spend 10 days in Mogadishu, a “chaotic, anarchic, staggeringly violent city.” She hoped to look beyond the “terror and strife [that] hogged the international headlines” and find “something more hopeful and humane running alongside it.” Although a novice journalist, she was an experienced, self-reliant backpacker who had traveled in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She hired a company to provide security for her and her companion, the Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, but they proved unequal to the task. Their car was waylaid by a gunman, and the group was taken captive and held for ransom. Her abductors demanded $2 million, a sum neither family could raise privately or from their governments. Negotiations played out over 15 months before an agreement for a much smaller sum was reached. The first months of their captivity, until they attempted an escape, were difficult but bearable. Subsequently, they were separated, chained, starved and beaten, and Lindhout was repeatedly raped. Survival was a minute-by-minute struggle not to succumb to despair and attempt suicide. A decision to dedicate her life to humanitarian work should she survive gave meaning to her suffering. As she learned about the lives of her abusers, she struggled to understand their brutality in the context of their ignorance and the violence they had experienced in their short lives. Her guards were young Muslim extremists, but their motive was financial. Theirs was a get-rich scheme that backfired. “Hostage taking is a business, a speculative one,” Lindhout writes, “fed by people like me—the wandering targets, the fish found out of water, the comparatively rich moving against a backdrop of poor.”

A vivid, gut-wrenching, beautifully written, memorable book.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4560-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

Vibrantly, blissfully sublime.

LASTING CITY

THE ANATOMY OF NOSTALGIA

A creatively executed memoir rekindling the epoch of an eccentric native New Yorker.

The “lasting city” in openly gay novelist McCourt’s (Now Voyagers, 2007, etc.) creative chronicle is, of course, Manhattan. The author supplies autobiographical details through vacillating memories, both fond and painful, and weaves them together in an artful tapestry of fever-dreamed conversations, nostalgic poignancy and rich Gotham history. His mother’s death in 2003 seems to be the catalyst here. Awash in grief, McCourt, now in his early 70s, writes of leaving her deathbed to desperately scurry into the city to share his heartache with strangers like an aging Broadway showgirl/diner waitress and an Indian cabbie, who both seemed to restore his faith in humanity. Further recollections detail McCourt’s troublesome Irish-Catholic family and upbringing, which commingle beautifully with memories of his precocious adolescence as a burgeoning homosexual in the 1950s. Undeterred by the era’s often violent consequences for indulging in same-sex carnalities, the author reveled in clandestine trysts on Fire Island or wandered Central Park’s Ramble, “by night the haunt of the sexually intrepid male homosexual horndog on the scent.” McCourt’s drifting, serpentine narrative unfurls a lush and prideful profile, painstakingly contemplated and clearly written from the heart. The writer tells the stories of his gay youth, his family’s melodrama and his own sweet maturation with an intoxicating amalgam of poetry, quotation, fantasy, and the kind of sweeping, colorful language that creates a kaleidoscope of precious memories. In the opening chapter, his outspoken mother, mere weeks before succumbing to the stroke that would cause her death, urges her son to “tell everything.” From that instruction springs forth McCourt’s shimmering opus of a unique, regretless and effervescent lifetime in the existential city of dreams.

Vibrantly, blissfully sublime.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-87140-458-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

Menaker doesn’t just recount experiences; he digs away at them with wit and astute reflection, looking for the pattern of a...

MY MISTAKE

A MEMOIR

A well-known editor’s funny and thoughtful memoir of wrong turns, both in and out of publishing.

As Menaker (A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, 2010, etc.) sums up his life, he can’t get past his mistakes—the big ones he’ll never stop paying for and the small ones that changed his life. As a young man, he goaded his older brother during a game of touch football, leading to his brother's fatal injury and leaving himself with a lifetime of guilt. He smoked, quit and got lung cancer years later. He began working for the New Yorker, where it was easy to sweat the small stuff under the famously idiosyncratic editorship of William Shawn. Urged to find another job, he stayed for 26 years, skating on thin ice even as he climbed the editorial chain. There were rules of decorum ("You don't say 'Hi' to Mr. Shawn—you say 'Hello’ ”) and regular surprises on what would or would not pass the Shawn smell test. When Menaker suggested ending a story with a mild pun, Shawn told him it "would destroy the magazine." "What you want to write is an article," Shawn admonished him at one point, "and the New Yorker doesn't publish…articles." On the plus side, Menaker learned high-level editing, not just from Shawn, but from the contrasting examples of magazine stalwarts Roger Angell (rough and tumble) and William Maxwell (kind and gentle). After the Tina Brown coup, Menaker moved on to Random House, where he eventually became editor-in-chief, wrestling to stay afloat and to stay alive.

Menaker doesn’t just recount experiences; he digs away at them with wit and astute reflection, looking for the pattern of a life that defies easy profit-and-loss lessons.

Pub Date: Nov. 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-79423-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

A bracing, no-nonsense memoir, infused with fresh takes on love, death and human nature.

I HATE TO LEAVE THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE

Five stellar personal essays by Norman (Creative Writing/Univ. of Maryland; What Is Left the Daughter, 2010, etc.) that shed light on his melancholy, tragedy-struck fiction and larger human failures.

Norman’s novels tend to circle around a tight range of themes: gloomy Canadian backdrops, coincidence, death and a love for wildlife (particularly birds) that gives his work a quirky, musical vocabulary. These essays suggest the mood of the author isn’t very distinct from that of his fiction, and sometimes the connections are explicit: One piece is about an affair in his 20s that ended when his lover died in a plane crash, a story echoed in his 2002 novel, The Haunting of L. Norman’s fictional tensions between fathers and sons also have a real-life analogue in this book’s opening essay, about his teenage summer working in a bookmobile as his estranged father attempts to worm back into his life. The author treats these incidents with poise and intellect (references to novelists and poets abound) but also with some glints of humor. In one essay, his criminal brother keeps calling for help crossing into Canada, and their phone exchanges are both comically absurd and exasperating for the author. The best piece is the title essay, about a John Lennon cover band in the Canadian tundra and the spate of bad weather, spirit folklore and music that consumed the community after Lennon’s death. Its most harrowing is the closing piece, in which a poet housesitting at Norman’s home in 2003 killed her 2-year-old son and herself. Written evidence of the woman’s cracked psyche keeps stalking Norman in the house, and his chronicle of shaking off its effects pays tribute to the (sometimes-malicious) power of words and the wilderness’ power as a balm for heartbreak.

A bracing, no-nonsense memoir, infused with fresh takes on love, death and human nature.

Pub Date: July 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-38542-6

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Fanatics and newcomers to the music will both find plenty of revelation here.

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MO' META BLUES

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO QUESTLOVE

A thoughtful, incisive analysis of hip-hop—and pop music in general—from one of its foremost contemporary architects.

It’s no surprise that this isn’t your standard musical memoir. As drummer and aural conceptualist for the Roots, producer for other artists, Jimmy Fallon bandleader and provocative cultural critic, Thompson, aka Questlove, has pushed the boundaries of convention wherever his creative energies have taken him. Here, he enlists New Yorker editor and novelist Greenman (The Slippage, 2013, etc.), not as a ghostwriter but as a collaborator and occasional interrogator, interweaving the subject/author’s voice with that of Rich Nichols, the Roots’ career strategist and co-manager from the start, in a book that mixes chronological memoir with critical issues not easily resolved—e.g., “What’s black culture? What’s hip-hop? What are the responsibilities of a society and the people in it?” It conjures the life of Questlove from boyhood prodigy to die-hard fan to seminal creative force, through midlife crisis and subsequent renewal, and it captures the revolutionary boyhood excitement of hearing “Rapper’s Delight” shift the axis of the musical world and the giddy weirdness of being invited by Prince to a private, after-hours roller-skating party. The author also discusses being a huge KISS fan, a worshipper of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, “a serious music-press nerd, the kind of kid who collected back issues of Rolling Stone and memorized all the record ratings” and how he and the Roots have faced the charges of being “not black enough.” The result is a book with as much warmth, heart and humor as introspective intelligence.

Fanatics and newcomers to the music will both find plenty of revelation here.

Pub Date: June 18, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4555-0135-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2013

Twain admirers will find this volume indispensable and will eagerly await the third volume.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, VOLUME 2

THE COMPLETE AND AUTHORITATIVE EDITION

In which the great American author, aided by his scholarly editors, continues to spin out a great yarn covering his long life.

In the year of his birth, writes Twain, John Marshall, the noted jurist and chief justice of the Supreme Court, died. A collection was taken up among lawyers to erect a statue to him, but then “a prodigious new event of some kind or other suddenly absorbed the whole nation and drove the matter of the monument out of everybody’s mind.” The money sat in a bank account for half a century collecting interest, and suddenly, in 1883 or so, it was rediscovered and used to build the memorial that now stands in the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. The statue is a material fact, but it is Twain’s storytelling that makes it come alive. Having written despairingly of the human race, and especially of its more murderous representatives, such as Belgium’s King Leopold, he takes the rare fact of honest politicians and fiduciaries as a tonic: “It takes the bitter taste out of my mouth to recall that beautiful incident.” Twain emerges as an unflinching social critic with a long list of targets, including the robber barons of his day and imperialist militarists like Leonard Wood. Yet, in this most personal of works, Twain also reserves plenty of spite for miscreant publishers: “Webster kept back a book of mine, ‘A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur,’ as long as he could, and finally published it so surreptitiously that it took two or three years to find out that there was any such book.” Twain is, as ever, a sharply honed and contrarian wit, as quick to lampoon himself as anyone else. He is also capable of Whitmanesque flights: “I am,” he declares, “the entire human race compacted together”—for better and for worse.

Twain admirers will find this volume indispensable and will eagerly await the third volume.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-520-27278-1

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Univ. of California

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2013

Blending cultural history with biography, memoir and travelogue, Wall’s carefully balanced book is, in itself, a successful...

THE ORDINARY ACROBAT

A JOURNEY INTO THE WONDROUS WORLD OF THE CIRCUS, PAST AND PRESENT

A Fulbright fellow immerses himself in the remarkable history of circuses.

For generations, people have run away to the circus; in 2003, Wall followed suit. In his debut memoir, the author recounts the unique circumstances that led him down this unexpected path. After receiving a fellowship to study “contemporary circus,” Wall enrolled in the National School for the Circus Arts in France, where he soon learned the stark differences between the American circus and the European model. Historically, European circuses were known for their intimate performances, while American circuses placed their focus elsewhere. “In the big American circuses,” Wall writes, “all this familiarity and precision was gone, sacrificed for other pleasures: spectacle, pageantry, sensory stimulation….” Simply put: American circuses were more interested in turning a profit than a perfect backflip. Wall sought to train alongside the world’s best circus performers. His immersion into the ranks of acrobats, jugglers and clowns provides a behind-the-scenes look into a world spectators know little about. While readers likely have some familiarity with the traditional circus performance, they will be surprised to learn the level of dedication required for performers to hone their skills. This proves particularly true in Europe, where performers are considered artists and masters of their craft. Upon his entrance into the National School, Wall was soon humbled to learn that he was no master. At the start of the semester, even a somersault proved too complex. “It was, after all, why I had come,” he writes: “to get a glimpse of the incalculable amount of effort, embarrassment, and pain behind the seemingly effortless skills.”

Blending cultural history with biography, memoir and travelogue, Wall’s carefully balanced book is, in itself, a successful tightrope traverse.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-27172-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

A modern rejoinder to Black Like Me, Beloved and other stories of struggle and redemption—beautifully written, if sometimes...

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A MEMOIR

An assured yet scarifying memoir by young, supremely gifted novelist Ward (Salvage the Bones, 2011, etc.).

Like the author’s novels, this study of life on the margins—of society, of dry land against the bayou, of law—takes place in the stunning tropical heat of southern Mississippi. Her parents had tried to leave there and make new lives in the freedom, vast horizon and open sky of California: “There were no vistas in Mississippi, only dense thickets of trees all around.” But they had returned, and in the end, the homecoming broke them apart. Ward observes that the small town of her youth was no New Orleans; there was not much to do there, nor many ennobling prospects. So what do people do in such circumstances? They drink, take drugs, reckon with “the dashed dreams of being a pilot or a doctor,” they sink into despair, they die—all things of which Ward writes, achingly, painting portraits of characters such as a young daredevil of a man who proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “I ain’t long for this world,” and another who shrank into bony nothingness as crack cocaine whittled him away. With more gumption than many, Ward battled not only the indifferent odds of rural poverty, but also the endless racism of her classmates in the school she attended on scholarship, where the only other person of color, a Chinese girl, called blacks “scoobies”: “ ‘Like Scooby Doo?’ I said. ‘Like dogs?’ ” Yes, like dogs, and by Ward’s account, it’s a wonder that anyone should have escaped the swamp to make their way in that larger, more spacious world beyond it.

A modern rejoinder to Black Like Me, Beloved and other stories of struggle and redemption—beautifully written, if sometimes too sad to bear.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-60819-521-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

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