Book List

Reviewing the Legends: Nonfiction

WORKING

PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY DO ALL DAY AND HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT WHAT THEY DO

There is hardly an interviewer, commentator or probing journalist among us who can elicit so much grief and passion, so many forlorn hopes and decayed dreams, so much of the tedium and frustration of daily existence from his subjects as Studs Terkel.

Subjects? Hardly. Talking casually, sometimes disjointedly and hesitantly, or unleashing long suppressed feelings in an angry torrent, these are not clinical case studies but complex, fully human people whose humdrum reminiscences of long hours, days and years on the job are almost painfully involving. Even their laughter, abrupt and nervous, will make you wince because in Terkel's words, "This book, being about work is, by it's very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body." "You're nothing more than a machine. . . . They give better care to that machine than they will to you. They'll have more respect, give more attention to that machine," says the twenty-seven year-old spot welder at Ford. "I'm a mule," says the steelworker. Nor is the sense of waste and futility confined to blue-collar workers. Terkel talks to shipping clerks and sports figures, copy boys, hospital aides, salesmen, press agents, a doorman, a barber, a fireman, a cop, a pharmacist, a piano tuner, a stockbroker, a gravedigger...and yes, there is a common chord. Pride, the pride of craftsmanship is harder and harder to sustain; the old work ethic seems to many like a dirty trick. Strikingly, the only people who seem genuinely to exult in their work are those who deal directly and intimately with other people—like the Brooklyn fireman who muses, "You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy's dying. You can't get around that shit. That's real. To me, that's what I want to be."

For the rest, Terkel finds "the desperation is unquiet" and here, at least, it's eloquent.

Pub Date: March 28, 1974

ISBN: 1565843428

Page Count: -

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1974

NOTES OF A NATIVE SON

The collected "pieces" of the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain form a compelling unit as he applies the high drama of poetry and sociology to a penetrating analysis of the Negro experience on the American and European scene.

He bares the brutal boners of "everybody's protest novel" from Stowe to Wright; points out that black is "devil-color" according to Christian theology and to "make white" is thus to save; reveals the positive base of Carmen Jones, movie version, as Negroes are white, that is, moral. Beyond such artistic attitudinal displays lie experimental realities: the Harlem Ghetto with its Negro press, the positive element of which tries to emulate the white press and provides an incongruous mixture of slick style and stark subject; the Ghetto with its churches and its hatred of the American reality behind the Jewish face (from which, as sufferers, so much was expected). There is a trip to Atlanta for the Wallace campaign and indignities endured; there is a beautiful essay, from which the book takes its title- of father and son and the corroding power of hate as it could grow from injustice. In Europe, there is the encounter of African and American Negro; a sojourn in jail over a stolen sheet; and last, the poignant essay of the first Negro to come to a remote Swiss village, to be greeted as a living wonder. This is not true in America, where he has a place, though equivocal, in our united life.

The expression of so many insights enriches rather than clarifies, and behind every page stalks a man, an everyman, seeking his identity...and ours. Exceptional writing.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 1955

ISBN: 0807064319

Page Count: -

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1955

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

ORIENTALISM

One may quibble with the title: this is a study of Islamic Orientalism solely, of Western representations of the Near East, with little or no direct reference to Persia, India, China, Japan. 

Professor Said (Comparative Literature, Columbia) explains the limited focus as both methodological (coherence over exhaustiveness) and personal: he is an Arab Palestinian. But among Eastern civilizations, as he recognizes, Islam is a special case, particularly in relation to Christian Europe: a "fraudulent," competing religion (doggedly miscalled Mohammedanism), a longstanding military threat, and all the more, therefore, as affront. Singularity, however, is no handicap to what is essentially a case study of Western ethno-centrism and its consequences, while the very persistence of the generalizing and dehumanizing attitudes that Said condemns, unparalleled in regard to either Africa or the Far East, argues the urgency of the enterprise. Drawing, most prominently, upon Foucault's history of pernicious ideas, Said traces the development of Orientalism from Silvestre de Sacy's fragmentation of Oriental culture into "a canon of textual objects" and Ernest Renan's incorporation of the fragments into the new comparative philology: "the Orient's contemporary relevance [was] to be simply as material for European investigation." Ascribed traits—passivity, eroticism, etc.—became fixed; travelers, ostensibly sympathetic, added exotic tales; and the presumed inferiority of Islam served as the pretext for its political domination, its supposed backwardness the excuse for economic intervention (with even Karl Marx writing of England's "regenerating" mission in India). Not until after World War II does Islam enter the American consciousness, and then—with Arab specialists in attendance—as "the disrupter of Israel's and the West's existence." Said's recent citations are devastating, and add force to his final challenge: how to avoid all categorization of one people by another?

The book is redundant and not always reasonable, but bound to cut a wide swath and leave its mark.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 1978

ISBN: 039474067X

Page Count: 417

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1978

THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

AGAINST INTERPRETATION

AND OTHER ESSAYS

If one were to judge these essays in terms of price, their value would be very high.

At her best (and worst) Miss Sontag offers three pennies worth of thought in any one sentence. "The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." Wonderful. And she drops names like dandruff. The classic example is a classic of her own. "Notes on 'Camp'." With epigraphs from Wilde, and random examples of the Camp "sensibility" (King Kong, Swan Lake, and the memorable "stag movies seen without lust"), Miss Sontag concludes: "The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful...but one can't always say that. Only under certain conditions, which I've tried to sketch in these notes." (Did she mean stretch?) Anyway, Miss Sontag's method is an entertaining mixture of sheer assertion, phenomenology, deep-think, and gush. On Levi-Strauss, Camus, Leiris, and The Deputy, she's brilliant; on the films of Bresson fine; on those of Goddard, Resnais, and Jack Smith a little drippy. Her "Going to Theatre" pieces usually go to pieces; the Marat/Sade coverage, however, is excellent. She fumbles with Sartre and Ionesco, and her long tribute to the radical art of "Happenings" is a propagandistic hullabaloo. Her three theory-essays (the title one, "On Style," and "On Culture") are maddeningly uneven. Like a Joan of Arc of the avant-garde, Miss Sontag attempts a critical breakthrough. Now and then, she succeeds.

In any case, controversial "must" reading.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 1965

ISBN: 0312280866

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1965

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

SILENT SPRING

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

BLACK BOY

A RECORD OF CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH

This autobiography might almost be said to supply the roots to Wright's famous novel, Native Son.

It is a grim record, disturbing, the story of how — in one boy's life — the seeds of hate and distrust and race riots were planted. Wright was born to poverty and hardship in the deep south; his father deserted his mother, and circumstances and illness drove the little family from place to place, from degradation to degradation. And always, there was the thread of fear and hate and suspicion and discrimination — of white set against black — of black set against Jew — of intolerance. Driven to deceit, to dishonesty, ambition thwarted, motives impugned, Wright struggled against the tide, put by a tiny sum to move on, finally got to Chicago, and there — still against odds — pulled himself up, acquired some education through reading, allied himself with the Communists — only to be thrust out for non-conformity — and wrote continually. The whole tragedy of a race seems dramatized in this record; it is virtually unrelieved by any vestige of human tenderness, or humor; there are no bright spots. And yet it rings true. It is an unfinished story of a problem that has still to be met.

Perhaps this will force home unpalatable facts of a submerged minority, a problem far from being faced.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 1945

ISBN: 0061130249

Page Count: 450

Publisher: Harper

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1945

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

THE DOUBLE HELIX

A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE DISCOVERY OF THE STRUCTURE OF DNA

Even without understanding any of the scientific data processed here, the general reader will find it hard to remain immune to this account of how J.D. Watson, along with another bright, volatile young man—Francis Crick, discovered DNA, the fundamental genetic material.

This is a memoir of "the way I saw things then, in 1951-1953, the ideas, the people and myself"—among them Sir Lawrence Bragg (who contributes the foreword here) who was their superior in the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University and who, midway, told them to stop tinkering with the project: Maurice Wilkins, who had a vested interest in DNA and had been working for many years on it: and Linus Pauling, Cal Tech's great scientist, who during this time came up with another structure whose chemistry was "screwy." What emerges here is not only a story of a scientific scrimmage as competitive as the race to the moon—but also a happy sense of surprise that anything as seemingly assiduous and systematic as pure science could be so much the result of random speculations at lunch and teatime and anything from light to "solid fiddling" at odd hours.

It all seems remarkably fresh and impulsive and adventitious.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 1967

ISBN: 074321630X

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1967

More Book Lists

The Magazine: Kirkus Reviews

Jenn Shapland reclaims a queer icon in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.

subscribe
  • The Kirkus Star

    One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit.

  • The Kirkus Prize

    The Kirkus Prize is among the richest literary awards in America, awarding $50,000 in three categories annually.

    See the 2019 winners.

Great Books & News Curated For You

Be the first to read books news and see reviews, news and features in Kirkus Reviews. Get awesome content delivered to your inbox every week.

Thank you!

Looks good !! Please provide a valid email.