A revealing exploration of Ellison’s life and work.

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A superb biography of the noted African-American writer and the tormented times in which he lived.

It is literature’s misfortune that Ralph Ellison (1913–94) never produced a novel after Invisible Man, which took him seven traumatic years to write. As Rampersad (English/Stanford Univ.; Jackie Robinson, 1997, etc.) chronicles, Ellison received accolade after accolade following its publication: the National Book Award, presidential medals, honorary doctorates, “a cascading flow of honors such as no other African-American writer had ever enjoyed.” Success may have ruined Ellison; he developed a taste for the good life, first-class travel, nice surroundings—a far remove from his Oklahoma childhood. Rising from poverty, Ellison trained as a musician and engaged in an activist politics that launched him as a writer. Long afterward, his failure to produce cost him the use of a university secretary, but he had tenure, and plenty of other universities were always trying to woo him away. That failure and the gossip it yielded within the academy made Ellison bitter and hostile, of a piece with his transformation from prewar Communist to postwar conservative, at least of a cultural kind. It is in this second guise that Ellison fought his fiercest battles, waged against the likes of Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka, as he “deplored the popularity of black ‘demagogues’ and the habit of idolizing ex-pimps and ex-prisoners . . . which ‘gave many kids the notion that there was no point in developing their minds.’ ” Ellison’s battles with other African-American writers, such as Langston Hughes, led to his alienation from their company, but not from the canon. Rampersad writes of such matters with a mix of amusement and sorrow, noting how they drained Ellison of his energies and clearly wishing that Ellison had found “a way to that second triumph of fiction of which he had been dreaming . . . for almost thirty-five years.”

A revealing exploration of Ellison’s life and work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2007

ISBN: 0-375-40827-4

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2007

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...


The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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