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A handsomely illustrated volume that reflects Benfey’s depth of reading and passionate interests, though the connections he...

Ambitious, eccentric synthesis of late 19th-century artistic currents shows a static America progressing after the Civil War into a period of movement and romance.

As evidenced by his previous teeming works, Benfey (The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, 2003, etc.) likes to keep the literary pot boiling. In this elegant but not entirely cohesive study, he uses the hummingbird as a metaphor for the postwar era’s evanescent spirit, and as a means of spotlighting the shared interests of the actors he has assembled. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a radical writer who served as a colonel in the Union army, published essays about hummingbirds that were read avidly by Emily Dickinson, who in turn wove the birds into poems and wrote to Higginson for literary advice. Harriet Beecher Stowe, credited by President Lincoln with starting the Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sheltered, named and drew pictures of a wounded hummingbird, which Benfey argues became a stand-in for her troubled, alcoholic son Fred. Martin Johnson Heade, recognized for his paintings of salt marshes and haystacks, traveled to Brazil to paint hummingbirds; his work was beloved by Stowe and her brother, abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, for whom the bird was a metaphor for the delicate female parishioners he seduced. Heade’s comely apprentice and crush, Mabel Todd, mingled with the Dickinsons in Amherst, Mass., offering Emily her sketches of hummingbirds while having an affair with the poet’s brother Austin; Mabel later helped bring Emily’s work to the public light. One life dovetails into the other in this spiraling contemplation, which shows itinerant journalist Mark Twain emerging from his own trip to the tropics “at a critical moment of self-recognition,” recognizing that Heade had undertaken “a kindred quest.”

A handsomely illustrated volume that reflects Benfey’s depth of reading and passionate interests, though the connections he makes are occasionally strained.

Pub Date: April 21, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59420-160-8

Page Count: 278

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2008

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Well-told and admonitory.

Young-rags-to-mature-riches memoir by broker and motivational speaker Gardner.

Born and raised in the Milwaukee ghetto, the author pulled himself up from considerable disadvantage. He was fatherless, and his adored mother wasn’t always around; once, as a child, he spied her at a family funeral accompanied by a prison guard. When beautiful, evanescent Moms was there, Chris also had to deal with Freddie “I ain’t your goddamn daddy!” Triplett, one of the meanest stepfathers in recent literature. Chris did “the dozens” with the homies, boosted a bit and in the course of youthful adventure was raped. His heroes were Miles Davis, James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, at the behest of Moms, he developed a fondness for reading. He joined the Navy and became a medic (preparing badass Marines for proctology), and a proficient lab technician. Moving up in San Francisco, married and then divorced, he sold medical supplies. He was recruited as a trainee at Dean Witter just around the time he became a homeless single father. All his belongings in a shopping cart, Gardner sometimes slept with his young son at the office (apparently undiscovered by the night cleaning crew). The two also frequently bedded down in a public restroom. After Gardner’s talents were finally appreciated by the firm of Bear Stearns, his American Dream became real. He got the cool duds, hot car and fine ladies so coveted from afar back in the day. He even had a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Through it all, he remained a prideful parent. His own no-daddy blues are gone now.

Well-told and admonitory.

Pub Date: June 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-074486-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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