A brisk, well-documented homage.

NEVER A LOVELY SO REAL

THE LIFE AND WORK OF NELSON ALGREN

A champion of the downtrodden and marginalized was celebrated and reviled in his own time.

A fervent admirer of Nelson Algren (1909-1981), essayist Asher, a 2015/2016 fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, makes his book debut with a thoroughly researched, empathetic look at the life of the irascible, controversial writer. Drawing on sources from nearly 50 archives, including audio interviews and other material deposited by Algren’s previous biographer; Algren’s writings, letters, and interviews; and a “very lightly redacted” copy of Algren’s 886-page FBI file, Asher aims to correct the “misunderstandings and inaccuracies” that have sullied Algren’s reputation: notably, that he was an alcoholic, a “loner who burned every bridge he crossed,” and a writer whose publishing problems were largely his own fault. Many of those inaccuracies derived from Conversations with Nelson Algren, published in 1964, in which Algren himself conveyed an image of “a shallower, tougher, more careless, more misogynistic, less emotional, less intellectual, and lonelier person than he had ever truly been.” Although Asher tries mightily to counter that image, his findings often confirm them. Algren was certainly a hard drinker, thin-skinned, and sometimes paranoid. He “spent the first six decades of his life trying, and mostly failing, to balance a long list of competing and contradictory desires.” He yearned for critical acclaim but also “the freedom to express controversial ideas.” He wanted “devoted friends and the stability and comfort of a home, a wife, and children,” but he could never settle down with a woman without feeling stifled, and he wanted to go out whenever and wherever he pleased. “Chasing those urges,” Asher admits, “had left Nelson feeling lonely and regretful.” Because of his communist sympathies, the FBI kept a file on Algren beginning in 1940, creating professional and personal obstacles. Without knowing the FBI’s involvement in his career, Algren blamed his own shortcomings and became anxious and depressed. Asher chronicles Algren’s marriages and affairs, especially with Simone de Beauvoir, who, much to Algren’s dismay, publicized intimate details in her memoir, and he offers evenhanded readings of Algren’s works.

A brisk, well-documented homage.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-24451-9

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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

NIGHT

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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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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