A good argument soundly made, and useful reading in this strangely illiberal election year.


Liberals are born, not made.

The exact definition of “liberal” may be a matter of disagreement, acknowledges journalist-novelist Packer (Central Square, 1998). Even within his own family, different strains of liberalism (from Jewish academic humanism to Protestant southern populism) made the dinner table a battlefield of debate, although both sides of that debate had a tendency “to side with the underdog, to feel that society imposes mutual obligations from which no one excused”—and to give greedy capitalists a good fight for their money. Packer explores many schools of liberal thought in this gracefully written exploration of recent American political history, much of it seen through the careers of his father (an academic who tried to encourage civil discussion on campus in a time of radicalism and reaction) and his grandfather (an Alabama lawyer who served several terms in the US Congress, where he denounced American intervention in Central America, battled the Ku Klux Klan, opposed Prohibition, and campaigned for the Catholic Yankee presidential candidate Al Smith). Having thus demonstrated an honorable—and quite convincing—liberal pedigree, 40-year-old Packer threads his narrative with coming-of-age stories set on the Yale campus (where, to his horror, his geeky and generally shunned conservative classmates became policymakers in the Reagan administration) as well as thoughtful asides on the nature of the American political experiment, liberal from the outset but doomed to contradictions and setbacks because, as his southern-belle aunt insisted, we humans are fallible creatures. “In the early years of the republic,” he muses, “the triumph of democracy over hierarchy released the massive energy of a free people—not into the pursuit of the public good, but into the individual scramble for private happiness.” That scramble for greenbacks continues, of course, and Packer has choice words for those who favor Hobbes over Locke—and Nixon over McGovern.

A good argument soundly made, and useful reading in this strangely illiberal election year.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-374-25142-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2000

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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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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