For the armchair adventurer: history rendered as a libretto to the planet’s grand opera.



A series of historical vignettes in exotic locales, skillfully woven together by Guadalupi (The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, not reviewed) and co-writer and translator Shugaar.

The Equator? Merely a metaphor for the vanishing world of the tropical frontier that civilization will eventually pave over. But a nose for motive worthy of a big-city detective enables the authors to wring fresh romance and pathos from this centuries-old process. Its lure draws the obscure along with the celebrated; dreamers, scholars, adventurers, and opportunists converge along with the dangerously obsessed, often stalked by the inevitable scoundrel who waits to pick their bones. Guadalupi, a gifted historian armed with a boundless supply of corroborating detail, insinuates himself—and his readers—into the most intimate antechambers and boudoirs, no matter how remote in time or distance. We see 16th-century conquistadors lashed by icy winds on an Andean plateau, trooping inexorably toward the Equatorial rainforest that will engulf, madden, and ultimately swallow them. This is hardly fresh material: Magellan is punctured by native spears; Krakatoa blows its top; Stanley exploits Livingston. Even the wacky nude Baroness with her free-love commune in the Galapagos Islands has been the subject of several other works. But the authors, aided by Shugaar’s stylishly accessible translation, add intrigue to this retelling by deftly setting the scene from both historical and geographical perspectives. (In a rare lapse, they introduce the Galapagos without mentioning the cold ocean current that makes possible the rich variety of unique flora and fauna there.) Triumph and tragedy seem equally weighted; lust for gold, power, or fame is sometimes derailed by lust for . . . well, the usual. Most satisfying are gems of defining moments, evenly paced to arrive on schedule: the jungle relents, opens its green maw and spits out the plucky if none-too-clever Victorian dilettante who proceeds to ask for a cold beer by brand name.

For the armchair adventurer: history rendered as a libretto to the planet’s grand opera.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2001

ISBN: 978-0-7867-0901-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Carroll & Graf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2001

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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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