Though Vidal’s memories from encounters in DC, New York, Hollywood and elsewhere remain intact, the wit that animates the...

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A MEMOIR

In this successor to the first volume of his memoir, Palimpsest (1995), prolific novelist/essayist/gadfly Vidal mixes mournful minor keys among his usual trumpet blasts against what he regards as an American emporium run by oil men and religious fanatics.

Vidal fans will recognize much material from Palimpsest and Screening History, which offered his meditations on the movies. But in contrast to earlier reminiscences, “melancholy baggage” weighs more heavily on him here—declining health and departed friends, notably longtime companion Howard Austen. (The account of the latter’s final days is the most affecting part of this book.) Moving from his villa in Ravello, Italy, to the Hollywood Hills, Vidal starts this year-long chronicle on New Year’s Eve 2004. Death—Iraq casualties, disaster victims in New Orleans, the exits of Saul Bellow, Johnny Carson and Pope John Paul II—provokes a flood of memories and political fulminations. Like a weary ancient Roman patrician, he awaits his turn to shuffle off this mortal coil, though not without cost. “These rehearsals for death take more and more out of one,” he confesses. Sensing that time is no longer on his side, Vidal summons his energies to celebrate friends, flay enemies (the New York Times froze his first several novels out of its daily book reviews, largely, he says, because of his sexual orientation) and bemoan the end of “our old original Republic.” When of a mind, Vidal can produce memorable portraits (e.g., on Orson Welles: “When he laughed, which was often, his face, starting at the lower lip, would turn scarlet while sweat formed on his brow like a sudden spring rain”). But while taking credit for urging JFK to create a Peace Corps, he fails to note it was proposed in Congress earlier. Moreover, he mentions nothing about imbroglios with William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, and is mostly silent on novels like Lincoln and Burr.

Though Vidal’s memories from encounters in DC, New York, Hollywood and elsewhere remain intact, the wit that animates the best of his oeuvre is largely absent, leaving a voice at best affecting and at worst hectoring.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2006

ISBN: 0-385-51721-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2006

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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