The late jazz musician Sun Ra, who claimed to be from Saturn, is vividly and respectfully portrayed and defended against those who thought this self-described jester of the creator was a crackpot. Sun Ra, born Henry Poole Blount in 1914, always elicited a strong response with his music and ideas. Norman Mailer claimed the strangely horrible music cured him of a cold. One jazz critic seeing a show in 1967 wrote, ``There is no pigeon-hole for it. It is ugly and beautiful and terribly interesting.'' Sun Ra's music was well grounded in traditional jazz, but his wild sensibilities could drive the music into extreme breakdowns of noise—not to be purposefully obtuse or avant-garde, but because Sun Ra was on an all-consuming quest for truth in his music, which he once called a cosmic newspaper. He rehearsed his band endlessly and discouraged drinking, drug use, and womanizing. This rigor was a surprising backdrop to what often seemed like ``love generation'' sensibilities. The band wore wild hats, old opera costumes or African clothes, danced in the aisles, and played with improvisational abandon. As elucidated by Szwed (Anthropology, Afro-American Studies, Music, and American Studies/Yale) Sun Ra's seemingly outlandish ideas make a certain sense. For instance, the musician's claim to be Sun Ra from Saturn is placed in the cultural context of ``ritual renaming'' among African-Americans, from Malcolm X to Duke Ellington. Much space is also devoted to explaining Egyptology and other important ideas that led Sun Ra to fertile areas of thought and creativity. Readers will find some of Sun Ra's ideas hard to swallow. Listeners to his music will find some passages difficult or unlistenable. But Szwed also makes a strong case for Sun Ra as creative genius. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: July 28, 1997

ISBN: 0-679-43589-1

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1997

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller


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

Did you like this book?

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

Did you like this book?