Articulate, funny, informed and bitchy—guaranteed to both delight and disconcert.

ESSAYS IN BIOGRAPHY

The acclaimed essayist and former editor of the American Scholar presents a provocative collection of essays that illustrate the ways a writer can employ biographical detail.

Epstein (English/Northwestern Univ.; Gossip, 2011, etc.) has assembled a motley crew of characters—from Henry Adams to Xenophon, Michael Jordan to Gore Vidal. The author has a capacious mind, a wide range of interests, political biases (he labels himself a conservative) and a vast storehouse of knowledge about literary history—all of which animate and inform his pieces. (A complaint: There is neither preface nor foreword—no evidence, other than internal, of the date and audience for the pieces.) Epstein begins with a tribute to George Washington, concluding that it was his “moral character” that set him apart—a trait apparently unsullied by his slave-holding? There is little doubt about the author’s conservative preferences; when he writes about literature, he can become downright nasty and laugh-out-loud entertaining. He bites Saul Bellow (“a literary Bluebeard”) substantially in a full essay then returns in other pieces for additional nips. He blasts Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison, admires Bernard Malamud, eviscerates Dwight Macdonald and sucker punches both Mailer (calling “The White Negro” a “wretched essay”) and Vidal, whose essays he calls “dull hamburger.” His assessments of critics Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Irving Kristol range from measured to admiring. Epstein reserves some of his most potent firepower for Susan Sontag (her films, he writes, are surely playing in hell) but loves the work of Max Beerbohm and George Eliot. Writing of the latter, he notes how she had a sympathy for Jews that is lacking in many other major writers. He ends with a moving account of his friendship with a man in a nursing home.

Articulate, funny, informed and bitchy—guaranteed to both delight and disconcert.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-60419-068-7

Page Count: 564

Publisher: Axios Press

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

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A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...

INTO THE WILD

The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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