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HIS EXCELLENCY

GEORGE WASHINGTON

“A modest-sized book about a massive historical subject,” Ellis calls it. Well done, too, though admirers of Washington may...

A revisionist life of the Founding Father, motes and warts and all.

No stranger to scandal himself, Ellis (Founding Brothers, 2000, etc.) begins by addressing George Washington’s education in the school of hard knocks with tomahawks. Having lost his father early and having attained only a grade-school education, Washington was pressed into work on Virginia’s western frontier, “the far edge of civilization’s progress,” beyond which “anything that Europeans called civilization ceased to exist altogether.” Exploring the territory along the Ohio River apparently taught him a thing or two about Indian fighting, though, as Ellis notes, the documentary evidence for this period is scant; whatever the case, by the time he reached his early 20s, Washington was serving in the Virginia militia and found himself overseeing the first engagement of the French and Indian War—unhappily, a massacre of French soldiers attempting to surrender. Other debacles followed, after which Washington, by Ellis’s account, came both to disdain the British officer class and to believe that he himself could not be killed. Retiring from service, he returned to Virginia and married Martha Custis—even though, Ellis writes, he was in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. As a slaveholding plantation owner, he soon worked his way through much of Martha’s inherited wealth and took to borrowing money, which caught him “in the trap that was snaring other Virginia planters and that Thomas Jefferson, another victim, described as the chronic condition of indebtedness.” Ever litigious and ready to blame others, Washington attributed his economic woes to the misdoings of the British Empire in America, and a revolutionary was born. So, too, was the regal general who insisted on being called “His Excellency” and who “lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history,” but who also “surrounded himself with the most intellectually sophisticated collection of statesmen in American presidential history” and forged a republic.

“A modest-sized book about a massive historical subject,” Ellis calls it. Well done, too, though admirers of Washington may find in it more—or less—than they bargained for.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-4000-4031-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2004

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NIGHT

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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INTO THE WILD

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

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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