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A perceptive, though dark, portrait.

An unsparing look at the abrasive performer.

Cultural critic Siegel (Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, 2008, etc.), winner of the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism, contributes to the Jewish Lives series with a biography of the misogynist, disdainful Julius Henry Marx, nicknamed Groucho because of his “sour, bitter nature.” Siegel argues that Groucho’s stage persona was consistent with his real personality: “Groucho embodies the spirit of nihilism,” the author asserts, “yet his biographers and various commentators always try to impart some positive or affirmative quality to him.” He finds the sources of that nihilism in his early life: the middle son of five brothers, he had a “marginal position in his parents’ household.” The most intellectual of his siblings, he wanted to become a physician. Instead, his mother yanked him out of grade school and sent him out to work to earn money for the impoverished family. His father was weak-willed, his mother domineering, and the young boy, “wounded by his mother,” became a performer “whose aggression toward women is at the forefront of every film.” Siegel analyzes—and sometimes overanalyzes—the Marx Brothers’ movies, identifying instances of Groucho’s “abuse and invective” to show how his routines “on stage and screen were seamless with the rhythms of his temperament as he passed through everyday life.” In keeping with this series’ focus on Jewish identity, Siegel examines Marx’s connection to his cultural heritage. He concludes that his comedy “has deep roots in Jewish forms of irony and social dissent,” disdain for authority, and sense of displacement and ostracism that resulted in “explicit contempt for other people.” The man who emerges from these pages is difficult, unlikable, and brash, and his humor coarse. Siegel identifies Lenny Bruce as his heir rather than Woody Allen, with whom he is sometimes compared.

A perceptive, though dark, portrait.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-300-17445-8

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2015

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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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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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