Though tendentious, Rackstraw’s account offers enough interesting material on Vonnegut and his work to please his many fans.

LOVE AS ALWAYS, KURT

VONNEGUT AS I KNEW HIM

Adorning her text with enough exclamation points to resemble an exuberant teen’s diary, the author recounts her long relationship with the noted American novelist.

It began in September 1965 when Rackstraw, a single mother, was enrolled in the married Vonnegut’s fiction class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Coy about the extent of their intimacy, she remarks only that they “broke a couple of taboos that first year.” She remembers a bird singing when he first embraced her in a bucolic Iowa grove. She tells some Workshop stories: Parties at Andre Dubus’s place were “great”; Nelson Algren was cruel to one of her classmates; Richard Yates had issues. Rackstraw eventually married again, and she became friends with Vonnegut’s first wife, Jane, and their children. The author, however, remains cool throughout to Jill Krementz, the writer’s second wife, and recalls times when Vonnegut planned to divorce her. Rackstraw acknowledges her friend’s emotional, depressive side—he took negative criticism poorly and became gloomy at weak sales or rejections—but also highlights how hard he worked to write prose that seemed effortless. His later novels in particular, she notes, went through multiple false starts. The memoir reveals some questionable ethics on its author’s part as well: She wrote very favorable reviews of some Vonnegut novels for the North American Review, and readers may wonder if she told her editors the extent of her intimacy with him. Rackstraw follows Vonnegut’s career chronologically, reporting what he published, where he spoke (how the crowds loved him!) and what he wrote and said to her—all in terms most flattering to both parties. She quotes few letters in their entirety but does not neglect, for instance, to quote Vonnegut’s occasional encomiums to her intelligence and achievements.

Though tendentious, Rackstraw’s account offers enough interesting material on Vonnegut and his work to please his many fans.

Pub Date: April 11, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-306-81803-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Da Capo

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2009

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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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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