Despite minor flaws, Jefferson’s Demons manifests high energy, expansive scholarship, and fluid language.

JEFFERSON’S DEMONS

PORTRAIT OF A RESTLESS MIND

An examination of Jefferson’s career with attention to his psychological states, his debates with his inner voices, and his struggles with Federalist adversaries.

Lawyer/writer Beran (The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy, 1998) has an efflorescent style that sometimes charms, sometimes cloys (he’s especially fond of alliteration), but he says many striking things about Jefferson, the man and the politician. Jefferson’s greatest productivity often followed hard upon headachy periods of ennui, the author argues, but he establishes little beyond an interesting correlation. Beran divides his treatment into four seasonal sections, beginning with spring and ending with winter, and swiftly deals with the superficial biographical facts. Slavery is a consistent motif, and the author generally does well to point out—repeatedly—Jefferson’s failure to liberate people at Monticello as he simultaneously called for the liberation of people in general. (He is reluctant to believe that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children and appears to think that a master’s sexual relations with a slave could be something other than rape.) In his sprightly style, Beran takes us to familiar biographical landmarks: the Declaration of Independence, the death of Martha Jefferson, the sojourn in France, the Grand Tour, the battles with Hamilton, the decline of Aaron Burr, the two presidential terms (he characterizes both inaugural addresses as dull), the University of Virginia, the now-and-then intimacy with John Adams, and death. He also deals quite effectively with the troubling contradictions in Jefferson, a democrat who lived like an aristocrat (fine wine, fine food, fine first editions, high debts), a man versed in classical ethics who tried to purge the Supreme Court of his political enemies, a true believer in the Constitution who stepped outside its boundaries to enlarge those of the US with the purchase of Louisiana. A particularly intriguing chapter describes interior conversations among various portions of Jefferson’s mind.

Despite minor flaws, Jefferson’s Demons manifests high energy, expansive scholarship, and fluid language.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2003

ISBN: 0-7432-3279-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2003

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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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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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