A familiar biography embedded in a lively cultural history.

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MAKING OSCAR WILDE

A fresh look at Oscar Wilde’s English, Irish, and American contexts.

As “gay history’s Christ figure,” Wilde (1854-1900) has been amply investigated by biographers and literary historians, but Mendelssohn (English/Oxford Univ.; Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture, 2007, etc.) was surprised by a discovery she made in a library archive: six small cards, each depicting Wilde with a different ethnicity: Irish, Chinese, French, German, black, and white American. In addition, she found a Currier and Ives poster of Wilde with brown skin, thick lips, and “spiky Afro hair.” The provocative images, she writes, inspired her quest “to solve the mystery of Wilde’s identity.” Although she claims that her research reveals a “secret life” unknown to previous writers, in fact much of Mendelssohn’s entertaining study conveys a familiar portrait of the ambitious aesthete: his “larger-than-life parents,” Sir William, a renowned oculist, and his eccentric wife, Jane; Wilde’s experiences at Oxford, where he hosted “exotic” soirees in his college rooms and won honors for his intellectual prowess; his literary reputation as a poet and playwright; his exhausting American tour; marriage and fatherhood; and his precipitous downfall, which led to incarceration in Reading Gaol. Mendelssohn’s contribution to Wilde’s legacy is her fresh look at the American tour, providing social and cultural context that helps to explain the mystery of the disconcerting images. In 1882, Wilde disembarked in New York into a swirling eddy of assumptions about race, class, and gender. The foppish 27-year-old generated curiosity—sometimes cruel—about his manliness. His lectures, which at first were “painful,” the New York Times reported, invited parodies. His unscrupulous manager promoted him as if he were one of P.T. Barnum’s freaks, and the press mounted “degrading attacks,” such as caricaturing him as “Mr Wild of Borneo,” an image of Wilde as “a negrified Paddy.” Blackface minstrelsy, a hugely popular form of entertainment, lampooned him. The Currier and Ives poster, Mendelssohn concludes, reflected the inseparable connection of “Negrophobia and Celtophobia” in 19th-century America.

A familiar biography embedded in a lively cultural history.

Pub Date: July 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-19-880236-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

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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