The blues master emerges more as a cliché than a living artist.



Unsatisfying biography of the Texas blues original.

Journalist Ensminger (Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, 2011, etc.) completed the work of his colleague O’Brien after the latter’s death in 2011. Singer/guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins’ (1912–1982) prolific recorded output revealed one of the most distinctive of blues talents. Born Sam Hopkins into a rural sharecropping family, he began playing guitar at the age of 8, picking up his older brother’s instrument. He lit out from home early and was an itinerant musician by his teens, learning at the feet of legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander. He settled in Houston’s rough Third Ward; the ghetto neighborhood remained his home until he died. The trajectory of Hopkins’ career was similar to those of many of his blues contemporaries. After years of local renown, he recorded for a number of independent R&B labels in the late 1940s and ’50s. As the ’60s turned, he cut records for folk labels catering to the growing white folk-blues market; by late in the decade, he was playing Europe, colleges and the rock ballroom circuit. Hopkins’ enormous discography and improvisatory, stream-of-consciousness style led to his lionization before his death. The authors interviewed some 130 subjects and compiled a mountain of research, but Hopkins’ essence proves elusive. The authors detail the illiterate and mistrustful musician’s affection for liquor, gambling and hard cash, but they fail to plumb his inner life. Too often, the book settles into a frustrating pileup of concert itineraries and reviews, descriptions of recording sessions, nightclub back stories, musings on Southern race relations and long-winded source quotes in need of serious pruning. Hopkins’ combative relationship with his longtime producer, manager and agent, Mack McCormick, is the only interpersonal tale spun in any depth. The interior source of his remarkable and poetic gifts remains a mystery.

The blues master emerges more as a cliché than a living artist.

Pub Date: April 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0292745155

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Univ. of Texas

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


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...


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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