Magnificent, impressive and utterly unique. A word to anyone seeking to follow Vollmann’s path, however: Get your gamma...


Vollmann (Riding Toward Everywhere, 2008, etc.) has yet to meet a subject he cannot convert into a tome to rival the Manhattan phone book. So it is with this long, strange trip through California’s Imperial County.

“At four-thirty in the morning the air smells sulphurous and sweet like Karachi, and a bird sings.” Readers sensitive to the possibilities of poetry in prose will value a book, no matter how long, that contains that line. Those who value honesty in reportage will admire Vollmann’s admissions of time voluntarily spent among drifters, meth-heads and demimondaines: “Only now do I feel capable of writing novels about American street prostitutes, with whom I have associated for two decades.” Readers who seek a view of the U.S.-Mexico border beyond talking-head banalities will smile at subheads such as “A Clarification About Whiteness” and “My First Tunnel.” Vollmann’s latest doorstopper has endless moments of virtuosity and points of interest, and even if there are limits to patience—one senses that Vollmann prizes extra-long books as a means not of overwhelming the reader but because he lacks a shutoff valve—his book captures perfectly the sun-stricken, toxic landscapes of inland Southern California. This is a place far from the beaches, Mediterranean villas and tony restaurants on the coast, a place of astounding pollution, horrific smells (of which Vollmann provides a Homeric catalog) and hundreds of ways to die (ditto, most featuring drugs, cars and bad guys). Why do people go there, then? They’re mesmerized, perhaps, as Vollmann clearly is, by the unlikely possibilities of a place such as Duroville, a collection of broken trailers on the shores of the fetid Salton Sea, or Mexicali, where Chinese keep portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their walls and so outnumbered Mexicans that they were once outlawed.

Magnificent, impressive and utterly unique. A word to anyone seeking to follow Vollmann’s path, however: Get your gamma globulin shots, and write shorter.

Pub Date: Aug. 3, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-670-02061-4

Page Count: 1366

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2009

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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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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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