One of the real pleasures of assembling our 90th Anniversary Issue was combing through the archives to see what Kirkus Reviews had to say about the classics as well as some lesser-known books. You’ll find excerpts from those archival nonfiction reviews below. We didn’t aim to represent every major title of the past 90 years but to highlight the ones that were most entertaining or illuminating today. Allhave been condensed and lightly edited, when necessary, for clarity.
FEBRUARY 1945 | Black Boy by Richard Wright
Frequently banned and challenged, this memoir of the writer’s coming-of-age—as a child in the Jim Crow South and a young man in Chicago—has endured as a foundational text in our national reckoning with racism.
This autobiography might almost be said to supply the roots to Wright’s famous novel, Native Son. It is a grim record, disturbing, the story of how—in one boy’s life—the seeds of hate and distrust and race riots were planted. Wright was born to poverty and hardship in the deep south; his father deserted his mother, and circumstances and illness drove the little family from place to place, from degradation to degradation. And always, there was the thread of fear and hate and suspicion and discrimination—of white set against black—of black set against Jew—of intolerance. Driven to deceit, to dishonesty, ambition thwarted, motives impugned, Wright struggled against the tide, put by a tiny sum to move on, finally got to Chicago, and there—still against odds—pulled himself up, acquired some education through reading, allied himself with the Communists—only to be thrust out for non-conformity—and wrote continually. The whole tragedy of a race seems dramatized in this record; it is virtually unrelieved by any vestige of human tenderness, or humor; there are no bright spots. And yet it rings true. It is an unfinished story of a problem that has still to be met. Perhaps this will force home unpalatable facts of a submerged minority, a problem far from being faced.
JUNE 1951 | The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
The first major work by this refugee from Hitler’s Germany sought to explain the workings of Nazim and Stalinism to a world not far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II.
A tri-partite study of antisemitism (not merely the hatred of the Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest) and totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship) which examines political, social and historical forces with an impressive scholarship. Dr. Arendt traces the decline of European Jewry and their persecution as a powerless group under Hitler back to the preparatory causes and the rise of antisemitism, follows their ascendant and falling social prestige through the 19th century. She analyzes imperialism, and its central idea-expansion; the use of race-thinking as a ruling device on the dark continents; the decline of the nation-state and the increase of the minorities after 1918. And under totalitarianism, where imperialism and antisemitism reached their fullest expression, she shows the rise of the masses and the breakdown of protective class walls, the use of propaganda for the furtherance of power, the destruction of morality and individuality….A highly serious and commanding study, written not only knowledgeably but eloquently.
SEPTEMBER 1962 | Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
First serialized in the New Yorker, this groundbreaking book by a marine biologist warned Americans about the dangers of chemical pesticides and set a template for environmental activism.
It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about. Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself.…Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils. This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
JUNE 1966 | Ariel by Sylvia Plath
This posthumous collection of confessional poetry, published not long after the poet’s death by suicide, helped to establish her powerful contemporary legacy. A 2004 edition restored Plath’s intended order and some poems that had been cut by her husband, Ted Hughes.
Wife of poet Ted Hughes, mother of two children, Miss Plath published a first book of poetry in 1960, and died in 1963, aged thirty. Fragments of this brief biography whirl through this extraordinary, fiery, and fiercely lucid poetry. Children are seen with intense love, but also as cool, vast, mythic. Flowers, landscapes, bees, people, time, are also viewed with extreme simplicity and with the tremendous power of myth. But it is Death that dominates the volume; not as a macabre figure but as a vantage point, a savage, impersonal magnifying glass that heightens all perceptions to a terrible, almost Joyous, burning sense of a reality not only stripped and being stripped of all the normal baggage of life, but seen all anew, and for the last time. The many poems about death and dying have a splendor, a purity and violence, that is far beyond merely personal statement. A remarkable, hauntingly vivid book.
MAY 1968 | Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
When Didion died in 2021, she was widely recognized as a peerless social observer and prose stylist. This, her first collection of essays, was received as a crucial report on American life in the 1960s.
The title embodies the peculiar threat of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” after a time when “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”: And in this series of twenty essays, many of them previously published magazine articles, the author is an adroit chronicler of many of today’s maladies. Particularly in the title piece which consists of tight sketches capturing the ad absurdum freak-out of Haight-Ashbury, summer ’67. Actually she’s the sad savant from Sacramento lamenting a state that has “long outlived its finest hour,” capturing it in all its neon illusion whether covering a murder trial; visiting Joan Baez’s citadel for non-violents; remembering Howard Hughes…“the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.” Or taking apart the people’s infinite capacity for self-delusion as in “California Dreaming” where celebrities pay to play cultural/political partisan in the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. There are bits on Las Vegas marriages; abandoned Alcatraz; the new Hawaii; gusts of the Santa Ana and their effect and what it’s like to be young in New York. The pieces span three years, the earlier lacking the clean edge and penetration of the latter. Miss Didion is no female Tom Wolfe but she is a talented scene surveyor who will find her own audience.
JUNE 1974| All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward
Better known today as a film starring, yes, Robert Redford—and Dustin Hoffman—All the President’s Men chronicled the history-making investigative reporting that unearthed the Watergate scandal and brought down the Nixon presidency.
Bernstein and Woodward, the two Washington Post journalists who broke the Big Story, tell how they did it by old fashioned seat-of-the-pants reporting—in other words, lots of intuition and a thick stack of phone numbers.…The centerpiece of their own covert operation was an unnamed high government source they call Deep Throat, with whom Woodward arranged secret meetings by positioning the potted palm on his balcony and through codes scribbled in his morning newspaper. Woodward’s wee hours meetings with Deep Throat in an underground parking garage are sheer cinema: We can just see Robert Redford (it has to be Robert Redford) watching warily for muggers and stubbing out endless cigarettes while Deep Throat spills the inside dope about the plumbers.…As the scandal goes public and out of their hands Bernstein and Woodward seem as stunned as the rest of us at where their search…has led. You have to agree with what their City Editor Barry Sussman realized way back in the beginning—“We’ve never had a story like this. Just never.”
NOVEMBER 1977 | Dispatches by Michael Herr
Sent to cover the Vietnam War as a correspondent for Esquire, Herr returned to produce this classic of new journalism, which he subsequently acknowledged contained fictional elements. Herr later contributed writing to the films Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
“Vietnam, man. Bomb ’em and feed ’em, bomb ’em and feed ’em”—a chopper pilot summarized the war strategy for Herr. And with Herr’s belated volume of unfiled dispatches from the front, the awareness grows that this war—like no other since WWI—continues to produce a rich lode of literature, part litany, part exorcism, part macabre nostalgia.…Herr was a correspondent with a license to see more than just a single mud hole. Using the “Airmobility” of the helicopters, he hopscotched the country from Hue to Danang to the DMZ to Saigon (“the subtle city war inside the war” where corruption stank like musk oil). He was at Hue during the battle that reduced the old Imperial capital to rubble, at Khe Sanh when the grunts’ expectations of another Alamo were running high. Between mortar shells and body bags he reflected on the mysterious smiles of the blank-eyed soldiers, smiles that said “I’ll tell you why I’m smiling, but it will make you crazy.” And Herr, who is full of twisted, hidden ironies, is all wrapped up in the craziness of the war, enthralled by the limitless “variety of deaths and mutilations the war offered,” and by the awful “cheer-crazed” language of the official communiques which always reported spirits high, weather fine. He knew, and his buddies knew, that this kind of reportage was “psychotic vaudeville”—though not for a moment would he deny the harsh glamour of being a working war correspondent.
JUNE 1978 | Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag
Undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Sontag brought her formidable critical powers to bear on American attitudes toward disease in this highly influential book. She reprised the theme in 1989 with AIDS and Its Metaphors.
Susan Sontag has written a small, liberating book that could become the cancer patient’s Common Sense. First TB, then cancer, she perceives, have stood for enormities. Because their causes appeared to be multiple and were (as yet) unknown, because they struck at individuals, they were regarded as mysterious afflictions and construed, according to the fashions of their times, as diseases of passion thwarted (TB) or passion repressed (cancer). But while TB conferred a romantic, even spiritual distinction on its victims (Mimi, Byron, Little Eva), and became the sign of a superior nature, the dark side of creativity, a pretext for idleness and travel—cancer, viewed no less as “a form of self-expression,” or self-caused, draws the opprobrium attached increasingly in our time to repression of emotion.…“The modern disease metaphors are all cheap shots,” demoralizing to patients, dangerous—a call to violence—in political discourse.…The persuasive simplicity of the argument, and its reach, also call to mind Tom Paine.
JUNE 1980 | China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston
Kingston blazed a trail in Asian American and autobiographical writing with her genre-defying debut, The Woman Warrior, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. She continued her explorations in this follow-up, which won a National Book Award.
What began with The Woman Warrior—Chinese immigrant women—is now continued with the focus on the China Men who left China for the Gold Mountain; and all of Kingston’s different impulses—curatorial, reconstructive, celebratory, quizzical—are again brought into play. Starting with a remembrance of her father’s misogynistic curses issued while he ironed in the family laundry in Stockton, California…Kingston traces backward and miscellaneously. There are the Chinese, for instance, who came to Hawaii and cut cane, who at day’s end would cut huge holes in the earth and shout home greetings to China. Or those who swung out in baskets over ravines in the Sierra Nevada mountains to set explosive charges for railroad bridges…only to be driven out of the territory after the railroad was built. And family stories: the uncles who quite acceptably saw ghosts or who turned paranoid or who were driven mad by guilt and cured by expiation. Kingston’s non-sentimental approach to ethnicity remains one of her strongest bases—her knowledge that a people’s particular and real madness is one of its most enduring flavors.
SEPTEMBER 1987 | An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
Considered one of the greatest—and most spiritual—of contemporary American nature writers, the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek traced her roots in this illuminating memoir.
Awareness is all to Dillard. To the tot, “mindless and eternal,” playing on the kitchen floor, will come, in the roaring flood of time, “the breakthrough shift between seeing, and knowing you see.” Aware as the dickens, Dillard found that everything in the world is “an outcrop of some vast vein of knowledge.” The child Dillard will read books “to delirium,” investigate rocks and insects, “pry open a landscape” with a microscope, draw faces, and just because it felt marvelous, pretend to fly, arms flapping, down a Pittsburgh main street. In between accounts of such fabulous flights and efforts of concentration which “draw you down so very deep,” there are delightful portraits of a set of attractive parents (shameless connoisseurs of jokes, both ancient and practical) and not unaffectionate views of Pittsburgh’s Old Guard, at Country Club play to actually praying (to teen-ager Dillard’s angry astonishment) in sables and tailcoats, in their gold-plated church). There are tales of mischief-making, dances and boys, school and the fine and splendid rages of adolescence (“I was a dog barking between my own ears”). Throughout, Dillard rumples up the placid life. An overview of one particular childhood told with shiver and bounce, and another Dillard voyage of discovery as she continues to “break up through the skin of awareness…as dolphins burst through the seas….”
JUNE 1995 | The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
Already an acclaimed poet, Karr became a literary sensation with this bestselling no-holds-barred memoir of a hardscrabble Texas childhood, often credited with ushering in a new age of frank autobiographical writing.
Some childhoods are so pitiable you have to either laugh or cry. Karr’s memoir succeeds in taking the reader to both extremes. Leechfield, Texas, circa 1962, was the kind of place where kids chased behind the DDT spray truck to see who could vomit first. So it was in this home sweet homestead that the author, when she was seven, and her older sister went about the daily task of keeping their family together despite their mother’s tendency for alcohol and suicidal car outings, and their father’s spendthrift obsessions. Along the way there were moments of genuine fear, adolescent gross-outs, and secrets about what love can drive one to do. Karr understands the inherent power in the fine line between comedy and tragedy, and she handles such juxtapositions like a knife thrower with something to prove. A wickedly funny account of smart-alecky goofing off can suddenly bolt into a horrific remembrance of sexual abuse. She is equally skilled at recounting the tall tales that her father cooked up to amuse his friends, the group of drinking buddies from which the book takes its title. In Daddy’s voice, several classically Texan yarns are spun. Karr borrows his technique, his deadpan delivery, to give her book its edge, with punchy transitions like: “Maybe if Mother hadn’t taken it in her head to shoot Hector, we’d never have got back to Texas.”…With a sure hand, and the stamina that comes from growing up unlucky, Karr digs deep into her youth and hits black gold.
APRIL 2003 | Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
A testimonial to the power of literature as well as a glimpse inside the repressive Islamic Republic of Iran, Nafisi’s book was a bestseller that reached readers around the globe in 32 languages.
So you want a revolution? If your foe is an ayatollah, try reading Jane Austen. So exiled writer and scholar Nafisi instructs in this sparkling memoir of life in post-revolutionary Iran. A modest dissident during the shah’s regime, a member of a Marxist study group like so many other Iranian students abroad…Nafisi taught literature at the University of Tehran after the revolution. After running afoul of the mullahs for having dared teach such “immoral” novels as The Great Gatsby and such “anti-Islamic” writers as Austen, she organized a literary study group that met in her home. Fittingly, the first work her group, made up of seven young women, turned to was One Thousand and One Nights, narrated by that great revolutionary Scheherazade.…Tracing her students’ discussions and journeys of self-discovery while revisiting scenes from her “decadent” youth, Nafisi puts a fine spin on works that Western students so often complain about having to read—The Golden Bowl, Mansfield Park, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway. And, without once sinking into sentimentality or making overly large claims for the relative might of the pen over the sword, Nafisi celebrates the power of literature to nourish free thought in climes inhospitable to it.…A spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression.
JULY 2015 | Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates’ critically acclaimed second book won both the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award; it was later adapted for a stage production and an HBO documentary.
Atlantic senior writer Coates…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.…His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated.…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.” •