Iconoclastic and fascinating. A genuine treat for true-crime buffs, and for anyone interested in the New Deal era.

PUBLIC ENEMIES

AMERICA’S GREATEST CRIME WAVE AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI, 1933-34

A rollicking, rat-a-tat ride with Clyde Barrow, Ma Barker, and a raft of inept (but a few first-rate) G-men.

Though J. Edgar Hoover argued otherwise—and wrote gainsayers out of the official histories—his fledgling FBI was a thoroughly politicized bureaucracy just like any other, torn by rivalries and full of guys who just couldn’t handle the work. (And so, it appears from recent testimonials before Congress, it remains.) Hoover’s agents were ill-equipped to handle the flood of violent crime that washed over the nation in the first years of FDR’s administration—which, Vanity Fair correspondent Burrough notes, “wasn’t the beginning of a crime wave, it was the end of one.” Where bank robbery had been comparatively rare, those years saw an explosion of attacks across the country, mostly in rural settings; committed by men and women such as Bonnie Parker, John Dillinger, and Machine Gun Kelly, they met with public understanding, if not approbation, for the economy had tanked, and the public blamed bankers for the hardships they now had to endure. Part of Hoover’s mission in declaring open warfare on these criminals, writes Burrough, was to battle “the idea of crime, the idea that too many Americans had come to tolerate crime.” Given the celebrity that the likes of Ma Barker and Pretty Boy Floyd came to enjoy, Hoover surely had a point, even though he and his boys got it wrong much of the time; Ma Barker, to name one putative public enemy, decried as the murderous, machine-gun-spraying brains of a monstrous ring, “wasn’t even a criminal, let alone a mastermind.” But plenty of the people the G-men went after were criminals, sometimes even masterminds, and very dangerous, just as likely to gun down passersby as cops and bank dicks; as Burrough writes, Baby Face Nelson in particular lives up to his reputation: “a caricature of a public enemy, a callous, wild-eyed machine-gunner who actually laughed as he sprayed bullets toward women and children.”

Iconoclastic and fascinating. A genuine treat for true-crime buffs, and for anyone interested in the New Deal era.

Pub Date: July 22, 2004

ISBN: 1-59420-021-1

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2004

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) 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. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” 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.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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