Melding reportage and memoir, this gossipy, idiosyncratic cultural history offers a fresh, unvarnished look at an eccentric,...

AMERICAN SMOKE

JOURNEYS TO THE END OF THE LIGHT

An intrepid British writer takes to the road in search of the Beats.

Poet, essayist, documentarian, filmmaker, editor and novelist Sinclair (Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics, 2012, etc.) first read the Beats in the 1960s, when he was a teenager in Dublin. Later, he discovered “how tribal and interconnected the American countercultural scene actually was: everybody met everybody….They feuded, fought, formed intense friendships, sulked for generations.” To understand the texture and force of the Beats’ community, Sinclair embarked on a journey, following in the peripatetic and woozy footsteps of Malcolm Lowry, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and assorted other writers and their friends, lovers, publishers and acolytes. With an eye for the telling vignette and a deft talent for the “rapid-sketched” portrait, Sinclair counters what he calls “Beat Generation revivalism [that] threatens to turn the whole circus into another Bloomsbury Group.” In the seaside city of Gloucester, Mass., he picked up the trail of poet Charles Olson, a large man with an overpowering presence and “a rumbling voice thick with smoke, sweat dripping, black eyebrows emphatic.” Ginsberg emerges as a kind of Ancient Mariner, “with his glittering eye, his gleaming cranium and shamanic red silk shirt,” responding to questions with well-rehearsed anecdotes involving Olson, Burroughs, and even Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “in broad-brim jungle hat, is an audition for the granddad of Indiana Jones.” Although drugs, alcohol and sex were the vices of choice for all the Beats, Sinclair notes a difference between those in New York (“peppery, competitive”) and the “cooler cats” in California, who were drawn to Buddhism. “What mattered most to the Beats,” Sinclair writes, “was the intensity of visionary experience.”

Melding reportage and memoir, this gossipy, idiosyncratic cultural history offers a fresh, unvarnished look at an eccentric, brash and dynamic cast of literary rebels.

Pub Date: April 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-86547-867-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Jan. 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2014

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A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion’s earlier...

  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist

  • National Book Award Winner

  • National Book Critics Circle Finalist

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

A moving record of Didion’s effort to survive the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her only daughter.

In late December 2003, Didion (Where I Was From, 2003, etc.) saw her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia, the lingering effects of which would threaten the young woman’s life for several months to come. As her daughter struggled in a New York ICU, Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a massive heart attack and died on the night of December 30, 2003. For 40 years, Didion and Dunne shared their lives and work in a marriage of remarkable intimacy and endurance. In the wake of Dunne’s death, Didion found herself unable to accept her loss. By “magical thinking,” Didion refers to the ruses of self-deception through which the bereaved seek to shield themselves from grief—being unwilling, for example, to donate a dead husband’s clothes because of the tacit awareness that it would mean acknowledging his final departure. As a poignant and ultimately doomed effort to deny reality through fiction, that magical thinking has much in common with the delusions Didion has chronicled in her several previous collections of essays. But perhaps because it is a work of such intense personal emotion, this memoir lacks the mordant bite of her earlier work. In the classics Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Didion linked her personal anxieties to her withering dissection of a misguided culture prey to its own self-gratifying fantasies. This latest work concentrates almost entirely on the author’s personal suffering and confusion—even her husband and daughter make but fleeting appearances—without connecting them to the larger public delusions that have been her special terrain.

A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion’s earlier writing.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-4314-X

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2005

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

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

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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