A wonderful book that deserves a wide audience.

SWEET THUNDER

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SUGAR RAY ROBINSON

The captivating life of the African-American champion who brought grace and style to the boxing ring in the 1940s and ’50s.

Born Walker Smith Jr. in rural Georgia, Sugar Ray Robinson (1921–89) grew up poor in Detroit and Harlem, where he fought his first amateur fights out of a church boxing club and won the New York Daily News’ Golden Gloves tournament in 1939. With his lightning speed and matador moves, the handsome welterweight created a sensation, earning the monikers “Death Ray” and “Sugar Ray,” which stuck. In this insightful, highly readable biography, Washington Post staff writer Haygood (In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr., 2003, etc.) chronicles the intriguing life of this gifted boxer and dandy, who toured Jim Crow America in World War II with fellow serviceman, and heavyweight champ, Joe Louis; had a long-running feud with fighter Jake LaMotta; and pursued the savage sport that held “a kind of sacredness” for him until 1965, when he retired with 173 wins, 19 losses and six draws. No one ever knocked him out, notes Haygood. All the while, the jazz-loving Robinson ran a popular Harlem nightspot, zipped around Manhattan in a flamingo-colored Cadillac convertible with his midget chauffer, Chico, and hung with leading African-American artists and entertainers. Haygood weaves in stories of the boxer’s ties with Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Miles Davis and others who emerged in the postwar years in the singular “convergence of men, music, and style” that was celebrated by Arnold Gingrich in Esquire. Surprisingly, there has never been a Sugar Ray biopic, but Haygood’s narrative is chockfull of movie-ready scenes: Robinson challenging military-base segregation; knocking out Killer Jimmy Doyle, who died 17 hours later; touring with Count Basie in an ill-advised nightclub act; being received like a movie star in Europe. Always enigmatic, Robinson was an absent father, had a volatile marriage, went mysteriously AWOL in World War II and wound up near-broke. Sportswriter Red Smith called him “a brooding genius, a darkly dedicated soul who walks in a lonely majesty, a prophet without honor, an artist whom nobody, but nobody, understands.”

A wonderful book that deserves a wide audience.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4000-4497-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2009

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A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...

INTO THE WILD

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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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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