THE BUTLER

A WITNESS TO HISTORY

A distinguished Washington Post journalist’s account of the black White House butler who bore witness to eight presidential administrations.

When Haygood (Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, 2009, etc.) was covering the campaign of Barack Obama in 2008, he knew beyond any doubt that the former Illinois senator “was indeed going to get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the White House.” It was then that the author decided to see whether he could locate a black person “from the era of segregation” who had been a presidential servant. His investigations led him to an unassuming man named Eugene Allen. Born on a Virginia plantation, Allen grew up working as a houseboy for a white family. Possessed of refinement, discretion and a desire to make good in the world, he took a job as a waiter in a country club and then as pantry worker in the Truman White House, eventually rising to the rank of butler. From his unique vantage point “in the hard shadow of power,” Allen witnessed history unfurl before him. He watched as President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on federal troops to protect black high school students in Arkansas, and he witnessed a nation mourn the death of JFK and become embittered over Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal. Allen’s story, which began as a front-page article in the Post, would become the subject of a much-anticipated film, The Butler, which Haygood also discusses in context of the fraught and elided history of African-Americans in Hollywood. The book is brief, but the two sections and many images of Allen’s quietly extraordinary life speak volumes about a nation struggling, and succeeding by degrees, to come to terms with an ignominious history of racial inequality.

Poignant and powerful.

Pub Date: Aug. 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4767-5299-0

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2013

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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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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 Critics Circle Finalist

  • National Book Award Winner

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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