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Poor People


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About the Author

William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California.


The varied responses to the question "why are you poor?" fuels this meditation on the nature of poverty by journalist and National Book Award-winning novelist Vollmann (Europe Central, etc.). The book, structured as a series of vignettes that span the globe and decades, describes Vollmann's encounters with individuals and families who many would consider poor. A handful of these people, including three generations of women in Thailand and two men in Japan, drive the book, as Vollmann closely examines their circumstances. His alternately sentimental and erudite inquiry is based in large part on his and their personal experience, as an antidote to the official and scientific data about poverty. Indeed, his attempt to understand poverty is deeply entwined with a more poetic inquiry into happiness. Some of the anecdotes set aflight by Vollmann's novelistic attention to details are provocative;others, however, come off as more nostalgic than illustrative, and give the book a desultory feel. But the book's movement between details and thought, spiced with Vollmann's singular style, is intriguing. On the table is not just poverty, but questions of community, fate and perspective. The book's greatest accomplishment is thatAunlike other works of this sortAit's neither guilt producing nor guilt absolving. At the end, there's no implied sigh or self-congratulation, for writer or reader. This is the book's greatest achievement.(Mar.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Paradoxically, perhaps, this book is highly recommended for all libraries. It is not objective. It does not establish new criteria for identifying poverty. It is not a cri de coeur for the wretched of the earth, nor does it celebrate the stoicism of the needy. It is not likely to influence public policy or inspire new initiatives to help the poor. It is a challenging collection of essays describing this well-traveled author's encounters with poor people around the globe and their responses to the question "Why are you poor?" The 2005 National Book Award fiction winner for his Europe Central, Vollmann is decidedly unhampered by the strictures of academic sociology (or any other strictures, for that matter). He describes his subjects and their answers (e.g., it is Allah's will; or one was bad in a previous life), tosses aside standard measures of "poverty" and casually draws upon a wonderful array of fairly unconventional sources (the 1911 Britannica, Philippine Economics, and The Great Soviet Encyclopedia make appearances). Vollmann brings to bear his keen powers of observation on the world around him and, not incidentally, on himself; he is unabashed about allowing his emotional reactions to inform his thoughts about what it means to be poor. This remarkable book is sui generis and should be in all collections.-Ellen D. Gilbert, Lambertville, NJ Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

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