From Publishers Weekly
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 that—unlike other works of this sort—it'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.)
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William T. Vollmann is an erudite, complex writer. Most recently, he explored 20th-century authoritarianism in the National Book Award?winning Europe Central (***1/2 July/Aug 2005). Poor People raised inevitable comparisons to James Agee's and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), about sharecroppers during the Depression. Yet Vollmann neither sentimentalizes nor romanticizes poverty. While some reviewers described Poor People as eye-opening and visionary, others criticized it as a mere loosely structured travelogue. Some essays exhibit clear coaching of Vollman's subjects, contradictions (is poverty political, or not?), and a lack of objectivity. Despite the book's unevenness, reviewers uniformly praised "The Rider," a piece set in the Philippines. If you're familiar with Vollmann's previous work and style, his ruminations on his own ambiguous understanding of poverty are worth reading.
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