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Poor People Paperback – January 22, 2008

3.8 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

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.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060878843
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060878849
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #123,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. F. Stafura on May 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are a lot of people that don't like to read Vollman, insisting that his focus on the seedier sides of life color his observations in a way that makes them unaccessible to average readers. His tendency to write long books keeps another group on the bench.

For those that are willing to work a little and not expect to be entertained Vollman is something completely different, we see him as this generations Joyce, Dickens or Melville.

Poor People shines a harsh light on another area that makes regular folks uncomfortable, and let's the people tell their story. Not in straight prose as we wish they could, but in the mutterings and actions that is all that their deprived lives provided them to work with, depriving the critics in tunr of the plots and meanings that are usually spelled out for them by the mainstream authors.

Once again as in Whores for Gloria, Rising Up and Rising Down, Europe Central and Royal Family that preceded Poor People, I find myself thinking of the nuances and implications of this book and the hard answers that Vollman refused to supply like another Chopra or Thomas L. Friedman sermon on how we should feel and what a great future we have if we don't look into the rough spots that aren't so clean and orderly.

Vollman's writing is like a bad accident in some ways, you feel guilty if you look and as if your missing something if you don't. In this case you are missing something if you don't look, one of the most important writers and thinkers of our times.
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Format: Hardcover
You may assume that this book is meant to be a cultural or social study of poor people, with an economic analysis of their hardships, and that seems to be the approach taken by most of the reviewers. But the book could be considered a work of modern philosophy, and if you look at it in this fashion, Vollmann's writing is strangely compelling and surprisingly effective. It's true that his style is difficult to penetrate, as he frequently goes off on dubious rhetorical tangents, obsesses over obscure and rambling literary references, and talks about himself way too much. Many readers will be reasonably turned off by Vollmann's very personality, but I propose that he has positioned himself as the comfortable "everyhuman" who knows that poverty is a problem but does not know how or whether to do anything about it. Thus he is a philosophical stand-in for the typical western reader of his book.

And while his questions toward his subjects are presumptive and occasionally condescending, Vollmann also deftly avoids the scientist's trap of self-defined observation and lets the humanity of his subjects shine through. Vollmann also pulls off some fairly impressive journalism here as he strolls through fearsome world locations where anthropologists fear to tread, including the mobster-infested alleys of Tokyo and an array of bars and brothels. Another treasure of this book are the 128 photographs of Vollmann's subjects, which are often unflattering, but also unassuming and brutally realistic. I am particularly haunted by many of the photos of children. If this book were a strict cultural study of poor people that attempted to propose idealistic solutions to endemic economic inequalities, I would side with many of the other reviewers here and give it the thumbs-down for its rambling and immodesty.
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Format: Hardcover
Vollman begins his book by subverting what he calls the Marxist paradigm of speaking about the poor....assuming what they want or need. Vollman speaks instead directly to his subjects...asking them quasi-naive questions. I read this book a few months ago and what has remained with me is a sense of something not quite achieved. I think Vollman approaches his subjects with compassion, but the way that he writes about them, the questions he ask are tainted in a way he never quite acknowledges.

When you pay someone for an interview, someone who is significantly less powerful and important than yourself, then you are stuck with two problems.

The first is that they will likely tell you what you want to know, instinctively reconfirming whatever your own prejudices or ideologies are.

I'm not saying that Vollman should not have paid his subjects, but that he should expect that they shared details of interest to him, not necessarily to themselves. It is not as if they are writing their own narratives. In fact, although Vollman in the beginning talks about speaking directly to his subjects, a lot of the book focuses on his arguments with them on the page, if not in person, and explaining to the reader in his own words why they are poor. The story of the Chernobyl victim comes to mind. Most of Vollman's sentences are descriptive and do not have his subjects speaking in their own voices.

Second, the primary question he focuses on, "Why are you poor?" perhaps ends up an embarrassing question to ask over and over to people who may feel ashamed of the need to answer that question. Why does Vollman assume that his subjects know the answer to that question, or if they do know, that they will be able to tell him?
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