Written with authority, this superb book reads like a classic disaster story and reveals a Soviet empire on the brink.




The full story of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

In April 1986, a massive accident destroyed a reactor at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station near the town of Pripyat, now a ghost-town tourist destination, in Ukraine. The disaster sent a radioactive cloud across the Soviet Union and Europe, triggered pandemonium and coverups, involved thousands of cleanup workers, and played out at a cost of $128 billion against the secrecy and paranoia of Soviet life at the time. In this vivid and exhaustive account, Higginbotham (A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, 2014), a contributor to the New Yorker, Wired, GQ, and other publications, masterfully re-creates the emotions, intrigue, and denials and disbelief of Communist Party officials, workers, engineers, and others at every stage. He takes readers directly to the scene: the radioactive blaze, the delayed evacuation of residents from the apartment buildings in “workers’ paradise” Pripyat, the treatment of the injured, and the subsequent investigation and “show trial” of scapegoats in a tragedy caused by both reactor failings and operator errors. Drawing on interviews, reports, and once-classified archives, the author shows how the crash program of Soviet reactor building involved design defects, shoddy workmanship, and safety flaws—but made “sanctified icons” of arrogant nuclear scientists. Higginbotham offers incisive snapshots of those caught up in the nightmare, including politicians ignorant of nuclear physics, scientists “paralyzed by indecision,” doctors treating radiation sickness, and refugees shunned by countrymen. We experience the “bewildered stupor” of the self-assured power plant director, who asked repeatedly, “What happened? What happened?” and watch incredulously as uninformed citizens hold a parade under a radioactive cloud in Kiev. At every turn, Higginbotham unveils revealing aspects of Communist life, from the lack of proscribed photocopiers to make maps for responders to the threats (shooting, relief of Party card) for failure to obey orders.

Written with authority, this superb book reads like a classic disaster story and reveals a Soviet empire on the brink.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3461-6

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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