A lucid companion to The Victorians (2003), and a fine work of social history of a world gone by.



Empires come and go, though seldom as suddenly and thoroughly as Great Britain’s fall from world dominance.

Many Britons celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 as a sign that all the rationing and shortages and general gloominess of the immediate postwar era were over. Wilson (London, 2003, etc.) will have none of it: The coronation, he writes, was “a consoling piece of theatre, designed to disguise from themselves the fact that the British had . . . lost an empire and failed to find a role.” If the collapse of empire seemed swift, it was a long time in coming; Wilson locates the decline in the trenches of WWI, in growing independence movements throughout the colonies, but especially in the backroom diplomatic angling of WWII, when putative allies seem simply to have outfoxed the clever British prime minister. “All Churchill’s cherished war plans—to guard and fight for the Eastern Mediterranean, to protect the British Empire by land in the Far East, to liberate Poland, and above all to establish a strong and united postwar Europe—were swept aside at Tehran by Roosevelt and Stalin,” Wilson writes. The world surely would have been different had it been otherwise, for, as Wilson argues early on, Britain, though conservative and monarchical, championed the ideals of personal liberty while supposedly revolutionary Russia and Germany destroyed them; though a few tried to assume the roles, Britain spawned no Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin of its own to struggle to keep its empire, and democracy endured. Throughout, Wilson writes appreciatively, and without false sentimentality, of the old England of bicycles and weekend picnics and Agatha Christie.

A lucid companion to The Victorians (2003), and a fine work of social history of a world gone by.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2005

ISBN: 0-374-10198-1

Page Count: 752

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2005

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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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