Dictators have never looked so educated.



A singular look at how dictators have gained control through literature.

When asked to look back on history, we go first to significant historical events. We examine world wars, local battles, social injustices, and the dictators that have served as resistant and challenging road blocks in the peaceful evolution of society. In his latest book, Texas-based journalist Kalder (Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia, 2009, etc.), who lived in Moscow for 10 years, explores a handful of dictators that have helped shape our conception of 20th-century history by way of the works of literature they produced. “I was struck by the fact that many dictators begin their careers as writers,” writes the author, “which probably goes a long way toward explaining their megalomaniac conviction in the awesome significance of their own thoughts.” Indeed, each of Kalder’s subjects displayed a true passion for irreverent, revolutionary literature. The author begins with Lenin, who “resisted the impulse to deliver a full-throated demand for revolution,” though “immediately after the revolution, he moved to establish part control over the written word.” Stalin was “deeply provincial, describing revolutions and intellectual battles taking place far away, in more interesting places.” Mussolini misidentified “his true vocation as dictator instead of writer.” Hitler “desired to seduce his readers, to present himself as a child of destiny, the logical choice for the national savior” during a time of unrest. Mao defended “the primacy of evidence, research and investigation” and expressed “a desire to shut down everybody who hasn’t done the work.” Following a chapter on each dictator, Kalder delivers a series of focused essays on specific issues such as religion, geopolitics, ecology, technology, and the role literature played in informing the policies written in response (he touches on Castro, Kim Jong Il, Putin, and Hussein). The author renders his highly compelling narrative in a cheeky yet erudite tone that will keep readers smirking despite the monstrousness of the book’s protagonists.

Dictators have never looked so educated.

Pub Date: March 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-62779-342-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

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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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Thus the second most costly war in American history, whose “outcome seemed little short of a miracle.” A sterling account.


A master storyteller’s character-driven account of a storied year in the American Revolution.

Against world systems, economic determinist and other external-cause schools of historical thought, McCullough (John Adams, 2001, etc.) has an old-fashioned fondness for the great- (and not-so-great) man tradition, which may not have much explanatory power but almost always yields better-written books. McCullough opens with a courteous nod to the customary villain in the story of American independence, George III, who turns out to be a pleasant and artistically inclined fellow who relied on poor advice; his Westmoreland, for instance, was a British general named Grant who boasted that with 5,000 soldiers he “could march from one end of the American continent to the other.” Other British officers agitated for peace, even as George wondered why Americans would not understand that to be a British subject was to be free by definition. Against these men stood arrayed a rebel army that was, at the least, unimpressive; McCullough observes that New Englanders, for instance, considered washing clothes to be women’s work and so wore filthy clothes until they rotted, with the result that Burgoyne and company had a point in thinking the Continentals a bunch of ragamuffins. The Americans’ military fortunes were none too good for much of 1776, the year of the Declaration; at the slowly unfolding battle for control over New York, George Washington was moved to despair at the sight of sometimes drunk soldiers running from the enemy and of their officers “who, instead of attending to their duty, had stood gazing like bumpkins” at the spectacle. For a man such as Washington, to be a laughingstock was the supreme insult, but the British were driven by other motives than to irritate the general—not least of them reluctance to give up a rich, fertile and beautiful land that, McCullough notes, was providing the world’s highest standard of living in 1776.

Thus the second most costly war in American history, whose “outcome seemed little short of a miracle.” A sterling account.

Pub Date: June 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-7432-2671-2

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2005

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