A secondary but readable adjunct to Philip Fradkin’s broader-ranging Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 (not reviewed).




Shake, rattle and roar: Firefighter-writer Smith (A Song for Mary, 1999, etc.) chronicles the conflagration that followed the great San Francisco quake.

“This town,” warned San Francisco fire chief Dennis Sullivan, “is in an earthquake belt. One of these fine mornings we will get a shake that will put this little water system out, and then we’ll have a fire.” Sullivan had long agitated for the improvement of an aging cistern system, but money for such renovation always disappeared somewhere inside the corrupt mayor’s office. The chief was one of the first firefighters put out of commission in the earthquake of April 18, 1906, and many other firefighters were killed or injured in the battle to contain the great fire that followed the quake, fueled by broken gas mains and feeding on the predominantly wooden-frame architecture of the city. (As Smith writes, America led the world in annual fire losses at the time “and continues this appalling average today,” with fire-related costs something like six times greater than those of Europe.) In the end, the San Francisco blaze was “bigger than any metropolitan fire in history,” killing more than 3,000 people, destroying 28,188 buildings and leaving 200,000 people homeless. In his vivid narrative, Smith highlights unsung firefighters and some of the more-or-less ordinary people who rose to necessity and became, for just that moment, great heroes. One such man, a naval officer named Freeman, was never properly acknowledged for his work in battling fires on the San Francisco wharves and piers, and Smith’s encomium is fitting, particularly given the tragic dénouement of Freeman’s story. Smith turns up much of interest, including reports of atrocities committed by the military during the blaze and a tally of the small number of insurance companies that actually paid what they owed to their policyholders.

A secondary but readable adjunct to Philip Fradkin’s broader-ranging Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 (not reviewed).

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 2005

ISBN: 0-670-03442-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 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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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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