Despite occasional stalls along the narrative path, the book is a road geek’s treasure—and everyone who travels the highways...



Quick: Who built the interstate highway system? If you answered President Eisenhower, then you’re not even half-right, writes Swift (The Tangierman’s Lament: and Other Tales of Virginia, 2007, etc.).

The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as it’s formally known, was inaugurated during the Eisenhower years, of course, when the lessons of Hitler’s autobahn system, able to bring troops here and evacuate citizens there, were fresh in mind for those now engaged in the Cold War. Yet, writes the author, “Franklin Roosevelt had a greater hand in its creation than Eisenhower,” and even the ignoble Warren G. Harding and the hapless Herbert Hoover moved it along. But Swift reserves much of his account for men—almost always men—we’ve never heard of, most born in the days of horse and buggy or bicycle and enthralled by the possibilities of getting from one coast to the other in days if not weeks rather than months. One of his heroes, for instance, spent his early years contemplating how his native state of Iowa came to a halt during the thaw, when erstwhile dusty and then snow-covered roads turned into a thick mud the locals called “gumbo.” And then, of course, there is legendary terraformer Robert Moses, well studied in the literature, to whom Swift imparts a huffy malevolence that a Caesar would have admired. A little of this goes a long way, though, and Swift too often bogs down in the minutiae of admittedly fascinating stuff—fascinating, that is, if you’re a fan of the Wolfgang Schivelbusch school of how-things-came-to-be history, an acquired taste. The best parts of the book come when Swift injects Blue Highways notes into the enterprise and prefers the personal to the textbook-ready, as when he relates a cross-country trip with a preteen daughter and her friend that went better when they left the tranquil back roads and joined the flow: “On the old Lincoln, we’d tooled along. On U.S. 30, we toured. On I-80, folks were hauling ass.”

Despite occasional stalls along the narrative path, the book is a road geek’s treasure—and everyone who travels the highways ought to know these stories.

Pub Date: June 9, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-618-81241-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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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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