Sound, agenda-free analysis, gracefully presented.

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THE IDEA OF AMERICA

REFLECTIONS ON THE BIRTH OF THE UNITED STATES

A Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize–winning historian offers deeply contemplative essays from a career devoted to studying the Revolutionary Era.

If, as Wood (History/Brown Univ.; Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, 2009, etc.) asserts, the Revolution “is the most important event in American history, bar none,” it follows that arguments over its ideology, the doctrinal core of the nation’s creation, become critical, not just to contemporary politicians and activists looking to the past for legitimacy, but even—and more regrettably—to generations of historians bent on imposing their own era’s preoccupations. The author discloses his own methodology, of particular value to those interested in historiography, and also important to the general reader looking for reliable information about the nation’s origins. Wood rejects the temptation to take sides among history’s combatants. Rather, the historian’s task, he writes, is to examine why they “thought and behaved as they did,” understanding that ideas, while important, are subordinate to passions driving social change, that they are always constrained by the facts on the ground and frequently entail consequences that no one, not even their sponsors, could foresee. With these stipulations and with genuine modesty—in postscripts to most of these essays, Wood frequently offers second thoughts about pieces composed years ago—he covers such topics as the disconnect between the sometimes lurid rhetoric accompanying the more prosaic reality of the Revolution; the Founders’ fascination with the rise and fall of Republican Rome; the unique radicalism shared by Jefferson and Tom Paine; the conspiratorial interpretation of events that flourished in the 18th century; the era’s sincere fear of monarchism on the one hand, mob rule on the other; the ideal of disinterestedness versus the competing interests unleashed by messy democracy; the peculiar awkwardness of the republic’s first decade; and the origins of our unique constitutionalism and our sometimes misguided political evangelism. It’s difficult to conjure another writer so at home in the period, so prepared to translate its brilliant strangeness for a modern audience.

Sound, agenda-free analysis, gracefully presented.

Pub Date: May 16, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-59420-290-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 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...

NIGHT

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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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