Readers may have trouble choosing between this and Carole Angier’s The Double Bond (2002). Each has considerable merit, and...




A rich life of the enormously gifted but deeply troubled Italian Jewish writer.

Primo Levi’s suicide on April 11, 1987, at the age of 67, angered some of his fellow Holocaust survivors, writes English journalist Thomson (Bonjour Blanc, not reviewed, etc.), who were “incensed at the apparent uselessness of the act.” Others, however, well understood his decision to end his life, seeing in it one of the few acts of unbridled freedom in a carefully controlled and luckless life. Levi grew up in a comfortable Turin household where emotions were not easily expressed; “in later years,” Thomson writes, “Levi told a journalist that he could not remember ‘a single kiss or caress’ from his mother.” Whether or not that was true—and Thomson doubts that it is—Levi grew up to be a morose young man whose hopes of becoming a writer were dashed by the indifference of publishers (among the editors who rejected him were the writers Cesare Pavese and Natalia Ginzburg, the latter of whom later regretted her decision) and of a public that wanted to forget the historical realities that underlay Levi’s extraordinary memoirs. Those were, of course, the mass deportation of Italian Jews, along with Jews from everywhere in Europe, to Auschwitz and other death camps, the setting for Levi’s If This Is a Man and the allegorical Periodic Table, among others. These works are now part of the canon of Holocaust literature, even if Levi was uncomfortable as a spokesman and determined not to serve as “a symbolic rallying point for other people’s suffering.” In this sympathetic consideration of Levi’s life, Thomson well fulfills his pledge, at the outset, to write a biography “not found in his books”—no easy task, given that much of Levi’s output is an extended autobiography, but aided by Thomson’s diligence in seeking out and interviewing those who knew the author.

Readers may have trouble choosing between this and Carole Angier’s The Double Bond (2002). Each has considerable merit, and admirers of Levi will want to know both.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2003

ISBN: 0-8050-7343-4

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2003

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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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