The dullest, if timeliest, history lesson yet from Michener Junior College—following three Polish clans (noble, petty-noble, peasant) from 1204 A.D. to the present, but with little of the uplifting, dynastic sweep of this mechanical Michener-format at his best. The saga begins with a talky 1981 confrontation, in the village of Bukowo on the Vistula, between farm-union leader Janko Buk and Communist agriculture minister Szymon Bukowski. . . who turn out to be related. Then it's back, back, to the 13th century—when Buk's ancestors are downtrodden peasants, Bukowski's are the local feudal lords, and above them are the fully noble Counts Lubonski. In the 1200s these Poles are ravaged by Tatar raids, with the Polish "abhorrence of central power" one cause of the region's vulnerability. A century-and-a-half later, the current count sends a Bukowski/Buk duo to spy on the Teutonic Knights who threaten po. land from the west (ostensibly because the Poles are still "pagans"); in the 1410 Battle of Grunwald, the Poles join the Tatars and others—in serviceable battle scenes—to trounce the Germans. In the 1600s the land is devastated again, by Swedes ("they went totally berserk") and slaughtering Transylvanians; yet by 1683, despite the "insane" governing system of the Polish barons, the country has pulled itself together—thanks in part to charismatic King Jan Sobieski, who leads triumphant Polish forces (including a Buk and a Bukowski, of course) against Vienna-invading Turks. Next, however, come the disastrous 1790s: Poland's reformers fail to dislodge the barons ("Symbolically, Feliks and Jan, master and serf, walked together up the gentle hill" to join freedom-fighter Kosciuszko); Poland's neighbors exploit its internal weakness, annexing and obliterating the nation. Then, jump to 1895 Vienna—with Count Andrzej Lubonski row Austria's minister of Minorities and Wiktor Bukowski (with servant Buk) a minor official: Bukowski's Polish consciousness is raised by a beauteous pianist's Chopin, he marries a cultured American and returns to Bukowo. . . while Buk at last gets his own swatch of land (in return for marrying Bukowski's pregnant mistress). So, when Poland comes back into existence in 1918, Count L. labors at achieving multi-ethnic nationalism, Mrs. Bukowski entertains Paderewski, Bukowski helps fight the Communists—all in vain: the Nazis will invade, with underground/concentration-camp bravery ahead for the clans. (One Bukowski does "slither" off to Paris with his art collection.) And the finale is 1981 again. . . as Bukowski and Buk finally come together in anti-Communist solidarity. Simplistic yet inconsistent, Michener's trio-of-families approach offers a spotty, confusing overview of complex history; while emphasizing lapses in Polish leadership, he idealizes and glosses over elsewhere—with, for example, a near-total whitewash of Polish anti-Semitism. And, despite a few courtships and weddings, the parade of characters here is flat, utterly humorless, un-involving. Look elsewhere, then, either for strong historical fiction or a coherent introduction to Polish history. But look to the bestseller lists nonetheless: the facts are piled high, the title is in the headlines, the byline is inescapable.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 1983

ISBN: 0449205878

Page Count: 644

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1983

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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