Christopher Columbus—heroic explorer or genocidal plunderer? Bergreen (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, 2008, etc.) says he was both, and more.

While best known for his breakthrough voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, Columbus returned to the New World three times, discovering hundreds of islands, establishing settlements in Hispaniola and exploring the coasts of modern Venezuela and Central America. Like Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, he was a master at sea, a disaster on land. Ill-qualified for colonial administration, his attempts to turn a profit by accumulating gold and slaves, assisted by an unruly band of Spanish mariners and criminals, resulted in political back-biting that sent him back to Spain in chains at the end of his third voyage. The story of Columbus’ exploits includes storms and shipwrecks, military clashes, political skullduggery, mutiny, cannibalism and promiscuous sex, but Bergreen fails to assemble the dramatic facts at his disposal into a compelling narrative. Nor does he deliver the measured evaluation of the man and his career that a controversial figure of his importance merits. Bergreen clearly doesn’t like his subject much, and he interjects his own criticisms of the explorer throughout the text without specifying the standards by which he is judging his subject or the facts supporting his judgments. He even frequently reminds readers that, as every schoolchild knows, poor deluded Columbus was never anywhere near China or India. The author thereby becomes an intrusive figure in the narrative, while Columbus never emerges as the powerful, complex and charismatic personality he must have been. Furthermore, the text exhibits a confusing lack of discipline and order. For example, more than once Bergreen relates the same incidents or circumstances twice with varying details and no recognition that this ground has already been covered. As a result, readers will have difficulty trusting the sequence of events as presented. A well-researched but disappointingly delivered biography of a monumental figure.


Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-670-02301-1

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 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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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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