Fascinating subject, so-so treatment.




Before electricity became the driving force of civilization, the public had to come to terms with this new power. Here’s the story behind it.

Simon (English/Skidmore Coll.; Genuine Reality: A Life of Henry James, 1998, etc.) draws on 19th-century newspapers, popular fiction, and other nontechnical sources to examine how electricity was understood, promoted, feared, and exploited. While magnets and static electricity were known to the ancients, no one began to systematically investigate electrical phenomena until the Enlightenment. When Luigi Galvani made frog legs twitch with an electric shock, the public imagination leapt to make a connection between electricity and life itself. Mesmerism (hypnotism), originally called “animal magnetism,” became a fad in the late-18th century, and Romantic writers like Edgar Allan Poe were quick to seize on its sensational implications. But not until the 1840s did the telegraph first put electricity to work in the world. Many in the public, working from analogy with animal magnetism, at first believed that actual thoughts were being sent along the wires, a confusion that took a long while to die out. A similar confusion between electricity and the supposed vital force that characterized living beings led to the development of “electrotherapy,” a method of treatment promoted by George Beard, a Yale-educated physician whose ideas were supported by Thomas Edison, among others. Beard and his followers prescribed mild electrical shock as a cure-all, but its use was especially recommended for neurasthenia, the Victorians’ term for depression. Meanwhile, Edison was building a reputation as a wizard, in fierce competition with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. A key battle took place over the use of the electric chair, promoted by Edison (with exceedingly mixed motives) as a new, “humane” method of execution. At the end of the century, the discovery of X-rays—beneficial, but harmful when overused—opened new vistas of medical science. Simon dutifully touches all the bases, but fails to strike any sparks.

Fascinating subject, so-so treatment.

Pub Date: July 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-15-100586-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2004

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet