An accessible yet thoroughly detailed account of a time in American history that seems very much like our own. Dumenil (History/Occidental Coll.; Freemasonry and American Culture, 18801930, not reviewed) demonstrates in the course of this well-conceived book that a series of far-reaching social issues not only set the tone of the 1920s but also ``formed central motifs that have shaped the modern American temper.'' Foremost among those themes, in her view, was a rising general mistrust of a growing government bureaucracy; she quotes a range of contemporary opinions on the excessive power of federal law, including a US representative's argument against continuing the wartime program of daylight-savings time (``we might soon have laws passed attempting to regulate the volume of air a man should breathe, suspend the laws of gravity, or change the colors of the rainbow''); these give life to her observations on Americans' perennial suspicion of the state. In the 1920s, Dumenil argues, lobbyists for the first time became a powerful political force; large movie studios promoted their wares through national chains, undercutting the neighborhood theater and creating a mass market for mass-produced culture; and nativist political forces mobilized against immigration. Most significantly, women entered the workplace and demanded greater autonomy in determining their economic, social, political, and sexual future, although as Dumenil notes, ``the new women's liberation [was the domain of] white, relatively affluent women, and had relatively little meaning to poor women of color.'' The author is less interesting on the period's higher culture; her whirlwind tour of Hemingway, Dos Passos, Cummings, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Stein, and their peers is far too cursory to serve her argument. Nor does she give enough emphasis to WW I's role in setting the stage for the 1920s' revolt against late Victorian sensibilities. Still, a useful, circumstantial overview of a tumultuous era.

Pub Date: June 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-8090-6978-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1995

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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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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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