A controversial, insightful work from Poland’s 2013 journalist of the year.



Impassioned, insightful snapshots of life in pre–Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia.

Winner of the 2009 European Book Prize, acclaimed Polish journalist Szczygiel’s well-researched, unsunny volume of “mostly true stories” forms an indelible impression of the Czech population. His glimpses encapsulate the struggles of these hardscrabble citizens prior to the nation’s liberation in 1993, with strength and resilience as the operative themes threaded throughout. The sweeping opening biography focuses on the rise of innovative Czech entrepreneur Tomas Bata, who revolutionized the shoe manufacturing business using the Henry Ford assembly-line production model. The author also profiles the tangled life of actress Lida Baarova, who, for two years during her early 20s, became the mistress of Joseph Goebbels, the “Minister of Propaganda” for Hitler's National Socialist government. Also of note are creatively drawn portrayals of struggling pop singer Marta Kubisova, whose songs were censored and removed from public consumption, and a poignant report on the life of teenage Prague student Zdenek Adamec, who became increasingly appalled by the conditions in the Czech Republic and committed public suicide by self-immolation. Szczygiel explores the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in searing pieces revealing the true extent of the mass liquidation of “anything that brings simple pleasure” to the public. The author also offers an inventive take on the metamorphosis of the “Cubist personality” of provocative writer Eduard Kirchberger into pseudonym “Karel Fabian.” All of these congruous pieces create a patchwork tapestry of Central European history. Whether chronicling the sculpting of Prague’s monument to Joseph Stalin or the dubious allegiances of writer Jan Prochazka, the atmosphere Szczygiel evokes is glumly foreboding yet intensely interesting.

A controversial, insightful work from Poland’s 2013 journalist of the year.

Pub Date: May 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-61219-313-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Melville House

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

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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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