A lively perspective on Rome’s rich history.




A sprawling city with an ancient history, Rome defies a neat narrative of its past.

Novelist and historian Kneale (An Atheist’s History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention, 2014, etc.) takes a fresh historical approach by focusing on groups of invaders that indelibly shaped the contemporary city. “Treasures,” he writes, “have been preserved from the era of each sacking”: the Gauls in 387 B.C.E., Visigoths and Ostrogoths from the 230s to the 500s C.E., Normans in the early 1000s, Spanish and Lutherans in the 1500s, French in the mid-19th century, and Nazis in the 20th century. Kneale offers gritty accounts of waves of violent incursions and vivid portraits of daily life—including health, food, housing, laws, sexual attitudes, and religious practices—during each period. In the second century, for example, with a population of more than 1 million, Rome was decidedly unhealthy. Measles, mumps, tuberculosis, smallpox, and malaria were widespread, and the life span for all but the wealthy was around 25. Medieval Rome was little better: In 1527, Rome stank “of rubbish, offal and fish bones, of filthy water from tanneries and dyers, and of dung, both animal and human.” In 1525, an outbreak of plague ravaged the city. Within a few years, disease, war, and famine reduced the population by nearly a third. During the Renaissance, the French Pox—syphilis—spread across Italy, sending sufferers to quacks, apothecaries, and doctors who “still viewed bad health as stemming from an imbalance of the four humours.” Food changed dramatically over the centuries: Kneale notes that at the time of the Goths, “classic Roman dishes would be more Thai than Mediterranean,” flavored by fermented fish sauce. In the 11th century, Romans ate mostly roasts or stews, but in Renaissance Rome, those who could afford it enjoyed a variety of meats, vegetables, and fruits, including items still associated with Italian cuisine, such as buffalo mozzarella and artichokes. Few, though, had access to clean water: Only one aqueduct functioned, and the Tiber was severely polluted.

A lively perspective on Rome’s rich history.

Pub Date: May 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-9109-1

Page Count: 440

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

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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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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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