A strange, brilliant and endlessly arguable book, one every student of history needs to have close at hand.




Who was worse, Adolf Hitler or Genghis Khan? An odd question, perhaps—but after finishing prolific historian White’s compendium, it’s one readers will be better prepared to entertain.

The answer, of course, is that both were quite terrible. Between the two dictators, something on the order of 100,000,000 people died during their regimes—most of them noncombatants. “War kills more civilians than soldiers,” writes the author. “In fact, the army is usually the safest place to be during a war.” That said, White patiently works his way through 100 atrocities, examining each with a tone that’s sometimes waggish, sometimes even flippant, but never less than smart. He reckons, for instance, that the dreaded Persians, whom the Greeks supposedly kept from destroying Western civilization, really weren’t such bad guys, even if their military machine dispatched many a foe. Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane, was similarly a pretty good guy, at least if you were on his good side. By one of history’s little ironies, those who were on his bad side were usually co-religionists: “He was a devout Muslim who almost exclusively destroyed Muslim enemies.” Stalin? A rotter. Mao? Perhaps worse. Hitler? Well, to the conservatives who insist that we were wrong to ally with Stalin against Hitler, White writes that “the world went to war against Hitler because he was dangerous, not because he was evil,” adding, “when you start invading your neighbors, the rest of the world gets jumpy.” Observing that nothing will prompt a fight more quickly than a set of numbers, White merrily quantifies the grimmest records humans have set—and if there’s any overarching lesson to take from his book, it is that our species is little more than a pack of chimps with guns and murderous intent. Fight or not, White is an equal-opportunity quantifier, showing that if Zulu chief (and sometime hero) Shaka had plenty of innocent blood on his hands, so did the French and British imperialists, to say nothing of Robert McNamara.

A strange, brilliant and endlessly arguable book, one every student of history needs to have close at hand.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-08192-3

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 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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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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