Timely and thoughtful, if not always well told.



Scholarly recounting of America’s most catastrophic urban disasters, from the tipped-over lantern that set colonial Boston ablaze in 1760 to the flames that erupted when terrorist-piloted airliners slammed into the World Trade Center.

Hoffer (History/Univ. of Georgia; Past Imperfect, 2004, etc.) is as much interested in the causes and effects of the fires as in the blazes themselves. His inclination for historical detail and academic analysis often bogs down the narrative in a blizzard of digressions, statistics and footnotes. The frequently wooden, inert prose doesn’t help; portions of the text read like a committee report. Elsewhere, however, the narrative is more compelling, especially when Hoffer embellishes the history with anecdotal detail. He tracks the origin of Pittsburgh’s famous 1845 fire to an Irish washwoman who left a kettle untended, then explains why the city’s insurance companies promptly went bankrupt (gross under-funding). He blames Chicago’s 1871 blaze not on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, but on two careless youngsters who stopped in her barn for a smoke. He describes dramatically the heroic last stand by 37 fire companies from Baltimore, New York and Washington that saved what was left of Baltimore from the fire of 1904. Heroes and villains abound as the story moves to more modern times. During the four hellish days of arson and looting that nearly destroyed Detroit in 1967, firefighters dodged sniper bullets to doggedly extinguish the multiplying fires. When wildfires tore through the stately homes lining the hillsides above Oakland in 1991, volunteers and desperate homeowners joined overworked California firefighters to contain the blaze. The book’s high point is Hoffer’s examination of the World Trade Center attack, which couples numerous tales of bravery on the part of rescue workers with some well-researched observations on how more lives might have been saved. Fires can never be completely prevented, the author acknowledges, but their effects can be ameliorated by proper planning.

Timely and thoughtful, if not always well told.

Pub Date: May 1, 2006

ISBN: 1-58648-355-2

Page Count: 450

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2006

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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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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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