Timely and thoughtful, if not always well told.

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SEVEN FIRES

THE URBAN INFERNOS THAT RESHAPED AMERICA

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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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

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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