Timely and thoughtful, if not always well told.

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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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