A well-paced nonfiction work that reads more like a historical novel than an academic study.




The tale of a provocative controversy and court trial from the formative era of photography.

Written like a novel but researched with academic rigor, this account of a photographer whose work seemed to incorporate images from the spirit realm stops short of either endorsing the veracity of the photographer’s claim or debunking his work as a scam. What Manseau (One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, 2015), the curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian, demonstrates is that William Mumler (1832-1884) was perhaps as mystified as his skeptics in his emergence as a “spirit photographer” whose photographs of a living subject might show a deceased relation hovering somewhere in the print. Court transcripts show that Mumler’s subjects mostly believed in the legitimacy of the apparitions in his work and that none of the photographers who attempted to expose his trickery were able to do so. Yet the narrative is less an argument in favor of a miracle than an evocation of an era “shaped by war, belief, new technology, and a longing for connections across ever greater distances—a time not unlike our own.” It was a time when the telegraph offered instantaneous communication across oceans and “transformed nearly every aspect of American life, and perhaps none more so than the press.” It was also a time when electricity demonstrated the very real power of things unseen. If communication could become instantaneous across thousands of miles, why couldn’t the emerging field of photography close the distance between the living and the dead? For this was also an era, even before the Civil War, when the country “was suffering a spiritual hangover,” in which spiritualism and mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead were perceived as a threat to conventional Christianity. Thus the trial not only focused on the possibilities and limits of the emerging photographic technology, but on whether it was possible to reconcile such apparitions with the Bible.

A well-paced nonfiction work that reads more like a historical novel than an academic study.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-544-74597-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Aug. 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

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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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