Very little that shocks or illuminates. (Illustrated throughout)

Yes, he actually flew that kite, and his greatest invention, the lightning rod, occasioned great debates about humankind’s audacious interference with God’s judgments.

Dray’s previous title (At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, 2002) was a Pulitzer finalist, but this latest effort lacks its predecessor’s gravitas. One of many recent works about the Founding Fathers—including Franklin (see Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 2003, for example)—Dray’s volume is comparatively slender. The subtitle indicates a focus on the lightning rod—and, indeed, references to it do appear throughout—but the author offers, as well, a Bio Lite of Franklin, from birth to death, from slave-owner to abolitionist, from journalist to constitutionalist. We hear stories about Franklin’s inventions and are treated to an epilogue charting the frequency and destructiveness of lightning strikes, the pervasiveness of electricity in our everyday lives and octogenarian Franklin’s concerns about an afterlife. We must wait nearly 150 pages to find out if lightning rods work (no reason to spoil it here). Some amazing personalities appear along the way: Robespierre, Mozart, Handel, Phillis Wheatley and Mary Tofts, who claimed she gave birth to rabbits. Of greatest interest and relevance are Dray’s stories about Franklin’s electrical experiments (he electrocuted animals, just to see), about his scientific, religious and political opponents. Then, as now, there were some religious leaders—and myriad followers—who believed science should not interfere with God’s providence; others feared that sending electrical forces into the ground via lightning rod would cause earthquakes. For some reason, Dray does not really comment about the contemporary relevance of any of this.

Very little that shocks or illuminates. (Illustrated throughout)

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-6032-X

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2005


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


Thus the second most costly war in American history, whose “outcome seemed little short of a miracle.” A sterling account.

A master storyteller’s character-driven account of a storied year in the American Revolution.

Against world systems, economic determinist and other external-cause schools of historical thought, McCullough (John Adams, 2001, etc.) has an old-fashioned fondness for the great- (and not-so-great) man tradition, which may not have much explanatory power but almost always yields better-written books. McCullough opens with a courteous nod to the customary villain in the story of American independence, George III, who turns out to be a pleasant and artistically inclined fellow who relied on poor advice; his Westmoreland, for instance, was a British general named Grant who boasted that with 5,000 soldiers he “could march from one end of the American continent to the other.” Other British officers agitated for peace, even as George wondered why Americans would not understand that to be a British subject was to be free by definition. Against these men stood arrayed a rebel army that was, at the least, unimpressive; McCullough observes that New Englanders, for instance, considered washing clothes to be women’s work and so wore filthy clothes until they rotted, with the result that Burgoyne and company had a point in thinking the Continentals a bunch of ragamuffins. The Americans’ military fortunes were none too good for much of 1776, the year of the Declaration; at the slowly unfolding battle for control over New York, George Washington was moved to despair at the sight of sometimes drunk soldiers running from the enemy and of their officers “who, instead of attending to their duty, had stood gazing like bumpkins” at the spectacle. For a man such as Washington, to be a laughingstock was the supreme insult, but the British were driven by other motives than to irritate the general—not least of them reluctance to give up a rich, fertile and beautiful land that, McCullough notes, was providing the world’s highest standard of living in 1776.

Thus the second most costly war in American history, whose “outcome seemed little short of a miracle.” A sterling account.

Pub Date: June 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-7432-2671-2

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2005