Disparate musings cohere into a lyrical meditation on violence, disaster, and humanity’s yearning for solace.



In 1815, a volcanic eruption caused a year of devastation. Here is a vivid, disquieting collage of prose pieces that swirl around that one cataclysmic event.

In this slim book, poet, essayist, and children’s book author Lebowitz (Cottonopolis, 2013, etc.) draws on fairy tales and parables; excerpts from memoirs, poetry, and the King James Bible; Norse and Greek myths; and assorted historical and archaeological sources. On April 10, 1815, in Indonesia, Mount Tambora spewed lava and ash into the atmosphere, instantly killing nearly 12,000 people and countless animals. Cows and horses were swept into the sky; pumice lay a foot thick; birds fell dead; and there was darkness for days. Throughout the world, what should have been summer never arrived. In July, rivers were iced over; rain fell unabated; harvests failed. In the months that followed, 90,000 Indonesians starved. Crops were covered in frost, and fungi poisoned wheat. The next year, 1817, was “The Year of the Beggar.” Not surprisingly, some saw the eruption as God’s punishment: “when the weather turned or disaster struck,” Lebowitz observes, “there were always voices explaining why this was so, why the rain was falling now, why the snow was brown, whose side God was on.” Some prayed, and others atoned, but still summer never came. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and their children were in Switzerland during the wettest summer on record. Lake Geneva flooded and inundated the town of Vevey, where Shelley created her tale of a monster who runs from his creator into an icy realm. Lebowitz juxtaposes the volcanic eruption with another violent event that occurred a century later: World War I, “the turning-point in the history of the earth,” according to British writer Wyndham Lewis, in which men and horses drowned in mud, just as they had in the post-volcanic year.

Disparate musings cohere into a lyrical meditation on violence, disaster, and humanity’s yearning for solace.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-77196-219-3

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2018

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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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