An earnest entry in an emerging academic discipline, but a dreary topic for recreational reading.

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BORN LOSERS

A HISTORY OF FAILURE IN AMERICA

A book about failure? In America?

Sandage (History/Carnegie Mellon) presents a darker side of the American Dream, complete with case studies and ephemera. He carefully considers the 19th-century’s “go-ahead” US, which saw the rise of the businessman’s vocation, and presents a stark portrayal of our national habit of speaking grandly while falling short of all the grand talk. It was a time of speculators, flunkies, and humbugs. Ben Franklin’s maxims were popular. P.T. Barnum’s bunkum was effulgent. Proclaiming self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson found the cause of a man’s failure lay within himself. To track the financially feckless and to inform suppliers of credit risks, ubiquitous mercantile reporting agencies, like Mr. Dun and Mr. Bradstreet’s, flourished, though they often provided misinformation as a coup de grâce to a struggling tradesman. Keeping book on good-for-nothing losers started with local reporters (young Abraham Lincoln was said to be one). And so ledgers recorded the sorry handiwork of self-made men. Some strivers who once raised themselves by their own bootstraps but were finally without a shoestring resorted to new federal bankruptcy legislation that was designed to relieve legal debt, not necessarily the moral kind. Others wrote begging letters to titans of the Gilded Age. (The Rockefellers, among others, kept their pleaders’ correspondence filed away for history.) The stories of the gaunt, ragged wraiths pictured in the garish chromolithographs of the day are brought to life here in mournful numbers. Taking us to the present, Sandage summons the tragic figure of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s dead salesman, who somehow prepared a place for those who lost the rat race in our culture. There’s “something of a market niche” for losers, the author finds, especially in pop music. Whether that niche contains many readers standing by for a straightforward study that hangs with left-behinds of the 1800s is an open question.

An earnest entry in an emerging academic discipline, but a dreary topic for recreational reading.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-674-01510-X

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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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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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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