An absorbing tale of unfettered commerce.




A vivid popular history of the great commercial monopolies that helped shape the modern world.

For three centuries, beginning in the early 1600s, European powers granted monopoly trading rights to joint-stock corporations, such as the Dutch East India Company, as a way to bankroll colonial expansion. Bown (Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver, 2009, etc.) relates the rousing story of a half-dozen of these companies and the “larger-than-life merchant-adventurers” who led them. Beginning as traders, these leaders, many with their own armies, were not subject to the laws of their home nations or of local governments. With authority to pass laws, collect taxes and wage war with foreign princes, they did as they pleased, “with free rein to indulge their impulses, impose dictatorial power and plunder rapaciously. They were competitive and ruthless, often battling companies from other European nations to gain trading footholds. Most readers will be familiar with Peter Stuyvesant (Dutch West India Company), the stern, one-legged ruler of New Amsterdam; and the arrogant, racist Cecil Rhodes (British South Africa Company), who made his fortune operating in Rhodesia for England. But Bown portrays others as well, including strongman Jan Pieterszoon Coen (Dutch East India Company), who had 150 merchant ships and 40 warships, controlled the global spice supply and believed that violent force alone ensured profitability; Robert Clive (English East India Company), who carefully cultivated his heroic image after military victories in India; Aleksandr Andreyevich Baranov (Russian American Company), whose aggressive 28-year rule over Russian Alaska delivered profits from sea otter furs to investors in St. Petersburg; and the “sexist, racist, domineering braggart” George Simpson (Hudson’s Bay Company), who traveled in a canoe, wearing a top hat, as he built an empire of beaver furs that helped give rise to Canada. Hardly a pleasant group, these manipulative leaders’ companies grew so large and indispensable to their home nations that they sometimes required government bailouts.

An absorbing tale of unfettered commerce.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-312-61611-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2010

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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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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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