An often riveting history of a family that left an indelible impact on the nation.




A history of a prominent American family’s entrepreneurial rise and the way that it shaped modern philanthropy.

In 1638, Englishman Chad Browne set sail for Boston in search of religious freedom, and he later converted to a Baptist denomination, impressed with its optimistic spirit and commitment to egalitarianism. In 1722, his descendant, James, who was fascinated by all things maritime, established the family trading business that set the stage for its future wealth. Obadiah Brown changed the spelling of the family name, and his son, Nicholas, oversaw a tremendous expansion of the family business, coterminous with the transformation of Providence, Rhode Island, into a major commercial port. However, Nicholas Brown II is the real focal point of the book, not only because his 40-year partnership with Thomas Ives was so lucrative, but also because he greatly changed the nature of the family’s charitable activity. Previously, the Browns’ generosity was a function of self-interested desire for social station and influence, but Nicholas II took seriously the notion of philanthropy as social responsibility. In 1804, he made a significant contribution to the College of Rhode Island when it was in dire straits, and as a result, it was renamed after the family. In the 1820s, Nicholas II made Brown University the principal object of his attention, and worked hard to make it an instrument of morality and civic-mindedness. By approaching his role as benefactor as a more participatory one, with a view toward long-term results, he helped to create the model for modern philanthropic strategy. Brown (The Post-Pregnancy Handbook, 2003) took more than a decade to research and write this book, and her mastery of her own family’s history is undeniable. It has the scrupulousness and detail of a journalistic effort, meticulously weaving a large amount of information into a coherent tapestry. One could quibble that, at times, she includes too much detail, particularly about the family’s finances. Brown candidly declares up front that one reason that she wrote the book was to address the demonization of family members who participated in the slave trade. She notes that the Browns were conflicted; Nicholas II, for example, inherited his opposition to slavery from his uncle Moses (“one of the earliest and most fervent advocates of abolition”), but he also expressed worry about the social consequences of its elimination. The author never excuses her family’s participation in the slave trade, but she does attempt to situate their moral transgression in the full historical context in which it occurred, instead of simplistically applying “the precepts of the present to the mores of the past.” Later, the author shows that the Brown family’s transformation of its attitude toward philanthropy mirrored what was happening in the country at large. During a discussion of Jacksonian America, she astutely juxtaposes the nation’s principled commitment to egalitarianism with the burgeoning inequality produced by urbanization and industrialization. Throughout, Brown’s prose is clear and spirited, and the story unfolds briskly and dramatically.

An often riveting history of a family that left an indelible impact on the nation.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4808-4417-9

Page Count: 411

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 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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