Provocative and richly detailed—a welcome contribution to popular history.




A broad-ranging portrait of America in a time of torment, continuing Pulitzer Prize winner McDougall’s (History/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History: 1585–1828, 2004, etc.) projected trilogy.

The author extends the Civil War era to the first serious rumblings of secession and regional rivalry, closing it with the end of Reconstruction. His narrative opens, fittingly enough, with a massive fire that swept through New York just before Christmas in 1835, when “lower Manhattan ceased to exist.” The conflagration had the unintended effect of consolidating city government power and improving water supply and firefighting services, while also making the scramble for housing for less-privileged New Yorkers all that more Darwinian. The effect of that scramble, in turn, was murderous rioting on the part of Irish gangs that targeted African-Americans when not targeting one another—ethnic violence that foreshadowed the larger bloodletting to come. Liking what they heard of these Five Points riots, Protestant Bostonians set about ransacking convents, while in Philadelphia “anti-abolitionists went on rampages in black neighborhoods.” Out on the Great Plains, American dragoons were setting about fighting the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes for the first time, again setting the tone for the decades to come. To such seemingly isolated events, McDougall applies themes that speak to dissent and division. He notes, for instance, that “American Protestantism in the Romantic era was characterized by loud disputations over fine points of theology, raucous revivals in country and town, and bewildering sectarianism,” which puts him to wondering how it was that European visitors such as Tocqueville and Trollope could have considered the United States to be conformist in character. Speaking to that character, McDougall ventures that in the Civil War era something of the nation’s essential nature came through: progressive yet conservative, pious yet sanguinary.

Provocative and richly detailed—a welcome contribution to popular history.

Pub Date: March 11, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-06-056751-4

Page Count: 816

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2008

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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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