The science is impeccable, the history a tad simplistic. An Ascent of Man–like approach to the subject of Big History would...




Count yourself lucky that you live on a planet with gravity—and silicon.

Well-known in paleontological circles for his description of the Chicxulub impact crater, which he explored in the bestselling T. rex and the Crater of Doom (1997), Alvarez (Geology/Univ. of California; The Mountains of Saint Francis: Discovering the Geologic Events that Shaped Our Earth, 2009, etc.) is at ease writing about geology, never an easy subject to treat with much grace. Here he adds a wrinkle: a garden variety geologist, he writes, will be interested in a particular mountain range, while a geologist “guided by Big History might want to understand the whole sweep of continental motions throughout all of Earth history that has given rise to all the mountain ranges.” The inclusion of environmental history in human history at a very deep scale of time has proven fruitful and has yielded good books by, among others, Richard Fortey and Colin Tudge. However, there’s a bit of a buzzword quality to the whole “Big History” enterprise, and at times it seems as if Alvarez has adopted it as a slogan in this glancing survey: “We usually take our wonderful Earth for granted…[b]ut a Big History sense of its distant past can only leave us amazed and grateful that such a violent and chancy history has given us this perfect place to live.” Granted, the human presence on the Earth is the tiniest fraction of a fraction of planetary time, and the fact that grains of sand are oriented in a certain direction in the Rockies has only a peripheral—though interesting—bearing on how engineers blasted a railroad path through the mountains 150 years ago. A little of the gee-whiz stuff goes a long way, as when Alvarez notes that “contingency is everywhere in human history”—meaning, in other words, that you couldn’t have planned it if you tried.

The science is impeccable, the history a tad simplistic. An Ascent of Man–like approach to the subject of Big History would be most welcome, but this isn’t quite it. 

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-29269-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2016

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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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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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