Rigorous, highly informative history written with passion, panache and an appealing bit of attitude.

JUSTINIAN’S FLEA

PLAGUE, EMPIRE, AND THE BIRTH OF EUROPE

A former editor and publisher debuts with a polymathic account of the rise and reign of the Emperor Justinian (a.d. 527-565), whose greatest nemesis turned out to be a microscopic terror he could neither see nor identify.

The plague-bearing flea does not really hop onstage until well more than 100 pages into the book. Rosen devotes most of the preceding pages to ancient history, introducing us to Constantinople (whence the plague outbreak spread), Christianity and the Romans, the battles with Goths, Visigoths and Huns. One chapter charts the rise of Justinian and his marriage to the remarkable Theodora; another focuses on Justinian’s construction of the Hagia Sophia (a building the author believes is one of the most beautiful in history). Here we learn something of the marmoreal arts, the evolution of the arch, the difficulties of domes. Rosen explains the origins and influences of the Justinianic (legal) Code, describes with great admiration the martial leadership and glories of Belisarius, Justinian’s doughty general. And then, finally, he gets to the flea. Rosen offers mini-courses in microbiology, biochemistry; he explains how bacteria evolved to hitch rides on fleas, how fleas migrate to human hosts when the rat population crashes, how plague progresses and usually kills—though Justinian himself survived a bout with it. Subsequent chapters follow the plague around the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and each time, Rosen smoothly inserts relevant history—of the silk trade, of the rise of Islam, of the Romans in Britain, of the reasons the plague did not find a happy home in the desert. All of this information the author assembles in support of his principal thesis—that the plague fatally weakened Rome, allowing Europe and Asia to become more like the continents we know today—comprising smaller, independent nation-states. Several good maps keep the complex brew clarified.

Rigorous, highly informative history written with passion, panache and an appealing bit of attitude.

Pub Date: May 7, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-670-03855-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2007

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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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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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