A largely engaging yet sometimes pedestrian look at language and the limits of what we can understand.



The story of the Rosetta Stone’s discovery and decoding.

Today, the Rosetta Stone occupies such a prominent role in public interest—not unlike Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids—that its actual significance can easily get lost amid the crowds of tourists clamoring for a view. In his latest book, Dolnick, former chief science writer for the Boston Globe who has written for a wide variety of publications, offers a strong corrective, describing not only how the Rosetta Stone was found, but also how, over several long decades, it was deciphered. He creates an engaging portrait of the two men—Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young—who were mainly responsible for cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs. For centuries, those hieroglyphs had been unreadable. Dolnick provides an exciting narrative of the journey to legibility, and he effectively describes why it was such an important—and excruciating—process. However, the author sometimes goes awry when he strains too hard for wittiness—e.g., describing ancient Alexandria as “Paris to Rome’s Podunk.” Worse are the banalities that stud Dolnick’s analyses. “If you pull the camera back far enough,” he writes, “all cultures look the same. People meet and fall in love; they boast and puff themselves up; they mock their rivals; they pray to their god, or a host of gods; they fear death. The details make all the difference.” Accessibility is no crime, of course, but the author’s desire to make the book accessible to everyone leads him to oversimplify his subject with labored asides: “Imagine how much harder crossword puzzles would be if the answers could be in any language including dead ones.” Despite these flaws, Dolnick makes complicated linguistic challenges not only comprehensible, but also especially vivid for readers new to the subject, and, as in his previous books, his enthusiasm is infectious.

A largely engaging yet sometimes pedestrian look at language and the limits of what we can understand.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5011-9893-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2021

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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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A well-documented and enlightened portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt for our times.

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A comprehensive exploration of one of the most influential women of the last century.

The accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) were widespread and substantial, and her trailblazing actions in support of social justice and global peace resonate powerfully in our current moment. Her remarkable life has been extensively documented in a host of acclaimed biographies, including Blanche Wiesen Cook’s excellent three-volume life. Eleanor was also a highly prolific writer in her own right; through memoirs, essays, and letters, she continuously documented experiences and advancing ideas. In the most expansive one-volume portrait to date, Michaelis offers a fresh perspective on some well-worn territory—e.g., Eleanor’s unconventional marriage to Franklin and her progressively charged relationships with men and women, including her intimacy with newspaper reporter Lorena Hickok. The author paints a compelling portrait of Eleanor’s life as an evolving journey of transformation, lingering on the significant episodes to shed nuance on her circumstances and the players involved. Eleanor’s privileged yet dysfunctional childhood was marked by the erratic behavior and early deaths of her flighty, alcoholic father and socially absorbed mother, and she was left to shuttle among equally neglectful relatives. During her young adulthood, her instinctual need to be useful and do good work attracted the attention of notable mentors, each serving to boost her confidence and fine-tune her political and social convictions, shaping her expanding consciousness. As in his acclaimed biography of Charles Schulz, Michaelis displays his nimble storytelling skills, smoothly tracking Eleanor’s ascension from wife and mother to her powerfully influential and controversial role as first lady and continued leadership and activist efforts beyond. Throughout, the author lucidly illuminates the essence of her thinking and objectives. “As Eleanor’s activism evolved,” writes Michaelis, “she did not see herself reaching to solve social problems so much as engaging with individuals to unravel discontinuities between the old order and modernity.”

A well-documented and enlightened portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt for our times.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4391-9201-6

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2020

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