A charming biography of the Baroness de Pontalba (17951874), a wealthy 19th-century American expatriate. The baroness, born Micaela Almonester, was the daughter of a Spanish immigrant who had made it in the rough-and-tumble commercial world of New Orleans; at 15, she was the sole heir to a considerable fortune. As such, she attracted the attention of the Pontalbas, her aristocratic French cousins. Xavier Pontalba wrote to Micaela's mother to propose to her daughter on behalf of his son, CÇlestin, and in 1811, CÇlestin sailed to America to meet and court his young cousin. The two were married within a month, and Micaela returned with her new family to France. Once there, however, Micaela's troubles began. She was not entirely content with her life in the country estate of her in-laws. Vella (History/Tulane Univ.) writes, with the tongue-in-cheek style that contributes greatly to the book's charm, that ``sixteen-year-olds often look on compost with indifference.'' But the bigger problem came when the dowry of the young heiress was finalized, and the greedy Pontalbas discovered that it was considerably less than they had hoped. Xavier Pontalba, who dominated his weak-willed son, began a war against his daughter-in-law that would last until he ended his own life, in 1834, after shooting Micaela four times at close range and nearly killing her. This dramatic climax was followed by divorce, an interest in construction that took hold of the baroness in her middle years (the home she built in Paris is now the US embassy), and an odd semi-reconciliation between Micaela and an ill CÇlestin as she nursed him for the last 23 years of her own life. While the baroness's story might make a more satisfying novel than biography, Vella makes up for the occasional skimpiness of her material with an easy, elegant style. (36 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-8071-2144-4

Page Count: 420

Publisher: Louisiana State Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1997

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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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