A nuanced and much-needed survey of a critically important episode in world history.




A sterling account of Spain’s creation of a vast empire, one that “lasted more than three hundred years, more than the British, the French, the Dutch, or the Russian equivalents.”

The Spanish empire, writes Thomas (The Slave Trade, 1997, etc.), was born in a time of pitched warfare between a resurgent Christian nobility and the last of the Muslim rulers in Western Europe. Defeating the viziers of Al-Andalus required forging strong links among several Iberian kingdoms, whence the wedding of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and, in the wake of civil war, the formation of “a national nobility with patriotic loyalties.” Following the expulsion or forced conversion of the last of the Muslims (and, for good measure, the Jews) of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabel quickly translated their peripatetic court into renewed maritime explorations in all directions, completing the subjugation of the Canary Islands, establishing African entrepôts, and funding the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. All this is a story that has been told many times (and with considerable disagreement) in the scholarly literature, but that has not been well covered in popular writing on the conquest of the New World. Writing with a scholar’s concern for details and a storyteller’s skill, Thomas provides memorable portraits of the principal figures in this tangled history: Isabel, a severe woman who “had a taste for irony”; Columbus, who was less a monster than some recent histories would have us think; Francisco de Bobadilla, a colonial administrator who enjoyed the Spanish rulers’ confidence until imprisoning Columbus on trumped-up charges, then was relieved of command of Santo Domingo even though he “thought that he was doing well and was making money for the Crown”; Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who told amazing tales about rivers of gold and instant-growing cucumbers; and a host of other servants of Spain who “made their conquests with a clear conscience, certain that they were taking with them civilization.”

A nuanced and much-needed survey of a critically important episode in world history.

Pub Date: June 8, 2004

ISBN: 0-375-50204-1

Page Count: 832

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet