Sometimes exciting, sometimes tedious, always supported by a sturdy foundation of fact and tireless archival research. (3...




A thoroughly researched history of the origins of the Mafia in Sicily.

Journalist and translator Fentress (Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995) reveals that the first printed occurrences of the word “mafia” date from the 1860s in the Palermo region. Derived from Palermitan slang for “flashy,” it soon grew to mean the “kingdom within a kingdom,” the “network of submerged power,” the criminal underworld. Fentress’s thesis is that “the story of the mafia cannot be understood except against the background of the revolution,” so he proceeds in his extremely detailed text to examine the uprisings in Sicily in 1820, 1848, 1860, and 1866—the latter “transforming itself into the mafia.” After an initial chapter dealing with pre-Mafia Sicily (beginning with the transfer of the island from Spain to Naples in 1743) and with a failed uprising in 1820, Fentress deals with each major revolutionary period in a separate chapter. The 1848 revolt succeeded briefly, only to be put down six months later by the Neapolitans. The 1860 revolution featured the derring-do of Garibaldi, and this chapter therefore contains some of Fentress’s most engaging narrative. In June 1860, after a “stunning military victory” by Garibaldi’s vastly outnumbered followers, the Neapolitans capitulated and Garibaldi assumed his stature as a Sicilian hero—if not a deity. Slipping into the interstice separating order from chaos was the criminal class known by all in the 1860s as the Mafia. (Fentress dismisses as “nonsense” the numerous folk stories about the Mafia’s medieval origins.) In an interesting section pointing out the parallels between criminals and politicians, Fentress observes that their talents “are broadly similar.” He also notes that the Mafia’s rise to power can be attributed partially to the Sicilian trust of “brigands and criminals . . . [rather] than the authorities.” Fentress ends his history with the chilling observation that the “mafia are the soldiers of the permanent revolution” (i.e., of the continuing “refusal to recognize . . . the legitimacy of authority”).

Sometimes exciting, sometimes tedious, always supported by a sturdy foundation of fact and tireless archival research. (3 maps, 18 plates)

Pub Date: June 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-8014-3539-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Cornell Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2000

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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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