First-rate research and journalism combine to tell a sad, often infuriating tale.




The descendant of Centralia, Penn., miners, former Miami Herald reporter Quigley reveals the moral complexities and political machinations surrounding the underground fires that virtually destroyed this small Pennsylvania town.

She begins in 1981, when a schoolboy slipped into a Centralia sinkhole and was nearly killed by the underground heat and toxic fumes. The narrative then retreats to Memorial Day 1962, when a blaze that began at the town dump moved underground to ignite the underlying seams of coal. The ensuing decades brought ineffectual remedies, illness, public outcry, political shape-shifting and finger-pointing. Locals emerged as heroes, heretics, Cassandras and curmudgeons. Villains appeared, too—mostly, in the author’s view, Reagan-era functionaries trying to reconcile their political philosophy (government is bad) with Centralia’s poisonous and fiery realities. Quigley records Gov. Richard Thornburgh’s highly emotional 1981 visit and blasts feckless Interior Secretary James Watt repeatedly. The media both helped and hurt. People magazine wanted—and got—a photograph of a local man frying eggs over one of the vents; Nightline swooped into town in the early 1980s; but then the press went home and forgot about it all. Quigley conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with residents and read alpine stacks of government reports, newspapers and magazines as part of her massive research effort. She sadly records the split in the community between those who wanted the government to pay for relocation and those who intended to stay no matter what. Ultimately, the town voted for relocation, the federal government provided some funds and most of the principals in the story moved on. But not all: About a dozen resolute folk remain, while tongues of fire continue to lick below.

First-rate research and journalism combine to tell a sad, often infuriating tale.

Pub Date: April 10, 2007

ISBN: 1-4000-6180-6

Page Count: 274

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 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...


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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