An affectionate, richly detailed, brief biography of a unique city.




Journeying through the streets, and history, of Cuba’s famed capital.

An award-winning writer on travel, food, and culture, Kurlansky (Paper: Paging Through History, 2016, etc.) was for 10 years the Chicago Tribune’s Caribbean correspondent. He draws on many visits to the island for a spirited portrait of Havana, “like no other city on earth,” a place of color, contradictions, and, for the author, enticing allure. “Havana, to be truthful, is a mess,” he writes. “The sidewalks are cracked and broken, as are most of the streets.” Walls are sun-bleached, some covered in “various molds, mildews,” and other tropical blights; wood is destroyed by termites. The city “looks like the remnants of an ancient civilization.” But despite troubled infrastructure, it throbs with life: music, dance, art, and food. Kurlansky chronicles the city’s roiling past, beginning in 1492 with Columbus’ landing, followed by Spanish conquest and the incursion of French pirates. Soon, Havana became “a huge slave-trading center” that generated enormous wealth. In fact, “slavery lasted longer in Cuba than anywhere in the Americas.” By 1869, the author reports, there were more than 763,000 whites, 363,000 slaves, and 239,000 “free coloreds” on the island. Slaves could buy their freedom, which led many enslaved women to prostitution. That legacy persisted: until the revolution in 1959, Havana was reputed for its “huge prostitute market.” “For many men,” writes Kurlansky, “a visit to a prostitute was one of the celebrated features of a trip to Havana, along with music, rum, and cigars.” American sugar interests developed the island to facilitate their own profits, bringing railroads and steamship service and selling off cheap land for the construction of villas for the rich minority. Besides focusing on economics and politics, Kurlansky evokes the African-inflected music that dominates the city and provides recipes for some quintessential Cuban dishes, such as the succulent stew known as ajiaco and for the Cuban version of the mojito.

An affectionate, richly detailed, brief biography of a unique city.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-63286-391-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Nov. 23, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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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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