An absorbing history illuminates a bleak landscape.



Across the vast expanse of Siberia, pianos brought culture and consolation.

British journalist Roberts makes an engaging book debut with a chronicle of her travels through Siberia searching for pianos. Guided by a history of 19th-century Russian piano makers, the author was aware of the proliferation and distribution of pianos, some manufactured by Western companies, far from Russia’s major cities. By the end of the 19th century, one workshop in St. Petersburg alone had built more than 11,000 pianos, many of which were hauled by sledge to outposts in Siberia. “East of the Urals,” Roberts writes, “music teachers were paid two to three times the amount they earned in Western Russia. In these new towns of the expanding Empire, the piano played an even more important social role than it did in a Moscow drawing room.” In the town of Tomsk, for example, a place Chekhov found boring, a chapter of the Imperial Russian Music Society incited a flourishing musical culture. Its grand piano was chosen by the brother of famed pianist Anton Rubinstein. Besides forming the center of cultural life for residents who settled in Siberia hoping for fortune, freedom, or a new beginning, pianos were crucial to the region’s many penal colonies, where classical music elicited “a keen sense of European identity and pride.” In Kolyma, near the Sea of Okhotsk, Roberts recalls the “political dissidents, hardened criminals, recidivist killers, invalids half dead with dystrophy, poets, pianists, and starving women” brought by Stalin’s gulag ships. Even in that harsh colony, there was a grand piano, housed in a building constructed by prisoners. Roberts describes vividly the “bald, scarred, austere” landscapes that make up much of Siberia as well as the often eccentric individuals—many of them piano tuners—who assisted in her quest. Aiming “to celebrate all that is magnificent about Siberia,” Roberts realized that often the pianos she found were “tied up with a terrifying past.”

An absorbing history illuminates a bleak landscape. (b/w illustrations; maps)

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4928-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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