An urgent, digestible document of a violently failing state, with clear connection to flawed American policies past and...



Brisk, chilling examination of El Salvador’s descent into violence and the role of notorious transnational gang MS-13.

Journalist Wheeler combines a clear sense of geopolitical history and gutsy on-the-ground reporting, producing a compact tale of a slow-motion, violent societal collapse, termed by a political science professor he interviewed as “Somalization,” which is “defined by the fragmentation of power. Without the state. Here there’s no state.” The sad story has sharp relevance in regard to Donald Trump’s attacks on migrants and prior administrations’ treatment of the Central American “Triangle” as a political football, including Ronald Reagan’s stoking of a brutal anti-communist civil war. Others argue that the current crisis echoes a “culture of impunity fostered in the Cold War hysteria of the past, when the U.S. government was so focused on its enemies that it ignored the most shocking crimes of its allies.” Since the Salvadoran civil war wound down, cycles of corrupt, factionalized governments have alternately warred against and attempted collusion with two hyperviolent gangs—MS-13 and Barrio 18—both of which were essentially exported from Southern California during waves of deportations in the 1990s. Wheeler argues that this is best seen as a creeping extension of the civil war, with the gangs increasingly resembling guerrilla movements. He effectively penetrates the underworld, looking at how the gangs’ leaders learned to centralize power within prisons they controlled and how the gangs moved into both neighborhood extortion and transshipment deals with Mexican drug cartels. One MS-13 member Wheeler interviewed noted that “extortion had another hidden cost. It made the gangs parasites in their communities, exacerbating the cycle of residents informing and his clique murdering informants.” The author’s writing is colorful and clear, though a grisly hopelessness pervades his encounters—e.g., in the stories of devoted cops driven underground after participating in extrajudicial death squads or a freelance forensic examiner who believes the gangs will eventually kill him.

An urgent, digestible document of a violently failing state, with clear connection to flawed American policies past and present.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-73362-372-8

Page Count: 150

Publisher: Columbia Global Reports

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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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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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.


Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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