Entertaining and well-researched but facile pop history.




A quick-read biographical guide to literature’s most notorious wastrels, scoundrels and rebels, from the Marquis de Sade to James Frey.

Shaffer (Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, 2011) poses the initial question that gives this historical guide to authorial self-destruction its impetus: Why are popular writers today so dull and uncontroversial compared to the literary lions of the past? Though light on hard analysis, this compendium of the creative ways in which history’s most lauded wordsmiths poisoned themselves is enjoyable enough. Shaffer achieves user-friendliness by reducing each of these literary masters to a sum of their worst qualities: Most notable are de Sade’s twisted promiscuity, Lord Byron’s freewheeling pansexuality and the absinthe-fueled jailbird misadventures of decadent poet Paul Verlaine. Shaffer provides a wide historical reach, as the opium-addled 18th-century romantics and diversely corrupted 19th-century English decadents give way to the 20th century’s melancholic suicidal alcoholics: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Shaffer also treats the Beats, New Journalists and Merry Pranksters of the 1950s and 1960s, who mixed in LSD, pot and heroin with the good old-fashioned alcoholism of their forebears. Schaffer’s book loses its kick, however, when spotlighting the last three decades of relatively lame literary roguery: After being regaled with, for example, Lord Byron’s life of “bling, booze, and groupie sex” and his dramatic death on a Greek battlefield, readers may not be impressed by Jay McInerney’s penny-ante coke habits. Further, there’s no speculation as to why, in an uncensored 21st-century culture where seemingly anything goes, most prominent writers now lead drearily sober lives.

Entertaining and well-researched but facile pop history.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-207728-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-19-508629-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.


A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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