A smart, funny, forthright librarian in book form.



A librarian delivers a charming epistolary volume that begs to be read with pencil in hand.

In her debut book, Spence celebrates some of modern literature’s darlings while scathingly reducing other works to pulp. Covering selections from across a vast range of subjects and genres, the author delivers flirty essays and cruel-to-be-kind rejection letters to books as she “weeds” her library’s collection. Unafraid to take shots at publishing’s most lucrative franchises, her letters to Nicholas Sparks and the Twilight series convey the exasperation of a woman who has seen these books checked out constantly while worthier books remain on the shelf. “You made me say ‘erotica’ to an old lady, Grey,” Spence admonishes E.L. James’ Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian. “I’m going to hate you forever for that!” Valedictions to obscure nonfiction works—e.g., Better Homes and Gardens Dieting for One—signal shifting societal mores and remind us of the never-ending nature of a librarian’s job curating a collection. “Just looking at you makes me feel as if I’m squandering my life,” she writes to The Leisure Alternatives Catalog, 1979. "We can’t all be art-cinema buffs and sailing experts like you.” Readers will find plenty to agree with—the letter to the Frog and Toad books is delightful—and plenty to take issue with—only one work of Russian literature is included—as well as an amusingly disproportionate amount of time devoted to the work of Jeffrey Eugenides. We also get letters to nonbooks that every bookish person will appreciate: a love letter to the library in Beauty and the Beast, a note to an acquaintance’s too-perfect bookshelf. In the hearty second section, Spence provides a useful list of references, recommendations, and resources. Among the other notable works discussed include books by Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, and Judy Blume.

A smart, funny, forthright librarian in book form.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-250-10649-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

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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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An extraordinary true tale of torment, retribution, and loyalty that's irresistibly readable in spite of its intrusively melodramatic prose. Starting out with calculated, movie-ready anecdotes about his boyhood gang, Carcaterra's memoir takes a hairpin turn into horror and then changes tack once more to relate grippingly what must be one of the most outrageous confidence schemes ever perpetrated. Growing up in New York's Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s, former New York Daily News reporter Carcaterra (A Safe Place, 1993) had three close friends with whom he played stickball, bedeviled nuns, and ran errands for the neighborhood Mob boss. All this is recalled through a dripping mist of nostalgia; the streetcorner banter is as stilted and coy as a late Bowery Boys film. But a third of the way in, the story suddenly takes off: In 1967 the four friends seriously injured a man when they more or less unintentionally rolled a hot-dog cart down the steps of a subway entrance. The boys, aged 11 to 14, were packed off to an upstate New York reformatory so brutal it makes Sing Sing sound like Sunnybrook Farm. The guards continually raped and beat them, at one point tossing all of them into solitary confinement, where rats gnawed at their wounds and the menu consisted of oatmeal soaked in urine. Two of Carcaterra's friends were dehumanized by their year upstate, eventually becoming prominent gangsters. In 1980, they happened upon the former guard who had been their principal torturer and shot him dead. The book's stunning denouement concerns the successful plot devised by the author and his third friend, now a Manhattan assistant DA, to free the two killers and to exact revenge against the remaining ex-guards who had scarred their lives so irrevocably. Carcaterra has run a moral and emotional gauntlet, and the resulting book, despite its flaws, is disturbing and hard to forget. (Film rights to Propaganda; author tour)

Pub Date: July 10, 1995

ISBN: 0-345-39606-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1995

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