All the same, this poke in the eye of literary opinion and knowledge feels oddly good.

AGITATIONS

ESSAYS ON LIFE AND LITERATURE

For someone who has gained a modest reputation as a bumptious crank, critic Krystal (A Company of Readers, not reviewed) comes across here as sensible, personable, and unafraid of his own ideas, whether good or gaseous.

Which is not to say that the author isn’t a crank, given to writing things like, “that word is spelled t-a-s-t-e . . . does the fact that everyone has the right to an opinion mean that all opinions are equal?” Not in this book. For Krystal, great works “enter the blood,” where “self-communion folds into self-realization,” with the wonderful possibility of transformation and transcendence at the hand of “the truest expression of human condition.” However, all this delectable reading, this “sequestered, magical, self-absorbed fun,” had better not become an end in itself, he writes in an essay that condemns living through books at the expense of using them as guideposts to the directly experienced lifescape. The title doesn’t lie; there’s agitation aplenty in these pages. Krystal mulls over big topics like religion (“I expect God gets certain people high in the same way that Nature or the Sublime used to get Woodsworth and Coleridge high”); footling topics like deconstructionism (“professors of literature, as they will be the first to acknowledge, are quite superior to the text in hand”); and that fundamental question anyone seeking publication ought to ask: “Will the world be better for what I write?” To be sure, he is often peckish about contemporary writing, no longer finding exaltation or the retreat into fabulous countries or enough metaphysical meat on the bones of his reading. “The best is the enemy of the good, and once you have become acquainted with the former, why bother with the rest?” writes Krystal. Well, perhaps he is being a crank, and maybe he ought to get out more.

All the same, this poke in the eye of literary opinion and knowledge feels oddly good.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-300-09216-4

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

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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