Fans of Owen Lattimore, The Road to Oxiana, Aurel Stein, and other like-minded ventures and adventurers will find Porter’s...

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THE SILK ROAD

TAKING THE BUS TO PAKISTAN

In this latest installment in his decadeslong journey through China, Porter (South of the Clouds, 2015, etc.) wanders westward into the mountains, never quite courting danger, never quite avoiding it.

How does one pack for a trip along what the Chinese traditionally called the Road to the West and Westerners the Silk Road? First, get a rucksack, not a pack with a rigid frame. Then put some whiskey in a flask and put the flask in the rucksack. “Once I had the pack and the whiskey out of the way,” Porter, aka Red Pine, amiably writes, “the rest was easy: a couple changes of clothes, silk longjohns, a cashmere vest, a lightweight jacket, a wool hat and gloves.” An extra stomach lining and a big shovel might have come in handy, as we learn, following Porter’s travels from Xi’an into the desert and high country. Fortunately for Porter, though beset by some appallingly bad food, a goodly number of con artists, and a brush with death along a cliffside highway in the Karakoram, he had his wits with him, as well as a firm command of history and literature. Occasionally, his approach to all that learning is a little scattershot: the great Turkic conqueror Tamerlane turns up here and there (e.g., “if Tamerlane hadn’t died, it’s quite possible there would be more mosques today in China than temples”) but sometimes as an afterthought and sometimes repetitively. Still, a little absentmindedness is fine, especially in so unflappable a travel guide. Porter is at his best when interpreting history, a touch less so when updating Michelin (“In addition to coffee and omelettes, John offered other Western favorites, like fried potatoes”) along the way from the Yellow River to the Pakistani frontier.

Fans of Owen Lattimore, The Road to Oxiana, Aurel Stein, and other like-minded ventures and adventurers will find Porter’s latest a pleasure and an inspiration.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61902-710-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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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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