One fascinating essay after another from one of America’s best critics.

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ECSTASY AND TERROR

FROM THE GREEKS TO GAME OF THRONES

Erudite essays on classical and contemporary culture.

The role of a critic, writes Mendelsohn (Humanities/Bard Coll.; An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, 2017, etc.), is “to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” The author has used his classical training not for rebarbative academic papers but for “getting readers to love and appreciate the works that I myself loved and appreciated.” The pieces in this collection, most of them written for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, demonstrate how brilliantly he has succeeded. Some of them focus on the ancient Greek poets and tragedies he loves, such as Sappho and Antigone. Mendelsohn invokes the classics to offer perspectives on modern-day events, as when he compares the Kennedy family curses to Oresteia and its assumption that there is “a connection between the sins of the fathers and the sufferings of the children and their children afterward.” Astute observations populate essays on topics from Brideshead Revisited and Ingmar Bergman films to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which he calls a “remarkable feminist epic.” Readers might challenge some points—e.g., when Mendelsohn writes that Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life is “about a subject that is too rarely explored in contemporary letters: nonsexual friendship among adult men,” one might cite works by Richard Russo, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and many others. However, Mendelsohn’s points are always passionately argued. He strikes the perfect balance between learned and playful, as when he wonders what 46th-century archaeologists, sifting through the ruins of 21st-century America, will make of building inscriptions such as Condé Nast and Michael Kors or whether the “presence of mysterious symbols—in particular, an apple with a bite taken out of it—will raise the vexed question of whether the site was sacred or secular.”

One fascinating essay after another from one of America’s best critics.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-68137-405-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: June 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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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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SLEEPERS

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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