An astute meditation on a successful academic life coupled with a searching discussion of the history field’s decline.

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A LIFE IN HISTORY

A historian recounts an accomplished university career that spans more than three decades and reflects on the deterioration of the discipline. 

Born in 1947, Kaiser (Baseball Greatness, 2018, etc.) seemed destined to become a historian. At the precocious age of 10, he wrote a history—albeit brief—of the United States. A naturally gifted student, he sought “refuge” in his studies from an “emotionally chaotic” family environment. His father was a diplomat, and, as a result, the author traveled peripatetically with his family, spending swaths of his childhood in Washington, D.C.; New York; London; and Senegal, hungrily absorbing the culture of each environment and always hunting for new knowledge in books. Unsurprisingly, he embarked on a noteworthy academic career as a historian that started at Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate, and included appointments at multiple institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and the Naval War College, where he found it “surprisingly easy to fit in” and felt most at home. Kaiser chronicles in astoundingly granular detail his remarkable ambition to “establish myself in the first rank of my profession.” He did precisely that, writing important books that covered such diverse topics as the Vietnam War—which he calls the “the key event of my own life as of the early 1990s”—and American baseball. At the heart of the remembrance is a profound lament on the descent of the scholarly practice of history in particular and the quality of university education in general: “No one, in any university or any liberal arts college that I know of, was focused on providing high-quality teaching. While some high-quality teachers remained, they had gotten where they were by accident and could not replicate themselves.” Kaiser’s career is an undeniably impressive one, and his contributions to the profession are genuinely important. Such a candid peek into the life and work of a preeminent historian should prove captivating to readers interested in the field, whether or not they’re familiar with the author’s work. Unfortunately, his painstakingly microscopic recounting of his professional life— including not only his intellectual evolution, but also departmental squabbles and rivalries—will likely grow tedious. In addition, the memoir is interspersed with brief recollections by past students—all adoring—a gratuitous addition to the book. Nevertheless, Kaiser furnishes an exceedingly thoughtful exploration of his craft, including the significance of reviewing primary sources and the need for scholars to expand their research into the history that precedes their points of investigative focus. Moreover, the author’s critique of contemporary historical scholarship and its connection to today’s political turmoil is intellectually gripping: “The collapse of the historical profession which I witnessed firsthand is, I am convinced, quite connected to the broader decline of public life in the United States, and the threatened collapse of American society.” This is a notably wise book, with its insights drawn from a deep wellspring of personal and professional experience. 

An astute meditation on a successful academic life coupled with a searching discussion of the history field’s decline.

Pub Date: March 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-73287-450-3

Page Count: 408

Publisher: Mount Greylock Books LLC

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2019

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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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