LIVES OF THE POETS

A NOVELLA AND SIX STORIES

What I need is a master guide to the wisdom, an exclusive service in the ideal location of the world, say, where you give all your money and all you ever hope to have, and in return you receive a generosity of beneficent hygienically balanced natural unradiated lifelight and you get to live and write a minimum hundred and fifty years, give or take a decade, and the cock never fails you." So writes Jonathan, Doctorow's angst-ridden alter ego in the title novella here, as he begins his free-associative ramble through the social, sexual, and political twitchings of a middle-aged N.Y. writer. Jonathan, spending more and more time away from his fastidious Connecticut wife, holing up in a Soho studio, contemplates all the crumbling marriages around them, "the phenomenon of the neither married nor divorced but no longer entirely together . . . I see the small spaces men end up with for their lives, and there is terror, and the disgusted reproach of children, and the lapse into dereliction of men who have taken down their establishements, and I know I risk all that." He broods on death, immigration, the subways, his health, crime, the CIA, aging, artists' careers, his long-dead father, Rilke's androgyny, his own iffy affair with a jet-hopping, independent woman ("CIA cunt"), the fates of Wilhelm Reich, Linus Pauling, Bishop Pike. And, providing a slender narrative thread, there's a moral/political decision for Jonathan to make: should he or shouldn't he provide illegal sanctuary to rebel fugitives from El Salvador? (He should: "Look, my country, what you've done to me, what I have to do to live with myself.") Throughout, there's a fundamental sentimentality beneath Doctorow's dour, sardonic observations and anecdotes; the attempts to churn up an eclectic socio-cultural swirl around one writer's psyche sometimes reads like pale-imitation Mailer, an artificial gathering of notebook jottings. (At least two images or anecdotes appear, in nearly identical form, in other stories here.) Still, with enough basic material for a humdrum middle-aged-writer novel compressed into 60 dense pages, this is an undeniably lively and varied mosaic, shards of existential anguish side by side with tidbits of literary gossip and mini-editorials. And, while five of the shorter pieces are Doctorow at his most labored and schematic (studies in sexual psychopathology, a fable/history of the American outcast-type), "The Writer in the Family" is a plain, affecting memoir of writer Jonathan as a Bronx teenager—stunned by his father's death, making discoveries about his parents' marriage, using his writing ability to sustain (and then destroy) family myths. In sum: a slight collection, lacking a distinctive voice—but with modest rewards for Doctorow's more cerebral and/or political admirers.

Pub Date: Nov. 23, 1984

ISBN: 0812981189

Page Count: 147

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1984

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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