Despite an annoying fondness for rhetorical questions and barely serviceable prose, Noiville gets the story told, and...

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A LIFE

ISAAC B. SINGER

The life of the late, great Yiddish writer (1904–91), as analyzed by a French journalist and recalled by Singer’s relatives, friends, translators, biographers, critics and literary peers.

Noiville leans heavily on both Singer’s lucid autobiographies and the testimony of such witnesses in depicting the odyssey of a deeply conflicted Jew whose experience of his family’s zealous religiosity and the terrors of two world wars estranged him from his origins. The roots of his complicated sensibility are shown to lie in insistent memories of his fervent (and somewhat ridiculous) rabbi father, powerful pragmatic mother, elder sister Hinde Esther (herself a novelist) and especially his older brother Israel Joshua, a bestselling author who paved the way for his younger sibling’s eventual literary conquest of America (to which Isaac immigrated in 1945). Noiville stresses Singer’s fascination with Jewish folklore and supernaturalism, persuasively linking it to his indifference to religious tradition and his dispassionate fatalism—traits that, when expressed in his fiction, offended Jewish intellectuals far more preoccupied than he with their people’s communal experience of persecution, diaspora and genocide. (The apostate’s lifelong womanizing, indifferent fatherhood and calculating career moves were also frowned upon.) Yet Singer came unforgettably into his own in richly imagined tales of imps and dybbuks, ingenuous everymen and satanic tempters, faithful spouses and cynical adulterers: a roiling gallery of clamoring humanity captured in fabulist stories (“Gimpel the Fool,” “The Spinoza of Market Street”), breathlessly readable novels (The Magician of Lublin, Enemies) and the still-underrated serial autobiography begun with the brilliant In My Father’s Court. Still, dualities and contradictions plagued him to the end, climaxing with a 1978 Nobel Prize, universal adulation and his sad final years endured in the bewildering grip of Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite an annoying fondness for rhetorical questions and barely serviceable prose, Noiville gets the story told, and Singer’s is a good, dark, paradoxical one.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2006

ISBN: 0-374-17800-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

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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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