Whether in sketches or rigorous studies, each piece bears the mark of Dyer’s unique intelligence and wit.

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OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE HUMAN CONDITION

SELECTED ESSAYS AND REVIEWS

A grab-bag of critical essays, reportage and personal stories from the irrepressibly curious Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, 2009, etc).

The title of this hefty tome, featuring pieces published in two United Kingdom–only collections, suggests ponderous philosophizing. But though Dyer takes his art seriously, his prose is as relaxed and self-effacing as it is informed. Indeed, the title essay is about nothing more serious than his quest for a decent doughnut and cappuccino in New York City, from which he extracts some surprising insights about our need for routines, standards and sense of home. Though the book is wide-ranging, his command is consistent, whether he’s writing about Richard Avedon or model airplanes. Dyer consistently expresses an appreciation for the way the idiosyncratic human being emerges despite our best efforts to suppress it. That’s evident in the way he admires John Cheever’s confessional journals more than his acclaimed short stories, and in his urge to uncover F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic personal history when writing about his novels. It also shows in the subjects he chooses to write about. Consistently suspicious of slickness in art, he’s drawn to photographers like Enrique Metinides, who documented disasters and accidents in Mexico City, and musicians like John Coltrane, whose “My Favorite Things” grows more appealing to Dyer the more decoupled it becomes from its Rodgers and Hammerstein source. In a few pieces, particularly in his first-person reportage, Dyer works a bit too hard to find something clever to say about subjects he wouldn’t have pursued were he not assigned to write about them—e.g., a Def Leppard concert or a flight in a decommissioned MiG. Also, a handful of book reviews are brief piecework of only moderate interest. But the book is chock-full of Dyer at his most open, thoughtful and lyrical, as in his study of photographs of Rodin sculptures, his appreciation of Rebecca West’s neglected travel writings and a candid piece about the first time he was fired, where, in exposing his 20-something childishness, he finds the roots of the adult he became.

Whether in sketches or rigorous studies, each piece bears the mark of Dyer’s unique intelligence and wit.

Pub Date: March 29, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-55597-579-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2010

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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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