Vidal’s gossip can feel as stale as his (very dated) political concerns, but few today have what he still displays in...

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THE LAST EMPIRE

ESSAYS 1992-2000

More political and literary essays from Vidal (The Golden Age, 2000, etc.).

Vidal’s style is unmistakable: erudite, contrarian, self-aggrandizing, elegant. Cranky. Never has it been more Vidal-ian than here, in his ninth volume of essays, a collection of pieces written between 1992 and 2000 that occasionally borders on self-parody. By far the strongest works are the literary and historical sketches grouped at the beginning: witty, knowing, insightful, and carefully written, taken together they comprise a prickly tour of the midcentury world of American letters. The last 20 essays are far more problematic, however. In these Vidal rants endlessly about the National Security State and the American Empire, two self-identified postwar political structures that he claims have ruined everything good about America. If one hasn’t read Vidal’s take on these issues before, perusing one of these essays might be fun—but reading 20 of them is not. Although they have different titles and are nominally written on different subjects, the monotony of analysis is numbing. (Plus, it’s hard to take Chicken Little seriously when, after nine volumes, the sky still hasn’t fallen.) But no matter, there are plenty of fireworks in the literary and historical sections—most compellingly, in a wonderful riff on Sinclair Lewis that interlocks with a controversial defense of Charles Lindbergh in an attempt to revive an intriguing pre-WWII American icon: the plainspoken, isolationist, independent hero from the Great Plains. Amazingly, Vidal, for all his namedropping and urbanity, can’t help but see himself in this role. A similarly palpable identification warms, to fascinating effect, the pieces on writers as diverse as Cavafy, Dawn Powell, and Mark Twain. And a merciless attack on Updike is not only provocative but wickedly funny, a flash of the younger Vidal’s dead-on comic sense.

Vidal’s gossip can feel as stale as his (very dated) political concerns, but few today have what he still displays in abundance: the desire, the intelligence, and the wit to continue living as a true man of letters.

Pub Date: June 5, 2001

ISBN: 0-385-50154-4

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD

A LIFETIME OF RECORDINGS

Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-19-508629-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

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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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