THE GIVEN AND THE MADE

STRATEGIES OF POETIC REDEFINITION

A brief but stimulating meditation on four significant American poets by an indispensable critic. Vendler's (English/Harvard Univ.) dismissive June 18 New York Times Book Review assessment of Bill Moyers's The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets caused a stir among writers who took issue with her negative appraisal of the populist and mutlicultural literary mission. Here she returns with four cool-headed, serenely selfless essays that originated as the T.S. Eliot Lectures given at the University of Kent. Her subject is the characteristic obsessions guiding the work of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Rita Dove, and Jorie Graham, each of whom, in Vendler's view, has transformed obsession into art. Vendler guides us as she follows the course of the obsession through the transformation. Berryman's ``given'' obsession, in her judgment, was manic-depression and alcohol addiction, leading the poet to construct in his work a ``phantasmagoria'' of the id. Lowell's was history, reconfigured from the burden and the honor of the writer's distinguished public ancestry. Dove's ``rethinking of the lyric poet's relation to the history of blackness'' sprang from her identity as an African- American, while Graham's ``given'' is her trilingualism, leading to a complex metaphysics embodied in language. The particular virtue of Vendler is to write with the authority of a scholar and the alertness of a contemporary about a form of art too often deluged by arcana, professional jargon, literary back-patting, or neglect. Encountering clarity in analytical writing that fulfills clarity of thought is a rare event; even Vendler's detractors, who assail her conservative aesthetic, should acknowledge her ongoing accomplishment. A literary challenge and a companion for the common reader, whoever that may be, of 20th-century poetry.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-674-35431-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1995

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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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Naughty good fun from an impossibly sardonic rogue, quickly rising to Twainian stature.

ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY

The undisputed champion of the self-conscious and the self-deprecating returns with yet more autobiographical gems from his apparently inexhaustible cache (Naked, 1997, etc.).

Sedaris at first mines what may be the most idiosyncratic, if innocuous, childhood since the McCourt clan. Here is father Lou, who’s propositioned, via phone, by married family friend Mrs. Midland (“Oh, Lou. It just feels so good to . . . talk to someone who really . . . understands”). Only years later is it divulged that “Mrs. Midland” was impersonated by Lou’s 12-year-old daughter Amy. (Lou, to the prankster’s relief, always politely declined Mrs. Midland’s overtures.) Meanwhile, Mrs. Sedaris—soon after she’s put a beloved sick cat to sleep—is terrorized by bogus reports of a “miraculous new cure for feline leukemia,” all orchestrated by her bitter children. Brilliant evildoing in this family is not unique to the author. Sedaris (also an essayist on National Public Radio) approaches comic preeminence as he details his futile attempts, as an adult, to learn the French language. Having moved to Paris, he enrolls in French class and struggles endlessly with the logic in assigning inanimate objects a gender (“Why refer to Lady Flesh Wound or Good Sir Dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied?”). After months of this, Sedaris finds that the first French-spoken sentiment he’s fully understood has been directed to him by his sadistic teacher: “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.” Among these misadventures, Sedaris catalogs his many bugaboos: the cigarette ban in New York restaurants (“I’m always searching the menu in hope that some courageous young chef has finally recognized tobacco as a vegetable”); the appending of company Web addresses to television commercials (“Who really wants to know more about Procter & Gamble?”); and a scatological dilemma that would likely remain taboo in most households.

Naughty good fun from an impossibly sardonic rogue, quickly rising to Twainian stature.

Pub Date: June 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-316-77772-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2000

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