Delicious little essays of powerful intellectual curiosity.




Charming, loose-fitting essays about the sublime and silly pleasures of reading the dictionary.

Mexican-American Stavans (On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, 2002, etc.) is an enormously personable writer, deeply read without letting on that he’s also an academic (Latino American and Latino Culture/Amherst). His essays probe with a light touch his quarry as a “dictionary hunter,” first prompted by his father’s gift of Appleton’s New English-Spanish and Spanish-English Dictionary when Stavans first moved to New York from Mexico in 1985. With it, he read Moby-Dick. He believes a dictionary’s function is to “build character,” and indeed his essay “Pride and Prejudice” mentions many of the lexicographers over the ages who have attempted to impart this very quality to their readers: Aristophanes of Byzantium and his first Lexeis; John Baret’s work of 1573; Samuel Johnson; the Encyclopeadists; Noah Webster; and the editors of the towering Oxford English Dictionary, just to name a few. Stavans includes some fine scholarship in Arabic and Hispanic dictionaries, as well. In “The Invention of Love,” he delineates how definitions of love (in different language dictionaries) help define a culture, while “The Zebra and the Swear Word” explores hilariously erroneous information given by dictionaries, such as the definition for day offered by the modern Real Academia Espanola as “the time the Sun takes to apparently circle the Earth.” And where, he wonders, are the swear words in the OED—words everybody uses but lexicographers are still embarrassed by? (There’s a nice catalogue of them.) “In the Land of Lost Words,” Stavans rues the rejection by dictionaries of such spectacular vernacular words as the Mexican street term for kitsch, rascuachismo, the remembrance of which affects Stavans with its elastic, ambivalent connotations. In “Dr. Johnson’s Visit,” he imagines receiving the great 18th-century lexicographer in his home and showing him his shelf of Cervantes translations—English, he notes proudly, was the first language the great author’s work was translated into.

Delicious little essays of powerful intellectual curiosity.

Pub Date: April 1, 2005

ISBN: 1-55597-419-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2005

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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 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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