WHY READ THE CLASSICS?

An irrepressibly lively collection of the late Italian novelist’s literary criticism. Between the 1950s and his death in 1985, Calvino (Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, 1997, etc.) published many occasional pieces on classic works and authors. Most of these, which appeared in newspapers or as prefaces and speeches, are only a few pages long. In 1991 his wife assembled a collection of these writings that is fuller than those included in the two compilations published during his lifetime. Consequently, 11 of the 36 essays here have already been published in English. The duplication matters little: Calvino is such a congenial guide to his personal canon of great works that one is grateful to have all the essays together. The opening piece, from which the title of the book is drawn, democratically meditates on the importance of classics, which are books that “imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable.” So Robert Louis Stevenson has as much claim to the category as Voltaire or Henry James. Eclectic in taste and interest, Calvino ranges widely from the ancient world (Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Pliny) to early modern (Galileo, Cardano, Ariosto) to modern (Voltaire, Diderot, and on to Queneau and Borges). What interests him most, though, is narrative fiction from Robinson Crusoe to the present. The continental heavyweights are represented in force (Stendhal, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Balzac), but Anglo-American fiction seems to hold a special appeal for him. He offers essays on Defoe, Twain, James, Stevenson, Dickens, Conrad, and Hemingway. Of course not every important writer can be included in such a work, and certain writers are strikingly absent: Kafka, Shakespeare, Joyce, and Proust, to name just a few. Calvino never set about to write an inclusive work. Still, given his importance in contemporary letters and given the posthumous character of the book, this collection would have benefited from a good afterword on the writer as critic and his tastes. It would have been interesting to know what he didn’t like and why. Brisk and unpretentiously sophisticated, Calvino’s literary essays are invigorating, thought-provoking, and pleasurable reading.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 1999

ISBN: 0-679-41524-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1999

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more