HUGGING THE SHORE

ESSAYS AND CRITICISM

It's entirely possible that history's choice for the finest literary critic to find steady exposure in the pages of the New Yorker will not be Edmund Wilson—but rather John Updike, who here gathers over 100 reviews and essays from recent years. The years go by and he simply gets better: the style is astonishingly fluid without hurry; he never relaxes with pen in hand; he grows less sentimental, more minutely discriminating. Old enthusiasms taken on a finished, reflective patina—as in the essays on Nabokov, toward whom Updike is no less admiring now, but with more awareness of a narcissism at work, hollowing out the center of Nabokov's art. (Updike sees this as Saul Bellow's problem too.) And, if the critical breathiness of some of Updike's early appreciations has been reined in, there's been a compensatory opening-up to thoroughness: in order to study Vonnegut without patronization, Updike reads and discusses every single book; Muriel Spark, Queneau, Grass, and Calvino receive the same magisterial overview. Not too surprisingly, then, Updike's favorite sort of fiction strains—like his own novels and criticism—to make things plain, to bring things to light. ("The narrow skin of sensation just this side of darkness if where [Henry] Green's writing lies.") Likewise, a piece on Roland Barthes highlights Updike's innate distrust for methodology's short cuts, his belief in a certain sort of redemptive hard work, a grace of excess. But while much of this collection reaffirms quintessential Updike attitudes, at least as impressive are his searches for literary distinction in styles far different from his own: an exploration of the difficult Robert Pinget; a consideration (and, finally, a dismissal) of Peter Handke; an almost startling homage to Bruno Schulz. True, there are weaker ventures in this generous collection—into poetry, classic American writers, ethnology and sociology (Doris Day!); and when Updike writes as an active, believing Christian, he can be slightly too crabbed. (A review of the new Oxford Book of Christian Verse complains of not enough eschatological opacity.) Yet whether taking on Hemingway, Christina Stead, or Italian folk tales (one of the few demolition jobs here—and very heady), Updike's focus is never coyly hidden; "Personal experience taken cabalistically: this formula fits much modern fiction and, complain though we will, is hard to transcend. Being ourselves is the one religious experience we all have, an experience sharable only partially, through the exertions of talk and art." The least lazy of our critics, he may now be our best.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 1983

ISBN: 0880013982

Page Count: 919

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1983

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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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