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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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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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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