A highly unique account but one that occasionally strays from its most engaging elements.




A memoir about one man’s brush with death and how he took solace in poetry.

At the outset of this work, novelist Khaghani (The Grand Conference of Birds at Grant Park, 2012) tells of how, early one morning, he suffered a heart attack. He initially told himself that it was just digestive problems, but when he finally went to the emergency room, the truth was revealed. After surgery, the author had to wait a month before undergoing yet another procedure. During this time, he writes, his body was weak, and as he struggled with basic tasks, such as walking to the bathroom, he had time to contemplate big questions about life and death: “Dying is easy, life is hard. Why is it so?” Khaghani admits that talk of dying always made him uncomfortable—and now that he was faced with his own mortality, he was uncertain about where to turn. His answer came from the writings of the 11th-century Persian scholar Omar Khayyam. He was perhaps best known in his own time as a mathematician, although he’s credited with producing a great deal of poetry, introduced to the Western world in the 19th century in translations from English writer Edward FitzGerald. The author offers both FitzGerald’s and his own translations of Khayyam’s works, which he says he used to make sense of the fragility of life. He explains that, eventually, his goal became to “energize soul and body with a true love of life regardless of the ever-present threat of death.” Khaghani make clear in this text that Khayyam’s bluntness is his strength, and for readers who are new to the poet’s work, this bluntness can be terrifying as well as enlightening: “Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, / Before we too into the dust descend.” The author’s takeaway from the poet’s work was that “death was no longer a strange dark monster ready to swallow me whole on the spot.” Whether or not the reader agrees with this insight, Khaghani’s book does effectively illuminate what it means to be close to death yet determined to make sense of it all. Just as the author’s translations contrast with those of FitzGerald, readers will come to see that there are varied ways of looking at one’s own existence—no matter how doomed it may be. The author’s prose style is very loose throughout, and following his thought process isn’t always a simple matter; aside from Khayyam’s works, he incorporates such disparate material as Plato’s philosophy, a reference to a Japanese tea ceremony, and even a conversation with a fly. These sources offer a broad range of ideas, but they do take away from the nuanced focus on the poet’s work. After all, a reader need not search far to find books that analyze Plato’s thoughts on death, but a new and deeply personal translation of Khayyam’s poetry is a much rarer find.

A highly unique account but one that occasionally strays from its most engaging elements. 

Pub Date: March 28, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-986476-45-4

Page Count: 118

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: May 24, 2018

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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 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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