A meandering, reflective, satisfying, intimate discovery of Russian history—though it may be too academic for many general...

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MOLOTOV'S MAGIC LANTERN

TRAVELS IN RUSSIAN HISTORY

Journalist Polonsky (English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance, 1998) steps back into a near-vanished world of Soviet and Russian history.

Having moved to Moscow from England, the author and her family lived on Romanov Lane, in the apartment just below where Stalin’s henchman Vyacheslav Molotov resided during the last years of his life (d. 1986). Polonsky was invited by the current resident to poke around the flat, and through his library she was able to illuminate “discrete moments” from Russian history as through a magic lantern: “Russian history and the Russian present have revealed themselves to me in glimpses,” she writes, “through a narrow lens, like the faded images waiting for light in this antique slide projector.” She was spurred in her scholarly pursuits by her own intensive reading. Throughout the narrative, she returns to her favorite works, including Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary, Dostoevsky’s novels and the poetry of Osip Mandelstam. Romanav Lane was the rarefied address, successively, of the Russian aristocracy of “old Moscow,” intriguers during the Revolution, the Soviet nomenklatura and today’s wealthy financiers. Polonsky ventured on expeditions to far-flung cities such as Lutsino, a dacha colony above the hills of Moscow where distinguished scientists loyal to the Soviet state were offered summer homes; Mozzhinka, where Stalin’s reluctant president of the Academy of Sciences, Sergei Vavilov, wrote his private memoirs; and some of the sites sacred to Chekhov, a favorite writer of Molotov as well as the author. She also visited Vologda, where “any individual who ever opposed the power of the state is likely to have passed through”; the northern cities of Archangel and Murmansk; and several Siberian towns—all in search of swiftly disappearing traces of these complicated, tragic lives.

A meandering, reflective, satisfying, intimate discovery of Russian history—though it may be too academic for many general readers.

Pub Date: Jan. 11, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-21197-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2010

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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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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

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