In-depth critical analysis handled with a light touch and unfailing respect for the reader’s intelligence: cultural...

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THE SHAKESPEARE WARS

CLASHING SCHOLARS, PUBLIC FIASCOES, PALACE COUPS

Bestselling author Rosenbaum (Explaining Hitler, 1998, etc.) examines the current state of Shakespearean studies and productions.

His attention-grabbing title refers primarily (and not entirely convincingly) to the opening chapters, which also contain the most daunting material: accounts of vehement academic disagreements about whether the different versions of Hamlet and Lear (including the heroes’ last words) represent Shakespeare’s revisions or printers’ variations; a blistering rejection of Vassar professor Don Foster’s claim to have discovered a funeral elegy by the Bard; lengthy discussions of such arcane matters as the respective merits of the Bad and Good Quartos as well as the First Folio. Despite Rosenbaum’s breezy, conversational prose and lively portraits of Harold Jenkins, Eric Sams, Gary Taylor, Frank Kermode and other key scholars, general readers may find themselves somewhat at sea here. Things pick up when the author shifts to Shakespearean directors like Peter Hall, whose passionate argument that a pause is necessary at the end of each line of iambic pentameter shows how textual discussions affect live performances, and Peter Brook, whose legendary 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream forever changed the way Shakespeare was acted and read. Rosenbaum skillfully draws together a wealth of information to highlight a few key points, in particular the “bottomlessness” of Shakespeare, who in the view of scholars like Stephen Booth was able to make language embrace manifold contradictions and convey a multiplicity of meanings so that, as Brook put it, when we split open each line, “the energy that can be released is infinite.” Rosenbaum warmly evokes the sheer pleasure of reading Shakespeare, the dizzying play of feelings and ideas that “keep the mind in a constant motion.” Though he politely but bluntly skewers the windy bombast of such self-proclaimed “bardolators” as Harold Bloom, the author is as much in awe of Shakespeare’s life-embracing genius as anyone—indeed, because he examines it in such careful detail, he makes a far more persuasive (and very moving) case for the uniqueness of the Bard’s contribution to world literature and theater.

In-depth critical analysis handled with a light touch and unfailing respect for the reader’s intelligence: cultural journalism of the highest order.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 2006

ISBN: 0-375-50339-0

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

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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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