A memorable hybrid of heartfelt memoir and fond commemoration framed in Caribbean history, familial turmoil, and...



A journalist reflects on his New Jersey childhood and the nurturing Jamaican nanny who raised him.

Urken’s resonant debut memoir doubles as a biographical tribute to Dezna Sanderson, the “Jamaican Mary Poppins” who helped raise him for over a decade. As the doting family nanny, Sanderson emerged as the saving grace in a Jewish household fractured by dysfunction from his parents’ tumultuous “screaming matches” as well as drug addiction and mental illness. Since her arrival in 1988, Sanderson became Urken’s anchor, a sweet, sage mother figure whose own Seventh-day Adventist sumptuary laws nicely mirrored Jewish restrictions. As generous as she was in her caregiving for the author and his sister, Nicole, she remained reserved about her own background. Urken writes with clarity and intense focus about his indebtedness to Sanderson, who was “like a protective buffer,” and he shares many treasured memories of their time together. This fondness continued into his adulthood until the devastating news of Sanderson’s death in 2010. Eager to discover and honor more of her heritage, the author traveled to Jamaica. Despite tight-lipped family members, he launched a cross-cultural exploration of her life in Mahogany Hill, seeking “to find the root of her strong voice to understand my own.” Urken immersed himself in Jamaica’s history of political unrest involving the CIA’s covert military invasion of the region in the 1970s and the ensuing economic destabilization, which sabotaged the Sanderson family’s pineapple plantation. Many fled the region, and Sanderson, despite birthing eight children, wound up on the Urkens’ doorstep. A family visit to Sanderson’s gravesite forms one of the memoir’s more poignant scenes. The author’s memories and descriptions of Sanderson are aptly adulatory in honoring a cherished, compassionate caregiver who, in large part, is responsible for the man he has become today.

A memorable hybrid of heartfelt memoir and fond commemoration framed in Caribbean history, familial turmoil, and unconditional maternal love.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-976-828-604-8

Page Count: 206

Publisher: Ian Randle Publishers

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2019

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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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