Beautifully wrought memoir of a modest American dream morphing into a terrible nightmare.


The Will O'Wisp: A Memoir

A woman looks back on her dysfunctional family life growing up in New Jersey and abroad.

As much a profile of her disturbed mother as a memoir of the author’s youth, Ann’s crisp, assured memoir presents a depressing landscape inhabited by damaged people. The story begins in 2004 with the author driving from Alaska to the Appalachians to visit her aged mother. “Can…you…forgive…me?” her mother asks—an ominous foreshadowing of what’s to come. The story then flashes back to the 1950s, with the author the youngest child of an Italian-American factory worker and an Irish woman he’d met in England at the end of World War II. Ann was a daddy’s girl but feared early on that her depressed mother, Eileen, didn’t love her family. After divorcing Ann’s passive father, Eileen tried to turn their kids against him. Spiraling down to shabby neighborhoods and taverns, she married an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, and the family’s fortunes improved even if their home life didn’t. Eileen—“an alcoholic Irish floozy with a passel of half-grown brats”—tried to fit into middle-class suburban life by hiding her kids in the basement, belittling them to strangers, and converting to Protestantism. Equally unsuccessful at assimilating, Ann moved with the family to the Azores and Okinawa, becoming even more of an outsider and eventually being institutionalized back in New Jersey. The book ends decades later with Ann as a grown woman in Alaska, reflecting on the deaths of her mother and her middle-aged sister, who had tried to live up to their mother’s impossible standards. The clear, sometimes darkly humorous, and often beautiful writing runs counterpoint to the craziness and ugliness of the life Ann describes. She delivers a powerfully sad story, at times dwelling a bit too much on the quotidian activities of childhood, such as playing doctor with a young neighbor boy. But the tales of this broken family ring true and resonate in the personal details the author reveals. All the characters are lifelike and believable in their human imperfections. Especially convincing is the finely wrought portrait of a mother who seems to hate her life and, often, even her children.

Beautifully wrought memoir of a modest American dream morphing into a terrible nightmare.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1-105-99335-0

Page Count: 306

Publisher: Lulu

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2015

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Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-19-508629-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

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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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