For the Wasserstein fan who remembers reading something of hers somewhere sometime and wants to rediscover it—others will...

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SHIKSA GODDESS

OR, HOW I SPENT MY FORTIES

A scattered collection of 25 personal, mostly pithy magazine and newspaper pieces from the Pulitzer-winning playwright, with a couple of moving, deeply meditative entries for added heft.

When she’s not procrastinating on her latest Broadway play, Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles, etc.) supplements her income on assignment for the New York Times and New Woman, et al. She can be forgiven, then, the occasional tossed-off celebrity puff piece or 500-word exegesis on body weight (a favorite topic). Taken together, though, they make for a pick-and-choose perusal at best, rather than a satisfying, sit-down read. But this is Wasserstein, after all, the celebrated chronicler of haute, neurotic society, and any time spent with her promises not a few funny, conspiratorial glances at the silliness that surrounds us. There’s the very public discoveries of Jewish heritage among politicians, for starters, lending Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright some claim to chosen-people status and thus leading Wasserstein—“Shiksa Goddess”—out of her “Episcopalian” closet. And self-deprecating to the end, the author—a “walking magnet for fats, sugars, and useless carbos”—imagines a transformed world of fashion and advertising glamorized by the curvaceous and bodacious (“Waif Goodbye, Hello Bulge”): “By now everyone knows Byelorussia, the five-foot-four, 250-pound, blue-eyed cover girl whose signature style is flat shoes and elastic-waistband skirts.” Beyond the parody, there are some abrupt, though welcome, shifts into the earnest and emotional—most notably the last two pieces, in which the single Wasserstein plots a course for pregnancy, changes her mind, watches her sister die of cancer, and then (in last year’s heralded New Yorker piece “Days of Awe”) gives birth at 26 weeks to Lucy Jane. It’s a small piece of writing hidden at the end of too much frivolity that points to Wasserstein as one of the most effective personal essayists we have.

For the Wasserstein fan who remembers reading something of hers somewhere sometime and wants to rediscover it—others will wonder what all the fuss is about. Skip to the end.

Pub Date: May 15, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-41165-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2001

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

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 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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