He coulda been a crank, but as he strains “to show how language illuminates The Meaning of Life,” he pulls at mischief...




After a quarter-century, wordmeister Safire (Spread the Word, 1999, etc.) continues to pick happily at the knots of grammar and usage.

Looking to “satisfy the slavering etymological urge in roots-deprived readers,” Safire takes us on an extended—there are hours of word-pleasure here—and clever tour. These selections from his New York Times Magazine “On Language” column are as gratifying here as in their periodical form in hacking away at crappy grammar and word use. Barbs, often personal, are thick and heavy: “What’s a myrmidon?” Safire ingenuously asks in relation to a fellow scribe’s column—when what he really wants to do is poke a sharp stick in the eye of the magniloquent columnist. He lays siege on the “evanescent village of teen slang,” bestows Bloopies for copyediting gaffes, and introduces such gems as “eyeball hang time.” He gives euphemisms the thrashing they deserve, as in the case of “faith-based” when what the writer means is “religion-based”: “After all, virtually all of us have faith in something or other.” Safire admits it when a rule, even a New York Times style-manual rule, is fallible: “O.K., so our rule doesn’t always work. But it usually does, and if we did away with rules, how could language mavens ever correct anybody?” And we applaud his courage for running his own grammar out on the laundry line for all to see and critique, and then for printing the zippy responses from his readership, be they correcting his usage—he made a hash of “cement” and “concrete”—or his ill-veiled agendas (from Stephen Sondheim: “Like his fellow reactionaries, he’s an unregenerate pork-barreler: He attaches his views, no matter how irrelevant, to anything that moves”). Now that’s an effective piece of rhetoric, yet Safire manages to lure Sondheim back to his own language camp.

He coulda been a crank, but as he strains “to show how language illuminates The Meaning of Life,” he pulls at mischief rather than beards, and laughs all the way to the OED.

Pub Date: June 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-7432-4243-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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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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