Written with verve and panache, this sparkling biography is enjoyable from start to finish.



An enthusiastic biography of the metaphysical poet, scholar, and cleric.

Prizewinning children’s-book author Rundell, a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, delivers a fresh, delightful biography of John Donne (1572-1631). A staunch admirer—she places the “finest love poet in the English language” alongside Shakespeare—her book is an “act of evangelism.” Donne “was incapable of being just one thing,” writes the author. “He reimagined and reinvented himself, over and over.” She nimbly captures Donne in all his guises as well as the historical period in which he lived. A “lifelong strainer after words and ideas,” a youthful Donne kept a commonplace book at Oxford—now lost; Rundell suggests its technique of literary alchemy influenced his method of writing. At London’s Inns of Court, he mostly studied frivolity and wrote some “bold and ornery and intricate” poetry that “sounded like nobody else.” As Rundell reports, The Oxford English Dictionary records some 340 words he invented. Donne dressed fashionably and wore “his wit like a knife in his shoe.” In 1596, bereft after his brother’s death, Donne was “keen to get away” and tried his hand at privateering. Working for a wealthy friend, he wrote numerous rakish, erotic verse with stylistic “tussles and shifts,” often untitled, which he shared with others rather than publish. Alongside poems that “glorify and sing the female body and heart,” Rundell writes, “are those that very potently don’t.” It should come as no surprise, she notes, that someone who lived through a plague, watched many of his 12 children die young, and had suicidal thoughts wrote some of literature’s greatest poems about death. Long dependent on patronage to cover debts, “slowly, in both doubt and hope, Donne’s eyes turned towards the Church,” and he was ordained. King James appointed the “star preacher of the age,” famous for his metaphor-laden sermons, Dean of St. Paul’s in 1621.

Written with verve and panache, this sparkling biography is enjoyable from start to finish.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-374-60740-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2022

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.


Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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