One-Minute Book Reviews

September 30, 2010

Writing About War Is Hell: Megan Stack’s Memoir, ‘Every Man in This Village Is a Liar’

A foreign correspondent looks back on her work in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War. By Megan K. Stack. Doubleday, 255 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Megan Stack wears her emotions on her flak jacket. She was twenty-five years old when, a few weeks after the Twin Towers fell, the Los Angeles Times sent her to Afghanistan to cover the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In this overwrought memoir she tries, as she puts it, to pull “poetry from war.”

At first exhilarated by her posting to Afghanistan, she grew disillusioned by the brutality and corruption she saw over the next six years as she traveled to strategic outposts in what the Bush administration called “the war on terror” – Iraq, Yemen, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. She maps her disenchantment along with her destinations in Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, a memoir in the form of a series of linked narrative essays about the cataclysms she observed.

Stack writes in a florid style far removed from that of great war correspondents like Ernie Pyle and George Orwell, whose unembellished prose threw the horrors of combat into high relief. And her prose is much more self-conscious than that of veteran contemporary journalists like Martha Raddatz of ABC News, whose The Long Road Home is one of the best books on the human cost of war in Iraq.  Stack slips into Libya and finds Moammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship a place where a doctor “muttered nervously,” a government agent “laughed nastily,” and “Sun glinted evilly on the sea.” The angrier she gets, the more overheated her writing becomes. She is seething with rage by the time she sees old and sick people abandoned by fleeing kin during Israel’s heavy bombing of Lebanon, where the terrorist group Hezbollah was based, in 2006:

“I hate the Lebanese families for leaving them here. I hate Hezbollah for not evacuating them, for ensuring civilian deaths that will bolster their cause. I hate Israel for wasting this place on the heads of the feeble. I hate all of us for participating in this great fiction of the war on terror, for pretending there is a framework, a purpose, for this torment.”

Like much else in this book, that rant tells you more about Stack than about the conflict she seeks to describe. And what it tells you is muddled: It conflates the post-9/11 “war on terror” with the older hostilities among Israel and its neighbors.

When she looks outward instead of inward, Stack can offer sharp portraits of her subjects, including countries Americans regard as their allies. In Egypt she is tear-gassed as president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s “modern-day pharaoh,” rigs an election by using riot police to keep supporters of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood party away from the polls. Her report on the savage crackdown on voters lends credibility to words of a human-rights official who told her “that Egypt, of all the Arab states, came closest” to having a gulag.

The account of election fraud in Egypt also reveals her eye for subtle details about how violence affects ordinary lives. Stack notes that as voters were being tear-gassed by Mubarak’s legions, protesters shredded rags and pressed them to their mouths. “Egyptian hospitality unflagged,” she writes,” “they kept offering me their rags because I was a foreigner.”

Best line: “McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks make women stand in separate lines [in Saudi Arabia]. Hotels like the InterContinental and Sheraton won’t rent a woman a room without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone are regarded as prostitutes.”

Worst line: No. 1: “I learned to count the fighter jets that passed overhead in my sleep.” How could she count them if she was sleeping? No. 2: “Violence is a reprint of itself, an endless copy. I mean to say that by itself, violence is not the point. A bomb, a battle, a bullet is just a hole torn in the fabric of the day.” Tell it to someone who took a bullet. No. 3. “Sunlight glinted evilly …” Every Man in This Village Is a Liar brims with cloying phrases like that one.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: The Long Road Home, a fine account by by ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz of the 2004 assault on American soldiers in Sadr City Iraq, and its aftermath.

Published: June 2010

Caveat lector: This review of Every Man In This Village Is a Liar was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ. This post shows the cover of the U.K. edition of the book.

About the author: Stack reports from Beijing for the Los Angeles Times. She was a finalist, with others in the paper’s Baghdad bureau, for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda.

July 20, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:45 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Tom Rachman
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?

2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?

3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?

4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?

5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?

6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?

7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?

8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?

9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?

10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?

Your book group may also want to read:

And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”

Vital statistics:

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.

A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 10, 2008

What’s the Difference Between Wit and Humor? (Quote of the Day / Ambrose Bierce via Drew Gilpin Faust)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:56 pm
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Critics often distinguish between “wit” and “humor” in analyzing comic novels and other literary forms intended to amuse. What’s the difference? Drew Gilpin Faust writes of the American journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce in her recent This Republic of Suffering, a 2008 National Book Award finalist www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html:

“Ambrose Bierce styled himself a wit, not a humorist, emphasizing the sardonic and cutting intent of his newspaper columns and stories. ‘Humor is tolerant, tender … its ridicule caresses. Wit stabs, begs pardon — and turns the weapon in the wound.’”

Gilpin Faust cites Roy Morris Jr.’s Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (Oxford University Press, 1995) as the source for Bierce’s quote.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 8, 2008

Backscratching in Our Time — Gina Kolata and Jerome Groopman

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work in a way that may have financial benefits for both

 

I usually post these examples of backscratching without comment, but this one is bad on so many levels, I’d like explain why. A pillar of journalistic ethics says that reporters should avoid not just conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts. Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times who has used Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a bestselling author, as a source. As the comments below make clear, she accepted a favor from Groopman — the blurb for Rethinking Thin — that could put money in her pocket if, say, you bought the book based on his recommendation or if a paperback or overseas publisher paid more for the reprint rights because of the quote (and quotes can affect the amount offered). Kolata has compounded the problem by selecting one of Groopman’s essays for Best American Science Writing 2007, a decision that has almost certainly put money in his pocket, given that contributors to anthologies typically receive an up-front fee or a percentage of the royalties or both. She also used on the cover of the paperback edition of her earlier Flu a quote from Groopman that appeared in the Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times. It gives me no pleasure to say any of this because I enjoy Kolata’s work for the Times and regard it as far superior to that of her colleague Jane Brody, who writes the Personal Health column. I also admired much about Flu, Rethinking Thin and Groopman’s How Doctors Think www.oneminutebookreivews.wordpress.com/2007/12/28/.

 

Jerome Groopman on Gina Kolata

“Kolata is a seasoned reporter, and knows how to craft a riveting tale … a masterly recounting of medical history.”

Groopman in a review of Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic (Touchtone, $15, paperback) in the Boston Globe, Dec. 12. 1999. “A masterly recounting of medical history” appears on the cover of the paperback edition of Flu.

 

“An incisive, thought-provoking examination of a subject that concerns us all. This book will educate and illuminate those seeking solid information about the struggle to lose weight.”

Groopman in a blurb on the cover of Kolata’s new Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

Gina Kolata on Jerome Groopman

“I also liked Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article, ‘Being There.’ It raises an issue I had never considered, and in an unforgettable way …”

Gina Kolata on why she choose Groopman’s article as one of the best of the year, in her introduction to Best American Science Writing 2007 (HarperPerennial, $14.95, paperback), edited by Kolata and Jesse Cohen.

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes suggestions about authors should be in “Backscratching in Our Time,” a series in inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine.

© 200X Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 4, 2007

No Salute for the Cover of ‘Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

One of the delights of the syndicated Miss Manners etiquette column is that it has always had a distinctive voice – a bit arch and Victorian yet also witty and commonsensical. You would never know it from the covers of some of its companion books.

Martin’s advice finds a deft balance between the ideals of two eras – the years before and after the upheavals of the 1960s, which swept away many traditional etiquette rules. You see that trait clearly in the cover of Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium (Fireside, 1990), which shows of a photo of a fountain pen next to a personal digital assistant. The title floats above them in the John Hancock-ish script that is Martin’s trademark. And the harmonious coexistence of the quasi-archaic font and sleek PDA reflects her style perfectly.

You can’t say that for the cover of the more recent Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say (Crown, 1998), part of her “Basic Training” series. The regimental stripes seem intended to carry out the mild joke in the title – Martin as a drill sergeant sending you to the boot camp. This is too clever and clashes with her tone. Martin isn’t the John Wayne of etiquette so much as its strict but benevolent headmistress. Worse, the colors of the cover – especially that stop-sign yellow – are shrill, which she isn’t. And on a lunch-hour dash through Borders, who would stop to read a nine-line subtitle in white-on-navy-blue reverse type?

Why does a writer with such a steady voice come across on her covers as a teenager who doesn’t know whether she wants to wear a lemon-meringue prom dress or a flak jacket to the party? Well into her career as an author, Martin moved from Simon & Schuster to the Crown imprint of Random House, which gave her a new look. The mismatch may have extended beyond her covers. Martin’s latest book, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, written with Gloria Kamen, was published by Norton www.wwnorton.com.

If you’re interested in book covers, check out Rekya’s Bookshelf www.rekya.blogspot.com, a site that focuses book design. It has a great blogroll with links to many good book-design sites and designers’ portfolios.

The review of Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say appeared on Nov. 21, 2007, before a second post on Cyber Hymnal that appeared the same day. To read it, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/.

All cover reviews on this site consider not just aesthetics but how well the cover reflects the contents of the book. That’s why the cover reviews don’t appear until after the review has been posted (or, if I have only a line or two to say, in the section of extra material that follows the review, not in the body of the review). These reviews aren’t just about design but about truth in publishing.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 11, 2007

More Essays for People Who Like ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:44 pm
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Just found out that Nora Ephron’s publisher has come out with a new paperback edition of her essay collection Wallflower at the Orgy (Bantam, $12, paperback), which I didn’t mention in my post earlier this week, “Essays for People Who Like I Feel Bad About My Neck” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/09/.

So Wallflower at the Orgy might be easier to find than the Modern Library Edition of her Crazy Salad, which I did mention. The reprint also has an article on the late-20th-century gods of food, including Craig Claiborne, that relates directly to an essay in I Feel Bad About My Neck. But Wallflower at the Orgy deals heavily with media and publishing celebrities whose stars have dimmed, such as Arthur Frommer, Mike Nichols and Helen Gurley Brown. So you might still prefer the essays in Crazy Salad, which show their age less clearly. The writing in both books easily beats almost anything you’ll find today in a typical issue of People or Vanity Fair.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 9, 2007

Essays for People Who Like Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feed Bad About My Neck’

Nora Ephron has reintroduced a lot of people to the pleasure of personal essays with I Feel Bad About My Neck, still a bestseller a year after its publication. What can you read next if you liked that book? A few suggestions:

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (Modern Library, $12.95, paperback), by Nora Ephron.
Crazy Salad is, some ways, better than I Feel Bad About My Neck. Many of its essays appeared in a column on women that Ephron wrote for Esquire, and the security of that perch allowed her to take on bigger subjects and dig deeper into them than she has been able to do more recently. The most memorable essays in Crazy Salad include “A Few Words About Breasts” (about having small breasts) and “Baking Off” (about the Pillsbury Bake-Off).

My Misspent Youth: Essays (Open City, $14, paperback), by Meghan Daum.
Born in 1970, Daum is a generation younger than Ephron, and some of her subjects reflect it: Internet dating, her loathing for wall-to-wall carpeting, and her pile of student-loan and credit-card debt. But like Ephron, she has a gift for blending reporting, self-analysis and satire. Some critics call Daum a snob for insisting on, for example, the superiority of hardwood floors to carpeted. It would more accurate to say that, like Ephron, she has perfected a comic shtick that at times involves turning her tastes into dogmas or neuroses in print. www.meghandaum.com

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14, paperback), by Joan Didion.
This is Didion’s best collection and perhaps her finest book of any kind. Most of its essays were written more than four decades ago, when they became benchmarks for what has become known as the New Journalism. But some anticipate recent fads such as “journaling” (“On Keeping a Notebook”) and blaming misbehavior on “low self-esteem” (“On Self-Respect”), though words like “journaling” and “low self-esteem” would no doubt make Didion gag.

To read a review of I Feel Bad About My Neck, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/. To find the reading group guide to I Feel Bad About My Neck, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 17, 2007

What Rhymes With Beltway? Hart Seely Sends Up Politicians and Others in His Collection of Satirical Poems, ‘Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington’

Filed under: Humor,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:17 pm
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We don’t know much about him.
We don’t know what he’s done.
We don’t know what he stands for,
Or why he wants to run.
We don’t know if he’s able,
Or even if he’s sane,
But, hey! let’s vote Obama,
He looks good off the plane.
— From Hart Seely’s “Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”

Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard. By Hart Seely. Free Press, 128 pp., $12.95.

By Janice Harayda

Songwriter Tom Lehrer once said that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. But Hart Seely proves otherwise in this lively collection of parodies of rhymes by Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.

Seely lacks the finesse of Calvin Trillin, whose satirical verses include his brilliant farewell to the first President Bush in Deadline Poet: “You did your best in your own way, / The way of Greenwich Country Day …” Trillin’s targets are typically self-evident in context, but some of Seely’s poems will need footnotes in five years. Even now, how many people remember the so-called Macaca sandal that involved former Senator George Allen (“The Cock Doth Crow”)? Or know who former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed is or why “his pals were indicted” (“Little Ralph Reed”)? Trillin also uses iambic meter, the closest to natural speech. But Seely has to work with the less subtle meters of the nursery rhymes and other poems he parodies, such as dactylic and anapestic. This constraint can lead to forced or obvious rhymes when he takes on heavier topics, such as Barbara Bush’s influence on her family (“Mother Bush Had a House”) or Rudolph Guiliani’s attempts to cash in politically on the goodwill he earned after 9/11 (“Rememberin’ Rudy”).

Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington works best when it sends up lighter-weight trends that befit its nursery-rhyme format, including the tendency of Americans to favor candidates they don’t know well, such as Barak Obama (“Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”). In a section on the media Seely deftly lampoons Bill O’Reilly, Judith Miller, Tim Russert and others. He also tweaks the focus on Katie Couric’s appearance instead of news after her move to CBS (“Rock-a-Bye, Katie”):

Rock-a-bye, Katie,
In the big chair,
Though the news breaks,
The headline’s your hair.

Over the centuries, many of the rhymes in this book have acquired tunes. And even the weaker poems would lend themselves well to a cabaret show. If entertainer Mark Russell tires of writing his own material, he might find all the help he needs in Seely.

Best line: Some of the sharpest lines in this book have nothing to do with politics, such as these from a poem called “Blah, Blah Blackberry”: “Spam from PayPal. / Spam from a scam. / Spam from a site / That eliminates spam.”

Worst line: Poetry collections usually open with a strong poem, so it’s odd that the first one in this book is weak on every level. “Mother Bush Had a House” tweaks Barbara Bush with lines that could have come from bright eighth-grader: “She had a son, George, / A fine-looking male, / He was not very bright, / But still made it to Yale.” Among the problems: The point of the lines is unoriginal. The adverbs “very” and “still” are there are only for the sake of the meter. And all the lines end with a noun or adjective, when verb end-rhymes tend to be stronger.

Recommendation? Don’t forget this book in December when you need a stocking-stuffer for your most political friend. Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington could also be a great choice for book clubs that want to do more poetry, because it spares neither Republicans nor Democrats. [I may post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book later this summer.]

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: June 2007 www.simonsays.com

Furthermore: Seely is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and on National Public Radio.

Janice Harayda is an award-wrinning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 24, 2006

Poet David Tucker Finds the Life in Deadlines

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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A New Jersey newspaper editor writes about work and makes it work

Late for Work. Poems by David Tucker. Foreword by Philip Levine. Mariner, 53 pp., $12, paperback.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that more journalists don’t write poetry. Newspapers stack their headlines like verse – couplets, tercets, or quatrains – set flush left or stepped. Their stories have a form, the inverted pyramid, that can be as rigid as that of a sestina. And the work of great reporters has, if not meter, a subtle rhythm and an emotional impact comparable to that of a well-made poem.

David Tucker moves to close the gap in Late for Work, winner 2005 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for poetry awarded by the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. Calvin Trillin may call himself a “deadline poet” because he writes his brief, witty poems for The Nation in response to breaking news. But Tucker comes closer to the spirit of the phrase in this wonderful collection of 45 of poems about newspapers and other topics, inspired partly by his work as an assistant managing editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Tucker has little in common with the modern poets who pack their work so densely with opaque symbols and allusions that you need to read them with The Golden Bough in one hand and the Wikipedia URL in the other. He meets you halfway, whether he’s writing about a great-grandfather you haven’t met or a newsroom you haven’t visited. Sometimes he does this by moving gracefully from tragedy to comedy and back again, so that we stand poised between them in his poems as in life. In “Morning Edition,” a journalist leaving work for the day considers the stories in the next edition:

For tomorrow we offer a photo of bloody hands
passing a coffin over a crowd in Baghdad,
and a photo of the President grinning
like a boy who ate a grasshopper,
and the jubilation of the bowling team that won the lottery.

Later the journalist recalls other stories in the next day’s paper:

The governor lying about the lie he told
the day before, the state senator from Bergen
calling his committee into secret session.
Killer Tree in Rahway, roots weakened
by rain, this rain, toppling on a doctor and his wife
as they sped for the Rahway exist, late for dinner.

Tucker flirts with classic forms like the sonnet and, in “The Woman in the Faraway House,” terza rima (while avoiding its overlapping rhymes):

She always has one more thing to say
about the argument
we had yesterday

But if he nods to Dante and later poets like Jane Kenyon, Tucker makes his subjects his own. One of his themes is that we have the capacity for hope even when hope has let us down — or we have let it down – many times. This idea comes into its fullest flower in “Detective Story,” which begins:

Happiness is a stubborn old detective who won’t give up on us
though we have been missing a long, long time,
who stops in towns where we once lived and asks about us
in a grocery where we shopped ten years ago …

Philip Levine chose Late for Work for the Bakeless Prize and has written an introduction that, though more self-indulgent and less helpful than it might have been, is right in one respect. This book suggests that life, for all its disappointments, can still be “warm and satisfying.”

Best line: From “Detective Story”: “A breeze smelling of the river enters the room though/ no river is near; the house is quiet and calm for no reason;/ the search does end, the detective finally does sleep, far away/ from anything he imagined, his dusty shoes still on.”

Worst line: From “Downsizing”: Tucker writes of bosses whispering “at the water cooler” and “junior executives” going to lunch. Most companies no longer have a “water cooler” or “junior executives” – everybody’s a “manager” now – and both of these fixtures of corporate life had disappeared by the time the word “downsizing” entered the language, so imagery here isn’t just clichéd but internally inconsistent.

Recommended if … you’d love to read some contemporary poetry that you can understand without having a graduate degree in English

Published: April 2006

To hear David Tucker read from Late for Work, click on this link:
http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2006/04/05/books/20060405_TUCKER_AUDIOSS.html

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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