One-Minute Book Reviews

August 12, 2012

‘New Jersey Noir’ – Taking the Final Exit in the Garden State

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Poetry,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:50 pm
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“It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed” Paul Muldoon

New Jersey Noir. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Akashic, 274 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

“Is noir the dominant sensibility of New Jersey?” a writer for New Jersey Monthly asked in a review of this book. No, that distinction belongs to tragicomedy. But New Jersey has an underside barely suggested by what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “noir drama” of The Sopranos. New Jersey Noir exposes part of it in 19 previously unpublished short stories and poems set in places far from the back rooms of strip clubs and pork-butchers’ shops.

Oates notes in her wide-ranging introduction that prototypical noir fiction involves a man “whose desire for a beautiful woman has blinded him to her true, manipulative, evil self.” Her book revives that tradition in Jonathan Santlofer’s “Lola,” a contemporary tale of a femme fatale on the PATH train from Hoboken to New York. Other stories in New Jersey Noir support Oates’ view that noir treachery can involve something more complex than sexual double-dealing: “a fundamental betrayal of the spirit – an innocence devastated by the experience of social injustice or political corruption.” An idealistic technician at a Newark morgue falls victim to her own naiveté and to the duplicity of a co-worker who sells corpses’ hair to wig shops in S.A. Solomon’s “Live for Today.” A rookie cop is a pawn in a dangerous game that pits his father, a Republican U.S. Attorney, against the powerful Camden County Democratic machine in Lou Manfredo’s “Soul Anatomy.” And a hard-up South Jersey substitute teacher agrees to a friend’s plan to sell glass eels illegally, only to run into thugs running a lethal game of pay-to-play, in “Glass Eels.”

Faithful to noir conventions, the bleakness of these stories goes mostly unrelieved by devices used in other types suspense fiction, such as a wisecracking protagonist or a sentient tabby cat who helps to solve crimes. But the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon offers an inspired bit of comic relief in his satirical poem, “Noir, NJ.” As he sends up noir clichés, Muldoon neatly encapsulates a theme of this book in two of his lines: “It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed.”

Best line: In her excellent 10-page introduction, Oates gives an overview of noir themes in novels, movies and television shows; of each story or poem she has chosen; and of true crimes in New Jersey that provide context for New Jersey Noir.

Worst line: Oates: “Quintessential noir centers around …”

Published: November 2011

Furthermore: The 19 original stories and poems in this collection cover New Jersey cities and towns that include Montclair, Princeton, Paramus, Rutherford, Cherry Hill, Long Branch, Asbury Park and Atlantic City. Publishers Weekly and New Jersey Monthly also reviewed the book. The Akashic Noir series has produced more than 50 other books, including London Noir, Paris Noir, Seattle Noir, Lone Star Noir and Twin Cities Noir.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2011

‘The Greatest American Poem’ — Quote of the Day / Harold Bloom

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 am
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Critics may argue about whether the greatest American novel is Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Harold Bloom doesn’t equivocate about the best poem. The “essential American poem” is Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” he argues in his new The Anatomy of Influence

“‘Lilacs’ seems to me the greatest American poem because its largeness of vision is inevitably expressed by a metric of which the poet had become a master,” writes Bloom, perhaps America’s most distinguished academic critic. “There is a biblical reverberation to Whitman’s elegy, and not only because the hermit thrush’s song of death echoes the erotic intensity of the Song of Songs.” Bloom adds: “With splendid tact, Whitman avoids praising Lincoln’s victory over his own countrymen, and creates an elegy of 206 lines worthy of comparison with Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais.’”

www.janiceharayda.com

May 23, 2010

David Wojahn’s ‘Pentecost’ – A Poet Honors His Father’s Task of Guarding Ezra Pound in a Wartime Prison in Italy

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:20 pm
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It’s a brave poet who writes about Pentecost – often called Whitsun in Britain – in the wake of Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” one of the greatest poems of the middle decades of the 20th century. But David Wojahn succeeds beautifully in his “Pentecost,” which you can listen to in a podcast on the Poetry Foundation site.

“Pentecost” at first appears to be about the human inability to comprehend the divine. An American soldier in Pisa in 1945 sees in a piazza a light “infinitely brighter than the light he woke to” and imagines that he has “the power to speak in Greek, Italian, and Chinese.” But he blames “the oddness of his thoughts” on grappa he’d been drinking. He can attribute his glimpse of transcendence only to the Italian brandy.

But Wojahn says in the Poetry Foundation podcast that some of the inspiration for “Pentecost” came from his father’s wartime task of guarding the poet Ezra Pound, who was imprisoned for treason in a wire cage in an American detention camp near Pisa and had a nervous breakdown there. So “Pentecost” is also about the link between what are perceived as spiritual and mental “derangement” : What is the difference between the speaking in tongues that occurred on the first Pentecost and the strange words that Pound uttered in his cage, or wrote in his Pisan Cantos?

Quotations are from the podcast — I couldn’t find a copy of the poem to read — and line breaks or other elements may differ in the printed version.

May 14, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – The 2010 Poetry Winner, Rae Armantrout’s ‘Versed’

The latest in a series of posts on literary-prize winners and whether they deserved their honors

Versed: Wesleyan Poetry Series. By Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, 120 pp., $22.95, $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rae Armantrout writes poems for an age of spin-offs of spin-offs. The theme of many of the 87 poems in Versed is more complex than “you can’t trust appearances”: It’s that you can’t even be sure they are “appearances.” Reality is unknowable.

Armantrout tells us that truth sometimes hides behind the intentional or unintentional deceptions of others. She writes in “New”:

The new pop song
is about getting real:

“You had a bad day.
The camera don’t lie.”

But they’re lying
to you
about the camera.

Reality can be elusive for reasons more subtle than lies, including the difficulty knowing ourselves or others. Armantrout writes in “The Racket”: “It’s as if / the real / thing – / your own absence – / can never be / uncovered.

Armantrout has said that the first half of Versed focuses on the dark forces that emerged in the United States during the war in Iraq and the second half on the shadows that fell over her life after she learned in 2006 that she had adrenal cortical cancer. That’s true as far as it goes. But Armantrout expresses her views on Iraq more obliquely than have poets like Robert Hass, who won the 2008 Pulitzer for poetry for Time and Materials, which includes the antiwar poem “Bush’s War.” In “Own,” she compares medical experts dissecting her illness to televised images of President Bush as she juxtaposes the human body and the body politic:

“We will prevail,”
says the leader on multiple
screens. The words
are empty, but he’s there
inside the lie
everyone believes –

Verses like these have made Armantrout a star of the Language movement in poetry, which seeks to separate words from their usual associations and create something other than the reflection of the world that poets typically strive to produce. Like many others of that school, she combines prose and poetry, often in the same poem.

The poet John Drury has noted that critics of the Language movement see much of its poetry “a mass of pretentious gibberish, a dead end of nonsense verse that is not even funny.” And while the poems in Versed are far from gibberish, they are often enigmatic or abstruse. These lines these from “Left” sound like a trick question:

If an instant
is a measure of

endurance,
what is the distance

from expectancy
to spider?

If the goal of Language poetry is to detach words from their usual connotations, the poems in Versed succeed perhaps too well: They are detached to the point of sterility. They don’t appeal, as great poetry does, both to the intellect and to the emotions, something accomplished by Claudia Emerson’s 2006 poetry winner, Late Wife. The poems in Versed speak more to the mind than to the heart. But they are so intelligent when much poetry is trivial that you can see why the book became the most celebrated collection of published in 2009. Many modern poets steep their work in mythological or other symbols, but Armantrout warns that symbolism is “the party face of paranoia.”

Best line: “Metaphor / is ritual sacrifice. // It kills the look-alike.”

Worst line: “that a discrepancy / is a pea / and I am a Princess.”

Furthermore: Versed won the2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.  James Marcus wrote a brief, eloquent review for the National Book Critics Circle site. The poems in Versed appeared in publications that include The Nation, The New Yorker and The Green Integer Review.

Published: May 2009

Read poems from Versed: “Scumble” and “Guess.”

About the author: Armantrout teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

One-Minute Book Reviews posted Pulitzer Prize Reality Checks for the 2007 biography winner, The Most Famous Man in America; for a 2007 fiction finalist, After This; and for a 2009 fiction finalist, All Souls. The site also has reviews of the 2006 poetry winner, Late Wifeand the 2009 fiction winner, Olive Kitteridge.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

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

March 30, 2010

John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’ Answers the Question, How Should Christians Talk About the Resurrection?

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:52 pm
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A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable

“Seven Stanzas at Easter.” A poem by John Updike. From Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf, 387 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.

Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven — the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross — but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?

Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable …

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed / by the miracle, / and crushed by remonstrance.”

In the first quotation above, the line beginning “the amino acids” should be indented six spaces, which this template won’t allow. The full text of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” appears on the site for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where some lines break in different places than they do in Collected Poems. The Lutheran recounts how Updike submitted to the poem to the Religious Arts Festival at Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

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

December 26, 2009

Children’s Poems About January

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:27 am
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Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays. But John Updike wrote a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year but celebrates the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which has 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”

This post first appeared on Dec. 28, 2008. You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 1, 2009

All the Words to the Baseball Poem ‘Casey at the Bat,’ Free and Online

Okay, parents, here’s my annual reminder: If you want to get the kids interested in poetry, turn off the TV during the seventh-inning stretch and read Ernest L. Thayer’s brief classic baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat.” You’ll find a good, free, legal and complete version on this page of the site for the Academy of American Poets. And you’ll find my review of several picture-book editions of the poem, suitable for children of different ages, here. My review includes Christopher Bing’s Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888, a Caldecott Honor Book.

October 23, 2009

Halloween Poems and Picture-Book Fun for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:57 pm
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Looking for Halloween reading for children under the age of 9 or so? You might want to read these posts:

“Good Halloween Poems for Children”: Where to find short Halloween poems that rhyme, including Robert Graves’s “The Pumpkin,” which begins: “You may not believe it, for hardly could I: / I was cutting a pumpkin to put in a pie …”

“John Ciardi’s Halloween Limerick for Children”: Two books that have the poet’s witty limerick about a haunted house, “The Halloween House.” The first lines are: “I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”

“A Classic Halloween Poem and Jump-Rope Rhyme”: Jump-ropers, remember the one that goes, “Down in the desert / Where the purple grass dies / There sat a witch …”?

“James Stevenson’s ‘That Terrible Halloween Night,’ a Picture Book for Ages 3–8”: A grandfather tells a tale to children who try to scare him on Halloween.

No costume yet? You might enjoy “Literary Halloween Costumes for Children.”

September 11, 2009

Dennis Webster’s ‘Absolutely Wild’ – Good Poems About Animals for Young Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:47 pm
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A collection of 16 light-hearted poems, each about a bird, insect or animal

Absolutely Wild. Poems by Dennis Webster. Illustrations by Kim Webster Cunningham. Godine, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Ogden Nash once delighted Americans with light verse — often about animals — such as, “If called by a panther / Don’t anther.” Something of his spirit lives in the 16 short, rhyming poems in Absolutely Wild.

Dennis Webster isn’t as playful as Nash – he doesn’t use wrenched rhymes like “panther” and “anther.” But he’s written the best collection of original children’s poems about animals I’ve seen since Jack Prelutsky’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. And his daughter has enhanced the book with handsome hand-colored linoleum-block prints framed by decorative borders, some reminiscent of the Ghanaian cloth known as kente.

Each poem in Absolutely Wild has 4–12 lines, a strong rhyme and meter, and a focus on a colorful bird, insect or animal. The 8-line “The Yak” sets the tone:
A shaggy species is the yak
With hairy front and hairy back.
It isn’t very hard to spot him
With hairy top and hairy bottom.

Most poems are odes or odes-in-spirit that marvel at the qualities of a creature in couplet quatrains or another traditional form. In the 8-line “The Ostrich,” Webster celebrates the bird in hymn stanzas, arranged in their usual pattern of alternating lines of four and three iambic feet:
The ostrich is a splendid bird
Who’s taller than most men.
It seems a little bit absurd
To call his wife a hen.

Absolutely Wild also has poems about an ant, snail, moose, shrew, penguin, vulture, gnu, puffin, seagull, giraffe, porcupine, gibbon, platypus and ptarmigan. And it reflects David R. Godine’s attention to craftsmanship in its endpapers and elsewhere. It would make a fine gift for very young children and a good resource for slightly older ones who are learning in school about creatures you won’t usually find in the parking lot at Shop Rite.

Best line: Every child’s favorite is likely to be that “With hairy top and hairy bottom.”

Worst line: “The platypus is quite unique.”

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines of “The Ostrich” should be indented, but the template for this blog won’t permit it.

Published: October 2008

Furthermore: Kim Webster Cunningham has posted the poem about a snail and the art for it on her Web site.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 5, 2009

‘GIRL WITH EVERYTHING ASKS FOR MOOR’ — Witty Summaries of ‘Othello’ and Other Classics, Edited by E. O. Parrott

Filed under: Classics,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:40 pm
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Classic works of lit / Reduced quite a bit / In poems and prose / As fun overflows.

How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening: A Collection of Literary Encapsulations. Compiled and Edited by E.O. Parrott. Penguin, 188 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

One of the most popular posts on this site is a review of E. O. Parrott’s How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, which illustrates the different types of poetry though amusing and self-descriptive verse. No less delightful is Parrott’s How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening, a collection of 150 brief and witty summaries of classic novels, plays and poems.

In this tongue-in-cheek volume, Tim Hopkins gives you Othello in 10 tabloid headline parodies, including GIRL WITH EVERYTHING ASKS FOR MOOR. And Basil Ransome-Davies shows how an overeager publicist might have promoted The Bostonians: “He’s done it again! Our guess is that’s what you’ll be saying to yourself when you read Henry James’s latest exposé of upper-crust Boston …”

But most of the 31 contributors turn the classics into verse. V. Ernest Cox sums up The Old Man and the Sea in a limerick that begins:

There was an old man of the sea,
Who for eight-four days went fish-free,
But he rowed out next day,
And almost straightaway
Struck gold – piscatorially …

Paul Griffin describes A Christmas Carol in a clerihew that has as its first quatrain:

Ebenezer Scrooge
Was nobody’s stooge;
It drove him into one of his rages
When somebody asked for more wages …

And Peter Norman gives you The Great Gatsby in iambic tetrameter:

Nick Carraway and Gatsby (Jay)
Are next-door neighbors; every day
The enigmatic Gatsby gazes
Towards a distant green light (Daisy’s).

Apart from their entertainment value, these light-hearted verses could work well as teaching aids. Anybody want to guess what novel inspired W.S. Brownlie’s: “A captain with an idée fixe / Chased a whale for weeks and weeks”?

Best line: Some of the literary encapsulations take the form of song parodies, such as Cox’s: “The animals stage a coup d’état, / Hurrah! Hurrah! /And from the farm all humans bar, / Hurrah! Hurrah!”

Worst line: The copyright line, which suggests that this book is overdue for a reprint.

Caveat lector: The third and fourth lines of the Hemingway limerick should be indented four spaces, but I couldn’t make it happen.

Published: 1985

Furthermore: I’d like to link to a short online biography of the British writer and editor E. O. Parrott but couldn’t find one. If you can suggest one, I’d appreciate it.

This is a re-post of a review that first appeared in August 2007. I am off today.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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