One-Minute Book Reviews

May 19, 2010

Phyllis Theroux Writes of Finding Love Online and More in ‘The Journal Keeper’ — Meditations on Life After 60

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Journal Keeper: A Memoir. By Phyllis Theroux. Atlantic Monthly Press, 281 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, Phyllis Theroux moved from Washington, D.C., to a drowsy Virginia town that lacked stop lights but had a house she could afford after a divorce left her in financial peril. She looks back on six years in Ashland in this collection of edited diary entries that reads less like a journal or memoir than a series of meditations for the age of Match.com, the dating service that led her to the man she married in her mid-’60s.

For part of the time covered by this book, Theroux lived with her idiosyncratic mother, who moved in after developing macular degeneration. And The Journal Keeper makes clear that many people would benefit from having such a loving caretaker for their final days. Theroux writes on her mother’s 85th birthday: “My present to her is to be at her disposal for an entire day.”

But the reticence of The Journal Keeper robs it of the force of May Sarton’s trailblazing Journal of a Solitude and more recent accounts of growing old, including  Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End. Theroux omits most dates on entries and is so polite to friends and relatives that she gives you little sense of those people and the events that define them. She mentions that her daughter is coming for a 10-day visit and then says nothing about their time together, which leaves you wondering what happened, one of many dropped threads in the book.

Nor does Theroux make you understand how, for someone educated by Dominican nuns, she became so drawn to alternative spiritual disciplines. In Ashland she has sessions with an “energy healer” and writes approvingly of Gary Zukav and Eckhart Tolle, both favorites of Oprah. And she finds more than one kind of inspiration in the writing classes she teaches to pay the bills. After a stop-and-go courtship, she discovers that her “premarriage mood of doom” has lifted: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde and only went out of it two days ago.”

Theroux calls The Journal Keeper “the spiritual equivalent of a personal light box” that avoids “dark developments” and favors the insights she gained from them. This approach leads to more than a few overwrought metaphors and pseudoprofundities. And the insights in the book tend to be less memorable than directly observed incidents that Theroux serves up with little or no commentary. One occurred when friend’s 8-year-old son looked up at a sky full of snowflakes and said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Best line: No. 1: “Living in a small town is like being in a play.”

Worst line: No. 1: “A funeral is like a train station waiting room. We’re all going to board that train someday.” Except that the people in a waiting room aren’t necessarily waiting for the same train. No. 2: Quoted above: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde … ”

Published: March 2010

Watch the trailer for The Journal Keeper.

Furthermore: Theroux is an essayist and the author of books that include Peripheral Visions and California and Other States of Grace: A Memoir.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to The Journal Keeper: Journal of a Solitude.

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

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

October 10, 2009

Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ in ‘Five on a Hike Together’: ‘I Say — This Has Boiled Up Into Quite an Adventure, Hasn’t It?’

Enid Blyton has been translated into more languages than anyone except Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare

The Famous Five: Five on a Hike Together. By Enid Blyton. Illustrated by Eileen A. Soper. Hodder Children’s Books, 196 pp., varied prices. Ages 12 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Enid Blyton is the Agatha Christie of children’s literature. Not all of her books are mysteries. But like Christie, she was born in Britain in the 1890s and achieved an unparalleled fame for her suspenseful plot-driven novels that remain popular worldwide with readers and filmmakers. And like Christie, she has drawn fire from critics who have accused her of perpetuating the stereotypes of her era and social class.

Blyton is best known for the 21 novels in her “Famous Five” series, most of which have been adapted for television. Each book involves three English siblings, their cousin, and a mutt named Timmy. Five on a Hike Together is the tenth, and it suggests why the novels still appeal to children: Blyton gives her young characters a freedom that if allowed by real-life parents might bring a visit from the Department of Youth and Family Services, if not an arrest.

In Five on a Hike Together the four children and their dog spend several days hiking unchaperoned on moors during a long weekend in October. They are undeterred by their discovery that the heather may shelter a convict who has escaped from a local jail. But they split up when Timmy gets hurt chasing a rabbit down a hole. Julian and Georgina, known as George, set out to find someone who can tend to the dog’s injury, and Dick and Anne go off to look for Blue Pond Farmhouse, where all of them hope to spend the night. Nothing goes quite as expected. Dick and Anne get lost and end up at a ramshackle house where Dick gets a message from the escaped convict, who passes him a cryptic note through a broken window pane. All of the children realize when they reunite the next day that they must take the note to the authorities, but when a policeman scorns their efforts to help, they resolve to decipher the clue on their own. Soon the four are paddling a raft with Timmy on board in search of a treasure that may lie at the bottom of a lake.

Five on a Hike Together has several of Blyton’s hallmarks — a fast pace, well-controlled suspense and little character development. The four children don’t grow so much as carom from one exciting adventure to another, and their appeal lies partly in their enthusiasm for all of it. They are cheerful, intelligent, self-sufficient and generally kind and well-mannered. For all their limits, you can’t help but agree when a policeman tells the children in the last pages, “You’re the kind of kids we want in this country – plucky, sensible, responsible youngsters who use your brains and never give up!”

Best line: No. 1: “I say – this has boiled up into quite an adventure, hasn’t it?” (A comment by Julian, the oldest of the Famous Five.) No. 2: “A wonderful smell came creeping into the little dining-room, followed by the inn-woman carrying a large tray. On it was a steaming tureen of porridge, a bowl of golden syrup, a jug of very thick cream, and a dish of bacon and eggs, all piled high on brown toast. Little mushrooms were on the same dish.” Both lines suggest an appealing quality of the Famous Five: their infectious enthusiasm for their circumstances, whether they are lost on a moor or getting a good breakfast.

Worst line: Blyton wrote most of the “Famous Five” novels during the 1940s and 1950s, and they reflect their era. Julian, for example, tells his cousin Georgina, known as George: “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” George puts Julian in his place by telling him that he’s “domineering” and she doesn’t like being taken care of. But some critics see the series as sexist, though the girls of the “Famous Five” novels show far more courage than many contemporary heroines. Other books by Blyton have been faulted for racial characterizations that are today considered slurs.

Published: 1951 (first edition), 1997 (Hodder reprint).

About the author: Blyton is the fifth most widely translated writer in the world, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum Statistics. The five most often translated authors are “Walt Disney Productions,” Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, and Blyton, followed by Lenin, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Hans Christian Andersen, and Stephen King.

Furthermore: Helena Bonham Carter will star in a forthcoming BBC movie of Blyton’s life.

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

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

August 14, 2009

The Benefits of Reviewing Even When the Pay Is Terrible, the Books Are Bad, and the Authors Are Only Going to Hate You, Anyway – Quote of the Day / Rebecca West

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:52 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

You could earn more per hour as a migrant grape-picker than you can by reviewing for many newspapers, and the odds are that an editor will ask you to write about a bad book and that the author will hate you afterward. So why volunteer for the work?

One of the best answers I’ve heard came from the novelist and critic Rebecca West in a Paris Review interview, collected in Writers at Work: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984) and in Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Modern Library, 1998). Marina Warner asked West if she enjoyed reviewing for the Sunday Telegraph, then as now a leading national newspaper in Britain. West replied:

“Yes, I do. I do. I would feel awfully cut off if I didn’t review; I think it’s such a good discipline. It makes you really open your mind to a book. Probably you wouldn’t, if you just read it.”

Many critics like the serendipity or reviewing, or getting assigned books they wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, and I do, too. But I also like having to focus on books in a way that I don’t usually do when I’m reading for pleasure. You have to look harder at books when you’re reviewing them – you can never skim, ever — and when you do, you see more.

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

July 29, 2009

Diana Athill’s Memoir, ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ – The Last Non-Lecture

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

An editor in her 90s writes about the end of her sex life and more

Somewhere Towards the End. By Diana Athill. Norton, 182 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Athill has mastered that bittersweet negotiation with old age that the poet Elizabeth Bishop called “the art of losing.” Born in 1917, Athill worked for decades at an esteemed London publishing firm, where she edited the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul and others, and she has had a vibrant life that included an affair with the playwright Barry Reckord. In her new memoir, she writes eloquently of life after her retirement at the age of 75 – the ebbing of sexual desire, the deaths of friends, the pleasures of gardening and driving a car when the padding on the soles of her feet has grown so thin she is hard put to walk a hundred yards.

Somewhere Towards the End won a major British award for biography and reflects a keenly English sensibility rooted in the values of the world that existed before Starbucks moved into Victoria Station. Athill is by no means morbid. But neither does she lecture or assault you, as so many American authors do, with cloying euphemisms like “aging” – a word that, as Katha Pollitt has noted, applies to all of us: “A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Athill is matter-of-fact but discreet about events such as a miscarriage that nearly killed her and about the prostate troubles suffered by Reckord, with whom she lives. But her natural tact doesn’t preclude astute observations on life. In her last chapter, Athill avoids reaching for tidy lessons and observes instead that “most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.”

Best line: As a student at Oxford in the 1930s, Athill told a man named Duncan that she had fallen away from the Christianity of her youth: “ … I said that though I was unable to believe in the god I had been taught to believe in, I supposed that some kind of First Cause had to be accepted. To which Duncan replied ‘Why? Might it not be that beginnings and endings are things we think in terms of simply because our minds are too primitive to conceive of anything else?’”

Worst Line: Athill writes of a 103-year-old woman who had a “positive attitude” (and, a page later, a “positive outlook”), a rare descent into cliché.

Recommendation? Somewhere Towards the End is more cohesive than the Nora Ephron’s entertaining but disjointed  I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and reading groups might like to compare the two books.

Published: January 2009 (first American edition).

Furthermore: Somewhere Towards the End won the 2008 Costa Award for biography. Athill also wrote Stet: An Editor’s Life, a memoir of her years in book publishing. Other quotes from Somewhere Towards the End appeared on this site on July 17.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

More quotes from Somewhere Towards the End will be posted later today.

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

March 9, 2009

Are Y’all Payin’ Attention? Ah May Be a Yankee From New Jersey, But Ah Might Could Have a Review for Y’all of Kathryn Stockett’s Novel, ‘The Help’

A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era

The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.

The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:

“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”

That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.

Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”

Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2009

About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.

Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?

2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?

3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?

Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

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

December 7, 2008

Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ – A Masterwork for Its Time or for the Ages?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:46 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Would critics hail Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a masterpiece if it appeared today under the name of a little-known author? Do people revere it because it uses stream-of-consciousness techniques well or because it was among the first to use them at all (and can you separate the two)?

These questions came to mind last week at a meeting of a book club that had read the novel. Among the comments: “You can’t always tell who is speaking or thinking.” “The writing is so beautiful, but you get lost in the middle of some of the sentences.” “This may be a male point of view, but I found parts of this novel almost completely inaccessible.”

The club members had a point. Woolf darts in and out of the minds of characters in a way that critics often fault in the work of lesser writers. Deaths occur that aren’t prefigured. And the novel is almost plotless, taking as its subject with the daily life of a well-off English family on a Scottish island with a view of lighthouse.

So why do many critics consider it Woolf’s masterwork? To the Lighthouse is moving partly because “it is an account not of a brilliantly successful marriage nor of an incandescently failed one, but of an adequate one, in which struggles and little compromises are daily enacted,” the critic James Wood rightly notes in How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

But the novel is far from timid in its portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children. Contemporary writers tend to reduce the departure of children from home to a cliché – “the empty nest.” Woolf offers a more complex portrait of a sensitive mother who is 50 years old when the novel begins.

Mrs. Ramsay knows what she will face when her young children, James and Cam, leave home: “Nothing made up for that loss.” And Woolf doesn’t sugarcoat this – as a contemporary novelist might do — by suggesting that the future happiness of Mrs. Ramsay or her children will offset the loss. Quite the opposite. Woolf adds a chilling note of a sort rarely found in recent novels: Mrs. Ramsay wants her children to stay young for their sake as well as hers: “They were happier now than they would ever be again.” Or, as Mrs. Ramsay puts it, “A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 3, 2008

Anna Winger’s First Novel, ‘This Must Be the Place’ – An American Wife Finds Herself Emotionally Adrift in Berlin After Sept. 11

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:12 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Life imitates a Tom Cruise movie dubbed in German in a city where “Dixie” is a popular ring tone

This Must Be the Place. By Anna Winger. Penguin/Riverhead, 303 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

What does it mean to spend much of your life speaking in someone else’s voice? And if you’ve done it, can you get yourself back again?

These questions lie at the heart of This Must Be the Place, Anna Winger’s engaging first novel about an unlikely friendship between an American wife and an unmarried man who lives in her apartment building in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin. Hope has followed her Jewish husband, Dave, to Germany, partly to escape tragedies in New York, including the attacks of Sept. 11. Walter earns an enviable living as the German voice of Tom Cruise, spending his days dubbing Vanilla Sky, a job that helps to mask his loneliness. Both of their lives change after a sidewalk argument brings them together and, over the next few months, they grow closer in ways that at once expose and ease their different forms of psychic displacement.

At times Winger overreaches as she describes the quirky bond between Hope and Walter. She tries to link circumstances too big and different to fit together neatly: losing a child, surviving Sept. 11, leaving America, being Jewish in Germany, and living in a formerly divided city. This effort leads to plot contrivances and talky explanations of motives. You wonder if Winger once wrote self-help articles for women’s magazines when you come across lines like: “She had resisted further argument with Dave because his anger about it was the only suggestion that somewhere inside his rational exterior he was suffering too and she wanted to believe that.” Some scenes seem to mainly exist as vehicles for her views on questions of national identity and other subjects.

But Winger’s observations on Germany are generally interesting and often amusing. Hope arrives in Berlin when “Dixie” is a popular ring tone on German cell phones. Walter comes from an Alpine town “where people in crisis were often comforted by visions of the Virgin Mary in breakfast cereal or dishwater bubbles.” Winger explains why German men urinate sitting down and what can happen if you ride the Berlin subways without a ticket even though there are no turnstiles.

In some ways, This Must Be the Place resembles Diane Johnson’s novel about Paris, Le Divorce. Like Johnson, Winger shows an unsentimental affection for her adopted city. And if Berlin isn’t Paris, Winger makes clear that it has its own charms.

“In New York, as soon as one building came down, another went up so quickly as to obliterate the memory of what had been there before,” Winger writes. “In other European cities, the past was glorified, the architecture spruced up for tourists to the point of caricature. But here, nobody seemed to be in any hurry one way or the other. Buildings had been bombed and the city had been ripped apart, but years later holes remained all over the place without explanation or apparent concern. The city moved forward with a lack of vanity that she found relaxing.”

Best line: “In almost every Tom Cruise movie he could think of, Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, Days of Thunder, The Firm, you name it, somewhere in the second act his character danced and sang along to a pop song on the radio to illustrate a sudden flash of optimism.”

Worst line: “In September, when she came out of her downtown building to see people covered in white powder running for their lives, she had not been entirely surprised to find the outside world finally reflecting her inner chaos.” Winger doesn’t begin to show why Hope might have had this extraordinarily nonchalant response to Sept. 11. It makes her heroine look self-absorbed in a way that the rest of the book doesn’t.

Editor: Megan Lynch

Published: August 2008 annawinger.com/book.html

About the author: Winger lives in Berlin. She created The Berlin Stories, a radio series for NPR Worldwide.

You can read more about This Must Be the Place in the post “Germany Loves the Famous Has-Beens” that appeared on this site on Dec. 2 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/02/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 14, 2008

What is Potato Peel Pie? ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:20 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Not sure how much I’ll be able to say The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 288 pp., $22) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows because I have a slight conflict of interest involving one of its prime movers. But I can tell you that this epistolary novel about the deprivations of ordinary Britons just after World War II (when food rationing meant that some people had to fill up on things like potato peel pie — pie filled with potato peels instead of the desired-but-unavailable items — instead of their usual fare) is already a big hit little more than two weeks its publication. As I’m sorting it out what else I can write, you can read an excerpt here www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90251891.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 6, 2008

Is It Easier to Get a Novel Published When You’re a Critic? And Other Questions I Haven’t Answered on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: News,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:49 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Amy Munnell interviewed me for her attractive blog 3 Questions and Answers and asked a few questions I don’t deal with on One-Minute Book Review, such as: How did being a critic affect my career as a novelist? Some of the things Amy asked about come up a lot when I speak at writers’ conferences, and if you’re interested, you can find my answers here: 3questionsandanswers.blogspot.com/2008/07/interviewwith-journalistnovelist-janice.html. Thanks, Amy.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 17, 2008

Kay Ryan Named Poet Laureate, Succeeding Charles Simic — Here’s a Review of Her ‘The Niagara River’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Kay Ryan has been named the next poet laureate of the United States, succeeding Charles Simic. This is a repost of a review of her The Niagara River, which appeared on this site on Dec. 23, 2006.

The Niagara River. By Kay Ryan. Grove Press: Grove Press Poetry Series, 72 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Kay Ryan’s poetry captures better than any I know a quality of life that is obvious but rarely mentioned: It rhymes in unexpected places. Most of our lives resemble neither sonnets with fixed rhymes nor free verse with no rhymes. We hear music when we don’t expect it. So it is with Ryan’s sixth book, The Niagara River. Ryan rhymes the first word of one line with the last word of the next in “Absences and Breaks.” She begins with a rhyming couplet, “The egg-sucking fox/licks his copper chops,” but doesn’t stick to the pattern in “Theft.” This unpredictability might have been chaotic in the hands of a less talented poet. But Ryan has so much control over other aspects of her work, particularly tone, that the result is fresh instead of jarring.

In classical literature the river is dual symbol of life (because it sustains fertility) and death (because it suggests the irreversible flow of time). The 64 brief and intelligent poems in The Niagara River continue this tradition. The poems are autumnal but full of life and color. This is so partly because Ryan’s theme isn’t time in the abstract but what remains after it has passed. She has a sharp awareness of the inevitable injustices of age, reflected in the titles of poems such as “Thieves,” “Theft” and “Late Justice.” Time, the great racketeer, is always stealing from us. Ryan writes in “Thieves” s about the effects of age on the brain, including memory loss:

There are thieves
in the mind, their
dens in places
we’d prefer not to know.
When a word is lifted from
its spot, we show
no surprise,
replacing
supplies
with
provender.

Ryan does not sentimentalize the effects of aging – she knows that those thieves are hatching a “fantastic plot” – but her poems are not morbid. In “Salvage” she writes in about the aftermath of a wreck, perhaps a crash of the body caused by illness. The worst, she says, “has happened.” But there is a consolation:

Thanks be
to God – again –
for extractable elements
which are noi
carriers of pain …

Those lines notwithstanding, Ryan’s poems are not overtly religious. But at times their mood resembles that of the great Protestant hymn by Isaac Watts, “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” first published in the 18th century. Watts says:

Time like an ever-rolling steam,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream,
dies at the opening day.

In Ryan’s poetry, the dead do not become “stars or ghosts” when time “bears all its sons away.” Instead, she tells us in “Charms,” they reappear in our genes or elsewhere. This may be small comfort. But, she writes, “…E ven a piece/does us some good.”

Best line: One appears in a poem inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell: “ … As/time passes, the/promise is tattered/like a battle flag/above a war we/hope mattered.”

Worst line: None, but some of the quotes on the cover do Ryan few favors. David Yezzi says: “Ryan’s poems leave the reader elevated or changed or moved but at a loss to say exactly how this effect has been wrought.” The first part of that line is meaningless because all good poetry leaves you “elevated or changed or moved.” Otherwise, why read it? And a critic who says he can’t say how an effect “has been wrought” often means: I’m not willing to put the time or effort into figuring it out.

Recommended if … you like poetry that has both traditional and experimental elements.

Published: October 2005

Furthermore: For more on Ryan, see her biography and her poem “Nothing Ventured” on the site for the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/352. She lives in California. To read the New York Times article on her appointment as poet laureate, click here www.nytimes.com/2008/07/17/books/17poet.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

FYI: Poems in this collection have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and elsewhere.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 367 other followers

%d bloggers like this: