Books by Jay Parini

Jay Parini is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. He has written five books of poetry, six novels, and three biographies, and was editor of The Columbia History of American Poetry and The Norton Book of American Autobiography. His writings h

Released: April 16, 2019

"An exceptional character study that still may test some readers' tolerance for unrelievedly religious matter."
A poet, novelist, and biographer tells the story of a pivotal figure from the early days of Christianity. Read full book review >
THE WAY OF JESUS by Jay Parini
Released: March 27, 2018

"A scattershot introduction to Christianity for the skeptical."
A personal look at living through Jesus. Read full book review >
ROBERT FROST by Robert Frost
Released: Dec. 17, 2017

"Children will devour these suggestive illustrations as instructors help them unpack the many lessons to be gleaned from Frost's conversational yet complex verse. (glossed terms in margins, notes, index) (Picture book/poetry. 10-14)"
A movingly illustrated selection of Frost's verse. Read full book review >
EMPIRE OF SELF by Jay Parini
Released: Oct. 13, 2015

"A superbly personal biography that pulsates with intelligence, scholarship, and heart."
An intimate but unblinking look at Gore Vidal (1925-2012), the gifted essayist, playwright, novelist, and public personality, who, for a time, seemed ubiquitous in the popular culture. Read full book review >
JESUS by Jay Parini
Released: Dec. 3, 2013

"This 'big tent' version of Christianity proceeds from a generosity of spirit rather than didactic argument."
An insightful illumination of the life and significance of its subject, but this is more of a compact summary than a spark for fresh discussion. Read full book review >
THE PASSAGES OF H.M. by Jay Parini
Released: Nov. 2, 2010

"An appealing portrait of a questing, turbulent spirit."
Following novels based on Tolstoy (The Last Station, 1990) and Walter Benjamin (Benjamin's Crossing, 1997), Parini offers his seventh: a piquant exploration of the life of Herman Melville as sailor, writer and family man. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 4, 2008

"Admittedly formulaic, but also learned, educative and even provocative."
A baker's dozen of titles that have altered the course of history. Read full book review >
Released: June 17, 2008

"Nearly six decades' worth of eloquent bile, dispensed with unmatched craft and wit."
A splendid, savvy distillation of the best from the veteran novelist and essayist. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 2, 2004

"Excellent portraits of Faulkner's falls from various horses—and his determination, no matter how broken, to remount. (8 pp. b&w photos, not seen)"
Some fresh evidence but a conventional treatment of the Yoda of Yoknapatawpha County. Read full book review >
Released: March 5, 2002

"Masterful prose, pacing, characterization, and ear for language."
An acclaimed poet, biographer, and novelist (The Last Station, 1990; Benjamin's Crossing, 1997, etc.) memory-dips—and indulges his passions for mentor relationships and Italy: a lyrical and affecting coming-of-ager set in 1970 on the magical isle of Capri. Read full book review >
ROBERT FROST by Jay Parini
Released: April 1, 1999

Parini, a poet (House of Days, 1998), biographer (John Steinbeck, 1995), and novelist (Benjamin's Crossing, 1998), delivers a sensitive life of Frost that highlights the poet's struggle to find light and stability in an existence filled with darkness and chaos. In old age, Frost was as full of honors as of years, a literary lion who received four Pulitzers and innumerable honorary degrees and recited his poetry at John Kennedy's inauguration. The triumph was all the more striking in that Frost had battled against modernist tendencies in poetry, collectivist tendencies in politics, and his own fears of madness. Parini does not depart radically from the contours of Frost's life outlined in Laurence Thompson's groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize—winning work, including discussions of his alcoholic father, years of uncertainty as a farmer, the poetic breakthrough he achieved in his two years in England, and his sorrow and self-reproach over the death of his wife. But he offers a corrective to Thompson's underlying animus toward his subject (a dislike probably exacerbated by the competition of Frost and Thompson for the poet's secretary, Kay Morrison). He shows that Frost was frequently afflicted by depression (as were his father, sister, and two children who committed suicide), but that he remained a caring if difficult husband and father, a charming if cantankerous friend, and a lively if unconventional teacher. Parini sees each poem as a victory over depression, anxiety, fear, and sloth. He is particularly good at tracing how Frost was influenced by Emerson, William James, Swedenborg, and Yeats; in demonstrating Frost's achievement in writing poetry that would adhere to the bones of human speech; and in arguing that his seemingly simple verse masked a classical education that rivaled that of Eliot and Pound. For the 125th anniversary of the poet's birth, here is neither hagiography nor pathography. Parini's life magnificently details how Frost, through fortitude and lifelong dedication to craft, sought to heed his own advice to be whole again beyond confusion. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour) Read full book review >
HOUSE OF DAYS by Jay Parini
Released: April 1, 1998

paper 0-8050-5714-5 Novelist, critic, and Steinbeck biographer, Parini channels the —ancestral voices— of Wordsworth, Emerson, Roethke, and Robert Penn Warren in this fourth volume of verse, which reminds us of nature's transience and rues the imperfect relation between objects, words, and tropes. Inscribing himself in the natural world, Parini ponders simple creatures (foxes, mice, sparrows, and frogs) in sunny and moonlit skies and seeks a more complex wilderness within the self. The title sequence, a monthly calendar of poems, captures in its —web of words— the —daily turns— that sustain the poet through silence and slow time. Parini's autobiographical poems recall the Pennsylvanian mining country of his youth, the black hills near Scranton, and his grandmothers. But his best work travels far from his leafy concerns: a poem about Pasolini's rough trade (—Street Boys—); a philosophical chat with Isaiah Berlin (—A Conversation in Oxford—); and two poems that capture dusky moments on the Amalfi Coast. The strongest piece of all engages Emerson directly, providing the perfect coda to Parini's metaphysics of nature, as well as a fine antidote to —the hackneyed rhythms we were born to sing.— Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 19, 1998

Parini is an accomplished novelist (Benjamin's Crossing, p. 410, etc.), poet, biographer, and critic, so it is no surprise that these essays roam all over the literary map. In fact, this volume feels like three shorter books cobbled together. The 20 pieces included here (some appearing for the first time), written over the past 25 years, are grouped in three categories: personal essays with an autobiographical bent; appreciations of other poets; essays on the embattled ground of literary theory. The result highlights Parini's strengths and weaknesses as a writer of nonfiction. The personal essays exhibit considerable charm, particularly when Parini is discussing the process of writing. Regrettably, there's a fair amount of repetition here; for example, we learn several times that Parini and his wife (also a writer) both take considerable pleasure in writing in restaurants and cafes, once in an essay on that habit, again in a piece on the year they spent in Italy, and yet again in a paean to small-town life. By contrast, the middle section is mercifully free of this problem. Unfortunately, with the exception of an excellent piece on Frost—one which helps make that icon of literature seem new once more—the rest of this section is stodgily written, fragrant with the aroma of footnotes left behind and about as compelling as an evening with someone's old graduate seminar papers. That said, it's a complete surprise, then, that Parini's writing on the current wars over theory are incisive and engaging. Drawing on his own experiences as poet, teacher, biographer, and novelist, he makes some nicely forthright judgments on the simultaneous need for and suspicion of theory. Steering a modest middle ground, he makes a sound case for the poststructuralists without being chained to their excesses. A book to be dipped into—at least in its first and last sections—rather than read through, but not without its felicities. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 31, 1997

A wide-ranging collection of essays that attempts to define ``the Italian American experience,'' in reaction to the ``too successful'' Godfather films, which ``have held up an image that has obliterated the reality.'' Divided into three sections encompassing personal memoir, Italian-American literature, and ``identity politics,'' the anthology is put together by novelist and critic Parini (Benjamin's Crossing, p. 410, etc.) and Ciongoli, a neurologist and president of the National Italian American Foundation. Several of the contributors are familiar names, such as Gay Talese, whose ``Origins of a Nonfiction Writer'' looks at the fascinating precincts of his mother's dress shop, where what he ``heard and witnessed . . . was much more interesting and educational than what [he] learned from the black-robed censors'' in parochial school. Dana Gioia chips in with an examination of Italian-American poetry, while Fred GardaphÇ looks at his ``life's reading'' of such writers as Pietro di Donato, John Fante, and Mario Puzo. Edvige Giunta echoes GardaphÇ in her lengthy paean to Tina De Rosa's Paper Fish, ``a landmark in Italian American literature.'' In another arena, Richard Gambino posits that ``wildly . . . inauthentic myths . . . have come to serve as a substitute among Italian Americans for an authentic, developed identity.'' Linda Hutcheon writes of ``crypto- Italians'' such as herself, Cathy Davidson, Sandra Gilbert, and Marianna Torgovnick, who, through marriage, become ``a silenced marker of Italian heritage.'' Parini describes his quest to learn if his ``emotional connections'' to the Old Country were ``real, or just a piece of trumped-up sentimentality.'' Occasionally, the personal reflections become intensely uncomfortable, as in Louise DeSalvo's recollections of vicious fights between her mother and her step-grandmother. Informative and engaging, but perhaps too evenhanded. Too many of the essays lack the passion and the lusty good humor that are trademarks of Italian-American culture. Read full book review >
Released: May 1, 1997

A moving, impressively informed novel based on the life of one of the century's most austere, provocative, and tragic intellectuals, Walter Benjamin (18921940). Parini, a poet, critic (John Steinbeck, 1995), and novelist (Bay of Arrows, 1992, etc.), has created not so much a fictional biography of Benjamin as a meditation on the experience of exile and the difficult emergence of modern thought. Born in Berlin in 1892 to a well-to-do Jewish family, Benjamin reflected many of the 20th-century's most turbulent currents. Even as an adolescent, his remarkable critical faculties were evident, and in quieter times, he might have subsided into academia. As it was, he was doomed to an increasingly uncertain living as a critic of art and literature and as a reviewer. He visited Russia in the 1920s after becoming fascinated by Marxism, and left Germany in the 1930s after the rise of the Nazis. He lived uneasily in Paris, doubly suspect for being both Jewish and a possible Communist, was interned for a time by French authorities, then fled to Spain in 1940. He apparently committed suicide soon after arriving there. Parini concentrates on several episodes in Benjamin's life (the period just before and during WWI, Benjamin's visit to Russia, his hard life in Paris in the late '30s, his flight to Spain), and uses several narrators (including his lifelong friend, the scholar Gershom Scholem, and his diffident lover Asja Lacis) to catch something both of Benjamin's brilliance and of his oblique, tormented personality. It's hard, though, to do much more in a novel than suggest something of the man's highly original (and still influential) theories about mass culture and literature. And Benjamin's character (made up in equal parts, it seems, of the bohemian and the scholar) remains somewhat elusive here. Nonetheless, Parini's portrait of an entire generation of intellectuals overwhelmed by revolution and war, and of their desperate attempts to make sense of their world, is resonant, convincing, and deeply sad. (Author tour) Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 25, 1995

Filtering out the mythic anecdotes that have built up around Steinbeck, Parini (The Last Station, 1990, etc.) presents a straightforwardly readable portrait and assessment of one of the last practitioners of the Great American Novel. For one of the most popular American authors worldwide, Steinbeck seemed happier as an aimless young man, surviving off odd jobs, intermittently attending Stanford University, and harboring an intense conviction of his talent, than as a bestselling author, Broadway and Hollywood success, and Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner. Steinbeck's personal life was complicated by his intense need for reassurance and stimulation, at odds with a sometimes withdrawn, rigidly principled nature—a product, Parini suggests, of his loving but forceful mother and distant father. But his friendships with the mythologist Joseph Campbell, the eccentric marine biologist Ed Ricketts, actor Burgess Meredith (who starred in the film Of Mice and Men), and the editor Pascal Corvini were long and deep. Campbell and Ricketts had considerable influence on Steinbeck's larger vision: the latter, in his ``organismal'' approach to man's place in society and on earth, and the former, in his mythic sensibility (though their friendship was cut short by Campbell's affair with Steinbeck's first wife, Carol). Parini also gives Carol Steinbeck due credit for her editorial assistance to her difficult husband and her social activism. Parini underscores Steinbeck's passion for writing, whether journalism during WW II, travelogues of scientific expeditions and journeys across the US and USSR, or a translation of Malory. Rounding out this perceptive biography, Parini judiciously charts the paradoxes of Steinbeck's later years: his happier third marriage complicated by his uneasy relationship with his sons from his second; his progressive disillussionment with postwar America and his equivocal support of the Vietnam war; and the hostile critical reception of his Nobel Prize. Parini's persuasive and lucid biography creates a vivid diptych of a turbulent individual and a neglected paragon of American letters. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
BAY OF ARROWS by Jay Parini
Released: Aug. 28, 1992

A literate and literary romp through history and contemporary academia as Parini (The Last Station, The Patch Boys, etc.) gently indicts Christopher Columbus and his fictional protagonist, poet Christopher ``Geno'' Genovese, for their patriarchal misdeeds. A tenured professor at a small Vermont college, 40-year-old Geno, bored with teaching, wants to escape to a warm climate where he can write poems about Columbus. But when his application for a study grant is turned down, and he's ongoingly frustrated with the pettiness of academia—nicely satirized—and with the inevitable misunderstandings of married life, Geno has a brief affair with a student that leads to charges of sexual harassment. Wife Susan, unhappy and dissatisfied, accuses him of being an indifferent father; and his two young sons ignore him. Parallelling Geno's decline and fall is the story of Columbus's equally frustrated search for money and advancement. The similarities between the two men are numerous—both share the same name, both had fathers who failed, both are ambitious dreamers who neglect their wives; and just as Columbus is serendipitously saved by Queen Isabella of Spain, so Geno is equally magnificently rescued: He receives a half-million-dollar tax-free ``genius'' grant from the MacAlastair Foundation. Geno and family head for the Dominican Republic and, on the very Bay of Arrows where Columbus landed, build a house. Here, Geno becomes the quintessential patriarch, bullying his family about. But like Columbus, who turns out to be more sensitive than suspected, Geno—when tried by God and Noam Chomsky, among others, in a magic-realism trial—changes in time. The idyll ends with ``a whelm of conclusiveness,'' and Geno ``sets off, chastened, into life again.'' Witty, imaginative, and refreshing reprise of the now increasingly worked-over Columbus saga, but for all the insights and originality, an ultimately contrived concept. Read full book review >