Theroux, Phyllis 1939-
THEROUX, Phyllis 1939-
PERSONAL: Born February 22, 1939, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of John deLafayette (in business) and Phyllis (in business; maiden name Hollins) Grissim; divorced; children: three. Education: Manhattanville College, B.A., 1961.
ADDRESSES: Home—3210 Northampton St. NW, Washington, DC 20015. Agent—Aaron Priest Agency, 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016.
CAREER: Writer. Has worked as a secretary, journalist, community activist, school teacher, and legal researcher. Washington, DC, elementary school teacher, 1989-93; NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, contributing essayist, 1992-96.
Founder of the nonprofit organization "Winners in Grade School," 1989, the Woodstock Project on Forgiveness consortium (with others), 1993, "Bridge Builders" study circles, 1994, "The Great American Portraits Program," 1997, Ashland Hanover Citizens for Responsible Growth (with others; and president), 1999, and the Nightwriters writers' workshop. Has been a guest lecturer and professor at several universities, colleges, and forums.
MEMBER: Authors Guild.
California and Other States of Grace: A Memoir, Morrow (New York, NY), 1980.
Peripheral Visions (autobiographical essays), Morrow (New York, NY), 1982.
Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1987.
(Editor and contributor) The Book of Eulogies: A Collection of Memorial Tributes, Poetry, Essays, and Letters of Condolence, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.
Serefina under the Circumstances (for children), illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Giovanni's Light: The Story of a Town Where Time Stopped for Christmas (for children), Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.
Frequent "Hers" columnist for the New York Times. Past contributing editor to magazines, including Ladies' Home Journal, Family Health, and Washingtonian. Contributor to periodicals, including Reader's Digest, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, International Herald Tribune, and McCall's. Contributor to anthologies.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A book about her mother's life.
SIDELIGHTS: Phyllis Theroux is a versatile writer, publishing her work as a journalist, a columnist, a humorist, an advocate, and a children's book author. In her first book, California and Other States of Grace, Theroux writes about growing up in San Francisco in the years following World War II. Focusing particularly on the members of her family, the author presents a cast of characters that she describes as "emotional, high-powered, egocentric and full of style." She begins her recollections with the gathering of grown siblings at the bedside of their father following his heart attack. "It is a fascinating gathering point for launching a memoir," Wayne Warga observed in the Los Angeles Times, "a sharp and detailed contrast between what is and what was." In the New York Times Book Review, Ellen Goodman perceived Theroux's book as an attempt to preserve a family that, like many in our fragmented times, has since disintegrated. "The undercurrent of her work is a deep longing both for her own family and, perhaps more importantly, for the very idea of family," noted the critic. "[My family] was brilliant while it existed as a unit," the author allowed in California and Other States of Grace, "and instructive to me when it ultimately fell apart."
According to some reviewers, California and Other States of Grace is light on social and self-analyses. "Theroux seems to have escaped with her sense of humor intact," noted Washington Post Book World critic Susan Cheever. "What she lacks in critical analysis, she more than makes up for in wit, charm, and her perfect little summations of complex experience." Goodman, however, found the author's cursory presentation of events in the memories less than satisfying. "Somehow or other, [Theroux's] memories just don't add up," the reviewer wrote. "Each person in her life is brought out for a quick look, awarded little more than a caption, and then put back …. It is unsettling to have her rush through her crises as if she were afraid to linger, to read equal amounts about her terror of suicide … and her amusing college weekend at a funeral home…. In the end her family album is like a tour of countries in seventeen days. We never get to know anyone quite well enough. Not even the tour guide."
But several critics deemed Theroux a noteworthy writer. "Who is Theroux and why should we read a book about her?" charged Elizabeth Wheeler in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The critic answered, "Theroux is a good writer with an extraordinary memory of an ordinary life. Her memoir is interesting, enjoyable … [and] shared in a clear yet intimate way." "You'll like her," Cheever concluded. "Theroux has a self-effacing sense of mischief and a sunny disposition that make her storytelling fun to read…. Whether she's describing a weekend she spent as a house guest in a Naugatuck, Connecticut, funeral home in order to get to the Harvard-Yale game, or the fluttering of her mother's hands, or some cockleweeds she used to see transformed by the early morning light at her Aunt Marion Collins' ranch, Pasatiempo, in the summer, she is a sprightly and amusing guide."
Peripheral Visions is a collection of twenty-six of Theroux's previously published essays published in a continuation of the autobiographical California and Other States of Grace. In the new volume, Theroux writes of her divorce, aging, and her move to the East Coast. Lisa Mitchell, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, suggested that Theroux "stokes a communal fire around which we can all warm our hands" and added that reading of Theroux's life "leads to epiphanies … for our own."
In The Book of Eulogies: A Collection of Memorable Tributes, Poetry, Essays, and Letters of Condolence, Theroux anthologized an amalgam of tributes to the dead, predominantly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a few dating much earlier. These tributes were written or spoken by famous people such as Thomas Jefferson, Helen Keller, and Robert Kennedy in celebration of famous figures such as George Washington, Mark Twain, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The book also highlights moving eulogies, letters, and other writings from previously unknown, ordinary people to their lost loved ones. Mary Carroll, in a review of The Book of Eulogies for Booklist, called the work "a superb source of inspiration—and citations—for readers writing eulogies or coping with their own losses." At a program in celebration of the book, which included readings by several celebrities, Theroux told reporter John Martin why she had chosen the book's eulogies. "When these people died," she said, "somebody wrote about them uncommonly well."
Theroux next lightened her subject matter with Serefina under the Circumstances, her first children's book. Written for children ages five to eight, Serefina under the Circumstances presents an imaginative young heroine whose grandmother entrusts her with the secret of her brother's surprise birthday party. Throughout the story, Theroux shows the tender and humorous relationship between Serefina and her grandmother as they exchange silly sayings to communicate with one another. "Children and adults alike will have their own examples of verbal and visual puns and ridiculous associations they just can't get out of their heads," wrote Booklist's Hazel Rochman on this aspect of the book. When Serefina lets the secret slip, she finds herself making up stories—something she does quite well—to cover her blunder. "Theroux's quirky, compelling text invites young readers to explore the fine line between being creative and actually lying," wrote one Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Giovanni's Light: The Story of a Town Where Time Stopped for Christmas was Theroux's next venture into children's fiction. The story of Giovanni's Light takes place in the small town of Ryland Falls, whose residents are hard-pressed to muster Christmas spirit at this particular holiday time, for a number of different reasons. Giovanni is an older man who lives on a mountain with his dog, Max, harvesting Christmas trees and trying to forget the pain of having been left behind by his deceased wife and son. Will Campbell is an art teacher, new to Ryland Falls and frustrated with life's circumstances. Miranda Bridgeman is an eleven-year-old student who wants to be a poet. These characters, and the other residents of Ryland Falls, are taken by surprise when a blizzard hits the small town, knocking out all power. The townspeople must come together to stay warm and help one another through the storm and end up finding the true spirit of Christmas in their compassion for one another. One Kirkus Reviews contributor stated that Giovanni's Light is "likely to warm hearts, especially if read within sight of a nicely trimmed tree," and Carol Fitzgerald on the BookReporter Web site called the book a "wonderfully sentimental story."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 15, 1987, review of Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark, p. 738; December 15, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 717; April 15, 1997, Mary Carroll, review of The Book of Eulogies: A Collection of Memorial Tributes, Poetry, Essays, and Letters of Condolence, p. 1376; September 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Serefina under the Circumstances, p. 144; November 15, 2002, Margaret Flanagan, review of Giovanni's Light: The Story of a Town Where Time Stopped for Christmas, p. 570.
Book World, January 10, 1988, review of Night Lights, p. 12.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books October, 1999, review of Serefina under the Circumstances, p. 71.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 50; September 1, 1999, review of Serefina under the Circumstances, p. 1422; September 15, 2002, review of Giovanni's Light, p. 1346.
Library Journal, February 1, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 83; July, 1997, review of The Book of Eulogies, p. 91.
Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1980.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 6, 1980; February 7, 1982; April 12, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 2.
Newsweek, June 23, 1980.
New York Times Book Review, July 20, 1980; March 15, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 13.
Parents, February, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, December 19, 1986, review of Night Lights, p. 39; November 20, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 67; March 17, 1997, review of The Book of Eulogies, p. 72; July 5, 1999, review of Serefina under the Circumstances, p. 70.
School Library Journal, September, 1999, review of Serefina under the Circumstances, p. 207.
USA Today, February 13, 1987, review of Night Lights, p. 4D.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1997, review of The Book of Eulogies, p. 139.
Wall Street Journal, July 23, 1997, review of The Book of Eulogies, p. A16.
Washington Post Book World, June 22, 1980; January 10, 1982.
BookReporter, http://bookreporter.com/a (January 16, 2003), Carol Fitzgerald, review of Giovanni's Light.
New York Times Books, http://www.nytimes.com/ (April 16, 2000), Jeanne B. Pinder, review of Serefina under the Circumstances.
Nightwriters, http://www.nightwriters.com/ (March 22, 2004), "Phyllis Theroux."
PBS, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (December 29, 1995) Phyllis Theroux, "Going Home"; (February 21, 1996), Phyllis Theroux, "Family Secrets."*