those of you still looking for Labor Day week-end reading, what could
be more appropriate than books about workers and politics? Readers sent
me many excellent suggestions for novels with a political slant, and I'll
be giving you some of my own reactions to these books and others early
Meanwhile, for Labor Day, Steve Strahs says: "Re political lit, there's
a labor novel by K. B. Gilden on my shelf, BETWEEN THE HILLS AND THE SEA,
put out by ILR Press with a foreword by the labor historian David Montgomery.
I liked it, very realistic about the decline of labor in the '50's and
the despair of activists as postwar period hopes go down the tubes. A
good read, if not great literature."
Hughes recommends Pat Barker's trilogy REGENERATION, THE EYE IN THE DOOR,
and THE GHOST ROAD: "I started in on the first, couldn't put it down,
went out and got the second, couldn't put it down, and promised myself
I wouldn't buy the third till it was out in paper, but couldn't resist
the hard copy. Very adept writing, good dialogue, interesting plots and
characters in these three antiwar novels about British soldiers, war resistors
and homosexuals during World War I. The first begins with three real people,
the writers Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, and the anthropologist-turned-doctor
of shell shocked soldiers, William Rivers. Sassoon, after a long period
in the trenches, wrote a statement against the war and Graves, to save
him from a court martial, had him declared medically unfit and sent to
the hospital Rivers ran in England for a cure. The whole of the first
novel is set there, except for flashbacks to the front. "The second novel,
THE EYE IN THE DOOR, begins with the situation of jailed pacifists who
find themselves observed by an eye in the peephole of the jailroom door,
and then takes up a bi-sexual working class soldier introduced in REGENERATION,
Billy Prior. The anti-homosexual hysteria of this period is another ingredient
in the novels. "The third novel, THE GHOST ROAD, again follows Billy Prior,
as well as William Rivers, and there are flashbacks to [Williams'] field
work on a tropical island.... Writing about the books makes me want to
reread them. Pat Barker (yes, a woman) is terrific."
also mentions Bessie Head's books and Nadine Gordimer's, saying, "I haven't
read much of her stuff, because I've found it aimed at a white audience
and too intent on showing the failings of whites in South Africa. There's
something too fixed on guilt about her work, for my taste, so I'd love
to know if other people have special favorites among her books."
Alice Robinson-Gilman is working on a list of political novels to share
with this Newsletter readership, but she offers this first installment:
A MAN by Oriana Fallaci. (About a woman's relationship with a revolutionary.
It is very specific and very interesting about the pulls of politics on
individuals.) BUFFALO AFTERNOON by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. (About Vietnam)
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT by Sebastien Japrisot. THE FARMING OF BONES by
Edwidge Danticat. WHAT NOW LITTLE MAN by Hans Fallada. (About the effect
of war on ordinary Germans.) STONES FROM THE RIVER by Ursula Hegi. WAITING
by Ha Jin. (This book has shown up over and over in recommendations from
readers of BOOKS FOR READERS). THE BINDING CHAIR by Kathryn Harrison.
VITA, by Marge Piercy. (About a "weatherman" in hiding and what that's
like.) WHILE I WAS GONE by Sue Miller. (Vietnam).
also recommends Pat Barker's WWI trilogy described above.
Suzanne McConnell writes, "I read LICK CREEK by Brad Kessler....It's set
in Appalachia and the lovely thing, aside from the prose, which is lyrical
and lovely, is that it's about the coming of electricity to one hollow,
and woven throughout are riffs on electricity, as well as coal occasionally.
Wonderful juxtaposition of a lineman from Brooklyn, a Russian Jew, and
the female main character, from Appalachia. And there's the usual Big
Shot , representative of corporate progress, so there's a 'political'
component. Highly enjoyable hammock read..... That's all she wrote right
I'm with Suzanne! Enough for now, but please don't forget to continue
sending your recommendations for books- political, anti-political, a-political,
or any other genre your please. Your responses and my responses to your
responses and our responses to each other are what the World Wide Web
should be about.
- Meredith Sue Willis
Newsletter # 12
terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the plane
crash in southern Pennsylvania, and all the associated horror, have made
me more certain than ever that American writers of fiction and poetry
have narrowed their field of vision too much. We need to be using our
critical intelligence and our creative imagination as fully as possible,
including in the arena I've been calling "politics." I think what I am
really seeking is writing that offers insight into human institutions
and history as well as into private lives.
For example, right now we desperately need more creative responses to
terrorism than the ancient and inebriating urge for revenge. We need empathy-
including for civilian survivors of the war in Afghanistan as well as
for the victims of crimes against humanity- some financed by our own government
and corporate interests. Perhaps we even need to imagine what it would
take to be so dedicated to an idea that we would commit mass murder to
bring our idea to fruition.
creative writing assignments: What would have made me grow up to be a
Timothy McVeigh? What is it like this morning to be a woman in Afghanistan,
not allowed to go out without a man from my family, who has heard the
military might of the United States is coming to kill me and my children?
What would it be like to be a Sikh wearing my religiously prescribed turban
when a drunken patriot comes toward me shouting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" If
I had Osama bin Laden tied in a chair in my room right now, and I had
a gun in my hand, would I shoot him? If so, in what part of his body?
What if the only weapon I had was a hammer from the tool box?
I would also be interested in hearing what you are reading in these times
besides newspapers. Do you have special comfort reading? Escape literature?
Reading that helps you get a historical perspective on events? In my puny
efforts at getting a grip, I picked up a book I had laid aside about two
years ago, Albert Hourani's A HISTORY OF THE ARAB PEOPLES. I also found
myself late one night reading websites for American Muslim women- essays
about why covering your body and hair is a sign of self-respect. I have
also been having vivid flashes of Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz's
wonderful novel PALACE WALK, which mixes family life and political life
in Cairo just before the first World War.
finally, Judith Moffett forwarded me a poem I recommend to all of you,
W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939." It ends with this stanza:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies:
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light,
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
an affirming flame.
- W.H. Auden.
in your heart the blueness of the high skies, the sound of human voices
singing, and the sweet breath of our children.
- Meredith Sue Willis
I just got back from the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston, West
Virginia. It was such a delight in these present days of anthrax anxiety
to be participating in an event about books- panels and discussions and
displays and lots of writer and reader friends. We shared poems and stories
about writers and, of course, the endless saga of publishing.
A newly revitalized publishing house is West Virginia University Press,
which has just released a reprint of a terrific funny-crude novel called
CRUM by Lee Maynard. I had the pleasure and privilege of writing the introduction,
and I'm definitely a fan of this one.
also reading a novel by one of the headlined speakers at the festival,
Robert Morgan. His worthy book GAP CREEK became a best seller after Oprah
put it on her book club list. And if you like GAP CREEK, don't forget
its predecessors, Harriette Arnow's HUNTER'S HORN, which I've praised
at length here, and CALL HOME THE HEART by Fielding Burke, which is both
about mountain life and about the great Gastonia mill strike of the early
Meanwhile, readers of this newsletter have been writing to say what they
turned to in the days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon. Ardian Gill said, "I quite agree that modern fiction
tends to be a tiny tessera instead of the whole mosaic. Where is Dos Passos
when we need him? I have just ordered David Kennedy's FREEDOM FROM FEAR:
AMERICA IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND WORLD WAR II.. I find it impossible
to concentrate on much other than the papers, and this book seems appropriate
to the current crisis. And then my next book is set in the Depression,
and I'm reading a lot of books and newspapers of the period."
Moffett reported on what she's reading as well as what she'd like to read:
"I had been reading, and have continued to read when able to concentrate
enough, Joseph Campbell's HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. There's a perspective
on these events to be derived from world mythology, but I don't seem to
be heroic enough--or evolved enough?--to sustain it, at least not emotionally,
which is where it needs to be sustained. I was reading Tennyson's IN MEMORIAM
in an edition for classroom use, with critical essays in the back, and
that I haven't been able to get back into, though I was very involved
in it before [September 11.] Instead I started rereading the Harry Potter
books. They would work better if they were more distinguished as literature,
but they're not bad. A good book to read right now would be a kids' book
about life in Afghanistan, told from the perspective of a girl of ll or
12. Could somebody write it, please?"
Ettinger happened to be reading Franz Fanon's THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH
when the plane-bombs hit. She says, "It's so relevant, because it's about
the rage and violence of oppressed and colonized peoples. As far as I
can see, the U.S. government is the primary purveyor of acts of mass terrorism
against civilians. So I've been thinking about books that address that.
There are several novels about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although the only
one I can think of offhand is H by Makoto Oda, which was very powerful.
There's so much rich political literature out of Latin America, and I'm
sure there's stuff from or about Chile--where the U.S.-planned-and-paid-for
assassination of President Salvador Allende and murder of 10,000 Chileans
took place on Sept. 11, 1973, 28 years to the day before the World Trade
Center destruction." She also suggests a history of the Palestinian people
entitled OUR ROOTS ARE STILL ALIVE and an informative book by Ramsey Clark
and others called THE CHILDREN ARE DYING.
And Allan Appel (author of the brand new CLUB REVELATION, about which
I'll say more soon) writes, "On my way to get my New Haven bagel this
morning I ... read while in line Jonathan Yardley's opinion column....
In the column he quotes Naipaul and Roth and some of their remarks and
uses them as a spring board to discuss the irrelevance of literature with
specific reference to today's post Sept 11 events. It's not a dumb piece
and troubling indeed, and it seems to suggest that there is declining
readership in part because politics and globalization and so forth are
not finding their way into our literary stories." The Yardley article,
by the way, recommends two new novels by South Americans, Isabel Allende's
PORTRAIT IN SEPIA and Mario Vargas Llosa's soon-to-be-published THE FEAST
OF THE GOAT. I'll end this newsletter with a quotation from Yardley about
these two novels: "What is especially interesting....is that although
politics is central to both, neither is a 'political novel' as the term
is commonly understood. Though both writers (Vargas Llosa most especially)
have strong political convictions, their novels....are about what politics,
and the violence that can accompany it, do to all these people. Though
there are ideas in these books, at their core they are about human beings
and the world in which they live."
The whole article, called "Literary Affliction" is online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A23206-2001Oct7.html.
It appeared first in the Oct 8, 2001 WASHINGTON POST.
I finished the second volume of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, THE PALACE
OF DESIRE, and continue to be thankful for that precise and nuanced presentation
of Egypt in the 1920's. One of fiction's greatest contributions is how
it allows us to slip for a while into the skin of other people.
-- Meredith Sue WIllis
Newsletter # 14
Note to those receiving BOOKS FOR READERS for the first time: This newsletter
is not a book review, and it is not a discussion group or Listserv. Rather,
it is personal reflections and recommendations from my reading and the
reading of my friends and colleagues. Please send reactions and suggestions
directly to Meredith Sue Willis at MSueWillis@aol.com. To subscribe, send a blank email to readerbooks-subscribe @topica.com.
Past newsletters are posted at http://www.topica.com/lists/Readerbooks
as well as here, at http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/booksforreaders.html.
issue of Books for Readers Newsletter is a celebration of publications
by my friends. Every writer mentioned here is a guaranteed personal friend
of mine, and I love their work and am proud of their accomplishments!
me begin with a new novel from Coffeehouse Press. Coffeehouse is a small
publisher that everyone ought to support for its long list of serious
fiction alone. Allan Appel's new novel is CLUB REVELATION about three
couples who live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Each couple consists
of a Jewish man and a gentile woman. The families have no children, but
they do own a building together, and the building has a private museum
of the 1960's on the top floor and a restaurant on the first floor. The
story line centers around what happens when the restaurant is rented by
a handsome young born-again Christian with a mission to convert the Jews
and thereby bring on the Second Coming of Christ. The novel is full of
dialogues on Judaism and Christianity and long-term marriage. As
I read, I kept wanting to join in the conversation. It's lively and stimulating
and manages to take both its ideas and its humor very seriously.
I want to tell you about three collections of short stories from a co-operative
press I'm associated with, Hamilton Stone Editions. Previously, Hamilton
Stone has published mostly reprints of out-of-print, commercially published
books, but these collections of short fiction are all brand new, although
most of the stories appeared previously in literary and commercial magazines.
Rebecca Kavaler's A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN is full of the wonderfully quirky,
prize-winning stories that have led to her work appearing from SHENANDOAH
and the YALE REVIEW to BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES.
Rosenthal's IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE ME got a sterling advance review in
BOOKLIST that says, among other things, "Through these original and imaginative
scenarios, Rosenthal explores ideas that would otherwise go unexamined,
providing a fascinating glimpse of the fears that lurk beneath the surface
of our everyday lives."
third new Hamilton Stone collection is Edith Konecky's PAST SORROWS AND
COMING ATTRACTIONS. This is Konecky's first collection of her widely published
short stories. Simultaneously, The Feminist Press is bringing out a twenty-fifth
anniversary edition of Konecky's much-admired contemporary classic ALLEGRA
A few more recently published books by friends of mine include Ingrid
Hughes' collection of poems, ALL THE TREES IN THE OCEAN (Pink Granite
Press); Eva Kollisch's memoir GIRL IN MOVEMENT (Glad Day Books), which
I recommended in my very first Newsletter; and Vera B. Williams' AMBER
WAS BRAVE, ESSIE WAS SMART : THE STORY OF AMBER AND ESSIE TOLD HERE IN
POEMS AND PICTURES. Vera is both writer and artist for beautiful and beloved
books which include MORE, MORE, MORE SAID THE BABY; SCOOTER; and A CHAIR
FOR MY MOTHER among many others.
also want to remind new readers about the funny-funky CRUM (Vandalia Press)
by Lee Maynard for which I had the pleasure and privilege of writing the
introduction. If you enjoy controversy, take a look at this news story
about how CRUM was banned in Beckley (West Virginia) at http://www.wvgazette.com/news/News/200111016
Last but not least, Shelley Ettinger, who often sends in suggestions for
reading to this newsletter, has published her first poem online. The poem
centers on one of the terrible and vivid images from the World Trade Center
attacks, and you can read it at http://www.facets-magazine.com/ettinger.html.
These are my recommendations. Please keep sending your ideas for reading,
especially things that folks might miss if they only keep up with the
- Meredith Sue Willis
more information about Hamilton Stone Editions, go to www.hamiltonstone.org online or write Hamilton Stone Editions, P.O.
Box 43, Maplewood, NJ 07040.
more information about the Feminist Press, go to http://www.feministpress.org, or write to The Feminist Press, 365 Fifth Avenue, 5th Floor, New York,
Press is located at http://www.coffeehousepress.org on the web or 27 North Fourth Street, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401.
Glad Day Books is at 1-888-874-6904, P.O. Box 699, Enfield, NH 03748.
Granite Press is at 311 East 9th Street, New York, NY10003.
Press is part of the West
Virginia University Press.
Late November 2001
coming up fast on the holiday season, and it is a strange year: government
dispatches claim advances in a war that was never declared; people shop
till they drop while deep in their hearts fearing the end of the world.
I'm choosing this moment to make my case for what I call political novels.
I think what I am really after is fiction that includes everything human--
political terror and the aftermath of war, but also daily life and explorations
of the place of the individual in history.
have, of course, always included politics. George Eliot's FELIX HOLT:
RADICAL is a favorite of mine from the nineteenth century. Much of Anthony
Trollope's work has a political milieu (including the politics of the
Established Church), and his mother Frances Trollope, who was famous long
before him, wrote novels about social ills like child labor in factories.
I received my formal training in literary criticism and writing, all the
emphasis was on intense, dense, authentic delineating of experience in
precise language. We tended to make a fetish of showing (as opposed to
telling). When politics did appear (as in my own novel Trespassers,
set during the anti-Vietnam war era), it was as a backdrop. There's nothing
wrong with this- experience and sensation and emotion have to be at the
heart of fiction. I just want other things included as well: life at our
jobs and how we nurse our babies and what happens in small town politics
and labor organizing. I want to include everything human in literature--
I think the more we include as grist for our mill, the more we will contribute
to our troubling times.
couple of years back I read (it took me over a year- not an easy book!)
Barbara Foley's RADICAL REPRESENTATIONS. This big, dense, nonfiction tome
analyzes the consciously leftist proletarian novels of the 1930's. I got
a list of terrific books I can happily pass on, including Agnes Smedley's
DAUGHTER OF EARTH, Jack Conroy's THE DISINHERITED, Tom Kromer's WAITING
FOR NOTHING, and Fielding Burke's CALL HOME THE HEART. But more important
for me was the book's argument for including political thinking and political
experience in fiction. It seems so obvious that these are part of human
experience too, but I had been trained too well; I had closed off whole
areas of my thinking and experience from my own writing and from what
I expected in novels.
second type of political novel, then, is those works that are frankly
didactic and openly dedicated to spreading propaganda. These range from
ugly right-wing fantasies like THE TURNER DIARIES to Myra Page's rather
delightful MOSCOW YANKEE that contrasts life in Depression era USA (all
bad) to life in newly Communist USSR (all good). Even a twentieth century
classic like Richard Wright's NATIVE SON has passages of overt ideology
that readers usually don't remember (especially long speeches near the
end by Bigger Thomas's lawyer).
A third type of political novel is probably my ideal. This is the kind
that doesn't use or propagandize political ideas so much as integrate
them into the fabric of the work. In this type of novel, love, sex, suspense,
language-- everything-- gets interwoven with explorations of human behavior
at the individual and social level. Pat Barker's World War I trilogy (REGENERATION,
THE EYE AT THE DOOR, and THE GHOST ROAD) was strongly recommended here
by a number of readers (See BOOKS FOR READERS Newsletter #11), and I now
add my enthusiastic recommendation. The novels have wonderful people in
them that you care about intensely, but they mix these characters with
social and historical phenomenon such as hysteria about homosexuals in
England and the lives of headhunters in Melanesia. Without any loss of
emotional impact, the novels give you a sense of how we are in relation
to one another in groups as well as in pairs or individually.
I came across another novel that integrates politics and art in a cut-rate
bin at a college bookstore. The author, George Dennison, was best known
as a writer of nonfiction on schooling in the early nineteen-seventies.
His novel LUISA DOMENIC begins with the lives of some urban expatriates
on a Vermont farm who garden and write and entertain friends and raise
some marvelously alive children. Then a friend asks the family to house
overnight a refugee fleeing the military coup in Chile. The family is
happy to do this of course, but the last third of the novel brings the
horrors of civil war, murder, and torture into the family's little Eden.
The material about Chile under Augusto Pinochet (supported by the U.S.)
is shocking and challenging to those of us with comfortable lives- albeit
at the end of 2001 we Americans may finally have joined the rest of the
world in our understanding of being in constant danger.
fictionally expressed horrors of World War I, Pinochet's hellish Chile,
our present day real life where airliners are turned into bombs- is it
time now for people to offer suggestions for lighter reading? What I really
want, of course, is your recommendations for books of ALL kinds. So whether
or not you agree that fiction needs more politics, do send your ideas
for good reading, and I'll share them with other readers of this Newsletter.
- Meredith Sue Willis
Tiersten suggests I WAS AMELIA ERHARDT by Jane Mendelson. (This summer
I really enjoyed her previous suggestion, Kathryn Davis's THE GIRL WHO
TROD ON A LOAF). Ardian Gill just finished reading EAST OF EDEN and found
it wonderful. He also says it is "encouraging...that even Nobelists make
grammatical errors and proofreaders miss things edition after edition."
And Ted Seagull says, "I'm reading SLOW LEARNERS by Pynchon. What a treat.
That's why I stopped writing!"