It’s the season of the festivals of light-against-the-darkness, and I’ve got family arriving and lots to do, but most of my teaching is over for the present, which means I am beginning to do a little reading at my own whim. The last two months I’ve been reading mostly student work, which I enjoy, but it is, in the end, work. When I want to indulge myself, I read nineteenth century novels. They are so big and long, and the sentences go on and on and the details pile up, and . I feel like I’m in front of an open fire nestled under a big feather comforter.
In this mood I just finished rereading George Eliot’s ADAM BEDE. It has been so long since I read it, that it is like a new book to me– albeit a book that I already know by heart. It’s an odd sensation, to know a book in some deep way and yet to have forgotten most of the story. For example, the Young Squire, Arthur Donnithorne, whose wrongful relationship with Hetty Sorrel underlies all the main actions of the book-- I remembered as heavyset, florid, and cloddish in his lack of feeling. In fact, he is light in build and light-hearted and far more more sympathetic to me in this reading. I remembered him as having got off scot free from what he did, but in fact, his life is ruined and, perhaps more significantly, I had forgotten his part in an an essential plot point– his desperate off-stage race to try and save Hetty. I had even forgotten Hetty’s fate! I wonder if I’m more sympathetic to young men now that I have a son who is one. Well, the good thing about forgetting things like Hetty’s fate is that the book surprised me again.
This reading I also enjoyed the slow chatty narrator’s discussions of rural life, and Aunt Poyser’s speeches. This time I was not put off by Dinah’s final turn away from public preaching (the Methodist authorities had decided to forbid women preaching). I think in my original reading I had wanted her to rebel, but she is not a rebel, rather one of the ones who follow what they perceive to be God’s explicit directions. I had forgotten, rather unfairly, that handsome, heroic, but very conventional Adam Bede had been willing for her to continue preaching in public. I had remembered her as falling from proto-feminism into stupid Victorian wifehood, but her character is thoroughly consistent.
What remains the same as I remembered, however, is the centrality of the women in the novel. Dinah knows when she is in love and strruggles against it. Women preach and argue and run away and are prime movers of most of the events in the novel. Even the mother of Adam and Seth Bede, who is a complaining sort of person, prods Adam into realizing his feelings at the end. Mrs. Poyser does her work as a farm woman extremely well (and knows exactly what portion of the farm’s income is produced under her supervision). She speaks her mind with alacrity and a great deal of wit. And even Hetty Sorrel, for all of the superficiality of her personality, of her sensuality and total selfishness, is not only filled with the force of nature and an urge to live, but is also active although destructive in her crisis. This part is the same as in my earlier readings.
The story line seems more powerful to me now: it is a well structured novel with a farmers’ harvest dinner balancing out the consdescending birthday party of the young squire given for the renters. As is true so often in George Eliot’s work, the great climax is not the end or perhaps even the most important part of the novel but rather a thing of which the consequences are the real point. So, has ADAM BEDE become one of my favorites again? It is a simpler story than MIDDLEMARCH, but I love it for its strength and energy.
Meanwhile, I’ve been continuing to read on religious topics, in particular, CHRISTIANITY: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION by Linda Woodhead. This is one of a series of small Oxford introductions, handy-dandy surveys that cover a lot fast and surprisingly well. This one was especially helpful to me with categories that explain or at least organize some of the extreme differences among varieties of Christianity. A couple of things I pulled out of it that struck me: Eastern Orthodox Christianity is less caught up in human sinfulness than the Roman Catholics and Protestants who follow Augustine more closely; that the area where Christians are in the twenty-first century increasing most in numbers is the “south”– Latin American and sub-Saharan Africa. In these new expressions of Chrisitianity there seems to be a lot of direct mystical experience. The other thing that was very helpful was the idea that you can roughly divide Christianity into categories based on how the believers make their connection with the divine. Woodhead distinguishes Church Christianity– the highly organized, priest-led type of church like, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Anglicans and the Presbyterians and anyone who puts emphasis on the dispensing of sacraments– and a second type that she calls Biblical Christianity, which puts faith in the believer’s direct apprehension of the Word, through the text of the Bible and preaching. A third variety is Mystical Christianity which takes its cues from inner feelings– direct intercourse with the spirit. Quakers would be an organized example of that. Clearly, of course, there have been mystics under the aegis of the Catholic Church and there are highly organized churches that started as Biblical, but it’s a nice way of thinking of things: how do the people have their experience of the divine? Through priests and sacraments? Through the Word preached and read? Through inner light?
I also read the lively anti-Christian monograph, Nietzsche’s THE ANTICHRIST (see below for Alex Kato-Willis’s take on this).
I want to end, however, with two short readings on religion and politics that come from a listserv of people who participated in the Columbia University sit-ins of 1968. Johnny Sundstrom posted this. He said, “I had the wonderful privilege of being adopted by an Arapaho-Lakota couple over thirty years ago. My Dad (Francis Brown] has gone on, but he left behind a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. I remember one time many, many years ago when he just looked at me for awhile and then said, ‘Indian people are all commonists.’ I looked back and then said, ‘Do you mean Communists?’ He said, ‘No, commonists. 'Communists' is a foreign word.. We believe in commonism.’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘what's commonism?’ He smiled and said, ‘We all own the land, the air and the water and everything that comes from it. Nobody owns the land or the water or the air. That's commonism.’”
Johnny also tells a story about his Lakota Uncle Oliver Red Cloud (brother-in-law of Francis Brown). He once told Johnny that this life is “just practice". “I,” writes Johnny, “of course wanted to to know, ‘Practice for what?’ He replied, ‘Oh we don't know that.’ So, in my naivete, I pursued, ‘How do you know this?’ And he sat silent for awhile and then smiled and said, ‘Because nobody's very good at it.’” For another Francis Brown story told to Johnny Sundstrom and now to us, go to “The Banquet” .
In ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL, E.M. Forster says of Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells: “They are, both, humorists and visualizers who get an effect by cataloguing details and whisking the page over irritably. They are generous-minded; they hate shams and enjoy being indignant about them; they are valuable social reformers; they have no notion of confining books to a library shelf. Sometimes the lively surface of their prose scratches like a cheap gramophone record, a certain poorness of quality appears, and the face of the author draws rather too near to that of the reader. In other words, neither of them has much taste: the world of beauty was largely closed to Dickens, and is entirely closed to Wells.”
MORE ON NIETZSCHE’S THE ANTI-CHRIST
Alexander Kato-Willis writes: “This is the book that affirms Nietzsche as the most profound of
historical psychologists. His application of astounding historical knowledge to the analysis of the human mind is deeply moving. In regards to agreeing or disagreeing with his ideas, I believe that
Nietzsche's work defies correctness or incorrectness. In the same way that a listener does not say whether a piece of music is correct or incorrect, Nietzsche's writing is art in thought form and is not productively approached from a desire to find unemotional truth.”
MORE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS
Jeffrey Sokolow says, “I'm currently reading THE HAKAWATI [THE STORYTELLER], a novel by a Lebanese author, Rabih Alameddine. It's a bawdy and engrossing read that combines stories that could be out of the 1001 Nights and a family saga. Pick it up and you won't be able to put it down.”
Phyllis Moore writes to say, “I read THE BALLAD OF TRENCHMOUTH TAGGART by M. Glenn Taylor (formerly of Huntington, West Virginia). It surely has an unusual plot. Trenchmouth is one of the strangest protagonist in West Virginia lit– it's sort of a Little Big Man meets Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Born in 1903, Trenchmouth lives to be 108. He meets Bill Blizzard, Sid Hatfield, and Mother Jones. He is at the Battle of Matewan, participates in the coal mine wars, meets Chuck Berry, Johnny "Be Good" Johnson, Hank Williams, Jim Comstock, and the Kennedys. The section from about page 188 to 218 involves Trenchmouth's time in Richwood, WV, working with Comstock. This episode takes place during the Kennedy campaign in WV, which Trenchmouth covers for THE WEST VIRGINIA HILLBILLY. Trenchmouth is a complicated character and evolves into a very likeable guy.” There is an interview with M. Glenn Taylor and information about THE BALLAD OF TRENCHMOUTH TAGGART at http://www.trenchmouthtaggart.com/theother.php and a sample of his wild and wonderful fiction, see Issue 16 of THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW at http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr16stories.html#armsyoungblood
Crystal Alleyne Cook’s new novel BOMBARDIROVKA is available online– for free. To download, go to http://www.bombardirovka.com/download1.html There is also a limited print edition available for a donation to Doctors Without Borders. The limited print edition has original cover art by one of the following artists: Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca, Danny Setiawan, Lidya Tchakerian, Alice Dean, Suzanne Gibson, Vera Arutyunyan, Ryuta Nakajima, Biz Lopez, Seda Baghdasarian, Mavis Taylor, Lamp Community, Donna M. Woods, Norton Wisdom, Dana Wyss, Jocelyn Jaggers, Arlene Bogna, Keely Perkins and is available for a $15 (or more!!) donation to Doctors Without Borders + $5 shipping and handling. To give the donation directly to Doctors With Borders, go here: http://www.firstgiving.com/art-knows-no-borders/ You donate, then leave a message saying you donated. After that, to cover U.S. shipping & handing, send $5.00 by check, money order, or in U.S. postage stamps, to: Crystal Allene Cook, P.O. Box 421973, Los Angeles, CA 90042-9998
MOBIUS, THE POETRY MAGAZINE was selected for the second consecutive year as one of the BEST magazines of 2008 by the prestigious SMALL MAGAZINE REVIEW in their Nov/Dec 2008 issue. See their website at http://www.mobuspoetry.com or at Editor-in-Chief Juanita Torrence-Thompson’s website at http://www.poetrytown.com .
Brighid Editions will publish Neva Bryan's Debut Novel ST. PETER’S MONSTERS in the first quarter of 2009. This is the story of Peter Sullivan, a homesick college student teetering on the edge of alcoholism. He discovers bigger monsters than the bottle when a mysterious young woman enters his life. Wren has fled Peter's beloved Appalachian hills and now he must find out why she is keeping secrets about her past. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
DIANA L. BENNETT FELLOWS. See http://blackmountain.unlv.edu/programs/fellows.htm . Black Mountain offers nine-month fellowships to published writers and public intellectuals. The program accepts applications from novelists, poets, playwrights, historians, political scientists, independent scholars, and anyone else whose work is meant for a general, educated lay audience. Black Mountain awards three to five fellowships each year to outstanding writers who have published at least one critically acclaimed book before the time of application. Foreign nationals conversant in English are welcome to apply. There are no degree requirements. Fellows receive a $50,000 stipend, an office, a computer, and access to UNLV's Lied Library. They remain in residence at BMI for the duration of the fellowship term (approximately August 24, 2009 to May 14, 2010) and work daily at the BMI offices. Application deadline: February 1, 2009.
THE ADIRONDACK REVIEW is pleased to announce the third annual Fulton Prize for Short Fiction. The winner will receive $400 and publication in The Adirondack Review. Entrants whose stories receive honorable mention will also have their stories published in The Adirondack Review. In addition, they will be awarded an honorarium of $30. The deadline for the Fulton Prize for Short Fiction is January 31, 2009. For more information about this contest,visit http://adirondackreview.homestead.com/fultonprize.html
KORE 2009 Fiction Award. Winner receives $1,000 plus publication as a stand-alone short story chapbook. This competition is open to any woman writing in English, regardless of nationality. Submit your manuscript and the $15 entry fee by using our online submissions process: http://www.korepress.org/KorePressShortFictionAward.htm All entrants will be notified of results via email.
As told to Johnny Sundstrom by Francis Brown, Arapaho Elder
Some time ago, back when Tennessee was still a frontier to the whites and was still the home of the tribes, encounters between the two races were rare but not unknown. One winter day a lost and hungry white trapper was discovered wandering through the woods by an equally hungry Indian. As they exchanged greetings, they also exchanged information about their desperate situations. The trapper was near starvation and had only one load left for his gun. The Indian had not eaten for days and had only one arrow for his bow. They decided to hunt together in order to improve their chances for a meal.
As they moved through the wooded landscape, they came to a lake. They could hear the sound of ducks hidden among the marshy vegetation at the lake’s edges. The trapper told the Indian to sneak part of the way around the lake, and then make loud noises, flushing the ducks toward him and his gun. The Indian did what he was told and when the ducks took off and flew overhead, the trapper fired, and missed.
They kept on moving. The afternoon passed, and dusk was coming on when the Indian spotted the dark outline of a turkey in a tree. He whispered to the trapper to stay where he was. The Indian said he would creep up close under the turkey and if it started to move, the trapper should bark like a dog. That would freeze the turkey for a moment and the Indian would shoot. Everything went as he said it would and when the trapper barked, the Indian shot the arrow and the turkey fell from the tree. They skinned it, built a fire and were just about to cook it when the trapper said, “Wait…I have an idea,” he said. “There’s hardly enough here for both of us. Let’s hang it up safe, go to sleep, and whoever has the best dream will get to eat the whole turkey.”
The Indian agreed, and they hung the bird in a tree and went to sleep.
In the morning, the trapper woke first and couldn’t wait to tell his dream.
“Wake up, wake up,” he said, and before the Indian was fully awake he began to tell his dream. "“As soon as I fell asleep I dreamed there was a great staircase, right over there, near the edge of the firelight. I got up, went over and started climbing it. It was a long ways, and when I got to the top there was a huge castle. I went up to the big door and pushed on it, but it was locked, so I went around and looked in a window. There, in a huge room, were tables and tables of food, all ready to eat. There was no one there and the window was open. I climbed in and sat down and ate and ate, and then I went to another table and ate: meat, fish, bread, potatoes and squash, whatever I could think of I could eat. And then there were the desserts, desserts, desserts. I ate until I was so stuffed I could hardly move and then I crawled back out the window and came back down here and got back in my bedroll.” He paused.
And then he said, “There’s no way you could beat that dream, so I’m gonna start a fire and eat that turkey right now.”
The Indian held up his hands. “Wait,” he said. “I couldn’t get to sleep and after awhile I saw you get up and go over to that stairway. I watched you start up and I followed you. I saw you try to get in the door and go around to the window. I saw you climb in and I went up to that window. I saw you eating, and eating, and eating. I knew you wouldn’t be hungry, so I came back down, cooked the turkey, and ate it.”
-- Johnny Sundstrom, New Year’s Eve, 2001
Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers #114
November 15 , 2008
As I write this, a week-and a half after the 2008 Presidential election, I am still stunned and gratified that a black man has won the American presidency. A few weeks before the election, I read President-elect Obama’s memoir, DREAMS FROM MY FATHER, a serious, good book, written with considerable grace and a great deal of self-reflection, and I recommend it for its own interest, aside from who wrote it. We have elected a president who not only has a brain (Bill Clinton was smart) but has an inner life as well. Anyhow, good luck to him and to all of us as he takes on that enormous job.
In the last weeks I’ve been reading somewhat randomly, for entertainment, for pleasure, to learn something. I’ve read a couple of literary novels, an excellent nonfiction book, some science fiction and – new for me– high fantasy.
I rented and liked, although maybe less than I thought I was going to, was the National Book Award winner THE NEWS FROM PARAGUAY by Lily Tuck. This story of a nineteenth century South American dictator’s common-law Irish wife was gripping, vivid, and apparently grimly accurate in many of its details. Lily Tuck includes the lives and deaths of characters at many levels of society. I like the story for the breadth of its characters and for the lively adventuress-protagonist. The farther you go in the story, however, the more you become aware of how the downfall of a dictator takes so many living beings with him. Ella is a survivor, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of her life turns out well. There is so much venality and violence– it’s a rousing yarn that left a bad taste in my mouth, anyhow.
Also set south of the U.S. border was SENSELESSNESS by Horacio Castellanos Moya (photo below). In this novel, a writer is hired to copy edit the stories of witnesses to hundreds of murders of “indigenous people” during the bloody ascendancy of the Guatemalan military in the 1980's. The writer goes nearly crazy from reading of the horrors (and discovering that one woman who was repeatedly raped and unspeakably brutalized works in the same office he does) Increasingly he becomes convinced that the military is going to try to kill him too. He also has an unfortunate one night stand with an attractive woman whose feet stink, and he becomes convinced that her boyfriend is also trying to kill him. You think at a certain point that the novel is going for a story about insanity, but at the same time, the military really IS still in charge, and there is evidence that something is going on but you can’t quite figure out what it is. It’s an interesting novel that keeps you off balance.
I also read the redoubtable Jared Diamond’s THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE, another of his excellent surveys of how human beings got to be who we are, and where we’re likely to go next. This one chronicles our similarities to the primates and other animals as well as our similarities to our precursor species– especially our tendency to commit genocide and to cause the extinction of other species. We killed off, for example, all the giant birds– moas, elephant birds, dodos, etc. I wonder how the ostriches survived? Maybe just because they had more time to learn how to avoid the nasty tool wielding little primates? Diamond’s work is always stimulating and worth reading.
Then I read my first high fantasy– which is fantasy in the wizards and magic and epic vein of Tolkien. I thought I didn’t care for ti, but ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb (the pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, a prolific fantasy and science fiction writer) was a real pleasure. Lots of blood and guts and action and love and mysterious events and also animals and coming of age. There was a little too much world building for me– an invented history in the form of epigraphs for each chapter, but I just read that part rapidly and got on with the story. The world is in technology and general aspect a version of medieval Europe, Scandinavia or maybe the northernmost British Isles, but it is that world as if Christianity had never arrived, and where some people have certain specific magic abilities which generally need to be nurtured and mastered. The precision of the limitations on the magic particularly pleased me. Also, Hobb does animals wonderfully, and the primary evil, aside from some nasty individuals, is that sea raiders are somehow creating soulless people– they kidnap people then send them home as monsters who look fine but have no morality, no sense of community at all– are individualistic eating and killing machines. I assume this will be in later volumes of the trilogy. Also, the protagonist is a young boy who is being trained to kill people– as a political poisoner.
And finally, I read the long-awaited last novel of Judith Moffett’s (see photo right) science fiction Holy Ground trilogy, THE BIRD SHAMAN. It was a very gratifying book, especially to have questions answered that were raised in the first two novels in the trilogy, THE RAGGED WORLD an TIME LIKE AN EVER ROLLING STREAM. I loved finding out what happened to the characters, but you don’t need to have read the first books to read THE BIRD SHAMAN. It follows the other volumes by many years and has all the information you need to make sense of things. The novel is about the last act of a humans and aliens story, in which two alien forms, the Hefn and the Gafr, are trying to force human beings to stop trashing earth. The way they do this is refreshingly unviolent (although they are capable of violence too). They have created a general ban on human reproduction. A handful of children is still being born, enough that the species won’t die out if the ban isn’t lifted, but the world as everyone knows it is fading fast. The novel is set in the final year of the human opportunity to change their ways before the ban is made permanent.
What happens is not what you would expect of, course: the alien species are not, in the end, all-powerful or, for that matter, all-altruistic. Moffett’s main character is the acerbic Pam Pruitt, who has been in therapy for years learning to deal with herself and her past with an abusive father and distant mother. Other important characters include a young girl, one of the few children born in recent years, who is also abused– and a popular actress! Much of the story is set in Utah, with splendid landscapes as well as the misdeeds and courage of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. There is child abuse in many forms, native cave paintings, shamanism, lucid dreaming, gardening and birds– a wonderful cornucopia of unexpected delights (unless you are already a fan of Moffett, in which case you know what to expect).
It is also, as is all the best science fiction, a suspenseful and rousing good story.
Christine Willis writes to recommend THE LAST LECTURE: “Maybe the idea of THE LAST LECTURE appealed to me because a cousin was dying with a variation of Randy Pausch’s disease: pancreatic cancer, or maybe it was because I thought that someone so certainly facing his mortality might have some interesting insights into life. The notion of a final lecture, a summation of sorts, is appealing on its own. But Pausch was facing the additional challenge of leaving as much of himself via language as he could for his children who would be too young at the time of his death to be able to recall him.
“Pausch’s little book (written with Jeffrey Zaslow) explains what a last lecture is, and the lecture frames his book in the world of academia. He was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and was approached to prepare and give his last lecture in the throes of his final months of life.
“The chapters include Randy’s wooing and winning his wife, how he was able to realize his childhood dreams, and how to live life. He even left words of wisdom for his eighteen month old daughter: ‘When it comes to men who are romantically interested in you, it’s really simple. Just ignore everything they say and only pay attention to what they do.’
My favorite chapter, however, is ‘The Parent Lottery.’ The first two sentences are: ‘I won the parent lottery. I was born with the winning ticket, a major reason I was able to live out my childhood dreams.’ It is a chapter of gratitude and a description of superior parenting. The environment his parents provided for him yielded this world view: ‘…I thought there were two types of families: 1) Those who need a dictionary to get through dinner. 2) Those who don’t.’
“Pausch’s book is uplifting even with the knowledge that he is relinquishing his children, his wife, his students, and indeed, his life."
BOOKS ON RELIGION: SUSAN SCOTT’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO A YOUNG SEEKER
I asked Susan Scott for recommendations of intelligently written books about Christianity to recommend to a young friend. She wrote: “I have to be honest that I don't read much in the way of Christian apologetics these days, but I have a few ideas for books, though I can't guarantee that they are ‘assumption-less.’ C.S. Lewis is an oldie but goody – MERE CHRISTIANITY and THE CASE FOR CHRISTIANITY are two titles.
“A local church minister friend of mine also suggested an author whose name is Lee Strobel, who if his name is googled gets you to his website and books of his. I not sure whether Strobel's apologetics approach is up my theological alley or not, but that's not necessarily important. If I come across other titles/authors I will advise.
To my mind, Judaism is less of a stretch theologically than Christianity which presents the whole hurdle of understanding what it means for Jesus to be called the Son of God, and some camps of Christianity have taken to worshiping Jesus rather than God, which I don't think Jesus ever intended. The whole ‘dying for our sins’ tradition of interpreting Jesus' death on the cross, is another hurdle – not to mention the Trinity! I have my own approaches to some of these that are probably less than ‘traditional,’ but which make it possible for me to still self-identify as a Christian.
“The reader may also want to read Sharon Salzberg's book, entitled, FAITH: TRUSTING YOUR OWN DEEPEST EXPERIENCE (Riverhead Books, 2002) --- not a Christian apologetic, but written by a Buddhist who is looking less at God and more at faith itself in our human experience. . . hence the title!”
At Susan Scott’s suggestion, I read that one, and found that Salzberg’s FAITH: TRUSTING YOUR OWN DEEPEST EXPERIENCE really fits my understanding of how things work: human beings have these insights, these moments of being, these break-throughs into something else, these moments of sensing oneness and wholeness (as well as all the opposites of those things), and we then seek ways to put these insights and feelings in different containers: Christians say they’ve received grace, Buddhists say they’ve discovered the Buddha within.
Jews and Buddhists and Ethical Humanists and some others don’t demand exclusivity in dogma for everyone. All of us of course are dealing with our human knowledge of coming of our own deaths. We assume the animals and plants don’t know they’re going to die, but maybe dying as an individual is meaningless to them–certainly to some bacteria that divides and divides and divides or to a honey bee whose self is about the larger structure, individual death isn’t very significant.
Salzberg talks a lot about faith as simply a kind of willingness to live, to go on the journey, which we are all part of anyhow, so the choice is between embracing it and avoiding the truth of it. These are my words, not hers. Suffering and change are the constants in the Buddhist universe, and their basic profession of faith is the ‘I take refuge,’ – in the Buddha, which means in the possibility of enlightenment/awareness within ones self; in the way or practice; in the community. Salzberg says, “With faith we can draw near to the truth of the present moment, which is dissolving into the unknown even as we meet it. (Sharon Salzberg, FAITH: TRUSTING YOUR OWN DEEPEST EXPERIENCE, New York: Riverhead, 2002, p. 14). I’m not a Buddhist, but there is a lot here that, as they say, resonates.
FROM ANNA SMUCKER
Children’s author Anna Smucker writes to say, “Just a quick note to thank you for putting the info about my new book GOLDEN DELICIOUS: A CINDERELLA APPLE STORY on your terrific Books for Readers newsletter. The book made its grand debut at the WV Book Festival (http://www.wvhumanities.org/bookfest/bookfest2.htm) last weekend. I was delighted with the response. Both the WV Book Company and Borders sold out of their copies! Quite a few of the descendants of Anderson Mullins, the Clay County farmer who discovered the apple, came to the festival to hear my presentation, some from as far away as Washington, D.C. They're all very proud to have their "family story" in a book. As always, the festival was a great energizer for me. I love being with so many other authors and with all of those great people who love books. I was especially impressed with Ann Pancake who read from her powerful STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN. Take care and keep up the good work. Thanks for keeping us all informed.”
HOW TO MARK A BOOK
“How to Mark a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D. (http://www.radicalacademy.com/adlermarkabook.htm ) is a wonderful and wonderfully old-fashioned essay about books as physical objects versus books as interactive communications. Adler compares books to the scores of musical works--the music happens in the performance, and the book really “happens” in the responsive reader’s interaction with it. I think there is probably some relationship here to the swirling controversies over ownership of creative works and new technologies.
Nigel Beale has a blog that includes audio interviews of writers: NOTA BENE BOOKS .
. The current interviewee is Nam Le, winner of the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize, author of THE BOAT.
SPECIAL ON ESPIONAGE LITERATURE WITH JEFFREY SOKOLOW
The following notes, except where otherwise credited, are from Jeffrey Sokolow, who stresses that he is a reader, not a scholar, but that he has developed an interest in the spy craft of the Cold War, both histories and memoirs. This month, then, we’ll learn about some books we might explore in this area.
Jeffrey writes: “Since an old friend told me to read Gilles Perrault's THE RED ORCHESTRA (and later I discovered Leopold Trepper's memoir, THE GREAT GAME), I have had an interest in reading espionage literature. Why stories of clandestine work would appeal to me I cannot imagine. One rich source of information is participant memoirs. Two books by spouses of murdered agents are very worthwhile: OUR OWN PEOPLE: A MEMOIR OF ‘IGNACE REISS’ AND HIS FRIENDS by Elisabeth K Poretsky and WILLI MUNZENBERG: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Babette Gross. There are also two recent biographies of the remarkable Munzenberg, who practically invented the front group. Best after his widow’s memoir is THE RED MILLIONAIRE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF WILLY MUNZENBERG, MOSCOW'S SECRET PROPAGANDA TSAR IN THE WEST by Sean McMeekin. (The sensationalistic title is unfortunate.) A second biography by Stephen Holder is so tendentious politically that I really cannot recommend it.
“Another recommendation is SONYA’S REPORT by Ruth Werner. Werner was a very successful agent who remained loyal to the German Democratic Republic to the end. Her memoirs were published there before the Wall fell. It is an exciting read. Also recommended is SECRET SOLDIERS OF THE REVOLUTION: SOVIET MILITARY INTELLIGENCE 1918-1933 by Ramond Leonard, the first full-length discussion of Soviet military intelligence, known by the acronym GRU. The majority of books...deal with the more glamorous and well-known Cheka (‘the unsheathed sword of the proletarian revolution’) and its successor organizations (OGPU, GPU, KGB) while ignoring military intelligence, which was even more active in the espionage field. Leonard deals with many of the people whose books I cited elsewhere (Reiss, Poretsky, Krivitsky, and others).
“Although not specifically about espionage, Aino Kuusinen's memoir (THE RINGS OF DESTINY: INSIDE SOVIET RUSSIA FROM LENIN TO BREZHNEV) is noteworthy. Her husband, Otto, was a Finnish Communist, a favorite of Lenin's who rose to be a member of the Soviet politburo whereas her path took her from the corridors of the Kremlin to the Gulag.
"Two Soviet master spies lived to write memoirs. General Orlov, who wrote THE MARCH OF TIME: REMINISCENCES, had a long life (he let Stalin know he knew who was who in the Cambridge ring but would keep quiet if he and his family were untouched) while General Krivitsky died in mysterious circumstances. Krivitsky’s book is IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE.
“Although written by a former FBI agent, A TIME FOR SPIES: THEODORE STEPHANOVICH MALLY AND THE ERA OF THE GREAT ILLEGALS by William E. Duff, a biography of the tormented priest turned master spy, is very sensitive and sympathetic to the protagonist's moral qualities. A short summary of the cases discussed above may be found in the first of these two works by Gordon Brook-Shepherd: THE STORM PETRELS: THE FLIGHT OF THE FIRST SOVIET DEFECTORS and THE STORM BIRDS: SOVIET POSTWAR DEFECTORS.
“Although I have not read it, THE LOST SPY: AN AMERICAN IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE by Andrew Meier seems of special interest.... According to the blurb, it's the story of Isaiah Oggins, said to be ‘a Columbia University undergraduate who joined the fledgling
Communist Party in 1920. Recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1926, he went to Europe in the guise of an academic; his residences acted as centers for Soviet espionage. After 1930 he sailed to China and Manchuria for various undercover schemes, then traveled to Moscow in 1939 during Stalin's purges. Despite long, loyal service, he was arrested and sent to an Arctic gulag, and despite frantic pleas for Oggins's release from his wife, and more modest U.S. government
efforts, the Soviets murdered Oggins in 1947 to keep his story from getting out.’
“The literature on the Cambridge spies Philby, McClean, Burgess, Caincross, and Blunt is vast. The most recent books based on long interviews with Philby and those based on the Soviet files are of most interest....The latest books I am aware of are these: MY FIVE CAMBRIDGE FRIENDS (by Yuri Modin -- written from the perspective of a KGB handler); THE PHILBY FILES by Genrikh Borovik and Philip Knightly (makes use of KGB files; ironically, the Center had its own version of James Jesus Angleton, who was so paranoid and suspicious that she led the Center to discount the reliability of their greatest assets); PHILBY: KGB MASTERSPY by Philip Knightly ( Knightly is a serious British scholar who spoke to Philby in his final year, when he wanted his story set down more or less accurately); and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF KIM PHILBY: THE MOSCOW YEARS by Rufina Philby, a personal memoir by Philby's widow.”
To this list of books, Woody Lewis adds, “I think Kim Philby is one of the most fascinating tragic characters in this space. There are so many stories wrapped up in his, and the influence, both ideological and literary (Greene, Fleming, Le Carre, et al), is beyond question. Even Ishiguro's REMAINS OF THE DAY, though concerned with Nazis and not Communists, shows the receptivity with which the ruling class approaches those systems that compete with western democracy, however one defines it.” To which MSW would add another literary take on espionage in the twentieth century, John Banville, THE UNTOUCHABLE. See notes .
More frm Jeffrey Sokolow: “I just remembered a wonderful book by Larry Berman entitled A PERFECT SPY about about the Vietnamese reporter for TIME magazine during the war, Pham Xuan An. He also worked as a secret agent for the resistance and was really the North's eyes and ears inside the American camp. He earned the respect of his American colleagues for his honest reporting and kept their respect after they learned that as a patriot his loyalties lay with the Vietnamese rather than the American side. He was uniquely loyal both to his side and also to individuals whom he befriended on the other side. It's quite a story. The book is based on interviews witn An in his final years. The Vientamese also published a short book on An but it's probably a lot harder to get hold of. Anyway, it's not as revelatory as Berman's book. This could open a look at other memoirs of the war by Vietnamese sources, including those who were afterwards disillusioned. I found quite interesting A VIETCONG MEMOIR: AN INSIDE ACCOUNT OF THE VIETNAM WAR AND ITS AFTERMATH by Truong Nhu Tang (former justice miniser for the NLFSVN), FOLLOWING HO CHI MINH: THE MEMOIRS OF A NORTH VIETNAMESE COLONEL by Bui Tin (a journalist, as senior officer on the spot, he took the surrender from the last S. Vietnamese president) and FROM ENEMY TO FRIEND: A NORTH VIETNAMESE PERSPECTIVE ON THE WAR by Bui Tin and Nguyen Ngoc Bich.
“Finally, I understand at least one volume of General Giap's memoirs have appeared in French but not in English; his theoretical works are in my opinion unreadable to the general public but the sections of the memoirs I've seen translated are gripping. Hopefully he will find an American publisher. He is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding military figures of the last century.”
MORE BRIT LIT
I read UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch, and found it charming, funny, and altogether a pleasant read. It was the first time I felt like I really got what Murdoch is doing. Maybe I needed the first person point of view to hold things steady for me. The tone takes off in a tone of twentieth century Oxbridge frivolity, and the story stays light in the sense that narrator Jake Donahue continues to act foolishly and get into scrapes from which he only disentangles himself with great effort and pain. He makes multiple errors of judgement and lays out red herrings of plot for us wherever he turns– and this works, because they are red herrings to him too. Then, towards the end, he takes his first real job ever, and becomes downright touching in his desire to do well. This is really a story about how a man’s arrogance and errors cause him to suffer, and also about how he comes out a better man at the other end, which makes it a comedy, of course! My hands-down favorite Murdoch so far.
POLITICS AND CREATIVE WRITING
Shelley Ettinger writes to comment on Orson Scott Card's political views (I praised ENDER’s GAME in the last issue– see http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/bfrarchive111-115.html#112). She says, “Thought I might as well pipe up and let you know that this guy is an ultra-reactionary anti-gay zealot who has repeatedly written and circulated vicious anti-lgbt rants. His rants have gotten a lot of attention from lit bloggers, who are more or less generally progressive and so are appalled by his politics and then torn over whether his politics mean they won't read his fiction anymore.”
Whether a person’s fiction can be separated and enjoyed and respected separately from the person’s political views is worth discussing. To judge Orson Scott Card ’s political views for yourself, take a look at a recent editorial piece by him in the at MORMON TIMES .
Anna Egan Smucker’s new book for children is just out– GOLDEN DELICIOUS: A CINDERELLA APPLE STORY is a true tale is set in the American heartland more than 100 years ago. The Stark brothers dream of cultivating the perfect new apple in their Missouri nursery, and a poor farmer in the hills of West Virginia finds a new tree with Golden Delicious apples in his field. He sends the fruit to the Starks, and the brothers are dismissive of the
yellow apples– until they taste them!
Noel Smith’s poems THE WELL STRING have been published by Motes books (http://www.motesbooks.com/TheWellString.html) with a foreword by Silas House. Lee Smith calls the poems “highly charged with intensity and originality,” and Ron Rash says, “THE WELL STRING is a significant contribution to Appalachian Literature.”
Dory L. Hudspeth’s book of poems I’LL FLY AWAY has just been published by Finishing Line Press at http://www.finishinglinepress.com . George Ella Lyon says “Dory’s Hudspeth’s poems catch your attention sideways, surprise your field of vision, lift off just when you think you’ve got them in focus.”
The multi-talented poet Arthur T. Wilson narrates “The Sketchbook” on the Raymond Wojcik CD PICTURES AND STORIES. See http://www.albanyrecords.com
The Autumn 2008 issue of PERSIMMON (http://www.persimmontree.org.) is up with poetry from Northeast women over sixty, including Judith Arcana, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Alicia Ostriker, and Susan Donnelly. Also sculpture by Lorraine Bonner, fiction by Elizabeth Morris and Louise Smith, and nonfiction by Bonnie Lee Black and Marian Clark. They are accepting West Coast women poets’ work from Nov. 1st to Dec. 15th. Check guidelines at http://www.persimmontree.org .
Fall 2008 issue of THE INNISFREE POETRY JOURNAL is now available at http://www.innisfreepoetry.org. In addition to established and emerging poets, there is in their "Closer Look" series, a generous selection of poems from the books of Marianne Boruch, including her new collection, GRACE, FALLEN FROM (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). You can read Innisfree 7 three ways: (1) online, (2) as a downloadable PDF file, (3) as a 106-page, 6x9, perfect bound hard copy you can purchase from the print-on-demand publisher Lulu.com for $6.65 plus shipping. The direct link for a hard copy is http://www.lulu.com/content/3773113.
FICTIONALLY SPEAKING: FICTION AND CREATIVE NONFICTION, a workshop with with Thaddeus Rutkowski on Saturdays, Nov. 1, 15, 22, noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5, 7-9 p.m. At the Asian American Writers' Workshop, 16 W. 32nd St., 10th floor. This is a workshop for writers new to fiction or creative nonfiction, as well as those who want to take their work to the next level. Traditional and experimental prose writers welcome. Cost: $175 general, $150 members. Contact: email@example.com or 212 494-0061. For more information, go to http://www.aaww.org.
Also starting in November if you happen to live in suburban New Jersey is MSW's Prose Narrative workshop for Playwright’s Theater on Thursdays 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM starting in mid- November. Go to http://www.ptnj.org/PubCL/AdultClassesA.htm and scroll down to “Writing Prose Narrative.”
September 13, 2008
Today is my sister’s birthday: Happy Birthday, Chrissie!
I have lots of recommendations this issue, but want to focus on three books: one for its ideas rather than its writing (CARING by Ned Noddings); one that doesn’t need a push from me at all, as it’s been highly popular for more than twenty years (Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME); and one that you ought to go looking for because the commercial channels are not going to be pushing it in your face.
This latter book is SHADOW TRAFFIC by Marc Kaminsky. This is probably listed as a book of poetry, although a good portion of it is prose including personal essay, criticism, and fiction. Kaminsky is a poet, essayist, editor, psychotherapist, and well-known worker with life narrative and the elderly. I would call the book a miscellany, but it feels so much more tightly bound together than the word suggests.
The themes include aftermath– the aftermath of the Holocaust, the aftermath of the Soviet Union, and the aftermath of family trauma, some related to Holocaust survival and some not– but it is also about the way writers past and present support other writers. it is also about insomnia and ambition and married love. Reading the book is like having an amazing, far-reaching conversation without ever becoming tired. Like the best conversation, it is deeply of the heart and of the mind at once, and you are swept through all the subjects by the play of an engaged mind and personality. The many tangents and changes of direction feel at once spontaneous and disciplined as Kaminsky uses them to open new topics that expose us to visions of many terrible and wonderful things that are mysteriously but profoundly connected.
I’ll give just one specific example. There is a poem in the second half, “Mutual Aid,” which is in the form of a letter from William Carlos Williams to Charles Reznikoff. Williams has had a stroke and just rediscovered some work Reznikoff asked him to read years before. Williams is so moved that he writes to praise and apologize and beg Reznikoff, who has not written for many years, to begin again. It’s a strong poem that stands alone, but there follows an essay, in prose, called “A Passage,” that explains how Kaminsky came to write the poem– the actual source of it in a biography. He talks also about whether or not one should do what he is doing– describe the generation of a poem, but he lays that aside to concentrate on the importance of how the one poet, Williams really did stimulate the other poet to write again, and how one of Kaminsky’s own books inspired an immigrant from Russia to translate his work to encourage an undervalued, obscure Russian poet. Please, click over to Red Hen’s website at and order a copy of this book– you’ll be better for it.
Also about becoming better– about how ethics develop– is Nel Noddings’ CARING: A FEMININE APPROACH TO ETHICS AND MORAL EDUCATION . This is not a work of art like SHADOW TRAFFIC, but I was very taken with its attempt to make a case for building ethics not on precepts but rather by generalizing from the experience of something natural (and not ethical), which is the memory and knowledge of mother-to-child caring. This, asserts, Noddings, is the model and source of our ideas of what is ethical, and it is our imitating of this as we get older that becomes the basis for ethical action and living. This resonates with me so much more than philosophical structures that start with cool reason and lead to firm prescriptions for right action. Noddings embraces our essential animality and our place in the natural world, and then tries to see how we get from natural, species-preserving caring to something larger. She maintains that true ethical thinking and behavior always looks at the whole situation rather than at how close or how far our actions are from an ideal.
Noddings doesn’t answer the big questions (“What is the Meaning of Life?” “Does God exist?”), but, Ethical Culture style, focuses on how to act in this world we have. The second half of the book is less successful in my opinion as Noddings tries to tie everything up to neatly with practical lessons in structuring education and more.
Finally, if you have any tolerance at all for ideas played out in the theater of science fiction, read Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME. Borrowing it from the library would be just fine, as Card is one of the most successful living practitioners of science fiction. Like many genre writers, his strength is in ideas and narrative thrust with no unnecessary attention to the line and sentence, and all of his books aren’t terrific, but this one is very satisfying. It posits a war culture in which children are culled from the community and trained in a virtual world of gaming to get ready for the Last Great Battle with the Evil Enemy– who turn out to be a science fiction staple, Hive creatures with no respect for human individuality. There’s lots of world-saving suspense- Will young Ender be trained in time to save the world? There’s also the Harry Potter-at-school scenario-- will young Ender survive the bullies?, but what makes this worth reading aside from the momentum of the story is that the enemy, the so-called “buggers,” turn out to have a point of view of their own, much more interesting than simple-minded us versus them. There is also a nice turn in how the final battle is presented, and also the ideas that the best warriors and commanders are children (very fitting in the age when kids master computers so much faster than their elders). Anyhow, you have to take your hat off to Card for his concepts if not his sentences.
Clarion has just published Edward Myers’ latest novel for young people, STORYTELLER, a moving and entertaining tribute to the art and necessity of telling stories. The novel takes the form of a fairy tale, although magic plays only a small role. It is the story of a poor boy who goes out to seek his fortune as a storyteller, helps a troubled king, and falls in love with a beautiful princess, herself a poet and lutenist. There are lots of adventures and an evil nemesis who is, tellingly, incapable of relating his own story. The boy has for his comrade a bird who insists he is not a crow but a midnight mynah, and he has his own frustrated cross-species love story. The frame story has a teller of tales telling his own tale as well as repeating the tales of others. There is plenty to think about here, but (and perhaps here’s the real magic) the stories about stories never get in the way of this story and its exciting turns. It has all the plot a younger reader could ask for, along with the material about the enduring value of story telling and the complexity of real life– even life in a fairy tale-- that will interest older readers.
CHUCK KINDER RECOMMENDS...
... Horacio Castellanos Moya’s recently translated novel, SENSELESSNESS. To learn more about Castellanos Moya, click here. I just read the book myself, and found it strange and wonderful. The protagonist is the copy editor of transcriptions of the stories of people who witnessed massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan military. He is at once stunned by the horrors and also increasingly convinced that the military knows about him and will kill him too. At the same time, there is sexual comedy (an unfortunate one-night stand with an attractive woman whose feet stink, and then he becomes convinced that her boyfriend is after him too). The narrator is a neurotic, prissy character, but endearing, especially for how he collects in a notebook sentences representing the cadences and style of the victim survivors. He reads these sentences aloud to friends and random bartenders. There is a quality that reminds me of Kafka– everything is elaborately concrete, and yet you can’t quite figure out what's going on. The funny stuff gets mixed in with history and horror and a kind of twisted mystery.
MARCEL PROUST by Edmund White is a small compact book that I wish I had read years ago when I was in the middle of A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU. It is a wonderful background to the time, especially to the cultural attitude toward homosexuality. There’s more here too– sources of Proust’s largeness, the importance of the First World War. It sets Proust in the literary continuum between Dickens and James, and reminds us that Proust could do both do sharp and hilarious caricatures and also sound the psychological depths like James– but Proust’s greatness is to be able to this for the same character, in layers, in symphonic movements.
David Lee Kirkland’s THE YESTERYEAR TALES is now available! The collection has been praised by Fred Chappell as “resonant, evocative, and– for all its necessary sadness–comforting.” Learn more at http://www.davidleekirkland.com .
Book Signing and Staged Reading Rosary O’Neill’s BECK AT GREYSTONES BAY at the Hudson Opera House on June 8th, I am happy to announce that this award winning play is going on tour. Please join her at the Morton Memorial Library 82 Kelley Street in Rhinecliff on October 3rd at 7:00 PM and at The National Arts Club in New York City at 15 Grammercy Park South at 6:30 PM on November 12th for two more readings of this play.
WILD: NEW WRITING FROM APPALACHIA is a proposed anthology of essays and poetry from native West Virginians ages 18-35 who have lived outside the state. The collection will address the many issues West Virginia’s young people face from emigration and submissions should consider questions of identity and place. Deadline: 1 October 2008. Essays should be no more than 5000 words and should be submitted in Times New Roman, 12pt font, with 1 inch margins, and the author’s last name and title of the piece on every page. Poetry should be no more than 40 lines and should include the author’s last name and title on every page. Please send all submissions, questions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from Appalachia: CHARLESTON STAGE COMPANY is in the process of creating a new stage production entitled, WEST VIRGINIA: WORDS AND MUSIC, which will be performed at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston in May 2009. West Virginia: Words and Music will present a series of monologues and songs written by West Virginia playwrights and writers depicting a host of different fictional characters: men, women, and children from all over the mountain state. Submissions from all WV writers are welcome; for more information, see the CSC website: http://www.charlestonstagecompany.com/index_files/Page690.htm .
Rainbow in the Berkshires
I’m writing this at the Weinberger family lake cottage in Western Massachusetts. We have spotty internet access, but the electricity usually works, so there are moments when I’m at my laptop, Andy is at his, and David at his! David even has a Kindle– the first one I’ve ever seen in the flesh, as it were. He likes it, but says everyone should wait till the price goes down and they re-engineer it so that when you shift your hand you don’t turn the page by accident.
David’s wife Ann, however, reads books.
So, I am on the screened porch overlooking lake, trees, humming birds, chipmunks, red squirrels, etc., feeling social and relaxed, and as I write this, it seems a good moment to thank some of the readers who send in suggestions, especially most recently: Ardian Gill (who suggested CARAVANS, an early James Michener novel of travel and adventure in Afghanistan); Jeremy Osner, who keeps an interesting blog (see below); Bill Higginson (poet and haiku blogger) who suggestions a novel; and Carol Brodick with suggestions for youth reading.
I’ve been extremely unsystematic in my reading lately, everything from the Michener novel to an excellent magazine/book of poetry MOBIUS to the popular boy-fun FIGHT CLUB (which I thought my son recommended, but it turns out he was talking about the movie with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) to a couple of interesting books with World War II as a background.
First, Marion Cuba’s (see her essay in issue # 110) novel SHANGHAI LEGACY about the psychological damage done to a woman who lived through deplorable conditions in Shanghai during World War II. Shanghai was one of the few places where German Jews could get a visa to leave Germany, and this is about one of the families that went– and how their suffering under the Japanese occupation was visited on the narrator Maya, whose life is ostensibly satisfying and certainly comfortable, but no less damaged for all that. What is most fascinating is this ghetto that most of us know little about– in Shanghai. One of the great reasons the great genocides and holocausts are so horrible is how the precious fabric of ordinary life is rent beyond repair and even into the next generation.
An older book also with a Second World war setting is a surprising memoir by Mary Lee Settle, ALL THE BRAVE PROMISES. Settle recalls and writes about her early years when she, an American, wanted to be part of the great action of her generation and volunteered for the British Women’s Army Air Force. So much of this is totally unexpected– the way an American is treated during the Battle of Britain, class stresses among the British, lots of daily tedium and the occasional shock and horror of war. The style is breathless and occasionally repetitive, depending on swoops of rhetoric and a few too many generalizations assuming we know what she means or will agree without being convinced. It is, however, overall very readable and enjoyable--., an aspect of war that was new to me.
FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palaniuk, which was made into the popular movie, has an odd afterword that claims it was begun as a writing seminar exercise. It is in some ways a novel about men who wish they could have gone to war, with its tone of testosterone pretentiousness and delight in transgression. Knowing it’s at bottom literary makes sense. I kept reading, but can’t say I see a lot of point to it, except for early on some very funny passages, especially about two main characters who are addicted to 12 step program/support groups and make up appropriate illnesses. The verbal flights have a poetry too– in other words, it has some good writing and some funny stuff but I’m not sure this particular game was worth the candle to me.
Finally, I read the latest issue of a contemporary poetry magazine that is a very different experience. This was MÖBIUS: POETRY IS THE MUSIC OF THE SOUL 25TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE. It has a beautiful silvery cover, and it is rich and full of poetry. The represented poets include Nikki Giovanni, Marge Piercy, Simon Perchik, the late Rochelle Ratner, and Queens Poet Laureate Julio Marzan. There are pieces by Joseph Bruchac and Robert Bly and Colette Inez and the publisher-editor herself, Juanita Torrence-Thompson (see a short review of her latest book of poetry below). The issue is dedicated to the filmmaker Gordon Parks, who was himself a poet, which I never knew: “So my heart lifts praise to a smiling autumn– /To those fallen years that no longer exist. (“No Apologies.”)
The book is full of wonderful lines, wonderful poetic journeys: “My mother’s mind was an attic” writes Marge Piercy in “The Conversation,” and Daniela Gioseffi writes a wonderful moment called “My Old Husband Has Brought Me Lilacs." There’s a brilliant prose poem by John Amen that is about trying to use a dying mother to shore up a failing marriage (“Coming Clean”), and a hilarious explosion of events beginning with a bottle of salad dressing (Bruna Mori’s “Cilantro Dressing from Trader Joe’s”). Along with the pieces by people whose work I’ve long enjoyed and known, there were poets I was delighted to meet, like Rhina Espaillat. It’s really a wonderful book, a pleasure to hold and dip into. It’s available from P.O. Box 671058, Flushing, NY 11367-1058 and from the web page .
“If you've ever thought about writing an autobiographical exposé, you might want to give Margaret Atwood's 2000 novel THE BLIND ASSASSIN a read first. The novel opens with the suicide of the younger of two sisters, who goes on to become a famous one-novel writer with her posthumous ‘book’ that gives this book its title. As things progress, we have three braided pieces of genre fiction: The elder sister's autobiography’ is really a mystery story that gradually becomes the center of the book. The younger sister's tale is a romance, of sorts. And the title work is a piece of fantasy science-fiction spun by the younger sister's lover, or so it seems. All of this is set mainly between the coming home of an injured WWI veteran, who is the sisters' father, and the immediate post-WWII period when the younger sister suicides. Economics and external tensions between capitalist-industrialists and unionists affect the families involved, but internal family politics makes these stories work together to a satisfactory, almost poetic, conclusion. Here I rediscovered Atwood's great gift for melding historical events and a wonderfully quirky, grudgingly self-revelatory character that I first found in her book of poems from 1970, THE JOURNALS OF SUSANNA MOODIE. In Atwood's hands, mortality is an elegant psychological adventure. If that entices you to seek her book out, good! I knew I was reading this braid, but it only occurred to me toward the end that I was reading these three different pieces of genre fiction."
Jeremy refers us to his notes on reading Sarakmago’s THE CAVE at http://readin.com/blog/?k=book:thecave . He asks, “What do you think about my idea that dialog in Saramago plays an opposite role to what it does in most novels -- I generally see dialog as sharpening the focus and bringing the reader in close to the scene, but Saramago's dialog has more of a softening effect, pulling the lens back and making you consider the story as a whole rather than the current scene.”
“I share most of the comments on THE ROAD (see issue #110) , but one has to stretch to find Hope at the end. One thing that bothered me was why are they going to the shore. It's bound to be bleak too. I took it merely to mean that he had to provide some hope for the kid and chose the shore, without any knowledge that it would reward the journey.
“I just read Michener's wonderful novel CARAVANS, set in Afghanistan in 1946. Before the Taliban, though the mullahs were there stoning an adulteress; before the Russians when they and the Americans were finagling for maximum influence. The story concerns a second tier embassy employee who has been assigned the job of locating an American woman married to a western-educated Afghanistan man. Her family hasn't heard from her for over a year and an important senator has put pressure on the state department to find her or learn of her fate. In the process he finds her Afghan husband, crosses a desert in an incredible experience with heat and desolation, is connected with a German Nazi doctor on the run from the Allies and useful to the medical poor Afghans. I won't give the story away but there are surprises galore when he finds her and I do want to tell that the history Michener piles in, the geography (they see the giant Buddha blown up by the Tailban) and the people in all their variety. Imagine the scene where 80,000 nomads are gathered in one place, with many more than that in camels, sheep and goats. By one mode or another they crisscross Afghanistan from east to west then south to north so ranging from the Indian border to the Russian one.It's a wonderful read and makes the latest Afghan book, the KITE RUNNER look like the second-rate work it is.
“On the other hand, a view of present-day Afghanistan is marvelously portrayed by THE PLACES IN BETWEEN, the story of a hike across Afghanistan from India to Iran (I think). Authors name forgotten but he's now in Iraq among the swamp people.”
Carol writes to say that she has found “some treasures in the latest batch of books from the library.”
She recommends A BEGINNING, A MUDDLE, AND AND END by AVI, “a book about writing for middle grade readers. But honestly, it's a book for every reader who enjoys play on words and humor with a bit of a twist. It's the story of two friends, Avon the snail and Edward the ant. Avon decides he wants to be a writer only he doesn't know how to proceed, so Edward helps out. Together they stumble along, never quite discovering a story to write, but discovering lots of good rules for writing. It's a charming book, fun for everyone, including writers.”
Next, she suggests MY DOG MAY BE A GENIUS by Jack Prelutsky.”This is a book of poetry for kids that grown ups can read aloud and laugh about with their children, and that children will love reading themselves. Some of the poems are nonsensical and it's the cadence and rhyme that makes them delightful. All the poems are quirky and humorous, like ‘I Do Not Like November.’ It goes like this:
I do not like November.
November is no fun.
I do not mind the other months,
but truly dread this one.
It is the month we celebrate
Thanksgiving in our land.
Alas, I am a turkey--
perhaps you understand.
The author, Jack Prelutsky, is known as the first Children's Poet Laureate, and the illustrator, James Stevenson, has illustrated many books for children.”
Finally she recommends THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, “an absolutely entertaining adult read, full of danger, mystery, revenge and lust. Stephen King describes it best, and I quote: ‘If you thought the true gothic novel died with the 19th century, this will change your mind. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND is the real deal, full of cheesy splendor. . . .’ And it is. The book begins in Barcelona, in 1945 when Daniel Sempere discovers a mysterious book by a mysterious author, and a rich adventure begins, spinning like a top through an intricate plot that incorporates unsavory characters, beautiful women, and obsession.”
In his July 7, 2008 column for THE MORGANTOWN DOMINION POST (http://www.dominionpost.com.), Norman Julan reviews and recommends two books about the extraction of coal in West Virginia and its effects on people: MONONGAH from West Virginia University Press and COAL RIVER by Michael Shnayerson, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Juanita Torrence-Thompson’s latest poetry collection is called NEW YORK AND AFRICAN TAPESTRIES. She writes poems about New York and the world. Her work is full of a gusto for life and an enthusiam for her subjects. One group of poems is called “Eleven on Nine Eleven.” She writes of travel both geographic and through time. My favorites include two separate odes to the Queens Borough Bridge, “We’ll Always Have Queens Borough Bridge, ”which describes the structure as “Layer upon layer/like gray strawberry shortcake,” and “Ode to the Queens Borough Bridge,” addressed to “Oh durable sister/luminous in the sunlight.” Her poems about her mother are sharp and vivid, and come as close as you can in words to touching the essence of a vital human being who stays vital and human even at the end of life. One family poem that I like especially is “If Only I Could...” which is at once about the ordinary tasks of a real life and about the accompanying music of imagination.
Now Available! THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW, Issue 15, Summer 2008 online at http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr15.html Featuring poetry by Allen Bramhall, Janet Butler, Craig Cotter, Chad Heltzel, Reamy Jansen, Sheila Murphy and Douglas Barbour, Rick Marlatt, Simon Perchik, Meg Pokrass, Gabriele Quartero, Joseph Somoza, Ron Winkler, and Robert E. Wood; and fiction by Nora Costello, Hallie Elizabeth Newton, J. C. Frampton, Sharmila Mukherjee, and Luke Rolfes. THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW publishes three times a year: in June, October, and February.
Of Redjeb Jordania’s new book ESCAPE FROM SOUTH FORK AND OTHER STORIES, Dominic Ambrose says, “If every person’s life story can fill a book, Redjeb Jordania's can fill a bookshelf. The brilliant stories in this collection are just a small taste of the vast panorama of his experiences. From the waters of Montauk to the mountains of the Caucasus and Paris in war times, he takes you on a whirlwind tour that opens unexpected vistas and insights. With easy wit, irony and masterful description he brings us into his world to make us better understand our own.”
Nathan Leslie’s latest is BEST OF THE WEB 2008, is the first-ever anthology of online literary work from online magazines. He is the series editor. It’s a compilation of the very best stories, poems, and essays of last year. The book has received some nice initial reviews and a forthcoming review is slated to appear in the L.A. Times. Here’s a link: http://www.dzancbooks.org/bow.html .
Rosary Hartel O’Neill’s plays have just been published: A LOUISIANA GENTLEMAN AND OTHER NEW ORLEANS COMEDIES and GHOSTS OF NEW ORLEANS. These two volumes of plays collect work of much produced and honored Rosary Hartel O’Neill set in and about her home town of New Orleans, Louisiana. The Plays in GHOSTS are historical– about figures like Edgar Degas and John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, who all had New Orleans connections. The LOUISIANA GENTLEMAN plays are about people in New Orleans in the more recent past– the years just before Hurricane Katrina. The characters are vivid and naturally dramatic– there is a joie de vivre in language, in emotion, even in struggle. Everyone seems born to be on stage– that is, the characters see themselves as having dramatic, expressive, and meaningful lives– and readers are pulled in and believe it too. The characters and the city seem equally essential here; one feels enriched and enlivened for having encountered them.
Barbara Crooker has yet another poem on WRITERS ALMANAC with Garrison Keillor, "Patty's Charcoal Drive-In." Listen to it on the web. Visit her website at http://www.barbaracrooker.com .
WORKSHOPS. READINGS, BOOK PARTIES
Poetry Workshop taught by Ellen Bass in New York City on October 25 and 26, 2008. Both experienced and beginning poets are welcome. Class size is limited to fifteen poets. For information, get in touch with Ellen Bass at Ellen Bass email@example.com or see http://www.ellenbass.com .
Larissa Shmailo will be at the Cornelia Street Cafee on Wednesday, August 20 at 6pm. George Wallace presents an evening of poetry. $7 includes house drink. More Larissa: September 13 at 8pm The Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street and at The Stain Bar on September 26 at 7 pm, 766 Grand Street, Brooklyn.
The Appalachian Writers Anthology is encouraging submissions of original works of poetry and fiction (up to 2500 words). The submission deadline is September 1, 2008. For information about the anthology and submission guidelines, please see http://www.shepherd.edu/ahwirweb/anthology/.
FULCRUM #6 is available at http://fulcrumpoetry.com for more information or to acquire a copy.
The largest unionized bookstore in America has a webstore at Powells Books. Some people prefer shopping online there to shopping at Amazon.com. An alternative way to reach Powell's site and support the union is via http://www.powellsunion.com. Prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go to support the union benefit fund. For a discussion about Amazon and organized labor and small presses, see the comments of Jonathan Greene and others in Issues #97 and #98 .
WHERE TO FIND BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER
If a book discussed in this newsletter has no source mentioned, don’t forget your public library and your local independent bookstore.
To buy books online, I often go first to Bookfinder or Alibris. Bookfinder has a feature that tells you the book price WITH shipping and handling, so you can compare what you’re really going to have to pay.
A lot of people whose political instincts I respect prefer the unionized bricks-and-mortar bookstore Powells (see "About Amazon.com" above) that sells online at http://powellsbooks.com. Another good source for used and out-of-print books is All Book Stores at http://www.allbookstores.com/ .
Take a look also at Paperback Book Swap, a low cost (postage only) way to get rid of your old books and get new ones by trading with other readers.
If you are using an electronic reader like Kindle, Nook, or Kobo, get free books at the Gutenberg Project-- most classics, and other things as well. Libraries now lend e-books too!
RESPONSES TO THIS NEWSLETTER
Please send responses and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis at MeredithSueWillis@gmail.com. Unless you instruct otherwise, your responses may be edited for length and published in this newsletter.
#146 Henry Adams AGAIN! #145 Henry Adams, Darnell Arnoult, Jaimy Gordon, Charlotte Brontë #144 Carter Seaton, NancyKay Shapiro, Lady Murasaki Shikibu #143Little America; Guns,Germs, and Steel; The Trial #142 Blog Fiction, Leah by Seymour Epstein, Wolf Hall, etc. #141 Dreama Frisk on Hilary Spurling's Pearl Buck in China; Anita Desai; Cormac McCarthy #140 Valerie Nieman's Blood Clay, Dolly Withrow #139 My Kindle, The Prime Minister, Blood Meridian #138 Special on Publicity by Carter Seaton #137 Michael Harris's The Chieu Hoi Saloon;The Professor and the Madman; Game of Thrones; James Alexander Thom's Follow The River #136 James Boyle's The Creative Commons; Paola Corso, Joanne Greenberg, Monique Raphel High, Amos Oz #135 Reviews by Carole Rosenthal, Jeffrey Sokolow, and Wanchee Wang. #134Daniel Deronda, books with material on black and white relations in West Virginia #133 Susan Carpenter, Irene Nemirovsky, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kanafani, Joe Sacco #132 Karen Armstrong's A History of God; JCO's The Falls; The Eustace Diamonds again. #131The Help; J. McHenry Jones, Reamy Jansen, Jamie O'Neill, Michael Chabon.
#130 Lynda Schor, Ed Myers, Charles Bukowski, Terry Bisson, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism #129Baltasar and Blimunda; the Underground Railroad; Navasky's Naming Names, new and recommended small press and indie books. #128 Jeffrey Sokolow on Histories and memoirs of the Civil Rights Movement #127Olive Kitteridge; Urban fiction; Shelley Ettinger on Joyce Carol Oates #126 Jack Hussey's Ghosts of Walden, The Leopard , Roger's Version, The Reluctanct Fundamentalist #125 Lee Maynard's The Pale Light of Sunset; Books on John Brown suggested by Jeffrey Sokolow #124Cloudsplitter, Founding Brothers, Obenzinger on Bradley's Harlem Vs. Columbia University #123 MSW's summer reading round-up; Olive Schreiner; more The Book Thief; more on the state of editing #122 Left-wing cowboy poetry; Jewish partisans during WW2; responses to "Hire a Book Doctor?" #121 Jane Lazarre's latest; Irving Howe's Leon Trotsky; Gringolandia; "Hire a Book Doctor?" #120 Dreama Frisk on The Book Thief; Mark Rudd; Thulani Davis's summer reading list #119 Two Histories of the Jews; small press books for Summer #118 Kasuo Ichiguro, Jeanette Winterson, The Carter Family! #117 Cat Pleska on Ann Pancake; Phyllis Moore on Jayne Anne Phillips; and Dolly Withrow on publicity #116 Ann Pancake, American Psycho, Marc Harshman on George Mackay Brown #115Adam Bede, Nietzsche, Johnny Sundstrom #114 Judith Moffett, high fantasy, Jared Diamond, Lily Tuck #113 Espionage--nonfiction and fiction: Orson Scott Card and homophobia #112 Marc Kaminsky, Nel Noddings, Orson Scott Card, Ed Myers #111 James Michener, Mary Lee Settle, Ardian Gill, BIll Higginson, Jeremy Osner, Carol Brodtick #110 Nahid Rachlin, Marion Cuba on self-publishing; Thulani Davis, The Road, memoirs #109 Books about the late nineteen-sixties: Busy Dying; Flying Close to the Sun; Looking Good; Trespassers #108The Animal Within; The Ground Under My Feet; King of Swords #107The Absentee; Gorky Park; Little Scarlet; Howl; Health Proxy #106Castle Rackrent; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; More on Drown; Blindness & more #105Everything is Miscellaneous, The Untouchable, Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher #104 Responses to Shelley on Junot Diaz and more; More best books of 2007 #103 Guest Editor: Shelley Ettinger and her best books of 2007
#102 Saramago's BLINDNESS; more on NEVER LET ME GO; George Lies on Joe Gatski #101My Brilliant Career, The Scarlet Letter, John Banville, Never Let Me Go #100 The Poisonwood Bible, Pamela Erens, More Harry P. #99 Jonathan Greene on Amazon.com; Molly Gilman on Dogs of Babel #98 Guest editor Pat Arnow; more on the Amazon.com debate #97 Using Thomas Hardy; Why I Write; more #96 Lucy Calkins, issue fiction for young adults #95 Collapse, Harry Potter, Steve Geng #94 Alice Robinson-Gilman, Maynard on Momaday #93Kristin Lavransdatter, House Made of Dawn, Leaving Atlanta #92Death of Ivan Ilych; Memoirs #91 Richard Powers discussion #90 William Zinsser, Memoir, Shakespeare #89 William Styron, Ellen Willis, Dune, Germinal, and much more #88 Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo #87Wings of the Dove, Forever After (9/11 Teachers) #86 Leora Skolkin-Smith, American Pastoral, and more #85 Wobblies, Winterson, West Virginia Encyclopedia #84 Karen Armstrong, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Taylor #83 3-Cornered World, Da Vinci Code #82 The Eustace Diamonds, Strapless, Empire Falls #81 Philip Roth's The Plot Against America , Paola Corso #80 Joanne Greenberg, Ed Davis, more Murdoch; Special Discussion on Memoir--Frey and J.T. Leroy #79 Adam Sexton, Iris Murdoch, Hemingway #78The Hills at Home; Tess of the D'Urbervilles; Jean Stafford #77 On children's books--guest editor Carol Brodtrick #76 Mary Lee Settle, Mary McCarthy #75 The Makioka Sisters #74In Our Hearts We Were Giants #73 Joyce Dyer #72 Bill Robinson WWII
story #71 Eva Kollisch on G.W. Sebald #70 On Reading #69 Nella Larsen, Romola #68 P.D. James #67The Medici #66Curious
Incident,Temple Grandin #65 Ingrid Hughes on Memoir #64 Boyle, Worlds of Fiction #63The Namesame #62Honorary Consul; The Idiot #61Lauren's
Line #60 Prince of Providence #59 The Mutual Friend, Red
Water #58 AkÉ, Season
of Delight #57 Screaming with
Cannibals #56 Benita Eisler's Byron #55Addie,
Hottentot Venus, Ake #54 Scott Oglesby, Jane Rule #53 Nafisi,Chesnutt, LeGuin #52 Keith Maillard, Lee Maynard #51 Gregory Michie, Carter Seaton #50Atonement, Victoria Woodhull biography #49Caucasia #48Richard Price, Phillip
Pullman #47 Mid-
East Islamic World Reader #46Invitation to
a Beheading #45The Princess of Cleves #44 Shelley Ettinger: A Few Not-so-Great Books #43 Woolf, The Terrorist Next Door #42 John Sanford #41 Isabelle
Allende #40Ed Myers on John Williams #39 Faulkner #38 Steven Bloom No
New Jokes #37 James Webb's Fields
of Fire #36 Middlemarch #35 Conrad, Furbee,
Silas House #34 Emshwiller #33 Pullman, Daughter
of the Elm #32 More Lesbian lit; Nostromo #31 Lesbian
fiction #30 Carol Shields, Colson Whitehead #29 More William Styron #28 William Styron #27 Daniel Gioseffi #26 Phyllis Moore
#25 On Libraries.... #24Tales of the
#23 Nonfiction, poetry, and fiction #22 More on Why This
Newsletter #21 Salinger, Sarah
Waters, Next of Kin #20 Jane Lazarre #19Artemisia Gentileschi #18 Ozick, Coetzee,
Joanna Torrey #17 Arthur Kinoy #16 Mrs. Gaskell and lots of other suggestions #15 George
Dennison, Pat Barker, George Eliot #14 Small
Creek, Crum #12 Reading after 9-11 #11 Political Novels #10 Summer Reading ideas #9 Shelley
Ettinger picks #8 Harriette
Arnow's Hunter's Horn #7 About this newsletter #6 Maria Edgeworth #5Tales of Good
and Evil; Moon Tiger #4 Homer Hickam
and The Chosen #3 J.T.
LeRoy and Tale of Genji #2 Chick Lit #1 About