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Newsletter # 26
June 20, 2002


By Guest Editor Phyllis Wilson Moore

June 20th is the 139th birthday of the feisty state of West, By God, Virginia. And since you are invited to the party, let me introduce you to the honoree.

From the standpoint of geography, topography, history, politics, and literature, West Virginia is a state like no other. Located in the " heart of Appalachia," many refer to its location as too northern to be southern and too southern to be northern.

West Virginia, once a part of the thirteen original colonies, ripped itself from "mother Virginia" at the outbreak of the Civil War. This breakaway state chose to remain in the Union and now dangles provocatively from its steel producing northern panhandle. Mostly below the Mason Dixon Line, its serrated borders nibble Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia. It reminds me of an amoeba in motion— reaching out in all directions.

Reaching out describes the state's multi cultural literature, too. You can't call it Northern Literature; we know who made the quilts on our beds. You can't call it Southern Literature: there are dead deers, not dead mules, in it. Regardless of labels, it reaches out and grabs its share of awards and recognition.

If you are in search of the real West Virginia, I recommend you begin by reading memoirs: ADDIE by Mary Lee Setttle, ROCKET BOYS by Homer H. Hickam, Jr, COLORED PEOPLE by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., AT HOME IN THE HEART OF APPALACHIA by John O'Brien, and LEGACY OF LOVE by Julia Davis. These provide a look at the life of the "upper class" and the laborer as well as life in county seats (we have no large cities here), in coal towns, a farming community, and a (then) segregated section of a factory town.

Readers may be surprised to find a state occupied by people of many nationalities with both an agricultural and industrial based economy; a state with distinct regions, each with its own personality and literary flavor.

West Virginia is a state with its history captured in GAULEY MOUNTAIN, the poetry of former Poet Laureate Louise McNeill, as well as in the novels of Charleston's Mary Lee Settle and Wheeling's Keith Maillard.

Settle writes of the settling and development of West Virginia in five novels collectively referred to as THE BEULAH QUINTET: PRISONS, O BEULAH LAND, KNOW NOTHING, THE SCAPEGOAT, and THE KILLING GROUND. The quintet is based, in-part, on Settle's family's deep West Virginia roots.

Maillard's historical fiction is set in the steel producing northern end of the state in Rayburn, a town of his invention. The series LIGHT IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN; ALEX DRIVING SOUTH; HAZARD ZONES; and GLORIA portray the development of the steel and cigar industries and the evolution of the "country club" set. I hope you agree: West Virginia can celebrate a diverse literary heritage and enjoy a happy birthday. – Phyllis Wilson Moore


GUEST EDITOR PHYLLIS WILSON MOORE is a book collector and informal Dean of West Virginia literature. She gives lectures on West Virginia literature and literary history in schools, libraries, and university classrooms. She specializes in the multi-cultural literature of West Virginia, and her article on West Virginia writers is available at http://www.mountainlit.com.                       

                                      – Meredith Sue Willis


Phyllis Wilson Moore directed us to a group of wonderful, relatively well-known West Virginia authors. An exciting newcomer is Ed Davis, professor and poet at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. He has just published a coming of age novel called I WAS SO MUCH OLDER THEN. It's a gripping, sad story of a family living in rented rooms in urban West Virginia (or rather, "county seat" West Virginia, as Phyllis would have it). It has lots of damaged, struggling, and extremely colorful characters, many caught up in addictions or mental illness. Look for ordering information online at Nuvobooks.



Learn more about the Great State of West Virginia! Take a look at http://www.sunnysidebiz.com/WV/wvinfo.shtml .


Phyllis Moore also sent these notes on her experience of reading: "It was really interesting to read the reasons people buy books and frequent or avoid libraries, sort of like chatting with friends. Here is my contribution to the chat. I've had a love/hate relationship with libraries ("blaming the victim"? ) since a 5th grade teacher locked-up a library book I was surreptitiously reading in class. It remained locked in her desk drawer for a long, long time. This resulted in quite a fuss by me, parental reprimands, and a stiff library fine for the book.

"I do hang out in two nearby libraries but can't abide pacing my reading according to a return date. On visits, about three a week, I check-out audio-books and skim books for my ‘to buy' list. I'm definitely an owner not a borrower and prefer nonfiction and poetry.

"For ‘real' reading I want a hardback book and want to read it whenever the urge hits, this may be days, months or years after the book is acquired. I grow edgy without a sizable stack of unread books at hand. My husband rightfully says I take more books than clothes on vacation. I seldom leave home without a book in the car...just in case.

"My book buying is done locally or on Internet sites such as http://www.half.com, http://www.abebooks.com, and http://www.amazon.com. I search for used hardbacks but will settle for a paperback with hopes to upgrade to hardback at a library sale or Goodwill. I usually buy several books a month as I collect West Virginia and West Virginia related books.

"Haunting the local used book shops and book sales is a fun hobby and often provides me a loaner copy. It is a rare friend to whom I'd loan an only copy of any book I value. But I love to share books and often buy new and used books to give friends, family, and fellow teachers. Books are also part of our holiday gift giving.

"I don't want books if I can't see the titles and locate them easily and so our home is full of bookcases filled with books. I'm not allowed to exceed this space (my rule) and so I part with non-West Virginia books from time to time. There is always a worthy place such as a burned library or a charity. Sometimes I have 'friends only non-advertised book sale/give away lunches.

"My opinion on libraries: they are an essential element in the life of a community and need all the support they can receive.

"P.S. One of my recent West Virginia audio book listens: BLACK FOR REMEMBRANCE. A chilling mystery by Charlene Thompson of Point Pleasant. It is also available in braille and is the basis of a movie filmed in France. It's a scary one and well done."


Another reading suggestion comes to us from Daniela Gioseffi: "Since buying a laptop with an LCD lit screen, easy on the eyes and transportable to my easy chair, I find I read more and more on line. I've even ventured into publishing an electronic book of poems with Rattapallax Press at http://www.rattapallax.com/ebooks.htm. It's title is SYMBIOSIS, and its also available from http://www.BookSurge.com --one of the various e-book distributors which handle books of poems.

"I note there is one at BookSurge.com by Philip Levine, for example. This is my first venture into electronic publishing, aside from my web sites at http://www.PoetsUSA.com which features many fine contemporary poets. My e-book publisher even used my own wildflower drawing of Day Lilies for the cover and my drawing of a Lady Bug as a motif for each page. And, an e-book is really cheap. Only $2 for a book of poetry of about 48 pages. Amazingly cheap compared to hard copy books which I'm far more used to. One can download a PDF program right on site to read such books. It's simple to do so and then print them out, color or black and white."



BOOKS mentioned in this newsletter are available from your public library and your local bookstore as well as online. For online shopping through independent booksellers, try Booksense. Good sources for used and out-of-print books are Advanced Book Exchange and Alibris. For comparison shopping and deep discounts, try All Book Stores and Half.com.




Newsletter # 27
July 9, 2002


Phyllis Moore edited the last issue with a celebration of West Virginian literature. Just as I was sending out Phyllis's issue, I had an email from Daniela Gioseffi, who talked about, among other things, the stereotyping of Italian-Americans in literature and the media: "One great second hand book I've been reading lately," says Daniela, " is THE FORTUNATE PILGRIM, first copyrighted in 1964 by Mario Puzo. I was curious because I hate Puzo's other books which play on the Mafiosa stereotype which plagues Italian Americans like the stereotype of the drunken Irishman or the Chinese laundryman or the African American who has to know how to dance. I've boycotted all the Puzo films and am probably one of the few people who has never seen, and will never see, THE GODFATHER— no matter what critics say about it. I hate all gangster movies with a passion. But THE FORTUNATE PILGRIM— a forgotten novel by Puzo— is reported to be the best and most lyrical of all his novels. It's about everyday, hardworking Italian immigrants struggling to make a life in the new world. Despite the great reviews it got from every quarter, Puzo could not make a living as a writer even with its success, and so, he sold out to the only sort of story Hollywood wanted from an Italian and made a fortune.

"He confessed he never met a Mafioso, as the great majority of us Italian Americans never have, and he based THE GODFATHER on his Italian mother's matriarchal ways. It was all a myth which he created from newspapers stories and his mother's family fidelities. Thus, he turned the best thing about Italian American culture, filial feeling, into a perversion. "He confessed he never met a Mafioso, as the great majority of us Italian Americans never have, and he based THE GODFATHER on his Italian mother's matriarchal ways. It was all a myth which he created from newspapers stories and his mother's family fidelities. Thus, he turned the best thing about Italian American culture, filial feeling, into a perversion.

"But in THE FORTUNATE PILGRIM, it is real people with passions and feelings minus the Mafiosi and it is refreshing. You get all the family drama without the crime and that is how it is for 99.9 percent of us. I highly recommend it as a forgotten American classic that deserves to be made into a film. Joseph Heller loved it and THE NEW YORK TIMES called it, ‘Highly charged...tumultuous and brilliant.' The Book of the Month Club said it has ‘depth and extraordinary characterization.' I...came across a second hand paperback at a church book fair. It proves that behind all that sensational sell-out Puzo was a real writer. It's a good read, no matter what your background. You can probably find it at your local library or through that miracle, an inter-library loan, which really works. I've often found books I wanted through inter-library loans, believe it or not. Few people seem to avail themselves of that wondrous service."

Thus, still another reason for going back to the public library! I would like to hear more ideas for reading that deepens and expands our understanding of people who often appear in literature and the media as one-dimensional stereotypes— or are ignored altogether. I know there are a lot of excellent new novels set in various cultures, but I'm particularly interested now in suggestions for stereotype-smashers– reading that takes us beyond what the movies lead us to expect of people.

                                                            Meredith Sue Willis



My early summer reading included: LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a comedy, really, in the fine old sense of having a happy ending (of sorts). Garcia Marquez is always worth reading. I reread THE GREAT GATSBY, following my son's school reading list— admired the novel's tightness and structure. I think it is really about the failure of worshiping youth plus a little bit about class in America. I admired it a lot, although the occasional casual anti-Semitism and racism leave a little bad taste. Finally, I also read RESTAVEC (which means "stay with" in French) by Jean-Robert Cadet, a memoir about a boy's life as an informal slave in not-so-long-ago Haiti. Grim and amazing.

SILAS HOUSE says, "SALT by Isabel Zuber is one of the most incredible and beautiful books I have read in ages. Set from 1877-1932, it's the story of Anna Stockton, an amazing woman who gives up all of her dreams when she married John, a farmer in the rugged mountains near Boone, NC. The book is basically a character study, a meditation on why we don't live our lives to the fullest. Zuber is a renowned poet and this is her first novel and I have to say that I devoured it. It is so well-crafted and lyrical and...well, it's the kind of book that you just want to tell everyone to read, so I'm hoping the newsletter will help me to do that."

LAURA LOU says, "Tell your subscriber pal Naomi Freundlich you do know someone who read DALE LOVES SOPHIE TO DEATH back when it was first out in paperback. It stands out in my mind as a very good, well-told story with a vicious twist. I have not read much else by Robb Forman Dew that I found as good. I'll have to try THE EVIDENCE AGAINST HER. "Just this weekend we were going through things in the basement to try to take advantage of Maplewood [New Jersey]'s upcoming ‘scavenger day' (that's what we call it anyway..) and I came across two boxes of books that Matt had put downstairs during one of his organizing campaigns in the sunroom. I found books I had read and no longer really want to keep (some Ellen Gilchrist, for example) but also some that I remembered really being struck by (THE MOUNTAIN LION, for one...author's surname escapes me, first name Jean...Point is, it was really a visit to another time, because I read these books when my kids were younger, my life was different... I've been working too much and I'm trying to change that, and one thing I want back in my life is MORE TIME TO READ....

"I just finished an interesting book, I found it compelling enough to recommend for summer, it's hardly ‘weighty' though certainly not fluff --and as a writer you'll appreciate some of the beautifully fresh prose. This guy has a way with words! Plus the story's intriguing enough to keep you diving back in. It's titled INSPIRED SLEEP by Robert Cohen....Have you read any Abby Frucht? She is a master. And her latest work was several years ago, and I didn't expect to see anything else soon... but haven't checked. It was called LIFE BEFORE DEATH. It is one of the best books I've read by a contemporary author. Her other works are mostly short stories, and a short novel. I discovered her on one of our trips to Maine, in Sherman's Bookstore on Mt. Desert Island. (Great bookstore.) That was years and years ago, and honestly, I'd like to know what you think of her."

Due out in October: Silas House's new novel, A PARCHMENT OF LEAVES and Meredith Sue Willis's ORADELL AT SEA.





Newsletter # 28
August 5, 2002


I just read William Styron's nearly fifty year old first novel, LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS. It is an interesting book, brilliant in parts, distinctly bad in others. I read it after running across two later works, DARKNESS MADE VISIBLE, an essay about his clinical depression, and a collection of autobiographical short stories, A TIDEWATER MORNING. The latter includes a harrowing account of his mother's death when he was about thirteen. Styron has never been a favorite of mine: he always seemed the epitome of the chest thumping I-am-Writer-I am-Man. Indeed, reading his work doesn't dispel that impression— he is often wonderful, but also often pompous and self-conscious.

Toward the end of DARKNESS MADE VISIBLE, he speaks of rereading and being proud of some passages about depression and suicide in his first novel, LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS. I decided to take a look at that novel, and I am not giving away anything when I say that its central event is a young woman's suicide. The suicide happens off-stage at the very beginning, and the remaining several hundred pages concern what led up to the suicide. Some of the novel is just splendid— especially the long final long stream of consciousness section in the voice of the young woman, Peyton. It is a kind of reversal of Joyce's Molly Bloom monologue at the end of ULYSSES in that the speaker embraces Thanatos instead of Eros. It manages to capture both Peyton's disintegration and a particular time and place— Greenwich Village in the early nineteen fifties.

Another wonderful long passage has Peyton's drunken father spending the day of a big University of Virginia football game wandering through campus looking for Peyton. Indeed, passages centering on Peyton and on her father are all moving and loving. The major failure of the novel is the attempt to capture Peyton's mother as well. Styron tries to get away with long pages of vaguely Freudian rhetoric about how she hates men and is jealous of her daughter, but a lot of this is close to embarrassing. Other parts that don't work are the passages in which Styron uses black people as if they were Shakespearean porters and gravediggers to intersperse some comedy into the serious business of the white family tragedy.

What I admire most about this book is its structure: there is a present time of one day, Peyton's funeral, with the bulk of the pages flashbacks following the various characters of the nuclear family plus Peyton's husband. Thus, while I continue to be less than a fan of Styron, and while I am not precisely recommending LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS, I do think it is an interesting and worthwhile book, especially in how it captures what it was like to be young around the time of the Second World War, and— if you are interested in how novels work— as an example of how a strong structure gives a writer maximum freedom. I'd be interested in opinions of other works of Styron's— I've read SOPHIE'S CHOICE but have always stayed away from THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER. Anybody have any thoughts on these books?

                                                                      – Meredith Sue Willis



Suzanne McConnell writes to say, "I just read the book review [in Newsletter # 27] about Puzo. I must've read the same article on him, because [Daniela Gioseffi] had the same info I remember, though I've never read that book, and thanks to your newsletter, just tucked it away on my 'must read' list. I'm reading a book which fits something of the idea you said you'd like to read about at the end. It's based on the Rosenbergs, quite closely, and the American Communists' attitudes and so on, but it's in the tradition of black humor, like CATCH-22, or Vonnegut. It's very non-p.c. in a wonderful way. It's called RED LOVE, by David Evanier.... That one took him 10 years. He was drowning in material and until he found his comic voice, and put the material aside, he was stuck. It's funny as hell, and equally poignant/tragic. It's also out of print, but can be found on-line easily."

Phyllis Moore responded to the last issue with some ideas for reading about a multi-cultural Appalachia: "I recently read interesting nonfiction related to coal mining worldwide, CAVERNS OF NIGHT: COAL MINES IN AR, LITERATURE, AND FILM by William B. Thesing (Editor). For me, a statement in the book aptly describes the issue of how stereotypes begin. It makes the point [that] many books writing about miners and their work, life, and families are, ‘written in ignorance of the actual life, generally from the reigning middle class attitude.' That rings true for many ethnic groups and for Appalachia. My own term for this kind of fiction is ‘fotched-on fiction.' To me fotched-on fiction is fiction written about and from without--- instead of by a member, or from within the society.

"Several West Virginia authors have written accurate ‘dispatches' concerning the portrayal of their Italian immigrants parent who settled In this area of West Virginia. POEMS FROM A MOUNTAIN GHETTO by Russell Marano of Clarksburg is one example. In his youth-novels THE STAR FISHER and DREAM SOUL author Laurence Yep creates a true picture of his Chinese ancestors and their life in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The portrayal of the Greek immigrants in Montgomery, West Virginia is handled well by Christopher Janus in... MISS 4TH of JULY, GOOD-BYE. Growing up Irish Catholic in West Virginia is rendered accurately in NO STAR NIGHTS by Anna Egan Smucker while growing up African-American in West Virginia is shown in the children's book FROM MISS IDA'S PORCH by Sandra Belton and in COLORED PEOPLE: A MEMOIR by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"The only West Virginia herb-women I have met own their own herb business and drive BMWs, and the granny woman, still a stock literary figure for some writers, in actual fact was replaced long ago by the nurse midwife. Hopefully, voices of insiders will be heard more often than voices of outsider, and in the future more groups will ‘write their own dispatch' rather than be written about."



Fran Osten suggests NATIVE SPEAKER by Chang-Rae Lee. "Quite interesting look at language, communication, inter-cultural issues and mis-understanding. I am still digesting it."

Shelley Ettinger says, "I just read a book you and your readers might enjoy. Light vacation reading. THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde. A funny, fast tale of crime/adventure/time travel that's also an homage to English literature and a salute to the love of literature. The book has a strong silly streak, especially in the naming of characters--the bad guy is Archeron Hades, the mega-corporation's evil operative is Jack Schitt, a historian is Millon De Floss--and that might turn off some readers. But I got a kick out of it, and there's an underlying sweetness that made it work, and even some interesting political twists."

Christine Willis says, "I have been enjoying TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in a way that I have never read a book before. I am reading it over and over (very slowly) to the point that I am beginning to feel that I know the characters in a personal and real way. It is an incredibly well crafted book....Harper Lee is still living, as far as I know ... she captures the efforts of society to encase a young girl in femininity and the efforts of the girl to resist. The South's character is so vividly clear that it takes on its own strength. It is a restful book and nonthreatening. I am also enjoying ODD GIRL OUT. It is a book that I will make reference to in next year's classes. I will also suggest that [one of my students] do a project on the nature of female aggression."


Shelley Ettinger has a new poem online at http://samsaraquarterly.net/


Newsletter # 29
August 20, 2002


This newsletter continues the discussion of William Styron begun in #28 and gives a few last minute suggestions for your end-of-summer reading.

Ardian Gill thanked me for bringing LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS back to his attention: "I hadn't read that for decades," he wrote, "and your discussion brought it back and gave me much pleasure. I thought DARKNESS VISIBLE was a fine piece of work, though how one works during depression I don't know. SOPHIE'S CHOICE is my favorite Styron, starting with the rejection by the narrator of KON TIKI for his publishing house and moving to the pink paint sale. But the horror of the choice Sophie had to make is what drives the book, for me. Also a pretty good movie. NAT TURNER is very different and very special. He actually roomed with a black author, whose name escapes me, before writing it. He created the time and place for me in a marvelously evocative way, and got inside Turner's head more than effectively."

Christine Willis says of NAT TURNER: "I read the book many years ago, but I recall the impact it had on me. I had a black student a few years ago (I may have had a total of four black students since I began teaching at Arroyo Grande High School [California] in 1982) to whom I gave a copy of THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER. After a few days he came to class and said in a slow, drawn out sentence: 'Mrs. Willis, this book is making me mad!' If the story aroused me, it wasn't surprising it inflamed a young black man...."

Sandy Vrana writes, "I, too, have read LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS and SOPHIE'S CHOICE, but not CONFESSIONS. Of SOPHIE'S CHOICE --I think he chose wisely in having a (more or less) ordinary person as narrator (Stinko, wasn't it? It's been years since I've read it) to tell us about two other characters who are significantly stranger than he. I can also say that in Sophie's boyfriend (whose name I can't remember just now) Styron provided my first close-up look at a man on cocaine (not to mention his profound mental illness)--what he might be like. I think Styron gives female readers insights into male workings of the mind, including fantasies about women in terms of physical desirability as well as wished-for behavior. I read the book through to the end--although it caused me great suffering. The book's sadness is immense. (I was not surprised to learn Styron suffers from depression. I have also done so. I do not think, however, that his book on depression (which I also have read) adequately presents the atmosphere--the pain, the nothingness, the hopelessness--of depression. Both LIE DOWN and SOPHIE'S CHOICE seem to aim for the ultimate despair as a way to rend the curtain of existence--that wealth of fabric that insulates us from the awful truth we both desire and fear. Styron once said that, for a writer, 'Beginning a novel is like beginning a journey from Paris to Vladivstok--on one's knees.' For a reader, beginning one of Styron's novel is much the same kind of experience."

Thanks for all the thoughts about Styron- I'm now deep in a reread of SOPHIE'S CHOICE. For a future issue, do you have favorite books that you read over and over again- or books that surprised you greatly on second reading? See below for a book that surprised me in this way.

                                                Meredith Sue Willis



I don't read tremendous amounts of poetry, but when I do, I always feel revived and brightened. I tend to be a fast-reader- sometimes not slowing sufficiently to enjoy the passages that prose writers have worked hard over. In poetry, though, I'm forced to slow down and be aware of the ideas and images and the language itself. Mark Defoe's volumes AIR and AVIARY gave me this kind of experience. His themes cover a lot of ground, but some of my favorites are his animal poems. There's a hilarious "13 Ways of Eradicating Blackbirds" in AIR that is a parody of Wallace Stevens' poem ("Reason with them. Speak softly. Hide your stick.") as well as the title poem in AVIARY ("The fast hawks razor the greenery/ Patrol for the slow, the careless..."), as well as "What the Wolves Know" and a poem about an endangered red salamander in a parking lot. Other poems in the two books are about family love and boys in malls, miners, wasps, and pickles. Part of the pleasure of reading extensively in one poet's work is that breadth of view from another person's eyes.




From Fran Osten: "Just read your latest newsletter. I enjoyed TIDEWATER MORNING when I read it some time ago and Gates' book.[COLORED PEOPLE]. You might want to look into HOMESTEAD by Rosanna Lippi. It is a series of linked short stories comprising a touching account of women in a small Austrian village from the early 20th century to the 70's and the ways the outside world touches their insular lives. There are characters one really comes to care about."

Shelley Ettinger says, "I just read THE NIGHT LISTENER by Armistead Maupin, UNLESS by Carol Shields, and CRUDDY by Lynda Barry. I think you may have already run notes on all these in your newsletter. But if someone else hasn't already recommended UNLESS, it deserves a big plug. It got strong reviews, but they were all about the author's compassion, wise rendering of family ties blah blah blah, when it seems to me the novel at its heart is an angry testimony about the damage the world does to women. Shields is particularly scathing about the literary world, so by ignoring the book's central thrust the critics confirmed its validity. Now I'm starting AHAB'S WIFE, which I think I recall you were ambivalent about."

Phyllis Moore says, "My most recent novel read is the fascinating 1923 THE QUARE WOMEN, by Lucy Furman. Furman was one of the teacher/founders of the Hindman Settlement School in the town of Troublesome Creek, Knott County, Ky. She would be proud to know the school she struggled to help found still flourishes and preserves the heritage of that region. In addition, the school now hosts the well established and prestigious Appalachian Writers' Workshop. THE QUARE WOMEN is based on the events that occur when a group of well educated and well intended "quare women" (unusual in dress and manners to the local residents) come from "furrin parts" (outside the county) to establish a school in the (then) isolated mountains. They bring with them excitement and change. Unlike many less talented writers, Furman captures the spirit and the dialect of the residents in a style similar to that of contemporary authors James Still, Jim Wayne Miller and George Ella Lyon. To find out how your grandparents lived and to consider the wonders wrought by highways, schools, birth control, health education, electricity, and such, I recommend this well written, heart warming novel. If your library does not have a copy, it is available used on many Internet sites for less than $20.00." \

And finally, I read an interview of Nora Okja Keller which stimulated me to reread COMFORT WOMAN. The rereading was especially important because on my first reading, the horrors of the forced prostitution of Korean women by the Japanese army during World War II was about all I could focus on. In the second reading, the wonderful relationship between the mother and daughter and the whole issue of living between cultures came to the fore. It's an excellent book, on many levels. If you are particularly interested in those areas between cultures, you would probably like Cristina Garcia's DREAMING IN CUBAN as well.



Note from Phyllis Moore regarding West Virginia author and poet Jeff Mann, a Hinton native now teaching in Virginia. His story "Not for Long," published in Harrington Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly, was selected as one of twenty works to appear this fall in Best Gay Erotica from Cleis Books. Jeff is currently under contract for DEVOURED, a vampire novella set in West Virginia. It will be included in the anthology MASTERS OF MIDNIGHT, due Summer 2003, Kensington Books. His latest book of poetry BONES WASHED WITH WINE from Gival Press, should be out in the next couple of months.



Newsletter # 30
September 3, 2002


To my surprise, I discovered earlier this summer that I had read two of the books on the list of finalists for the National Book Critics Circle fiction award. Both Carol Shields's UNLESS and Colson Whitehead's JOHN HENRY DAYS were recommended by readers of this newsletter, and I liked both of them, although I don't feel the urge to stop strangers on the street and press them with copies.

I have a respect for Carol Shields and her world view and generally think what she writes is worth reading. In UNLESS, she does an excellent job of creating the suffering of a quintessentially middle-class and good-hearted family whose eldest daughter spends her days begging on a Toronto street corner. There is also an excellent portrayal of the narrator's friend and mentor, an elderly French woman with a long career as an intellectual. At least half of the novel seemed solid and fine and sharp to me, but I found myself impatient with some of the rest of it, especially long descriptions of conversation among women friends, house cleaning and domestic life, and-- especially-- the narrator's adventures on a book tour. Those parts seemed mildly entertaining, but not heated sufficiently in the fictional cauldron.

Parts of Colson Whitehead's JOHN HENRY DAYS also seem unfinished to me- perilously close to the writer's original notes for a novel. I have a theory- and take this with a grain of salt, of course- that people whose first books did well sometimes hurry- or are hurried- to get another out, and thus skip needed fourth, fifth, and sixth drafts. I sometimes had this feeling about JOHN HENRY DAYS. [ But see some other views of Whitehead: an interesting interview and his own essay on the genesis of the novel.]

JOHN HENRY DAYS is a big, ambitious book, covering much time and space. Some of it is an imagined version of the John Henry legend, some of it is set at a contemporary John Henry festival in Hinton, West Virginia- site of the real or mythical competition between an African-American railroad builder named John Henry and a steam engine. Some of it takes place in a lively, cynical New York City world of book parties and alternative newspapers. One of the blurbs praising the book, from the LOS ANGELES TIMES, calls it a "compendium of magnificent writing," and it certainly strikes me as a compendium, as it includes mini-essays on contemporary journalism, dream sequences, parodies, historical fiction, and much more. Some of these pieces are quite brilliant. The dialogues among the junketeering journalists are witty, and there is an excellent chapter that is really a short story about a cool modern Manhattan affair in which love fails to overcome selfishness and neurosis. There are also some interesting passages set in the 1920's about a black scholar doing research in Southern West Virginia on the John Henry legend and folk song. Generally, the novel has an attitude of world weary skepticism; it struck me as very much a novel of a particular generation, those born in the early to mid nineteen seventies. Interestingly, with all this satire and parody and world-weariness, its ending may be sentimental: the main character has a chance to grab real love, and it appears that he might take it.

It's probably an appropriate ending for a twenty-first century novel: hesitant, hardly daring to expose its hopefulness. Endings are another of my literary hobby horses: one of the biggest problems for a lot of contemporary writers, it seems to me, is how to end. The nineteenth century still at least paid lip service to an orderly universe, so writers could finish up a book with a wedding or the collapse of the villain's schemes. Sophisticated nineteenth century novels played with these conventions- the wedding at the end of George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH, for example, leaves some questions about whether the right people paired up. Twentieth century American fiction, on the other hand, had an unnerving habit of ending novels with an explosion- shot guns, atomic bombs, or orgasm.

But in 2002 as we approach the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we seem to be facing an extremely unsettled and ragged future. Whitehead's hesitant possibility of love between two damaged people offers a little touch of hope- not much, for a big book, but at least a little.

                                                               Meredith Sue Willis



From Silas House: "THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY by Brad Watson is--without a doubt--one of the most beautiful and well-crafted novels I have ever read. There are passages in that book that I have actually memorized, they're so wonderful. The story begins in 1914 and centers on Finius Bates, who falls hopelessly in love with Birdie when he sees her do a nude cartwheel as he hides in the woods near her swimming hole. Although he pursues her, and continues to love her for the rest of his life, he is never able to make her his own, and lives out a miserable, searching existence in an unhappy marriage to his wife Avis. The book is dark and magical and wonderful and Gothic. I can't recommend it highly enough. The book just came out a couple weeks ago and is already getting rave reviews."

From Christine Willis: "I don't know if you have interest in entertaining grammar books, but try this one: SLEEPING DOGS DON'T LAY: PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR THE GRAMMATICALLY CHALLENGED, by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis."

Phyllis Moore suggests the memoir on depression WHERE THE ROOTS REACH FOR WATER by Jeffery Smith, who was born in West Virginia and still lives just across the line in Ohio.

From Denise Mann: "I just read Oscar Hijuelos new book -- A SIMPLE HABANA MELODY: FROM WHEN LIFE WAS GOOD -- I was underwhelmed because it seemed more like a character sketch than a novel. EMPRESS OF THE SPLENDID SEASON is one of my all-time favorites so I was expecting better .. that said, it does paint a nice picture of Havana and in some cases, you can actually hear the songs that the main character writes ..I am now in the midst of Paul Theroux's MY SECRET HISTORY. I have read a lot about this author, but never anything by him and so far I am enjoying it .. it's quick paced, and funny at times. It's the story of an altar boy from Boston and the path that his life takes. I just picked up a copy of JANE EYRE at a yard sale and I am embarrassed to say I have never read that ...so it now joins my growing "to Read" pile .. I also read THE NIGHT LISTENER and was curious what Shelley Ettinger thought of it .. It was uncannily similar to FIND ME by Rosie O'Donnell."



Here's an old one: This late nineteenth century novel by Thomas Hardy is probably sitting on a shelf in your garage, and if not, then it's certainly gathering dust in your public library. It's final pages are not for the faint of heart, but it is a strong, raw reading experience about the oppressed, repressed, and depressed.

Here is Christine Willis's take on it as she was reading. " Jude and Sue struggle with social dictates, but they seem to revel in their success at remaining together even under an apparent family curse of not being able to remain 'married....' Sue comments on relationships of the future being more like the one she and Jude have. I would like there to have been more smells and textures described because one of the joys of reading old novels for me (my friend said I am a 'literary snob,' because I like all of old novels to the exclusion of the new, but I defend my choices as they are simply my taste) is the make believe of being in the era. I want to experience the atmosphere so with JUDE THE OBSCURE. I have to fill-in many of the sensations I feel Hardy left out!"

Then, having finished the book, she offered this view: "I think my interest [in JUDE THE OBSCURE] may be less literary and more psychological, but I have thought quite a bit about the book.... JUDE THE OBSCURE is a novel driven by the characters' need to reproduce. Through his characters, Hardy describes his conception of reproductive strategy. Hardy understands the male strategy; in modern terms, it's the Nike strategy: Just do it. "I don't believe he understands the more complex female reproductive strategy, and for me, that was a disappointment. For Hardy, sexuality in women (Arabella) or the absence of it (Sue) is perverse. Further, sexuality and intellect can't exist in a single Hardy female body: Arabella is sexual but lacks intellect, and Sue has a degree of intellect but lacks sexuality. Whole women act on the reproductive strategy which embodies both Arabella's and Sue's methods of attaining and retaining a male. For Hardy, women are too complex for one character. In fact, Sue and Arabella aren't even large enough to display the range of characteristics found in a single adult woman. Jude's great-aunt, Drusilla Fawley, displays feminine wisdom gained from her gathered and synthesized family knowledge by warning Jude never to marry. Mrs. Eldin counsels Sue, based on feminine intuition, not to remarry Philston. Woman, for Hardy, is too big for one body: Jude and Philston, on the other hand, are essentially the same human with Philston simply providing the other male interest. "Hardy did get one thing right, however: women do the mate selecting! It is a depressing novel and the willing suspension of disbelief notion comes in handy in a variety of spots. But these areas are so deeply embedded in the novel that the reader is already caught in the story: too late to dismiss the book in its entirety."


GOOD NEWS DEPARTMENT You can read Shelley Ettinger's vexing, fascinating little story "On Top of the World" online at SNOW MONKEY.



Do you have favorite books that you read repeatedly, or books that surprised you greatly on second reading? I wrote in the last newsletter about Nora Okja Keller's COMFORT WOMAN.

Naomi Freundlich says, "I've read THE GROUP by Mary McCarthy several times--probably one of the only books I've read more than once. I've also read her autobiographical works. This book, along with Dawn Powell's novels bring to mind a lost era in New York City that I find fascinating."


TO OBTAIN BOOKS mentioned in this newsletter, try your public library and your local bookstore. For book buying online, I have been using Alibris. This was originally mostly a used book outlet, but they now also list new editions and have relationships with Bowker of Books in Print, Coutts, and Baker and Taylor. The Authors Guild has been recommending against Amazon.com for its selling of used and reviewers' copies of books even before a book is published, thus cutting into author/publishers' receipts. For online shopping through independent bookstores, go to http://www.booksense.com. You can order SLEEPING DOGS DON'T LAY by phone from 800-370-3010.







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 .



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!




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.

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#146 Henry Adams AGAIN!
#145 Henry Adams, Darnell Arnoult, Jaimy Gordon, Charlotte Brontë
#144 Carter Seaton, NancyKay Shapiro, Lady Murasaki Shikibu
#143 Little 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.
#134 Daniel 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.
#131 The Help; J. McHenry Jones, Reamy Jansen, Jamie O'Neill, Michael Chabon.
Lynda Schor, Ed Myers, Charles Bukowski, Terry Bisson, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism
#129 Baltasar 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
#127 Olive 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
#124 Cloudsplitter, 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
#115 Adam 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
#108 The Animal Within; The Ground Under My Feet; King of Swords
#107 The Absentee; Gorky Park; Little Scarlet; Howl; Health Proxy
#106 Castle Rackrent; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; More on Drown; Blindness & more
#105 Everything 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
#101 My 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
#93   Kristin Lavransdatter, House Made of Dawn, Leaving Atlanta
#92   Death 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
#87   Wings 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
#78   The 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
#74    In 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
#67    The Medici
#66    Curious Incident,Temple Grandin
   Ingrid Hughes on Memoir
    Boyle, Worlds of Fiction
#63    The Namesame
#62    Honorary Consul; The Idiot
#61    Lauren'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
#55    Addie, Hottentot Venus, Ake
#54    Scott Oglesby, Jane Rule
#53    Nafisi,Chesnutt, LeGuin
#52    Keith Maillard, Lee Maynard
#51    Gregory Michie, Carter Seaton
#50    Atonement, Victoria Woodhull biography
Richard Price, Phillip Pullman
#47    Mid- East Islamic World Reader
#46    Invitation to a Beheading
#45    The Princess of Cleves
#44    Shelley Ettinger: A Few Not-so-Great Books
#43    Woolf, The Terrorist Next Door
#42    John Sanford
#41    Isabelle Allende
#40    Ed 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
   On Libraries....
#24    Tales of the City
   Nonfiction, poetry, and fiction
#22    More on Why This Newsletter
#21    Salinger, Sarah Waters, Next of Kin
#20    Jane Lazarre
#19    Artemisia 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 Presses
#13    Gap 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
#5      Tales 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 this newsletter
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