ON THE MASON DIXON LINE
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
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
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
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
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
ANOTHER NEW WEST VIRGINIA NOVELIST
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.
DEPARTMENT OF GENERAL EDUCATION
Learn more about the Great State
of West Virginia! Take a look at http://www.sunnysidebiz.com/WV/wvinfo.shtml .
MORE ON HOW WE READ
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
"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
"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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
MARIO PUZO AND BEYOND
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."
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."
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."
DEPARTMENT OF GOOD
Shelley Ettinger has
a new poem online at http://samsaraquarterly.net/
August 20, 2002
continues the discussion of William Styron begun in #28 and gives a few last
minute suggestions for your end-of-summer reading.
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."
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...."
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.
READ MORE POETRY! YOU'LL
BE GLAD YOU DID!
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
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.
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.
WHAT ELSE WE'RE READING
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
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."
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.
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."
JUDE THE OBSCURE
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
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
TOPIC FOR FUTURE DISCUSSION
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.