October 8, 2002
May I begin with
happy personal news? My new novel is novel out! It's called ORADELL AT SEA,
a story about a woman who grew up in a coal mining town and gets rich unexpectedly.
Details are available at the publisher's
been on an excursion into the works of the ever-formidable Dead White European
Males: first, James Joyce's wonderful "The Dead," from DUBLINERS. This long
story is always new, always offering more in its rich forty pages. It has
one of the most mouth-watering descriptions of food you'll ever read; it
offers a model example of how to write crowd scenes (the short version:
limit the number of people with proper names); and, of course, the main
thrust– the sad, touching, dead-and-dying who surround us– and are us. If
you don't own the book, you may read the story online.
Second, I read Joseph
Conrad's NOSTROMO, a book that is too turgid for too long. Conrad indulges
himself in a ponderous first fifty pages to build his fictional province
with its history, its capital, its high and low citizenry, its topography,
its weather!– I almost gave up. However, once the world was built to his
satisfaction– and once I'd made the commitment of slogging through it– there
was a kind of magical shift, a sea change if you will, and I was suddenly
entranced by the mix of revolution, quirky characters, physical adventure,
and big ideas about the corrupting influence of power over people– and of
riches over the powerful. It's a remarkable book– thick and sinuous as snakes
and vines, twisting around your imagination and drawing you through its
different: CROSSING TROUBLESOME is a new, collective portrait of the Appalachian
Writers Workshop, a yearly institution that has been taking place at the
Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky for twenty-five years.
The book has poetry and prose memories by interesting folks across the spectrum
of Appalachian writing from the late James Still and Harriette Arnow to
Lee Smith, George Ella Lyon and Sharyn McCrumb. One of the special qualities
of the Workshop– and this volume captures it very well– is a profound and
warm egalitarianism that gives equal time to big-name teachers and regular
attendees. This democratic approach is part of the culture of the workshop,
which welcomes even Foreigners and Come Here's (a few of the many Appalachian
terms meaning "You weren't born in this part of the world, were you?").
You can learn about the collection here.
– Meredith Sue Willis
DID YOU GET YOUR
DOSE OF POETRY TODAY?
Poetry Daily has
an online verse-a-day, all reprints from excellent literary periodicals
or books of poetry: Try
If you recall, last
issue I asked for suggestions for good lesbian fiction. I had just read
a history of Lesbianism in the 20th century by Lillian Faderman.
writes: "I have very fond memories of some of those 70's novels Faderman
recommends like SISTER GIN, THE WANDERGROUND, and especially THE SWASHBUCKLER.
Other good ones of the immediate post-Stonewall era include the wonderful
PATIENCE AND SARAH by Isabel Miller, LOVER by Bertha Harris, FOLLY by Maureen
Brady... LES GUERILLERES by Monique Wittig, NERVES by Blanche M. Boyd.
"For all their
problems, I also retain a soft spot for the 50's-60's pocketbooks, which
I have quite a few of, including DESERT OF THE HEART and other Jane Rule
books, RETURN TO LESBOS and others by Valerie Taylor, and especially the
Beebo Brinker series by Ann Bannon. They include I AM A WOMAN, WOMAN IN
THE SHADOWS and ODD GIRL OUT, which provided part of Faderman's title.
even further, there are WE TOO ARE DRIFTING by Gale Wilhelm and NIGHTWOOD
by Djuna Barnes. The classic THE WELL OF LONELINESS by Radclyffe Hall was
banned in Britain and the U.S. in 1928 for its sympathetic portrayal of
the protagonist yet by today's lights is suffused with homophobia and self-loathing;
I still find it very moving and worth reading.
"More recently there've
been lots of lesbian mysteries, science fiction, romances, ‘erotica,' etc.,
of, shall we say, varying quality. There is also quality literature such
as THE GILDA STORIES by Jewelle Gomez, SOR JUANA'S SECOND DREAM by Alicia
Gaspar de Alba, Dorothy Allison's work, Sylvia Brownrigg's. I think of several
of Alice Walker's novels in this category too. And I've heard good things
about last year's LIGHT, COMING BACK by Ann Wadsworth, but haven't read
"On another note,
I recently read THE BOTANY OF DESIRE by Michael Pollan. Liked it a lot.
It's about the co-evolution of humans and plants. I found the chapters about
apples and marijuana are particularly interesting. For anyone who finds
that apples have less and less taste, and that on those once-a-year indulgences
in old habits a single toke is all you can take, this book explains why.
(The change isn't in you, it's the plants.)"
DO YOU HAVE A WEB
PAGE FOR YOUR LITERARY WORKS?
Or, for that matter,
a web page chronicling your baby's first smiles and steps? I'd love to publicize
web pages of readers of this newsletter and/or people they admire. For starters, Shelley Ettinger, who offered
the mini-survey of Lesbian literature above, has a brand new website listing
her online works.
Also, do take a
look at the website of Carol
Emshwiller, who has two new books out this fall, a novel and a book
of short fiction– both unlike anything you'll read anywhere else! Take a
look at her site at or, go straight to the books at her publisher's
TO OBTAIN BOOKS
mentioned in this newsletter, try your public library and your local independent
bookstore. For book buying online, I have been using Alibris.
October 25, 2002
Larry Zirlin wrote to tell what
he's been reading and to raise a question: "I spent most of the spring and
summer reading and rereading Philip Roth - all the Zuckerman novels, as
well as the Kepish novels and MY LIFE AS A MAN (where the author's alter
ego is also named Zuckerman). Besides finding his novels compelling portraits
of both personal and societal anxieties (if I don't control my urge to underline,
the books would become unreadable), I get a special enjoyment since the
neighborhood in Newark he writes about, the Weequahic section, is where
I grew up. When he describes the orphanage across the street from his apartment,
I know exactly where it is. Leslie Street, where he locates his childhood
home, was where I lived. The 107 bus to New York is the bus I took. On Lyons
Avenue. I even realized, reading his description of his apartment building,
that I delivered THE STAR-LEDGER to that building when I had a paper route.
Of course, Roth was long gone, but those details (along with the candy store
on the corner I used to go to, Beth Israel Hospital, the Osborne Terrace
branch of the library) make his books much more personal to me than any
other writer....All of which leads me to wonder if there are other readers
who have the same kind of connection to a writer they enjoy – not someone
they know, but a writer who coincidentally has appropriated a place to which
the reader has a strong emotional connection."
By chance, I've actually done
writer-in-the-school workshops in Larry and Roth's old neighborhood in Newark,
and I now live in the town where Roth occasionally places his character's
brother, an affluent gynecologist. But the book that connects to my homeplace
is an 1899 potboiler you won't have heard of if you aren't from West Virginia:
DAUGHTER OF THE ELM by Granville Davisson Hall. Long before I ever saw the
actual volume, I had heard of it. My dad pointed out the site of the Big
Elm that figures in the novel and the remains of an old bridge that appears
in the story. I wouldn't say that knowing a book was set in Shinnston made
me a writer, but it was my first inkling that flesh and blood human beings
could write books– and that those writers used concrete locations that might
even be the ones I saw every day. In my case, the book was far less important
that the fact of its existence.
It seems to me so important
for all those children out there in communities that are marginalized in
one way or another to have an opportunity to make those links: that their
real worlds too can be the stuff of art and ideas; that they might be the
ones to create that art and have those ideas.
Now I'm curious if others of
you have books or authors that resonate for you the way Phillip Roth's Weequahic
Newark books resonate for Larry Zirlin or DAUGHTER OF THE ELM did for me.
– Meredith Sue Willis
REACTIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Ardian Gill says,
"You've touched [in Newsletter #32] on one of my very favorite stories,
Joyce's "The Dead." I have it on tape in a book and on film. It's one of
the rare cases where the movie can claim to be as good as the book. This
is especially difficult with Joyce where there is so much interior monologue
and stream of consciousness. There is one thing that puzzles me and maybe
you noticed it too. When they are in the cab returning to their hotel (and
"the snow is general all over Ireland"), they see a red horse and proclaim
it is good luck (I think). In the movie it is a white horse, and since you
don't see it, I wonder why it was changed. Perhaps they had intended to
show it in the film and it would look better in the snow, like Fellini's
white peacock in Amercord."
Zirlin also writes that he was struck by Newsletter #32's comments
on Conrad's NOSTROMO, which, he says, "I slogged through a few years ago
on the Vineyard. I feel much as you do about- once he gets past the set-up
the book is exciting and entertaining. Of course, to my mind, his greatest
book is THE SECRET AGENT, which I reread every few years. It is amazing
how contemporary the book is. Terrorists blowing up famous buildings to
make a ‘statement' - nothing changes."
Anderson recommends LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman, and Sara
P. recommends THE LAST SAMURAI as "the most challenging and
rewarding read I have had in a long time (and I've been reading quite a
bit lately). Story of a ‘lost' genius woman and her genius son - struggling,
surviving, living. It's hilarious and, like I said, a real challenge - very
non-traditional, non linear writing. It's very much a commitment. I loaned
my copy to someone and have not seen it back in more than 2 months!"
Shelley Ettinger just finished reading Philip Pullman's trilogy HIS DARK MATERIALS. "I'd
heard that he writes young adult fantasy/adventure that's more complex and
with a grander vision than the Harry Potter series, which I've never managed
to motivate myself to read. Then I heard the Vatican had denounced him.
Naturally I dove in. Well, the books are terrific--exciting, fast-moving,
emotionally involving, intricately plotted tales that move among several
universes inhabited by all sorts of beings. Best of all, the hero is a girl.
A grand conflict plays out between the forces of love, joy, wonder, knowledge
and kindness and those of repression, ignorance and, well, non-joy--between,
as Lyra, the hero, puts it, "the Kingdom of Heaven ... and the Republic
of Heaven." The writing completely pulled me in; I'd never have known the
books are aimed at young readers if it weren't for the cover illustrations."
Palencia, author of two excellent short story collections, BRIER
COUNTRY: STORIES FROM BLUE VALLEY and SMALL CAUCASIAN WOMAN, has just published
a chapbook of poetry THE DAILINESS OF IT about having a mentally and physically
disabled child in the family. This is available from Grex Press in Louisville,
Watch for Madeline
Tiger's new poetry collection coming in April from Marsh Hawk Press:
BIRDS OF SORROW AND JOY: SELECTED AND NEW POEMS, 1970-2000.
Also just out is a beautiful
collection of poetry and stories called BACKCOUNTRY: CONTEMPORARY WRITING
IN WEST VIRGINIA. It includes writers from Mary Lee
Settle and Davis Grubb to Breece
Pancake and Jayne Anne Phillips.
FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO TEACH WRITING–
ESPECIALLY TO KIDS
& Writers Collaborative runs an interesting listserv you might want
to join, and they have also begun reviewing books specifically about the
teaching of writing: go to their website then then click on Book
Talk/Book Forum. To register with their list serv, go to http://www.twc.org/forums/registerwn.html.
DO YOU HAVE A WEB PAGE FOR YOUR
Please tell me about it so I
can put the URL here. Tell me also if you have any other sites you think
people who read this Newsletter would like.
Two favorites of mine from previous
Newsletters are the Poetry Daily at and World Wide Words.
Zirlin's website has current poems and a link to an interesting parable
TO OBTAIN BOOKS mentioned in
this newsletter, try your public library and your local independent bookstore.
For book buying online, I have been using Alibris.
November 13, 2002
I'm having an exhausting
but satisfying fall season. I'm teaching, writing a little, and also putting
in a lot of time doing appearances and publicity for my new novel, ORADELL
AT SEA. I just came back from a second visit to West Virginia where
I saw lots of friends and visited bookstores and participated in a reading/conversation
at West Virginia University with Jo Ann Dadisman, a professor there. The
two of us were set up in wingback chairs on the stage of a nice-sized auditorium
where the human voice can reach the outer walls. One of the topics we talked
about was what it means to be a regional author.
My belief is that
we are all regional. We can only tell our own stories (even when we're recounting
someone else's), make our own observations, flesh out our flashes of insight–
always from our particular place, time, and specific mix of ethnic and religious
backgrounds. It should be obvious that the best writers– those called regional
and those not called regional– make leaps of imagination and are able to
speak to more than their local compatriots. The best writers both reach
beyond and also reach deep inside: Larry Zirlin gave the example in last
issue of Phillip Roth's Jewish kid growing up in newly affluent Weequahic
in Newark in the nineteen fifties. The place is special to someone who lived
there– but also meaningful to those who didn't. We depend on such messages
from the regions to help our imaginations reach beyond ourselves, to have
some understanding of other times, places, genders, social classes– think
of William Kennedy's Albany or Louis Auchincloss's upper crust New Yorkers
or the country families of Jane Austen.
Thus I am perfectly
happy to be labeled of the order Female, family American, genus Appalachian,
species West Virginian– as long as you are willing to admit with me that
the sophisticated acquisition editors in the commercial publishing houses
are equally regional, if not parochial, in their experiences and tastes.
This appears to be coming around again to my ever-grinding ax about how
we need to look beyond the Land of Marketing and Commerce for our reading.
Excellent books certainly appear in the Mega stores– on the shelves if not
in the dumps near the front door, but more and more alternative sources
are also popping up.
for example, is a writer and book reviewer for the LOS ANGELES TIMES, the
WASHINGTON POST, and the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. She writes to say that
"like City Lights in San Francisco and Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, my publisher
is a small press spun off from a bookstore, Canio's Books in Sag Harbor.
The bookshop is twenty-two years old, the press 10 years old. The positive
reviews of my book [STEALING THE FIRE] took us by surprise. The publisher
was unable to find a distributor; AOL announced a plan not to distribute
small-press books a month or so before publication date; and here we were
with a book of short stories with positive reviews from KIRKUS, PUBLISHERS
WEEKLY and LIBRARY JOURNAL and no way to get the book distributed other
than through Canio's Books itself. It is a very familiar story, I know."
The good news is
that Jane's sales are going well through library orders, postcards, and
a lot of personal appearances.
FURTHER NOTES I
dipped into Colson Whitehead's JOHN HENRY DAYS (see Newsletter #
30) again because my town is having an all-town book read of the book.
Interestingly enough, I liked it better when I dipped – reading pages I
had marked and pages referred to in a reading guide, than I had liked it
when I read straight through. It is a book with a lot of disparate elements
and many plot threads, so I started wondering if maybe it might not be a
kind of hypertext novel that works best if you follow it as linked threads
rather than by reading beginning to end. I don't mean to suggest that there
is no story– section by section it is generally pretty conventionally written,
and there is certainly a plot, even an important question of who lives and
dies, but I could imagine reading it in a non-conventional order, reading
each night the parts that suggested each other, until the whole store had
been circled around and completed.
I want to make
a special recommendation of my friend Carol Emshwiller's new novel THE MOUNT.
Carol is an accomplished writer with a long career in experimental, avant
garde fiction and also in the science fiction genre. She and I are in the
same writers' peer group, so I saw parts of this novel in draft. The book
is the charming and exciting story of a time when human beings are used
as mounts by a race of aliens who insist they know what is best for us.
Charley, the narrator, is a pubescent boy, and his host, Little Master,
is slated to be the future Ruler-of-us-all. Of course there's a rebellion
by the humans and lots of hiding and running and fighting, but the real
story is about the wonderful cross-species bonding between the two children.
There is no one with a sensibility like Carol Emshwiller's. Although she
is a prize-winning veteran with a history of commercial publishing both
here and abroad, her new publisher is Small
Beer Press, one of the dedicated small publishing houses that I am especially
pleased to be able to recommend.
MORE NEW PUBLICATIONS
short story collection STEALING THE FIRE is published by yet another good
small press, also mentioned above, Canio's Books. To sample her stories,
go to her website. The website
also features links to reviews by her, including one of Alice Munro's latest
collection, which Jane thinks is one of the best books published last year.
Al Young has a professionally
done, multi-media website.
FUN WITH AUDIOBOOKS!
is a recording studio in West Virginia that is bringing long forgotten stories
to life on cd– including dear old DAUGHTER OF THE ELM, which they describe
as "the true story of the beautiful Lorraine Esmond, her determined fight
to stay above the immorality of a criminal family, and her forbidden love
for the man she barely knew." Now THAT's fiction! Get in touch with them
at mountainwhispers.com or
MORE REACTIONS AND
Gill writes about the West
Chelsea neighborhood in New York City where he has a photography studio:
"Before he struck paydirt with the Godfather novels, Mario Puzo wrote a
couple of neat novels about honest Italian immigrants struggling to survive
in New York. THE PASSIONATE PILGRIM [also recommended in Newsletter # 27] is set in my neighborhood. While there was no frisson of childhood
recognition, it was wonderful to know how the neighborhood was maybe a century
ago with freight moving on horse drawn trolleys to where the Long Island
railroad yard is now and small mom and pop stores where there are now Lincoln
Tunnel entrances, etc. Besides it's interesting to read a first novel by
a well known author and to see how his style changed."
Ciabattari is reading Fred
Tuten's book THE GREEN HOUR, and loving the way in which "he describes a
woman torn between two men--the charismatic but unreliable Rex and a sophisticated
investment banker who can handle all of her financial worries, but doesn't
have the sex appeal of Rex. Tuten was for many years head of a New York
City writing program, with students like Oscar Hijuelos and Walter Mosley.
It's great to see him coming into his own as a writer."
just reviewed the new Tim O'Brien novel JULY, JULY: A NOVEL for the LOS
ANGELES TIMES (and the whole review may still be posted there). She writes:
"O'Brien's war stories are his legacy, not only the memoir but also the
National Book Award-winning novel GOING AFTER CACCIATO...a hallucinatory
novel about a soldier who walks away from the Vietnam War and heads for
Paris; and THE THINGS THEY CARRIED..., which contains some of the best stories
ever written about war....O'Brien does not seem as sure-footed when his
subject matter is the complexities of life back home for men haunted by
the war or the battle of the sexes, in which the rules of engagement are
as murky as those in Vietnam, with sudden betrayals, subterranean flare-ups
and grenades lobbed from friendly corners. His sense of humanity does not
seem to extend to his female characters, who are rarely as fully realized
as his men...."
Robinson-Gilman calls our
attention to a book of creative work by steelworkers called THE HEAT: STEELWORKERS'
LIVES AND LEGENDS. This collection grew out of workshops with poetry Jimmy
Santiago Baca and is published by Cedar Hill Publications, another small
press, not-for-profit, committed to publishing poetry and prose of the highest
caliber. They offer bookstores, prisoners, and seniors a 40% discount, and
can be reached through Maggie Jaffe at 3438 Villa Terrace, San Diego, CA
92104. Email her at email@example.com.
in this newsletter are available from your public library and your local
independent bookstore as well as online and at the Ubiquitous Mall Monster-Store.
For online shopping, try Bookfinder,
which connects you to new, out-of-print, and used books at. Other good online
sources for used and out-of-print books include Advanced Book Exchange and Alibris. To buy through independent booksellers, go to Booksense. You can also, of course, get almost any book online from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. For comparison shopping
and deep discounts, try www.half.com.
December 2, 2002
am happy to have a new Silas House book to recommend: A PARCHMENT OF LEAVES.
The novel is told in the voice of an Appalachian Cherokee woman around the
time of the First World War as she marries out of her own community into
what she calls an "Irish" Appalachian family. Vine Sullivan's voice seems
very like the voice of any Appalachian woman of her time– she has never
learned to speak the Cherokee language, and her mother only surreptitiously
teaches her some lore of her people.
Much of the novel is about the beauties of mountain life– native American
or European American. There are house raisings, pig slaughterings, gardening,
gathering the bounty of the woods, and responding to the mountain grandeur.
Throughout the novel, however, a constant undercurrent of danger threatens
Vine and those she loves. There is a threat from wealthy landowners (the
Cherokee settlement is driven from their little cove in the mountains by
a rich white man who wants to build a mountain retreat); from industry (Vine's
husband Saul works for a clear-cutting lumber company); from racism (Cherokee
people are attacked in town); and from a very personal danger from a relative
who is obsessed with Vine.
of the best things about this book is the ethical dilemma posed by a secret
Vine has to bear. Much of the last third of the novel is about how the secret
affects Vine, her husband Saul, and the Sullivan family. This is, in the
end, however, the story of strong, healthy people who love each other and
know how to survive in spite of torn loyalties and cruel blows of fate.
I am always pleased by books that don't peter out at the end, and A PARCHMENT
OF LEAVES satisfies the reader and fulfills its narrative promises.
just before reading A PARCHMENT OF LEAVES, I had finished a biography of
an historical Cherokee woman, WILD ROSE: NANCY WARD AND THE CHEROKEE NATION
by Mary R. Furbee. Furbee's little book, written for children but worthwhile
for any reader, tells the story of an important historical figure whose
life is a long effort at peacemaking between the Cherokee people and the
invading whites. Peacemaking in this book is at least as exciting and demanding
as war– a lesson not taught often to our children. Nancy Ward's life demonstrated
that she recognized both Cherokee and white as true people. She even made
a second marriage with a white man in order to have children with him and
thereby connect the two peoples.
In stark contrast to these two Cherokee women who try to bridge the gap
between peoples is that classic of Western confrontation with the Other
that I recently reread: the splendid, horrifying HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph
Conrad. Probably the thing that is most frightening in it is not the evil
of the famously corrupt and debased Mr. Kurtz– he at least manages to go
down to darkness with panache– but rather the pervasive and oppressive everyday
evil of the forces of Western commerce and Western ideology and Western
religion that flail out destructively in every direction at once, at least
in Conrad's late nineteenth century vision.
glad I had some balance for HEART OF DARKNESS with the stories of Nancy
Ward's historical efforts to create bridges and Vine Sullivan's fictional
struggle to create a family within a different culture. Maybe the real hope
of the human race is lots of good old-fashioned miscegenation....
REPORT ON SMALL PUBLISHERS FROM BOSTON
September 23, 2002, BOSTON GLOBE had a report by David Mehegan about the
state of small press publishing in the Boston/Cambridge, MA area: "Mount
Ivy Press," he says, "is history, Brookline Books/ Lumen Editions ceased
publishing a couple of years ago, and Cambridge-based Zoland Books recently
shut down and sold much of its list to Vermont's Steerforth Books." He continues,
however, with the story of how Judith Gurewich of Cambridge, principal owner
of Other Press, and Harry Thomas of Watertown, teacher at Buckingham Browne
& Nichols School in Cambridge, have joined together to create a new press,
new press will be edited by Harry Thomas and funded by Gurewich under the
aegis of Other Press. Their first five books will be three of poetry, one
of interviews with poets, and a collection of reviews by critic and Boston
University professor Christopher Ricks. Their website is at Handsel.
Do you have favorite small presses that Books for Readers readers may not
know about? Please let us know.
MORE WEBSITES TO VISIT
Arnow, formerly of NOW AND THEN and IN THESE TIMES and SOUTHERN EXPOSURE
has an interesting website. Don't
miss her poultry page!
Morante's novels ARTURO'S
ISLAND and HISTORY:
A NOVEL, both discussed in early issues of this newsletter, are available
in fresh, new editions from Steerforth Books, an excellent small press (mentioned
above) that is worth everyone's attention.
Depta's AZRAEL ON THE MOUNTAIN, a book of environmental poems protesting
mountaintop removal coal mining, is available from Blair Mountain Press
at 2027 Oakview Road, Ashland, KY 41101.