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Numbers 36-40

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Newsletter # 36
Winter Solstice Issue 2002

It's the season of long nights and short days, and we have already had one major snowfall here in the Northeast, before the winter solstice! For me, this is Victorian Literature weather: Dickens! The Brontes! Mrs. Gaskell! Anthony Trollope! This year, I returned to a dependable novel that I often cite as my all-time favorite, MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot. Usually, in fact, my real favorite book is whatever I'm reading right now, but MIDDLEMARCH is one I go back to over and over. I read it first in college, and wrote a short paper about it while I was participating in the anti-war sit-ins at Columbia University in the spring of 1968. That's right, I typed the paper on a borrowed typewriter in the Administration Building where hundreds of us students were protesting University complicity in the Vietnam War.

And MIDDLEMARCH is even better now. It was called by Virginia Woof in THE COMMON READER "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." It is broad, deep, serious and funny. It isn't, on the other hand, a perfect novel, especially not for 21st century readers. There are infinite opportunities in any novel for repetition, lagging energy, and tactical errors, and MIDDLEMARCH does a little of all that. It has a few too many scenes where someone overhears or walks in on a conversation that causes great misunderstandings and plot complications. More seriously for us with our busy lives and short attention spans, a 600 page novel with fairly frequent passages of grammatically complex philosophical and psychological musings is a daunting prospect. You have to be in the right mood to take it on.

But the point of this newsletter is to tell you that MIDDLEMARCH is worth the effort. For every long, dense paragraph of generalities there is at least one and usually two or three passages of wryly hilarious dialogue, and for every hard-to-believe coincidence, there is some psychologically astute interchange that, like the passages of humor, ends with making you not despise human beings but feel hopeful about them. Eliot does this best and most consistently with the middle and upper classes, but she also casts an amazingly wide net that catches an entire community of people of all classes and all walks of life, and several memorable dogs as well. The real protagonist is the provincial English town of Middlemarch itself at a time of great political change and the coming of the railroads.

When I try to come up with one or two characters or themes that might entice you to try the book, I despair because of the vastness of possible candidates. Yes, the novel is about the many ways marriages fail, and yes it's about class bonds and barriers, and yes it's about beautiful, wealthy Dorothea Brooke who wants to immolate herself on the nearest pyre of some ideal. It's also about the efforts of the new young doctor in town to reform medical practice with such innovations as declining to sell the drugs he prescribes. But, it is equally about marriages that do work or have the potential to work, and about the breaking of class barriers and about people who move through the classes. One of the constant topics of Middlemarch gossip is who is a social climber (banker and religious bigot Nicholas Bulstrode) and who has lowered himself by his marriage, (merchant Vincy who married an innkeeper's daughter.)

The Vincy family, generous and hospitable, causes itself and others a lot of trouble throughout the novel with its efforts at moving up: son Fred is almost ruined by a university education that gives him a taste for gentlemanly pursuits like gambling and horse-trading. Fred is ultimately saved through love of a good woman of good (though not aristocratic!) family. But daughter Rosamund, on the contrary (and Eliot tends to be harder on her female characters), marries the idealistic physician Lydgate largely because he is connected to a baronet's family, and then demands his time and money in a way that leads to a fall for the proud young physician. Of course, part of the reason for his fall is Lydgate's own refusal to imagine that a woman as pretty as Rosamund could possibly have a will and thoughts of her own.

In a parallel error of marrying, Dorothea chooses one of the saddest and most destructive human sticks in literature, and then scandalizes her class with her romantic relationship to the brilliant but hard-to-classify Will Ladislaw, who is called by various characters an "Italian with white mice" and the "grandson of a thieving Jew pawnbroker."

People who love MIDDLEMARCH tend to go on and on talking about the characters as if they knew them.

Finally, it is a novel not just about memorable personalities, but also a study of moral responsibility and human change. It attempts the great moral project of stretching our imaginations into sympathy with a vast array of human beings. One of the novel's greatest accomplishments is to create insight into the villainous Nicholas Bulstrode, a self-made rich man who has throughout his entire life skirted the edges of crime in order, he believes, to accumulate resources to do great works for God. His world view is a chilling one, and his personality is unappealing: yet, we are forced late in the novel into an identification with him too. By discovering ourselves empathizing with him, we become aware of both the humanity in his suffering, and our own potential for evil under other circumstances.

That is Eliot's speciality: creating sympathy for all human beings. It must have been a stretch for readers in the 1860's and 70's when class and gender roles were more firmly walled up than now, and it is still a stretch for us, subject as we are to a constant barrage of media images demonizing whole nations and religions.

                                               Meredith Sue Willis



Zoo Press is a new literary press that has done mostly poetry so far, but have fiction and essays in the works. Take a look at their website at: Zoo Press  and at their book review ORANGUTAN REVIEW.


Shelley Ettinger draws our attention to what she calls a "cool, if disturbing short-short" by Gina Zucker at Failbetter.com literary journal. I agree. This is a short-short that covers a lot of psychological territory with breathtaking speed.

Shelley also has a new story of her own online that she calls a "sour little holiday story!" at: http://www.pindeldyboz.com.

A chapter of my novel ORADELL AT SEA is online too at BIG CITY LIT.




Newsletter # 37
January 10, 2003

A new year is beginning with an attack on Iraq looking more likely and less rational. Hoping for some insight into war, I decided to read a war novel. I found FIELDS OF FIRE by James Webb on a list of best novels of the twentieth century as the best Vietnam War Novel. I don't necessarily agree with the designation, but it is terrific in two areas: first, its combat scenes are totally convincing: brutal, but with the nightmare alternating with other moods. Secondly, the novel made it clear to me the real reason people fight in wars. I don't mean why they sign up (and the people in this book are Marines who mostly chose the military), I mean what keeps them from walking away from what they recognize to be the utter insanity of shooting strangers and being shot.

The rest of FIELDS OF FIRE, I could do without. It is Webb's first novel, and the background stuff tends to be sentimental. Worse, the book is consistently awful on women, who are sexually responsive in all situations: prostitutes adore their work; a villager, as she is raped, just can't help getting carried away. The novel makes an effort at creating real human beings of its black soldiers, but to a man they say "doan" for "don't," as if those of us who speak other dialects pronounced each final "t." (Try saying aloud "don't you dare" at normal speed and transcribing the actual sounds you make.)

Mostly, though, the book stays with its strength, which is combat and the pendulum swings from combat to mourning dead comrades and complaining about food. The reader even comes away with a hint of infantry tactics: how combatants place themselves in the landscape, where attacks come from. And finally, you come away with an understanding of why these marines keep fighting. They fight for each other, for their band of brothers, to save Private Ryan. This is hardly news, but it is made sharply alive in this book. They fight to save the lives of their platoon, their little scouting party, their buddies. Soldiers will never walk away from war as long as there is a wounded man beside them or a friend killed this morning. They are motivated by an intimate desire to protect and revenge one another: He would die for me, so I have to die for him. Everything else may be confusing, complex, stupid, pointless, but the novel sets out as a supreme value the purity of one young life sacrificed for another. There is a boyish idealism at the heart of it. It is without politics, and it is addictive to those who engage in it. Soldiers will never stop wars; that is something civilians must organize themselves to do.

The author, James Webb, has had an interesting career: he is a former Marine and a lawyer who has represented the defense at court martials. He has written other novels including RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, made into a recent movie. He even rose to be Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, a position he resigned over fleet reductions. He has business connections in Vietnam and is working on a movie version of FIELDS OF FIRE. His book is worthwhile. I just wish I had skipped everything with a woman in it and a lot of the parts with black guys.

                                                           Meredith Sue Willis



The stories in Belinda Anderson's collection THE WELL AIN'T DRY YET have a disarming straightforwardness that is unpretentious on principle. The people are generally more good than bad, and the stories are about small but transforming changes in their lives. Even a supernatural figure (an angel of death? The Holy Spirit Itself?) is charmingly accessible: he tucks his pants into tooled cowboy boots and drives a sports car. Everyone has the possibility for redemption: a little boy whose life so far has consisted of coloring at kitchen tables while his mother has sex with "uncles" in the back room is handed over to a pretty sorry excuse for a father, but the story ends happily. Repeatedly, whatever the dangerous or sad situation she sets up, Anderson manages to bring us to a believable and upbeat finale. The collection is available from Mountain State Press, 2300 MacCorkle Avenue, S.E., Charleston, WV 25304.


Norman Julian wrote in response to last month's remarks about MIDDLEMARCH: "When I retire and have less required reading to do, I will try some of the books you recommend on your website. Last summer, I did find time to make it all the way through WAR AND PEACE, after failing in four previous tries. I was a bit disappointed with what is supposed to be the greatest novel. [Tolstoy] rambles and repeats himself much too often and that results in unnecessary sprawl. He could have written to half the length and not lost anything of value, and maybe gained millions of lazy readers who could have got through it on the first try. He pays too much attention, in my view, to only that part of Russian society that was aristocratic. Concurrent to reading the novel, I read some of his biographical writing. In later life he regretted how he wrote that book. Said it was done in a style that made it mostly accessible to the elite classes, and if he were to do it over he would have aimed more to the proletariat. At least that's how I understand him. We lose so darned much in translation. I like the Russian novelists as a group best of all the non-Americans who work in that form, but how much more appeal they might have if they had written in the ‘American language.'"


Shelley Ettinger writes: "Just what you were waiting for, my holiday reading report! My plan to tackle ULYSSES fell by the wayside after I found myself in our little Queens branch library checking out armfuls of books. Several turned out to be forgettable but a few stood out. I liked THE FROG by John Hawkes; although I can't say with certainty that I understood it, it appealed to my sometime taste for the weird, and I enjoyed the writing style which was sort of like Proust yet sort of like Kafka. I also liked I'LL TAKE YOU THERE by Joyce Carol Oates. It didn't bowl me over like [her novel] BLONDE, but its character portrayals and social commentary were sharp. I think she's a brave writer--holds nothing back, goes way to the edge in her truth telling. I've never heard her referred to as a feminist and I wonder why, because she says a lot of stark, harsh things that need to be said about being a woman in this society. Also she takes on racism in a way few white writers ever do. I'm just finishing PERMA RED by Debra Magpie Earling. It's a painful, sad story of a young woman's coming of age on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the 1940s, told with beautiful writing."

Shelley also makes a recommendation to those of you in the New York area or coming this way soon: " I saw DEF POETRY JAM ON BROADWAY and found it stunningly good. Just exhilarating to hear the words of these talented young poets who are taking the language in whole new directions, and most of whom are very political to boot."



Have you always wished you had read THE DIARY OF SAMUEL PEPYS but found it too long and disorganized? Well, it's disorganized because it was written one day at a time without knowing the future. And now, thanks to the wonders of the web, the famous record of seventeenth century life is being posted one day at a time, the way Pepys wrote it at Pepys Diary. It's like time travel to a web log of the past. You learn, for example, that old Sam had a good dinner yesterday, except for the venison pasty, which wasn't much to his taste.



Newsletter # 38
January 24, 2003


I want to recommend a book called NO NEW JOKES by Steven Bloom. This unusual novel is set in Brooklyn, New York, in 1949, at the outbreak of the Korean war. The hydrogen bomb has just been tested, and anti-communism is poisoning the careers and lives of celebrities and others. Izzy, the main character, has a damaged head: shrapnel from the Second World War and psychological damage from a pogrom he experienced as a child. The other characters are damaged too: some have bad hearts, some have bad marriages; his friend Mary can't bear the horrors in the news. Izzy plays music in courtyards for money and love and gathers with a gallery of Brooklyn guys in candy stores and grills to talk and watch the World Series on a tiny television.

But the conceit of this novel, of this sad protagonist's attempts to make love, to make a life, is that every conversation and every interior monologue is larded with an endless supply of Jewish jokes. Everyone tells the jokes, Jew or gentile: Izzy, the women he sleeps with, the men he hangs out with, cab drivers. And Izzy already knows all the jokes. He heard the original Yiddish versions in his family's tavern in Europe so that he can finish any joke in his mind even if the teller stops telling. Sometimes the jokes are Izzy's way of explaining to himself something going on around him:

"This Jewish kid sees a guy drowning in the river so he jumps in to save him...And when he pulls him out, he sees it's Hitler. So Hitler says, for saving my life I'll grant you any wish. And the Jewish kid says, I want you shouldn't tell my father."

This wonderful book was never given the recognition it deserved. I have a personal connection to it, too: I read it in manuscript (and a pretty smudged typescript it was, as if it had been making the rounds of publishers since before personal computers) when I was a reader for the Associated Writing Programs novel contest. I sent this one, along with two others, to the final reader, Ron Carlson, who chose NO NEW JOKES as the 1995 winner. I was as proud as I am when one of my students gets a book published.

W.W. Norton brought out NO NEW JOKES commercially, if quietly. It is now out of print, but there are plenty of copies online at the online used book outlets, and I certainly hope it's available in your local library. Who else has a favorite lost masterpiece, or, if not a masterpiece, a really good out-of-print book to recommend?

                                                                                      Meredith Sue Willis




Don't miss Ron Padgett's newest book of poems, YOU NEVER KNOW. Published by the redoubtable Coffee House Press, the book works for me the way Matisse works: celebrating movement and surface, which is, of course, to celebrate material life, and also celebrating the spirit that suffuses life. Padgett has published a lot of poetry and was one of the so-called New York School of poets that included Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, and many others who often figure in Padgett's poems. Padgett's new poems have some sadness and reflections on the second half of a human life, but as always, he follows his metaphors to delightfully extreme conclusions that are at once surreal, hilarious, and true. A lot of the pieces have the boxy form of prose poems, but, with or without line breaks, whether light or heavy, Padgett's work lifts the spirit and sharpens language. Here's a sample I chose for being short but also reasonably typical:


What to Do

"Show, don't tell," they say,
and I agree,
so here, take a look at my naked body, of which
I will tell you nothing, and here is my naked soul,
into which I will jump with both feet clad
only in socks, bright red ones from which
sparks are flying as I whiz into its depths.




Win Thies writes in response to Norman Julian's comments on Tolstoy: "Let me concede I haven't even cracked WAR AND PEACE. That having been said, in the context of Norman Julian's observation that he finds it sprawling, undisciplined, repetitious, might it be that it could benefit from editing--?(!!) Tolstoy didn't have the benefit of a Maxwell Perkins. Okay, we'll supply that lack, posthumously. A skilled and sensitive editor could possibly cut it in half and make it twice as interesting. ‘Less is more.' Are the canons of Western literature immune to editing improvement? Surely there is a place for sensitive editing for the unedited sprawling novel--however much a classic. Now, there's a project...."

Greg Sanders says he's struggling with Gertrude Stein's ‘Melanctha,' the second story in the THREE LIVES collection. "There are many beautiful phrases and sentences in there, but their worth is diminished by the volume of bizarre repetitions and strange cadences of the dialogue. The piece simply stretches on and on. I know that these are all experimental elements of her style, and I found them interesting at first, but how interesting would an abstract painting the size of a city block be? I think I feel this more strongly with ‘Melanctha' than I did with ‘The Good Anna.'That's my current mood, which is changeable."



Shelley Ettinger alerts us to the death on January 3, 2003 in Tucson, Arizona of Monique Wittig the French writer and literary theorist. Shelley says she was "crazy about her work in the 1970s, especially her book LES GUERRILLERES."

The following information on Monique Wittig quotes the obituary by Douglas Martin in the NEW YORK TIMES:

Wittig, a French writer and literary theorist whose imaginative, fiercely innovative books tried to create a new mythology for the feminist movement, died Jan. 3 in Tucson. She was 67 and lived in Tucson. The cause was a heart attack, said Sande Zeig, her partner.

She advocated a total rupture with masculine culture and pulled no punches, forcefully arguing, for example, that lesbians are not women because the word woman is constructed by sexist society. In one of her novels, female warriors torture men before tanning and displaying their skin. In another, paradise is full of lesbians on motorcycles. Ms. Wittig's startlingly rich imagery found its counterpart in her experimental literary approach: she sometimes abandoned paragraphing and normal punctuation and developed a lyrical style that could be called neither prose nor poetry. ...

In the United States she is probably best known among feminist scholars.... Ms. Wittig was born July 13, 1935, in the Haut-Rhin region of Alsace. She earned a doctorate in languages at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. She worked in Paris in various semiacademic positions, including posts at the Bibliothèèque Nationale and Les Éditions de Minuit, where she was a proofreader. She later wrote radio dramas and became involved in feminist protests. "L'Opoponax" appeared in France in 1964 and in American translation two years later. It concerns children undergoing typical childhood experiences like the first day of school and the first romance. It won the Prix Médicis literary award.


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Newsletter # 39
February 12 , 2003


Once again shadowing my son's high school English class, I reread William Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY. I asked Joel if his classmates liked the book, and he said everybody was confused in the beginning, but all of the "outspoken" members of the class liked it. My guess is that the students are at least partly motivated by pride at working through the intricate time changes in the various interior monologues. Modernist experiments in stream of consciousness and fractured time have never been easy to read, but I agree with the students, THE SOUND AND THE FURY is worth the effort. We aren't surprised by the experiments now, but our skills at complex written language of all kinds are probably weaker than they were in the early twentieth century. I would think that fewer "common readers" (as opposed to students and scholars) are reading Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner et alia for fun. Much of what the 20th century writers did as whole books, of course, has been integrated into more ordinary fiction today: stream of consciousness appears even in plot driven genre stories to show a disturbed mental state, for example, by broken sentences and jerky bits of memory.

Faulkner also, to twenty-first century eyes, manages his working class and black characters less insultingly than a lot of his contemporaries (think of Fitzgerald). Considering Faulkner's own class, race, and where and when he wrote, Dilsey and her family are far fuller people than, say, William Styron's caricatured black people twenty years later in LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS. Dilsey's faithfulness to the Compsons is a white man's version of reality, but Dilsey has considerable depth and is given respect. There is an interesting minor character in the Cambridge section who makes a financial specialty of getting tips from Harvard undergraduates from the South: he starts out uncle tomming them all over the place, then gradually stands taller, uses less southern black dialect. He is comic and not exactly an inspiration, but he is believable (keeping in mind always that he isn't presented in his own voice telling his own story, which would no longer be Faulkner's novel).

Beyond the challenge of its style and some dated ideas, THE SOUND AND THE FURY really is a young person's book. Faulkner was youngish when he wrote it, and his characters are even younger. Caddie and Quentin are children in much of the novel, and Quentin is a freshman at Harvard on his famous last day. A friend of my son's, a freshman at Harvard now, came back in considerable excitement to tell his high school teacher that he had found a plaque marking the bridge Quentin jumped from. Issues of sexuality and intense family conflict and suicide may make THE SOUND AND THE FURY the perfect introduction to modernist prose.

Bitten by the Faulkner bug, I next reread SANCTUARY, a far less artful book, but gripping and quirky. The first third is almost pure horror story, and yet, this strikingly violent book (a lynching by fire, an indirectly described rape with a corn cob) is probably a kind of comedy in that most characters end appropriately if not precisely happily. The weakling Horace goes back to his wife; the victim Temple Drake returns to her true role as a bored, beautiful luxury item; the evil Popeye is punished, but never loses his gangster savoir-faire.

SANCTUARY begins with its most terrible act, the rape, and then follows the consequences. I remember that the first time I read this book I was totally repelled, especially by Temple and her objectification. Her mere presence drives men crazy, but she is incapable of any rational act of self-preservation. She certainly does not deserve what she gets in this novel, but for all that, she's a despicable little chit, at least as Faulkner writes her.

The book also has passages of straight-up humor: for example, in one chapter a couple of good ole Mississippi boys come to Memphis looking for sex and take rooms in a whore house, never realizing that what they want is down the hall. The only characters whose ending is truly sad are the moonshiner Lee Goodwin and his common-law wife Ruby, perhaps the only admirable character in the novel. Lee dies because he can't imagine a power higher than the little thug Popeye, and Ruby, romanticized as a true ideal of Southern womanhood, the long suffering mother-wife despite sexual history, stands by her man. The final impact is bleak, dark, but extremely rich comedy. The joke's on us: to be human is to be the butt of the gods. Not my philosophy, but Faulkner makes a good case for it.

                                                 --    Meredith Sue Willis



James Still's beautiful Kentucky classic RIVER OF EARTH is about the moment early in the twentieth century when agrarian life and industry clashed in the Appalachian region. It may be the best choice if a person is going to read only one twentieth century Appalachian novel, even though my favorite is still Harriet Arnow's much longer HUNTER'S HORN. Some of the dialect in RIVER OF EARTH seems to me to have been transcribed in more detail than was necessary, but on the other hand, it really gives a flavor of how people talked. It would work well in a classroom setting, broken into thirds, giving ample material for discussion of Appalachian dialect, folkways, and also industrialization of the region. Sad and lovely.



Janice Haas Kasten's SURVIVAL OF A CATHOLIC SCHOOL GIRL is the work of a witness. It never says if it's a novel or a memoir, and in some ways it's a roughly written work, not in its sentences or grammar, but in its story telling style. The narrative is omniscient in unexpected places, it predicts a suicide that happens far beyond the scope of the book, it explains everything. At the same time, though, it's the kind of honest psychological report from the front lines of human suffering that I have always found absorbing. You keep reading out of a kind of awe at such honesty.

The setting is Louisiana in the late nineteen sixties, and the main character's family follows a blindly conservative brand of Catholicism that finds birth control and divorce worse crimes that adultery or maybe even murder. Not that anyone gets murdered here: the main character Judy is a victim of family, place, time, and even a victim of her damaged self, but, happily, you are left with the impression that she will come out okay in the end. Learn more about the author Janice Haas Kasten and how to get her book at http://members.aol.com/jhkast/index.htm.



Allan Appel says: "NO NEW JOKES [discussed in Newsletter #38] sounds wonderful, and I will order soon. Do you know a book called STONER, by John Williams, a sort of Southerner, I think, or border guy, from Arkansas. He was a professor and wrote a couple of traditional historical novels, but STONER is a book about teaching. It's kind of sad -- sad books alas appeal to me --- but it's about a guy utterly dedicated to poetry and the word, in part because he grew up around a kitchen table where the farmer parents (maybe it's Missouri) were almost completely silent. Anyway, his life unravels, but his courses sustain him. I found it powerful and inspirational and I guess I'm thinking about it in connection with teaching. Irving Howe gave it a stellar review, if memory serves, in the early 1960s, and I would be surprised if it's in print."

"Enjoyed the latest Readers Newsletter," says Carole Rosenthal. "I've recently read THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK--which is quite interesting on the subject of race and class, though written a bit stiffly; the mystery is horrible, intricate and not credible, and I thought the book could have been cut by at least 25%, but it was enjoyable and provocative anyway. I don't think I would have been so critical if Stephen Carter hadn't gotten sooooo much money from Knopf and all that publicity. But it really makes you aware that being black in this country (or if you're a member of ‘the darker nation' as Carter so puts it in his occasionally stuffy and conservative style) is something you never, ever forget; no matter how well-paid, and well-connected you are there is lurking suspicion and easily tapped rage towards ‘the paler nation.' It's obvious why, of course, but it's worth thinking about.

"On the subject of books that have been around for awhile, I'm re-reading HOUSEKEEPING, by Marilynne Robinson, which is wonderful. And which is a marvel of clear and evocative voice and insights about the ties of family and community and history--a very wonderful American novel. I'm so sorry she never wrote another."



Phyllis Moore tells us that West Virginian Jeff Mann's new collection BONES WASHED WITH WINE  is now available from Gival Press. Gival will also be publishing a book by Cuban/West Virginian novelist Carlos Rubio Albert, whose home page is www.carlosrubioalbet.com.



Newsletter # 40
March 5 , 2003


I enjoyed Allan Appel's recent comments about John Williams and his novel STONER, as I have admired his fiction for many decades and was fortunate to study with Williams at the University of Denver during the early 1970s. I also knew Williams personally through his friendship with my father, who taught for many years at the same institution. A few comments about Williams as a friend and teacher...

My relationship wasn't particularly deep but went back all the way to my boyhood. Williams and other writers were among my parents' friends in post-WWII Denver and, like many other academic households, our home was the site of more or less continuous informal discussions, bull sessions, parties, and other professorial off-hours activities, many of which focused on talk about the arts. I can recall Williams's presence in our midst as far back as 1955, when I was five. He was the first novelist I'd ever met and in many ways fit a Central Casting image for a writer of that era. Short, dark-haired, and sporting a neatly trimmed goatee, he dressed in a style I'd call Dapper Beatnik--tweed sports jacket, beret, silk ascot. Although gentlemanly in many ways, he tended to be polite but not very warm, and his dry sense of humor could easily become caustic.

From my early teens on I became aware that Williams was a fine writer. He never attained a popular following, but his early novel BUTCHER'S CROSSING, a coming-of-age novel with an 1890s Rocky Mountain setting, drew some attention in the American literary world for the quality of its prose. STONER, published in the mid-1960s, inspired some favorable reviews but no popular acclaim. Perhaps it didn't fit the mold of the academic novel then fashionable; it was straightforward rather than ironic in its portrayal of university life, and its prose was lean to the point of austere. Williams's virtues as a writer--a flawless "plain style," understated dialogue, and almost invisible plots--never fit the literary fads of his times.

In 1972, however, Williams published AUGUSTUS, a historical novel about Caesar Augustus that won the National Book Award for 1973 and drew the only wider attention that he ever received. I can't say enough good things about this book. It's extraordinary not just as an example of its genre but also as a beautifully structured, perfectly written work in its own right. Presented as a series of fictional letters, memoranda, and dispatches, Williams details the force and cunning that allowed Augustus to defeat his rivals, among them Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony. Perhaps most interesting, though, are the portraits of other players in the drama, including Ovid and other poets. The book also has one of the greatest ironic final sentences in English-language literature. AUGUSTUS is so beautifully written that I've never understood its almost immediate disappearance following publication, though the University of Arkansas Press has had the sense to reissue it as a paperback.

As a teacher, Williams was difficult, uncompromising, and miserly with praise. I benefitted from two independent studies with him during my undergraduate years at the University of Denver--a bumpy road that left me shaken at the time and deeply grateful afterwards. I had finished my first novel shortly before that and submitted the manuscript to Williams for comments and suggestions. Williams read the book and remarked tersely when we met to discuss it. He hadn't found much to like, and he said so. Let down, I revised the book and resubmitted it. Williams still didn't like it. His main criticism: too much happened in too short a span of time. "This book is so tightly packed it's like a bomb that's ready to explode," he told me. I fished for compliments: "What do you think of the prose?" His comment: "It's okay." My two terms of mentoring ended inconclusively. I felt frustrated; I'd wanted more support, and I'd grown accustomed to praise from writing instructors. Williams left me with the sense that my book had little to offer, and that moving on to a different project would be the only remedy. Within a few years I realized that he was right on both counts.

Williams died of cancer around 1980. My hope is that he'll some day gain the recognition he deserves as a novelist, especially for AUGUSTUS.

                                          --Ed Myers

Ed Myers' website is at Http://www.edwardmyers.com



I reread Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS, perfect snowed-in reading during the blizzard of ought-three! Always fun, far more melodramatic than remembered, including the revised and original endings, but more especially the near-murder of Pip by Orlick and the last instant rescue, I had absolutely no memory of that part. The boats on the river scene at the end (also unremembered by me) is nicely cinematic; Miss Havisham a magnificent creation; Estella and Wemmick too.

What is this novel about? Parenting, maybe? The failure of efforts to live your life through your children? Everyone seems to be adopted and/or orphaned. I love its double voice, the Then and Now Pips, and the gradual dawning of a kind of affection for Pip's convict, Magwitch. A minor problem for me is that I like Magwitch from the beginning, and find it a stretch to understand why Pip and company are so repelled by the crusty old felon. There's some assumed bias here that doesn't translate well to the twenty-first century: maybe we've had so many heroic convicts and anti-heroic heroes that we don't assume the shackles make the man.



I'm proud to say that New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies has just launched a new online/hard copy ‘zine ( I think you call it a ‘zine if it's online) called EPIPHANY. It is scheduled to publish online three times a year with a hard copy once a year, and it has fiction (of course) as well as poetry, drama, nonfiction and photography. I've had the good fortune to be part of putting the magazine together, and there was a neat reading/party in the Washington Square area in late February. Work in the first issue includes several friends of BOOKS FOR READERS: Carol Emshwiller, Shelley Ettinger, Ardian Gill, Denise Mann, and Greg Sanders.

As the guy on the street in New York used to say as he extended a tray of Rolexxx watches for my perusal, "Check it out!"



Denise Mann writes that she enjoyed Greg Sanders' story in EPIPHANY. She called it "Paul Auster-esque" She also says: "Having never read Jane Austen in high school or college, I recently read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and found it extremely engaging and witty. Hard to put down, actually. Now, I am reading PERSUASION which I was having trouble getting into for the first hundred pages but now am truly enjoying as the pace has quickened. It is extremely similar to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and each of the essential characters seems to serve similar purposes. I also read ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST which I picked up at a used book store in Philadelphia and I enjoyed it very much. I hear the movie is pretty good too and it's on my list of movies to rent ..."

And Shelley Ettinger says, "Last week I read Sandra Cisneros's new novel CARAMELO. It's wonderful. Funny, touching, thick with rich, beautiful language and insight. I also just read your recommendation NO NEW JOKES (which Barnes and Noble.com does have, new, not used)--and loved it. Boy, these writers who can make you laugh and cry with the same sentence!"



The newsletters online about books are proliferating. You might want to take a look at The Compulsive Reader. Also, don't forget our friends the Reading Divas and their publication with reviews and original fiction.


I read STONER rapidly. It really is a wonderful, sad, energetic book. It imagines a whole life, including the life's death, beautifully. The life has as its highest ideals personal integrity, the graceful acceptance of what life deals out, and the life of the mind as it is lived in an American university in the first half of the twentieth century: teaching and studying. The main character's failure is the same as his strength, he is passive in the face of many bad things that happen to him to the point of being a sort of male Patient Griselda, and you want to tell him to stand up to his wife, to his department chair, but in the end, you find yourself, the reader, accepting the man for what he is.

The other John Williams books I have now read is AUGUSTUS. It is indeed a major achievement-- an epistolary novel that works! Unlike Ed Myers, I think I prefer STONER-- not sure why, because I usually adore historical fiction. Maybe because this one takes a certain amount of effort, to go back and forth among the many speakers. Only at the very end do we have a long passage in Augustus's own invented voice, and I like that part a lot. In fact, for all of the history and reflections on people who make world changes, this too is the story of a man's life.

                                                            -- MSW






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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