**Books for Readers Archives**

Numbers 41-45

BOOKS FOR READERS is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by Meredith Sue Willis, copyright Meredith Sue Willis 2003.   Write to Meredith Sue Willis at MSueWillis@aol.com. To have this Newsletter sent to you by e-mail, send a blank email to  Readerbooks-subscribe@topica.com. To unsubscribe, send a blank email to Readerbooks-unsubscribe @topica.com.

Return to Books For Readers Home


Newsletter # 41
March 25, 2003

I'm having a lot of trouble reading these days. Once again my country has plunged into a foreign war for reasons that do not convince me. I include acts of protest and political letter writing in my life as a duty of conscience, but, like many others, my equanimity is disturbed as I find myself awaiting the next act in this international tragedy, which I greatly fear will consist of angry fanatics answering my country's invasion of Iraq with terrorist attacks here.

Meanwhile, I do write a little and read a little. I was highly entertained a few days ago by Isabel Allende's DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE. Allende is the Chilean-California novelist who is also the niece of Chilean president Salvador Allende who died in a coup supported by the U.S. government on a different September 11th – September 11, 1973. Isabel Allende is not what you would call a political novelist, but she moves her characters through history and social movements with the aplomb of one who feels she has the right to comment on great events. With her full and rich imagination, she piles story on top of story effortlessly and creates new characters on practically every page.

DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE begins with a British family in nineteenth century Chile and continues into Gold Rush California with a lengthy interlude in China. The main character is Eliza Sommers, a foundling, whose birth, of course, contains a secret. The satisfaction of this novel is that it is the old-fashioned kind in which all secrets are revealed in the end. It reminds me in its headlong, confident story telling style of Sarah Waters (BOOKS FOR READERS issues 21 & 31). I'm probably jealous of Allende's confidence that allows her to include walk-ons by the Marquis de Sade and Lola Montez as well as portraits of entrepreneurial whores, enslaved Chinese singsong girls, traditional Chinese medical men, and various bandits as well as priests, pornographers, and opera singers. An exhausting but highly entertaining novel.

I reread another ambitious book, THE COLOR PURPLE, by the redoubtable Alice Walker. The thing I liked so much this reading was how many of the people (although not all), are eventually forgiven. Indeed, not only are most of them forgiven, but they gather in a sort of reunion in the end. I had forgotten that it is an epistolary novel. Some of the letters that make it up are from an African-American missionary in Africa, and at first I was impatient with what I took to be an overly-didactic quality there, but that part gathered momentum too, as the letter-writer's enthusiasm for Africa became tempered by the humanity of real Africans. These letters gave a breadth and context to the novel that it wouldn't have had simply as one woman's story in one small town in the American South.

I especially love the way everyone in this novel switches partners– looking for the one who fits him or her, like the famous fable in THE SYMPOSIUM by Plato about how we were each originally a single satisfied whole that was split in two and now we have to go looking for our missing piece. In THE COLOR PURPLE, what is found is not one perfect lover but a community of lovers, friends, and family. No one person or entity offers everything: even Africa disappoints, yet still has lessons to teach. When I read this back in the early eighties, I was put off by all the sexual abuse and oppression, especially the long-suffering of the primary narrator Celie, but this time, I realized that the novel lays out suffering and cruelty as the ground from which individuals and groups can rise up in hope and possibility.

Which we can certainly use in our present atmosphere of lies and peril

                                                        Meredith Sue Willis



At this terrible juncture in American history, it seems appropriate that two fine political novelist of the twentieth century died within a few days of each other: Howard Fast and John Sanford.


Shelley Ettinger writes, "When the going gets tough... the tough get books. Yesterday I was seized by a sort of mania to amass plenty of fiction for the coming period, and checked out a pile from the NYU library. Today, walking back to work from my two-hour ‘lunch' at the Union Square anti-war demonstration, I felt an irresistible tug toward the Strand. I nabbed their only half-price copy of Ruth Ozeki's new novel ALL OVER CREATION . I loved her first, MY YEAR OF MEATS; this one's about genetic engineering and agribusiness....I finished THE BIG BOXCAR [review at Ethical Culture Review of Books] on the way in this morning. I thought it was very good. Maybe for my next birthday I'll ask people to get me all the other titles in that ‘radical novel reconsidered' series, on faith that they're all equally good." Shelley also recommends Sandra Cisneros's new novel CARAMELO, which she says is "funny, touching, thick with rich, beautiful language and insight." She also read NO NEW JOKES (See Newsletter # 38 ). She says BarnesandNoble.com has it, new, not used, and she loved it: "Boy, these writers who can make you laugh and cry with the same sentence."


Barbara Cohen writes to say that she's had a story accepted by the Web-based ECLECTICA Magazine, where it will be posted on April 1.

Newsletter # 42
April 9 , 2003

I reported in the last newsletter about the deaths of two political writers, Howard Fast and John Sanford. I have since read one of Sanford's books, THE PEOPLE FROM HEAVEN. This is another of the University of Illinois Press's THE RADICAL NOVEL RECONSIDERED series edited by Alan Wald. This series has, I believe, been curtailed because the books were selling in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands. It seems to me a great loss if there are to be no more of these rediscovered, well-edited novels with their informative introductions.

While all the novels in Alan Wald's series are worthwhile, I've liked some more than others. Sanford's THE PEOPLE FROM HEAVEN is an interesting combination of a leftist critique of America combined with High Modernist experimentation. I wanted to like it better than I did, but in spite of splendid language, drama, and sudden violence, it has a coolness that kept me, at least, at a distance. The various narratives slip between fantasy and realism, and the main story is broken up by chapters of historical material in a very readable verse (Columbus on his ship; native Americans facing the white invader, a black civil war spy, and others). I like best the long passages of dialogue unmixed with tags that capture a mid-twentieth century rural American speech pattern (the setting is a small town in the Adirondack region of New York State). The dialogues are funny and fast moving and give characters a surprising depth and roundness for such spare speeches.

It is a worthwhile and interesting book that demands your full attention. It raises a very contemporary question about whether the People from Heaven– supposedly what native people called the Europeans when they first encountered them in America– are harming the peoples of color they meet as well as each other. This was such a radical idea when the book came out in the early nineteen forties, that American Communist commentators damned it as ultra-leftist!

For old fashioned story telling that doesn't require so much effort, you can always turn to the commercially still-available works of Howard Fast. There are flat spots in his prose, and I suspect he never did much self-editing, but when Fast gets cooking, he just steals your time. My favorite of his is FREEDOM ROAD about the years between the Civil War and the return of White Supremacy, and I'm still looking forward to reading SPARTACUS.

                                       Meredith Sue Willis


Writes Pat Arnow: "I know what you mean about having trouble reading because our country has plunged into this crazy war. But movies still work for me...I went to an interesting panel with Susan Orlean and Louis Begley (writers of ORCHID THIEF, which was turned into ADAPTATION, and ABOUT SCHMIDT) talking about the changes in the screen versions. The screen writers from ADAPTATION were there, too, and Jonathan Lethem, who wrote this book I like a lot, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, about a semi-gangster who has Tourettes. Edward Norton is writing a script from it. So I took pictures and notes, posted them on my website. Check it out if you get a chance: Pat Arnow. Also posted a picture from an antiwar demonstration I happened upon, an elephant pooping missiles!"

Pat adds a post script about "another movie– LOST IN LA MANCHA, a disaster picture about Terry Gilliam trying to make a movie about Don Quixote [which] inspired me to try to read DON QUIXOTE. I've tried it before a time or three, not gotten very far. I'll send a report for BOOKS FOR READERS if it works out this time."

Alan Appel recommends a play that has already closed, but sounds interesting if it comes your way: SUN-UP by Lula Vollmer about an Appalachian family confronting war in 1917. It was a big hit in 1923. Vollmer was from North Carolina and set her plays in Appalachia. Her record as a playwright is impressive, even a movie with Katherine Hepburn, says Phyllis Moore.

Phyllis suggests, and I second, a CD by West Virginia singer, interviewer, and writer Kate Long called BIGOLLADY: there are free samples at KateLong.com.

Finally, in the non-traditional book arena: If you have Adobe Reader (downloadable for free at http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html), you can get free poetry from xPress(ed). Go to for the Spring 2003 list. I am especially pleased to recommend Halvard Johnson's witty RAPSODIE ESPAGNOLE.


Daniela Gioseffi had edited and written the introduction for WOMEN ON WAR from the always excellent Feminist Press at the City University of New York. Daniela says "it is good reading for these terrible times and features all your favorite authors: Alice Walker to Zora Neale Hurston, to you-name-her!"

If you are in the New York area, you are invited to the book's launch, an event called WOMEN, WAR & PEACE: A LANDMARK EVENT, featuring: Grace Paley, Robin Morgan, Jayne Cortez, Nina Cassian, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Pwu Jean Lee, Daniela Gioseffi, Brooklyn Women's Peace Chorus and many more. It's on April 23, 2003, at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, 7 East 7th Street (at 3rd Ave.), 7:00 PM to 9:00 P.M.. For information, call Jessica Roncker at (212) 817-7920 or Lisa London at The Feminist Press @ CUNY (212) 817-7916.


THE ETHICAL CULTURE REVIEW OF BOOKS is up and running again with new reviews of SPINOZA'S HERESY and my ORADELL AT SEA.

Phyllis Moore tells us that the March BOOKPAGE contains an interesting review of Denise Giardina's latest novel FALLAM'S SECRET by Belinda Anderson. BOOKPAGE should be available free at your local library.

She also recommends THE BELLEVUE LITERARY REVIEW literary journal. Contributors are doctors, nurses, patients, etc.

Shelley Ettinger's latest story "Has It?" has been posted as a preview on the website of GLASS TESSERACT at http://www.glasstesseract.com/index.shtml. Click on "selections" on the upper left.

And don't forget Barbara Cohen's sweet and terribly sad Purim story at ECLECTICA Magazine: http://www.eclectica.org/v7n2/cohen_kligerman.html.




Newsletter # 43
May 6, 2003

When I get too busy with political letters and civic responsibilities and teaching and meetings and cutting the grass, I sometimes don't want to take a chance on wasting my precious reading time, so I turn to old favorites. This time, I reread Virginia Woolf's MRS. DALLOWAY, and really understood why Michael Cunningham didn't want it to end and thus wrote his own spin- off, THE HOURS.

This reading I particularly admired how successfully Woolf manages the omniscient point of view. This is probably the most successful modern omniscient novel I've read. It links characters by the simple device of having them pass one another on the streets of London, and, as they pass, the point of view shifts. At one point, an unnamed and unseen member of the royal family passes by in a car, and the mild excitement is shared by wealthy Clarissa shopping for flowers for her party and Moll Pratt who sells roses on the street.

I usually remember the novel as being limited to the point of view of Clarissa Dalloway. If pressed, I probably would have recalled that it also about the war-damaged Septimus Warren Smith. What I had totally forgotten is that the novel also follows Septimus's wife, Clarissa's husband, Clarissa's old love Peter Walsh and many others, including the flower seller mentioned above. Clarissa and Septimus are certainly at the heart of the novel, and it is Clarissa's world of human connection and beauty that triumphs in the end.

One reason the movement among many consciousnesses works is that the novel is often about surfaces– that is, of light glinting on porcelain, or shining on the sweep of a gown, or reflected back by flowers. In Woolf's hands, of course, such things have a direct line to memory and deep emotion. By our access through our senses to these surfaces-- this shared sense experience-- we have a natural link from person to person.

Woolf gives us sense details as experienced by her many characters plus what amounts to the patter of human voices just below the surface– the more-or-less conscious thoughts of her people. And since all these people, poor and rich, share the same splendid June day in London, and since their one-level-down thoughts are not unreasonably accessible to a sensitive person– the play of many consciousnesses works beautifully.

It is my favorite kind of novel: it goes both broad and deep.Michael Cunningham's THE HOURS is well-worth reading, and the movie based on his book is worthwhile too, but both works feel heavy-handed compared to Woolf's delight in the sound and surfaces of human life, a sensibility that is heightened, perhaps made possible, by the terrible demons within and without that can destroy the same precious life.


                               – Meredith Sue Willis




Phyllis Moore writes that West Virginia author Sherri Neilson "lives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and FREE FALLING is her first published novel. She is a member of Romance Writers of America and Washington Romance Writers." Reviews of this historical/paranormal novel can be found on Neilson's website.

BASKET CASE by Carol Hiaasen is the kind of book I rarely read– a murder mystery comedy. I meant to look at the opening chapters to see how it uses a present tense narrtive, but I got sucked in and read it straight through. It's a conventional American vigilante story: a single guy, more than a little the worse for wear, working to right wrong under the radar screen of established institutions. The ideology is the leathery cowboy thing, but Hiaasen also has an interesting ax to grind, which is the corporate looting of decent newspapers. The main strength of the novel– and the reason the present tense works– is the narrator's wit and intelligence. The narrator, an obituary writer, gets involved in investigating a rock singer's death. More interesting than the plot to me were the narrator's obsession with the ages at which people die, his search for how and when his own father died, and how he got demoted to obituaries. Hiaasen, who has worked for over 25 years as a reporter and then a columnist at the MIAMI-HERALD, writes from his strength: he goes fifty pages before there is a real action scene. He has a lot more fun with sexual innuendo and casual sexual references than with the actual acts, and with information and humor than with action. Entertaining light reading.


THE TERRORIST NEXT DOOR by Daniel Levitas is a solid study of our native right wing terrorist scene. Levitas says this book was begun just after the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and finished just after the destruction of the World Trade Center. I read it as background research for a novel I may write someday, but no one needs an excuse, because the terrorists next door are of great interest: you'll learn about the Aryan Nations, the Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity believers and many more who create elaborate paranoid theories around the edges of society, but are always testing the waters for larger groups who might respond to part, if not all, of their message. These groups were, for example, very active during the farm crisis of the nineteen eighties. Some of them admire the Nazis, some identify themselves as Christian believers, but what stays the same is their animus toward Jews, blacks, gay people and many, many more. The book is thick with its accumulation of names and events, but well worth dipping into– if only for the nice irony that the anti-Semitic founder of the Posse Comitatus was half Jewish.


Just published by Michigan State University Press: DETROIT TALES by Jim Ray Daniels. These are excellent short stories with some really fine, gritty insights into life where real people live it.

Gretchen Moran Laskas' THE MIDWIFE'S TALE– new from Dial. I'll be reviewing this soon in the ETHICAL CULTURE REVIEW OF BOOKS, which is once again up and running.

For those struggling artists among you as well as those who love the arts, here's an interesting online article about how artists get paid: http://www.bricklin.com/artistspaid.htm.

Interesting concept: fiction inspired by current events at Alternet: http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=15511.


Newsletter # 44
May 21, 2003


Generally, the reason I write about books is to recommend them, but there are always times when something has been hyped too much, when it just doesn't do for me what it did for my friend, or when there is an underlying ideology that I find repulsive. In this vein, special Guest Editor Shelley Ettinger writes:


By Shelley Ettinger


I've had a run of disappointing reads lately, so why not warn you? First was Ruth Ozeki's ALL OVER CREATION. I do consider Ruth Ozeki's book a worthy effort– and it occurs to me that a gardener might find in it more zing than I did. I liked it okay but that's all; it lacked the zany verve, the zeal and momentum of MY YEAR OF MEATS. Most critics preferred this to her first, which I find weird. For me, the first had way more life to it, made me care much more.

Then I read LIGHT, COMING BACK by Ann Wadsworth, which came highly recommended and was a Lambda Literary Award nominee last year. A lovely dud. By which I mean the writing was very fine but so what? Most of the characters are high-culture, proper and prosperous Bostonians who left me either unmoved or positively repulsed– not what the author was going for.

I had the opposite problem with SALOME OF THE TENEMENTS from the Radical Novel Reconsidered series (University of Illinois Press). The characters, the issues, the setting all worked for me, but, darn it, the writing did not. Shoot. I'm holding out hope for others in the series, several of which I've borrowed from the New York University library.

Disappointment gave way to outrage as I read IN SUNLIGHT, IN A BEAUTIFUL GARDEN by Kathleen Cambor. In 1997 I took the train from New York to Pittsburgh for the AFL-CIO convention. As the train chugged over the Alleghenies near Johnstown, Pa., suddenly a voice came over the loudspeaker and we were treated to a 20-minute discourse on the Johnstown flood of 1889. It was fascinating, and sparked my interest in learning more, and I was delighted when this novel came out to glowing reviews two years ago.

Cambor was hailed for giving voice to the flood's victims and exposing the perpetrators. Well. She does, sort of. But she also treats them equally– equally sympathetically. Even as she shows how the millionaire owners of a "gentleman's club" upriver were directly responsible for the dam burst and flood that killed over 2,200 people, mostly steel workers and their families, she also spends many pages establishing the humanity and essential goodness of the culprits. And these are not just any culprits, mind you. We're talking the big boys, the robber barons. Carnegie, Mellon, Frick. She dwells for example on Frick's love of art, kindness to his wife, loyalty to friends and so on– frigging Frick, Carnegie's trigger boy who three years later would sic Pinkerton killers on the Homestead strikers!

She also writes quite touchingly about the club lawyer's background: how his brothers died and his father, a Virginia plantation owner, lost everything in the Civil War because they refused to compromise their principles. Yes, that's right, she lauds them as noble souls who held fast to their principles, which consisted of getting rich off the labor of enslaved Africans. I was so appalled at this section that I nearly stopped, but I thought maybe she'll turn it around later somehow.

No, she never does. She treats everyone with equal sympathy, the thousands of flood victims and the men who killed them. I was left wondering what the point of this book is. It's been lauded for looking at the role of social class in the Johnstown flood and yes, in a way it does. But to what end? Ultimately all I could figure out she's saying, if anything, is that, well, these things happen. There are classes, owning and laboring, and there are tragedies, brought about by the one and suffered by the other, and it's sad but, gee, it's the natural order of things and really no one's at fault.

Of course, I don't think there's anything natural, inevitable, or final about the capitalist system, but this book made me think again about what a tight hold capitalist ideology has on the arts in this country. Books and book reviews in particular. Almost without exception, both, in this time and place, are written and read, consciously or not, from the sensibility of the class that holds power. How could it be otherwise when that sensibility holds utter sway? If once in while a writer breaks out, the book is denounced as unsubtle and unartistic, shrill, a screed, and the writer as an odious ideologue (which, come to think of it, isn't that far off from how Ruth Ozeki's first book was treated)– or, more commonly, the book is ignored and dies on the shelf.

I don't have any special pipeline to news of well-written, class-conscious new literature– all I have are the mainstream reviews and very rarely some other tip from a friend. Still, I can think of a few books 've read over the last few years that I thought were very good according to my lights and didn't, as far as I know, get much notice: LOCAS by Yxta Maya Murray, about Chicana teenagers in Los Angeles. THE NECESSARY HUNGER by Nina Revoyr, also set in Los Angeles, also about teenaged girls, basketball players, an African-American and an Asian-American. SHADOW PARTISAN by Nadja Tesich, set in post-World-War-II Yugoslavia. A fantastic series of murder mysteries, not a genre I usually enjoy, by Barbara Neeley featuring as the main character a Black woman who works as a domestic. They're titled BLANCHE ON THE LAM, BLANCHE CLEANS UP, BLANCHE AMONG THE TALENTED TENTH, and BLANCHE PASSES GO. Very sharp, entertaining page turners but also deep: social commentary passing as mysteries.

There are, thankfully, also books that are popular as well as socially conscious. Those that spring to mind are from other countries– no surprise since there is much higher class consciousness everywhere else, or, if from the U.S., emerge primarily from the experience of immigrants and people of color. I'm thinking, for example, of Sandra Cisneros's CARAMELO, Jamie O'Neill's AT SWIM TWO BOYS, everything by Sarah Waters, and many that we don't get a chance to read because they're not translated into English or published in this country.

                                             – Shelley Ettinger

Guest editor Shelley Ettinger reads during her lunch hour and on the subway to and from her job as a secretary at New York University. She's writing her first novel, portions of which have been published in several online literary journals. The links are at: http://homepages.nyu.edu/~se30/. Her latest story "Rowdy Goddess," which is adapted from the opening chapter of her novel-in-progress, VERA'S WILL, has been published in the online journal Muse Apprentice Guild at http://www.muse-apprentice-guild.com/shelleyettinger-fiction/home.html.



Phyllis Moore writes: "Here is my "take" on the novel SINS OF THE SEVENTH SISTER: A MEMOIR OF THE GOTHIC SOUTH by Huston Curtis. The best thing about it is its title. The second best thing is its dust jacket. It is told from the point of a view of a seven year old boy.

"In this novel WV, once again, is the South. An interesting point, it went out to reviewers as a memoir but was published as a novel. It does mentions Elkins and Weston but has - 0 - to do with recognizable life in WV. It's sex-drenched, rather silly and implausible. Sure to be a best seller and a movie!"


Rebecca Kavaler writes: "I have lent my copy of John Williams' AUGUSTUS to a friend so without it at hand cannot be too specific about the aspects that I liked so much. Williams won me in the first sentence of his Author's Note (which I copied down to use as an epigraph should I ever write another historical!): ‘It is recorded that a famous Latin historian declared he would have made Pompey win the battle of Pharsalia had the effective turn of a sentence required it.'

"Well, in spite of his ability to turn a sentence effectively, I don't think Williams found it necessary to subvert any historical truths. Since I did not begin this book with any great interest in the Roman saga, the fact that I became completely engrossed in it is a tribute to his narrative skill and to the very original way he tells a familiar story––using letters, memoirs, senate proceedings, diaries, and alternating the accounts written as they were happening with other accounts recalled decades later––yet never interrupting the cumulative suspense of history's flow. For me it stands as a wonderful preamble to Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL– true enough as history in its account of the military campaigns and political maneuvering following Caesar's death, fictional only in its in-depth portrayal of the characters involved. And of course the sad conclusion– that like the human body, an empire begins to decompose as soon as it reaches maturity– is particularly relevant to these times."



For a blog (web log or online journal) that focuses on the discussion of poetics, take a look at http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/. Especially check out the entry for May 3, 2003 entry for a really nice discussion of Halvard Johnson's poetry!



From Jane Ciabattari: "What a great new newsletter (#43). I, too, have been drawn back to Virginia Woolf. MRS. DALLOWAY, THE WAVES. And her diaries. In fact, I loved her entries during World War II, as she had a new book coming out and was eager for reviews, and also had her London townhouse bombed during the blitz. Thanks, too, for the Alternet fiction inspired by current events."

From David "Joho" Weinberger: "Speaking of writing about books, my sister in law, the novelist Meredith Sue Willis, writes a newsletter about books worth reading that is enhanced by contributions from her readers. It's very personal and personable and is infused with the love of reading." (August 5, 2002 of http://www.hyperorg.com.)



Suzanne McConnell has a piece in m.a.g.: http://www.muse-apprentice-guild.com/suzannemcconnell-fiction/home.html

Jane Ciabattari's latest really tight and sharp short story, "Arabella Leaves," is in Ms. online right now at http://www.msmagazine.com/dec02/ciabattari.asp. Jane writes that it draws its inspiration in part from drug problems she learned about while judging a contest called the Nancy Dickerson Whitehead awards, for print and broadcast journalism that accurately depicts drug and alcohol abuse. Jane also has a story in the new issue of READERVILLE, about the new Tennessee Williams story that appears in the new anthology French Quarter Fiction, edited by Joshua Clark (Light of New Orleans Publishing).



Roberta Mundie writes: "You and I are about the same age, and I read MIDDLEMARCH for the first time not long before you did. I also reread it at intervals, testing (I suppose) whether I am still growing. John Cheever, the novelist, said that his mother read Middlemarch continually: when she reached the end, she simply started over.

"The lovely concluding paragraph ('The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; . . half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.') I found a couple of years ago as part of the text of a liturgical reading in the service book at the North Broad Street temple in Philadelphia, attributed to 'a very wise person.'

"Anyway, I persuaded my reading group to read Middlemarch for our next meeting, and our discussion is coming up in mid-June."

I hope the discussion goes well, Roberta!

Tom Schloegel writes that he just read my novel for kids, MARCO'S MONSTER: "Realistic 4th grade fiction is not my normal reading choice, but I really enjoyed it. I especially liked how race was not referred to once, and yet Marco's integrated neighborhood was completely transparent. From my own parenting experience thus far I know that children don't notice skin color, so well done there. Overall it was a fun, satisfying read.

"I can recommend another page-turner if you are interested: ARTEMIS FOWL by Eoin Colfer. Easily as creative a conception as the world of Harry Potter. Artemis discovers that trolls, dwarves and fairies really exist and he kidnaps one for ransom. I see from your literary email list the type of fiction you like, but since you are also working on science fiction, maybe you would enjoy this too."



Newsletter # 45
June 21, 2003

This issue welcomes Summer 2003. I'm hoping that such a polite welcome will influence the weather to do something besides rain. There have been remarkably few days dry enough to work in the vegetable garden. We've also been wrapped up in graduation here– my only child Joel is graduating from high school with a lot more parties and events than I remember from my graduation all those years ago in Shinnston, West Virginia.

Since this is the beginning of vacations, it is time to ask people for their summer reading plans: what are you reading for fun or as a project? I have a suggestion for those seeking a challenging but not terribly long classic: THE PRINCESS OF CLEVES. This was written in 1678 in France by Madame de Lafayette, a friend of the aphorist Duc de La Rochefoucauld and the famous letter writer Madame de Sevigne. It is one of those rare books from an extremely different time, place, and culture that is still readable. I first read it when I was in a group that was working our way through older books by women, and then returned to it after hearing it discussed in a Teaching Company lecture on the development of the Self.

This is a book that takes some effort, but it is much easier– and much shorter!– than, say, THE TALE OF GENJI. THE PRINCESS OF CLEVES is possibly the first historical novel: Madame de Lafayette was a member of the court of Louis IV, and with research and information from her friends, she set her book a hundred years earlier in the court of Henri II; most of the characters in the novel, excluding the heroine, are real people– such as the young and rather mischievous Mary Queen of Scots. Scholars indicate that Lafayette did well on accuracy, if not on attitudes. Her themes are germane to life as she knew it, and her plot is about what happens to a young woman determined to be faithful to her husband, but also attracted to romantic passion and to the importance of honesty in relationships.

The hothouse court atmosphere feels breathlessly claustrophobic to most readers in the twenty-first century: so few options and activities available to women!– and the men of the court aren't much better off. Madame De Lafayette's world was one where the aristocracy had been carefully brought to heel by the Sun King and his advisors so that their daily lives centered on court intrigue rather than on administering their estates or creating power bases in the provinces. Poor people, of course– the vast whole of France– don't figure in the story at all.

All that having been said, it's still a pretty compelling picture of a tiny coterie of people whose energies are all focused on success like so many Manhattan stock traders. The women exercise their energies on seeking power through alliances with men, withholding and giving sexual favors and other kinds of favors. It is superbly and cleanly written, classical and compressed– almost all dialogue, with many stories-within-stories, and only the tiniest soupcons of description: a room, a garment, a view of a garden. Just enough.

In the end, the Princess is a kind of hero of personal integrity. The "world" is amazed by the lengths to which she will go to preserve her virtue. People argue that she is putting herself on a pedestal, putting herself above other women, making a fool of herself by not giving in to passion like a normal woman, etc. etc. She is steadfast, however, in her determination to do right even in the extreme circumstances of a court where everything conspires to bring her down. It seem to me, from my twenty-first century viewpoint, that less extraordinary people probably do more good in the world, and are certainly happier, but the Princess's determination makes for an extremely absorbing story.

                                          – Meredith Sue Willis



Here's a book that many people have missed: THE GIRL PRETENDING TO READ RILKE by Barbara Riddle (available at Amazon.com and probably elsewhere), the headlong, entertaining coming of age of a young woman at the very opening of the nineteen-sixties. She tries everything at once: to be brilliant, to make love, to have relationships, to have adventures– and mainly, to find her footing in a shaky world.

My light reading this summer is probably going to be continuing Orson Scott Card's SEVENTH SON series. Card creates an alternate history for America where the Iroquois industrialized early and have their own state in a much smaller United States, and the Hio river is one of the boundaries between the territory of Wobbish and a mountaineer country called Appalachee. William "Bill" Harrison and Mike "King of the River" Fink are villains– and, oh, if you like this kind of thing, it's a ton of fun. I've read the first book, SEVENTH SON, and RED PROPHET so far. Card doesn't need a recommendation from me: he's one of the Big Dogs of the science fiction/fantasy realm.

Which brings me to SEABISCUIT by Laura Hillenbrand. This was a Mother's Day gift– just in time for this year's Triple Crown horse races. I didn't intend to like it– Boo to big best sellers being made into big movies! However– I couldn't put it down. I always loved horses, and always love books as the entryway into Other Worlds, exotic to me (Orson Scott Card's America; Mme. De Lafayette's court life). Besides, I read all the Black Stallion series when I was a girl, and this books is like a gritty grown-up version of Walter Farley's THE BLACK STALLION. It's almost worth the price of the book just for the gross descriptions of how jockeys take off weight.

And one more in the Doesn't-Need -My Imprimatur category: WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith, recommended often here and elsewhere. It has been a big and worth best seller. Smith has an apparently bottomless fund of inventiveness and affection for all kinds of people.



Carmen Iglesias recommends BE THE DREAM: PREP FOR PREP GRADUATES SHARE THEIR STORIES, "an informal history of Prep for Prep, a New York City-based program which prepares students of color from the New York City public schools to enter preparatory (i. e. independent, or private) schools, hence the name Prep for Prep. It's edited by the founder of the program, Gary Simons, and the bulk of the text is a series of essays by Prep alumni and alumnae .... describing their experiences, before, during, and after the program, emphasizing how Prep transformed their lives. I haven't gotten through all of it, and a series of essays necessarily varies in appeal from piece to piece," says Carmen, "but I have been quite impressed so far by the book." It's published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.



One of my favorite authors Steven Bloom (NO NEW JOKES– see Books For Readers #38 ) writes:

"dear meredith sue willis, thanks for your kind words about no new jokes. i am always very happy when someone who isn't jewish and isn't from brooklyn likes it. an independent literary newsletter is a terrific idea and as soon as my wife and i can find out what a blank email is we would like to connect with you. we have lived in heidelberg, germany for the past twenty five years. she is a singer and i've taught american studies at the university for the past ten years. i have been writing a lot....a collection of my stories will be published in german next year by the publisher of the german version of no new jokes. the title story, open marriage, will appear in the next issue of confrontation....steven bloom."



A segment of Tom Butler's novel-in-progress has won the Reflections Short Fiction Award (from REFLECTIONS LITERARY JOURNAL at Piedmont Community College in North Carolina) and achieved semi-finalist ranking in the H.E. Francis Literary Competition (University of Alabama). You can order a copy of REFLECTIONS at Reflections Literary Journal, Piedmont Community College, P.O. Box 1197, Roxboro, NC 27573. (It's $7.)

Poet Barbara Crooker has a new book out:  BARBARA CROOKER: GREATEST HITS 1980 - 2002. See Pudding House Publications.

A good discussion of Halvard Johnson's poetry appears in the poetics blog http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/. Go to the entry for May 3, 2003.



Find resources for independents of all sorts: bookstores, publishers, readers, writers, music listeners, etc. etc. at New Pages.

Writer and teacher-of-writing Roberta Allen (THE PLAYFUL WAY TO SERIOUS WRITING; THE PLAYFUL WAY TO KNOWING YOURSELF) has a good website with information about her and her books at http://www.prairieden.com/roberta.allen.

An New York City organization called Media Bistro gives classes and bills itself as "Connecting Media Professionals to New Opportunities -- and to Each Other!"



Phyllis Moore writes that she has read "a few pages of LOLITA IN TEHRAN. It certainly gets mixed reviews on the Net and I'll be interested in seeing how it shakes out for me. I feel free not to read it if it is boring. I recently tried to read ICY SPARKS, partly because its protagonist has Tourette's Syndrome, but found it boring."

Phyllis also recommends a children's book set in West Virginia, THE HAUNTING OF SWAIN'S FANCY by Brenda Seabrook that received a nice review in KIRKUS REVIEWS. "In an earlier book, THE VAMPIRE IN MY BATHTUB," writes Phyllis, "Brenda created Eugene, West Virginia's first, at least to my knowledge, vampire. He's a sweetie."

And she forwards information about Poet Jeff Mann. He has a new book out and an upcoming issue of APPALACHIAN HERITAGE dedicated to his work!   BONES WASHED WITH WINE, Jeff's first full-length book of poetry, published in January 2003 by Gival Press, combines poems from his sold-out chapbooks BLISS and FLINT SHARDS FROM SUSSEX. You can order it from Gival Press, and there's a sample poem at http://givalpress.prodigybiz.com/jeffmann.html:

....Flesh is the hollow
sycamore within which
a solitary huddles....



Shelley Ettinger writes: "After reading a couple light books last week, on Monday I read one that for some reason I never had before and that I'd been meaning to since the war buildup began last fall: JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN by Dalton Trumbo. Oh man.

"I [also] read another from the Radical Novel Reconsidered series: MOSCOW YANKEE by Myra Page [mentioned in Books for Readers # 15 ]. I liked it a lot. It's set in 1931 and the main character is an unemployed Detroit auto worker who goes to the Soviet Union for a job. In places the writing took some slogging to get through, I think because she tried too hard to make the characters real via slangy vernacular. But overall I thought she succeeded in the effort to portray women and men grappling with machines, each other and themselves in the struggle to create a new, better way of living and working. She conveyed something that's hard to grasp unless you've taken part in such an endeavor yourself or at least observed it firsthand (I only got a sense of it when I spent time in Cuba)– which is that a social revolution is not a single event that takes place on a certain date when governmental power changes hands; rather, it is a long, ongoing process that only starts then. The workers take power, that opens up the potential to change social relations--and then the real work begins.

"I often alternate between reading that takes effort and thought and light, easy page turners, so after a couple weeks with MOSCOW YANKEE, I spent a couple days with LOST IN A GOOD BOOK. This is Jasper Fforde's sequel to THE EYRE AFFAIR. Apparently the adventures of literary operative Thursday Next will be a series, with a third book due in 2004. This second one, like the first, is funny, silly and over the top. Characters' names contrived of groan-worthy puns. A wild plot. Active involvement of many fictional folk, mostly notably Miss Haversham. Some sly commentary--for example, Thursday's ancient grandmother is trying to kill herself by reading the most boring classics, and there are several conversations about the best candidates. And the return of literary historian Millon De Flosse. Great fun."



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.

BACK ISSUES click here.


Creative Commons License Books for Readers Newsletter by Meredith Sue Willis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.meredithsuewillis.com. To subscribe and unsubscribe, use the form below.
MSW Home 


For a free e-mail subscription, please fill in your e-mail address here:
E-mail address:
Subscribe Unsubscribe


#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
Biography   Blog   Books for Readers Newsletter   Contact   Home   MSW Info
MSW's Books   Online Classes   Order Books    MSW Online   Teens   Writing Exercises