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Newsletter #56
March 17, 2004

 

A note to new readers: This Newsletter usually starts with what I am reading, sometimes just lists, sometimes an almost-formal essay, but I am eager for readers to send suggestions for books and to react to anything written here. Please e-mail me at MSueWillis@aol.com. Also, if you enjoy these occasional newsletters, please recommend them to a friend – to subscribe, just send a blank email to Readerbooks-subscribe@topica.com.

I've just finished Benita Eisler's biography BYRON: CHILD OF PASSION, FOOL OF FAME (New York: Knopf, 1999). The great Romantic poet was in a lot of ways what we would today call a creep. For example, when he was in his late teens, he enjoyed special brothels where he could have access to little boys and girls. He drank too much, had a famous affair with his own half sister, made passes at an adult lover's young daughter, and on and on. None of this was really news to me – Byron was a scandal alive and a scandal dead – but it was pretty grim to read it all enumerated page after sorry page. There were reasons for his behavior, of course.

He was seduced as a child by a maid, and he had enormous melodramatic fights with his unstable but doting mother. Then there was the shame of his lame foot and the brutality of the boys at school, and, as he reached his late teens, there was too much disposable income– or rather too many people willing to extend credit based on expectations of income. He was both indulged and self-indulgent because of his personal charm and because of his class. He damaged people close to him, especially women, although he seems to have been a good friend to quite a few men. Even his last months, which he spent working for the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Turks, were a kind of indulgence. He designed himself fancy uniforms and was fawned over for his celebrity and his money. He died of a fever there at the age of 36.

Most likely, Byron suffered from bi-polar disorder. He was a sexual addict and often experienced despair. In fact, one of my favorite poems is called "Darkness" and includes these lines:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air....

It doesn't get more cheerful, either. One wonders, in the end, how he was able to turn out such an enormous amount of poetry, a lot of it quite wonderful, if not exactly popular today..

His poetry can be self-indulgent, too. Ben Jonson wished Shakespeare had blotted a few lines, but Byron could have afforded to cut dozens of stanzas if not whole cantos. Still, in the end, he had the energy, the imagination, the eventual mastery, and (we should never forget) the leisure to write some pretty stunning lyrics as well as a lot of entertaining verse tales and the admirable experiment in rhyming common language, DON JUAN, which includes funny rhymes like these:

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan,
We all have seen him in the pantomime
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time. (From Canto I)

I have to say that my short-attention-spanned twentieth-first century mind has trouble reading hundreds of lines of any kind of poetry, but with a biographer to point out some highlights and starting points, I enjoyed dipping into Byron. I don't know if I am recommending Eisler's biography: I don't think I'm a very good judge of biographies. I almost always use them in the way I just described, as a guide to a writer's work or else as an entry into a distant time and place. Thus, I tend to read for a life story or for a sense of a historical period. .

I've been interested in Byron's time off and on for a while: these are the years of Napoleon's ascendency and fall, and of the powerful burst of what we call Romantic poetry in England. The older generation had witnessed the French Revolution; the younger generation included many who would live to see the great European upheavals of 1830 and 1848. Long ago I ran across and read a biography of the French writer Madame de Staël called MISTRESS TO AN AGE by J. Christopher Herold. De Staël was a writer and public figure who was banished by Napoleon and who entertained Byron in her old age. She would no doubt have enjoined Byron to be her lover if she hadn't been old and sick.

I love the connections that come with a small literate class, such as Madame de Staël having Byron over for dinner. Also, there was a friendship between Byron and the poet Shelley, who was married to the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN– 1792). And, best of all!– it was at Byron's rented villa near Geneva where that young woman, Mary Godwin Shelley, told a ghost story to Byron and Shelley that she eventually wrote into her novel FRANKENSTEIN..

It is refreshing to me to read about a time so tremendously different from our own. It also reminds me that, however much I may dread the next unilateral adventures of our present political leaders, if I had lived in 1820, given my gender and class antecedents, I would have been at best employed to empty chamberpots in Lord Byron's castle– or, more likely, dead in childbirth if I had survived the fevers of infancy..

Let me know what you think! And what you're reading!.

                                                                          – Meredith Sue Willis

 

A GOOD BOOK.

Shelley Ettinger writes to say, "This weekend I read a lovely little novel that I'd picked up at the NYU bookstore remainders table: EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE by Margot Livesey. After a long dry spell of unsatisfying reading, this one was a pleasure. It's about mothers and daughters, life and death – you know, minor matters – and the end provoked a darned good cry.".

Shelley also saw an article in the March 16 NEW YORK TIMES about Alice Randall and her new book. Shelley says she liked the first book, THE WIND DONE GONE (the slave's version of GONE WITH THE WIND), "very much, found it searing and powerful, thought the critics unfairly dismissed it. Looking forward to this new one, PUSHKIN AND THE QUEEN OF SPADES."

 

DON't FORGET

The latest issue of the HAMILTON STONE REVIEW. The poets represented in the new issue include not only Rochelle Ratner but also Jane Augustine, Michael Heller, Rebecca Kavaler, Sybil Kollar, Larry Goodell, Lewis LaCook, Roger Mitchell, Tom Raworth , and Joseph Somoza. Fiction is by Jane Lazarre, Richard Perry, and Susan Robbins. Find it all at http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr.html.

 

Meredith Sue Willis's story "Tales of the Abstract Expressionists" has been archived at TATLIN'S TOWER. Their new issue is a at http://www.tatlinstower.com. For more of my fiction online, go to http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/index2.html.

GOOD NEWS.

Roberta Allen reports that her former student Maryann DeLeo won an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, CHERNOBYL HEART. See Roberta's website for more announcements: http://www.prairieden.com/roberta.allen.

 

 

Newsletter # 57
April 17, 2004


EPIPHANY IS NOW ON SALE!

The first hard copy issue of the year-old literary magazine is only $10 for a terrific collection of fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, and photography. There is an interview with John Edgar Wideman and writing by Elizabeth Gaffney, Carole Rosenthal, Paola Corso, Rick Rofihe and many others. See http://www.epiphanyzine.com.

I'm just back from a Fiction Festival at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and with West Virginia writers on my mind, I want to recommend a couple of novelists I've been reviewing in the last few months. Both of these men had short notices from other readers in Newsletter # 52 (December 8, 2003). My review of Lee Maynard's SCREAMING WITH THE CANNIBALS appears in the Winter 2004 issue of APPALACHIAN HERITAGE, and I have a long essay-review of five Keith Maillard novels coming soon in APPALACHIAN JOURNAL.

Maynard's SCREAMING WITH THE CANNIBALS takes on the next stage in the life of the narrator of CRUM. CRUM has a large following of enthusiastic readers, including me. It is the gritty story of a teenager's life in a tiny town in West Virginia in the early nineteen fifties. Maynard's new one picks up the story where CRUM left off. Fans will leap at the opportunity to find out what happened to Jesse– and yes, the narrator of the first book finally gets a name! Jesse is presented as a sort of archetype of all those young adventurers who need to see what is on the other side of the next ridge. He wants to move on, to escape from everything in his old life. In the final part of this book, he gets as far as South Carolina where he experiences racism, the ocean, and forgiveness. The long scene in which Jesse escapes a Kentucky revival meeting with his soul unsaved and his skin intact is worth the price of the book. He doesn't find everything he's looking for, but there is more than a hint that Maynard isn't through with his story. If you happen to be in West Virginia the last week of April, 2004, Lee will be appearing first at West Virginia University and then at the Ohio River Book Festival.

Keith Maillard is a very different writer– where Maynard is always alive to the tradition of the tall tale, Maillard writes about this quotidian world, and loves the details of history and photography and even the elaborate clothing of country club women of fifty years ago. Maillard's home town, Wheeling, West Virginia, is an old industrial city situated southwest of Pittsburgh, and the model for Maillard's fictional Raysburg, the setting of ALEX DRIVING SOUTH (1980), LIGHT IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN (1993), HAZARD ZONES (1995), GLORIA (1999), and THE CLARINET POLKA (2002). Traditional Appalachian life usually appears off stage, and Maillard's subjects, often highly researched, include an industrial Polish immigrant community, the Civil War in West Virginia, alcoholism, geography, and a host of other subjects. I like novels that have information in them, and Maillard includes lots of it. All his books are worthwhile, but I would especially like to recommend HAZARD ZONES, in which a damaged man who has finally obtained a satisfactory life, returns to Raysburg and confronts memories of the past as well as the revived city.

Writers like Maynard and Maillard are from West Virginia, but in no way regional: they are the kind of writers who take the homeplace and use it as a vantage point for surveying the whole world.

                                                                                Meredith Sue Willis

READERS WRITE THE NICEST THINGS

Rebecca Eldridge writes: "Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your coverage of Lord Byron. He has always been my favorite poet, probably because of his dark approach and controversial history. I've kept a tattered book of his poems since college and now I want to pull it out and explore his work again (this time as an adult). Thank you for inspiring me!"

PLACES TO GO ONLINE

The Shards O'Glass website makes terrific fun of our friendly tobacco advertisers. Find it at http://www.shardsoglass.com.

Take at look at an interesting small press, Spuyten Duyvil at http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/index1.htm.

Deirdre Hare Jacobson' poem "Meeting of the Famished" won the Lyric Recovery Prize. To read the poem, go to http://www.lyricrecovery.org/lyricrecovery.org/contents/lyr04resultstextstop3.html#Meeting. For more about Lyric Recovery (from Maureen Holm and the fine people who bring you BIG CITY LIT), go to http://www.lyricrecovery.org/lyricrecovery.org/default.htm.

NEW LITERARY MAGAZINE

Shelley Ettinger writes to tell about a new magazine: "This is a plug for a new literary journal that I'm very excited about. In my opinion this one deserves support, and I urge you all to get your hands on a copy. It's called WORD IS BOND, A JOURNAL OF URBAN POETRY AND PROSE. It is independent, not affiliated with an MFA program or anything like that. In fact, it aims to distinguish itself from the literature emanating from academia by 'building a unique literary journal. One that amplifies the voice of the city, plucking literary gems from the beautiful diversity that is our urban experience.' (from the introduction) The poetry and fiction are striking, first-rate. The writers range from prisoners to poetry slam champions to professors– to me! I'm honored that a poem of mine is included."

HALVARD JOHNSON'S LATEST

In the East Room

Look, I know that this has been tough weeks in that country,
but the road is still straight and we will not waver. Our commitment
to freedom is as committed as ever and we will not waver. We
will stay the course over the course of the future, whatever it brings.

That country will be a peaceful democratic country or I'll know
the reason why. We will defeat violence and terror wherever it raises
its ugly heads. We will show our resolve by staying the course and
not wavering in the face of terror and violence, and our country will be

safer than ever because they can live in as much peace and freedom as we
ever have, serving the cause of liberty, and freedom, and democracy, and so on.
We will take resolute action wherever feasible and prudent, and in the interests
of the safety of our people and those around the world, in Asia and in Europe,

who have come to know that we are as good as our words when it comes to
staying God's course, and not wavering, as we determine our unwavering resolve.

                                            Halvard Johnson

DEPARTMENT OF BARBARA CROOKER!!

Barbara Crooker writes to remind us that it is National Poetry Month. She has 5 spring poems up at Poetry Magazine: www.poetrymagazine.com/archives/2004/Spring004/PastFeatures/crookerb.htm as well as 5 poems on "War and Its Aftermath" at NEW WORKS REVIEW at www.new-works.org/6_2crooker/crooker_bio.htm. Barbara's home page is at http://www.barbaracrooker.com.

MORE BOOKS

Lori Bryant-Woolridge has a new novel out, HITTS & MRS. As always, Lori mixes the expected themes of popular fiction with serious questions: in this case, can a man and a woman, attracted to one another, actually choose NOT to leap into bed? Is it possible for them to create a different kind of relationship? The possibility does not, by the way, stop the novel from being very sexy. Take a look at Lori's website at http://www.loribryantwoolridge.com. Her previous novel, READ BETWEEN THE LIES, had an interesting subtheme about hidden illiteracy.

AROUND NYC

Roberta Allen will read from her memoir-in-progress DIFFERENT: An Artist's Erotic Childhood at ABC No Rio with Joanna Sit & Coree Spencer Sunday, April 25, 7 PM at 156 Rivington St. (Between Clinton & Suffolk) 212 254-3697 $3.00

WORKSHOP IN A COLUMN

SOL MAGAZINE online has mini-poetry workshops: http://pages.prodigy.net/sol.magazine/workshop.htm#Jan04

WORD IS BOND is available at bookstores in Seattle and will soon be more widely available. Order by mail: from P.O. Box 18304, Seattle, WA 98118. The price is $7 for one issue, $12 for a one-year (two issues) subscription.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newsletter # 58
May 13, 2004

When I was a little girl, I read for the wonder of it– to have adventures, to go places I wouldn't be likely to go otherwise. When I was a teenager, I read also for How to Live: I had the idea that books would help me master the coming stages of my life. Literature departments in universities don't stress these reasons for reading, but I think that many of us still read for them, at least sometimes Entertainment is certainly still in fashion in popular and genre novels, but reading fiction and memoir to learn has an antiquated sound. Of course there is great satisfaction in literary pleasures like imagery and structure or even the game of figuring out what is going on. Novels, memoir, and biography are mixed forms, partly entertainment and partly art. The best do many of these things simultaneously: puzzle us, take us on adventures, teach us some odds and ends, and maybe give us some hints about how to proceed through life.

I've read a couple of books in the last weeks that do these things. AKÉ, the childhood memoir by Nigerian playwright, novelist, and activist Wole Soyinka, was recommended in this newsletter by Ingrid Hughes (see another suggestion from her below). This book is a delightfully strange experience in some ways– you're in the mind of small but precocious Wole, and it takes a while to sort out the people who fill his days with their rich variety. He calls his mother Wild Christian and his father Essay! But part of what is so enjoyable here is that while everything is surprising and exotic to me the reader, it is also new to the boy himself. He is such a decided little character, observing and acting with his whole self. People in Wole's world have a way of seeming wholly new in different circumstances, too. Thus, his uncle ( I think it's an uncle– relationships are sometimes puzzling) is first seen as a sort of eccentric bicycle rider who has an accident and then later as the principal of Wole's second school, so rigid in his rules that he punishes children over having left individual blades of grass standing. Then he becomes a sensitive mentor and friend to the boy. The book ends with a long section about the beginning of the modern women's movement in Nigeria, told from the child's perspective, and quite exciting and inspiring.

Reading AKÉ sent me back to a wonderful book of photographs of African women that was given to us by our friend Kasumu Salawu. The book, called WINDOWS TO THE SOUL: PHOTOGRAPHS CELEBRATING AFRICAN WOMEN, is by A. Olusegun Fayemi. Any photography book is about the beauty of the objects it offers to us, and Fayemi's women have splendid shoulders and legs and headdresses and smiles. These women are surely beautiful, but their beauty seems to be something they themselves own and offer as a gift to the photographer while they go about their work of cooking, nursing, doctoring, caring for children. Fayemi, a pathologist as well as a photographer, has a number of beautiful books about Africa. Look below for his website.

I also finished a biography, this one a gift from my husband Andy Weinberger, WRAPPED IN RAINBOWS: THE LIFE OF ZORA NEALE HURSTON by Valerie Boyd. This one has done very well commercially, and deserves its success: it relates with great verve a complex life. One of the things that struck me (among many!) was that Hurston was short of money during much of her life. She flattered and fawned over patrons, usually white, and frequently failed to make a living from her writing. She worked at everything from college professor to house cleaner, and the sequence was not necessarily always toward more wealth and respect. This is not the point of the book, but the ups and downs of a real life, a wonderful writer's real life, are very moving.

Finally, I want to recommend a brand new reprint of a novel from the early 1980's by Joanne Greenberg. This is the Joanne Greenberg who wrote the famous I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN, which is still in print. This one, SEASON OF DELIGHT, was let drift out of print long ago by its original publisher. It is a novel that is unapologetically in the mind of a woman in middle age. She tells her story in first person present tense, but it is a present tense that is full of her own personal history and her ruminations on Jewish culture. Grace Dowben lives in a small town in Pennslyvania that has been her husband's home his whole life. She has sorrows about children who pulled away from her, one all the way to California, one to a quasi-Hindu cult– both rejecting Judaism. She also has a satisfying relationship with her husband, and a passion for her work as an EMT volunteer. The new element in her life is her new passion for a young man the age of her son.

This turns out to be one of those how-to-live novels I used to look for. Grace lives a wonderfully examined life, and it is this examining, and her insights into middle age that are so rare and enjoyable (at least to me now!) So many of our new novels are first novels, and often these are the brilliant, vivid insights of people in their twenties. The failure of publishers to nourish mid-list novels has left many brilliant first novel writers of the past under-published or even unpublished. This is especially sad for those of us who want, among other reading experiences, to read about people who have lived the stages we are in or approaching. Thanks thus to Montemayor Press for bringing back SEASON OF DELIGHT, which is about several different loves, about making choices, about a very American relationship to Judaism, and also, about life on the Emergency Medical Care circuit.

Note: Truth in advertising: Montemayor Press is also one of my publishers: they brought my children's novels back into print, and they're bringing out my science fiction novel in the fall.

                                                                                Meredith Sue Willis

PERSONAL GOOD NEWS

My new collection of short stories set around lakes is now available: DWIGHT'S HOUSE AND OTHER STORIES. For information, see http://www.hamiltonstone.org/dwightshouse.html.

MORE RECOMMENDATIONS

Ardian Gill says: "Perhaps I'm drawn to stories of survival and hope, but I wanted to tell you that I've seldom been so impressed by such a story as I was with Helen Dunmore's THE SIEGE. It's about the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during WW2. Fine technique, wonderful portraits of the main characters and, above all, the description of the strength of the human spirit in adversity. The focus of the story is a young boy, hardly old enough to understand what's going on, and a young woman's struggle to keep him alive. The boy's father, an aging poet, widowed but tended by a friend/mistress also inhabit the tiny apartment. They struggle not only with food and fuel shortages but with the corruption and incompetence of those in power and, of course, the paranoia and intramural spying that was characteristic of the communist regime. The old man often quotes Pushkin, and that led me to read that writer, whom I somehow missed in the past. I'm enjoying him but so far I'll take the other Russians."

Ingrid Hughes writes: "In my continuing examination of memoirs, I read the NAZI OFFICER'S WIFE: HOW ONE WOMAN SURVIVED THE HOLOCAUST....by Edith Hahn Beer with Susan Dworkin. This is a holocaust book by a Viennese woman who managed to avoid the death camps and instead worked as a laborer in various jobs, and then married a Nazi who fell in love with her, and was protected by him for two years. The book is well-written, with Susan Dworkin's help, and tells the story of life within Austria and Germany in the years before, after and during the war. I recommend it highly, despite a mild sense of anti-climax after the Russian victory.

From Deirdre Hare Jacobson: "I don't know if this novel has been highlighted in back issues of the newsletter, but I thought I'd mention it anyway: THE BONE PEOPLE, by Keri Hulme, is an oceanic, muscular, fiercely beautiful book. It begins in a prologue of fragmented poetry and then spears into the story proper– that of an isolated Maori-Scottish woman who discovers a small boy hiding in her house and thereby enters into the lives of the boy and his foster father. Maori culture and language figure prominently, as do the themes of alienation and community, and love entangled with violence.

DON'T FORGET EPIPHANY!

A terrific bargain: the first hard copy issue of the year-old literary magazine is only $10 for a terrific collection of fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, and photography. There is an interview with John Edgar Wideman and writing by Elizabeth Gaffney, Carole Rosenthal, Paola Corso, Rick Rofihe and many others. See http://www.epiphanyzine.com.

ROBERTA ALLEN WORKSHOPS

Roberta Allen is offering a 5 session summer writing workshop for those in the New York City area: 2x a month, 7:30-10 PM, Mondays: June 7, June 21, July 5, July 19, Aug. 2 She will do exercises, but concentrate on revisions of both fiction and nonfiction $300

She is also offering a Playful Way Writing Intensive Sat. June 12, 12-4:30 PM. $100 For more information, go to her website at http://www.prairieden.com/roberta.allen.

LATEST FROM MERCURY HOUSE!

Another of my publishers, good people, interesting books: RUNNING THROUGH FIRE by Zosia Goldberg. Go to http://www.mercuryhouse.org.

SHELLEY ETTINGER TAKES A BREAK FROM STRIKING BACK AT THE EMPIRE

She writes: "This one's just for fun. If you seek a few minutes' relief from the horrors of empire and our struggle against it, perhaps you'd enjoy my story "The Chicken Situation," just published in the new issue of La Petite Zine. Here's the link: http://www.lapetitezine.org/Shelley.Ettinger.htm (Story's title and concept courtesy of La Comandante. Thank you, darling.)"

SUMMER READING LIST FROM THE BROWN DAILY HERALD

Columnist Sarah Green, a university student, offers this summer reading list for Brown students (from the BROWN DAILY HERALD, April 30, 2004):

1. Margaret Atwood, "The Handmaid's Tale"
2. Marion Zimmer Bradley, "Mists of Avalon"
3. Mikhail Bulgakov, "The Master and Margarita"
4. Sarah Caudwell, "The Sybil in her Grave"
5. Paulo Coelho, "The Alchemist"
6. Louis de Berniers, "The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts"
7. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Complete Sherlock Holmes"
8. F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
9. Joseph Heller, "Catch 22"
10. Rachel Ingalls, "Mrs. Caliban"
11. Milan Kundera, "Ignorance"
12. Wally Lamb, "I Know This Much Is True"
13. C.S. Lewis, "'Til We Have Faces"
14. Alan Lightman, "Einstein's Dreams"
15. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "One Hundred Years of Solitude"
16. Ann Patchett, "Bel Canto"
17. Tom Robbins, "Jitterbug Perfume"
18. J.K. Rowling, "Harry Potter"
19. Salman Rushdie, "Midnight's Children"
20. Dorothy Sayers, "Clouds of Witness"
21. Michael Shaara, "The Killer Angels"
22. John Steinbeck, "East of Eden"
23. J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit"
24. Faye Weldon, "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil"
25. Edith Wharton, "The House of Mirth." .


Newsletter # 59
June 14, 2004

 

ANNOUNCEMENT #1

The Summer 2004 issue of the HAMILTON STONE REVIEW is up at http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr.html. This one is all poetry, edited by Halvard Johnson, with poems by Hugh Seidman, Alvin Greenberg, Jordan Davis, Harriet Zinnes, Edward Field, Gene Frumkin, Zan Ross, Barry Alpert. and Mary Rising Higgins.

ANNOUNCEMENT #2

My new collection of short stories set around lakes is now available: DWIGHT'S HOUSE AND OTHER STORIES. The MIDWEST REVIEW said: "Focusing on believable characters put in paralyzing dilemmas, these tales examine the troubling paradoxes of the human condition with sympathy and synchronicity.... Highly recommended." For more information, see http://www.hamiltonstone.org/dwightshouse.html.

I have had an incredibly busy spring– three trips to West Virginia, for starters, and it isn't over yet. I'm still teaching a workshop at NYU and finishing up a job with middle-schoolers at Maple Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey. One of the things I especially value about the wide variety of my teaching is that I get to read everything from highly accomplished literary novels-in-process to the sharp insights and imagery of children in neighborhoods that aren't supposed to be literary at all.

As much as I enjoy the reading for work, however, I look forward to reading just for me. One of the first things I do as soon as I get a break in teaching is to go to some used book bin and pull out whatever catches my interest– I don't analyze why I'm interested, I just indulge my impulses. This is one of the greatest pleasures I know: an array of books, thumbing through the pages, looking for familiar names, looking for unfamiliar names. Sometimes, I do the same thing in my own library and choose something to reread.

The book I pulled out of NYU's bookstore bin last week was THE MUTUAL FRIEND by Frederick Busch, a retelling of the last days of Charles Dickens mostly through the eyes of the man who managed his last reading tour of the U.S. This was a tremendous amount of fun for about two thirds of the book, but I found something repetitive and even self-indulgent in the final section. I'm not completely sure what bothered me, but I had the feeling it was really about Busch contemplating his own death through the character George Dolby contemplating Dickens' death. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it went on too long without much modulation of tone.

This book led me to reread the long last chapter of Fred Kaplan's DICKENS: A BIOGRAPHY, more or less to clarify the facts. I wanted to know which characters in the novel were from real life, and I found a photograph of the actual George Dolby, as well as photos of Dickens' mistress Ellen Ternan, Dickens' daughters, etc. I felt vaguely ashamed of myself for turning from fiction (my own art!) to biography. I hope this was a failure of Busch's novel rather than some change in me–I've loved fiction too long!

A historical novel that I found generally satisfying was Judith Freeman's RED WATER, centered on three of the wives of John Lee, a Mormon leader executed for his participation in the Mountain Meadow Massacre of non-Mormon or "gentile" emigrants. For reasons that are still disputed, a group of Mormons and their Indian allies slaughtered a large party of settlers, except for a few children. John Lee, husband of 19 wives and father of 60 plus children, was tried and executed for the crime twenty years later. The novel isn't perfect, but it does a solid job of imagining the physically and spiritually difficult lives of Mormon women in the nineteenth century. I was really fascinated by the story, but also by the information about the old Mormon belief system and about polygamy. I'm planning to read another of Freeman's books, THE CHINCHILLA FARM.

I have one more recommendation, of an article, this time, which brings me back to my role as teacher. The article, by poet and scholar Natasha Sajé, is called "Who Are We to Judge? The Politics of Literary Evaluation" (THE WRITERS CHRONICLE, Volume 36, Number 6, May/Summer 2004, pp 24-32.). It helped me clarify how I approach the work I read, both for pleasure and as a teacher. The point of the article, aside from giving a quick overview of groups of critical theory, is about how you need to take into account why the writer is writing as you approach a work. I mentioned tentatively last issue that I sometimes still read for How To Live, and how that feels old fashioned sometimes. Sajé helped me by giving me a name for that reason to read: the Pragmatic theory of literature– that literature should be useful, with a social purpose. She names three other general theories: mimetic (art should show us the real world); expressive (artists have a special connection to emotions– the emotion erupts spontaneously); and objective (the reader should focus strictly on the work, its unity, balance, coherence, etc.– the so-called New Criticism and much recent criticism falls in this category). There is a good bibliography, too.

One of her amusing anecdotes is about being in a reading group of professors and nonacademics, and how differently the people responded to what they read: the professors wanted to stick with the work itself, the nonprofessional readers wanted to talk about their lives, and what the book reminded them of, whether or not it was like real life, etc. Thank goodness we don't have to live our lives by theory: that is, I can read for entertainment today (a recent reread of Elmore Leonard's GET SHORTY) and for artistic balance and emotion tomorrow (don't miss the poetry in the new issue of THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW). Perhaps one day soon I'll find that novel that teaches me how to live the next part of my life.

                                                                                         Meredith Sue Willis

MORE RECOMMENDATIONS

Roberta Allen writes, "I've read a ton of memoirs since I started writing my own and would like to recommend: MY BROTHER by Jamaica Kincaid, STRIP CITY by Lili Burana, DON'T LET'S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT by Alexandra Fuller. I could go on and on. Right now I'm finishing BOYHOOD by J.M. Coetzee, which is a very good one. (I didn't think I'd like it because he wrote it in third person). Some other memoirs by men that stay with me are RUNNING WITH SCISSORS by Augusten Burroughs and MY DARK PLACES by James Ellroy. Again, I could go on and on. All these books are very different but have strong, distinctive voices."

Shelley Ettinger says: "I've been meaning to write you about several books.... Over the three-day weekend I read NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU PROMISE TO COOK OR PAY THE RENT YOU BLEW IT 'CAUZE BILL BAILEY AIN'T NEVER COMING HOME AGAIN –yes that's really the title-- by Edgardo Vega Yunque. It's a big fat sprawling, very ambitious novel that has a grand vision and takes in a great deal of U.S. history and takes on a great many social issues. It's full of long digressions, every character gets a detailed back story that touches on all kinds of stuff, he breaks all the rules like showing not telling and gets away with it, it's old-fashioned in its great heart and compassion and utter lack of irony. It shouldn't work but it does. It was published last fall by Farrar Straus."


NEW WORK BY READERS

Tom Butler's story "Everything Gets Heavy" is up and available for reading at http://www.piedmont.cc.nc.us/Publications/literaryjournal.asp. There is also info about where to send for the print version (Volume V).

Rochelle Ratner has a number of new works online as well as additions to her website. Go to http://www.rochelleratner.com. Rochelle has just been appointed to the Marsh Hawk Press editorial board.

Suzanne McConnell has a story in the latest BELLEVUE LITERARY REVIEW. For information, go to http://www.blreview.org.

Halvard Johnson, poetry editor of THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW, writes: "A couple things of mine have just gone online, so I thought I'd let you know about them now. Both require Acrobat Reader 4.0 or better, free from Acrobat at http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/. The first item is The Sonnet Project, now available for reading and downloading from Jukka-Pekka Kervinen's xPress(ed) [http://www.xpressed.org/]. The second is a poem called "Ambulance," which was published in the current issue of BELLEVUE LITERARY REVIEW and is now up on the BLR website at http://www.blreview.org/issue_spring2004/index.htm."


DON"T FORGET EPIPHANY

A terrific bargain: the first hard copy issue of the year-old literary magazine is only $10 for a terrific collection of fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, and photography. There is an interview with John Edgar Wideman and writing by Elizabeth Gaffney, Carole Rosenthal, Paola Corso, Rick Rofihe and many others. See http://www.epiphanyzine.com.


LOOKING FOR A WORKSHOP VACATION?

 

Ellen Bass writes to tell us about the San Juan Workshops July 10-18, 2004. The faculty includes Ellen Bass, Robert Olen Butler, Scott Cairns, Dennis Covington , Lee Gutkind, Li-Young Lee, Lee Martin, Melanie Rae Thon, and Susan Vreeland. The goal of the San Juan Workshops is to remove writers from the hectic pace of everyday life and give them the inspiration, space, and quiet to attend to their writing. For more information or to register online, visit our website: http://homepage.mac.com/inkwellliterary/workshop.html or phone: (806)438-2385..

 

 

 

 

Newsletter # 60
July 9, 2004

 




Mike Stanton's book, THE PRINCE OF PROVIDENCE, is about Buddy Cianci, Rhode Island's double-felon long-time mayor. For those of us who pay our taxes and use credit cards and checks for our business dealings (as opposed to manila envelopes stuffed with large denomination bills), this book opens up a wide view of another way of doing business and government. In the Providence, Rhode Island of Mayor Cianci, cash trumps bureaucracy, political loyalty results in jobs for you and your family, and government is not simply influenced by the rich, it functions on a fee-for-service basis. I suppose you could make a case that rich corporations lobby legally with similar results.

My son Joel, who goes to college in Providence, bought the book for my husband, but I read it thinking to get to know the town where he's spending four years. It's quite a read– entertaining and depressing all at once, a journalist's work: written in a comfortably rambling and occasionally repetitive style, but also gripping. I was especially caught up in the narrative of Cianci's 2002 RICO trial, known as the "Plunder Dome" scandal.

At the same time, Cianci's years in and out of power in Providence have coincided with a downtown renaissance – the founding of theater companies, the creation of beautiful public spaces, a giant upscale mall. Cianci himself is still wildly popular among many of his former constituents. A smart man, naturally warm and gregarious (he quipped that he would happily attend the opening of an envelope), full of ideas and the ability to inspire people, yet, according to the painstaking research behind this book– deeply and unmistakably corrupt.

In contrast, I reread a wonderful novel in which good and evil are very clear. Probably the most famous novel by a native of West Virginia, Davis Grubb's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER holds up very well more than fifty years after it was published. The totally weird thing is how clearly I remember scenes from this novel that I first read when I was in my teens– maybe because I also saw the movie, which sticks remarkably closely to the book. I even remember sentences– an old drunk sees a corpse under water with a sliced open throat "like an extry mouth." A lot of it is sentimental, and there are some one-dimensional characters, but at least the children's mother, Willa, comes across as more interesting in the book than in the movie, where the part was played by Shelley Winters, a great old dame, but maybe not the best choice for a Depression Era West Virginian.

What really works, though, still and chillingly, is how the threat to the children goes on and on like a nightmare. I remember being shocked when I first read it that one escape from Preacher isn't enough– the harrowing scene when John and Pearl flee through the weeds and muck to the skiff and out onto the river seems like a climax– until you realize that Preacher is still tracking the children. Everything the kids do, too, is on target: John throws a brush at Preacher, goes running to the Men in Blue at the end, confessing everything– fully believable as a child's action. Grubb was totally confident as he wrote this book– a popular novel that, I believe, will chill readers for a long time to come.

And, gentle readers, what books are filling your long hot days of summer 2004?

                                                                          – Meredith Sue Willis

IF YOU"RE IN THE NEW YORK AREA....

Deirdre Hare Jacobson is reading on Monday, July 12 at the Cornelia Street Café in Manhattan from 6 to 8 p.m.

A WRITING RETREAT IN A BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN SETTING...

Belinda Anderson offers a September workshop in Greenville, West Virginia. Take a look at "Creative Writing at Creekside" at http://www.creeksideresort.net/retreats.html This is a Retreat for Women: "Develop your talent as a writer with Belinda's warm supportive approach. She offers encouragement to beginners and guidance for more mature writers. Participants are guided through exercises to get the creative process going in fiction, non-fiction and poetry as well as tips on writing rituals and publication."

ALSO STARTING IN SEPTEMBER

I'm offering a four session online writing course that begins September 7. For more information, see http://meredithsuewillis.com/MSWclasses.html.

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM ARDIAN GILL

Ardian Gill writes to say he enjoyed reading in Issue #59 about Dickens and his American tour. Dickens was not, however, says Ardian, "an accurate reporter: he described a brick hotel overlooking the Mississippi River as a ramshackle cabin in a swamp. And he said the American habit of spitting was universal." He recommends as the definitive biography Edgar Johnson's CHARLES DICKENS, HIS TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH. He says, "My favorite Dickens is actually his TRAVELS IN ITALY. He was a cinematographer before there were movies."

Ardian also recommends "a little book by Graham Greene, THE CONFIDENTIAL AGENT. It's early, 1937 I think. For shifts in point of view, turnings, introduction of new characters brilliantly sketched, it's a tour de force. Reminds me a bit in that respect of Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING."

ONE MORE RECOMMENDATION FROM ME

I mentioned a book last issue by Judith Freeman called RED WATER, a historical novel about the Mormons. Now I want to recommend Freeman's latest (the paperback came out in 2003), THE CHINCHILLA FARM. I enjoyed this a lot, for its insight into modern Mormonism, but mostly for its stolid protagonist with her reflective, sometimes almost sluggish quality. She wades through her life not asking for a whole lot, but observing closely and remembering what matters. Over the course of the book she puts together a family made of various people she meets to replace the big traditional one she leaves. The ending is lively and surprising, and no more arbitrary than most of what happens every day.

WEBSITES TO EXPLORE

The Summer 2004 online issue of EPIPHANY up at http://www.epiphanyzine.com.

Ed Davis, whose novel I WAS SO MUCH OLDER THEN was discussed in issue # 26, has a website worth exploring at: http://www.davised.com. I described his novel as a "gripping, sad story of a family living in rented rooms in urban West Virginia" with lots of "damaged, struggling, but extremely colorful characters."

Here's a book I've just ordered because I liked the author's first, prize winning collection of short stories: LAUREN'S LINE by Sondra Spatt Olsen from The University Press of Mississippi. Learn more at http://www.laurensline.com.

I received a post card announcing a book by Stephen R. Moore, who has a website about himself and his novel, DANCING IN THE ARMS OF ORION at http://www.stephenrmoore.com/index.html. It is a gay coming-of-age-in-New Jersey novel.

ON LINE POETRY!!

The Summer 2004 issue of the HAMILTON STONE REVIEW is up at http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr.html. This one is all poetry, edited by Halvard Johnson, with poems by Hugh Seidman, Alvin Greenberg, Jordan Davis, Harriet Zinnes, Edward Field, Gene Frumkin, Zan Ross, Barry Alpert. and Mary Rising Higgins.

The July issue of POETIC INHALATION is live at http://www.poeticinhalation.com. As part of the issue are free e-books, including COYOTE'S ENGINES by Halvard Johnson with cover art by Roger C. Miller.

Shelley Ettinger has an exuberant tulip poem online at http://mississippireview.com/.

Barbara Crooker's latest work can be found at http://www.abalonemoon.com/summer2004/crookerb.html.

Ellen Bass will have a poem featured on Poetry Daily on Monday, July 12, at http://www.poems.com.

CONTINUING SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION!

My new collection of short stories set around lakes, DWIGHT'S HOUSE AND OTHER STORIES, is now available. The MIDWEST REVIEW said: "Focusing on believable characters put in paralyzing dilemmas, these tales examine the troubling paradoxes of the human condition with sympathy and synchronicity.... Highly recommended." For more information, see http://www.hamiltonstone.org/dwightshouse.html.

DEPARTMENT OF E. LEE NORTH

E. Lee North, author of THE 55 WEST VIRGINIAS and REDCOATS, REDSKINS, AND RED-EYED MONSTERS: A HUMAN INTEREST HISTORY OF WEST VIRGINIA, is working on a book called THE REAL VIRGINIA. This book sounds like it will be very interesting– making the case that the real Virginia is what we now know as West Virginia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT AMAZON.COM

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 .

 

WHERE TO FIND BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER

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!

 

 

RESPONSES TO THIS NEWSLETTER

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!
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#130
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#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
#65
   Ingrid Hughes on Memoir
#64
    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
#49    
Caucasia
#48    
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
#25
   On Libraries....
#24    Tales of the City
#23
   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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