There are never enough satisfying
comic novels, but the University Press of Mississippi is doing its part
to keep us laughing with LAUREN'S LINE by Sondra Spatt Olsen. Physically,
it is a compact, attractive book. The beginning is a little demanding because
of the sheer number of characters who pop up, but it quickly becomes clear
that we are getting a scan of an entire English department at a university
campus in New York City. Part of the pleasure of the book is the sound of
this rather motley crew in different combinations chatting and revealing
their prejudices and failings and ambitions. It isn't giving anything away
to say that the story is about what happens after a professor dies unexpectedly,
leaving her tenure track line available– for someone. The machine driving
the rest of the novel is the part-time teachers' quest for Lauren's line.
A novel of academic manners and office politics, it is funny and painful,
and most of its characters are probably recognizable to anyone who has ever
spent time around a college. The nearest thing to a protagonist is a young
man who is a bit of a Lucky Jim (except that, unlike Kingsley Amis's hero,
he really loves his research), but I probably like even better the quirkier
characters like the aging Department Chair who locks himself in his office
for important work that turns out to be choosing just the right color daylily
for his house in the Hamptons. There is also a brilliant feminist scholar
who is engaged in an experimental same-sex relationship, but gets interrupted
by her baby's demands to nurse, and then is censured for bringing the infant
to campus. There a Russian immigrant poet whose English is less than sterling,
and an up and-coming-young adjunct who does everything right– except stay
out of a compromising relationship with one of his students. There is also
the deceased professor's lover, who goes delightfully mad in front of the
whole department. And I'm willing to bet you won't guess who finally gets
Lauren's line! Definitely great preparation for the fall semester.
This past winter I missed my
usual Victorian fix and made up for it this month with Charles Dickens'
822 page blockbuster OUR MUTUAL FRIEND–his last completed novel. I had recently
read Frederick Busch's novel (see Newsletter
# 59) that uses Dickens as a character, so I was in the mood for the
Real Thing. OUR MUTUAL FRIEND is divided between present tense chapters
that satirize the social circle around a wealthy family aptly called Veneering
and past tense chapters set among the working and middle classes. In the
end, of course, the two worlds are intimately entwined through both characters
and plot. The plot is about money, but also about parents and children.
It takes off from an unpleasant rich man who leaves his wealth to an exiled
son–but only if the son agrees to marry a particular girl whose childhood
temper tantrums appealed to the old man. The son, returning from abroad,
apparently drowns, his body fished up by one of an unsavory crew of scavengers
who haunt the docks of London (a scavenger who has an extraordinarily beautiful
and devoted daughter), and off we go, with each of those people and many
more given full, luscious portraits, manners of speech, and points at which
they participate in the various plots. And everything is knit up with Dickens'
overblown, richly humorous, and sometimes tortuous imagery.
Some of the characters in this
late novel are even multi-layered. For example, there is one languid ne'er
do well would-be-seducer who improves his character through a near-death
experience, and there is an impoverished young gentlewoman, who, for at
least half the book is quite feisty and morally self-aware. There are several
other relatively complex female characters including a crippled teen age
seamstress who calls her drunken father her "bad child,"and a young woman
of low class who might in an earlier Dickens book have ended up dying to
avoid a fate worse than death, but here proves physically courageous and
morally stalwart. Dickens was in his fifties when he wrote this novel, the
father of intelligent, lively grown daughters–and engaged in an affair with
a young woman, so I think that perhaps he actually empathizes with women
of spirit more than he did at the beginning of his career. Unfortunately,
the liveliest young woman in this novel, the adult version of the little
girl with the bad temper, ends up going goo-goo over her baby and tediously
standing by her man.
There are always the villains–a
wonderfully sly and evil scavenger known as Rogue Riderhood and a slimy
young money-lender who pretends that the poor Jew who works for him is the
one who is actually ruining people. If you're in the mood for the full Dickens
experience– and this one regaled readers for eighteen months in its original
serial form– try OUR MUTUAL FRIEND: thick, hilarious, exasperating, not
subtle (but then, neither is a sunset), and always always entertaining.
Mundie is reading Proust: "The new translation is unorthodox, since
the various volumes (seven) have different translators. There has been great
praise for Lydia Davis's translation of the first volume, SWANN'S WAY, and
more moderate praise for the translation (by James Grieve) of the second
volume." Roberta says she is about two-thirds of the way through the second
volume and has few complaints. She continues: "Proust looms as a literary
giant of the 20th Century, but he's spoken of more than read, and I too
have avoided him till now, supposing he was too ‘difficult' in the sense
of intricate, dense, complicated, and slow. My pleasure has been to find
how compelling a story teller he is, how beautiful the writing, how interestingly
the parts fit together (e.g., descriptions mesh with narrative, and both
mesh with reflections by the narrator). Proust was a great observer of human
ways without being clinical, detached, or judgmental. I wish I hadn't waited
so long....It was a review by Peter Brooks in the NEW YORK TIMES (Jan. 25,
2004) that turned me on to this translation. The seven novels... will probably
take me a year. I do other reading in parallel in part because Proust's
work needs time to reflect on, and in part because who can resist other
current titles? (e.g., THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB). That's another book I've
Roberta is also reading Nadine
Gordimer's short stories in CRIMES OF CONSCIENCE: "As always, her writing
is spare and provocative. Finally, I remain enchanted by Iain Pears's DREAM
OF SCIPIO. Of all the historical novels I've ever read, this is the one
I would be most proud to have written."
More summer reading ideas: Arthur
Dobrin's SEEING THROUGH AFRICA is "a memoir built around themes that take
us from New York to East Africa and back again." Mr. Dobrin, who spent many
years in Kenya, is Professor of Humanities at Hofstra University and Leader
Emeritus of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. For more information,
see the publisher's website at http://www.cross-culturalcommunications.com.
DEPARTMENT OF DAVIS GRUBB!
Withrow writes, "When I read about you reading once again Davis Grubb's
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER [Books For Readers Newsletter #60], I had to send this
note. About three months ago, I came across an old sketch that Davis Grubb
drew for me many years ago. The fragile paper was showing signs of age because
it had been in first one drawer, then another. Davis had sketched little
John and Pearl looking up at the evil preacher. A candle is in the middle
with the preacher's hand visible, along with H-A-T-E spelled out on the
fingers of his left hand. The caption reads, ‘Where's the money, kids!'
Davis signed the sketch and wrote ‘Night of the Hunter.' After discovering
the damage to the sketch about three months ago, I took it to Ripley [West
Virginia] Florist for framing. The owner does a beautiful job. Davis's drawing
is now protected and hanging in my bedroom."
GOOD NEWS FROM READERS
Speaking of Dolly Withrow– her new book is titled BEYOND THE APPLE ORCHARD. Read
more about this collection of memoir and reflection online at http://www.wonderfulwv.com/bookshelf.cfm?menu=apple . Also, for those of you who can get West Virginia Public Radio, Dolly will
be featured soon reading her work.
Crooker's new chapbook IMPRESSIONISM is the winner of Grayson Books
2004 Poetry Chapbook Competition. "Reading these poems," says Sue Ellen
Thompson author of THE LEAVING: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, "one does indeed
step out of one's life and into a world of light, color, even odor and taste–
and all so vividly portrayed n language that manages to cover both solace
THE READING DIVAS HAVE A NEW
This is their July/August 2004 with poetry by Seven young writers from Robert
Louis Stevenson High School; Charlene Howard; Jerrifaye Gregoire; and John
Bryan. They also have NOT FICTION by Dina Dusko, Marissa Priddis, and Lauran
Strait, plus FICTION by Dana Schwartz, Ashley Lyons, and Julie Sedlis. Take
a look. And, more interesting news from the Divas....
SOMETHING SPECIAL IN BROOKLYN
Reading Diva Krista is opening
an art-oriented lounge featuring local wine/beer/talent on Grand Street
in Brooklyn. She had a benefit party on July 23 (details at http://www.stainbar.com.)
SPECIAL FOR POETS
Bass recommends a poet friend who does manuscript evaluation for
poets, Marta Ferguson of Wordhound Writing & Editing Services, LLC. Marta
says, "I am a publishing poet (recent work–as Marta Boswell–in 5 AM, RATTLE,
PRAIRIE SCHOONER and other magazines) and I hold a Ph.D. in creative writing,
specializing in poetry. I have eight years of experience working at literary
magazines, most recently as the poetry editor of THE MISSOURI REVIEW. The
services I offer my poet-clients include manuscript organization and evaluation,
developmental editing, and literary marketing advice. Since poets almost
never have agents, I've found I can be helpful pointing people in the direction
of magazines and anthologies that might be good markets for their work.
I would be happy to talk with any of you about those services and if you
contact me by the end of the month, I'll give you my starving student discount."
Marta Ferguson, Wordhound Writing & Editing Services, LLC, PO Box 10289,
Columbia, MO, 65205-4005, http://www.wordhound.com
PoemHunter.com is an interesting
website both for current literary news and for finding online samples of
poems by favorite writers. My caveat is some awful intrustive animation
accompanying the poems. You can scoll it away, thank the Muses! They have
a Top 500 poems list, of which the top 5 include 2 by Shel Silverstein and
3 by Pablo Neruda. It's at http://www.poemhunter.com/
The Summer 2004 issue of the
HAMILTON STONE REVIEW is 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.
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 Dwight's House.
September 1, 2004
My son, beginning his sophomore
year of college, did a lot of reading this summer on the train to an internship
in New York City. I had an idea that I would read or re-read what he was
reading (DUBLINERS, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, fantasy novels, mysteries), but
I only got to Graham Greene's THE HONORARY CONSUL. I haven't read much Graham
Greene, but I enjoyed this a great deal. I guess I'm a sucker for the ominous
South America of books like this and Conrad's great NOSTROMO. The story
is well told, seemingly written without effort, and I wonder if, in the
end, this is what separates what we call popular fiction from literary–
that popular goes down easy.
One technical accomplishment
that I especially admired was the switch of point of view. It wasn't arbitrary,
nor did it follow some pattern extraneous to the plot. There are two close
point-of-views, and the switch happens deep into the novel. It goes from
Dr. Plarr, cool, youngish, an observer of the world, to the kidnapped character,
sloppy drunk Charley Fortnum. This works well for plot and balance, but
also for the slow but steady increase in intensity and compassion that the
reader feels. It's a very satisfying novel with plenty of believable suspense.
My distraction from the plan
of following my son's reading happened when I was caught up (once again)
in Joseph Frank's multi-volume biography of Dostoevsky, which I started
six or seven years ago. Based on comments in the biography, I decided to
read THE IDIOT for the first time in thirty years. Some book! I had a Modern
Library edition, with what they called "a new rendition" of Constance Garnett's
Victorian version by Anna Brailovsky, and it was generally fine, especially
brief footnotes that explained important things such as why a character
switches to the familiar form of the second person pronoun at a certain
moment. But every so often the translator seems to go crazy over cute Americanisms.
Thus, in order to capture the tone of some Russian expression in a passage
of otherwise standard speech, a character will suddenly say that he is "afeared,"
or a young girl will be fondly called a "kook"! I would have much rather
have had transliterations of the Russian with notes.
However translated, however,
THE IDIOT is a magnificent novel. I don't think it's the first Dostoevsky
to read– CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, UNDERGROUND MAN or even THE GAMBLER would
be much better places to start– but this one is Dostoevsky in all his baggy
splendor. When I first read it a million years ago, I was fascinated and
horrified and aware that I was largely failing to get it– but still couldn't
stop reading. Joseph Frank says in his long introduction that this is the
book where Dostoevsky puts his own ideology to the test. That is, he creates
a character who embodies Russian Christian compassion and suffering, and
takes it to the extreme– demonstrating with unflinching honesty how badly
such a life would come out in the real world.
What I love best is the flood
of voices coming at me out of the novel in long speeches and set pieces.
There is also a beautiful sadness about how these active, dramatic, declaiming
people repeatedly fail each other--even the extremely good and loving Prince
Mishkin. One of the reasons this is a relatively difficult book is that
much depends on a background of highly refined social strata and customs.
Even the exact position of the disgraced Nastasya Filippovna isn't totally
clear to me. Why, for example, does no one ever consider prosecuting or
at least ostracizing the guy who raped her as a girl when she was his ward?
I wonder how many have written Master's theses comparing this situation
to the one in Nabokov's LOLITA? At any rate, this is a world in which poverty
is less prominent than in some of Dostoevsky's novels, and manners and behaving
"comme il faut" matter a great deal. The problem for a twenty-first century
reader is never quite understanding those nineteenth century Russian bourgeois
Central, in the end, are the
deeply human conditions of extreme emotion, madness, obsession, and physical
illness. Ippolit, the youth dying of consumption, is a wonderful creation
in his fury over his coming dissolution. There are a couple of drunken buffoons
who also have their poignant moments, and the young girl Aglaia is romantic,
irritating, and occasionally charming. This is not a naturalistic world,
but one that is patently real. It has some of the best scenes in literature:
the humiliation of Prince Mishkin at the Epanchin's party with his various
excruciating faux pas; Nastasya Filippovna's birthday party when she offers
herself to the highest bidder; and of course the final scene of the prince
and the murderer. How does Dostoevsky do it? The book is funny, tragic,
occasionally tedious, and totally gripping.
Belinda Anderson writes: "So
much has happened in the world since Azar Nafisi wrote READING LOLITA IN
TEHRAN: A MEMOIR IN BOOKS, but recently I was struck anew by the aptness
of this quote near the end of the book: ‘I have a recurring fantasy that
one more article has been added to the Bill of Rights: the right to free
access to imagination. I have come to believe that genuine democracy cannot
exist without the freedom to imagine . . . To have a whole life, one must
have the possibility of publicly shaping and expressing private worlds,
dreams, thoughts and desires, of constantly having access to a dialogue
between the public and private worlds. How else do we know that we have
existed, felt, desired, hated, feared? We speak of facts, yet facts exist
only partially to us if they are not repeated and re-created through emotions,
thoughts and feelings.'"
SUGGESTIONS FOR MORE READING
FROM SHELLEY ETTINGER
Shelley writes: "I finally read
some good books. FOUR SPIRITS by Sena Jeter Naslund--I liked it better than
AHAB'S WIFE. It felt less contrived and I was more moved by it. It's about
Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 and ‘64, and the title refers to the four little
girls killed in the bombing of the Black church there; they aren't actually
characters in the book but they and their deaths are central to the story
and all the other characters. Also THE BOOK OF SALT by Monique Truong, a
novel about the Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in
the 1930s in Paris; Truong's writing is beautiful, conveying the anger of
the colonized and loneliness of the immigrant. Change of pace: I tittered
my merry way through THE WELL OF LOST PLOTS, the third in Jasper Fforde's
series about ‘jurisfiction' agent Thursday Next's adventures inside literature.
This one seemed slightly less silly than the previous ones, actually had
a number of pretty astute observations about writing and creativity. His
fourth, which I think is titled SOMETHING ROTTEN, just came out, and it
features Hamlet leaving Bookworld and venturing into the Outland (real world)
She also just finished what
she calls a "fantastic book," YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL IN THE LAND OF THE
FREE by the Scottish writer James Kelman, who won a Booker for an earlier
novel. "The style is unusual, one long stream of consciousness first-person
narrative that moves back and forth in time over the course of a single
night during which the protagonist gets drunk, and it's in Scottish vernacular
to boot. The politics are, for me, a delight, hard-hitting against all that's
wrong with U.S. society and particularly the post-Sept. 11 repression against
immigrants, which directly affects the main character although he's aware
that since he's, as he puts it, pink-skinned, he avoids the worst of it.
My only complaint is that the character uses the misogynist ‘c' word constantly
as an all-purpose slur against anyone and everyone including himself; ordinarily
I'd close a book on first or, at most, second appearance of this usage but
for some reason I let it slide this time. That aside, the book is hilarious,
startling and sad, and I wish I could find someone else who would enjoy
it as much as I did."
Phyllis has more poetry to recommend
as well: "KETTLE BOTTOM, a poetry collection by Diane Gilliam Fisher, is
unique and worth adding to any collection." For a sample poem and information
about Fisher's book, see http://www.perugiapress.com/books2004_kettle.html ."The daughter of a former ‘Bloody Mingo' County resident, Diane captured
stories of the coal mine war and tells them in the voices of the residents.
The result is heart-wrenching but there is also some humor. The poems are
historically accurate as well." Don't miss "Explosion at Winco #8" at the
Phyllis also notes that Fisher
will be at the Women and Creativity Workshop at West Virginia University
in October. For more information, see http://www.as.wvu.edu/wmst/
Speaking of Appalachia– if you
don't know APPALACHIAN JOURNAL, it's a fine entertaining and scholarly publication
about the Appalachian region. I have a long article about Keith Maillard's
Raysburg novels in the upcoming issue. Check out the website at http://www.appjournal.appstate.edu.
NATIONAL PUNCTUATION DAY!
Did you miss National Punctuation
Day? Maggie Cadman reports that August 22 was National Punctuation Day.
You can still take a look at their site, learn a few things about punctuation
marks, and begin to prepare for next year: Go to http://www.nationalpunctuationday.com/
SAD LOSSES: DONALD JUSTICE,
LON SAVAGE, AND RON SCHREIBER
Halvard Johnson also informs
us that Ron Schreiber, poet, teacher, and one of the founding fathers of
HANGING LOOSE died this summer.
Finally, the author of an early
book on the West Virginia mine wars, Lon Savage, recently died. His work
was the inspiration for John Sayles' movie MATEWAN as well as background
for parts of Denise Giardina's novels. The book, THUNDER IN THE MOUNTAINS,
is an excellent place to start learning about the West Virginia mine wars
of 1920 and 1921.
Of my collection of short stories
set around lakes, 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://meredithsuewillis.com/dwightshouse.html .
My summer reading included
the selection for our community book read, Two Towns One Book. This
is always a book that explores racial or ethnic diversity. This year's
choice was THE NAMESAKE by Jhumpa Lahiri, a best seller by a graduate
of Barnard College (the college I graduated from, although I didn't
start there). I liked the book– it was aneasy read with a colorful portrait
of a Bengali family in the US. I especially enjoyed the first two-thirds
of the book. The last part–about main character's love life–didn't seen
as tight as the rest. I don't fully trust myself here–I am frequently
disappointed with the endings of books– sometimes I say we don't know
how to end a book anymore, and maybe I just don't like books to stop.
I read another popular book
this summer that I'd been putting off for a long while with my usual
reverse snobbishness ("Oh no, I'm not reading the popular best-seller,
I'm reading this rather long and tedious 18th century pre-cursor to
Jane Austen....") I picked up ANGELA'S ASHES by Frank McCourt, in Great
Barrington, MA, at the Yellow House used book store. I got the cheap
mass market movie tie-in version with the kid actor's face on the cover.
It was a lot of fun to read– more fun that I expected from reviews that
emphasized the extremes of poverty it depicted. I think some reviewers
seemed overly respectful of the narrator's suffering, as if poverty
by itself could give depth and meaning. It's not that the suffering
isn't real, but the heart of this book is story-telling, not sociology.
In the end, it is a comedy in the Aristotelian sense of having the main
character rise in fortune.
Two more in this survey
of my reading in the waning days of summer– the first I discovered because
of a pink handbag. I had Japanese house guests who brought me as a gift
an embroidered bag that they told me was designed by the "famous woman
writer Uno Chiyo." Has anyone heard of her? I hadn't. I found a British
edition of one of her books online, THE STORY OF A SINGLE WOMAN. Uno
Chiyo was, according to the back cover, "the most significant Japanese
woman writer of the twentieth century." Uno Chiyo turns out to be of
roughly the generation and tone as Jean Rhys and Marguerite Duras–one
of an international crew of early twentieth century women writers who
seized on personal freedom which they expressed largely through sexual
THE STORY OF A SINGLE WOMAN,
half novel, half memoir, was published in 1971 when Uno Chiyo was well
into her seventies. Her subject is a young woman's dogged determination
to live as she pleases, in particular, not to marry. One of the interests
is how both the old narrator and the young woman Kasue marvel at the
almost random series of decisions that lead young Kasue to transgress
against social mores. There is a lot of oddly unerotic sex, almost always
sex for something other than itself– to please a man or to demonstrate
in Kasue's own mind that she can do what she wants. I especially liked
Kasue as the little girl sent on errands by her erratic father and then
Kasue the hard worker. She is always working– teaching, cooking, selling
magazine subscriptions, writing articles. And late in life, so it seems,
designing fashion accessories! Uno Chiyo lived another twenty five years
after this book– not dying till she was 98. I'm going to keep an eye
open for her other work.
Finally, I want to recommend
a book I read at Shelley Ettinger's suggestion, Sarah Waters' AFFINITY.
I think I probably liked Waters' TIPPING THE VELVET and FINGERSMITH
better, but all of her work is a delight: she writes with this wonderful
conviction that novels are important and that there will be a large
reading public. Is this a British mind set that Americans have largely
lost? Or maybe never had? In the 19th century, novel writing and novel
reading were somewhat suspect in this country, especially for men. Melville,
for example, was certainly a macho writer, but never as popular as he
expected to be. The best selling 19th century American novelists were
a whole slew of sentimental writers, largely women or men using female
pseudonyms, plus socially conscious writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe.
England has always seemed to me to have a more stable community of readers
of what we now call midlist writing.
In any case, Sarah Waters
is in that great tradition of confident writers, and AFFINITY is a highly
entertaining, dark Gothic-style story with fearful events and wonderfully
researched material about spiritualists and nineteenth century women's
prisons. The story is told in two voices: the illusion is of two women
writing their stories in slightly different time frames that link up
by the end of the novel. It's a very efficient and suspense-building
device. The more self-revealing of the two voices becomes through the
course of the novel increasingly out-of-control, plunging after her
obsessions, being her own worst enemy, etc. I really loved that splendidly
I also reread NOTES FROM
UNDERGROUND, but that's not summer reading, and since Dostoyevsky's
biography is my continuing Big Project, I'll return to that sad neurotic
another time– I mean the Underground Man, of course, not Fyodor Mikhailovich.
Harshsman's new collection of poetry is LOCAL JOURNEYS, "rich
beautiful poems...so close to the natural world that you can almost
feel the wet stones and moss...." says Maggie Anderson. I've been keeping
the book beside my computer for a quick fix of calm after the agitation
of dancing electrons.
us, "What do you think of Rochelle Ratner's new book, HOUSE AND HOME?
Isn't it superb?"
I've lost my note about
who recommended this book, so please let me know who it was! The person
wrote about Elizabeth Black: "Her book is BUFFALO SPIRITS....She writes
lyrically about growing up in a dugout house in close contact with nature,
about the ecology of that part of the world and the devastation agribusiness
and irrigation has brought..."
Gill says he thinks he has probably "read all of Graham Greene
at least once, including his many letters to the editors and his autobiography.
(He played Russian roulette with himself as a young man). THE END OF
THE AFFAIR is a writer's book, and it was a fine movie with Liam Neeson.
I just listened to THE CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (1937, out of print) and then
found a used copy. Talk about point of view shifts. I haven't read it
in a long time but A BURNT OUT CASE, set in Africa still lingers. I
can visualize the opening scene of a paddle steamer on the Congo. I've
been trying Pushkin and don't see what the fuss is all about. I guess
I'll have to go to EUGENE ONEGIN to find out."
GOOD NEWS FROM READERS
Ardian Gill's book THE RIVER IS
MINE will be used in a writing course at Middlebury College!
Sanders recently gave a reading at Stand Up NY at a special singles
reading organized by NetWorkingGirl.com/JVPassion.com.
READING DIVAS' BAR IS UP
AND RUNNING IN WILLIAMSBURG,
I received an e-mail saying
"Save HALLOWEEN for STAIN's. big party. Not your average costume party
at all." For information, go to http://newyork.sheckys.com/bar.asp?id=2812.
Stain is at 766 Grand St., (Humboldt St. & Graham Ave.) In Williamsburg.
The phone is 718-387-7840. All their beers and wines are native New
Yorkers. Corona and Turning Leaf have been replaced by the likes of
Brooklyn Lager and Long Island's Rivendell City Cab wine, with specialty
drinks like the Diablo's Blood (red wine and Dr. Brown's Black Cherry
soda). The bar is described as having comfy red couches and candlelit
tables for two where you can "scrawl your thoughts in the notebooks
left out on the tables, or head to the spacious garden out back to contribute
to the ongoing mural."
SPECIAL FOR WOMEN POETS!
The next issue of COLUMBIA
POETRY REVIEW will be an to be published in May 2005. For submission
guidelines, write to Columbia
MORE PLACES TO SUBMIT
The OKLAHOMA REVIEW is an
electronic literary magazine published through the Department of English
at Cameron University in Lawton, OK. They say, "The goal of our publication
is to provide a forum for exceptional fiction, poetry, and creative
non-fiction in a dynamic, appealing, and accessible environment. The
magazine's only agenda is to promote the pleasures and edification derived
from high-quality literature." Previous issues can be viewed online
APPALACHIAN JOURNAL is an
entertaining and scholarly publication about the Appalachian region.
I have a long article about Keith Maillard's Raysburg novels in the
upcoming issue. Check out the website at http://www.appjournal.appstate.edu .
I'm in one of my times
when I've been away from home a lot (visiting my parents in West
Virginia, going to see my son at college, attending a conference
on integrated communities near Philadelphia). I've also been extremely
busy with my local integration organization–not to mention having
to run around finding political lawn signs after someone stole all
the ones on our street! I manage to do papers for my classes, to
have my meetings, and stay in touch, though just barely, with a
new novel I'm working on. It is my reading that takes the biggest
hit. When I come back exhausted from a late meeting, I flip on the
television while I exercise my bad shoulder and watch THE DAILY
SHOW. I think sadly of all the wonderful books I'm not reading.
I have another volume of the Dostoyevsky biography I want to read,
and friends and people in my classes and readers of this newsletter
keep recommending more and more books.
This month, about all
I've been able to read is some short works, especially from a big
fat anthology of multi-cultural stories called WORLDS OF FICTION
edited by Roberta Rubenstein and Charles R. Larson. I've been dipping
in, reading all the short stories from Africa, then the Middle Eastern
ones. Of course, every third or fourth story is by an author I now
want to read in more depth.... It occurs to me, too, at this busy
time, that the novella is a very satisfactory length. The WORLDS
OF FICTION anthology includes two older novellas I'd already read,
Kate Chopin's THE AWAKENING and a sad but strong work by Mulk-Raj
Anand called THE UNTOUCHABLE. I wonder, in fact, if the novella
might not be the perfect size for fiction– enough space to explore,
but short enough for the initial impulse of the writer to be carried
out as a whole, and something a reader can also experience as a
whole over a very few sessions of reading.
I found such a novella
by Kay Boyle, THE CRAZY HUNTER, in one of my favorite casual book
shopping places, the cut-rate bin at NYU's bookstore. The writing
style is a little florid for our present day tastes, but you quickly
get pulled into a sharp story about a family triangle. The crisis
centers on the daughter's maturing, and the occasion is that her
horse suddenly goes blind. There is lots of English squirearchy
atmosphere (although Boyle herself is a native of St. Paul, Minnesota)
and information about horses. The girl is one of those innately
lovable young people just between girlhood and womanhood who is
determined to save her horse's life. The mother is a solid character
too, but the drunken, buffoonish, and perhaps heroic father is brilliantly
Does anyone know Kay
Boyle's work? Is it all this good? How come I've missed it?
A few days after buying
THE CRAZY HUNTER, I picked up a small art book for half price at
my local bookstore, Goldfinch in Maplewood, New Jersey (not actually
the town I live in, but my nearest independent bookstore.) The book
is REMBRANDT: THE GREAT DUTCH MASTER. It's from a British publishing
house, Dorling Kindersley, and doesn't seem to have a named author.
Lots of pictures, of course, a goodly amount of background. The
book opened me to the tremendous scope of his work, and also got
me interested in his life. So– another query– Does anyone know a
really good biography of Rembrandt?
And while I'm asking,
what is your favorite novella?
Codd writes, "I also read THE NAMESAKE and wanted to really,
really like it, but at the end of it I thought, ‘OK, pretty good,
but I wanted more.' It didn't move me the way, let's say, ATONEMENT
did. I finished the book not really caring about the characters....Right
now I'm reading psychoanalytical criticism on ‘The Wife of Bath!'"
A guest-edited issue
of BOOKS FOR READERS on memoirs is in the works.
Ratner's new E-Chapbook is free! It is called NEWSREAL: 2003
and is published by Tamafyhr Mountain Press and can be downloaded
The blurb says, "If you think it's been a bad four years, check
out these prose-poems based on news stories of 2003."
If you're looking for
gifts for the coming holidays, don't forget the always-splendid
Feminist Press with its wide range of books of many cultures, fiction,
nonfiction, and anthologies. At http://www.feministpress.org.
FUN WITH WORDS
Johnson passes on this found poem that has been floating
around in cyberspace:
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we
know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are
We do not know.
But there are also
The ones we don't
We don't know.
from a 2-12-02 Department of Defense news briefing
November 13, 2004
GUEST EDITOR FOR MEMOIR
Ingrid Hughes, a
writer of poetry, and, currently, memoir, is an activist in her union,
the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York,
and a teacher there. Her book of poetry is ALL THE TREES IN THE OCEAN.
She offers suggestions for reading in the genres of memoir and autobiography.
– Meredith Sue Willis
Autobiography and memoir
are often used interchangeably, though a memoir can be anything from
an essay of a few pages to a book, and an autobiography is more likely
to be a book. I would say that in memoir/autobiography, more than in
other genres, you tend to like a work because you like the person writing
it, and so base your preferences on the qualities that you find appealing
in a person.
The book to start with is
the NORTON BOOK OF WOMEN'S LIVES, an absolutely terrific collection of 61 memoirs by 20th century women
all over the world edited by Phyllis Rose. Next, HALF THE WAY HOME:
A MEMOIR OF FATHER AND SON by journalist Adam Hochschild is about an
older father and mother, German Jewish and wealthy, bringing up a son
who is closer to the new left, and the gap in values and attitudes between
the two generations. Adam Hochschild does well at describing his parents
without intrusive judgments.
BOWMAN'S STORE: A JOURNEY
TO MYSELF is a lovely story by Joseph Bruchac about growing up with
his grandparents in a small town near Saratoga Springs. His grandfather,
an Abenaki Indian, never acknowledged being an Indian, but nevertheless
transmitted to Joseph Bruchac his identity as a Native American. Bruchac's
view of his grandparents is mostly free of the ambivalence that contemporary
memoir writers often express about those who brought them up.
Isabelle Allende's PAULA
was written to her daughter as she lay for months in a coma. It is rich
with the places and characters of Allende's childhood in Peru, Chile
and Lebanon, her maturity in Chile, Venezuela and North America. It
took me several tries to get past the first few pages of this book,
but when I did, it was worth it. A PLACE TO STAND by the poet, Jimmy
Santiago Baca, is the story of a New Mexican Hispanic who grew up in
youth homes and was jailed in the New Mexico penitentiary, where he
learned to read and began to write. This is a painful and impressive
story of his escape from the life of a criminal.
THE NAZI OFFICER'S WIFE:
HOW ONE JEWISH WOMAN SURVIVED THE HOLOCAUST by Edith Hahn Beer with
Susan Dworkin is a story of an affluent Jewish woman who survived the
Holocaust in Germany, pretending to be non-Jewish and marrying a Nazi
officer. Lorna Sage's BAD BLOOD is an excellent book which describes
growing up in Wales, during and after WWII. She describes the period
and the environment more consciously than many American memoirists.
Mary Karr's memoir, THE
LIAR'S CLUB, is a portrait of a working class family, and unusual for
that reason. It is respectful and honest, leaving the reader with a
sense of her love and her parents' stature, despite their eccentricities
and some impressive negligence. COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI by Anne
Moody is about growing up in the Jim Crow south and participating in
the civil rights movement of the early 60s. Esmeralda Santiago's excellent
memoir of childhood in Puerto Rico (father a carpenter, mother a garment
worker) and adolescence in New York, WHEN I WAS PUERTO RICAN, is told
from her point of view as a youngster, without retrospective comments.
WEST OF KABUL, EAST OF NEW
YORK: AN AFGHAN AMERICAN STORY by Tamim Ansary, is about growing up
in Afghanistan, moving to the U.S. as a teenager, and as an adult journalist
traveling back to the Mideast. Just after 9/11 he wrote a famous e-mail
which reached huge numbers of people about why the U.S. should not invade
Afghanistan, which gave him a platform for this interesting but rather
sketchy book. CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS'S DAUGHTER is a story of neglect and
abuse. The narrator was one of many children of an alcoholic father
and an abused mother. This was one of my least favorites.
And, finally, THE COLOR
OF WATER by James McBride is the story of a girl who grew up in a Jewish
family with an abusive father, fled that family, and married an African
American preacher. She brought up twelve children, never telling them
she was Jewish, or even white. Her son tells her story and his own tale
of growing up in New York with love and also a disturbing shock, as
he discovers, in the course of talking to his mother about her life,
that she was brought up Jewish.
A CONTEMPORARY LOOK AT
LORD OF THE FLIES
Christine Willis writes:
The backdrop (political
or social, for example) in which the reader is reading, really impacts
the interpretation of a novel. As Election 2004 was nearing its end,
I was completing the reading of LORD OF THE FLIES. Had I read it during
a different political time, the novel might have taken on different
meaning. Striking and frightening parallels can be drawn, however, between
Golding's divided society and the American voting populace.
A group of young boys, stranded
on an island, need to make decisions that will impact their survival.
Golding's rough and unformed society develops into a two party system
representing the intelligent, future-looking, minority and the reactive,
macho, war-painted masses. We watch the characters on the island slip
into mindless, albeit violent activity boosted by slogans and chants:
"Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! all the while losing
sight of the necessary actions required for survival. They even have
their terrorist-beast in the form of a dead parachutist! That beast
is very effectively used by Jack, the slogan-chanting leader, to manipulate
the boys into action against the few outward-looking, survival-concerned
boys. In effect, we observe a society that forms through emotional rhetoric
which loses sight of pressing issues of survival. LORD OF THE FLIES
is a powerful novel that renders the ugliness of human nature palpable.
If left unchecked, evilness and the fear that underlies it, can consume
the masses: listen to the sow's head.
THE NATIONAL BOOKS AWARDS
Mindy Aloff writes to say
that she would like to have people's responses on the controversy about
the five nominees for fiction in the National Book Awards ( Sarah Shun-lien
Bynum for MADELINE IS SLEEPING; Christine Schutt for FLORIDA; Joan Silber
for IDEAS OF HEAVEN: A RING OF STORIES; Lily Tuck for THE NEWS FROM
PARAGUAY; and Kate Walbert for OUR KIND: A NOVEL IN STORIES. She says,
"I'd like to know if the opprobrium that list has attracted is owing
to (a) the fact that the jury wanted to make a political statement,
and so excluded from consideration good books by established writers,
or, (b) the fact that the book industry is so blinkered by its concern
for the bottom line that, out of hand, it would dismiss a list of unknown
contenders because it won't help to sell books, or 3) some other reason."
One of the writers on the
list, Christine Shutt, was profiled in the October 31, 2004 NEW YORK
TIMES MAGAZINE. Shutt is apparently a serious and accomplished writer
whose books have not sold many copies. Did the judges decide to reward
merit alone, with no reference to sales? That ideas pleases me, but
Caryn James in the November 11, 2004 issue of THE NEW YORK TIMES (see
the article at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/11/books/11fict.html?oref=login)
Complains about the artistic sensibility of the books: "When the fiction
nominees were announced, there was much grumbling about their sameness–all
women, all living in New York City, all little-known names. But the
minor resemblances of sex and city are nothing next to what really makes
this one of the least varied lists of nominees in recent years: a short-story
aesthetic. Not one of these books is big and sprawling. And not one
has much of a sense of humor."
In the hard copy version
of the newspaper, there is also a count of how many copies of these
books have sold, and it is pretty sobering– all under 3,000 copies,
and only one even near that figure. Of course, my secret response is:
If they found THOSE books, how come MY books are languishing undiscovered?
MORE TO READ
Deborah Reed writes: "When
I enjoy a book as much as Patty Friedmann's SECONDHAND SMOKE, I want
to share it with reading friends. Set in New Orleans, this novel will
keep you laughing and praying for its troubled family of characters
from an opening line I'd give a toe to have written."
One more novel, originally
recommended in this newsletter, is THE BOOK OF SALT by Monique Truong.
It has a lovely style, but is also an exploration of the effects of
colonialism. I especially like the scenes at the French Governor General's
house in Saigon, but the Alice B. Toklas/Gertrudestein parts are a lot
of fun. The premise is that the narrator is a Vietnamese cook known
as Binh, who works for the Steins in Paris. One attractive element is
Binh's identification with Miss Toklas's tiny daily actions to make
things go smoothly for G.S. The sex is delicate and moving. There's
an interview with Monique Truong at http://www.readersread.com/features/moniquetruong.htm
that explains a few things–which parts were invented, which were from
research. The cameo appearance by someone who may be Ho Chi Minh is
nice–and might give a hint of an alternate possible future for Binh,
who seems blocked and lost through most of the novel. What if, after
leaving the Steins, he might go home to Vietnam and became a revolutionary?
Clearly this reader's interpretation, but it's a book that welcomes
MORE TO READ–ONLINE
Don't miss some excellent
prose, poetry, and photography in the Fall 2004 issue of EPIPHANY .
For a funny short story
with a really strong first person voice, try Randa Jarrar's "You Are
A Fourteen Year Old Arab Chick Who Just Moved to Texas" online at http://eyeshot.net/jarrar.html.
NEW LITERARY MAP FOR
THE GREAT STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA
Order a four color map of
West Virginia with literary sites and the names of many of West Virginia's
writers and literary figures! You can get it from West Virginia Folklife
Center, Fairmont State University, 1201 Locust Avenue, Fairmont, West
Virginia 26554. For how to order, call 304-367-4403, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to their website at http://www.fairmontstate.edu/wvfolklife.
READING DIVAS HAVE A
New poetry by Michele Burke,
new fiction by Dana, new reviews by Krista of MISS MEDIA by Lynn Harris
and Stephen Policoff's BEAUTIFUL SOMEWHERE ELSE at http://www.readingdivas.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.
#146 Henry Adams AGAIN! #145 Henry Adams, Darnell Arnoult, Jaimy Gordon, Charlotte Brontë #144 Carter Seaton, NancyKay Shapiro, Lady Murasaki Shikibu #143Little 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. #134Daniel 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. #131The Help; J. McHenry Jones, Reamy Jansen, Jamie O'Neill, Michael Chabon.
#130 Lynda Schor, Ed Myers, Charles Bukowski, Terry Bisson, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism #129Baltasar 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 #127Olive 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 #124Cloudsplitter, 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 #115Adam 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 #108The Animal Within; The Ground Under My Feet; King of Swords #107The Absentee; Gorky Park; Little Scarlet; Howl; Health Proxy #106Castle Rackrent; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; More on Drown; Blindness & more #105Everything 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 #101My 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 #93Kristin Lavransdatter, House Made of Dawn, Leaving Atlanta #92Death 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 #87Wings 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 #78The 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 #74In 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 #67The Medici #66Curious
Incident,Temple Grandin #65 Ingrid Hughes on Memoir #64 Boyle, Worlds of Fiction #63The Namesame #62Honorary Consul; The Idiot #61Lauren'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 #55Addie,
Hottentot Venus, Ake #54 Scott Oglesby, Jane Rule #53 Nafisi,Chesnutt, LeGuin #52 Keith Maillard, Lee Maynard #51 Gregory Michie, Carter Seaton #50Atonement, Victoria Woodhull biography #49Caucasia #48Richard Price, Phillip
Pullman #47 Mid-
East Islamic World Reader #46Invitation to
a Beheading #45The Princess of Cleves #44 Shelley Ettinger: A Few Not-so-Great Books #43 Woolf, The Terrorist Next Door #42 John Sanford #41 Isabelle
Allende #40Ed 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.... #24Tales of the
#23 Nonfiction, poetry, and fiction #22 More on Why This
Newsletter #21 Salinger, Sarah
Waters, Next of Kin #20 Jane Lazarre #19Artemisia 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
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 #5Tales 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