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Newsletter # 96
June 29, 2007


Let me begin with two happy items of personal news: My article “How To Get a Novel Started” has just come out in the July issue of THE WRITER (Volume 120, Number 7). THE WRITER has been around a long time, and if you read a couple of their issues, you can quickly pick up a sense of the general vocabulary related to writing. They also pay their contributors, no small thing in this present publishing atmosphere. My second news is that my most recent children’s novel, BILLIE OF FISH HOUSE LANE, has been chosen as the Two Towns One Children’s Book Read in Maplewood and South Orange, New Jersey.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many people write, and why they keep writing, usually with no promise of financial recompense. One of my theories is that we are talking back to the books that have moved us. In my own case, I think sometimes I write because I developed the habit when I was about seven and have always had enough personal satisfaction from it to keep going, however badly fame, glory, and financial gain were progressing. Please email me with your thoughts on the subject.

This Newsletter takes a look at writing and reading in our schools. First, I have some notes from fifth grade teacher Matthew Young about the redoubtable Lucy Calkins and her method of teaching writing, used in many classrooms around the country. Matthew talks about why it works for him. Calkins, Matthew explains, has broken down the steps of writing to make it less of a mystery and more of a teachable subject, so even if you like to think in terms of inspiration and the Muse, it is still of interest, in my humble opinion, how we can in a practical way, make strong writers of our students.

Next comes a transcript of an email discussion started by Phyllis Moore and enriched by several of her regular correspondents on the so-called “issue” fiction for young adults: how rough does reading for young people get these days? Finally, this issue ends with recommendations for your reading and announcements.

                                                          –Meredith Sue Willis



Matthew Young, a 5th Grade Teacher in Ossining, New York, used to teach 4th grade at P.S. 75 in New York City, the school where Phillip Lopate led a team of us back in the nineteen-seventies in working with kids on writing and making movies and even comix. Matthew praises Calkins for making writing and the teaching of writing work better for thousands of teachers and children.

“One give-away that Calkin’s writing process is going on [in a classroom],” says Matthew, “is the presence of Writer’s Notebooks. Also, charts or other prominent displays helping students keep track of where they are in the process, e.g., drafting, conferring, revising, publishing, etc. Then look for chart paper hanging from clotheslines with shared writing pieces or other examples of writing strategies written in the teacher’s hand, plainly visible for all to see. Look for ‘Mentor Texts.’ Writing centers and places for students to confer with each other are not uncommon. Students may be actively engaged in conferences with the teacher and with each other. Some may be writing in ‘writing nooks,’ places in the classroom that are not their desks. Further, teachers who do this are generally very happy to talk about it and will volunteer the information when asked (and sometimes when not asked).

“At conferences I’ve heard from Lucy and from her colleagues that the Process, ,which is in a continual state of revision, derives from careful consultation with professional writers about how they do what they do. The ‘writer’s notebook’ is a very useful tool for gathering and developing ideas for writing (fiction, non-fiction, drama, or poetry). Naturally, many professional writers do not use an actual notebook, but most do have a way of recording and keeping track of ideas as they occur (e.g., a laptop computer, or scraps of paper in pockets that then go into a file at the end of the week). But for kids, an actual notebook is very useful and manageable. Furthermore, most professional writers likely do not keep a chart in their home offices with a clothespin to indicate which stage of the process they are in—obviously, mature writers are constantly in flux between drafting, revising, conferring, in no particular order and often simultaneously. One goal of the Writing Process is to help children understand this. But most children will not do this naturally, and need explicit instruction on how it is done.

“Another goal of the Process is to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of structure. For example, non-narrative writing can also be described as ‘idea-based’ writing; that is, a non-narrative piece (article, essay) is organized by idea: controlling ideas and subordinate ideas. Narrative writing (memoir, fiction) is controlled by time (a story moves through time, and there is a focus on “traditional European story structure”). Students read and write literature through those lenses.

“The most powerful teaching technique I have used from Calkins and her colleagues happens during revision. You write your piece, and then take a particular writing strategy for consideration. Some writing strategies include dialogue, sensory details, setting details, metaphoric language, flashback, flash-forward, foreshadowing, and so on (you have to admire the rigor). So, let’s say for the sake of argument I want my students to learn how to use setting details in their writing. Mini-lessons and mentor-text studies will ensue during which we study setting details. We read for them, we conduct guided reading groups on them, we notice them in our read-alouds. Meanwhile, in Writing Workshop, as you re-read your piece, you look for opportunities to insert setting details. You mark up your draft with them (professionals do this, no?). Then, for your next draft, you work them in. Then do the same with another strategy.

“As we get older we are able to hold and work with many strategies in our heads at once. With early- and middle-childhood students, we teach strategies discretely, adding tools to their tool boxes. This methodology has been successful for my students because...’s highly engaging;’s rigorous;’s manageable for the children; builds their independence (‘Teach the writer, not the writing;’ ‘give a man a fish...’)’s at heart a flexible framework that can accommodate a visiting artist, and his or her vision of writing, quite well.”


Phyllis writes: “For several years I've been a judge for Letters About Literature, a West Virginia Library Commission contest for WV students. The students read any book/s they choose and write letters to authors about how a work impacted their life. Up till last year, I'd often read the books: LORD OF THE FLIES, OF MICE AND MEN, HEART OF DARKNESS, MISSING MAY, THE DEVILS ARITHMETIC, etc.

“Now the titles are less familiar to me but the letters are just as compelling. Intrigued by the letters, after the contest ends, I spend some time reading the ‘new to me’ books. The topics are so 2007: high school kids planning when to lose their virginity and to whom, rapes occurring in school and at other places, sexual abuse by parents and others, anorexia, cutting, drug and alcohol abuse, fractured families, bullying, poverty, teens ‘coming out,’ gay sex, AIDS, ‘pharming,’ etc. One of the letters this year was to Gail Giles, the author of SHATTERING GLASS. In the novel a senior named Simon Glass is beaten to death by classmates in a room at the high school.”

Carol Del Col responded : “The list of chilling. Signs of the times, indeed, but just exactly what kind of signs is not clear to me. I really have no answers, only questions. Are these books reflecting the reality of 21st-century American adolescents? Or are they exploiting the headlines to provide the kind of sensationalism teens often crave? Do they contribute to a growing desensitization of our young people to violence? Or do they teach our young people compassion for those who suffer or are different? Are the books the result of a tendency to eschew escapism in literature? Or are they instead a form of escapism, a way to take teens out of what they perceive as their boring, sane lives in which nothing headline-producing ever happens?

“I'd like to think the books are exploitative rather than a reflection of reality; it is simply too dreadful to think that American adolescents are inhabiting--or even perceive themselves as inhabiting--such a reality. But here's another interesting question to consider: the classic literature traditionally read by high school students includes ROMEO AND JULIET (teen suicide), JULIUS CAESAR and MACBETH (betrayal, murder, violence), HEART OF DARKNESS (primal evil), OLIVER TWIST (cruelty to and exploitation of children), etc., etc. I believe there is a difference between these themes and the topics of the adolescent literature you describe, but can we articulate this difference? As I said, questions, no answers. But I must tell you I long for the days of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden! Innocence lost, indeed.”

To which Phyllis replied: “Yes, the books of the past cover some of the same topics. A SEPARATE PEACE and the death of a young boy, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and the death of a young girl, GOODBYE, CHICKEN LITTLE and a drunken uncle. Somehow it seem today's Y. A. books are more in-depth-nasty. Having taught in a high school, I know kids face all these nasty situations and sexual issues. I do think they speak to the issues that are of concern to them and I do think the present generation's life is more difficult than mine was.”

Phyllis went on to say: “In 1994, I did a voluntary program of my own invention, dubbed ‘Read to Win,’ in a local technical school serving high school students from three WV counties. Two of the counties are quite rural. For the contest, the students chose something to read from a specified genre each week. They wrote comments about what they read and turned their work in for a chance to select prizes such as a fishing pool and reel, makeup kits, basketball, game, calculator, etc. The weekly winners were photographed and featured in a news article in the local paper. The program ran for six weeks and over 600 reports were turned in By and large the kids chose to read ‘issues’ fiction. The most popular topics were pregnancy while in high school, drunken relatives, sexual situations, grandparents in nursing homes, and divorced families. For the contest, I had books and magazines available by Appalachian authors with a heavy emphasis on WV authors but students could choose any books or topics. The favorite novel was GOOD-BYE CHICKEN LITTLE by Betsy Byars. It has an Elkins-like setting and features a low income family. The father was killed in the mines, the mother didn't know how to drive, a favorite alcoholic Uncle accepts a dangerous dare (to walk on an icy river) and ends up dead, and a grandparent is placed in a nursing home. In poetry the students really liked the poems about low-income kids or abused kids. A favorite poem featured a girl having a baby on the school bus.”

Other comments: June Berkley wrote, “This is disconcerting, to say the least. ....The trend is sad. I can recall when Judy Bloom (with whom I participated in a censorship film, by the way, in Atlanta under ALA sponsorship ….) had such a shocking effect by even approaching a sexual theme on the more obvious level, nothing explicit or sordid, just real….What have we come to! “

Brenda Seabrook said, “I think this trend in YA lit started with Robert Cormier's last book & has continued. There is probably still room for books that don't go into all those problems but the genre became more elastic to encompass the reality of life.”

And Carol De Col added, “Yes, I think the current trend in adolescent literature did begin in the 1970's, and Cormier may well have been one who led the way. I had heard of his books--they came out about the time I was taking some post-graduate work in curriculum and instruction. There was controversy even then about the teenage ‘problem’ novel. Cormier's work probably looks pretty tame today.”

Ardian Gill wrote to say: “I just finished two depressing and brilliant books: Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, and JM Coetzee's THE LIFE OF MICHAEL K. Both deal with a journey in a difficult place, McCarthy in an imagined landscape of a devastated, ash covered planet, a man and his son trying to survive and to reach a place where they can live, though they have no information that such exists. The purpose is in the journey itself. The language is spare and poetic, often the poetry of repetition Similarly, MICHAEL K deals with a wanderer in apartheid South Africa, also trying to find a safe haven in a hostile environment. And, too, both have a parent/child relationship, at the heart of it in McCarthy's case, though the protector and protected roles are reversed. Coetzee's language is lean and also poetic, and he introduces a first person narrator in the middle of the book, returning to third person for the final act. Both books end sadly with yet a note of hope.”
Eva Kollisch said, “I read something that everybody else has probably read
years ago, BEL CANTO, by Ann Patchett, a lovely, musical, subtly radical book. I also read something, having been put to shame by my grandson, which everybody else probably read when they were in high school--TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.– a fine, courageous, sweet story.”



Kevin Stewart’s new book, THE WAY THINGS ALWAYS HAPPEN HERE is just out from WVU PRESS:
THE PEDESTAL # 40 is now online ( .

More of Carole Rosenthal’s memoir in the current issue of THE PERSIMMON TREE!
There are still a few spots available in the women's memoir workshop Anndee Hochman is leading in Mexico in November.: HEART AND CRAFT: A MEMOIR WORKSHOP FOR WOMEN, in La Barra de Potosi, Mexico, November 3-9, 2007. It’s for beginning and experienced writers. Learn about Anndee Hochman or e-mail her at for details and application.




Ep;phany– Call for Manuscripts for the Print Issue Fall 2007! Fiction – Poetry – Non-Fiction – Photographs Complete information .
Big City Lit is once again accepting submissions again– see .
The Appalachian Writers Guild (AWG) is a non-profit organization of writers, established for the purpose of advancing the creation and dissemination of literature and history relating to the Appalachian region. AWG is currently preparing a themed anthology of Appalachian literature and welcomes submissions from authors at this time. AWG is seeking short fiction, poetry, biography, novellas, and creative non-fiction, including memoirs, opinion pieces and historical sketches. Submissions should be made by Email: poetry to and all others to in standard Word (.doc or .rft) format. The first AWG anthology was released in 2007 and is available at regional bookstores. Deadline is Sept. 30, 2007.

Newsletter #97
July 28, 2007

I’m putting together this issue of my newsletter from West Virginia, on my way to the Appalachian Writers Conference in Hindman, Kentucky. This one will continue the discussion about why we write, and then list a few books I’ve read recently. Don’t miss an interesting feature by Belinda Anderson below on how she uses classic literature in her own writing.
And– coming soon! Next issue with guest editor Pat Arnow!

-- Meredith Sue Willis

Eva Kollisch writes to say nice things about the last issue of BOOKS FOR READERS, as usual, and then says, “You asked why people keep on writing, in spite of no prospects of fame or financial reward. I write to find out who and where I am, to pay attention to what I see or imagine. (Also to keep sane. Don't we all?)”
And Carole Rosenthal says, “There is much to think about in this question....but I think you're right in other discussions we've had, when we talked about the new direction of publishing being niche markets because honestly, I don't think the mainstream publishers have any idea how to really target and market the demographics for smaller audiences. They seem to have bought the blockbuster model.
“It is so weird that people want to write more than they want to read. Or at least to read fiction. When we were younger writing and reading fiction were an important part of our cultural experience, books much talked about, their ideas and voices discussed. Now it is the ‘personality’ of the author that is discussed, rather than the substantive qualities of literature. In teaching, and teaching at a school with a writing program so that I see many student writers in my literature courses, I notice this phenomenon--and also how much less my students have read themselves compared with students even ten years ago. Also I notice that when I meet new people, educated people, I can no longer take for granted that they know who literary authors are; in fact I've started, somewhat apologetically, asking new acquaintances whether or not they read fiction before making what used to be natural references to books to further clarify points of discussions we are having. (Most, I can report, do not on a regular basis, which still surprises me. )
“As to why so many people want to write now, want to be ‘writers,’ well, this needs more thought at a less rushed time.”

Carole Rosenthal recommends “a short novel that I found really satisfying, suspenseful, witty, entertaining--and also very apt for our times. It is called THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, by Mohsin Hamid. This is a brilliant analysis of America and our global situation written by a Princeton-educated Pakistani who lives in London. Parts of it are semi-allegorical (which would ordinarily be a turn-off to me) It examines the wistful ambiguities of East-West relations and it is full of sharp twists and even sharper observations.”
Andy Weinberger suggests a book on punctuation recommended by Michael Quinion of WORLD WIDE WORDS blog ( The book is Noah Lukeman’s THE ART OF PUNCTUATION , in which, Quinion says, the author “aims to show his readers how to write effectively and creatively - not only to communicate ideas, but also get across rhythm, stress and pace, mood and texture, and the voices of characters - and how punctuation can help the writer. So the emphasis throughout is not on the rules of punctuation but the effect that they have on the reader's experience.” Sounds very interesting to me.
And finally, a little of my recent reading: Just for fun, looking for something fast and easy, I read FOR KICKS by Dick Francis. I really liked all the parts about horses and social class in England. Also how difficult things are to do in the real world – as composed to all the thriller movies (we recently saw OCEAN’S 37 or whatever it was) where someone says, Oh we need to make an earthquake, let’s buy a tunnel drill and just put it under the casino and make the ground tremble-- and the next scene, they have it all set up. Whereas in Dick Francis’s world, the sleuth accumulates information gradually, has long periods where he has to pass the time and wait– all that is endearingly realistic. Only one murder, plus one killing, plus a couple of attempted murders. It just suited my mood. The crime always interests me less than the ambiance.
I also read, or possibly reread, HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. I’ve been hearing about this for a long time, and it really is a terrific book. I have this odd feeling, though, that I read it many years ago, but that I was put off by it somehow. This happens to me- I read books at the wrong time in my life. I saw the HOUSEKEEPING movie and didn’t like it much either. But this time I was really moved by the story of a couple of precisely rendered lost souls, whose family leaves them by death and suicide. The train that goes in the lake, riding freight trains, walking the railroad bridge, floating out on the black Idaho lake in a row boat– a lot of wonderful darkness and loneliness. The writing is totally admirable, rich, but never used for decoration, always the entry into what lies behind and under.
And if you are into novels that are somewhere in the no man’s land between science fiction and surrealism, a very interesting book is Anna Kavan’s ICE. Maybe a good late summer read, anyhow, because of the approaching ice masses. It’s science fiction the way my friend Carol Emshwiller’s stuff is science fiction, but nothing at all like Carol’s. I can’t stand the female lead whose arms are always as thin and weak as a child’s, who is a total masochistic. The narrator is interesting-- a creepy desperate kind of man who dabbles in sadism. The whole male/female theme of this novel would be unendurable except for the fact that the writer is a woman, which makes it complex at the very least. Although identified as science fiction, I’d maintain it is actually psychological fantasy– about psychological states, split personalities, merging, identification, etc. The whole wonderfully written approaching ice stuff is probably psychological too, if not drug induced (Kavan was a heroin addict for much of her life). What impresses me most about this is that it is at once totally exotic and off-putting and also uncomfortable familiar. Which is to say that Kavan seems to have caught something. The first half or more is punctuated by very dreamlike visions where the narrator suddenly sees/is “the girl” with the silvery hair and attenuated white limbs. The second half emphasizes the end-of-the-world encroaching ice, and that part becomes less dreamy and more real in the novel’s world, as does, in fact, the narrator’s quest, yearning, the girl’s (annoying) ambivalence toward him. The final sections aren’t dreamy at all, only fantastic. It’s one of those annoying, depressing, sometimes difficult books that left me`mysteriously uplifted and excited by what it was doing.
And, finally, speaking of Carol Emshwiller, her latest book is THE SECRET CITY: It’s a fun book, easy to read, mostly adventure with just a little bit in an alien world that is not all that different from ours– which is part of the fun, of course. The set up is that these aliens came here a long while back as tourists (wearing sunglasses and flowery shirts and cameras to blend in with the natives!) and some got left behind. The elders yearn to go home, and they teach the youngers that home is better than anything– it’s a little like a fundamentalist Christian sect convincing the young people that everything here– the sunsets, the flavor of fresh basil, the birds– is nothing compared to the Sweet Bye and Bye. It’s a basic devaluation of the here and now, and Emshwiller’s main characters, two younger generation aliens (who pass as slightly Neanderthal-looking human beings), suffer greatly from this: they are in one case living a kind of hobo life and in the other a very primitive hand-to-mouth existence in the mountains. It’s these characters’ love for this world and the occasional decent homo sapiens sapiens they encounter that makes the story a lot of fun. It has love and yearning but no graphic sex, and some violence that is shocking not for its gore but for its reality: that is, it happens suddenly and shockingly. As always Emshwiller is sounding the depths of living as an outsider, of the “us” versus the “them.” Reading her books is always a happy experience.
A student in my advanced novel class asked for names of mysteries and thrillers with literary credentials. Andy Weinberger suggests P.D. James and Martin Cruz Smith (especially his earlier books like GORKY PARK and ROSE, and also the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Belinda Anderson writes, “Paying homage to the late greats of literature is one of my secret pleasures as an author. I use the word secret because so far no one has mentioned to me any of these tributes -- a sign that I have indeed used them in a subtle manner, I hope. For instance, there's an allusion to Thomas Hardy's THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE ... in ‘Franklin and Delilah,’ a story in which timid Franklin tries valiantly to connect with emotionally scarred Delilah, I thought of one of Hardy's scenes. Here, [in RETURN OF THE NATIVE] bashful Charley extorts the promise of fifteen minutes of hand holding with the exalted Eustacia (the passage is from”


She leant against the door-post, and gave him her hand. Charley took it in both his own with a tenderness beyond description, unless it was like that of a child holding a captured sparrow.

"Why, there's a glove on it!" he said in a deprecating way.

"I have been walking," she observed.

"But, miss!"

"Well--it is hardly fair." She pulled off the glove, and gave him her bare hand.

They stood together minute after minute, without further speech, each looking at the blackening scene, and each thinking his and her own thoughts.

“With so much explicit description of physical relationships in today's literature, I was struck by the contrast of this exchange, by its weight as well as the sly humor. And so when Franklin [in ‘Franklin and Delilah’] makes his move toward intimacy, I have him saying, “

"Delilah, we've been seeing each other for awhile now." He took a deep breath, blew it out in a white burst of fog and plunged ahead. "Would it be all right if I held your hand?"

"I guess so." Slowly, Delilah withdrew a hand from a pocket.
Eagerly, Franklin grasped the offering before she could change her mind. Then he said, with disappointment,

"It's got a mitten on it."

"It's still my hand."

Franklin held the hand in the fuzzy blue mitten lightly, afraid Delilah would fly like a pheasant flushed from its hiding place. . . . Delilah stood very still, looking away from him to a snow-iced hemlock. . . ."


“ Hardy deploys lengthy, lush prose, while brevity is a hallmark of my fiction. Hardy is the master of the inevitable tragedy. In THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE, not one, but three major characters die dramatically. In my work, I usually move toward the possibility of a better tomorrow. In the final scene of this story, just when it seems that Delilah is too emotionally damaged to respond to Franklin, the mitten is removed, and bare hands connect.
“But it's best not to tarry too long with the masters. Even now I'm feeling pressure from the 19th century to push Delilah toward succumbing to pneumonia. . . .”

Juanita Thompson’s Spring 2007 poetry book, NEW YORK AND AFRICAN TAPESTRIES
(Fly By Night Press) was selected by SMALL PRESS REVIEW as a MAY/JUNE 2007 favorite.
Barbara Crooker has three poems, "Nothing Doing," "This Summer Day," and "She Brought
Me a Peony," in the new issue of NEW WORKS REVIEW:
Also, there's an audio of two of her poems up at and she has work up in the tribute issue for Len Roberts in The Pittsburgh Quarterly, both a single poem, "Some Fine Day," and stanzas 3 and 15 in the group renga.

Marilyn Coffey’s blog: is excellent.
Nathan Leslie’s new book MADRE will be coming out with Main Street Rag Press in the fall:
Ellen Bass Writing Retreat: Writing at Hollyhock with Ellen Bass ,Writing Our Lives at Hollyhock Retreat Center, Cortes Island, British Columbia , Sept. 28 to Oct. 3, 2007 . For information, email Ellen Bass at
Thad Rutkowski will be reading as part of the SLICE OF THE SCENE: KGB BAR CELEBRATES 60X60 DOUBLE CD RELEASE WITH ALL STAR POETS on August 1, 2007 FROM 7-9 PM ( NEW YORK , NEW YORK ) KGB Bar welcomes the Vox Novus double CD release of the 60 x 60 Project with a free party featuring performances by poets and writers Chris Mann, Thaddeus Rutkowski, Jackie Sheeler, Brant Lyon and Anne Cammon. KGB Bar is located on 85 East 4th Street.
Ep;phany– Call for Manuscripts for the Print Issue Fall 2007! Fiction – Poetry – Non-Fiction – Photographs Complete information .
Big City Lit is once again accepting submissions again– see
The Appalachian Writers Guild (AWG) is a non-profit organization of writers, established for the purpose of advancing the creation and dissemination of literature and history relating to the Appalachian region. AWG is currently preparing a themed anthology of Appalachian literature and welcomes submissions from authors at this time. AWG is seeking short fiction, poetry, biography, novellas, and creative non-fiction, including memoirs, opinion pieces and historical sketches. Submissions should be made by Email: poetry to and all others to in standard Word (.doc or .rft) format. The first AWG anthology was released in 2007 and is available at regional bookstores and online Deadline is Sept. 30, 2007.

Newsletter #98
August 16, 2007
Guest Editor Pat Arnow

My cousin urged me to read BECAUSE THE FIRE WAS IN MY HEAD by Lynn Stegner (University of Nebraska Press hardcover, 2007). The novel resonated because it's about a supreme narcissist who made my cousin think of her own mother (narcissistic though not supremely so). It particularly impressed my cousin that the author only uses the word narcissist one time in the whole book.
I came away with mixed feelings. Kate is a monster. Not because she escapes her Canadian prairie town and loving boyfriend, never telling him that she had a baby that she gave up for adoption. She's only a teenager with longings to see the greater world. She has a big personality, a gorgeous face and figure and insatiable appetites. A striving woman working her assets to best advantage, a reader could cheer her on. Too bad she's such a selfish, destructive, self-destructive schmuck (The author doesn't use any of those words to describe her, either). She has and abandons children, first making sure to screw them up (taking a three-year-old away from his loving foster home, she says, "She doesn't want you anymore, David. Do you understand? She loves you not.") She dumps the child at an orphanage with cold-hearted nuns and no kids his age to play with. After that she rarely visits or sees to his comfort.
But what of the father? Kate had the baby in hopes of getting him to leave his wife and family. He gives vague promises but never changes. After Kate takes their son from the foster family, he says, "You've got to find someone to take the kid….What're you going to do Monday morning when they expect you at the bank?"
He never visits his son in the orphanage. Is he a monster, too? The author describes his character as the closest to Kate's of all the men she knew—ruthless, not caring for other people's feelings. But Kate's more of a schmuck. A female can't escape severe judgment for doing the same crap that men do with little criticism– though these days men are expected to care for their children, nominally at least. But in the day of the novel (the 1950s through the 80s), no one would think a man should do much more than Kate's married lover. That harsh assessment of the woman and lack of judgment of the man seems like an accurate reflection of reality, of how both men and women are used to thinking. But the double standard still irritates me.
I'm still waiting for the fictional heroine who escapes the confines of home to have adventures, promiscuity, a woman who, unlike Kate, can muddle into some satisfaction and feeling of self-worth from something other than the attention of men.
But Kate is pathological, nasty, deeply unlikable. All the background explanation of her sweet dad who died when Kate was a kid, of her cruel unloving self-involved mom, do not tenderize the harsh judgment you have to make when Kate goes for an afternoon tryst with a stranger and leaves her child in a locked, running car– and you know that means carbon monoxide.
Then there's the writing style. Is the prose in BECAUSE THE FIRE WAS IN MY HEAD finely wrought or overwrought? "…a humpbacked gibbous moon, just laboring up off the horizon, roused a dark gleam from the snow filling the broad hollows and creases of the Prairies." That poetic descriptiveness is not a style I usually like. I'm not sure I like it now.
But for all the things that appall me about this book, why did I stay up very late three nights running to read it? Lynn Stegner's storytelling gripped me, her characters did come alive.
But wait, here she is, the women who make their courageous way in FLIGHT OF THE MAIDENS by Jane Gardam (Plume paperback 2002). Young and headstrong girls flail into the larger world, making mistakes along the way, occasionally letting their bodies, tempers, and other base urges lead them to lapses in judgment. Even though they're of another era and a different country (post-World War II England), I could
know them, they're familiar to me, flawed but engaging.
Well, that's the thing about English novels. So many are about the dramas of ordinary people facing ordinary ordeals. I find that reading about the people I encounter in these calm British books more satisfying than the disasters and craziness of many American books (and most American movies). And the women have more character and nuance and are less hateful, stupid, or victimized than in their American counterparts.
The men are more interesting, too. Jane Gardam's newest novel, OLD FILTH, (Europa Editions paperback 2006) tells the story of the proper Englishman who looks as though he never had a flutter of disruption to his perfectly serene life. Of course, he did have his share of dramas that shaped his seemingly self-contained character.
Give me my Muriel Spark or Iris Murdoch with characters who have regular-sized, not super-sized, flaws and dilemmas and with women who I'm not obliged to hate.

                                                                                               -- Pat Arnow

Carole Rosenthal suggestions: “For your advanced writing student who is interested in mystery writers: two of my current favorites, always reliable and very good writers, are Henning Mankell and Peter Abrahams. Mankell's detective, Kurt Wallander, is introspective, his social commentary often probing. Abrahams creates fascinating and credible characters in his seamlessly plotted ‘stand-alones.’
Jane Ciabattari writes: “Yes! I adore HOUSEKEEPING. I read it every so often, as a reminder of the mystery of good fiction. Thanks for reminding us!” Jane’s website is at
Still more on HOUSEKEEPING: Belinda Anderson says her favorite scene is “where Sylvie takes the canoe, oblivious to the clues of the hidden vessel and the shouting man, happy in her own reality.”
The new historical novel by Jon Manchip White, SOLO GOYA: GOYA AND THE DUCHESS OF ALBA AT SANLUCAR, published by the estimable Iris Press (, has a lot of momentum. It is based on the fact that the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya painted the Duchess of Alba several times and on the possibility that he had an affair with her. A depiction of the affair structures the story here, although I would maintain that Goya’s paintings are the true heart of the book. I wondered about how a woman of such high position in Spain in the late eighteenth century had as much freedom as the Duchess in the novel seemed to have. I’m willing to believe she did, especially in the remote region where most of this takes place, but I would have liked a little more background. White, however, generally stays away from history and sociology and focuses instead on the highly erotic love story as well as vivid depictions of human experience: what it would have been like, for example, to suffer from tuberculosis– the taste of copper in the back of the throat, the sweet rising gorge of blood.
What I like best about this novel is the verbal re-creation of Goya’s art. Even when the paintings and drawings are not being described directly, White uses them to block his scenes and enrich his dream sequences. The description of the Duchess herself, for example, comes straight from Goya’s paintings. I read rapidly for the story, to find out when they would make love, how far Goya would go in some of his near-mad escapades, whether or not he would learn to communicate after his deafness– but every time a painting or a scene inspired by a painting came along, I felt I was in the presence of those works.
This may be an exciting historical-erotic novel, but the real star is the magnificent and horrific vision of Francisco Goya.

                                                                                 – MSW
Barbara Heisler Williams says that the book on punctuation mentioned in #97 (Noah Lukeman’s THE ART OF PUNCTUATION ) “reminded me of reading and hearing JOHN HENRY DAYS by Colson Whitehead. Like several other readers in the community (John Henry Days was a Two Towns read), I was not moving through JHD at the same rate which I would usually. Then Colson Whitehead came to town for a ‘reading.’ Once I heard his cadence, I ‘got it.’ With his voice in my head, I began JHD anew, and loved it. Now I'm interested in knowing if his punctuation, etc...reflected his voice or mine...”
John McKernan’s newest collection of poems RESURRECTION OF THE DUST has just been published by ABZ Press ( Gregory Orr says, “John McKernan is the master of a sly surrealism that reveals the numinous inside the ordinary or the terrible that sleeps peacefully inside the mundane. With the twist of a quiet perception or the flick of a metaphor, he shows us the true terms of our being: frightening and glorious in equal parts.”
TOUCHING ALL BASES: A RHETORIC OF SELF DISCOVERY is edited by Jack Higgs, Doris Wyatt, Dan Brown, James Conolly, Don Johnson, and Laura Higgs Kappel. This is a text for any course where writing is required. It has classic and contemporary selections, including work of many fine Appalachian writers. For information, go to .
Rita Sims Quillen has a new book of poems, HER SECRET DREAM ( ). Ron Rash says, "I have admired Rita Quillen’s poetry for years, and this collection will have an honored place on my bookshelf....It is my hope that Her Secret Dream will find a well-deserved place on many, many bookshelves."
Shelley Ettinger has a poem online at
Greg Ellsworth has been writing novels in 25 words or less! See his at
Neva Hamilton’s blog is fun to read, but especially useful for writers just starting out. She calls it “Neva Writes: A journal about the trials and errors of a semi-published writer.”
EvaMedia . http://www.EvaMedia.comand MotesBooks is a new educational and literary press. The publisher is Kate Larken.
The Iris Publishing Group, Inc. (Iris Press and Tellico Books) has been run by Robert Cumming for more than ten years and publishes writers like Ron Rash, Cathy Smith Bowers, and Jon Manchip White. They plan 10 books for 2007. Lately they have done more literary fiction and at least one work of nonfiction. Their toll-free phone number is 800-881-2119.
Wind Press is at . Charlie Hughes publishes some wonderful poetry of the Appalachian region including Rita Sims Quillen's latest (see above).


Phyllis Moore writes: “GRAB-A-NICKEL, a well recognized and long-running publication in the Appalachian region, is alive and well, and the 2007 issue is now available. The longevity and quality of this valuable publication merits review. Founded by the Barbour County Writers' Workshop thirty-one years ago and faithfully sponsored by Alderson-Broaddus College, the history of GRAB-A-NICKEL boasts two key past volunteer editors, beginning with founding editor Barbara Smith and continuing with Dr. Sandy Vrana. Their editorial talents and dedication made the publication a door opener for many writers. In 2007 the editorial torch was passed to editor number three, Dr. Jeff Del Col, Professor of Literature and Writing at A-B.
“GRAB-A-NICKEL is accepting submissions for 2008. The deadline is May 1, 2008. As of October 1, 2007, submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews must be sent as e-mail attachments in Microsoft Word directed to The publication will continue to accept scannable photographs and/or drawings sent to Grab-a-Nickel, Box 2158, Alderson-Broaddus College, Philippi, WV 26416.”
I’ve been running the following statement in this newsletter for some time now: Ingrid Hughes writes: “My union newspaper, CLARION, says, 'Forget, which has engaged in union busting on two continents. Try Powell's Books-- the largest unionized bookstore in America....An alternative way to reach their site is from; prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go directly to the [Powell’s bookstore] union's benefit fund.'"
At the just-past Appalachian Writers Conference, I had a conversation with an accomplished poet and publisher who had an opposing position: He said that from the point of view of a small publisher, Amazon has actually done more good than bad.
Does anyone have more to add to this?

The New Verse News presents politically progressive poetry on current events and topical issues. Submission Guidelines: Send previously unpublished poems in the body of an email to for possible posting. Use "Verse News Submission" as the subject line. See full guidelines at
ABZ, a new magazine of poetry, and the ABZ Poetry Prize:



Supplement to Newsletter # 98
August 21, 2007

This is a supplement to Newsletter # 98. First, a few more comments on the Amazon controversy:
Last issue I referred to a notice I’ve been running about not buying from Amazon because of their labor practices, plus a rebuttal to that saying that Amazon is actually good for small presses. In response to that discussion, Gordon Simmons wrote to say, “On the question of Amazon: First a disclosure. After more than 2 decades working in independent bookselling, I’m no big fan of either Amazon or the brick-and-mortar chain stores. Some small publishers have complained of the deep discounts and other unfavorable wholesale terms demanded by Amazon, so there’s more to that angle than one person saying (with typical utilitarian calculus) it’s more good than bad. But given the choice between a union shop like Powell’s or a mega-corporation thriving on nonunion labor, there’s more at stake than economics. So, as a book customer, I say forget Amazon.”
I responded to Gordon that one service Amazon has come to provide is an informal (and free) listing of all the books-- or at any rate, more than anyone else I know of. It’s often the first place I search, not to buy, but to find the name of an author I can't remember or a book.
Gordon says that he too uses Amazon as a sort of free version of Books in Print, then he orders from Mike Oldaker at The Bookstore in Buckhannon, West Virginia, an independent store (The Bookstore, 15 East Main Street, Buckhannon, WV 26201 304- 472-1840).
I taught the nonfiction workshop earlier this month at the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, and the class came up with the following suggestions for excellent nonfiction books you might want to look into reading. The list is alphabetical:
Ansel Adams and Mary Austin Taos Pueblo
James Agee and Walker Evans Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Mary Austin The Land of Little Rain
Rick Bragg Ava’s Man, All Quiet But the Shouting
Louise DeSalvia Vertigo
Jared Diamond Collapse
Joan Didion The White Album
Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek
Dolan sisters Satellite Sisters
W.E.B. Dubois The Souls of Black Folk
Dave Eggers What is the What
Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones
Lucy Greeley Diary of a Face
William Hazlitt Essays
Aldous Huxley The Perennial Philosophy
Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Chuck Kinder Last Mountain Dancer
Barbara Kingsolver High Tide in Tucson, Small Wonders, The Mile High Picket Line
Phillip Lopate Intro to The Art of th Personal Essay
George Ella Lyon Don’t You Remember
May The Elegant Solution
Frank McCourt Angela’s Ashes
Michel de Montaigne Essais
George Orwell The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London
Jennifer Ouellette The Physics of the Buffyverse
Ann Padgett Truth and Beauty
Michael Pollan The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Sara Saleri Meatless Days
May Sarton Journal of a Solitude, Letters from May
Henry David Thoreau Walden
Timothy Tyson Blood Done Sign My Name
Eudora Welty One Writer’s Beginnings
Virginia Woolf Moments of Being, Granite and Rainbow


Newsletter #99
September 10, 2007


This issue continues the discussion about whether is doing more good or ill to writers and small publishers, this time with comments from Jonathan Green, long time publisher of beautiful books at Gnomon Press. There is also part of a review by Molly Gilman plus suggestions and responses from Norman Julian and John Yohalem. Don’t miss, as usual, lots of good news about new work and small presses. Please send me what you’ve been reading and thinking about in the world of literature– the next issue, to my astonishment, will be #100!   Let me begin thanking you all now, friends and strangers, who have contributed to this newsletter.
                                                                          –Meredith Sue Willis



Just back from the [Kentucky] State House chambers and the uphill useless fight against legislation to give Peabody Coal millions in incentives which may very well result in more mountaintop removal devastation in the eastern coalfields.

But back to Amazon, this from the view of a small publisher (with over 40 years experience): The way the book world is set up is less than ideal for a small publisher. Amazon is not Evil in that in many instances it gives access to readers who want small press books that are not otherwise easily available. Certainly I agree with my friend Gordon Simmons: first support your local independent bookstore if you are lucky enough to have a good one in your neighborhood; they are a dying breed.

But not all such bookstores will go to the trouble to order a book that is not distributed by the near-monopoly of Ingram Book Co. Ingram takes the same deep discount (55% off of list price) that Amazon takes, but (unlike Amazon) Ingram often returns much of what it buys in beat-up condition which the publisher has to eat plus pay the UPS cost back to its door. I once got a hardback book returned by Ingram with a razor cut the length of its spine through both the jacket and the cloth. And had to pay for its trip back to my warehouse. As far as Amazon being non-union, I doubt many bookstores are union or pay what many would consider decent wages. Not right, but friends who work in stores complain to me about this fact without telling me their specific salaries.

Readers can also try to support publishers directly if their local store will not bother to order a book that Ingram does not carry. Research on-line and contact or buy from the publisher directly. Not all publishers take credit cards, a reason some would prefer to deal with Amazon. Barnes & Noble often will not order from small publishers directly, but often seem to give out their telephone numbers to those that want books from those publishers. Small Press Distribution and Consortium that distribute books for many small presses return even less to small presses that Amazon: they normally sell books to stores or chains at 40% - 55% then take half of the gross receipts of any payment and put the amount due the publisher in escrow for three months. And Consortium charges the publisher a re-stocking fee for any books stores or distributors return. In other words, it is almost impossible for a small literary publisher to survive without massive infusions of grants from NEA and foundations. Or increasingly asking for author subsidies. And this affects writers who want to be published by small publishers. The health of these publishers helps the writers they publish. The worsening condition is also caused by big publishers deciding to kill of their mid-list authors, authors who do not sell books at or above the 10,000 range. They would rather publish fewer authors selling more product (a ubiquitous hateful word now in the book trade).

Print-on-demand vendors are a new avenue for authors and publishers. Or in many instances now the author is the self-publisher. A complicated situation. Bashing Amazon is not really helpful. Bash Ingram, bash the fact that mainstream literary publishing is now dominated by multi-nationals. Knopf, Random House, Farrar Straus, etc. are now owned by German companies. Or lament the fact that just released figures state that 27% of Americans do not even read one book a year. One was quoted: reading made them sleepy. Well, then tout reading for insomniacs as much healthier than sleeping pills. That should boost book sales.                                      

                                                                           – Jonathan Greene, Gnomon Press

Norman Julian writes to say, “I am trying May Sarton, among your recommendations. I much like her essays. She has a facile grace of writing which looks easy but, as we both know, isn't. Or at least it takes years and probably decades to get to the point where it isn't as hard.
“I am also reading ECHOING SILENCE – Thomas Merton on the vocation of writing. Edited by Robert Inchausti. Worried about whether you write for emotionally and spiritually healthful reasons? Try Merton. He'll get you properly directed, if you aren't already. He might also preserve a little of your sanity, no easy task when adrift in modernity. A fancy phrase of mine that last, no? I shoulda been a NEW YORK TIMES critic, instead of a toiler at THE DOMINION POST, but didn't have the time to get up there. Besides I didn't want to be away from my dog or garden....”


Two and a half years ago, I commented on a book by M.F. Young published back in the 1920's called THE MEDICI . I recently received the following note. This is one of the wonders of the Internet, that something I wrote all that time ago is now getting this thoughtful response. John Yohalem writes: “ I too have just read M.F. Young's THE MEDICI – I don't see how you can allege that he prefers simple soldiers to bookish types; he goes on and on about how much Lorenzo il Magnifico spent on books, and how much all of western civilization owes to him for it. Lorenzo is his hero if anyone was. His defense of Catherine (note that he quotes her own letters -- everyone's own letters -- wherever he can) is a response to the way she had been treated up to that time, and even later by Garrett Mattingly in his otherwise superb THE ARMADA: If you were Catholic, she was treacherous in opposing the Guises; if you were Protestant, she was doubly treacherous in plotting the Massacre and pretending to be for peace. No one ever looked at the woman and tried to figure out human reasons for her actions. (It is my opinion that she DID plan the murder of Coligny, and let the Guises pull it off, but that the general massacre took her entirely by surprise. As he notes: she did not plan it with Alva four years earlier, as many Prots said -- we have her letters and his, and they hated each other at that meeting. So this may be the first more or less objective treatment of her. (Young, of course, is clearly a Protestant, but fighting down his prejudices.) It is interesting that he goes out of his way to praise Fernando I for opening Livorno to Jews and Protestants, and for lending Henri IV money, but he holds himself back from condemning the priest-ridden policies of Cosimo III that sank the duchy in poverty. (He decided to have one monastery of each accredited monastic order. Leopold I closed most of them.) I would certainly recommend this book (if anyone can find it) for anyone who loves both art and history and plans to spend a lot of time in Florence."

This review by Molly Gilman is available in full at Live Journal ( Scroll to the entry for Thursday, August 23rd, 2007).

This past Saturday, on my way to visit my cousin Rosie, I picked up THE DOGS OF BABEL by Carolyn Parkhurst from the free rack in my town's train station. In the ten minutes between waking up and catching the train (which hadn't exactly been my plan, but I made it!), I'd crammed two novels, a crossword puzzle book, and a sudoku book (gah, I've joined the throng) in my bag already but wasn't quite satisfied with any of them. Still, I'd expected just to add DOGS OF BABEL to their weight and shuffle between the lot for the four sets of 40-minute train rides ahead of me (New Jersey to New York Penn Station and Grand Central Station to Scarsdale, Scarsdale and back).

I didn't expect to use the total transit time that day (amounted to about five hours, including Shuttle time—which included the stranger sitting next to me asking about the book and getting into a semi-deep discussion—and a fifty-three minute wait back at Penn that night after just missing the intended homeward train) to read the book cover-to-cover, making it my second quickest full-length adult novel read after WATERSHIP DOWN. It would have been one sitting if not for the day of visitation in the middle....I completed the final page just as the train stopped at the station before my own, and used the last two minutes of train time to read the author's note and some "discussion questions"—still I'm left with the urge to review it a bit here. I think my reactions will be spoiler-free, but be warned that they commence after this point....The specifics of the story are unique, and some outrageous and unlikely to be encountered in anyone's life. But on the whole, every rare and bizarre story and incident, the moments of horrifying grotesqueness (only one, really; if more I may not have been able to read it), everything serves an incredibly realistic and relatable emotional experience (or thirty). The central bizarrity of the story is an understandable manifestation of the narrator's experience, once you get inside it. Which I found to be fairly instantaneous, in the general sympathetic way, though deeper understanding came to the reader at about the same pace as the narrator.

Who, by the way, I may or may not find detestable. Or at least unlikable, in a way that particularly resonates with me. Even in that, though, he's relatable and can be empathized with. And reading this story through his subjective eyes (which is also a reductive statement as it's as much the story of his reactions and experience as the events he goes through in the present and relates from the past), learning and experiencing as he does and forming your own judgments and conclusions in the wake of that... well, maybe feels real in a uniquely literary way... I'm not going to like any wording of this statement.

It does kind of segue, if I've managed to impart anything of what I mean, into some of the themes I found most compelling—and able to articulate. The [probably] central one [certainly to the narrator's development] is that of... not objectivity, not wishful thinking, but projection. Our perception is, in perhaps unquantifiable percentage, projection, and desire makes it more so. The reader sees the narrator do it throughout the novel, but also is presented with unignorable opportunity to do—and catches themself doing—it as well. Historical and legendary anecdotes to be found, selected and interpreted as evidence for an obsessive experiment. An unanalyzed dream journal. A list of book titles divided by ownership, left in perhaps an intended code by a character for another and perhaps an unintended [by the character] one reflecting on their owners' personalities for the reader. Indistinct sounds that may or may not be taken as speech. The behavior of a creature who cannot communicate in specific, humanly understood terms. A lover's whole knowledge and perception of their partner and their shared life.

Emotionally, I was quite invested in the exploration of grief, obsession, and depression. The stages of grief were not labeled, pointed to, or even overtly described, but the progression of timelines past and present [though that sort of storytelling is starting to seem bandwagonish, a symptom of current trends; still enjoyable and to a purpose here], the emerging picture of the other main character, the arisings and collapsing of mysteries and problems to solve, are... basically, what I meant by realistic and relatable emotional experience, which is putting it too cerebrally to match the intent behind it. As for obsession... well, here's where one of the book's most controversial (it seems) aspects comes into play....There are moments of horrendousness towards dogs, however much the book is written by a dog-lover and one of the main characters, intensely compelling, interesting, and empathetic, is a dog. But without those moments of horrendousness, I don't think the book would be as intense and full an exploration of the emotional core. It shows the difference between obsession and irrational thought and behavior when sparked by intense emotion in a generally stable person, and when those things are the manifestations of a clinically disturbed mind. ...And also, the moments of horror were far fewer than I'd feared when first reading the dustjacket. People who know me, the greatest endorsement I can give for this book not being too much to handle in the disturbance-area: I was able to handle it. There was only one section that was very difficult to get through from the disturbance/disgust angle, and as I said, I would not skip it or have wished it omitted.

The front cover of the book also mentions something cheesy about "love and loyalty", but, without quite knowing how to go into it further, I found it intrinsic, moving, and not cheesy or overemphasized at all... which is to say, another thing it's difficult to mention at all without feeling I'm being reductive. I guess I'll say: every level of emotionality in the book, from physically-trembling horror to almost crying-happy, was very much earned and natural and there because it was part of the whole.

So, I recommend it. ;-) But more than that, would love to chat about it with anyone else who's read it....

                                                                           -- Molly Gilman
Bob Cumming, Publisher of Iris Press writes to say: “I'm pleased to report that another Iris Press poet has had a poem selected by Garrison Keillor to be featured on his American Public Media program, THE WRITER'S ALMANAC. Rebecca McClanahan's poem, ‘Autobiography of the Cab driver Who Picked Me Up at a Phoenix Hotel to Catch a Four A.M. Flight and Began to Speak in (Almost) Rhyming Couplets’ from her book, DEEP LIGHT: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1987--2007, (Iris Press, 2007) will be featured on the program to be aired on September 25, 2007. APM currently distributes the program for broadcast to about 320 non-commercial public radio stations around the country. The program is also streamed and podcast from and archived on the APM website at and may be streamed, archived on carrying station websites as well.”
Frances Madeson’s COOPERATIVE VILLAGE received some good press at the August 20, 2007 entry on .
Marsh Hawk Press has new books and good events in New York City. See their website at  .
John Amen had a poem in the August issue of STIRRING– see it at His poem "Triptych" appeared recently in RATTLE has been posted at His books CHRISTENING THE DANCER and MORE OF ME DISAPPEARS as well as his first CD, ALL I'LL NEVER NEED are currently available through various sites, including Amazon and
Novelist Krista Madsen writes that she has been offered “the chance to teach at the Abroad Writers' Conference, next stop the little southern village of Cassis, France. There will be workshops (I believe you take two, one lead by a lesser known soul like me, and one by a more established author) in which the focus is giving/receiving feedback on a good body of work. Each evening there are readings/programs offering the chance to further mine the minds of all these amazing folks. Along with food, lodging, private consultations, time to write & wander... I can't wait to go, perhaps you'll join me? I know June seems a long way off, but reservations must be made soon for this to happen...... [Get in touch with] Nancy Gerbault,,, and her number: 209-296-4050; tell her I sent you. Let me know if you decide to do this, and if you know anyone else who might be interested, pass it on!” ABROAD WRITERS' CONFERENCE--Authors without Borders at Camargo Foundation, CASSIS, FRANCE, June 14 - 28, 2008. Abroad Writers' Conference: Camargo Foundation: Abroad Writers' Conference, 17363 Sutter Creek Road, Sutter Creek, CA 95685.


D. S. Nurske, Michael Graves, and Burt Kimmelman will read September 30, 2007 at Bengal Curry, 65 West Broadway betw. Murray and Warren Streets, 1½ blocks south of Chambers), NYC 10007 Phone: (212) 571-1122
Carol Stone and Burt Kimmelman will read March 25, 2006, 7:00 PM, Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield Street,Watchung Plaza
Montclair, NJ 07042 973-744-7177
Ingrid Hughes writes: “My union newspaper says, ‘Forget, which has engaged in union busting on two continents. Try Powell's Books ( --the largest unionized bookstore in America....An alternative way to reach their site is from; prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go directly to the [Powell’s bookstore] union's benefit fund.’” But also see Jonathan Greene’s comments above and more of the discussion in Issue #98  and #97 .
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 at . I also like Alibis at   A lot of people I know prefer to use the unionized bricks-and-mortar and online bookstore Powells Books at Good sources for used and out-of-print books are Advanced Book Exchange at and All Book Stores at . Both Bookfinder and All Book Stores both have a special feature that tells you the book price WITH shipping and handling, so you can compare what you’re really going to have to pay.
Please send responses and suggestions directly to me. Unless you request otherwise, your responses may be edited and published in this newsletter. Please e-mail Meredith Sue Willis at
BOOKS FOR READERS is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by Meredith
Sue Willis. To subscribe, send a blank email to To unsubscribe, send a blank email to Copyright 2007, Meredith Sue Willis


September 27, 2007


This Newsletter is Number 100! My first one was written in December, 2000, and I still do them for essentially the same reasons I stated then: . What has been an unexpected pleasure has been the response and contributions of the readers who have consistently contributed suggestions and even done whole guest columns– keep them coming!    And please do spread the word and invite friends to subscribe.
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I want to recommend several books I’ve enjoyed in different ways over the just-ended summer. First is a brand new novel by Pamela Erens called THE UNDERSTORY. This is a finely written, rich short novel, about a man named Jack who is one of the quiet people moving around the streets of New York City– part of the “understory” of plants that grow under a great forest’s canopy. An obsessive compulsive, he has an upper west side brownstone apartment that is being rehabbed, which upsets all his routines. He is finally forced out of the apartment– he wasn’t there quite legally in the first place, but how he is made to leave is hardly legal either: there are fires, and the last one destroys all his possessions. Simultaneously, Jack’s carefully organized life is being disrupted by falling in love.

The loss of home and his love story alternate with the present story in which he is living in a monastery in New England, earning his way by working with bonsai. Previously, his special interest had been Central Park’s plant life, especially the saplings and weeds in the understory that gives a measure of the health of the woodland. The two time frames move forward in a nice tangle until an act of violence brings everything together at the end.

For me, the great value of this novel is Jack’s self awareness as he falls in love and falls apart– and how both things cause him pain. He, of course, is an important part of the understory of the city and society, and his distress is an indicator of the state of society’s health. As such people and plants lose their tenuous hold on their place, the world loses richness, and, in the end, the less marginal people are endangered as well. It’s an interior, precise, and carefully imagined novel that makes a powerful social statement in an oblique but focused way.

THE UNDERSTORY is not going to appear in a large stack near the cash registers at your local Barnes & Noble, so you'll have to look for it. In Barnes & Noble’s defense, I am confident that they would accept the thousands of dollars it would cost to have the book featured that way, but the only publishers with that kind of disposable income are part of the big commercial conglomerates betting on what is going to be a best seller. So make the effort to get hold of THE UNDERSTORY and other books like it– and share with us more such books at Books for Readers.


By the way, I want to report that I did read a best seller over the summer– one that I think actually deserves the accolades and income it generated-- Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. I really liked this novel, which isn’t perfect, although I don’t think big ambitious books are ever perfect. The last third in particular, in which the characters grow up and grow older, has a lot of weaknesses. It could have been shorter, and although it was gratifying to learn what happened to everyone, the various narratives are flaccid in comparison to the first two thirds. And those first two thirds are really splendid, powered by wonderful voices and interesting children and an incredibly gripping plot question: Which child is going to die? The mother says early in the novel that she left one child buried in Africa, and since we meet four daughters, we are caught up in the suspense of who will live and who will die.

Then, after we know that, and after the powerful action of escaping from the crazy missionary Father, the rest really is dénouement, unraveling the knots– important and gratifying, but probably best accomplished swiftly.

Among the delights of this novel– aside from the obvious ones of the suspense, the voices of the girls, and the thick specificity of life in the Congo in the early nineteen-sixties– are Leah and Anatole’s love story, and a skillfully inserted modicum of the history of Congo/Zaire. I also liked the dumb blonde sister (although her malapropisms are laid on too thick in the early part) who turns out to have in some ways the most interesting life. The final chapter told in the voice of the dead sister is artful and satisfying as an ending.

What puts this over the top for me as a truly successful book is that it is in the end a political novel. Yes, it teaches you a little about Patrice Lumumba, and it has a distinct ground level view of colonialism, but it has the novelistic political quality of allowing some of its characters to effect at least small amounts of change not only in themselves but in their environment.

I read on Kingsolver’s webpage in her FAQ’s that she actually did spend a year in the Congo when she was seven or eight (her parents were NOT missionaries, she hastens to assert). She also did ten years worth of research for this book. The finish of her writing shows it. When I wrote an essay on Kingsolver’s work for Appalachian Journal back in 1994, I said, “Some of the work seems to me to have been written too rapidly....Whether her work is at its most highly polished or relatively rough, however, she is consistently worth reading for her breadth of perspective and generosity of spirit....” THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is polished in all the good ways, and it carries some of the same themes I wrote about then: the creation of community, mother and child love, how people on the ground, as it were, react to, live with, live under, struggle against, oppression. I deeply admire Kingsolver’s commitment to literature that is socially engaged, and this is one book whose popularity is well deserved.


Okay, I read another best seller this summer: HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. The first really hefty volume of the series, it moved just as fast as the others. It has the usual Enormous Confrontation with Evil at the end-- and even though Voldemorte resurrected seems to me less awe-inspiring that Voldemorte Almost Dead, it’s still a good read. I especially appreciate how the books get more complex and darker, as Harry and company get older. The appeal of Voldemorte to his followers, however, totally escapes me. Didn’t the wizards ever read about Muggles fascist dictators like Adolf Hitler?


Finally, I want to mention two books I read out of indulgence in my own interests, and I would certainly recommend them if the subjects interest you: Chrisopher White’s REMBRANDT, part of the Thames & Hudson World of Art series gave me a good overview of Why Everyone Talks about Rembrandt.

I picked up ANCIENT GREEKS FROM PREHISTORIC TO HELLENISTIC TIMES by Thomas R. Martin because the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has totally redone their Greek and Roman galleries, and I started to walk through, and realized I hadn’t the faintest notion of the differences among Archaic Greece and Mycenaean Greece and Ancient Crete. This book, excluding notes and bibliography, is just over 200 pages, and did exactly what I wanted: gave me a survey and will sit on my shelf for reference. I may even carry it to the museum with me the next time I go.


What have you been reading?

                                                                          –Meredith Sue Willis
Barbara Rasmussen writes to say, “I’ve just finished WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, and ELLA MINNOW PEA, which are just delightful flights of fictive fantasy. Who doesn’t want to work in the circus? Or live in an imaginary land where the dictator declares war on alphabet letters – respectively.”
Michael McFee says the book is “heartbreaking but also witty, feisty, sassy.” I say it is all that and really worth your time and money. It’s Rita Sims Quillen’s latest, HER SECRET DREAM. I sometimes have trouble finishing entire volumes of poetry– I hear a poet or am attracted to a poem, get the book, read a few, and then put the volume on my beside table stack. But this one I kept on reading. Some of it is imagined lives of Appalachian farm women, some of it is from Quillen’s own childhood, some of it is about trying to be a poet and a mother. The following is the beginning section of “Woman Writer:”
Spending the days attending to bodily functions
Our own and everyone else’s
Gives us a handicap.
Words crawl into the laundry basket
Hide among the socks
Circle and scream in the toilet
Hang in the closet and beg
For freedom.
While my son warms in my arms
A line that could make me famous
Leaps up in my face
Spits and leaves by the back door....
A WORKING MAN”S APOCRYPHA, short stories by William Luvaas has just been published. Luvaas’s work has power that comes from the rigor of incisive images and a serious journey through human minds and hearts.
Of Tamara Baxter’s ROCK BIG AND SING LOUD: SHORT STORIES FROM SOUTHERN APPALACHIA, Robert Morgan says: “These stories take us to places we did not expect to go, and just when we think we have seen what is strangest, most absurd, most alien and outrageous, we recognize something of ourselves.”


Caol Bly has an interesting book out especially for writers and teachers of writing. It’s called AGAINST WORKSHOPPING, and you can find it at Bly and Loveland Press's site.
Suzanne McConnell has an excellent piece in the Hunter CUNY ENGLISH COMMUNITY PLACE on her memories of studying with the late Kurt Vonnegut.
Scott Oglesby is featured in the Fall 2007 issue of THE BELLEVUE LITERARY REVIEW.
Scott also will be one of their featured readers at the Fall reading on Sunday, October 14th, at Bellevue Hospital.


Phyllis Moore writes to say, “Jonathan Greene's comments [see ] cover the facets of the topic very well. Often neither the local book store (we have one) or local libraries (we have three) have the books I want to read. Ordering them requires at least a short wait and a trip to pick up the books. Last week, I learned of an upcoming visit by West Virginia Author Anne Barnhill. After a futile local search for her memoir, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, I ordered it from It arrived in my yesterday's mail. Receiving books quickly at a reasonable price is an Internet service I greatly appreciate. Because of and Powell, etc., I have quick access to many new-to-me authors.”
And my brother-in-law David Weinberger the Internet commentator and Harvard Berkman Center Fellow, featured Jonathan Greene’s remarks from Issue # 99 on small presses and Amazon up on his blog (See


One of my students has suggested that those of you who write nonfiction take a look at the Roslyn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health in Journalism, information at
Writing For Our Lives at La Serrania, a remote and gorgeous retreat center in Mallorca with Ellen Bass May 3-10, 2008 . “This week will be an opportunity to delve into our writing in an inspiring setting, to nurture the creative voice. There will be time for writing and time for sharing and response, hearing what our work touches in others. We'll help each other to become clearer, go deeper, express our feelings and ideas more powerfully. With the safety, support, and guidance of this gathering, you have the opportunity to create writing that is more vivid, more true, more complex and powerful than you've been able to do before.” Both beginners and experienced writers are welcome. Whether you are interested in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir or journal writing, this workshop will provide an opportunity to explore and expand your creative world. This size of the workshop is limited to 14 participants. The early bird fee for the workshop (which includes accommodations and all meals) is $1500 until December 31. After that the regular fee is $1750. A $550 deposit is required to hold your place. Most rooms are doubles, but there may be single rooms available for a surcharge. For more information about LaSerrania visit For more information about the workshop and to register, please email Ellen Bass at or call 831-426-8006.
There’s a new site that looks like a lot of fun at The idea is that you get a writing challenge each week to try. So if you’re looking for writing exercises and some swift feedback, give it a try.
Ann Pancake will be reading at various places this fall from her new novel, STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN. The novel is about a family struggling with the fallout of mountaintop removal mining in southern West Virginia.
– September 28-29: Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference, Lexington, KY. Reading in the Carnegie Center at 1:30 on the 29th.
– October 22: Marshall University, Huntington, WV. Reading at the Marshall University Student Center at 8 p.m.
– October 23: Catawba College reading and community forum, Salisbury, NC, at 7:30 p.m.
– October 24: Appalachian State University, Boone, NC. Reading at the bookstore at 2 p.m.
– October 25: Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC. Reading in Shirley Recital
Hall, Salem Fine Arts Center, at 7 p.m.
– October 26: Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC. Reading at 7 p.m.
– October 27: Taylor Books, Charleston, WV. Reading at 5:30.
– November 1: West Virginia Wesleyan, Buckhannon, WV. Reading at 7 p.m.
– November 5: West Virginia University. Reading in the Robinson Reading Room of the Main Library at 7:30 p.m.
– November 6: University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, PA. Reading in the chapel at 7:30 p.m.
– November 7: University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. Reading and question/answer session in Chuck Kinder’s class from 6:30-8 p.m.
First Unitarian Congregatonal Society: Wednesday Oct. 17th, 48 Monroe Pl. Bklyn. cor Pierrepont.From 7:00-9:15 PM Brooklyn Heights Poets (Pierrepont Players) Wide Open Reading + Feature:  Jel Spiegelman, Author - Published poet...718-377-1253




The largest unionized bookstore in America has a webstore at Powells Books. Some people prefer shopping online there to shopping at An alternative way to reach Powell's site and support the union is via Prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go to support the union benefit fund. For a discussion about Amazon and organized labor and small presses, see the comments of Jonathan Greene and others in Issues #97 and #98 .



If a book discussed in this newsletter has no source mentioned, don’t forget your public library and your local independent bookstore.
To buy books online, I often go first to Bookfinder or Alibris.   Bookfinder has a feature that tells you the book price WITH shipping and handling, so you can compare what you’re really going to have to pay.
A lot of people whose political instincts I respect prefer the unionized bricks-and-mortar bookstore Powells (see "About" above) that sells online at  Another good source for used and out-of-print books is All Book Stores at .
Take a look also at Paperback Book Swap, a low cost (postage only) way to get rid of your old books and get new ones by trading with other readers.

If you are using an electronic reader like Kindle, Nook, or Kobo, get free books at the Gutenberg Project-- most classics, and other things as well. Libraries now lend e-books too!




Please send responses and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis at Unless you instruct otherwise, your responses may be edited for length and published in this newsletter.

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#146 Henry Adams AGAIN!
#145 Henry Adams, Darnell Arnoult, Jaimy Gordon, Charlotte Brontë
#144 Carter Seaton, NancyKay Shapiro, Lady Murasaki Shikibu
#143 Little America; Guns,Germs, and Steel; The Trial
#142 Blog Fiction, Leah by Seymour Epstein, Wolf Hall, etc.
#141 Dreama Frisk on Hilary Spurling's Pearl Buck in China; Anita Desai; Cormac McCarthy
#140 Valerie Nieman's Blood Clay, Dolly Withrow
#139 My Kindle, The Prime Minister, Blood Meridian
#138 Special on Publicity by Carter Seaton
#137 Michael Harris's The Chieu Hoi Saloon;The Professor and the Madman; Game of Thrones; James Alexander Thom's Follow The River
#136 James Boyle's The Creative Commons; Paola Corso, Joanne Greenberg, Monique Raphel High, Amos Oz
#135 Reviews by Carole Rosenthal, Jeffrey Sokolow, and Wanchee Wang.
#134 Daniel Deronda, books with material on black and white relations in West Virginia
#133 Susan Carpenter, Irene Nemirovsky, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kanafani, Joe Sacco
#132 Karen Armstrong's A History of God; JCO's The Falls; The Eustace Diamonds again.
#131 The Help; J. McHenry Jones, Reamy Jansen, Jamie O'Neill, Michael Chabon.
Lynda Schor, Ed Myers, Charles Bukowski, Terry Bisson, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism
#129 Baltasar and Blimunda; the Underground Railroad; Navasky's Naming Names, new and recommended small press and indie books.
#128 Jeffrey Sokolow on Histories and memoirs of the Civil Rights Movement
#127 Olive Kitteridge; Urban fiction; Shelley Ettinger on Joyce Carol Oates
#126 Jack Hussey's Ghosts of Walden, The Leopard , Roger's Version, The Reluctanct Fundamentalist
#125 Lee Maynard's The Pale Light of Sunset; Books on John Brown suggested by Jeffrey Sokolow
#124 Cloudsplitter, Founding Brothers, Obenzinger on Bradley's Harlem Vs. Columbia University
#123 MSW's summer reading round-up; Olive Schreiner; more The Book Thief; more on the state of editing
#122 Left-wing cowboy poetry; Jewish partisans during WW2; responses to "Hire a Book Doctor?"
#121 Jane Lazarre's latest; Irving Howe's Leon Trotsky; Gringolandia; "Hire a Book Doctor?"
#120 Dreama Frisk on The Book Thief; Mark Rudd; Thulani Davis's summer reading list
#119 Two Histories of the Jews; small press books for Summer
#118 Kasuo Ichiguro, Jeanette Winterson, The Carter Family!
#117 Cat Pleska on Ann Pancake; Phyllis Moore on Jayne Anne Phillips; and Dolly Withrow on publicity
#116 Ann Pancake, American Psycho, Marc Harshman on George Mackay Brown
#115 Adam Bede, Nietzsche, Johnny Sundstrom
#114 Judith Moffett, high fantasy, Jared Diamond, Lily Tuck
#113 Espionage--nonfiction and fiction: Orson Scott Card and homophobia
#112 Marc Kaminsky, Nel Noddings, Orson Scott Card, Ed Myers
#111 James Michener, Mary Lee Settle, Ardian Gill, BIll Higginson, Jeremy Osner, Carol Brodtick
#110  Nahid Rachlin, Marion Cuba on self-publishing; Thulani Davis, The Road, memoirs
#109 Books about the late nineteen-sixties: Busy Dying; Flying Close to the Sun; Looking Good; Trespassers
#108 The Animal Within; The Ground Under My Feet; King of Swords
#107 The Absentee; Gorky Park; Little Scarlet; Howl; Health Proxy
#106 Castle Rackrent; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; More on Drown; Blindness & more
#105 Everything is Miscellaneous, The Untouchable, Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher
#104 Responses to Shelley on Junot Diaz and more; More best books of 2007
#103 Guest Editor: Shelley Ettinger and her best books of 2007
#102 Saramago's BLINDNESS; more on NEVER LET ME GO; George Lies on Joe Gatski
#101 My Brilliant Career, The Scarlet Letter, John Banville, Never Let Me Go
#100 The Poisonwood Bible, Pamela Erens, More Harry P.
#99   Jonathan Greene on; Molly Gilman on Dogs of Babel
#98   Guest editor Pat Arnow; more on the debate
#97   Using Thomas Hardy; Why I Write; more
#96   Lucy Calkins, issue fiction for young adults
#95   Collapse, Harry Potter, Steve Geng
#94   Alice Robinson-Gilman, Maynard on Momaday
#93   Kristin Lavransdatter, House Made of Dawn, Leaving Atlanta
#92   Death of Ivan Ilych; Memoirs
#91   Richard Powers discussion
#90   William Zinsser, Memoir, Shakespeare
#89   William Styron, Ellen Willis, Dune, Germinal, and much more
#88   Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo
#87   Wings of the Dove, Forever After (9/11 Teachers)
#86   Leora Skolkin-Smith, American Pastoral, and more
#85   Wobblies, Winterson, West Virginia Encyclopedia
#84   Karen Armstrong, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Taylor
#83   3-Cornered World, Da Vinci Code
#82   The Eustace Diamonds, Strapless, Empire Falls
#81   Philip Roth's The Plot Against America , Paola Corso
#80   Joanne Greenberg, Ed Davis, more Murdoch; Special Discussion on Memoir--Frey and J.T. Leroy
#79   Adam Sexton, Iris Murdoch, Hemingway
#78   The Hills at Home; Tess of the D'Urbervilles; Jean Stafford
#77   On children's books--guest editor Carol Brodtrick
#76   Mary Lee Settle, Mary McCarthy
#75   The Makioka Sisters
#74    In Our Hearts We Were Giants
#73    Joyce Dyer
#72    Bill Robinson WWII story
#71    Eva Kollisch on G.W. Sebald
#70    On Reading
#69    Nella Larsen, Romola
#68    P.D. James
#67    The Medici
#66    Curious Incident,Temple Grandin
   Ingrid Hughes on Memoir
    Boyle, Worlds of Fiction
#63    The Namesame
#62    Honorary Consul; The Idiot
#61    Lauren's Line
#60    Prince of Providence
#59    The Mutual Friend, Red Water
#58    AkÉ,
Season of Delight
#57    Screaming with Cannibals

#56    Benita Eisler's Byron
#55    Addie, Hottentot Venus, Ake
#54    Scott Oglesby, Jane Rule
#53    Nafisi,Chesnutt, LeGuin
#52    Keith Maillard, Lee Maynard
#51    Gregory Michie, Carter Seaton
#50    Atonement, Victoria Woodhull biography
Richard Price, Phillip Pullman
#47    Mid- East Islamic World Reader
#46    Invitation to a Beheading
#45    The Princess of Cleves
#44    Shelley Ettinger: A Few Not-so-Great Books
#43    Woolf, The Terrorist Next Door
#42    John Sanford
#41    Isabelle Allende
#40    Ed Myers on John Williams
#39    Faulkner
#38    Steven Bloom No New Jokes
#37    James Webb's Fields of Fire
#36    Middlemarch
#35    Conrad, Furbee, Silas House
#34    Emshwiller
#33    Pullman, Daughter of the Elm
#32    More Lesbian lit; Nostromo
#31    Lesbian fiction
#30    Carol Shields, Colson Whitehead
#29    More William Styron
#28    William Styron
#27    Daniel Gioseffi
#26    Phyllis Moore
   On Libraries....
#24    Tales of the City
   Nonfiction, poetry, and fiction
#22    More on Why This Newsletter
#21    Salinger, Sarah Waters, Next of Kin
#20    Jane Lazarre
#19    Artemisia Gentileschi
#18    Ozick, Coetzee, Joanna Torrey
#17    Arthur Kinoy
#16    Mrs. Gaskell and lots of other suggestions
#15    George Dennison, Pat Barker, George Eliot
#14    Small Presses
#13    Gap Creek, Crum
#12    Reading after 9-11
#11    Political Novels
#10    Summer Reading ideas
#9      Shelley Ettinger picks
#8      Harriette Arnow's Hunter's Horn
#7      About this newsletter
#6      Maria Edgeworth
#5      Tales of Good and Evil; Moon Tiger
#4      Homer Hickam and The Chosen
#3      J.T. LeRoy and Tale of Genji
#2      Chick Lit
#1      About this newsletter
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