Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Loving Couples

November 29
Reading Ted Hughes' The Birthday Poems -- wonderful stuff, his incredible belief in language that is at once admirable and enviable and also old like polished oak panels on walls: the muscularity of the poems. People write that sometimes about poets, usually guy poets. When my revision work is going best, it feels that way, like a strong forearm, flexed, taut, impulses moving up and down its length. Very apparent in these poems, which don’t have a lot of his mystical Jungian hoo-hah. I just read the Diane Middlebrook book about him and Sylvia Plath, Her Husband.
I’ve been intrigued occupied by couples lately: Hughes and Plath, then Carter and Cash thanks to the movie and the internet. I found an image of John Carter Cash, the late baby of Johnny and June, who is in his mid thirties now, and his parents both gone. Even if Andy and I live into our eighties, we’ll be gone when Joel is our age, so I hope he does get himself attached to some big family, his own or another.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving is over...

November 27
End of the long week-end which included going in to NYC Wednesday night to have dinner with Ken and Linda and see their hotel room which was really a one bedroom apartment, then early the next a.m. off to Ellen's for Thanksgiving-- after Andy dealing with a broken lock on the door, scrambling around to find keys to the old lock in the door handle that we never use. Then Weinbergers and Cavanaghs and Joel and Sarah and a couple of Ellen's friends for dinner, followed by Jurassic Park and the traditional walk and shopping at the outlets at seven a.m. the next morning like real Americans. Sarah and Joel drove down together in her car behind and then ahead of us, then hanging out with Joel and Sarah when they weren't hanging out with Joel's other friends.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Friday Morning

November 18

Eleven a.m., and I feel ready for a nap– we had the the Fund-raiser breakfast this morning, and I felt good about my little speech, I don't know why, but this was one of the ones where at a certain moment you feel the people out there, that a line of energy has opened up between you and them
I've been especially happy to have Andy home--I think it's because this was the first time he's been gone since my dad died, and I had that sense of the missing person in your life, and in this case it was Andy only missing for five days. Daddy, of course, I haven't lived with in forty years. He's in most ways as present in my imaginative life as ever– but of course for my mother, whose life for five years was totally centered around the man in the chair and his physical needs– well, it’s a great rent in the fabric for her, as well as the loss of the love of her life and companion since girlhood.
I’m re-reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles and can hardly stand it. It’s a wonderful book, but you feel doom foreshadowed from the first page. By golly Thomas Hardy had a grim view of this vale of tears.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

More grad student strike

November 15
My NYU class met at midtown in a lovely conference room at one of the students' offices--and it had windows! This was in support of the Graduate Student Strike. There was a good article in the Village Voice today--I really don't get why NYU is being to hard-nosed about this, and it makes me suspect they'd like to get rid of our union too, the adjuncts. Which has made me feel so safe.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fall colors

It’s a return to the colors, not as brilliant as some years but bright oranges and yellows, the leave falling fast now. We still haven’t had a true hard frost, but I’m down to my last three tomatoes (ripening in the house), and I’ve had to cover the greens and lettuce not against frost, which they can take a little of or they wouldn’t be out all winter, but because Somebeast chomped the radicchios. Is this another deer? A cat wanting a tonic for a bad stomach?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Books for Readers Newsletter # 76

Newsletter # 76
November 5 , 2005

After missing October entirely, I finally sat down to put together this newsletter– only to have my hard drive die. I spent hours a day for almost a week on the phone with #$&*!* Dell computers, waiting for a human being while loud advertisements were broadcast from my speaker phone. Then, once #$&*!* Dell finally agreed that my contract did indeed include repairs, I had to wait to hear from the technician who would be coming to install a new hard drive. Now that I have a hard drive again, I’ve been installing software, copying files, making sure of what I still have and what I lost.

I am now wildly dependent now on the computer– and increasingly on the Internet as well. I’ll be writing a note, or actually working on fiction, and I’ll need to know something— usually a fact, a birth date or death (is Mary Lee Settle in the same age cohort as Mary McCarthy? McCarthy is five or six years older). I just flip over to the ever-available Internet. It’s a kind of super-sizing of my memory if not my whole brain. And it’s right here on my desk in chunky beige plastic. Some other time, I’ll write about the serious negatives of the computer (the option of obsessive ego surfing, shopping when you could be creating– addictions are only a mouse click away).

Another reason for the slowness of this newsletter is that I’ve been focusing my reading on a couple of books by Mary Lee Settle, who died a month and a half ago. She was born in 1918 in West Virginia, although she lived all over the world and died in Charlottesville, Virginia. She wrote the Beulah Quintet, a series of five historical novels covering the history of West Virginia, and the National Book Award winning Blood Tie. I’m reading her two earliest books, written when she was making the switch from being a playwright and actress (she is said to have done a screen test for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind), plus The Clam Shell, a later novel that explored the events of her eighteenth year. She was in my parents’ generation, when the drive to leave home regions was probably even stronger in America than it was for people of my generation. The present young people of Appalachia are not, I don’t believe, so convinced that you have to go to Paris or New York to have adventures or make art.

Even before Settle died, I was reading books by some of the old grand old dames of the twentieth century, especially those who came to adulthood before the Second World War: stories by Jean Stafford, who is a marvel, and the redoubtable Mary McCarthy, whose cool judgmental mind is as refreshing as iced spring water. I re-read THE GROUP, which I liked much better this time around. I also read HOW I GREW, a memoir written when she was in her sixties, that covers some of the same period as THE GROUP, and is full of opinions and a breezy tone that makes it feel more like journalism that a memoir. But the most interesting surprise was CANNIBALS AND MISSIONARIES, a novel that centers on an act of terrorism in the style of twenty years ago– that is back when people were taken hostage and threatened with death rather than simply blown up.

The novel’s characters include several art collectors and politicians, and is full of discussions of art as consumer product as well as terrorism as art for art’s sake– very interesting indeed. The title of the book, by the way, comes from a mental game in which you have to figure how some cannibals and missionaries can get ferried back and forth across a river with no one getting eaten. I think the game I knew was about foxes and ducks.

One of McCarthy’s great strengths is that she is so interested in details of the physical world as well as details of argument and social behavior that her books don’t feel dated. Even a book like this with what on the surface appears to be a kind of passé terrorism is so full of interesting detail about the nineteen eighties that it seems fresh. One of the difficulties for most people of writing about your own time is that we have so many assumptions– that we will always and forever know who Paris Hilton was, for example. McCarthy, by contrast, looks so closely at everything that if she uses slang or refers to a figure in pop culture, it is always with close analysis and critique.

CANNIBALS, like most of her work is very cool. She seems to prefer her most annoyingly superficial characters to the ones who have depth– not that she doesn’t know they are annoying, but they seem to amuse her most, and thus she keeps them alive when others die. The violence, which you know has to happen, is presented almost off-handedly, which gives it a kind of bracing realism. McCarthy, also has rather more affection for the rich as a class than I do, but the book is engagingly intelligent– and inexpensively available in the online used book stores.

-- Meredith Sue Willis


I’m still working on a list of books to give as gifts. Around the middle of November, I’m going to e-mail and post a special page recommending these books, and I would greatly appreciate your suggestions. Two requests: (1) The book should be from a small publisher or long out-of-print so that people probably won’t see it advertised elsewhere, and (2) try to write a brief line about who you think would really enjoy the book. See Issue 75, plus some samples here:

SHANNAGANEY BLUE, a novella by West Virginian native June Langford Berkley, gets Phyllis Moore’s vote as one of the best publications by a small press. First published in 1983 in The Akros Review, Spring, 1983, Number 7, the intriguing volume is now in its fifth printing. Never advertised, it has a loyal readership and has been used in classrooms. Shannaganey's protagnoist Kate calls to mind another much loved fictional character, Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Each child tells a story as only a child can, a story set firmly in a place they know and love. Kate and Scout are the real deals, each speaks with an authentic, sometimes amusing, voice. Each tells the truth as they see it. Moore says, “I've read SHANNAGANEY's 47 tightly crafted pages many times. In case of a house fire, it's one of the books I'd rescue.”
To order SHANNAGANEY BLUE readers may contact the author. Berkely.jberkley@columbus.rr.com . The cost is $5.00 and postage is included

Here’s one I think I’ll get for my mother, who is 86 and likes to be inspired and comforted: EVERYDAY BLESSINGS: A Year of Inspiration, Comfort and Gratitude Compiled by June Corner (Source books, Inc., $11.99, ISBN 1-4022-0606-2) Available now at bookstores nationwide. For more information, visit www.junecotner.com.

In the same vein, Barbara Crooker has a 2006 Everyday Blessings calendar, a 365-day, page-a-day boxed calendar, is now in bookstores.Click here: Everyday Blessings

That’s the idea. You can always, of course, recommend best sellers and classics as well, but for this special page I’m looking for books that people might miss otherwise.


South Orange resident James VanOosting has just published his tenth book (See HarperCollins’ page on him at http://www.harpercollins.com/global_scripts/product_catalog/author_xml.asp?authorid=12835 ). Actually, he has two new books out– one is a novel called WALKING MARY that is the object of a censorship campaign by a librarian in South Carolina! He also has a book of reflections on ways to think about words, from writing and book making, to reading and sharing what we have read, called AND THE FLESH BECAME WORD: REFLECTIONS THEOLOGICAL AND AESTHETIC.

Kenneth J. Harvey’s new novel is out: THE TOWN THAT FORGOT HOW TO BREATHE, which concerns what happens when the art of storytelling begins to die out in a small, coastal community. His work has been highly praised and well reviewed, and J.M. Coetzee gave this book one of his rare blurbs: "An eerie and gripping story, the work of an extravagantly haunted imagination."

Barbara Crooker’s poem "Elegy for New Orleans" is up at
http://www.thepedestalmagazine.com/Secure/Content/cb.asp?cbid=4766, and information about her new book RADIANCE is available at http://www.word-press.com/ or through


Here are some books on Iraq recommended in an “Essay”column at the end of the 10-30-05 NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW by Robert F. Worth. He especially likes Wilfred Thesiger: ARABIAN SANDS (1959) and (better) Thesiger’s book THE MARSH ARABS, plus OUT OF THE ASHES by the Cockburns and books by Hiro, Kelly, and Atkinson. The best general books on the Middle East and Iraq, says Worth, are Bernard Lewis: THE MIDDLE EAST and THE CRISIS OF ISLAM and David Fromkin’s PEACE TO END ALL PEACE. The latter gives the background on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and British efforts to govern Iraq in the early 20th century. Worth also recommends Makiya on Baathism and Saddam Hussein and Ajami on the Iran-Iraq war, a book called DREAM PALACE OF THE ARABS, as well as Yitzhak Nakash on Shi’ism.


Still giving information about the small and tiny presses– look for the new editions of the ever-useful Dustbooks publications at http://www.dustbooks.com .


See Belinda Anderson’s article on West Virginia’s own Literary Map at http://www.wvculture.org/arts/artworks/artworksfall05.pdf


I found two little online magazines that actually welcome long fiction: THE KING’S ENGLISH at http://www.thekingsenglish.org and the OREGON LITERARY REVIEW at http://www.oregonliteraryreview.org.

NIMROD INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL has themes for its spring and fall 2006 issues– “The Healing Arts” and “Doings the Hundreds at Fifty.” Send work to NIMROD, The University of Tulsa, 600 S. College Ave., Tulsa, OK 74104. Please send email submissions only if you are a writer living overseas. If you have any questions, please write to us at nimrod@utulsa.edu .


These websites will give you ideas (Suggestions thanks to SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS NEWSLETTER):
20,000 names at http://20000-names.com/
Random name generator at : http://www.kleimo.com/random/name

My NYU class plus strike

November 8
I’m feeling extremely affectionate towards my Beginning Your Novel class this fall. Great group, full of talk, and even the people are not the big talkers feel present and accounted for. I was heartened last night by their willingness, indeed eagerness, not to cross the picket lines if the NYU graduate students strike tomorrow. This was especially funny because we were reading from a novel in which a grocery store-owning family has trouble with the grocery workers union! Anyhow, they all agreed they’d like to meet off campus if there’s a strike, and two people volunteered offices. I look forward to the class– comfort with liveliness, familiarity of situation including my own confidence in my ability to teach this class, and, always, the fun of talking about writing plus Life.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

November 5

November 5, 2005
This would have been my father's 88th birthday. The photo is from the early 1970's, when he was principal of Victory High School in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Up Close and Personal with the Computer

I’m getting very close to having things fixed up with the computer: as my husband says, I’m having a few days “up close and personal” with my computer. I would like to be writing but find it hard not to be obsessed with getting my website whipped back into shape, and now I’m fooling with the Big Dreamweaver, #8, which I’ve got on a 30 day free trial, and while I’m not doing anywhere near what it’s capable of , it has some solid improvements: you can have the “properties” screen and the code available while you’re looking at the “design.” I’m not convinced that all my work with the web is truly useful– and yet, aside from being a certain kind of fun, I keep thinking there is something important about it, to be able to publish this way.
I really enjoyed Writers’ group last night. My friends there are wonderful writers and people. Carole Rosenthal read a very interesting beginning to her memoir, really lovely. Rebecca read some new fiction, don’t know if it’s old or new, but definitely strong, and if it’s new, that’s great news. Also of course in the group are Edith Konecky and Vera Williams along with Joan and Suzanne. And they liked my bar mitzvah boy story.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Halloween in Greenwich Village

Last night I came out of the NYU class to the middle of the Halloween insanity around NYU and up to Fourteenth Street and right on to 23rd— the cops weren’t letting you through to get to the PATH train till 23rd. I ended up getting a later New Jersey transit train than I'd planned, and that was okay becasue I read a little in the train waiting and had something to eat, and cetera. I didn’t see the real parade, of course, but lots of people dressed up and taking pictures of each other, of themselves with strangers: there must have been tens of thousands of people— it felt like a demonstration, except there was so much preening, so many white angel wings, one transvestive “wedding” party very funny with the biggest guy of course as the bride, plus tons of body suits and fancy gold octupus arms drifting out. Pirates and bikers, although I thing maybe the bikers were really bikers. People milling around, enjoying their own wonderfulness. The pressure of the crowd a little frightening, a little annoying to have to walk so far clutching my bag for fear of pick pockets, but mostly delightful for the concentration of pleasure and mutual admiration.