Sunday, January 22, 2006

Books for Readers # 79

Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers

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Newsletter # 79
January 21 , 2006

Let me recommend most enthusiastically both to writers and readers Adam Sexton’s new book MASTER CLASS IN FICTION WRITING: TECHNIQUES FROM AUSTEN, HEMINGWAY, AND OTHER GREATS (LESSONS FROM THE ALL-STAR WRITER’S WORKSHOP). The idea of the book is that you can learn to be a better writer by studying specific techniques of excellent writers: Hemingway for voice, Austen for characterization, etc. He puts in all the sections you’d expect– structure, plot, characterization, dialogue, description, point of view, etc., and each section focuses on one work– a short story, long story, or novel. He actually tells you to “Stop now and read....” so you’ve got an excellent guide to reading or re-reading some twentieth century classics plus SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I didn’t read every single thing he suggested, but I did re-read Joyce’s “Araby;” Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” and Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

Plus I read my first ever book by Iris Murdoch, A SEVERED HEAD. I don’t know why I’ve been so slow to dip into Murdoch’s work, but I’m glad I was pricked to try this weirdly funny book with lots of dialogue and lots of silly people switching sexual partners. It had a brown and red quality to me, I suppose what I imagine to be wealthy British interiors with oak paneling and damask. Murdoch tells the story from a man’s point of view, creating the illusion of a man’s voice very well because (a) the milieu is one where men and woman talk the same language and even a man who goes to business is a bit of a dilettante, and (b) there is a lot of yearning after women’s bodies which she does very well. I can’t imagine plunging into Murdoch’s world every day or even every week, but it was fun to try out.

Does anyone have any suggestions for my next Iris Murdoch book?

As for the Hemingway, which I read years and years ago, the simplest way to describe my reaction is to say that the war parts are superb, but I could have done with less of dear brave Catherine. The ambulance drivers, the famous retreat in disarray, the casualness of death, the disorganized reality of war on the ground– even descriptions of rain and flat agricultural country are as good as anything I’ve read from the last century. But the love affair became tiresome to me. Even Catherine’s tragic end annoys me because it is really about the narrator, not about her. I sound terribly crabby here, and I don’t pretend that this is anything but personal, but is it really fair that the lover’s death is just a part of the young man’s coming-of-age experience? It’s still a really worthwhile book, of course, and I intend to recommend it to one young man I know.

That latter reaction is mine, not Adam Sexton’s. For a quick course in some great fiction and to study fiction techniques for your own writing, get hold of Adam Sexton’s MASTER CLASS.

A couple more: I re-read THE WARDEN by Anthony Trollope at the suggestion of Ingrid Hughes. This chronologically first of the Barchester novels is perhaps the best portrait I know of a morally good man whose goodness doesn’t keep him from having to make a hard choice.

A Christmas gift from my husband: THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion. I didn’t start it until hearing of the sudden death of an acquaintance. It is a powerful book about the loss of a husband, perhaps made more fascinating because most readers know that shortly after publication, Didion’s daughter, whose illness is a part of the book, had a relapse and died. So the facts are shocking and moving in themselves. Still, I had some of my usual Joan Didion reactions, which include jealousy of her fame and accomplishments. She always assumes that her life is somehow typical–as she jets around to Malibu and Hawaii. She has an interesting passage about people she knows who think they are great life-managers because they have the phone numbers of all the top doctors and good friends at every consulate overseas. Of course part of the point is that those at the top are also subject to massive heart attacks and septic shock and the insanity of grief.

Most of the time as I read Didion, I am totally wrapped in her life (I made a typo here and wrote “wrapt,” conflating wrapped up and rapt) and observations and insights, but every so often the spell fails, and I think, Yes, yes, but why are YOU the one who gets to tell your life instead of, say, some Ethiopian mother whose sons were stolen to be soldiers and whose baby died of starvation? The point isn’t count your blessings and think of the starving children in Africa, but that recognizing the common humanity of the privileged is only a small part of what we need to be doing.

Meredith Sue Willis


Shelley Ettinger says, “I'm just finishing Michael Cunningham's SPECIMEN DAYS. It didn't get very good reviews and I'd had mixed feelings about THE HOURS so I hadn't rushed to read it, but I took it out of the library last week and it's bowling me over. His writing, as always, is extraordinarily beautiful, but I'm also loving the story--or rather, the three stories, set in NYC in three different eras, including a dystopian future, all harking in some way to Walt Whitman's poetic vision.”

Sheila Belt says that in the busyness of life, she finds that keeping a short story collection beside the bed the best way to get some reading done. She recommends BREAKING ICE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY BLACK WRITERS edited by Terry McMillan with a preface by John Edgar Wideman. Featured writers include Gloria Naylor, Darryl Pinckney, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, Terry McMillan, and many others.

I’ve read a couple of books on artists lately. I liked the little CARAVAGGIO: PAINTER OF MIRACLES by Francine Prose from the “Eminent Lives Series.” It’s a short introduction to Caravaggio written in graceful sentences. He was a street fighter in life, but he conveyed an astoundingly materialistic splendor in his religious paintings– Prose calls them Caravaggio’s miracles– Paul getting his vision, Peter being crucified. Then there are all the paintings of seductive little boys....

Also read/looked at DAVID: FIVE HUNDRED YEARS by Antonio Paolucci. This was a Christmas present from my son, a picture book of Il Gigante’s inhuman brilliant eye close up and his infinitely more expressive and appealing flanks, feet, hands, etc. with several articles offering a general appreciation of the statue, its history, and short bio of Michelangelo. This will make a good resource–issues of preservation and political meaning and well as the innate splendor of the thing.


Carol Rosenthal mentions the current scandal about memoir– the James Frey Oprah pick A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. She says that the scandal strikes her as crazy, “given all the big lies we are told every single day, the official lies that lurk in every nook and cranny of the public imagination.”

I had actually been following more closely the brouhaha about J.T. LeRoy (who used to sell raccoon penis bones on his website). I talked a little about J.T.’s novel SARAH in one of the early issues of this newsletter, saying of the novel at the time, “SARAH, by J.T. LeRoy, a young West Virginia native who now lives in San set in the back lots of the barren gas station-restaurant truck stops of the Interstate highway system. Here pimps of various degrees of kindheartedness and brutality run stables of prostitutes of all genders, primarily servicing truck drivers.” The main character of the book is a boy who appropriates his mother's clothes and name. Predictably, as all the people in this world are involved in the sex trade, he becomes a prostitute too. This was supposed to be a gauze-thin disguised version of LeRoy’s own life. The book got a lot of attention, and the boy was taken up by celebrity types– and now is exposed to be most likely a middle aged woman writer plus a skinny younger woman who pretended to be J.T. in public, wearing dark glasses and wigs. (See and

So here’s my question: What is going on here? Are we so starved for something to believe in, for truth, that we are confusing Truth with Real? As a fiction writer, I find this a fascinating topic. What’s wrong with a middle aged woman imagining the life of a boy prostitute? And mainly why would such a book have a better chance if written by an actual boy prostitute?

Thoughts on this topic welcome.


There is a Daniella Gioseffi issue of SUGAR MULE!

GHOTI magazine has an interview with Nathan Leslie where he talks about what it takes to be a writer today– and says something nice things in passing about me and Lynda Schor.

Barbara Crooker has more in her series of post 9-11 poems. Also, see her new book, RADIANCE at .


Phyllis Moore offers this one from Winston Churchill: "If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them....arrange them on you own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances." ( Winston Churchill from Book Lovers Quotations edited by Helen Exley. ) Then she goes on to say, “My personal plan is to arrange my Appalachian collection by genres but to not let books touch each other if I know the authors don't like each other or if one is a prude and the other a free spirit. Good friends and lovers are side by side.”


Cat Pleska has an interesting blog/article on Eudora Welty.


And here’s what all you writers have been waiting for: a website that compares the qualities of a title to the titles of best sellers.


Books mentioned in this newsletter with no associated website are available from your public library and your local independent bookstore as well as online and at the mall. For online shopping, try Bookfinder or a site that specializes in textbooks but includes general trade books too– Direct Textbook. Other places for comparison shopping are and Sources for used and out-of-print books include Advanced Book Exchange and Alibris.

You can also, of course, get almost any book online from or Barnes & Noble, but keep in mind that both and Barnes & Noble avoid unions and are responsible for the demise of many independent book stores.

Please send any responses and suggestions directly to me. Unless you say otherwise, your responses may be edited and published in this newsletter. Please e-mail Meredith Sue Willis at Meredith Sue Willis.

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