Saturday, November 25, 2006

Books for Readers Newsletter #89

Books for Readers Newsletter
November 25, 2006

Friends: Are you looking for holiday gifts? I’m collecting a special list of under-publicized books, most from small presses, but some out of print. Take a look at this list for all ages. Each book recommended by someone. There are lots of good books at Barns & Noble too, but for a change of pace, consider supporting the future of literature as you delight your friends: go to Gift Books.
A couple of recent literary deaths: Ellen Willis died in early November, as did William Styron. Willis was a leftist and a feminist who always did interesting work, but I had a personal relationship to her work: I read a book, called I think QUESTIONS FRESHMEN ASK. It was probably her first one, because she was only a few years older than I, and I was in high school. The book was about going to college, and it was terribly sophisticated and funny and stunned me with a whole world view. It both made me feel I would never survive college and paradoxically made me think how wonderful it would be. She also had the same name as my father's cousin Ellen Willis, too. Not to mention the same last name as me.
Styron was of course one of the ones who tried to write the Great American Novel. He was what I think of as a quintessential Heroic Novelist. SOPHIE’S CHOICE and LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS are well worth reading– ambitious and moving and self-consciously profound. I also admire his memoir pieces, especially his memoir of depression DARKNESS VISIBLE. The thing about the Heroic Novelists is that they always had the enviable seriousness of writers who truly believed that novels are the most serious form of art, and that art is the most serious form of human endeavor.
Now I’ve given a great deal of my life to writing novels, and as a writer and a reader I find novels to be one of the supreme expressions of meaning in human life. For me, however, especially from my thirties on, novel writing had increasingly appeared to be one human activity– perhaps the best ever invented for exploring mental states and emotions and for connecting the individual to society, and the past to the present and ideas to emotion– oh, I could go on and on. But I no longer see this as a heroic struggle of an individual artist, but rather something human beings do. Furthermore, the practice of novel writing is a privilege that generally requires financial support, especially in a time when you can’t depend on making a living as a fiction writer. Also, it is, in the end, a safe and relatively healthy occupation: writing novels might give you carpal tunnel syndrome, but it won’t give you black lung.
Of course I have a lot of envy of the Heroic Novelists like Styron, but I now see myself as less like them (and I’m speaking here of attitude rather than accomplishment!) Than like, say, Chaucer, who was a diplomat and business man and wrote his poems in his leisure hours, not for money. Shakespeare of course famously spent much of his time as actor and theater owner, and at least sometimes wrote primarily to supply his business with content, as they say in th computer biz. This in no way downgrades the value of Shakespeare: on the contrary, to me it supports my argument that genius, too, is a human activity, and likely more common than we think. In other words, whatever the personal cost and struggle to write– and it can be a huge one (see Tillie Olsen’s book SILENCES), it is one of many human struggles, many human activities.
A couple of years back, we had some discussion of Styron and his work in this newsletter ( see 28 and 29) and I expressed my admiration and ambivalence there. Some wonderful books, always ambitious, and a life full of struggle and pain like all human lives.
Notes on my recent reading: THE ROMANTICS:ENGLAND IN A REVOLUTIONARY AGE, by E.P. Thompson, is a collection of book reviews and articles by the late British historian, unfinished at his death. The book gave me a lot of new ideas. It is about those years in the late 1790's when Wordsworth and Coleridge were writing the LYRICAL BALLADS. It was also a time when it could be threatening to one’s freedom and even ones life to be British and support the French Revolution, which included most of the Romantic poets in their twenties. The book then talks about the rejection of the French Revolution by Wordsworth and Coleridge, the abstracting of ideas from politics by William Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband), and also introduced me to an interesting new figure, the overly self important bad poet and rabble rouser, John Thelwall. I wish some of these articles had been included in my Romantic Literature class at Barnard back in the late sixties.
For something completely different, I read the incredibly light and good-humored THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith. This was a gift from my friend Petrina Livecchi who volunteers at her library and is the first of a popular series about a Botswanan woman who decides to become a detective. I wonder what people in Botswana think of it? The author Alexander McCall Smith, a white man, says they like it...
Also for entertainment, I reread the redoubtable DUNE by Frank Herbert. The great sand worm “makers” are a wonderful invention, and the story is a grand old ride. The religion seems pretty derivative, but I can’t complain about borrowing, as I see now how much of my science fiction novel THE CITY BUILT OF STARSHIPS is influenced by my first reading of DUNE years ago. Oh well, I’m the one who insists it’s good to imitate.
I also want to recommend two books by writers I read with recently. I had the great honor of being the featured writer in APPALACHIAN HERITAGE magazine this fall. (For information on how to get a copy, e-mail or call 859-985-3699 or 859-985-3559. Mailing address is Appalachian Heritage, CPO 2166, Berea, Kentucky 40404). There are articles by Keith Maillard, Phyllis Moore, and West Virginia University President David C. Hardesty.
I was then invited to participate in the first ever Featured Author Reading at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, on Friday, November 10th to honor the magazine. The reading included the two other living featured writers for 2006, Crystal Wilkinson and Jeff Mann. (The person who died was the National Book Award winning West Virginian author, Mary Lee Settle.) I definitely want to recommend books by the other readers at that event: Crystal E. Wilkinson’s BLACKBERRIES, BLACKBERRIES is a collection of short stories told in a wonderful voice that sounds both black and Appalachian, which is no surprise as the stories are set in small town Kentucky with mostly African American characters. There are some real knock-out stories including “Waiting for the Reaper” about how a woman’s life is colored by how she’s always expecting/wanting to die and be with her loved ones. “Peace of Mind” is a monologue during one afternoon while a woman tries to have some time to herself and gets called by her ex husband and her kids and camp at her best friend while her lemonade melts; “Tipping the Scales” is a novel-in-miniature. See the publisher’s website at I am also reading LOVING MOUNTAINS, LOVING MEN by Jeff Mann, who is probably the first self identified literary gay mountain man. The book does a really wonderful job of delineating one man’s precise place in the world. It also has some harrowing stories of suffering adolescence and a number of powerful poems. See Mann.
Both of these books would make excellent gifts (for yourself too!)and I’ve listed them on my special page of recommended books from small presses at giftbooks.
Finally. Don’t miss the continuing discussion below of the state of publishing in almost-2007.
Meredith Sue Willis


Cat Pleska sends some of her notes from a writing conference in Columbus, Ohio:

The NY editors/agents were definite about having a platform. They all talked about it at the Columbus conference (and I'm sure any other where they appear). It's a built-in audience for you, in whatever way that can be counted: on radio? Great! Published clips– of course. Got a hobby? Do you knit, snowboard? Then they can market you to these areas of interest, regardless (almost) of what you write). Areas of interest? Are you into certain groups? The ACLU, the underwater basket weaving association? Labor History? All these they'll consider. The more numbers you can give them as to your potential or actual audience is the more they'll consider your proposal.

We're not going to talk them out of this. Quality of writing is a given and the quality of writing has improved steadily for a couple decades. So, what is a writer to do? If a great book of any type isn't enough?

I personally feel the publishing industry dropped the ball and now the bean counters drive what's published. What sells the most? Chick lit? Romances are always good sellers. Mysteries, other genre writing. All good sellers. What happens if you happen to write literary works? While the occasional literary work does make it big time, it's rare and becoming more rare.

Regardless of the state of publishing (I also have a sneaking suspicion that the publisher may be letting the fall guy be the bean counters and that they haven't done enough to keep the public interested in reading. Why not? We have to morph to get published so why don't they work harder?) But that's history. It is what it is now. The question becomes what do people do about it? How can we outfox the fox?


Responding to the discussion in the October issue of BOOKS FOR READERS, Irene Tiersten shares this true story: “This past June, I met with an executive editor of a major publishing company. Over lunch in New York, she educated me about the current state of publishing, which was exactly what Cat Pleska described. I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction as well as a playwright. Two of my books, a novel and a collection of related short stories, were published by the editor’s company: she, in fact, edited them and we became friends. Since that time, I have concentrated on playwriting, but now I have completed a new novel, which was the subject of our lunch meeting. She educated me about the new practice of publishers having to pay bookstores to display new books. She was genuinely distressed at the limitations this practice placed on her ability to buy new manuscripts. She asked to see mine, saying she had very little hope that she would be able to buy it no matter how good it was. Some weeks later, she told me ruefully that she liked the book, but…..I have gone back to writing plays.”


Cat Pleska has a new essay on her web site– plus a recipe for pear butter related to the essay! Also photos and of caves and a new book review. Go to Mouth of the Holler.


Shelley Ettinger recommends Emile Zola’s classic GERMINAL, “a novel that I think might interest you, if you haven't read it already.... published around 1885 I believe. It's the story of a French miners' strike in the 1860s. I found it fascinating in a number of ways. The prose is certainly of the 19th century– plenty of telling rather than showing, sort of flowery in some passages– yet where I sometimes find this style tedious I didn't here. The portrayal of the miners and their families as well as of the bourgeois and their families and their respective living conditions, and most of all the incredibly vivid, horrifying scenes down in the mines, the work and the disasters, were engrossing, as were the chapters detailing the action of the strike itself, which is the heart of the book. I was also very interested in Zola's depiction of sex roles and sexuality, not at all what I might have expected. The women do work in the mines– who knew?– and when the strike breaks out it's the women who are its most radical proponents, and who lead every mass action, including the turn toward violence. At the same time, there is a total sort of (hetero) sexual freedom with little or no regard for religious or bourgeois social mores; women couple with whomever they please at no real peril to their reputations. It's complicated, because it's borne of the brutal, packed living conditions that break down any of the usual restrictions, and it can as easily result in wife beating, rape and yearly pregnancy as in free love, so it's not that Zola presents it as the ideal, but the way the sexes relate to each other in and out of the mines and the way the mines are really the controlling factor in both is very very interesting.”


... is just out from Blair Mountain Press. It is an important and timely collection. The ISBN is 0-9768817-1-3; price $15.00; Chris Green, Editor.


Shelley also draws our attention to a newly published college poem of Sylvia Plath’s at an interesting online magazine, Blackbird


David Weinberger is a well known journalist, NPR commentator, blogger and book writer (SMALL PIECES LOOSELY JOINED)has a new book due out this spring. If you feel really insecure about your knowledge of the web, see his primer at You can also Google the name “David Weinberger” and he comes up ahead of Michelangelo’s statue! He’s also my husband’s baby brother, and he has been my private tutor for all things Internet– this newsletter, for example, would probably never had happened without his example and advice. He has now published his first children’s novel, a longish chapter book, MY 100 MILLION DOLLAR SECRET.
The narrator and his friends are middle school students, and the plot is both entertaining and idea-driven (David started life as a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a comedy writer). The protagonist-narrator is a boy whose father is a newspaper man who has a crusade against lotteries, and the boy wins a tremendous amount of money– in the lottery. So the story is about how to hide something from your parents without lying and how to spend and give away lots and lots of money. It also has an amusing sub-sub plot about how kids have to hire grown-ups to front for them in various business situations. There’s also just the slightest hint of love interest, an evil capitalist who runs the rival town newspaper, some mean girls who get a mild comeuppance, a little sister who picks up lice at school every year, and lots more. It would be an excellent gift for a thoughtful student and would make a great centerpiece in an Ethics for Children class. The adults I know who’ve read it were also highly enthusiastic.


Are you looking for a board book for the very littlest book people? Try Trish Bentley’s guide book to New York City–through the eyes of her pooch Benny-Be!


The North Carolina Arts Council has a poet of the week that is well worth looking at:


Leora Skolkin reports that the gifted actress, Tovah Feldshuh has been reading from her novel EDGES, O ISRAEL, O PALESTINE, an original audio edition, in production set directed by Charles Potter, a three-time grammy award winner and director of Maya Angelou's audio poetry book.

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