Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers
December 17, 2006
BOOKS FOR READERS is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by Meredith Sue Willis, copyright Meredith Sue Willis 2006. To have this Newsletter sent to you by e-mail, send a blank email to Readerbooksfirstname.lastname@example.org. To unsubscribe, send a blank email to Readerbooks-unsubscribe @topica.com. Write to Meredith Sue Willis at MeredithSueWillis@gmail.com. Unless you specifically request otherwise, your responses or selections from them may be included in future Newsletters.
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First, welcome to new subscribers, and warmest holiday regards for this season when people in the northern hemisphere gather to celebrate and thus stave off the dark of the year. It is also one of the best times of year to have an exchange with people from far away or long ago by sinking into a good read. One of the main purposes of this newsletter is to share ideas for just such reading experiences.
There is also still time, just barely, to support what I believe is the future of literature by choosing books and gift books from small and university presses. I keep a gift books page at giftbooks.html where I’m collecting ideas for these books that you may well have overlooked. My newest suggestions are books by Ed Davis plus a West Virginia bookstore Phyllis Moore informed me about that specializes in Appalachian and simple living books. There’s also an interesting list of poetry books keyed to certain types of friends () plus some small press children’s books. For more suggestions, see the archives of these newsletters.
Meanwhile, here’s some of what we’ve been reading at my house. First, my 87 year old mother has been here for a long visit, and she loves to read, but doesn’t like a lot of sex, violence and what is sometimes called “edginess.” So I was delighted to discover that she hadn’t read the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope! She confesses she skips some of the long digressions on politics, but loves the stories. And the good news is, there are hundreds of thousands of more words by Trollope out there for her to enjoy once she finishes the Chronicles of Barchester with its English churchmen and their sins and loves.
Our friend Petrina Livecchi, a member of my mother’s generation, often gives my mother and me books that have been discarded by her public library. She gave us one that my mother and I both like, THE ELM AT THE EDGE OF THE EARTH. This is an unusual autobiographical novel by Robert D. Hale about a little boy who, while his mother is sick, lives with his aunt and uncle at the County Farm, a working farm with animals and delicious home cooked meals many times a day– and a collection of inmates who are poor or crippled or, in once case, serving out an indefinite term for spousal murder. The book, which is apparently in large part memoir, captures a childhood mood that includes loss and grief, but also much that is light and humorous. It also feeds your nostalgia for a rural America that is mostly long gone. The book was published commercially fifteen or more years ago, but it’s readily available on the web.
Next, Margarethe Laurenzi suggested a short and wonderful collection of writings about memoir, INVENTING THE TRUTH: THE ART AND CRAFT OF MEMOIR edited by William Zinsser. The book is based on a lecture series with pieces by Alfred Kazin, Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and Lewis Thomas. I’m teaching an online class in Prose Narrative starting right after New Year’s (http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/mswclasses.html) and I’ll have both fiction and memoir writers in the class, so this small book was extremely timely for me. Zinsser says, “The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense– childhood, for instance– or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn’t possible in autobiography; memoir is a window into a life.” Russell Baker says that memoir is the opposite of autobiography, which attempts to tell the whole story: “The biographer’s problem is that he never knows enough. The autobiographer’s problem is that he knows much too much. He knows absolutely everything; he knows the whole iceberg, not just the tip....So when you’re writing about yourself, the problem is what to leave out.” Toni Morrison says, “...the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”
I also read A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE by James Shapiro. This one, instead of attempting to be a biography (“the biographer’s problem...”), instead brings to life one exemplary year late in the reign of Elizabeth I, at the height of Shakespeare’s career. The year, 1599, is an anxious one in England with rumors of war and possible plots against the throne: Everyone is expecting the Spanish to invade, but they never come. England, however, invades Ireland, and this ill-fated venture is the beginning of the downfall of the Earl of Essex. It is the year that Shakespeare and his colleagues built the Globe theatre; the year Shakespeare, still acting regularly, probably played the ghost in Hamlet and an old man named Adam in As You Like It. It is also the year that Shakespeare wrote– this is so amazing!– Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You like It and, oh yes, Hamlet! “The Romantic myth of literary genius,” says Shapiro, has difficulty accommodating “a Shakespeare whose greatness was a product of labor as much as talent.” Like most quotations that strike me as just right, this one captures my own views very nicely.
Finally, I finished a book I mentioned last issue, Jeff Mann’s LOVING MOUNTAINS, LOVING MEN. I think I called Jeff the first self identified literary gay mountain man. Mann’s project here is to combine memoir and poetry. The memoir is straightforward and often painful in its delineation of suffering and loss and loneliness. What I hadn’t gotten to when I made reference to the book last issue was a final section of poems that cover much of the same emotional territory as the prose, but transcend it in interesting ways. Some of the poems also cut to the chase of the goodness of life– gardens and food and fellowship. This would be a great book for a class in Gay studies or Appalachian studies, but also to be read as one life story, sometimes told straight up, sometimes distilled into amazing poems.
FROM KASUMU SALAWU
Kasumu Salawu calls our attention to the article about Helen Vendler in the December 10, 2006 New York Times. He has also reviewed Vendler’s book at Amazon. His review is at:
Vendler . The TIMES article is here.
Dr. Salawu writes: “Kindly note similar mentions of Irish Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, and Professor Harold Bloom in relation to the Harvard professor, Vendler. I would like to read a prodigious amount of literature but I must attend to the minutiae of the computerese that pays my bills. Amy Hempel's COLLECTED STORIES is on the New York Times Top Ten books of the year -- I have not read the minimalist much. I prefer the prose and styles of Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick and Jane Smiley. Nabokov insisted that literature is all about aesthetics, not morality and symbolism, but there are a million and one works of imaginative writing that challenge the inimitable punning genius's conclusion.”
NORMAN JULIAN’S COLUMN “THE WRITER’S LIFE” ONLINE
Norman Julian writes an interesting monthly column called " The Writer's Life" in the Morgantown DOMINION POST. One example, about Davis Grubb, author of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, can be read here .
WRITING RETREATS WITH ELLEN BASS
Writing For Our Lives: Two Writing Retreats With Ellen Bass: Mallorca: April 28-May 6 or Tuscany: May 7 - 13, 2007 . For information, email Ellen Bass at email@example.com or see her web page at http://www.ellenbass.com .
John Amen is working on a new CD which should be released in Spring 07. He’s also doing readings/performances in the spring– east and west coasts, including a reading in New York at the West Side Y with Larissa Shmailo and Colette Inez and a Philadelphia reading at the Manayunk Art Center. He’ll be in Hawaii in March and Maine in April. He’s recently been the North Carolina Arts Council featured poet. For more info, see http://www.johnamen.com.
DO YOU KNOW ABOUT WRITERSMEETUP.COM??
There’s a web site called http://www.Meetup.com dedicated to putting people in touch around interests ranging from scrapbookers to bikers. One of the largest groups is writers. It would be a useful way to find and organize writers in your area.
CONGRATULATIONS TO DIANE LOCKWARD
The 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize has been awarded by Wind Publications to WHAT FEEDS US by Diane Lockward. This prize is awarded annually to an outstanding book of poetry published by Wind Publications. It commemorates the late Quentin R. Howard who founded Wind Magazine in 1972. Diane is the author of two previous collections, EVE’S RED DRESS (2003) and a chapbook, AGAINST PERFECTION (1998). Diane’s web page is http://www.dianelockward.com.
CHRIS GRABENSTEIN’S BOOK IS NOW IN AUDIO!
Now you can download Chris Grabenstein’s thriller SLAY RIDE . The award-winning actor Jeff Woodman reads and performs the whole book. Once you download SLAY RIDE, you can listen to it on your iPod, MP3 player, or burn it onto CDs to take along in the car.