Friday, January 27, 2006

A Civilian Again

I am no longer chair of the South Orange Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. My good friend Carol Barry-Austin is the new chair. I don't feel that a great burden has been lifted in the usual sense of a lightness of my being, but I had a moment of intensely enjoying the colors and arrangement of the plaid in my flannel nightgown as it was stretched over my knee last night: a sense of being able to focus on the world in my way, not to strain to be something I am not, don't want to be (a Board Chair!). I continue on the Executive Committee of the Coalition, and I have ideas for parts of the mission of stable and continuing integration that I particularly want to work on, but I am deeply relieved that the world will now call Carol first. We have a contract with our new Executive Director, we voted on a public statement on gang activity and ordinances, and I felt that the Trustees had a sense of satisfaction in last night's meeting. We are still about to be turned out of our office and have to find a new one; we are on probably the last year of one of our major grants, and all of our money is continually shaky. Still, we had a good meeting last night and made a good statement.

Photo of me and Andy by Evelyn Codd:

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Lovely River of Life

January 25
The famous Mothers' group last night at Caffe Rosso in the West Village. We love seeing each other– smile a lot because our pasts of beginning a family are in each other's eyes. Evelyn brought photos of the party last June with fathers as well as mothers and a few kids too! She's going to be presenting a paper on Hemingway and Cather at a conference, Nancy and Jody have been madly working with younger daughters on college applications, Jody going to London to visit Kate who is over there for a semester, Julia in Argentina– we talked about our kids’ love lives! Ate salmon, cod, bucatini, mista salad with pears and gorgonzola. Drank wine. Twenty one years. Matt turns twenty one in a few days, Theresa’s already twenty one, Joel in April, then Julia and Kate. It’s been a lovely river of life.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Books for Readers # 79

Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers

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 To unsubscribe, send a blank email to Readerbooks-unsubscribe Write to Meredith Sue Willis at Unless you specifically request otherwise, your responses or selections from them may be included in future Newsletters.

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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.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Big Sky Warm January

Exceptionally warm and pretty today, houses a little naked without their bushes and trees, generally in colors of dun brown and a fair amount of green. I've been working on what seeds I have in the freezer-- next comes ordering seeds, then preparations for the Big Deer Exclusion. Meanwhile, on the family front, Joel is about to rent an apartment for next year! I remember my apartment when I was at Barnard. Not my first, because I had two the year I was in VISTA, but the 929 West End Avenue was the real thing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Eleven hours and 45 minutes without power

Well, the power finally came on-- Just four houses were without it, due to a blown down tree, and the almost-twelve hours due to the tens of thousands of other folks without power. Total disruption of my day's plans, of course, but at the end, I was in front of a fire with a candleabra burning beside me, reading-- and the light of fire and candle was making me calm in a way that these flickering screens can never do, which makes me wonder if we're really living right. But when it came on-- after I'd gone out on the porch and cheered for the "overhead" crew up in a cherry picker -- I got so excited: setting clocks, starting a wash that had been planned for first thing this morning, listening to the heat go on-- checking the stove with its electric spark-- the old light calm and making a safe place in the darkness, the new light all eager and chipper and full of activity!

Monday, January 16, 2006

MLK Celebration in South Orange Maplewood

January 16
The Interfaith Outreach Committee's MLK celebration was excellent today-- Dr. Clement Price was the speaker, with Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, and Unitarian prayers or readings. The Voices in Harmony choir sang, with a super splendid solo by someone I don't know who just woke me up and got me soaring up into the arches of Our Lady of Sorrows. A big crowd, and downstairs, Barbara Heisler Williams's book collection plus several tables suggesting help on the Academic Achievment gap, so the Achieve tutoring program was there, and a mentoring group or two plus us, the Schools Committee of the Coalition and the Coalition itself. It is so good at least once or twice a year to be part of something harmonious-- a hint (as several of the speakers said) of what we are all struggling to create, the taste of the Beloved Community, which is of course what all of our wrangling is about: the possibility of a place where people really do reacj acrpss the lines of race and religion, not to lose their identity, but to learn from each other and create something new. Music always does it for me.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Magical Thinking: Mine, Yours, and Didion's

January 14
More thoughts on m
agical thinking: My insistence on doing whatever seems to have worked in the past to keep airplanes in the air: staying awake, tracking its progress across the continent, etc. The strange ordinary marvel of a cross country flight. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking is on my mind too, of course, and how what she marvels at– her own irrational belief out of grief that she can bring back her husband if only she has everything ready for him– is really totally common and maybe even normal. We are the animal that understands the existence of cause and effect, and understand it over greater distances of time and space as the other animals don't, or at least I don't think they do. We are thus are tortured by a sense that if we play the game right, we might manage to influence it.
This is probably one source of religion as well as of superstition and magic. Probably another source of religion is what I think of as the deep calm, the serenity of the center– the feeling of well-being and oneness that may be as natural as the cause-and-effect nonsense. Both of them probably essential to the full human experience. What wise friendly aliens in science fiction always refer to as the youthful, unfinished, and even callow quality of our species...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Airplanes again

My mom is safely back in Shinnston, WV, after her marathon travels: from before Thanksgiving to now, West Virginia to Tennessee, to California, to New Jersey to Cleveland and back to WV. Now I have to keep Joel's plane in the air tonight as he returns from California with Doug and Alex K. after their Kobe versus Bron Bron basketball game last night.
His plane left late and is in flight now. This is the magical thinking problem-- that somehow I am responsible for keeping planes in the air, and it seems like a lot of people who are important to me are flying.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

New Toshiba laptop on my lap

5:10 PM or so and my new Toshiba laptop is on my lap in front of the fire. This is what I’ve been waiting for, preparing for. I’m sitting on the couch, with my feet on the big pine IKEA coffee table with a duraflame log flickering away in the fireplace. It’s rainy and I’m damp from having gone out to the garden to get some m√Ęche and greens for salad. Small red pool of Three Buck Chuck in the goblet. I just read an article in The New York Review of Books about Fra Angelico, an exhibition at the Met, which I might possibly see, but even if I don’t is a direct line to having been in Florence and having been in those old churches where the candles for sale and the fresh modern kids are mixed in with the altar pieces that are studied around the world and stun with their human apprehension of what they perceived to be the divine. I have not had an easy day–woke with concern aboutr some phone calls, various difficult business with the Coalition. So there was (to me) strenuous work on a document, various phone calls, schlepping the publicity box back to the Coalition office, difficult phone calls I had to make, and an unexpected invitation to speak at a college in a couple of months and be paid nicely. But all of that nerve wracking in different ways, and this fire and glass of wine and article about the Florentine painter like a sweet song, a deep breath.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sunset on Mars...

Small sunset on once familiar and very, very strange...

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Beloved Community

January 8
Andy and I went to the Beloved Community Award of the South Orange Civic Organization-- a forty year old local civil rights organization that did realtor testing and such way back. This was their 36th Martin Luther King celebration, and getting awards were Carol Barry-Austin, Mila Jasey, and Nancy Heins-Glaser, all associated with the Coalition one way or the other. Coalition trustee and priest at St. Andrews Sandye Wilson spoke; really super music from the choir of the East Orange Elmwood Presbyterian church. Best rendition of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" I've ever heard.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Think Light Thoughts...

Joel is almost halfway across the country now-- left at 8:45 this a.m., going to L.A. to visit with Sarah and meet her family. The Zakowskis, according to Sarah, are preparing for Joel by having their dog groomed two weeks early. I continue to be terrified of airplanes, but after last year's Xanax soothed trip to Italy, I am willing to say the terror is worth it. Maybe. Sometimes.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Fun Fact for 2006

Fun fact of the day from the New York Times: if the minimum wage had gone up at the same rate as CEO compensation since 1990, the minimum wage today would not be $5.15 but rather $23.00 and change. Greed and injustice. And who thinks they could live on $42 or even $45 a day? Raise children? make car payments, buy a computer? A house?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Day Resolving Itself

White lines of snow on tree branches from last night, and streets melting to black and slush. We went to Harrington's across the street lastl night, and it was especially wonderful to be with young kids on New Year's Eve-- lots of determination to stay up and See the Ball Drop--a tradition that we used to keep in Shinnston, too-- going to Hardesties and staying up. I remember the first year David went to some party to which I wasn't invited, so I didn't go to the family party either, embarrassed and awkward and feeling terminally left out. Instead, at midnight, I sat in the unusually warm evening at the bottom of our stairs and felt at once profoundly lonely and sad and also awed and stimulated by my own awareness of myself.

I remember the thrill of sheer lateness-- the blackness of the night-- voices shouting in the distance.

Family Fun

December 30
Some family time, Andy, Joel, and me. We went to a new barbecue place way the heck out in Somerset county called R.U.B.
, which was thoroughly delicious, then took a short trip to the L.L. Bean outlet to get Joel a new duffle bag (with the name "Butch" stitched on it, hence the cheap price). Then home to watch Serenity, the DVD of the movie of the Firefly t.v. series, which I really like. I'm not used to being a fan, but I was really upset when a couple of the crew actually got killed in the movie. Very satisfying. You like the people in this quirky cowbody science fiction show so much.