Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers
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Newsletter # 84
May 29, 2006
DEADLINE FOR ONLINE WRITING CLASS APPROACHES!
My online summer writing class, Techniques from Film for Fiction and Memoir Writers, still has a few places left, but apply soon. Learn more at http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/techniques2006.html or http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/mswclasses.html .
I feel like I’ve been working on web pages more than reading lately, but I have gobbled several books for entertainment and information, and these are all recommended. That is, they are worth your time in reading them, although I do have my reservations.
First is a highly praised recent historical novel about an English town that quarantines itself when the Bubonic Plague strikes. Year of Wonders is by Geraldine Brooks, an accomplished journalist and nonfiction writer, was engrossing and entertaining and with lots of dramatic arc. It probably has too many events, though: not only are there all possible varieties of plague but it also has the lynching of a witch, some zealous self-flagellants, lots of child birth, murder, etc. This is also another decent book with (to my taste) the wrong ending. The ending has the narrator– a 17th century working class woman– escaping to a kind of Moslem Eden where she is taken into a harem and trained to be a doctor. It strains credulity, but that bothers me less than that I think it devalues the more likely outcome: that Anna would have married the widowed rector and lived quietly, appreciated for her local skills as a midwife and housewife. I have this feeling that Brooks drew back with feminine and post modern scorn from the ordinary obviousness of the most likely. It’s a good read, though, terrifically researched. I’ve always been a sucker for the Plague, ever since my high school discovery of the risqué Forever Amber and, later, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year .
I also read with considerable admiration the artful Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. This is my first Winterson book, and I hear that each of her books is quite different from the next. This one has some outstanding writing, witty, humorous, sexy: “It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. A precise emotion seeks a precise expression. If what I feel is not precise then should I call it love? It is so terrifying, love, that all I can do is shove it under a dump bin of pink cuddly toys and send myself a greetings card saying ‘Congratulations on you Engagement....’”
The writing is humorous and exploratory and lovely, but the story line sometimes seems heavy handed . Winterson, of course, knows what she’s doing– I guess the question is, does knowing it mean it works? This in reference to plot, especially the ending again, not to the writing page by page.
Then there was A Summons to Memphis by the late great Peter Taylor. The novel is an indirectly told story whose climax is a couple of elderly men embracing. There’s a delightful confidence to the curling indirection of the narrative. I expected it to straighten itself out eventually into a broad Mississippi of a book, but it stayed narrow: the curtailed aspirations of the narrator and the twisted father-love of his two big sisters. I totally believe that the father ruined everyone’s life, but on the other hand, here in the 21st century in the northeast, it feels like it would take more than moving the family from Nashville to Memphis. I had this odd reaction of both loving the book and also being repelled by a certain curdled quality of the end. A Wikipedia article insists that everyone is reconciled at the end. I think they are just all shrunken and frustrated. See for yourself at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Summons_to_Memphis .
Finally, a brief but enthusiastic recommendation for two nonfiction books, Islam, by Karen Armstrong, a little work of genius that tells you incredibly much in a short space about the youngest of the great monotheisms. It’s only 187 pages in an extra small sized book, but it brought me immeasurably closer to understanding the difference between Sunni and Shia (the Shias are the ones who have a thing for Great Leaders, going back to Ali and Hussein, the descendants of Muhammad who were cruelly murdered by bad leaders.) Armstrong is also very good on the egalitarian roots of Islam.
Also highly recommended: Leaving Mother Lake by Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathieu. This describes a matrilineal society in which sex is recreation and family is centered around a female-led household economy that requires male participation but not sexual exclusivity. Each adult woman has a private “flower” room where she entertains whoever she pleases, changing men often or rarely.
Does this sound like fun?
I’m in the final stages of a summer reading list, and I earnestly solicit your favorite books that are of any genre but (a) published by small presses or (b) under-published by big presses (that is, essentially given no publicity, (3) out-of-print, or (d) otherwise in need of a small boost. Feel free to include your own books.
Thirty Great Years for Hanging Loose Press!
Speaking of small presses– since 1976 Hanging Loose Press has been publishing poetry, stories, novels, and a magazine that includes work by both adults and teens. Hanging Loose Press has published Sherman Alexie, Robert Hershon, Bill Zavatsky, Ha Jin, Mark Pawlak, Jeni Olin, Joanna Fuhrman, Charles Wyatt, Steven Schrader, Bill Zavatsky– the list goes on and on. They deserve your support– and you deserve their great books! Website is http://www.hangingloosepress.com .
Fred First's Slow Road Home: A Blue Ridge Book of Days
Fred First, biologist and naturalist, has collected the best of his newspaper column and blog about his life on a small property in Floyd County, Virginia. He and his wife chose this property in this location after much thought, and his life in these southwestern Virginia mountains is a conscious, indeed ideological choice– that is to say, he is attempting to live in a way that is exemplary and instructive to others. He believes that it is a good thing to garden in the summer and a good thing to chop wood and tend the wood stove in the winter. In particular, he believes that a meditative observation of nature is a good thing, and some of his paragraphs of description are as powerful as any I’ve ever read about nature.
These passages represent a very simple but very profound observing and opening to the world we live in, and even if there were only three instead of dozens, First’s book would be a valuable project: “Snow falls onto the creases of my parka,” he writes, “and does not melt. What had looked through the windows like falling flakes are not flakes but aggregations– light loose thatches of tiny ice needles, linear and sharp-tipped–loose feathers of filamentous crystal down There is no sight of a six-sided lacy flake in any of it. The locks fall from the shoulders of my jacket onto my arms, white against the dark of my coat like my hair short from barber’s shears, slivers of gray and white, they tumble softly to the ground.”
Of a meteor shower he writes, “The light of a setting full moon and the wet haze in the predawn air washed out the weakest stars. But it was dark enough. In thirty minutes, I saw perhaps 200 meteors. Most were zips at the edge of vision. Some were spectacular, lighting up the valley in less than a blink, like a photographic flash. Others left persistent trails across the sky in the way an artist would lightly dash a perfectly straight line on black canvas with a luminescent pale blue pigment with a fine-tipped brush. One split into two, each fragment sizzling off to die dark death, extinguished in the protective shield of atmosphere.”
For more on SLOW ROAD HOME, including excerpts and how to order, go to http://goosecreekpress.pbwiki.com/FrontPage.
Ellen Bass Recommends
Ellen Bass writes, “Dan Gottlieb is my oldest friend. I've known him since I was five years old when we both lived on Main St. in Pleasantville, NJ– he in the apartment above his family's Army and Navy store and I above my family's liquor store. Dan is one of two people who I consider to be my spiritual teachers. Whenever I see him, something important shifts inside me. I wish each of you could have Dan for an old friend--and his book makes that just a little bit possible....I'm so happy to be able to introduce you to him through this book. It was published in April and is available at bookstores, online, and from Dan's website http://letterstosam.com.” The book is Letters To Sam , by Daniel Gottlieb. A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life For more information on Dan & Letters to Sam, visit http://www.letterstosam.com. The author's royalties will benefit Cure Autism Now and other children's charities.
Jack Wills Recommends...
Professor of Literature emeritus and restorer of old mills Jack Wills recommends Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat. Jack writes, “Friedman's book is about how the earth has been ‘flattened’ by computer and other technologies and how this flattening has, along with a newly trained work force (in India, China, and elsewhere) and significant political changes (fall of the Berlin Wall, move to a capitalistic economy, etc.), created a ‘triple convergence’ which is offering unprecedented opportunities for people all over the world but also (with al-Quaeda and other angry, alienated groups) new perils. I consider this book a must for anybody who truly wants to understand the world of the twenty-first century; it might even shake up one's long-held political beliefs.”
Lee Maynard Recommends:
Lee Maynard writes of Piers Paul Read’s book The Templars: The Dramatic History of the Knights Templar, the Most Powerful Military Order of the Crusades. “I've waded through the first third of the book and am totally overdosed on names of characters who somehow figured into the history of the Templars. I enjoy such information, but enough is enough, already. And, his style doesn't exactly sing. I find myself aching for a Templar book written by Barbara Tuchman. I'm just now to the actual founding of the order. A very strange bunch of guys. (Yep, all guys. They weren't allowed to "consort" with women. A Templar knight, by rule, could not "touch, embrace, kiss, or otherwise 'know' a woman." Hmmmm, I was never cut out to be a Templar.)”
Writing Workshop for Young People
The Fifth annual Gull Lake Conference for Young Writers (aged 16-22) will be held July 24-28, 2006 at Kellogg Biological Station and Conference Center in Michigan. The conference offers young writers a week to live a monk’s existence, to devote themselves to their craft while living on beautiful Gull Lake. For information, get in touch with John Rybicki,7546 S. Crooked Lake, Delton, MI 49046, 269-623-3099, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writing Workshops for Everyone:
With Roberta Allen:
(1) New York City: Her new Tuesday night workshop starts June 7, 2006 from 7:30-10 PM. It meets twice monthly for 8 sessions (4 months) and costs $400. (2) Woodstock, NY: The new Monday night workshop starts June 12 from 7-9:30 PM.. It meets twice monthly for 8 sessions (4 months) and with the special $50 discount only costs $350. Trial class for first timers costs $50. Write to Roberta Allen at Roall@aol.com or see her website at http://www.robertaallen.com .
With Ellen Bass:
WRITING AND KNOWING. A Poetry Workshop with Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar August 20-25, 2006 at Esalen, Big Sur, California. “We will write poems, share our writing, and hear what our work touches in others. We'll also read model poems by contemporary poets and discuss aspects of the craft. But mainly this will be a writing retreat-- time to explore and create in a supportive community. Though we'll focus on poetry, prose writers who want to enrich their language will find it a fertile environment.” Esalen fees cover tuition, food and lodging and vary according to accommodations--ranging from $475 to $1060. The least expensive rate is for sleeping bag space which can be very comfortable, but it's limited. All arrangements and registration must be made directly with Esalen. Please register directly with Esalen at 831-667-3005 or visit http://www.esalen.org .
Writers Conference for Women
Shelley Ettinger points us to what sounds like an excellent writers’ conference for women: http://www.flanked.org/conference.html .