Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Books for Readers Ju#95 ne 10

Books for Readers

Newsletter # 95
June 10, 2007

I’ve just finished an excellent best selling nonfiction book, COLLAPSE by Jared Diamond. The last third was a little harder to get through– maybe it was that I prefer the collapse of ancient societies to learning about present day declining fisheries, bleached coral reefs, poisoned streams, and clear-cut rainforests. But the message was like a blast of antihistamine for a stuffed nose: the collapse of societies has happened before, due to many factors almost always including destruction of resources, and we’re facing possible collapse now on a world-wide scale unless we change our ways. This is not new news in 2007, but Diamond’s clearly reasoned delineation is excellent.
It somehow reassures me that human beings have been causing environmental change, both neutral and catastrophic, for tens of thousands of years. It isn’t that the earth was pristine or people kind to the soil and air and plant life up until fifty years ago. The Norse Greenlanders, for example, despoiled their little corner of the world in the 1300's in a multitude of ways, and failed to learn lessons that might have saved them from another group of immigrants, the Inuit. The Easter Islanders, immediately after the high point of their statue building and complex religious cults, cut down the last of their trees, and their population dropped to almost nothing with an extremely low standard of living. Diamond also discusses the fall of the Mayans and the Anasazi in the Southwestern U.S. Often what he records is how political hubris (especially the ambitions of the warrior classes trumping the interests of farmers) has often been destructive.
There are, however, lessons to learn and models for changing our ways. There have been positive reversals of destruction that came both from grassroots efforts and from above. In Tokugawa Japan, the shogun saved the forests by decree; in the New Guinea highlands, the people 1200 years ago saw their land deforested, and, individually and in small groups, collected plants, experimented, and reforested. China is an environmental mess, but a sign of possible hope is how the government did stop population growth. Individualistic Montanans are beginning to see they need government regulation to save their land and their life style. Excellent book.
And, for something completely different– I read my first Harry Potter! For my birthday, my son Joel gave me HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (which had a title with much more sense of history in the UK: HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE). HARRY was, as Joel said, an incredibly easy, fast, and fun read. One of the things that strikes me about wildly popular books and movies and games is that they usually have a lot of delightful surface innovation and spectacle but a dependable, conventional heart. And, of course they have skillful storytelling. The plot here includes the ever-dependable oppressed childhood followed by spunky new kid at school, complete with mean girls, or in this case, mean wizards. There are supportive friends and a nemesis plus mentors and guides for the hero’s quest. All of this is totally obvious, which is to take nothing away from it, because it all works together and is clever without being jokey. Also, as my son pointed out, Rowling is great on names: Draco Malfoy indeed! A monstrous guard dog called Fluffy.
Finally, I want to mention a memoir that has been getting good reviews in the New York media, THICK AS THIEVES. It is by a former student of mine, Steve Geng, and I was delighted to have a walk-on in the final pages. Steve writes about a difficult life and serious illness in a way that is raw and sharp. He has lived on the edge, hustling, stealing, selling and doing a lot of drugs. The special hook of the story is that while he was living a hustler’s life in New York City, his much-admired older sister was in the same city writing for THE NEW YORKER magazine. Their relationship is sustaining but difficult, and the story of his reconciliation with his retired-military father is touching. The real strength of the book, though, is how directly and energetically, but without romanticizing, he shares the highs and lows of his life. Part of his honesty is a grand joie de vivre even after all he’s been through: and he does not deny the pleasure of jazz, sex, drugs– all of his experiences. He manages to show a life that he is not proud of, but that was lived with gusto. Had he not contracted AIDS, had he not hurt people, inevitably lost the bounce-back of youth, you wonder if he might not have continued boosting and shooting up for the rest of his life. The description of his big fall after eight or nine years of sobriety is excellent and believable. As one reviewer remarked, Geng knows that under the same circumstances he would likely have done it all again. I wonder of the rest of us are ever so honest.
Meredith Sue Willis

“The place of reading in my life,” says Shelley Ettinger, “ ... you have no idea .... it's a sickness, really, because it's not just the constant reading but the obsessive, panicky compulsion to have enough books on my to-read shelf. I'm like someone who grew up poor hoarding canned food – but I grew up in a house full of books and readers so I don't have the excuse of early deprivation. One evening last week as I was falling asleep I realized that I'd been to every single one of the libraries (four) and bookstores (five) that I frequent in the past two days. Some more than once. Oy.”
Ingrid Hughes writes: “Myra Shapiro's memoir, FOUR SUBLETS: BECOMING A POET IN NEW YORK, is about a woman who moves to New York in middle age from her home in Chattanooga to study poetry and make a life as a poet for herself in the city she's longed for, and about how her marriage makes this transition with her. It's a good depiction of contemporary attitudes– the celebration of individual growth, the delight in its nuances. The best single scene was the death of her sister-in-law.”
Margarethe Laurenzi’s book group discussed THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan. She says, “THE KEEP is really good. It is great fodder for writers, because it weaves a tale between the story being told about a castle and some cousins, a writer (who is writing the castle/cousins story) from jail, and his teacher, who goes to the jail to give 'writing classes' to selected prisoners. There are quite a few twists and turns in the story, which ultimately weaves together, and we had a great time discussing it.”
And, another from Margarethe’s group: “My book group is batting 1000 this year in picks: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, by Sara Gruen, tells the story of a young man, Jacob, who leaves college in crisis in the early 1930s and joins the circus. The book tells the story of his 3 month stint with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and weaves back and forth between that time of his life and his present day circumstance as a 93-year-old man in a nursing home, recalling the story. It's beautifully done. It has all the vivid, coarse, seamy side of traveling circus life, along with some well-formed characters who reaffirm that even alongside evil there is humanity and decency. I read it in two nights. Couldn't put it down, and while I am not usually a fan of the tacking back and forth between two stories (and time frames and casts of characters), I thought that Gruen used this writer's technique successfully and even nimbly.”
Phyllis Moore writes to say, “I'm reading the memoir WARM SPRINGS: TRACES OF A CHILDHOOD AT FDR'S POLIO HAVEN by Susan Richards Shreve. It is painfully honest, no pun intended. Her childhood memories start at about 1 ½ years of age. Pearl Buck had infancy memories. So do I. (That is the only similarity between Buck and me.) Both [my husband] Jim and I have early childhood recollections too. Do some people have a special ability to recall childhood or infancy? I think scientific studies rules out much memory recall from before the age of three. But science isn't my cup of tea. What do you think? George Ella Lyon's DON'T YOU REMEMBER? is just out. My copy hasn't arrived yet but it will go to the top of my ‘to read’ stack when it does.”
Norman Julian, in one of his always worthwhile columns in the Morgantown, West Virginia DOMINION-POST recommends STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS, by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.
Well, here’s a new way to judge a book. Take a look at this interesting experiment of using an idea from Ford Maddox Ford about judging a book by its page 99.
Leora Skolkin-Smith says, “I wanted to tell you...about Carolyn Howard-Johnson. Carolyn has written a treasure of a book called THE FRUGAL PROMOTER. Carolyn is also quite miraculous when it comes to advising literary writers how to survive this climate which too often is more based on promotion than quality, and I highly recommend checking out her web site, book, and advice column. The link to her blog is www.sharingwithwriters.blogspot.com , and she has a web page called How To Do It Frugally. Just wanted to write and tell you, in hopes of helping other authors who were as in the dark about publicity, etc as I was (and still am). Right now, publicists are charging is thousands of dollars and Carolyn is a teacher at UCLA who focuses on how to understand and thereby manage one's own publicity, sparing the innocent.”
LEADS by Rochelle Ratner is now out. “The germs of this book began in 1977,” says Ratner, “when I visited friends in London. As a child, I’d been told I had a speech impediment, but I vehemently refused voice lessons. Then, in a London pub, talking with a friend from the Lancashire/Yorkshire border, it was almost as if I fitted in at last. Without realizing it, I’d probably inherited aspects of my grandmother’s accent. And I’d never missed her as much as I did at that moment. That was when I began planning a trip to Leeds, where my grandmother was born and spent her childhood. I knew I had to write about it, and began a series of poems as the journey took shape. Once there, I copied from books and records I’d found in the Leeds library. I began writing down what people said. What I hadn’t expected was that, as I later tried to shape the materials, I would find other peoples’ words more powerful than my own. Poem? Journal? Memoir? Found text? Think of Olson’s Maximus or Paul Metcalf’s writings." See www.rochelleratner.com .
The audio version of Richard Currey’s LOST HIGHWAY from Mountain Whispers aired on XM on Memorial Day. http://richardcurrey.com/events.html. MountainWhispers Audio will go out to, well, more than a few listeners on that day. And those listeners will be everywhere on the planet. It should subsequently air two more times after Memorial Day, although XM is still working out how they want to do it, but probably in daily "chapters" over a week, or possibly 2-3 nights back-to-back. So check XM.
Red Hen Press will be publishing a collection of 21 short stories by Greg Sanders in spring 2008. Keep an eye on his web site www.gregorysanders.com and his MySpace page http://www.myspace.com/greg_nyc.
Hanging Loose Press has been publishing for more than thirty years. Look at their web site at http://www.hangingloosepress.com . 2007- 2008 catalog includes books by Joan Larkin, Charles North, Hettie Jones, Paul Violi, Terence Winch, Sherman Alexie, Bill Zavatsky, Steve Schrader and many more.
Paola Corso’s GIOVANNA’S 86 CIRCLES was a finalist in the John Gardner Fiction Book Award cntest. Learn more at http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/2932.htm .
Chris Grabenstein’s award winning murder mystery series continues with WHACK A MOLE. An innocent discovery on the beach in Sea Haven leads to a string of gruesome clues and one chilling conclusion: a long dormant serial killer is poised to strike again! LIBRARY JOURNAL said "Whack A Mole is as engaging and enjoyable as the debut Tilt-a-Whirl. Certainly more fun when read as part of a series, this title nevertheless stands on its own as a well-written mystery, complete with humor, humanity, a fast-moving plot, and memorable characters. Highly recommended."
Ellen Bass’s new book, THE HUMAN LINE, has just been published by Copper Canyon Press. It's available at your local bookstore or online. Look at some sample poems at http://www.ellenbass.com .
Thad Rutkowski has a lot of new work coming out: "Learning Curve," story, in Dislocate, No. 3, Spring 2007 (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis) (http://www.dislocate.org ) ; "Beautiful Youth," spoken word, on Family Affairs CD (recorded at Eureka Joe cafe, 1995), now with audio samples at: http://cdbaby.com/cd/familyaffairs; "The Speech of Cretans," prose poem, Barbaric Yawp, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 2007 (BoneWorld Publishing, 3700 County Route 24, Russell, NY 13684). For more, see his website at http://www.thaddeusrutkowski.com .
Margarethe Laurenzi recommends what looks like a stellar site for writers, Erika Dreifus’s THE PRACTICING WRITER at http://www.practicing-writer.com/ For more sites for writers, see my resources page at http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/resources.html#links.
There is a small but wonderful selection from Carole Rosenthal’s new memoir, CLOSE FINISHES on the HUFFINGTON POST.
Also on THE HUFFINGTON POST is a lovely poem by Suzanne McConnell .
Download for free a copy of Halvard Johnson's TANGO BOUQUET (and other books) at Anny Ballardini's Poets' Corner: http://www.fieralingue.it/modules.php?name=Content
Barbara Crooker’s latest poems online are at
Cat Pleska has a good piece about visiting Loretta Lynn’s homeplace on her blog: http://www.rednecromancer.typepad.com/mouth_of_the_holler/
Belinda Anderson and Phyllis Moore are part of a West Virginia Book Festival presentation through Elderhostel this fall!
Ep;phany– Call for Manuscripts for the Print Issue Fall 2007! Fiction – Poetry – Non-Fiction – Photographs Complete information http://www.epiphanyzine.com .
Big City Lit is once again accepting submissions again– see http://www.nycbigcitylit.com/ .
The Appalachian Writers Guild (AWG) is a non-profit organization of writers, established for the purpose of advancing the creation and dissemination of literature and history relating to the Appalachian region. AWG is currently preparing a themed anthology of Appalachian literature and welcomes submissions from authors at this time. AWG is seeking short fiction, poetry, biography, novellas, and creative non-fiction, including memoirs, opinion pieces and historical sketches. Submissions should be made by Email: poetry to AWGeditor3@gmail.com and all others to AWGeditor2@gmail.com in standard Word (.doc or .rft) format. The first AWG anthology was released in 2007 and is available at regional bookstores. Deadline is Sept. 30, 2007.
Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) will award the 2007 Bechtel Prize in recognition of an exemplary article or essay related to Creative writing education, Literary studies, and/or the profession of writing. The winning essay will appear in Teachers & Writers magazine and on the T&W Web site, and the author will receive a $3,500 honorarium. Entries selected as finalists for the Bechtel Prize may also be published in Teachers & Writers. The authors of finalist essays selected for publication in the magazine receive a small honorarium. Please review the submission guidelines and read previous winners of the Bechtel Prize at www.twc.org/bechtel_prize-archive.htm . Deadline for receipt of entries for 2007 Bechtel Prize submissions is 5:00 PM (Eastern), Friday, June 29, 2007. Submissions will not be accepted after the deadline. If you have any questions after you review the guidelines, please write to editors@twc.org or call 212-691-6590.

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