Friday, September 28, 2007

One Hundredth Newsletter!

This Newsletter is Number 100! My first one was written in December, 2000, and I still do them for essentially the same reasons I stated then: . What has been an unexpected pleasure has been the response and contributions of the readers who have consistently contributed suggestions and even done whole guest columns– keep them coming!
And please do spread the word and invite friends to subscribe. I cannot, by the way, subscribe people; they have to ask for the newsletter. This is easy to do: just send a blank email to

I want to recommend several books I’ve enjoyed in different ways over the just-ended summer. First is a brand new novel by Pamela Erens called THE UNDERSTORY. This is a finely written, rich short novel, about a man named Jack who is one of the quiet people moving around the streets of New York City– part of the “understory” of plants that grow under a great forest’s canopy. An obsessive compulsive, he has an upper west side brownstone apartment that is being rehabbed, which upsets all his routines. He is finally forced out of the apartment– he wasn’t there quite legally in the first place, but how he is made to leave is hardly legal either: there are fires, and the last one destroys all his possessions. Simultaneously, Jack’s carefully organized life is being disrupted by falling in love.

The loss of home and his love story alternate with the present story in which he is living in a monastery in New England, earning his way by working with bonsai. Previously, his special interest had been Central Park’s plant life, especially the saplings and weeds in the understory that gives a measure of the health of the woodland. The two time frames move forward in a nice tangle until an act of violence brings everything together at the end.

For me, the great value of this novel is Jack’s self awareness as he falls in love and falls apart– and how both things cause him pain. He, of course, is an important part of the understory of the city and society, and his distress is an indicator of the state of society’s health. As such people and plants lose their tenuous hold on their place, the world loses richness, and, in the end, the less marginal people are endangered as well. It’s an interior, precise, and carefully imagined novel that makes a powerful social statement in an oblique but focused way.

THE UNDERSTORY is not going to appear in a large stack near the cash registers at your local Barnes & Noble, so you'll have to look for it. In Barnes & Noble’s defense, I am confident that they would accept the thousands of dollars it would cost to have the book featured that way, but the only publishers with that kind of disposable income are part of the big commercial conglomerates betting on what is going to be a best seller. So make the effort to get hold of THE UNDERSTORY and other books like it– and share with us more such books at Books for Readers.

By the way, I want to report that I did read a best seller over the summer– one that I think actually deserves the accolades and income it generated-- Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. I really liked this novel, which isn’t perfect, although I don’t think big ambitious books are ever perfect. The last third in particular, in which the characters grow up and grow older, has a lot of weaknesses. It could have been shorter, and although it was gratifying to learn what happened to everyone, the various narratives are flaccid in comparison to the first two thirds. And those first two thirds are really splendid, powered by wonderful voices and interesting children and an incredibly gripping plot question: Which child is going to die? The mother says early in the novel that she left one child buried in Africa, and since we meet four daughters, we are caught up in the suspense of who will live and who will die.

Then, after we know that, and after the powerful action of escaping from the crazy missionary Father, the rest really is d̩nouement, unraveling the knotsРimportant and gratifying, but probably best accomplished swiftly.

Among the delights of this novel– aside from the obvious ones of the suspense, the voices of the girls, and the thick specificity of life in the Congo in the early nineteen-sixties– are Leah and Anatole’s love story, and a skillfully inserted modicum of the history of Congo/Zaire. I also liked the dumb blonde sister (although her malapropisms are laid on too thick in the early part) who turns out to have in some ways the most interesting life. The final chapter told in the voice of the dead sister is artful and satisfying as an ending.

What puts this over the top for me as a truly successful book is that it is in the end a political novel. Yes, it teaches you a little about Patrice Lumumba, and it has a distinct ground level view of colonialism, but it has the novelistic political quality of allowing some of its characters to effect at least small amounts of change not only in themselves but in their environment.

I read on Kingsolver’s webpage in her FAQ’s that she actually did spend a year in the Congo when she was seven or eight (her parents were NOT missionaries, she hastens to assert). She also did ten years worth of research for this book. The finish of her writing shows it. When I wrote an essay on Kingsolver’s work for Appalachian Journal back in 1994, I said, “Some of the work seems to me to have been written too rapidly....Whether her work is at its most highly polished or relatively rough, however, she is consistently worth reading for her breadth of perspective and generosity of spirit....” THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is polished in all the good ways, and it carries some of the same themes I wrote about then: the creation of community, mother and child love, how people on the ground, as it were, react to, live with, live under, struggle against, oppression. I deeply admire Kingsolver’s commitment to literature that is socially engaged, and this is one book whose popularity is well deserved.

Okay, I read another best seller this summer: HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. The first really hefty volume of the series, it moved just as fast as the others. It has the usual Enormous Confrontation with Evil at the end-- and even though Voldemorte resurrected seems to me less awe-inspiring that Voldemorte Almost Dead, it’s still a good read. I especially appreciate how the books get more complex and darker, as Harry and company get older. The appeal of Voldemorte to his followers, however, totally escapes me. Didn’t the wizards ever read about Muggles fascist dictators like Adolf Hitler?

Finally, I want to mention two books I read out of indulgence in my own interests, and I would certainly recommend them if the subjects interest you: Chrisopher White’s REMBRANDT, part of the Thames & Hudson World of Art series gave me a good overview of Why Everyone Talks about Rembrandt.

I picked up ANCIENT GREEKS FROM PREHISTORIC TO HELLENISTIC TIMES by Thomas R. Martin because the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has totally redone their Greek and Roman galleries, and I started to walk through, and realized I hadn’t the faintest notion of the differences among Archaic Greece and Mycenaean Greece and Ancient Crete. This book, excluding notes and bibliography, is just over 200 pages, and did exactly what I wanted: gave me a survey and will sit on my shelf for reference. I may even carry it to the museum with me the next time I go.

What have you been reading?

Meredith Sue Willis
Barbara Rasmussen writes to say, “I’ve just finished WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, and ELLA MINNOW PEA, which are just delightful flights of fictive fantasy. Who doesn’t want to work in the circus? Or live in an imaginary land where the dictator declares war on alphabet letters – respectively.”
Michael McFee says the book is “heartbreaking but also witty, feisty, sassy.” I say it is all that and really worth your time and money. It’s Rita Sims Quillen’s latest, HER SECRET DREAM. I sometimes have trouble finishing entire volumes of poetry– I hear a poet or am attracted to a poem, get the book, read a few, and then put the volume on my beside table stack. But this one I kept on reading. Some of it is imagined lives of Appalachian farm women, some of it is from Quillen’s own childhood, some of it is about trying to be a poet and a mother. The following is the beginning section of “Woman Writer:”
Spending the days attending to bodily functions
Our own and everyone else’s
Gives us a handicap.
Words crawl into the laundry basket
Hide among the socks
Circle and scream in the toilet
Hang in the closet and beg
For freedom.
While my son warms in my arms
A line that could make me famous
Leaps up in my face
Spits and leaves by the back door....
A WORKING MAN”S APOCRYPHA, short stories by William Luvaas has just been published. Luvaas’s work has power that comes from the rigor of incisive images and a serious journey through human minds and hearts.
Of Tamara Baxter’s ROCK BIG AND SING LOUD: SHORT STORIES FROM SOUTHERN APPALACHIA, Robert Morgan says: “These stories take us to places we did not expect to go, and just when we think we have seen what is strangest, most absurd, most alien and outrageous, we recognize something of ourselves.”

Caol Bly has an interesting book out especially for writers and teachers of writing. It’s called AGAINST WORKSHOPPING, and you can find it at Bly and Loveland Press's site.
Suzanne McConnell has an excellent piece in the Hunter CUNY ENGLISH COMMUNITY PLACE on her memories of studying with the late Kurt Vonnegut.
Scott Oglesby is featured in the Fall 2007 issue of THE BELLEVUE LITERARY REVIEW.
Scott also will be one of their featured readers at the Fall reading on Sunday, October 14th, at Bellevue Hospital.

Phyllis Moore writes to say, “Jonathan Greene's comments [see ] cover the facets of the topic very well. Often neither the local book store (we have one) or local libraries (we have three) have the books I want to read. Ordering them requires at least a short wait and a trip to pick up the books. Last week, I learned of an upcoming visit by West Virginia Author Anne Barnhill. After a futile local search for her memoir, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, I ordered it from It arrived in my yesterday's mail. Receiving books quickly at a reasonable price is an Internet service I greatly appreciate. Because of and Powell, etc., I have quick access to many new-to-me authors.”
And my brother-in-law David Weinberger the Internet commentator and Harvard Berkman Center Fellow, featured Jonathan Greene’s remarks from Issue # 99 on small presses and Amazon up on his blog (See

One of my students has suggested that those of you who write nonfiction take a look at the Roslyn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health in Journalism, information at
Writing For Our Lives at La Serrania, a remote and gorgeous retreat center in Mallorca with Ellen Bass May 3-10, 2008 . “This week will be an opportunity to delve into our writing in an inspiring setting, to nurture the creative voice. There will be time for writing and time for sharing and response, hearing what our work touches in others. We'll help each other to become clearer, go deeper, express our feelings and ideas more powerfully. With the safety, support, and guidance of this gathering, you have the opportunity to create writing that is more vivid, more true, more complex and powerful than you've been able to do before.” Both beginners and experienced writers are welcome. Whether you are interested in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir or journal writing, this workshop will provide an opportunity to explore and expand your creative world. This size of the workshop is limited to 14 participants. The early bird fee for the workshop (which includes accommodations and all meals) is $1500 until December 31. After that the regular fee is $1750. A $550 deposit is required to hold your place. Most rooms are doubles, but there may be single rooms available for a surcharge. For more information about LaSerrania visit For more information about the workshop and to register, please email Ellen Bass at or call 831-426-8006.
There’s a new site that looks like a lot of fun at The idea is that you get a writing challenge each week to try. So if you’re looking for writing exercises and some swift feedback, give it a try.
Ann Pancake will be reading at various places this fall from her new novel, STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN. The novel is about a family struggling with the fallout of mountaintop removal mining in southern West Virginia.
– September 28-29: Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference, Lexington, KY. Reading in the Carnegie Center at 1:30 on the 29th.
– October 22: Marshall University, Huntington, WV. Reading at the Marshall University Student Center at 8 p.m.
– October 23: Catawba College reading and community forum, Salisbury, NC, at 7:30 p.m.
– October 24: Appalachian State University, Boone, NC. Reading at the bookstore at 2 p.m.
– October 25: Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC. Reading in Shirley Recital
Hall, Salem Fine Arts Center, at 7 p.m.
– October 26: Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC. Reading at 7 p.m.
– October 27: Taylor Books, Charleston, WV. Reading at 5:30.
– November 1: West Virginia Wesleyan, Buckhannon, WV. Reading at 7 p.m.
– November 5: West Virginia University. Reading in the Robinson Reading Room of the Main Library at 7:30 p.m.
– November 6: University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, PA. Reading in the chapel at 7:30 p.m.
– November 7: University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. Reading and question/answer session in Chuck Kinder’s class from 6:30-8 p.m.
First Unitarian Congregatonal Society: Wednesday Oct. 17th, 48 Monroe Pl. Bklyn. cor Pierrepont.From 7:00-9:15 PM Brooklyn Heights Poets (Pierrepont Players) Wide Open Reading + Feature: Jel Spiegelman, Author - Published poet...718-377-1253
Ingrid Hughes writes: “My union newspaper says, ‘Forget, which has engaged in union busting on two continents. Try Powell's Books ( the largest unionized bookstore in America....An alternative way to reach their site is from; prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go directly to the [Powell’s bookstore] union's benefit fund.’” But also see Jonathan Greene’s comments above and more of the discussion in Issue #98 and #97.

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