Sunday, November 04, 2007

Books for Readers Newsletter # 101

Between traveling, plunging into a lot of writing by students in my classes, and trying to do at least a little of my own writing, my reading has been haphazard at best this fall. Still, sometimes that’s the most fun. One thing I picked up over the summer and only got to a couple of weeks ago was MY BRILLIANT CAREER by the Australian feminist, Miles Franklin. She published this in 1901, having written it when she was just sixteen or seventeen. It is wonderfully scattered and mercurial: sensually alive, changeable, and enthusiastically despairing. I kept wanting to give her a big hug. The character is endlessly saying outrageous things, stumbling when she doesn’t have to, getting in scrapes, refusing to take what is offered to her. I also was fascinated by the inside look at rural 19th century Australia: lots of practical jokes and casual racism. I recently read Jared Diamond’s COLLAPSE, which includes a section on the misuse of the thin Australian soil by the settlers, and the lives of the farmers and itinerant workers here sheds light on that. All this, of course, ignores the people who were there first. It’s a worthy little book, and in spite of all the Sybylla’s troubles, full of energy.

I also pulled an American classic of my shelf, after hearing it discussed in a taped lecture on literature and the law (from The Teaching Company ). Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER is a vivid tale, and Hawthorne was a quintessential teller, not a shower. That is to say, for all the drama in the novel, much of it is narrated like a fairy tale. The relationship of Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale is told in evocative prose that never quite demonstrates how the revenge-seeking Chillingworth actually works his way into Dimmesdale’s heart. It is made very clear that Chillingworth is making his enemy ill, but you never see it happening directly. Little Pearl, on the other hand– the fruit of the Adultery that Hester Prynne wears symbolized on her dress– has her actions and words dramatized thoroughly and well: she is an interesting little character, treated with some sentimentality but also with an astringent other-worldliness. The indirection often works brilliantly, too: it is never exactly said what Arthur has been doing to his “breast.” The horror is left to our imagination– although we have a pretty definite idea that it’s some kind of capital “A” in blood. I was gripped by the story, and this time I understood how Hester actually becomes a mature and constructive woman out of all this, while Arthur’s pride in his place and skills dooms him. You have to wonder, though, whoever thought this is a book that ought to be taught in American high schools.

Then I read THE UNTOUCHABLE by John Banville. Banville has that enviable British conviction that words and fiction still matter deeply. Pat Barker and Sarah Water, whose work I also like a lot, have the same assumption– that the novel is the best lens for getting a clear understanding of the world. I believe it too, but I’m not sure most American readers and writers do: we people being artists, and we have lots of members of the cult of originality. We certainly have great literary entertainers, and we have people with raw and gripping stories to tell. But Banville offers the complete experience, lots of scenes, lots of words, lots of action, and lots of rumination. Victor Maskell is part of the Oxbridge spy rings of the twentieth century, and however factual it is, it feels very real. The secret gay sex stuff is well done and since I believe Banville is a hetero himself, the depiction of the illicit illegal upper class British homo-sex is something of a tour de force. Some of my favorite characters were the ones with a touch of mystery about them like Victor’s wife Vivienne and the “handlers” from Russia and Europe. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

Finally, a novel that just blew me away with its poignancy. I liked Kaszuo Ishiguro’s REMAINS OF THE DAY, but this one, NEVER LET ME GO, the one set in an alternative world where clones are raised for organ donations, is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read. You keep wanting to say to the characters, Leave! Run away! Rebel! But they accept who they are with the same complete belief that we have about knowing we will die someday. You could say that it’s different, we really do have to die, but the point is that these young people think it is also a fact that their time will come for their “donations,” and that too is a fact. I suppose this is what makes it all so sad– we may not have been raised to be body parts, but we won’t get out of this alive either. The science fiction part isn’t worked out in any great detail (who finances their lives as young adults, who runs things and sends them their “donation” notices, how they are cared for as infants). Probably the weakest part of the whole novel– maybe the only weak part– is also the most explicit part, which is when one of the people who ran the school for the children, Miss Emily, makes a speech from her wheelchair about her motivations in running their school. I guess I would have been disappointed if there hadn’t been even this partial explanation, but it feels alien and unlike the rest of the book. Maybe that’s the point? To make the protagonists finally know there is nothing outside for them? Anyhow, a wonderful book.

–Meredith Sue Willis

P.S. Scarlet Letter image is of the 1926 film directed by Victor Sjöström with Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne


Carol Brodtrick writes to say, “Penning 100 newsletters merits a good bit of admiration and respect, plus, your newsletters have given this reader/writer a trunkful of book suggestions I might never have uncovered. I look forward to newsletter #101, and hope you reach #200 and beyond. Congratulations, and thanks.”

Cat Pleska writes: “Congratulations to you on your one hundreth newsletter! I enjoy reading it and thank you for providing interesting topics and inviting us to discuss. I must get back to updating my blog--it's been a busy, busy summer. I did hear today from someone in Austrailia writing to say he enjoyed my blog on Loretta Lynn's home place ( He says that where he lives in Victoria is very similar to Appalachia. He loves all things bluegrass and has been to eastern KY twice. It's always fun hearing from people about something you've written about. I can imagine that has been quite satisfying to you to correspond with your readers through your newsletter. Keep up the good work. I'll keep tuning in!”


Norman Julain writes to say, “I read THE POISONWOOD BIBLE a couple of years ago and that established [Kingsolver] at the forefront of American novelists I like. Wondering, has she published anything since? I feel she may be hard at work on another good one - at least I hope so.”

Fran Osten suggests, “A good companion piece to POISONWOOD BIBLE is KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST, by Adam Hochschild, which came out about the same time as POISONWOOD BIBLE and is a non-fiction horror tale of events in the Congo. On another note, or perhaps a segue on the issues of cultural misunderstanding/understanding. I have been seeking out books on the immigrant experience recently, with all the issues around our current immigration policy and thinking about my own parents and the experience of my Kenyan son-in-law......the nuances, the misunderstandings, all the losses and gains in the immigration experience and the struggle to make a place your own. I really enjoyed Wayson Choy's novel, ALL THAT MATTERS, about a Chinese family in Vancouver in the 1930's and 40's. It is a sequel to THE JADE PEONY, which I still want to read.”


“Looking for a memoir about teaching to teach this semester,” writes Ingrid Hughes, “I came across TEACHER: THE ONE WHO MADE THE DIFFERENCE, a high school memoir by Mark Edmundson, a scholar with a reputation for literary and cultural criticism. It’s a terrific description of the people in his life, and the culture of his high school during his senior year in the working class suburb of Boston, Medford in 1969. It focuses especially on one teacher, Franklin Lears, whom he credits with turning him from a jock, a thoughtless supporter of the Vietnam War, and a weak student at a weak school, into a reader and thinker. The writing is good, the characters memorable.”

From Carol Brodtrick: “I want to tell you about a book I just found at the library and loved reading. It's called LAST DAYS OF SUMMER, written by Steve Kluger. It was first published in 1998, and if it made a splash when it came out, I was unaware of it. The 1940's story is that of twelve-year old Joseph Charles Margolis, the only Jewish kid living in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, whose bedroom overlooks Ebbets Field, home of the hated Brooklyn Dodgers. Yes, it's about baseball, and Joey's love for the NY Giants, but it's not about a game. It's about relationships; a father who divorced his family, a gentile third baseman who learns to love this kid in spite of himself, a mother, an aunt, a teacher and a principal who care, a Rabbi who bends, an interested psychologist, and even FDR, President of the United States. This book is for adults, and is that rare mixture of humor, pathos, and contradictions of human nature that has you laughing one second and crying the next. It's a bit of history, too, about the war years, and a delightful read.”


John Birch recommends a book for writers. He says, “Sol Stein, author of nine novels, publisher, teacher and editor (he’s edited the work of James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, Lionel Trilling, W.H.Auden and Dylan Tomas), knows more than a thing or two about writing fiction. His 320-page book STEIN ON WRITING (ISBN 0312136080) has invaluable advice on every aspect of writing a novel.”


The NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW gave a good review to West Virginia novelist Ann Pancake’s BURIED ALIVE.

Grace Paley’s Glad Day Books is reissuing EDGES: O ISRAEL O PALESTINE by Leora Skolkin-Smith. After selling out of two successive print runs, Leora Skolkin-Smith’s intoxicating novel about a young girl’s personal and political discovery in 1960’s Israel and Palestine is being re-released in a new edition by Glad Day Books. This new incarnation will include the author’s afterword and dedication to her mentor, Publisher and Editor of Glad Day Books, Grace Paley.

(Image to the left is of Grace Paley)

NEBRASKA PRESENCE, a new anthology from The Backwaters Press, is now out, and Marilyn Coffey is one of dozens of poets included.

Nathan Leslie's sixth book of short fiction, MADRE, has just been published by Main Street Rag Books. Visit Main Street Rag for more information on this collection.

Bob Heman reports that some of his "information" series of prose poems just went up on the site of a new e-mag called Clockwise Cat - if you follow the link below you can find them at:
Also recently, a group of 20 information pieces titled "Recent Information" was published as a special issue of Joel Dailey's long running New Orleans magazine FELL SWOOP

Theodore Rutkowski has a new prose poetry chapbook from BoneWorld Publishing, 3700 County Route 24, Russell, NY 13684. $6.


There is an interesting Interview with Gail Adams at

The latest issue of the Pedestal # 42 is up at

Thaddeus Rutkowski has a whole string of new work to read online: "Bird's Eye," poem, Mobius, Vol. XXII, 2007 at ; "Captivity," story, Summerset Review. ; "Hell-Bent," story, Arlington Literary Journal, No. 14. Click on "Authors" or scroll to "Gival Press Authors" or "Arlington Literary Journal." ; "Nuts," story, Houston Literary Review at ; "Bad Magic," "Serenity Prayer," prose poems, New York Spirit, Oct./Nov. issue Click on "Illuminated Ink."


Send one or two unpublished poems celebrating William Carlos Williams and North Jersey, no longer than two manuscript pages, to Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Executive Director, Poetry Center, Passaic County Community College, One College Boulevard, Paterson, New Jersey 07505-1179 or see Poems should have something to do with North Jersey and be written in the poets own style and not imitate the poetry of William Carlos Williams. Send two copies of each poem, one with and one without contact information. DEADLINE January 1, 2008. Include short third-person bio.


Do you want a poetry workshop without leaving home? Try try Neopoet! at, an online poetry workshop and community where you can meet poets from around the world, share critiques, and improve as a poet. Neopoet hosts a monthly newsletter, frequent contests, and an active forum.

Meredith Sue Willis will be offering an online writing class in January 2008, four sessions on Prose Narrative. For information, go to


"Finishing Touches" will begin on Monday evening, Nov. 5, at the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA. The course will encourage writers of fiction and creative nonfiction to complete works in progress. Substantial class time will be provided for individual critiques. Eight meetings. Open to all. Almost free for YMCA members. Contact Glenn Raucher at 212 875-4124, or


Bob Heman’s next CLWN WR reading will be Thursday, November 8, 7-10 pm, once again at the SAFE-T Gallery in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, featuring John M. Bennett (from Columbus, Ohio), Craig Czury (from Reading, Pennsylvania), and Brooklyn's own Elizabeth Smith - along with "special guests" Sheila E. Murphy (from Phoenix, Arizona), Jean Lehrman, Nathan Whiting, Liza Wolsky and a few others yet to be announced - so mark it on your calendar.

Thaddeus Rutkowski will be reading November 9, Friday, 7 p.m., Memoir Reading, Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, 980 Briarcliff Road N.E., Atlanta, Info: ; November 17, Saturday, 8 p.m. Berlin Poetry Hearings. Salon Rosa, Sophienstrasse 18, Berlin-Mitte, Germany. ; November 28, Wednesday, evening. Green Pavilion Restaurant, 4307 18th Ave., Brooklyn (F train to 18th Avenue); December 10, Monday, 7 p.m.; his story "Before the Move" will be read by an actor in Writing Aloud. InterAct Theater, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia.; January 4, 2008, Friday, 9:30-11:30 p.m.; Panel discussion: "Polish American Writing: From Polish Tradition to the American Identity." Polish American Historical Association, Washington, D.C.


Fall 2007 issue of theBLRnow available in bookstores, by subscription,
or at . It is published by NYU's Department of Medicine twice a

Phyllis Moore draws our attention to SURREAL SOUTH, twenty-seven stories and poems edited by Laura & Pinckney Benedict. It contains work by, among many others, Ann Pancake, Chris Offutt, Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Benedict, Lee K. Abbott, Robert Olen Butler, and Ron Rash.


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.


If a book discussed in this newsletter has no source mentioned, don’t forget your public library and your local independent bookstore. To buy books online, I often go first to Bookfinder at . I also like Alibis at A lot of people I know prefer to use the unionized bricks-and-mortar and online bookstore Powells Books at Good sources for used and out-of-print books are Advanced Book Exchange at and All Book Stores at . Both Bookfinder and All Book Stores both have a special feature that tells you the book price WITH shipping and handling, so you can compare what you’re really going to have to pay.


Please send responses and suggestions directly to me. Unless you request otherwise, your responses may be edited and published in this newsletter. Please e-mail Meredith Sue Willis at

BOOKS FOR READERS is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by Meredith
Sue Willis. To subscribe, send a blank email to To unsubscribe, send a blank email to Copyright 2007, Meredith Sue Willis

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