Sunday, December 23, 2007

Grainy Weather, Christmas Feelings

Drippy day gray rain
White blots of wretched old snow
Indoors: family warmth.

December 22

Actually, the back yard doesn't look like this today-the snow is mostly gone, and the weather has been gray and grungy. But Joel and Sarah are here, we had pesto for dinner from the summer garden, there is a manufactured log roasting in the fireplace, and the oven broke today, just as my mom and I were popping in some muffins--but Christie Harrington let me bake them at her house, and I'm sleepy and alls going swimmingly for now.

December 19

My mom has arrived, skinny and tiny and deaf as a doorpost but also full of such enthusiasm that it just blows me away-- I hope she doesn't break anything on the ice and continues in this bright state of being able to enjoy for a long time. She wants to wrap packages, decorate the tree, eat good food, take walks, read books, and play with the parakeet, who went right to her, ate off her plate and out of her mouth. She did her email on my laptop. She asked Andy to tell her she didn't need a second opinion about her glaucoma (her doctor isn't an M.D.) and he said firmly and loud enough to hear, "No, she ought to get a second opinion!" Which caused much laughter.

She had a good visit with her nephew, my Cousin Harley, (with her in photo below) and enjoyed his grand kids and all the activity at their house.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince--Spoiler Alert!

SPOILER ALERT! DISCUSSION OF Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince! Well, they certainly do get darker. In this one, good old Hermione persists in her research, and Harry is absolutely-adolescent-certain of who the good and the bad are. Dumbledore dies (but what about that phoenix on his funeral pyre? And his knowledge of Horcruxes?), and Snapes is demonstrably a Death Eater (but remember—Dumbledore died believing in him!)

Harry's youthful determination to go for a soldier as it were is insightful-- after all, it is the human tradition for the young men, physically strong and most disposable, to go do battle for the Race. You can, if necessary, get a new generation with a few surviving men.

This book, though, I really felt Harry's destitution: he suffered through his childhood, a veritable Dickensian childhood. The loss of whoever loves him—so far Ron and Hermione have made it through alive-- but the rest are getting picked off. Was he, then, bred as a fighting-against-evil machine?

Rowling has done something interesting here. I keep thinking of my friend who is a senior at Columbia High School. I asked her if she likes the Harry Potter books, and she says she loves them-- except for the final book! This bodes ill for Harry's future.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


It turns out I really love shoes, or at least my shoes . Yesterday I wore my new cloggy-dressy Merrell’s to my last Advanced Novel class. They have a name, Plaza Strap T, and big rubbery soles so they look like a clog, but a little T Strap and suede so from some angles they look dressy, and when I walked fast across Washington Square and up Fifth Avenue, they just lifted me up and pushed me off and felt great. Felt like I could go running in them. Clunky but stylish? Comfortable? It was such fun to wear them. A few weeks back I also bought a pair of little Dollhouse Mary Janes with a one inch heel that you can actually dance in and your feet don’t hurt afterward. I walk enough that my shoes matter, and I am vain enough that how they look matters too!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Books for Reacers # 102

I had the kind of day yesterday I’d been yearning for– almost no phone calls, just me looking out at a gray sky, some writing, some computer business, a stack of papers for my last Advanced Novel Class tonight, books. I took a long walk, went to the dump with cardboard, finished Howard’s End for the umpteenth time, but probably not in ten years. Better enjoy the quiet, as soon my mom will be here, and then Joel and Sarah for a whirlwind of activity. Christmas tree, cards to send out, a Christmas letter. Christmas dinner.

Here's this week's...

Books for Readers

Newsletter # 102

December 9. 2007

I write often about how many good books are going unpublished, unpublicized and thus unpurchased and unread. I probably don’t always praise highly enough the books that are getting published. My most recent discovery– hardly much of a discovery, since the Portuguese author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the late 90's– is BLINDNESS by José Saramago. I’ve read a couple of Saramago’s books in the past, and am particularly bond of BALTAZAR AND BLIMUNDA. This novel falls in the general category of speculative fiction, which means that it’s a novel set more or less in this world we live in, but some premise is put forth that is not actually happening, as far as we know. Generally, speculative fiction is less full of magic and myth than, say Magical Realism, but on a continuum would be tucked in near Magical Realism. I wrote recently about NEVER LET ME GO, also probably speculative fiction as well as high literature. In BLINDNESS the premise is that a mysterious disease is suddenly, catastrophically, making the entire population of a city go blind. There is apparently one exception.

As the disease strikes rapidly but not simultaneously, the early cases are quarantined in a deserted mental hospital, where blind thugs take over the food distribution and everyone defecates wherever they feel like it– after all, no one can see. The prominence of feces in this novel is particularly striking: wherever people walk, it is underfoot, and the smell assaults everyone all the time. There are some ugly rapes, but they actually lead to a solidarity among the women, whereas the defecation calls up no unity.

It’s a remarkable novel, in a wonderful way a kind of old man’s novel. This is not to suggest that young people wouldn’t get anything out of it, and certainly not to suggest it lacks any vigor or invention. Rather, I mean that where novels by young people often rage between flares of hope and depths of despair, this one moves forward focused sparely on survival, which demands co-operation. The spareness includes not using proper names, for example, and a dry practical conviction about what is likely to happen to people when they don’t have their ususal props and rules. Even the emphasis on the scatological is oddly moving: an elder’s recognition that bodily functions are not to be taken for granted in any way.

I’m still not sure after three books what Saramago gets out his quirky punctuation, which is half page paragraphs with nothing but commas for separation. Speakers run from one into the next in a polyphony that is remarkable among other things for how quickly you get used to it. Saramago is famously a leftist, of course, and this is a group novel. The one person who can see has a great deal of strength and kindness, but it is clear that she is no different from the others, except that she can see. There is no hero of supreme egotism and daring. There is enormous individuation and plenty of human dignity, and even some heroic actions , but it is all shared among many, which is, when you think about it, how the real world is.

So I recommend this book highly, in spite of how intimidating the pages look. You find yourself loving the girl with sunglasses; the first blind man; the little boy with a squint; the doctor, the doctor’s wife, and rooting for their tiny, hard won victories. I’m so glad Saramago is still writing, and that there are more of his books I haven’t read yet.

Meredith Sue Willis

Many of us are still struggling in and on the fringes of the New York commercial book scene. There are many other literary worlds, however, some regional, some based on regions, ethnic groups, and other affinities. These smaller circles are essential to the richness of literature, to the self-exploration of individuals and groups– plus they produce lots of wonderful things to read that are often never seen by wider audiences. One such circle I know a little is the northern West Virginia writing community that centers around Morgantown, the home of West Virginia University. I’m not speaking here, however, of the Univeristy’s writing programs and internationally known literary artists, but rather the people who socialize, read, and sing in small groups or at local bars. Sometimes they work in groups, sometimes all alone. George Lies’s obituary of one of these writers, Joe Gratski, is at the bottom of this page.
Rebecca Kavaler writes, “Thanks for reminding me of Ishiguro's wonderful novel, NEVER LET ME GO. Every review at the time, whether misjudging this as science fiction or understanding it as a metaphor for the human condition, used the adjective "disturbing." And disturbing it is to think of how "completion" is inevitably our fate, how we lose one by one our faculties, how we are reduced to hoping for immortality in art (Madame and the Gallery, and yet this does not fully explain the emotional impact of this novel. It is impossible (for me, at least) to weep for the human race--but only for Kathy and Tommy and Ruth, and, attesting to the skill of this writer, weep I did. It was the hopelessness that was so sad. For even the pale satisfaction of surviving in our descendants is denied these childless clones. And how clever of Ishiguro to refuse to explain the workings of this world--making it clear this is not science fiction, merely fiction--of the highest kind.”
MY LOVE, MY LOVE: OR, THE PEASANT GIRL by Rosa Guy is a tale that charmed me in the end. They made a musical out of it a long time ago. It has voudoun gods and class barriers and a tragic ending, but is also somehow light and delightful: broad emotional storkes, but precise details of landscape, conflcts, fruit.
Noah Lukeman’s A DASH OF STYLE: THE ART AND MASTERY OF PUNCTUATION has some interesting and very quotable passages, but in the end it is a monograph padded into being a book. Each chapter ends with a sort of “Your Personality As Shown Through Your Writing Style.” I don’t recommend paying full price for it, but it’s not a bad work to have around for reference.
Kent Haruf’s justly praised PLAINSONG is big popular book from a couple of years ago that I had meant to read and finally did. It is Midwestern laconic and very touching, managing to be a gripping story without a lot of pyrotechnics. Haruf has a quirk of not using quotation marks and also very few tags or descriptors of how things are said. This seems to work, especially for his particular characters. It also creates a sameness in the voices so that you have a feeling of a large silence even when the people talk. The pattern is landscape and events with his sad but sympathetic characters, and then there will be a few unadorned lines of dialogue. It had a flat quality that was totally inappropriate, but occasionally annoying. There is a lot of white space in the novel anyhow, so there are a couple of scenes that felt like they had too much to me, especially a scene in which two old brothers decide to take a pregnant girl in to live with them. I believe they would do it, but this is one of those cases where I prefer mystery or elision rather than a dramatized scebe. He leaves the mother’s leathing a mystery, so why not also a mystery about this thing? Mostly, though, it’s just a solid, moving story.
I also read ISTANBUL: MEMORIES AND THE CITY by Orhan Pamuk. I wanted to like this more than I did. I adored the black and white photos that Pamuk loves too, and a lot of the thoughts and considerations about the sadness of a post empire-city. The book has a powerful ending and a fair amount of humor, but for some reason, I didn’t really like Orhan the little kid much. This is unusual, as I’m ordinarily a sucker for little kids. But there is some tone in this book that I think is meant to feel hard nosed and unsentimental toward his little self from the past, but it ends up by creating (again, to my taste) an unpleasant little kid. I liked the teenage parts best and the adult mullings. Pamuks’ family didn’t seem very attractive. I don’t know whether the effort to be honest did away with affection or what. But oh those pictures and stories about Istanbul!
Rochelle Ratner has a new book out, SPEAKING IN TONGUES: A STUDY OF PERSONA IN AMERICAN, CANADIAN, AND BRITISH POETRY . This was written back in 1984, a critical study never before published. Now “Galatea Resurrects” will be publishing selected chapters: It examines the work of Bill Knott, Andrei Codrescu, Armand Schwerner, and Jack Spicer as well as the writings of HD, Diane DiPrima, and Margaret Atwood.
Cat Pleska has an interesting online article on West Virginia woodworking in the magazine WONDERFUL WEST VIRGINIA. It is featured on their website, so you can click on the link. At the top, you'll see a photo of a man working on cradles, and the title is "Hearts and Hands at Work." Click on that and it'll take you to the article. Her husband, Dan, is a member of this group and one of the toymakers. See .
Chris Grabenstein has a new holiday thriller: HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS, which PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY says “has a spectacular finish...sure to please his fans." Chris offers autographed bookplates to personalize your gift– Just e-mail Chris at and he'll mail as many as you need back to you!
Roberta Allen has stories coming up in THE BROOKLYN RAIL; THE SAINT ANN’S REVIEW; THE VESTAL REVIEW; KGB Bar Lit Online; the anthology UP IS UP BUT SO IS DOWN; RIVERINE: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Writers; CREATIVE WRITING IN FOUR GENRES; and GARGOYLE MAGAZINE.

Barbara Crooker has new poems up .
(Some of these I’ll be reviewing in future issues, but you may want to think about them for holiday gifts now!)
KING OF SWORDS by Miguel Antonio Ortiz– website at
OHIO RIVER DIALOGUES A novel by William Zink See
THINKING OF MILLER PLACE A MEMOIR OF SUMMER COMFORT by Ethel Lee-Miller has just been published.
Two good articles about the future of the book, e-readers, etc.:
Writing advice, inspiration, conversation, a community of writers -- you'll find all this and more at TRUEVOICE, THE BLOG by Bill Henderson. Take a look!
Book Critics Circle has a nice blog with book thoughts:
Here is the latest issue of WORDRIOT at
In this month's issue: Fiction by Chuck Augello, Randall Brown, Lawrence Buentello, Andrew Coburn, Maria Deira, David Gianatasio, Drew Lackovic, Mathias Nelson, John Nyman, Mitch Omar, Nick Ostdick, Philip Oyok, Sean Ruane and Corey Zeller plus poetry and more.

By George Lies
Poet Joe Gatski, a mountain wanderer, ginseng and mushroom hunter, a man with a bow and arrow, and more - a minstrel, and songwriter-singer.He passed away in his apartment last night. He was born on April 5, 1956 in Fairmont. West Virginia.
He had just visited me this past Sunday, coming in through the backyard, asking, *Am I welcome? I*ll just take the coffee black and a little sugar. Can you get me some copies of *Promontory** that you published. I need a sample or two for the road. I thank you much.*
He left. He was wearing two different gloves, two different boots, a back pack (his Bowie knife likely inside) - most of his friends would recognize him like that . . . and knew that he could strum a tune and narrate poetry, filled with lore and history and guts. He knew the mountains, the patches of ginseng and where to hide his cache.
We met many years ago, in a place called, Flo*s Diner, in Morgantown, which served pancakes. We drank Detroit wide-mouth beers. He seemed odd at that time. He had picked me, I thought. We lasted in spite of rough spots for a long time. He left me a bamboo flute that he had carved, and a backyard patch of bamboo, and one painting, which I call, *Almost Spring.*
On that last day, he said he had venison and that he*d come over next week, and cook again at the house for Lucia and me. I laughed, since I*m still waiting for smoke to clear from the last time he cooked in our kitchen. But I know I*ll always wake up when I hear a quiet
tap, tap, tap . . . knocking at my back door. . . Am I welcome . . . ?
* *Promontory* was his collection of poetry, which I helped him with, but he had other chapbooks, like *Annie*s Stick* which other writers, like Greg Leatherman and Candace Jordan, helped produce. He also had a CD with some 20 songs. I*ve given copies of his poetry to scores of international visitors I have welcomed to WV over the years, and *Promontory* is now in place at various locations in Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Italy, Mali, Japan, China, and other places in between..
I pasted two of his poems below from *The Highlands Voice*, Feb. 5, 2005, published by the WV Highlands Conservancy. His words almost seem to suggest that he*s on another road now, ready and packing for the end of the trail . . .
By Joe Gatski
Though o*er
a many rough wilderness
I may travel
I know that somewhere,
at the end of the trail,
there are folks who will welcome me with kindness and grace.
Wine is on the table
and the parlor is filled with song.
In the kitchen the women are eagerly preparing
to serve up warm helpings of love.
By Joe Gatski
Up the valley
through the rain shadow
climbing reaching sky
features finely cut
in white stone of medina sand
with all but one of seven suitors left
far below,
see now, how proudly she stands
for tonight the stars are her crown
Joe Gatski, a West Virginia Highlands Conservancy member wrote this comment, upon submission of his poetry - “I am a firm believer in your cause. Here is a poem I have written that I hope you may enjoy. Hearthstone is about the Allegheny Mountains, the land and its people. Snowbird is about the legend of princess snowbird and her famous climb up Seneca rocks.”
Joe Gatski attended High School in Grafton, WV. He was an avid outdoorsman and spent a lot of time in the Appalachian Mountains. His activities were hunting, fishing, canoeing, horseback riding, gathering and growing wild herbs, edible plants and mushrooms. He was also an artist, singer-songwriter, and musician.
- George Lies
There is a wonderful video of Joe Gatski on Youtube at
Also, Norman Julian’s weekly column in the Dominion Post ( for December 3, 2007. Is about Joe Gatski.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Pell-Mell Sunday

It's been a kind of pell-mell Sunday, that leaves me feeling energized in my lungs, although tired now at going-on ten o'clock. I started with papers, which I've been doing all day off and on and yesterday too, then worked on an op-ed piece for the News-Record for the Social Action Committee,then walked through snow early to Ethical to greet, everything running slow there, and they needed a presider, and I did it, and Boe spoke, and we had a short Social Action Committee after, I walked home, feeling my cheeks pink, gray sky and more snow. Hastily did my soc action notes, redid the ethical website for next week's platform, a few other things, another paper, ate lunch, played with parakeet, did all the things for dinner, to make sure it would go fast: marinated chops for the George Foreman Grill, sliced broccoli and chopped garlic for a crispy broc stir fry, etc. Then off at 4:00 to the Executive Committee meeting for the Coalition, lots going on for two hours as usual, came home, cooked dinner, and since have been reading the book about America before Columbus, 1491 . Supertired now, but cheerful from all the activity, breathing deeply.