Friday, September 28, 2007

Coalition Work

Well, it didn't feel like fighting racism. Andy drove me around South Orange and Maplewood after we went to Jersey City to the accountant to do our taxes, and I dropped flyers at the elementary schools to publicize a schools committee workshop on Parent Advocacy. I like doing it, pretty well, the survey of the schools, how they smell, the kids looking cute for the most part, the sense of how each of them is a bustling little world of its own, but it feels like being a PTA parent more than a political struggle. I know the connection of course, that we're working to empower parents, narrow the achievement gap, and thus make integration work and in the long run destroy racism-- but golly making flyers and distributing them feels far away.

What would feel more like it to me? Direct action, of course, marching,yelling. Singing is good.

But for ten years my largest single political action has been through the Coalition, and it works for me in a lot of ways-- I've made friends, I've had to deal with people in a different way, and people I would never have dealt with probably otherwise, but it isn't always easy to keep the long view--

September 25, 2007

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the first day the Little Rock teenagers actually got to stay in their high school--with U.S. troops protecing them. Here's an interesting reflection on the anniversary from commentator Juan Williams.

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: http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/bfrarchive1-5.html#1 . 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 Readerbooks-subscribe@topica.com.

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 IS READING..
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.”
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: RITA SIMS QUILLEN”S LATEST BOOK OF POETRY
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....
JUST OUT!
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.”

AGAINST WORKSHOPPING
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.
MORE GOOD NEWS
Suzanne McConnell has an excellent piece in the Hunter CUNY ENGLISH COMMUNITY PLACE http://fm.hunter.cuny.edu/english_dept/?p=28 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.

MORE ON BOOK BUYING, AMAZON, AND SMALL PRESSES
Phyllis Moore writes to say, “Jonathan Greene's comments [see http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/bfrarchive96-100.html#99 ] 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 Amazon.com. It arrived in my yesterday's mail. Receiving books quickly at a reasonable price is an Internet service I greatly appreciate. Because of Amazon.com 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 http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/amazon_and_small_presses.html)

JOURNALISM PRIZE FOR WRITERS ON MENTAL HEALTH
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 http://www.cartercenter.org/health/mental_health/fellowships/index.html
ELLEN BASS WORKSHOP IN MALLORCA
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 www.laserrania.com. For more information about the workshop and to register, please email Ellen Bass at ellen@ellenbass.com or call 831-426-8006.
SNAPFICTION.COM
There’s a new site that looks like a lot of fun at http://snapfiction.com/ 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 ON TOUR!
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.
OPEN READING IN BROOKLYN
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
THE NOTE ABOUT AMAZON.COM
Ingrid Hughes writes: “My union newspaper says, ‘Forget Amazon.com, which has engaged in union busting on two continents. Try Powell's Books (http://www.powells.com)- the largest unionized bookstore in America....An alternative way to reach their site is from http://www.powellsunion.com; 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.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Monday entry

I slept an hour later than usual today, totally wiped out after yesterday, which included Leny, finishing two stories to send off. Then I did a really quick nordic walk, cleaned myself up, went to the Newark Museum for a gallery walk-through to prepare for my teacher training job there– that was fun! They have a new contemporary India exhibit opening tomorrow that promises to be really exciting– photos and installations mostly.

Then hurried back to prepare remarks for the forum last night, then to a lovely small dinner with the speaker and a few others at Les Saisons, Art and Libby Christensen’s bed-and-breakfast on Elmwood Avenue.

Then the forum, which I moderated. I had a sensation of channelling Carol and Audrey and others as they asked me to introduce people who'd just come in, etc. An interesting feeling, but I wasn’t listening to the words said as much as surveying the crowd and making things happen. Even if I didn’t attend as closely as I could to what was said, it felt like a good forum-- the Coalition's first big one since 2005-- more than 150 people, and this with no high school students required to come. They ususally add another forty or fifty to the crowd. We had the News-Record and the Star-Ledger there, mayor of East Orange and South Orange, also an Essex County freeholder. Good representation of political people, then, even though there was a school board meeting in process and some other meetings-- the youth task force maybe. So this was a grown-up but very attentive and interested good audience, including people I hadn't seen in years, lots of very quick conversations, some who’ve been around a long time but hadn’t really participated with the Coalition.

Professor john a. powell was inspiring, speaking about the spiritual value of integration– which I’m not sure I held onto, but at the moment was totally inspired by. Maybe inspiration is what we needed at this moment, though, with lots of bad news, as from Tuscaloosa. Professor powell insists that the spring Supreme Court decision has a silver lining, and perhaps another silver lining is that people may be realizing integration is under attack.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

09-11 Again

September 11, 2007

I didn't really want to go out to nigh to the South Orange Library's annual 9-11 remembrance. This was the second time I'd gone, representing the Coalition with Carol, but as the day progressed I kept hearing commentary on what was going on at Ground Zero etc, and was finally glad to be doing something to observe. Here are notes for what I finally said without using notes:

I came to South Orange dreading what I imagined the suburbs would be like, and a lot of the suburbs we visited did put me off– But then, in this community, I saw all the pretty houses and trees, but also 3 boys, white, black, and Asian, and and I thought–that’s the community for me.

Oddly, one of the times when I felt that community most intensely was in the weeks and months immediately after 9-11– discussions, parties, a sense of valuing each other. These intense moments can’t last, not in their full intensity.

But in the wars and misunderstandings that have followed, it has seemed clearer than ever to me that the work of the Coalition explicitly, and the culture of integration and inclusion that most of the people in this community profess– are indeed a way of fighting the attitudes that led to the terrorist attacks.


9-11 art by Mahasin Pomarico

It is the inability of people to imagine that the Other is also Human that leads to terrorist attacks as well as to the kind of ugly anti-Muslim attacks that have too often followed, and to war as well. The idea that some human beings are disposable , including themselves, that allowed those men to crash those planes into those buildings– that inability to imagine the other as human– that is the thing that I want to work to end.

In the United States, that failure of imagination, that inability to imagine that those who are different are truly human led to near-genocide of the indigenous native Americans and also to the horror of chattel slavery and to the hundred and fifty years of racism that have followed.

In some ways, the work of the Coalition seems at a great distance from fighting racism: we run tours, we have neighborhood associations, we give a pre school open house–next Monday we’re running a forum called Integration Matters!– these things are, in my mind, part of a broad, complex response to the dehumanization that allows us to think those who are different from us are not human.

Books for Readers Newsletter # 99

Newsletter #99
September 10, 2007

This issue continues the discussion about whether Amazon.com is doing more good or ill to writers and small publishers, this time with comments from Jonathan Green, long time publisher of beautiful books at Gnomon Press. There is also part of a review by Molly Gilman plus suggestions and responses from Norman Julian and John Yohalem. Don’t miss, as usual, lots of good news about new work and small presses. Please send me what you’ve been reading and thinking about in the world of literature– the next issue, to my astonishment, will be #100! Let me begin thanking you all now, friends and strangers, who have contributed to this newsletter.
Meredith Sue Willis

JONATHAN GREENE ON AMAZON AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS

Just back from the [Kentucky] State House chambers and the uphill useless fight against legislation to give Peabody Coal millions in incentives which may very well result in more mountaintop removal devastation in the eastern coalfields.

But back to Amazon, this from the view of a small publisher (with over 40 years experience): The way the book world is set up is less than ideal for a small publisher. Amazon is not Evil in that in many instances it gives access to readers who want small press books that are not otherwise easily available. Certainly I agree with my friend Gordon Simmons: first support your local independent bookstore if you are lucky enough to have a good one in your neighborhood; they are a dying breed.

But not all such bookstores will go to the trouble to order a book that is not distributed by the near-monopoly of Ingram Book Co. Ingram takes the same deep discount (55% off of list price) that Amazon takes, but (unlike Amazon) Ingram often returns much of what it buys in beat-up condition which the publisher has to eat plus pay the UPS cost back to its door. I once got a hardback book returned by Ingram with a razor cut the length of its spine through both the jacket and the cloth. And had to pay for its trip back to my warehouse. As far as Amazon being non-union, I doubt many bookstores are union or pay what many would consider decent wages. Not right, but friends who work in stores complain to me about this fact without telling me their specific salaries.

Readers can also try to support publishers directly if their local store will not bother to order a book that Ingram does not carry. Research on-line and contact or buy from the publisher directly. Not all publishers take credit cards, a reason some would prefer to deal with Amazon. Barnes & Noble often will not order from small publishers directly, but often seem to give out their telephone numbers to those that want books from those publishers. Small Press Distribution and Consortium that distribute books for many small presses return even less to small presses that Amazon: they normally sell books to stores or chains at 40% - 55% then take half of the gross receipts of any payment and put the amount due the publisher in escrow for three months. And Consortium charges the publisher a re-stocking fee for any books stores or distributors return. In other words, it is almost impossible for a small literary publisher to survive without massive infusions of grants from NEA and foundations. Or increasingly asking for author subsidies. And this affects writers who want to be published by small publishers. The health of these publishers helps the writers they publish. The worsening condition is also caused by big publishers deciding to kill of their mid-list authors, authors who do not sell books at or above the 10,000 range. They would rather publish fewer authors selling more product (a ubiquitous hateful word now in the book trade).

Print-on-demand vendors are a new avenue for authors and publishers. Or in many instances now the author is the self-publisher. A complicated situation. Bashing Amazon is not really helpful. Bash Ingram, bash the fact that mainstream literary publishing is now dominated by multi-nationals. Knopf, Random House, Farrar Straus, etc. are now owned by German companies. Or lament the fact that just released figures state that 27% of Americans do not even read one book a year. One was quoted: reading made them sleepy. Well, then tout reading for insomniacs as much healthier than sleeping pills. That should boost book sales.

– Jonathan Greene, Gnomon Press

NORMAN JULIAN’S RECENT READING
Norman Julian writes to say, “I am trying May Sarton, among your recommendations. I much like her essays. She has a facile grace of writing which looks easy but, as we both know, isn't. Or at least it takes years and probably decades to get to the point where it isn't as hard.
“I am also reading ECHOING SILENCE – Thomas Merton on the vocation of writing. Edited by Robert Inchausti. Worried about whether you write for emotionally and spiritually healthful reasons? Try Merton. He'll get you properly directed, if you aren't already. He might also preserve a little of your sanity, no easy task when adrift in modernity. A fancy phrase of mine that last, no? I shoulda been a NEW YORK TIMES critic, instead of a toiler at THE DOMINION POST, but didn't have the time to get up there. Besides I didn't want to be away from my dog or garden....”


ON M.F. YOUNG’S BOOK, THE MEDICI
Two and a half years ago, I commented on a book by M.F. Young published back in the 1920's called THE MEDICI . I recently received the following note. This is one of the wonders of the Internet, that something I wrote all that time ago is now getting this thoughtful response. John Yohalem writes: “ I too have just read M.F. Young's THE MEDICI – I don't see how you can allege that he prefers simple soldiers to bookish types; he goes on and on about how much Lorenzo il Magnifico spent on books, and how much all of western civilization owes to him for it. Lorenzo is his hero if anyone was. His defense of Catherine (note that he quotes her own letters -- everyone's own letters -- wherever he can) is a response to the way she had been treated up to that time, and even later by Garrett Mattingly in his otherwise superb THE ARMADA: If you were Catholic, she was treacherous in opposing the Guises; if you were Protestant, she was doubly treacherous in plotting the Massacre and pretending to be for peace. No one ever looked at the woman and tried to figure out human reasons for her actions. (It is my opinion that she DID plan the murder of Coligny, and let the Guises pull it off, but that the general massacre took her entirely by surprise. As he notes: she did not plan it with Alva four years earlier, as many Prots said -- we have her letters and his, and they hated each other at that meeting. So this may be the first more or less objective treatment of her. (Young, of course, is clearly a Protestant, but fighting down his prejudices.) It is interesting that he goes out of his way to praise Fernando I for opening Livorno to Jews and Protestants, and for lending Henri IV money, but he holds himself back from condemning the priest-ridden policies of Cosimo III that sank the duchy in poverty. (He decided to have one monastery of each accredited monastic order. Leopold I closed most of them.) I would certainly recommend this book (if anyone can find it) for anyone who loves both art and history and plans to spend a lot of time in Florence."
THE DOGS OF BABEL REVIEWED BY MOLLY GILMAN
This review by Molly Gilman is available in full at Live Journal (http://halflingmerry.livejournal.com/ Scroll to the entry for Thursday, August 23rd, 2007).

This past Saturday, on my way to visit my cousin Rosie, I picked up THE DOGS OF BABEL by Carolyn Parkhurst from the free rack in my town's train station. In the ten minutes between waking up and catching the train (which hadn't exactly been my plan, but I made it!), I'd crammed two novels, a crossword puzzle book, and a sudoku book (gah, I've joined the throng) in my bag already but wasn't quite satisfied with any of them. Still, I'd expected just to add DOGS OF BABEL to their weight and shuffle between the lot for the four sets of 40-minute train rides ahead of me (New Jersey to New York Penn Station and Grand Central Station to Scarsdale, Scarsdale and back).

I didn't expect to use the total transit time that day (amounted to about five hours, including Shuttle time—which included the stranger sitting next to me asking about the book and getting into a semi-deep discussion—and a fifty-three minute wait back at Penn that night after just missing the intended homeward train) to read the book cover-to-cover, making it my second quickest full-length adult novel read after WATERSHIP DOWN. It would have been one sitting if not for the day of visitation in the middle....I completed the final page just as the train stopped at the station before my own, and used the last two minutes of train time to read the author's note and some "discussion questions"—still I'm left with the urge to review it a bit here. I think my reactions will be spoiler-free, but be warned that they commence after this point....The specifics of the story are unique, and some outrageous and unlikely to be encountered in anyone's life. But on the whole, every rare and bizarre story and incident, the moments of horrifying grotesqueness (only one, really; if more I may not have been able to read it), everything serves an incredibly realistic and relatable emotional experience (or thirty). The central bizarrity of the story is an understandable manifestation of the narrator's experience, once you get inside it. Which I found to be fairly instantaneous, in the general sympathetic way, though deeper understanding came to the reader at about the same pace as the narrator.

Who, by the way, I may or may not find detestable. Or at least unlikable, in a way that particularly resonates with me. Even in that, though, he's relatable and can be empathized with. And reading this story through his subjective eyes (which is also a reductive statement as it's as much the story of his reactions and experience as the events he goes through in the present and relates from the past), learning and experiencing as he does and forming your own judgments and conclusions in the wake of that... well, maybe feels real in a uniquely literary way... I'm not going to like any wording of this statement.

It does kind of segue, if I've managed to impart anything of what I mean, into some of the themes I found most compelling—and able to articulate. The [probably] central one [certainly to the narrator's development] is that of... not objectivity, not wishful thinking, but projection. Our perception is, in perhaps unquantifiable percentage, projection, and desire makes it more so. The reader sees the narrator do it throughout the novel, but also is presented with unignorable opportunity to do—and catches themself doing—it as well. Historical and legendary anecdotes to be found, selected and interpreted as evidence for an obsessive experiment. An unanalyzed dream journal. A list of book titles divided by ownership, left in perhaps an intended code by a character for another and perhaps an unintended [by the character] one reflecting on their owners' personalities for the reader. Indistinct sounds that may or may not be taken as speech. The behavior of a creature who cannot communicate in specific, humanly understood terms. A lover's whole knowledge and perception of their partner and their shared life.

Emotionally, I was quite invested in the exploration of grief, obsession, and depression. The stages of grief were not labeled, pointed to, or even overtly described, but the progression of timelines past and present [though that sort of storytelling is starting to seem bandwagonish, a symptom of current trends; still enjoyable and to a purpose here], the emerging picture of the other main character, the arisings and collapsing of mysteries and problems to solve, are... basically, what I meant by realistic and relatable emotional experience, which is putting it too cerebrally to match the intent behind it. As for obsession... well, here's where one of the book's most controversial (it seems) aspects comes into play....There are moments of horrendousness towards dogs, however much the book is written by a dog-lover and one of the main characters, intensely compelling, interesting, and empathetic, is a dog. But without those moments of horrendousness, I don't think the book would be as intense and full an exploration of the emotional core. It shows the difference between obsession and irrational thought and behavior when sparked by intense emotion in a generally stable person, and when those things are the manifestations of a clinically disturbed mind. ...And also, the moments of horror were far fewer than I'd feared when first reading the dustjacket. People who know me, the greatest endorsement I can give for this book not being too much to handle in the disturbance-area: I was able to handle it. There was only one section that was very difficult to get through from the disturbance/disgust angle, and as I said, I would not skip it or have wished it omitted.

The front cover of the book also mentions something cheesy about "love and loyalty", but, without quite knowing how to go into it further, I found it intrinsic, moving, and not cheesy or overemphasized at all... which is to say, another thing it's difficult to mention at all without feeling I'm being reductive. I guess I'll say: every level of emotionality in the book, from physically-trembling horror to almost crying-happy, was very much earned and natural and there because it was part of the whole.

So, I recommend it. ;-) But more than that, would love to chat about it with anyone else who's read it....

-- Molly Gilman
GOOD NEWS FROM IRIS PRESS
Bob Cumming, Publisher of Iris Press writes to say: “I'm pleased to report that another Iris Press poet has had a poem selected by Garrison Keillor to be featured on his American Public Media program, THE WRITER'S ALMANAC. Rebecca McClanahan's poem, ‘Autobiography of the Cab driver Who Picked Me Up at a Phoenix Hotel to Catch a Four A.M. Flight and Began to Speak in (Almost) Rhyming Couplets’ from her book, DEEP LIGHT: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1987--2007, (Iris Press, 2007) will be featured on the program to be aired on September 25, 2007. APM currently distributes the program for broadcast to about 320 non-commercial public radio stations around the country. The program is also streamed and podcast from and archived on the APM website at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org and may be streamed, archived on carrying station websites as well.”
COMMENTARY ON FRANCES’ MADESON’S COOPERATIVE VILLAGE
Frances Madeson’s COOPERATIVE VILLAGE received some good press at the August 20, 2007 entry on http://noggs.typepad.com/the_reading_experience/2007/08/responding-to-t.html .
MARSH HAWK PRESS
Marsh Hawk Press has new books and good events in New York City. See their website at http://www.marshhawkpress.org/ .
MORE GOOD NEWS
John Amen had a poem in the August issue of STIRRING– see it at http://www.sundress.net/stirring/archives/v9/e8/index.html His poem "Triptych" appeared recently in RATTLE has been posted at www.myspace.com/johnamen. His books CHRISTENING THE DANCER and MORE OF ME DISAPPEARS as well as his first CD, ALL I'LL NEVER NEED are currently available through various sites, including Amazon and www.johnamen.com.
WRITE IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE WITH KRISTA MADSEN...
Novelist Krista Madsen writes that she has been offered “the chance to teach at the Abroad Writers' Conference, next stop the little southern village of Cassis, France. There will be workshops (I believe you take two, one lead by a lesser known soul like me, and one by a more established author) in which the focus is giving/receiving feedback on a good body of work. Each evening there are readings/programs offering the chance to further mine the minds of all these amazing folks. Along with food, lodging, private consultations, time to write & wander... I can't wait to go, perhaps you'll join me? I know June seems a long way off, but reservations must be made soon for this to happen...... [Get in touch with] Nancy Gerbault, abroadwriters@yahoo.com, http://www.abroad-crwf.com, and her number: 209-296-4050; tell her I sent you. Let me know if you decide to do this, and if you know anyone else who might be interested, pass it on!” ABROAD WRITERS' CONFERENCE--Authors without Borders at Camargo Foundation, CASSIS, FRANCE, June 14 - 28, 2008. Abroad Writers' Conference: http://www.abroad-crwf.com Camargo Foundation: http://www.camargofoundation.org/ Abroad Writers' Conference, 17363 Sutter Creek Road, Sutter Creek, CA 95685.

UPCOMING READINGS IN NYC
D. S. Nurske, Michael Graves, and Burt Kimmelman will read September 30, 2007 at Bengal Curry, 65 West Broadway betw. Murray and Warren Streets, 1½ blocks south of Chambers), NYC 10007 Phone: (212) 571-1122
Carol Stone and Burt Kimmelman will read March 25, 2006, 7:00 PM, Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield Street,Watchung Plaza
Montclair, NJ 07042 973-744-7177
THE NOTE ABOUT AMAZON.COM
Ingrid Hughes writes: “My union newspaper says, ‘Forget Amazon.com, which has engaged in union busting on two continents. Try Powell's Books (http://www.powells.com) --the largest unionized bookstore in America....An alternative way to reach their site is from http://www.powellsunion.com; 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 .

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hillary, Revolution, and the Romantic Artist

There was an interesting article on the front page of the Times today about Hillary Clinton in 1968– I doubt it would have the same resonance for people of other generations than mine. She arrived at Wellesley a Goldwater Republican, did a senior thesis on Saul Alinsky, who she thought was one of the few radicals who was actually effective, worked on both democratic presidential campaign and for a republican in Washington (Melvin Laird, future defense secretary). This latter was as an intern (I wonder if Mel ever made a pass at her...).

But she realized pretty quickly that she wasn't a Republican. She visited from home the Demo convention in Chicago and smelled the tear gas. Was Wellesley student body president, organized a strike and attended some protests, but definitely wanted to work within the system.

She has been quoted saying various things about working within the system, about making change from within, compromise, etc. that remind me of my friend David Hardesty, outgoing president of West Virginia University-- but also of someone much younger, Joel’s Sarah, who is looking to do good concretely in the field of health care policy.

But the point for me is that the discussion is my generation's discussion--I've even had it with David-- doe we work from within, or work from outside? These ten years of effort I've put in with the South Orange Maplewood Community Coalition on Race have been as close as I’ve ever been to working as an insider. I've never made the transition fully, though, always envying the ones who still put great effort into mass protests, still belong to small left wing revolutionary parties that view everything as best they can through the lens of the oppressed.

It is of interest to me that the people who engaged in the conversation about where to work but assume that working for change is the real thing, those people really are in power now, although we’re beginning to retire.

I talked with Carol, the Chair of the SO/Ma CCR last night after our Schools Committee meeting about a piece we've been working on for the local paper, and she commented on how it’s gotten easier to write these pieces representing the ideas of the group, and it occurred to me how much satisfaction I’ve taken from drafting them. It is a special privilege and pleasure to write things that express (and of course influence) the thinking of more than just me. This is definitely not the recommended stance for a Romantic Artist. We're supposed to suffer in loneliness and then become famous.

But what if these pieces I've written for the Coalition about integration in the 21st century turn out to be the most powerful things I ever write? That makes me uncomfortable at best, but of course I won't really know in my lifetime. And I never really bought into the myth of the Romantic Artist. It is a narrative that has come to the end of its usefulness, and probably never applied to women even in the 19th century. What I do believe, most deeply, is that my friend Shelley's full time revolutionary partner Teresa and probably even Hillary are in some way on the same side. I know Teresa wouldn't stand that for a moment, and probably not Hillary either. But my deepest world view, when it isn't simply dark and despairing, has none of us knowing the truth, and all of us slogging through the mire with many missteps, but more of us that you might think slogging in a progressive direction.

That sounds incredibly fuzzy headed, vague, and optimistic if not mystical, but that's because I tried to say it directly instead of slant...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Back from the lake again

Well, I went up for 24 hours, and Ellen and I divided up the summer's left over cans and bottles and cleaned the kitchen (she did most of the cleaning, I carried things up to the cars). It was a beautiful week-end, and Andy was home, on, and Ann broke her foot, and we all ate too much pasta and came home.