Tuesday, January 01, 2008

January 1, 2008

We've been out to a neighborhood open house today, saw several of the Village Colonials Neigborhood Association people, this after some hours of Andy working on the Coalition computers, cleaning up cookies and such things, and then Mom and I took a walk at dusk, very lovely, really, still Christmas lights out, red sky fading, houses with lots of people moving around in the lighted windows, Christmas trees, t.v.s, tables set. Then I worked on the big manuscript I'm going over, and I've got a fire flickering and the Christmas tree glowing for its last night.

And Joel and Sarah are in one of those metal tubes hurtling across Iowa right now, still three hours from San Francisco.

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers

Newsletter # 103
December 29, 2007

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The deadline is approaching for my four session January online writing class, Prose Narrative Online. Learn more: http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/ProseNarrativeJan2008.html

This issue has a guest editor, Shelley Ettinger, who calls her piece a “ranting spew” that was prompted by the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW’s 2007 best books picks. This, says Shelley, got her “stewing over the general awfulness of the NYTBR, which is unsurprising but still continually frustrating to me since this weekly rag is one of the few places I know of to hear about new books.” Well, I always enjoy what Shelley calls her rants. She has a distinct political point of view, but she also reads vastly more than I do. –MSW
A few years ago when THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW hired a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, to much acclaim, I knew things were going to go from bad to worse. The guy’s resumé had highlights like service at the NATIONAL REVIEW, the ultra-reactionary magazine founded by William F. Buckley. And sure enough, he hasn’t disappointed. In fact, last week he made it explicit; in an interview, he spoke of his vision of the NYBTR as a “conservative” literary voice.
You can see it partly in their choice of reviewers, who regularly include right-wing commentators chosen to skewer progressive books, but mostly in their choice of which books they review. The particular trend that I find most interesting is which fiction writers from other countries, in particular the Third World, they champion. With few exceptions, it’s those whose work tells stories that highlight government corruption, inter-group violence, patriarchal excess and so on, without putting these stories in the context of the European colonialism and U.S./European neocolonialism that, as Walter Rodney so memorably phrased it, “underdeveloped” Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Or it’s anticommunist fiction that tells tales of the supposed horrors of People’s China or the USSR or revolutionary Cuba. The irony here, of course, is that it is gospel in the U.S. that good literature cannot be political, when in fact the books that the NYBTR and other such organs champion are for the most part extremely political; it’s just that their politics jibe with those of the U.S. bourgeois class. No surprise there. As Marx long ago pointed out, the culture of any country is determined by its ruling class. In this country, they do their darnedest to mask this, and probably many commentators and critics don’t even realize how thoroughly imbued with bourgeois ideology their work is, but there is a thoroughgoing chokehold in force here perhaps more than anywhere else.
For example, one of the “classics” that I’ve read in recent years (I’ll get to this nutty quest of mine in a minute) is HOWARD’S END by E.M. Forster. This is the novel that includes the famous exhortation “Only connect,” which you’ll find quoted all over the place, especially in literary commentary. It is pointed to as a sweet, pithy call to human beings to connect with each other emotionally and socially, to touch, to love, to be vulnerable, to communicate and so on. I was shocked when I came upon it in its actual context in the book, because, by my read, at least, this is not what it means at all. It is spoken scoldingly by one prosperous but progressive-minded character to another, and it is a remonstrance that they, the well-off, have a moral obligation not to shut their eyes to the world around them and the reality of the terrible conditions in which most people live, to recognize that there are poor people all around them, and, most of all– and here’s where the “connect” comes in– to see that what people of their class do has a direct, concrete, material effect on the lives of the working class. Only connect, that is, only connect your decision to lay off workers or close a factory or sell stock with this fellow’s unpleasantly raggedy clothes, that woman’s skeletal, screaming baby, this child’s dirty face and dull eyes.
Whether the misreading of “only connect” is conscious and purposeful or not, it certainly works for the literary establishment, and I include here both outright reactionaries like Tanenhaus and those of a more liberal bent.
So. Anyway. Fuming and grunting, I read through the NYTBR’s list of 2007’s best books. Of the novels I’ve read, there’s Thomas Mallon’s FELLOW TRAVELERS, which can only have been chosen for its liberal anticommunism embedded in its homophile critique of 1950s McCarthyite excess, because the writing is clunky and pedestrian to say the least.
I’m mystified by the acclaim for THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris. It’s not a bad book, but definitely not a great one. And, as a longtime clerical worker, once I read it I had a bitter little laugh about its hype as a book about workers in offices; it is a book about people who work in offices, but not workers – the characters are marketing executives, that is, middle-class salaried employees, not wage workers. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have some interesting things to say about offices, and the horrors of the salaried life; it does have some nice moments, and the writing is okay, I just didn’t find it especially memorable, and it definitely didn’t reflect anything about the work life I know.
REMAINDER by Tom McCarthy? Oh. My. God. This is a weird book, and I liked its weirdness, but really that’s all it has going for it. I can’t provide a one- or two-sentence description of the plot because its oddness precludes that, so I’ll just say that I found it ultimately to be profoundly anti-social, repugnant in fact; I’m guessing that its appeal for the NYTBR is its overlay of alienation and hopelessness.
What to say about Roberto Bolaño’s THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES and the wild enthusiasm it’s garnered since finally being published in English? I came to this one with great excitement since the author was a Chilean exile of the Pinochet years and supposedly some sort of leftist, but I had to force myself to keep reading all through its 576 pages, hoping throughout that it would take some turn, provide some spark of characterization, plot, or political insight that would enliven the plod and justify the read, but no it did not happen. I keep meaning to ask some of our Chilean friends, actual revolutionaries– including one who the U.S. government is now trying to deport back to Chile after he’s lived here since fleeing in 1973– what their take on Bolaño is, but until I get their perspective I’m left to conclude that this is yet another case of the U.S. literary establishment championing a foreign-language author who is safe (and in this case safely dead), non-threatening, with a “radical” patina covering decidedly unradical content.
Miraculously, I did like four of the NYTBR’s 2007 picks. THE INDIAN CLERK by David Leavitt, an always very fine writer, about the early-20th-century Indian mathematics genius Ramanujan and his British sponsor Hardy; the book is a subtle and moving examination that does, in my opinion, incorporate the context of their relationship – the context, that is, of colonialism, gay oppression, racism and class – effectively.
I was blown away by Mohsin Hamid’s searing indictment of the U.S. in THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, which tells the story of a middle-class Pakistani Princeton graduate and high-rolling Wall Street up-and-comer who is confronted with the moral and political contradictions of the work he’s being groomed for and makes another choice. MAN GONE DOWN by Michael Thomas is a bitter, clear-eyed story about being a Black man in this country, in this case a writer trying to survive, keep his family together, keep his wits about him, keep out of jail, keep a roof over his head, and somehow keep writing. This book was not, for me at least, a fast or easy read. It is in a certain way old-fashioned, with its many digressions of plot and social commentary. All of which I appreciated, and made it that much more remarkable that it got published.
Finally, there’s THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by the brilliant, extravagantly talented Junot Diaz. This is an amazing, virtuoso novel that weaves together so much historical and political material with such a gripping story and unforgettable protagonist, all through the most stunningly original language imaginable, that it left me breathless. That said, there’s a caveat. Several Latino friends of mine who’ve read it were very unhappy with Diaz’s treatment of the very real issue of Dominican racism toward Haitians, and also with his overuse almost to the point of celebration of the “N” word. None of which, of course, bothers the mainstream reviewers.
Nobody’s clamoring to read the SHELLEY ETTINGER BEST BOOKS OF 2007 but I want to list them anyway, so here goes. (I read them in 2007, though I think some may have been published in 2006.) This was not a great fiction year for me. I started and stopped more books than I can remember. In addition to the four listed above, the only novels I can remember liking a lot this year were, in no order: ARLINGTON PARK by Rachel Cusk, MY DREAM OF YOU by Nuala O’Faolain, FLIGHT by Sherman Alexie, THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER by Joyce Carol Oates, MY LATEST GRIEVANCE by Elinor Lipman.
And, not new by a longshot (more on this below): MOBY DICK by Herman Melville and JUDE THE OBSCURE by Thomas Hardy.
I did much better with non-fiction this year, though it often takes me longer to get to a non-fiction book, so some of these are a year or two (or in one case much much) older. Again in no order, my non-fiction best books read this year are: 1491 by Charles Mann, FIELD NOTES FROM A CATASTROPHE by Elizabeth Kolbert, WHEN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION WAS WHITE by Ira Katznelson, ECOLOGY OF FEAR by Mike Davis, THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA by Michael Pollan, ORIGIN OF SPECIES by Charles Darwin, BIG BANG by Simon Singh, THE ANCESTOR’S TALE by Richard Dawkins, MARXISM, REPARATIONS AND THE BLACK FREEDOM STRUGGLE by various Workers World writers, AMERICAN PROMETHEUS: THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER by Bird and Sherwin, THE SHAME OF THE NATION by Jonathan Kozol, A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF SCIENCE by Clifford Conner.
Now, as threatened, a note on old books. I have for some time been engaged on an occasional self-education project of reading “classic” fiction that I’d never read because I had a hippie college education and at that time wasn’t interested in reading what seemed to me to be tired old crap. Nowadays when I read, which as I’ve confessed repeatedly is what I’d rather do than anything, I find that I frequently come across allusions to various of these “classics,” and, frustrated at not getting what the references are about, I’ve been trying to fill the gaps bit by bit. So here’s the thing about the results: they’re spotty. Some of the tomes that hold high spots in the literary pantheon I’ve tried and failed to make it through and do indeed seem to me to be tired old crap. Some have surprised me by enthralling. Others not so much but I’ve soldiered on.
For the last two weeks I’ve been reading WAR AND PEACE by Tolstoy. It falls in the happy surprise category. The copy of WAR AND PEACE I'm reading isn't the new translation that's on display at all the bookstores. It's an ancient paperback version that I took from the bookshelf of a friend who died of AIDS 20 years ago, and it's crumbling in my hands day by day So the race is also to finish it before it disintegrates. Is there a metaphor of some sort here?
It’s going to take a lot of thought for me to figure out why I like it, why it works for me, but having rounded the halfway point yesterday, I can safely say that I do and it does. I’ve been gripped from the first pages. I find myself dreaming about it. It’s rambling, discursive, repetitious; it’s peopled almost entirely by the serf-owning rotten czarist aristocracy that was so righteously overthrown a century after the time of the story; and yet it is a revelation. I think it’s something about the grand sweep, the interweave of global events and domestic doings, but I also think it’s something else, something more, which I’m not yet able to put my finger on. The key, I suspect, is somehow in the writing itself, word by word, sentence by sentence.
I suspect that because word by word, sentence by sentence, my reaction to some others of my dead white (mostly) men syllabus has been so varied, and I’m not sure how else to account for it. I’ve loved all of the Shakespeare I’ve read (five or six of the major dramas). Loved SWANN’S WAY by Proust. Liked HOWARD’S END. I adored JUDE THE OBSCURE, as mentioned above, and also GERMINAL by Zola, though in both these cases the political content weighed heavily too. In fact, I think there’s something of a trend here. If the writing is great and so are the politics, of course I love it.
It’s still a little mysterious what it is about the writing that turns me off in other cases – it’s not length, because I’ve loved some monsters – but something does and I feel like if I don’t let myself stop reading I’ll have to shoot myself. For example, although I’d be drummed out of any English Department, not to mention most book clubs, for this, I could not force myself to get past the first 80 or so pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen. Ditto for PORTRAIT OF A LADY by Henry James, which I gave over 100 till I cried uncle. I felt pretty much the same about MADAME BOVARY by Flaubert, but I was able to force myself to finish it. I started out enjoying DON QUIXOTE by Cervantes, but after 200 pages of chapter after nearly exactly the same chapter, I gave up. Dostoevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT should have grabbed me but for some reason it did not, and though I read it through to the end it was an endurance test, not a pleasure.
One monster that I’m still grappling with is ULYSSES by James Joyce. Mostly I love it. It has surprised me from the start for how hilarious it is, and I find the language absolutely exhilarating. That said, I confess that I had to go online and print out a chapter-by-chapter summary of the plot and refer to it as I read in order to be sure that I’m actually getting what’s happening. Also, reading it is a great deal of work. It feels worth it but I don’t always have it in me. So, about one-third of the way through, I set it aside with plans to tackle it again during a summer vacation one of these years.
There is one great work of literature that is often referred to but had always intimidated me. I had tried to read it in my early 20s and couldn’t make head or tail of. I returned to it a few years ago to entirely different effect. This is MRS. DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf. To my mind, of all that I’ve read, this is the masterwork, the one that stands above all others (okay, maybe TO THE LIGHTHOUSE comes close). I’m sure I don’t have anything original to add to everything that’s been written about why this is a work of genius, so I’ll just say that it is my answer to the one-book-if-you’re-stranded-on-a-desert-island question. Although it’s primarily about upper-class characters, it has a much broader political sweep, it seems to me, so that somehow, as if by magic, in a very few pages of exquisite artistry, Woolf manages to illuminate the experience of being human.

– Shelley Ettinger

Shelley Ettinger gave us hers. What are yours? I’d love to publish some more best books of 2007 lists– meaning the best books you read in 2007, not necessarily ones published in 2007. With the digitalizing of classics and all the small press activity, I think that the top best sellers or most popular books of the immediate past will become less important because everything is going to be available, and none of us have time to read it all. Send just your list, or your list with lots of annotation to meredithsuewillis@gmail.com .
My best reading for 2007 included Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO; Saramago’s BLINDNESS; Sigrid Undset’s KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER; rereads of two of my favorite long stories, Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych” and Joyce’s “The Dead;” Pamela Erens’ THE UNDERSTORY; Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE; Momaday’s HOUSE MADE OF DAWN; and Hardy’s THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE..

Jeremy Osner writes to say, after reading my notes on Orhan Pamuk’s ISTANBUL, “By the way if you are ‘a sucker for little kids,’ you should by all means take a look at Pamuk's latest book of essays, OTHER COLORS, for its wonderful descriptions of life with his daughter Ruya.”
John Birch recommends the following reference books: Margaret Shertzer, THE ELEMENTS PF GRAMMAR (ISBN 0-02-015440-2, Collier Books) and J.I. Rodale’s THE SYNONYM FINDER ( ISBN: 0-446-37029-0, Warner Books).

Ellen Bass recommends poetry for gifts: “It's perfect for people who love poetry and also a wonderful choice for those who don't usually read much poetry– if you choose a book well matched to the recipient. If someone isn't familiar with contemporary poetry it's likely that there are books they'd really enjoy, but without your gift they'd never know it. I can't think of any present that costs as little as a poetry book and can give so much pleasure and sustenance.” Ellen particularly recommends Roger Housden’s anthology, TEN POEMS TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE AGAIN AND AGAIN; Dorianne Laux's first book, AWAKE, which has been out of print and has just been made available again; and Joe Millar's new book, FORTUNE, now in paperback. Ellen’s own latest book is THE HUMAN LINE.
Thad has a workshop upcoming called "Generating Fiction" (including memoir), which begins on Monday evening, Jan. 7, at the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA, 5 West 63rd St. The course will encourage writers of fiction and creative nonfiction to produce new work. Substantial class time will be given to individual critiques. Seven meetings. Open to all. Big discount for YMCA members. Contact Glenn Raucher at 212 875-4124, or graucher@ymcanyc.org.
Among his new publications and performances are a video clip of him reading at Cornelia Street Café.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6EtSYcECeI and an interview at www.outofboundspoetryshow.com.
For more of his publications and upcoming readings, see his website .

Myra Shapiro reads from her memoir with others celebrating the 20th anniversary of Chicory Blue Press on January 14, 2008 at 7:00 PM at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 52 Prince Street (between Lafayette and Mulberry). Call 212-274-1160.
Reading and traveling with kids? Here's a blog by children's writer and reading specialist Ellen Kahaner who is interested in reading and travelling with children (and also going to museums and theatre). Take a look at Teddy Bear in a suitcase at http://teddybearinasuitcase.blogspot.com/

Take a look at two interesting articles about the future of the book, e-readers, etc.:
http://www.newsweek.com/id/70983/page/1 and http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-nov19-07.html#book .
Book Critics Circle has a nice blog with book thoughts:http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/ .

Three proposed anthologies are seeking submissions:

1.Women & Poetry: Tips on Writing, Publishing and Teaching from American Women Poets
Guidelines at www.encirclepub.com

2. Milestones for American Women: Our Defining Passages
Guidelines at www.encirclepub.com
3. Women Writing on Family: Writing, Publishing, and Teaching Tips by U.S. Women Writers
Guidelines at www.rachaelhanel.com

December 28
Children are dying
Not only in Africa
But down the street--friends!

Christmas morning, 2007: wearing new cozy slippers from Andy,
tiny red origami crane earrings from Lucille Willis,
and opening my brand new camera from Joel!

December 25

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate! And enjoy a rest to those who don't.

I'm on a fifteen minute break in the middle of cooking (well, we had a long morning break doing gifts and a short one to watch some Fawlty Towers) before showering and doing final preparations for Christmas dinner, for which we have my mother, Andy and me, Joel and Sarah, and Alice, Howard, and Molly coming. Last evening, we had Charlene and Tyrone and Xavier and Madysen with Charlene's cheese steaks and my chili and Tyrone brought wine and he (he's from Georgia!) knew about calling someone a "long drink of water"! Which I had always assumed was a West Virginia phrase, but my mother denied it, so Joel and Andy teased me that I'd made it up, and I said No no and Tyrone saved me. Maybe I learned the phrase when I was in VISTA? Not sure.

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