Saturday, December 20, 2008

Books for Readers # 115

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #115

December 20, 2008

It’s the season of the festivals of light-against-the-darkness, and I’ve got family arriving and lots to do, but most of my teaching is over for the present, which means I am beginning to do a little reading at my own whim. The last two months I’ve been reading mostly student work, which I enjoy, but it is, in the end, work. When I want to indulge myself, I read a nineteenth century novels. They are so big and long, and the sentences go on and on and the details pile up, and . I feel like I’m in front of an open fire nestled under a big feather comforter.

In this mood I just finished rereading George Eliot’s ADAM BEDE. It has been so long since I read it, that it is like a new book to me– albeit a book that I already knew by heart. It’s an odd sensation, to know a book in some deep way and yet to have forgotten most of the story. For example, the Young Squire, Arthur Donnithorne, whose wrongful relationship with Hetty Sorrel causes the main actions of the book, I remembered as heavyset, florid, and cloddish in his lack of feeling. In fact, he is light in build and light-hearted and altogether more sympathetic to me in this reading. I actually remembered him as having got off scot free from what he did, but in fact, his life is ruined and, perhaps more significantly, I had forgotten his part in an an essential plot point– his desperate off-stage race to try and save Hetty. I had even forgotten Hetty’s fate! I wonder if I’m more sympathetic to young men now that I have a son who is one. The good thing about forgetting important points like Hetty’s fate is the surprise the book still had for me.

This reading I also enjoyed more than in the past the slow chatty narrator’s discussios of rural life, and Aunt Poyser’s long speeches. This time I was not put off by Dinah’s final turn away from public preaching (the Methodist authorities had decided to forbid women preaching). I think in my original reading I had wanted her to rebel, but she is not a rebel, rather one of the ones who follow what they perceive to be God’s explicit directions. I had forgotten, rather unfairly, that handsome, heroic, but very conventional Adam Bede had been willing for her to continue preaching in public. I had remembered her as falling from proto-feminism into stupid Victorian wifehood, but she is thoroughly consistent.

What remains the same as I remembered, however, is the centrality of the women in the novel. The women act: they preach and argue and run away and cause many of the events in the novel. Even the mother of Adam and Seth Bede, who is a complaining sort of person, stimulates Adam to realize his feelings toward Dinah at the end. Mrs. Poyser does her work as a farm woman extremely well (and knows exactly what portion of the farm’s income is produced under her supervision). She speaks her mind with alacrity and a great deal of wit. And even Hetty Sorrel, for all of the superficiality of her personality, of her sensuality and total selfishness, is not only filled with the force of nature and an urge to live, but is also active although destructive in her crisis. That is the same from my first reading.

The power of the story seems stronger to me now: it is a well structured novel with a farmers’ harvest dinner balancing out the consdescending birthday party of the young squire given for the renters. As is true so often in George Eliot’s work, the great climax is not the end or perhaps even the most important part of the novel but rather a thing of which the consequences are the real point. So, has ADAM BEDE become one of my favorites again? It is a simpler story than MIDDLEMARCH, but I love it for its strength and energy.

Meanwhile, I’ve been continuing to read on religious topics, in particular, CHRISTIANITY: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION by Linda Woodhead. This is one of a series of small Oxford introductions, handy-dandy surveys that cover a lot fast and surprisingly well. This one was especially helpful to me with categories that explain or at least organize some of the extreme differences among varieties of Christianity. A couple of things I pulled out of it that struck me: Eastern Orthodox Christianity is less caught up in human sinfulness than the Roman Catholics and Protestants who follow Augustine more closely; that the area where Christians are in the twenty-first century increasing most in numbers is the “south”– Latin American and sub-Saharan Africa. In these new expressions of Chrisitianity there seems to be a lot of direct mystical experience. The other thing that was very helpful was the idea that you can roughly divide Christianity into categories based on how the believers make their connection with the divine. Woodhead distinguishes Church Christianity– the highly organized, priest-led type of church like, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Anglicans and the Presbyterians and anyone who puts emphasis on the dispensing of sacraments– and a second type that she calls Biblical Christianity, which puts faith in the believer’s direct apprehension of the Word, through the text of the Bible and preaching. A third variety is Mystical Christianity which takes its cues from inner feelings– direct intercourse with the spirit. Quakers would be an organized example of that. Clearly, of course, there have been mystics under the aegis of the Catholic Church and there are highly organized churches that started as Biblical, but it’s a nice way of thinking of things: how do the people have their experience of the divine? Through priests and sacraments? Through the Word preached and read? Through inner light?

I also read the lively anti-Christian monograph, Nietzsche’s THE ANTICHRIST (see below for Alex Kato-Willis’s take on this).

I want to end, however, with two short readings on religion and politics that come from a listserv of people who participated in the Columbia University sit-ins of 1968. Johnny Sundstrom posted this. He said, “I had the wonderful privilege of being adopted by an Arapaho-Lakota couple over thirty years ago. My Dad (Francis Brown] has gone on, but he left behind a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. I remember one time many, many years ago when he just looked at me for awhile and then said, ‘Indian people are all commonists.’ I looked back and then said, ‘Do you mean Communists?’ He said, ‘No, commonists. 'Communists' is a foreign word.. We believe in commonism.’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘what's commonism?’ He smiled and said, ‘We all own the land, the air and the water and everything that comes from it. Nobody owns the land or the water or the air. That's commonism.’”

Johnny also tells a story about his Lakota Uncle Oliver Red Cloud (brother-in-law of Francis Brown). He once told Johnny that this life is “just practice". “I,” writes Johnny, “of course wanted to to know, ‘Practice for what?’ He replied, ‘Oh we don't know that.’ So, in my naivete, I pursued, ‘How do you know this?’ And he sat silent for awhile and then smiled and said, ‘Because nobody's very good at it.’” For another Francis Brown story told to Johnny Sundstrom and now to us, go to “The Banquet” .

-- Meredith Sue Willis


In ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL, E.M. Forster says of Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells: “They are, both, humorists and visualizers who get an effect by cataloguing details and whisking the page over irritably. They are generous-minded; they hate shams and enjoy being indignant about them; they are valuable social reformers; they have no notion of confining books to a library shelf. Sometimes the lively surface of their prose scratches like a cheap gramophone record, a certain poorness of quality appears, and the face of the author draws rather too near to that of the reader. In other words, neither of them has much taste: the world of beauty was largely closed to Dickens, and is entirely closed to Wells.”


Alexander Kato-Willis writes: “This is the book that affirms Nietzsche as the most profound of historical psychologists. His application of astounding historical knowledge to the analysis of the human mind is deeply moving. In regards to agreeing or disagreeing with his ideas, I believe that Nietzsche's work defies correctness or incorrectness. In the same way that a listener does not say whether a piece of music is correct or incorrect, Nietzsche's writing is art in thought form and is not productively approached from a desire to find unemotional truth.”


Jeffrey Sokolow says, “I'm currently reading THE HAKAWATI [THE STORYTELLER], a novel by a Lebanese author, Rabih Alameddine. It's a bawdy and engrossing read that combines stories that could be out of the 1001 Nights and a family saga. Pick it up and you won't be able to put it down.”


Phyllis Moore writes to say, “I read THE BALLAD OF TRENCHMOUTH TAGGART by M. Glenn Taylor (formerly of Huntington, West Virginia). It surely has an unusual plot. Trenchmouth is one of the strangest protagonist in West Virginia lit– it's sort of a Little Big Man meets Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Born in 1903, Trenchmouth lives to be 108. He meets Bill Blizzard, Sid Hatfield, and Mother Jones. He is at the Battle of Matewan, participates in the coal mine wars, meets Chuck Berry, Johnny "Be Good" Johnson, Hank Williams, Jim Comstock, and the Kennedys. The section from about page 188 to 218 involves Trenchmouth's time in Richwood, WV, working with Comstock. This episode takes place during the Kennedy campaign in WV, which Trenchmouth covers for THE WEST VIRGINIA HILLBILLY. Trenchmouth is a complicated character and evolves into a very likeable guy.” There is an interview with M. Glenn Taylor and information about THE BALLAD OF TRENCHMOUTH TAGGART at and a sample of his wild and wonderful fiction, see Issue 16 of THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW at
David Barber’s A HARD RAIN FELL: SDS AND WHY IT FAILED is now available from University of Mississippi Press .
Crystal Alleyne Cook’s new novel BOMBARDIROVKA is available online– for free. To download, go to There is also a limited print edition available for a donation to Doctors Without Borders. The limited print edition has original cover art by one of the following artists: Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca, Danny Setiawan, Lidya Tchakerian, Alice Dean, Suzanne Gibson, Vera Arutyunyan, Ryuta Nakajima, Biz Lopez, Seda Baghdasarian, Mavis Taylor, Lamp Community, Donna M. Woods, Norton Wisdom, Dana Wyss, Jocelyn Jaggers, Arlene Bogna, Keely Perkins and is available for a $15 (or more!!) donation to Doctors Without Borders + $5 shipping and handling. To give the donation directly to Doctors With Borders, go here: You donate, then leave a message saying you donated. After that, to cover U.S. shipping & handing, send $5.00 by check, money order, or in U.S. postage stamps, to: Crystal Allene Cook, P.O. Box 421973, Los Angeles, CA 90042-9998
MOBIUS, THE POETRY MAGAZINE was selected for the second consecutive year as one of the BEST magazines of 2008 by the prestigious SMALL MAGAZINE REVIEW in their Nov/Dec 2008 issue. See their website at or at Editor-in-Chief Juanita Torrence-Thompson’s website at .
Brighid Editions will publish Neva Bryan's Debut Novel ST. PETER’S MONSTERS in the first quarter of 2009. This is the story of Peter Sullivan, a homesick college student teetering on the edge of alcoholism. He discovers bigger monsters than the bottle when a mysterious young woman enters his life. Wren has fled Peter's beloved Appalachian hills and now he must find out why she is keeping secrets about her past. For more information, contact


Latest poems from Barbara Crooker available at l
There’s a new issue of Salt River Review:
Jeremy Osner reviews Saramago’s DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS here at Quarterly Conversation:


Here are book recommendations from THE INTERNET REVIEW OF BOOKS:


Ellen Bass’s poems on The Writer’s Almanac read by Garrison Keillor at . I especially like the one called “Remodelling the Bathroom.”


DIANA L. BENNETT FELLOWS. See . Black Mountain offers nine-month fellowships to published writers and public intellectuals. The program accepts applications from novelists, poets, playwrights, historians, political scientists, independent scholars, and anyone else whose work is meant for a general, educated lay audience. Black Mountain awards three to five fellowships each year to outstanding writers who have published at least one critically acclaimed book before the time of application. Foreign nationals conversant in English are welcome to apply. There are no degree requirements. Fellows receive a $50,000 stipend, an office, a computer, and access to UNLV's Lied Library. They remain in residence at BMI for the duration of the fellowship term (approximately August 24, 2009 to May 14, 2010) and work daily at the BMI offices. Application deadline: February 1, 2009.
THE ADIRONDACK REVIEW is pleased to announce the third annual Fulton Prize for Short Fiction. The winner will receive $400 and publication in The Adirondack Review. Entrants whose stories receive honorable mention will also have their stories published in The Adirondack Review. In addition, they will be awarded an honorarium of $30. The deadline for the Fulton Prize for Short Fiction is January 31, 2009. For more information about this contest,visit
KORE 2009 Fiction Award. Winner receives $1,000 plus publication as a stand-alone short story chapbook. This competition is open to any woman writing in English, regardless of nationality. Submit your manuscript and the $15 entry fee by using our online submissions process: All entrants will be notified of results via email.


I’ve been reporting for some time in this spot that 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.’” For the complete discussion, see the comments of Jonathan Greene and others in Issues #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 or Alibris. Bookfinder has 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. A lot of people whose political instincts I respect prefer the unionized bricks-and-mortar bookstore Powells that sells online at
More 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.
For more comparison shopping, you might want to take a look at , another free comparison shopping website for textbooks that says they search over two dozen bookstores to find the lowest prices in textbooks and more.
Finally, I’ve been subscribing to a paid lending library called Paperspine. Check it out, and see if it works for you: .
Please send responses and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis at Unless you instruct otherwise, your responses may be edited silently for length, polished for grammar and spelling, and published in this newsletter.
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 2008, Meredith Sue Willis

The Banquet
As told to Johnny Sundstrom by Francis Brown, Arapaho Elder

Some time ago, back when Tennessee was still a frontier to the whites and was still the home of the tribes, encounters between the two races were rare but not unknown. One winter day a lost and hungry white trapper was discovered wandering through the woods by an equally hungry Indian. As they exchanged greetings, they also exchanged information about their desperate situations. The trapper was near starvation and had only one load left for his gun. The Indian had not eaten for days and had only one arrow for his bow. They decided to hunt together in order to improve their chances for a meal.

As they moved through the wooded landscape, they came to a lake. They could hear the sound of ducks hidden among the marshy vegetation at the lake’s edges. The trapper told the Indian to sneak part of the way around the lake, and then make loud noises, flushing the ducks toward him and his gun. The Indian did what he was told and when the ducks took off and flew overhead, the trapper fired, and missed.

They kept on moving. The afternoon passed, and dusk was coming on when the Indian spotted the dark outline of a turkey in a tree. He whispered to the trapper to stay where he was. The Indian said he would creep up close under the turkey and if it started to move, the trapper should bark like a dog. That would freeze the turkey for a moment and the Indian would shoot. Everything went as he said it would and when the trapper barked, the Indian shot the arrow and the turkey fell from the tree. They skinned it, built a fire and were just about to cook it when the trapper said, “Wait…I have an idea,” he said. “There’s hardly enough here for both of us. Let’s hang it up safe, go to sleep, and whoever has the best dream will get to eat the whole turkey.”

The Indian agreed, and they hung the bird in a tree and went to sleep.

In the morning, the trapper woke first and couldn’t wait to tell his dream.

“Wake up, wake up,” he said, and before the Indian was fully awake he began to tell his dream. "“As soon as I fell asleep I dreamed there was a great staircase, right over there, near the edge of the firelight. I got up, went over and started climbing it. It was a long ways, and when I got to the top there was a huge castle. I went up to the big door and pushed on it, but it was locked, so I went around and looked in a window. There, in a huge room, were tables and tables of food, all ready to eat. There was no one there and the window was open. I climbed in and sat down and ate and ate, and then I went to another table and ate: meat, fish, bread, potatoes and squash, whatever I could think of I could eat. And then there were the desserts, desserts, desserts. I ate until I was so stuffed I could hardly move and then I crawled back out the window and came back down here and got back in my bedroll.” He paused.

And then he said, “There’s no way you could beat that dream, so I’m gonna start a fire and eat that turkey right now.”

The Indian held up his hands. “Wait,” he said. “I couldn’t get to sleep and after awhile I saw you get up and go over to that stairway. I watched you start up and I followed you. I saw you try to get in the door and go around to the window. I saw you climb in and I went up to that window. I saw you eating, and eating, and eating. I knew you wouldn’t be hungry, so I came back down, cooked the turkey, and ate it.”

-- Johnny Sundstrom, New Year’s Eve, 2001

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