Thursday, January 31, 2008

AWP Ahoy!

January 31

I was at my first AWP conference today-- New York Hilton, three floors of book tables, small and large presses, magazines, writing programs, famous writers reading, panels: I'm going to be on one tomorrow reading from After the Bell, the anthology of prose about schooling, teachers, etc. Many people there I knew, some I actually saw, others I just missed: at the Hamilton Stone table with Edith Konecky and Rochelle Ratner, saw Maggie Anderson, West Virginia friend and editor of After the Bell, Shelley Ettinger, Tayari Jones, Dahlia Elsayed from NJWP, people at The Writer, Suzanne McConnell just left, ditto Jayne Anne Phillips. I saw Willard Cook and Pamela Erens. I suppose, especially in New York, I shouldn't be surprised by the numbers. 7,000 participants, and they had to close registration-- at once a wonderful feeling, all those people who care about books and writing-- that what we do is serious, and at the same time the horror, the horror: they all are or want to be writers? And so many of them training more? Who will read what we all write? Young people from the programs, fragrant with ambition, old people with twisted mouths, self-involved, not having achieved all they wanted, ready to talk about themselves, not others. Double and tripling of exhilaration and dismay.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Books for Readers Newsletter #105

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers

Number 105
January 26, 2008

Biography Blog Books for Readers Newsletter Contact Home MSW Info
MSW's Books Online Classes Order Books MSW Online Teens Writing Exercises

I have a few short notes on books I’ve read recently. First, David Weinberger’s latest book, EVERYTHING IS MISCELLANEOUS, is about how the Internet has changed how we organize what we know. He gives an entertaining history of how knowledge has been categorized in the past– Melvil Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System, for example, had a fetish for tenths, and this has severely limited the major categories libraries can set up. He discusses at length the profound difference between an old fashioned encyclopedia written by experts (think Britannica) versus Wikipedia, which is created by its users. EVERYTHING IS MISCELLANEOUS isn’t meant to be a how-to book, but I did pick up some practical ideas, especially about for bookmarking and the concept of organizing via “include” and “postpone”. Since there is so much information available, especially on the Web, and since it costs nothing to link to things, it is generally better to include everything in the beginning, and to postpone classifying and cutting as long as possible. This is the principle I use in this newsletter, for example. As announcements come into my inbox, I cut and paste lots of them into my draft for the next issue. Only when I get close to sending it out do I reduce the number of announcements and the amount of information in each announcement. There’s a lot more, all of it entertaining and important for our thinking about how we use the Internet to organize and get access to the immense resources around us.

And now, for something completely different, I finished a wonderful poem sequence called KETTLE BOTTOM by Diane Gilliam Fisher. This is a book of poetic monologues in the voices of miners and mine families during the unionization and mine wars of the 1920's in West Virginia. This was the period of the Battle of Blair Mountain, when the American air force was called out to bomb striking miners. That was just above ground. In the mines, there was real danger:

When I first come in the mine
Daddy told me, Them rats
can hear a branch crack
up on top of the mountain.
They hear the earth start to give
when the roof’s about to fall.
Them rats makes a run for the drift mouth,
you drop what you’re doing, son,
you run.

From “Raven Light,” (47)

I also reread HOWARD’S END for the umpteenth time, after Shelley Ettinger’s discussion in Issue #104. I was struck this time by how funny it was: Aunt Juley meets the Wilcoxes alone is worth the price of the book. The only comparatively weak parts (and this is compared to the best parts which are incomparable) are some of the descriptions of poor gentleman-wannabe Leonard Bast, who is so pathetic with his aspirations without learning and wealth that you can't help cringing. The conclusion also had more coincidences than I remembered, but the people were unfailingly believable and real, and the effects of class and wealth are created without instructing, using rich human exemplars.

One more quintessentially British book– my first John Banville–was THE UNTOUCHABLE. This is the story of Victor Maskell, a fictional member of the Oxbridge spy rings of the twentieth century (Anthony Blunt et alia). Banville has that enviable conviction that you can use fiction to understand anything in our world. Americans do a lot of things with fiction– some of us vogue around in the Role of Writer; some of us experiment with with language and voice. We have great entertainers and story tellers and people with raw and gripping stories to tell. But living British writers like Pat Barker and Sarah Water and Banville allow themselves the whole hog in fiction: history, passion, sex, ideas, and they do it with verve and grace.

Some of my favorite parts of THE UNTOUCHABLE may be the set pieces and tangents, along with Maskell’s world weary intelligent voice. Banville does a great job with the secret gay sex life, and there is also the suspense of finding out in the end who turned on the others. I loved all the minor characters, too: Victor’s wife Vivienne, Oleg and the other “handlers” from Russia and Europe. I’m looking forward to reading more Banville soon.



Idelis Sotomayor writes to say, “ I see Junot Diaz's speech used in DROWN (whose narrative style reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE) as a realistic representation of the colloquial language Dominicans use today. And I do not see that Diaz is endorsing it (in particular the use of the N word), as Joanna Bethencourt's disapproving statements (quoted by Ysabel de Leon) implied. I also agree with Shelley Ettinger (regarding the traditional segregation many Dominicans exhibit against Haitians, their neighbors in La Hispaniola, the island shared by both racially mixed nations) in the sense that, when touching racism, a fictional work -- within progressive literature -- ‘should have some redemptive or hopeful touch in it...’

“Thus racism is an issue that should be addressed ethically by any author representing this social reality, and never overlooked as something 'morally neutral' as a natural occurrence... It is interesting to note that serfdom & slavery (historical foundations of La Hispaniola and many other peoples around the world, and the genesis of racism) are institutions that degrade masters and servants or slaves, equally. This moral degradation affecting both groups (economically, ethically, educationally, and --consequently-- emotionally) generation after generation throughout centuries, even long beyond the legal termination of slavery or serfdom, is the trigger of all racial crimes.

“The abuser has been transmitted-- the criminal inability to see a human peer in the abused one, and the latter has been transmitted the traumatic feeling of inferiority and social outcast... Therefore, the heirs in both sides- -averagely and for centuries-- act individually and collectively below high moral standards and desirable expectations.

“Meredith Sue Willis, on her final view on Emile Zola's GERMINAL (about the exploited and pitiful life of French miners in the 19th century, depicted in a realistic and naturalist style), asks: ‘Can we really separate our art from our lives, or our lives from our underlying ideas?’ No, I must say! Everything there is connected in visible and invisible ways, ideas to art, and art to life. Because art, being the activity of creating beautiful and transcending things, has to communicate its message in order to exist and transform the world. Thus the communication of our creativity as a reflection of our emotional and intellectual life, will eventually produce an equivalent impact in the sensitive receiver. Any form of work of art has a message that the capable receiver will feel, assimilate as food for the soul, and keep for life. For instance, a song considered a work of art can last centuries due to its strong impact. It will not rust or deteriorate over time. It doesn't need to be maintained, cleaned, or put in a security box. A song can be far more powerful than any nuclear blast, because it carries an idea and emotion mighty enough to transform millions of individuals (e.g., in 1792 LA MARSEILLAISE, composed by Rouget de Lisle, was the emotional inspirer and leading beat of the French Revolution, and later was made France's national anthem; in 1971 IMAGINE by John Lennon changed America and the rest of the industrial nations on their approach on war, borders and religion). The same analogy can be made with a book or any other work of art. Consequently, art for the sake of communication would be that song, sculpture, painting, photograph, architecture, movie, or book that reaches an audience and produces a long lasting spiritual impact in the receivers. Let us keep in mind that a culture is only as great as its dreams and ideas, and its dreams and ideas are dreamed and thought by the free-spirited thinkers, the artists. So, reaffirming my response to Meredith's inquiry: No, no artist can really separate his art from his life, nor his life from his underlying ideas!”


Magdalena Ball, (see , sent us this note: “Hi Meredith, I enjoy your newsletter very much, and just wanted to mention -- just in case you're still publishing them -- that my two best books for 07 were THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy and APHELION by Emily Ballou. Two books couldn't be more different. McCarthy, as I know you know, is the spare king of desolation. No other writer could do what he did in that book and pull it off with the same sense of beauty and even renewal (but only the merest hint). Ballou, on the other hand, is almost baroque by comparison. Her writing is linguistically rich and upbeat always.”

Idelis Sotomayor’s best books of 2007 were: “(1) MYTHOLOGY -THE ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF WORLD MYTH AND STORYTELLING- by C. Scott Littleton (General Editor), Barnes & Noble, New York, NY. I learned with this book how humanlike are all gods and goddesses (a lot of cultural clues there...). (2) HYPERSPACE: A SCIENTIFIC ODYSSEY THROUGH PARALLEL UNIVERSES, TIME WARPS, AND THE 10TH DIMENSION by Dr. Michio Kaku (theoretical physicist, CUNY), Anchor Books, New York, NY. This book taught me how 'thin,' almost invisible, matter -or baryonic substance- really is in the universe, just 0.4% of the known space. Being the remaining 99.6% an unknown element, 'cosmic or astrophysical plasma' for some analysts. Therefore, we are scientifically transparent and -most of us- we do not realize it yet... (3) THE GREAT COSMIC MOTHER: REDISCOVERING THE RELIGION OF THE EARTH by Monica Sjoo, HarperOne, New York, NY. This work let me acknowledge clearly, how politically suppressive have been all misogynists and its most known credit: institutionalized 'machismo.' (4) And, WHEN GOD WAS A WOMAN by Merlin Stone, Harvest Books, Fort Washington, PA. Here I grew a lot inside seeing all the biased disguises - knitted by machista-pseudo-historians - been taken away...”


Katie Munley says that WHY MEN MARRY BITCHES by Shelley Argov “challenges many notions women get brainwashed with.”
THE DIVING BELL, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, is recommended by Christine Willis who says, “Bauby was an editor of ELLE magazine who suffered a brain stem stroke resulting in ‘locked-in syndrome.’ It is a book he dictated through eye blinks -- quite interesting.’


John Birch has a funny/sad story online in the January/February 2008 issue of THE DUBLIN QUARTERLY at The issue also has an interview with novelist Martin Roper.
Phyllis Moore writes to tell us that Ann Pancake's first novel, STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN (Shoemaker &Hoard), was reviewed by Pam Houston on page 260 of the October 2007 issue of O: THE OPRAH MAGAZINE. Houston calls the novel a "fervent debut by a fierce new talent." West Virginia native Ann Pancake will be promoting her novel in WV this winter.
Contributor Shelley Ettinger has a really neat story in the current issue of AVERY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF NEW FICTION. Her story is about a woman with a very unusual appendage– find out how to get the anthology at
Barbara Crooker’s LINE DANCE, POEMS is officially out now– see .


Michael Benedikt’s book God Is the Good We Do ( came out from Bottino Books, NY, and is available through bookstores from Baker & Taylor,


Writer, reviewer and interviewer Magdalena Ball ( is the host of COMPULSIVE READER talks which is live at the second Tuesday of the month 6pm or permanently available in podcast form.
Anne Whitehouse read from her poetry collection BLESSINGS AND CURSES on Everything Goes, WNYE 91.5 FM, January 23 and 25,. You may upload the reading from the Poetry page of Anne’s website, .
Cat Pleska’s essay on West Virginia’s Nobel Prize winning writer Pearl Buck is online as an MP3 at WV’s public radio site at . Once there, under headlines scroll down to Jan. 16. Click on the little speaker.


Bob Heman is featuring at Robert Dunn's Asbestos series at the Back Fence on Sunday, February 10 at 3 PM. This well known Village venue is located at 155 Bleecker St. at the corner of Thompson and can be reached by the A, C, E, B, D, F and V to West 4th St. Admission is $5 plus a $3 minimum at the bar. There'll be an open mic.

The next big CLWN WR reading is scheduled for March 20 at the SAFE-T-GALLERY in DUMBO. Pencilled in so far are feature Liza Wolsky and special guests R. Nemo Hill, Richard Loranger, Jane Ormerod, Joanne Pagano Weber and Francine Witte, with more features and guests still to be named.

PEDESTAL is hosting an event at Beyond Baroque (681 Venice Blvd) in Venice, CA on Sunday, April 27. For more info, email
Cocktail Reception and Book Signing for LAUGHTER IN THE CANYON by Laura Thompson on Thursday, January 31, 2008 6:30 - 8:30 pm at The Pen and Brush Gallery, 16 East 10th Street (Between 5th Ave. and University Place) New York City.
Tuesday, January 29 - 6:30-8:00 p.m - BOOK READING & SIGNING for THINKING OF MILLER PLACE: A MEMOIR OF SUMMER COMFORT. Caldwell Library- 268 Bloomfield Avenue Caldwell, 07006 Parking in Community Center lot behind library. Phone: 973-226-2837. Free Event. Refreshments will be served.


Do you belong to (and if you do, do you use) Shelley Ettinger writes, “I've been meaning to send you this link for a while. It's a website called Goodreads at People join, and they list the books they're reading and want to read, and list and review the books they've read; and they share this info with other people they list as their friends. A young friend of mine sent me an invitation to join it last fall, so I did, and now several folks I met at the Lambda retreat in L.A. have also joined and ‘friended’'s an interesting phenomenon. It's the kind of thing the Facebook and Myspace generation does. They live their lives online. For me, the fun of it is having a place to keep a record of what I've been reading.”


I'll be teaching Making Your Novel Happen (starts 2-11-08) and Fiction One (starts 2-6-08) at NYU in Spring 2008 at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. She is also offering a one day special workshop at NYU on called "Jump-Start Your Novel" on Saturday, February 9, 2008 1:00 PM till 5:00 PM.. NYU’s SCPS Writing Classes are at .


A web page for writing about nature: occasional contests and more: Earth Vision at
The Winter Issue of the ADIRONDACK REVIEW is now live at . The new issue features the artwork of Michael Usyk and celebrates the winner and finalists of The Fiddlehead Poetry Prize. Also, their The Fulton Prize for Short Fiction is currently open. Top prize is $400 and publication in The Adirondack Review.


West Virginia Writers, Inc., is now accepting submissions for its annual spring writing contest, offering a total of $6,300 in cash prizes in 14 categories. There is also an open competition for high school students as well as an elementary and middle school writing competition. Information on how to enter using WVW's official entry forms are at The writing contest, which has been held each year since 1982, makes 3 cash awards in each category of the competition: a first prize of $250, a second prize of $125 and a third prize of $75. Submissions are accepted from January 2 through March 15 (with a late deadline of March 31). If you have questions, contact WVW Contest Administrator, Patsy Pittman at West Virginia Writers, Inc., with well over 370 members, is the largest non-profit writers' resource and service organization serving literary interests in West Virginia. WVW, Inc. celebrated its 30th anniversary in February of 2007. For categories and complete information, go to the website at The writing contest is open to ALL residents of West Virginia as well as to memberz of WVW residing outside of the state.
The Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize offers a cash award of $1,000.00 plus publication of the winning book. A poet of national stature judges the contest. The winner's name and title of the winning book are announced nationally. In addition to regular mail entries, this year they're inaugurating a new program of electronic uploads. By uploading your manuscript electronically you'll save time, paper and postage. For more information go to .


The Pedestal Magazine is currently seeking to fill three positions:
1. Poetry Editor. Applicants should have prior publication in Pedestal, as well as other prominent journals, and previous editing experience. Applicants should have at least one published full-length collection currently available. Applicant would be asked to edit the poetry in 1-2 issues per year. Please send resume to
2. Reviewer. Applicants should have prior experience reviewing for various publications. Pedestal currently publishes 850-1000 word reviews. Reviewer would be asked to undertake 1-3 assigned reviews per issue, primarily poetry collections but possibly short fiction as well. Send resume and 2-3 sample reviews to
3. Administrative Assistant. Applicants should be thoroughly familiar with how to send friend requests, post bulletins, set up a blog, send event invitations, tailor/program a page aesthetically; i.e., all the ins and outs of setting up a compelling and effective MySpace page. Send resume, along with a link to a MySpace page you've designed, to

There's Sunshine Today

There’s sunshine today
On the bare branches, lifting
Toward majesty.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

R. Sea Byrd & poem

My friend Phyllis Moore, the doyenne of West Virginia literature, is wintering on the Alabama gulf coast. She sent this poem with a photo by Jim Moore. They call the bird R. Sea Byrd, which will make sense to those of you who know our redoubtable West Virginia senior senator:

Winter on Little Lagoon
Each day,
a white heron claims
the same spot.
Like a whore
working a corner,
it waits for its prey.
Phyllis Wilson Moore, 2007

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Saturday Night with the Weinberger-Willises

It’s going on eleven p.m. now and I finished a big manuscript I've been evaluating for a former student. And got a check for the next one up. I have taken on a lot of work this winter, not quite sure how it creeps up on me.
Still, it was Saturday night, and Andy and I watched a thriller movie while my mom finished one book and started another (she finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and started her second Harry Potter). We watched The Bourne Ultimatum, which is good of its kind, but, really, don’t men every get tired of identifying with being chased and chasing and shooting and getting shot and cut and banged and generally beat up and then chasing and being chased some more?
One nicely done scene has three people chasing through buildings in Morocco up stairs down stairs, leap from building to building, stalk, flee, with different throbbing music depending on whether the camera has cut to the stalker or the fleer or the all-out runner coming to save the fleer– it had a nice symphonic quality: fast fast pump pump slow slow minor key– fast fast fast. Basically what the whole thing was, various speeds, throbbing, flashing.
I was eating stoned wheat crackers with hummous and a glass of wine. We had had lunch late at Hunan Spring with mom for lunch specials, soup, rice and main course.
So a little intense relaxation, then back to preparing classes and other work.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Not much blogging

January 7, 2008

I'm not doing much blogging lately-- I'm working on evaluating people's manuscripts and getting my mother's meds arranged and I need a hair cut and other annoying appointments, with my online class starting tomorrow and a new school with fourth graders on Friday! Yikes! Christmas vacation was not exactly relaxing, but certainly a different kind of busyness....

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

Biography Blog Books for Readers Newsletter Contact Home MSW Info
MSW's Books Online Classes Order Books MSW Online Teens Writing Exercises

The deadline is approaching for my four session January online writing class, Prose Narrative Online. Learn more:

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 .
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
Among his new publications and performances are a video clip of him reading at Cornelia Street Café. and an interview at
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

Take a look at two interesting articles about the future of the book, e-readers, etc.: and .
Book Critics Circle has a nice blog with book thoughts: .

Three proposed anthologies are seeking submissions:

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

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

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.